Thursday, December 31, 2009

Tous les Touts

Agra is a war zone. It's a war between the foreigner and the local, the gullable and the savvy. Many foreigners feel like victims and with just cause. It's hard for me to gauge how the Indians feel - it's a completely different psyche. It's a battle for personal space and peace of mind, for the best bargain and for the contents of your wallet, and even for your own health.

Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal, is a tragic mess. In 1653, Emperor Shah Jahan beuested on this city a gift that would last a millennium - a white marble monument dedicated to his dead wife - sure to attract kings, paupers and everyone in between. Yet Agra in 2009 is a polluted, dirty, festering blister of a city. The air is so thick with smog that you can barely see the Taj Mahal. Grown adults, mothers in front of children, dispose of their trash all over the streets. Done with that coke bottle? drop it on the ground - I'm sure the cows will eat it. I saw a woman throw the entire remnants of her family's meal out the window of a train while it was stopped at the station - paper plates and all. Nobody blinked. Worst of all are the 'touts' - the scammers who drum up business by annoying the crap out of you until you give them the contents of your purse in a plea for mercy. The touts are aggressive and they are everywhere.

"Where are you from Madam? US? Michael Jackson! Obama! Come in my shop! Batteries, Madam? I give you good price. First customer good price. Madam! Batteries! You need batteries, I have!! BATTERIES!!"

What they don't seem to understand is that it's not usually the sales pitch that gets me to the battery isle. They're also pushing water bottles, rickshaw rides, postcards and taj mahal snow globes. Someone even offered me a helicopter ride. Do I really look that flush? They grab at you and if you ignore them they get closer and louder. The kids are even trickier and masters of the game. On our street there was an insanely loud Mulim festival the other night for 24 hours straight. You cannot imagine the decible level of the music, which blasted from permamnent speakers installed on the streets. I was out taking pictures and dancing, eardrums-be-damned. I group of beautifully adorned children and women in saris approached me smiling. A few yound girls took my hands and coerced me into the parade with them. After about 50 feet, they started tugging at the small wallet I had around my neck, persisting that I give them "pens! pens!" I've offered to buy food for the kids, but they usually just want the rupees. The other night there were six of us trying to negotiate a jeep ride home from a fort about 24 miles away. After a lot of back and forth nonsense with the driver, we settled on the price that our guidebook told us to pay, and we were on our way. Half way there, we stopped at a gas station on an abandoned strip of road. The driver demanded his full fee to pay for gas. We said he could have half now, which was more than a full tanks worth. He get the gas station attendeant involved, telling us he needed all the money. Once he realized he wasn't getting it, he got back in the jeep, in a huff and WITHOUT GAS, and continued to drive us back. If we had given him the full sum, we might have been stranded at that gas station.

A few years ago a scandal was uncovered in Agra. Restaurants frequented by foreigners were in cahoots with the local doctors and hotels. Cooks purposefully put bacteria (use your imagination) in the food to make the patrons sick, then the hotels recommended the doctors. Several people actually died. We are still cautioned not to eat within 500 meters of the Taj. SO far I have met several tourists who have been violently ill since they arrived - my roommate included.

On the flip side (and there's always a flip side) there are more tourists here than anywhere in India and many could use a good spanking - throwing fits over little inconveniences, like inconsistent hot water in their $4/night hotel. We march into town with 40 lbs backpacks chock full of souveneirs. We whip out our $400 cameras to take photos of women preparing their family's meals on the side of the road next to a filthy cow, but won't give money to beggars. We haphazardly flash 1000 rupee notes while rummaging through our wallets after bargaining down a rickshaw ride to 25 rupees (50 cents). We blatantly ignore people who speak to us and yell at the people who persist. We clutch our bags tightly when walking by children, and step around the legless beggars who beg for a rupee or two. Most of the locals live on less than a dollar a day, and are desperate to make a living. And we haggle over cents.

I can't determine which came first in this chicken-egg scenario: the cheating Indian tout or the miserly foreign tourist. I have been driven to the brink in this town and have laid into a few touts and one lying travel agent. I actually sat in front of his agency threatening to drive away customers until he refunded my friend's money, much to the amusement of the Indian bystanders. Agra calls itself the "city of love". But I hate to say that the Emperor's monument to love only brings out the worst in the locals and it's foreign visitors.

Onto Pushkar next, with great hope for a renewed faith in humanity.

***I just realized that I wrote nothing about the Taj Mahal. It was stunning. Amazing. A feat of human skill and artistry. And I'm still not sure it's worh the trip to this city.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Happy Christmas! Jesus would be proud...

When I was a kid, we lived next to an orthodox jewish family, the 5 kids in their family matched up to the ages of my siblings. Miryam was my age. We spent a good amount of time at each others homes. I remember the day that it finally sank in that her family did not celebrate Christmas. Of course, growing up in Encino, I understood that Jews didn't believe in Jesus and all, but Christmas was another story, surely. Wasn't it?  

"so no baby Jesus ornaments on your tree?"
"nope, no tree."
"but where does Santa put the presents?"
"no Santa."
"wait but who brings the presents?"
"no presents."
"...say what?"
This was mind boggling enough but when she told me that keeping 'kosher' meant she had never tasted a cheeseburger, I nearly fell out of my chair. 

Fast forward 18 years and I'm spending Christmas in a country that celebrates countless amounts of gods and holidays, none of which I include a nativity scene, and certainly no red suited giver of gifts. I'm feeling discombobulated all over again. How and why am I here on this day, thousands of miles from my friends and family? 

Suffering from a decent bout of homesickness, I responded to a flyer that advertised a Christmas Eve gathering at the Oasis Cafe. There, we were served spiced milk tea, cookies and popcorn and they played a movie about Mary and Joseph and the birth of Jesus. A German girl got up and explained the basics of the Christmas holiday, and a Tibetan translator translated for the monks in attendance. Then an Israeli girl got up and explained that although Jesus was from Israel, Jews don't believe he is the mesiah. This left the Tibetans quite confused, and even I had to sit and ponder that one. Meanwhile the Muslim guys in the back are reading the subtitles out loud and the Canadian at my table is explaining to the Hindus sitting next to her what the word 'Mesiah' means.

Passing popcorn and Christmas cookies around during the film, I'm feeling so happy that I've found myself in a welcoming place on this day. When the credits rolled, the two Muslim guys at my table say "wow, that is such a great story, how brave Mary was! And Joseph, what an amazing man.- this is such a wonderful story." that's one of the beautiful things about mcleod ganj, everone here is truly here to learn about and appreciate each others cultures. Needless to say, the warmth of he holiday spirit was all around me. You cannot imagine the feeling of all of these different faiths gathered in one place out of respect for your holiday. Another generous gift from the strangers in this foreign land.

 I finished off the night with a king fisher beer at a pub with some Tibetan guys I've gotten to know. They too are all alone in this strange country (planet?) - many without hope of ever seeing their families again. 

So tonight, my so cal family is hanging out on the beach in del mar - will anyone brave the waves? My norcal family, no doubt, has a crackling fire going in the den. Luca Shallenberger and Finn Griffiths, sons of two of my best friends are celebrating their first christmas, and i will be pleased to make their acquaintance when i return this summer! Santa's logging extra mileage to bring Mia Bowman her gifts all the way to okinawa. Gunner is enjoying a belly rub from Scuba Steve. And John is celebrating with his co-workers in an undisclosed location in south west Asia. He's such a joyful dude that I'm sure he's having a great time. I will be boarding a 13 hour bus to Delhi on Christmas night and then on to Agra. Merry Christmas to all of you, I miss and love you! 

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Traveling Solo

I can't tell if I'm a people-person or a loner. At certain points in my life I have been a people magnet, consolidating large groups of unrelated individuals into one big happy family. At other times I have been painfully alone, watching the groups around me with sadness and a tinge of envy.  

This trip has not made things any clearer on that account. On days when I'm alone, I find myself looking around longingly for someone to share a meal with. Then on some days where I've managed to attract companions, I've found myself counting the hours 'til I can be alone reading a book. I think that in order to be one of those really engaged travelers who gets to know anyone they share a bus-stop bench/train ride/random glance with, I'd have to be genuinely interested in what others have to say. And truth be told, after 5 and a half weeks, I'm just not interested every hour of every day, in everyone I meet. Often it's the Indian dudes wanting to hold me indefintely in conversation and Ive found myself just ignoring their "namastes" and walking on by. Believe me, that conversation can go from "Namaste" to "Do you want an Indian boyfriend?" in 30 seconds flat.

The more I think about this companionship problem, the more akward I become around strangers. For example, this evening as I was reading a book at dinner, a buddhist monk got up from his table, paid his bill and walked up to me smiling, "where are you from?" he asked . "U.S." I responded. 

**On an side note, I'm starting to hate this part of the conversation, and you can't have a conversation while you're traveling without someone asking where you're from. First of all, "U.S" is a horribly boring name for a country, as I've realized after repeating it 500 times in 5 weeks. And for those of you who haven't traveled internationally of late, I assure you the response to an American in the post-Bush-era is exactly what you thought it would be! The Europeans I do talk to never fail to tell me over the course of the conversation all that they hate about Americans. Now, I like America-bashing as much as any good liberal but when I'm the only yankee around it gets kind of annoying. In case you were curious: we are insincerely friendly but really only care about ourselves. We use the word 'awesome' and 'amazing' in nauseating excess. We are frightfully ignorant of any other languages, and often, even our own. And this is their opinion of the Americans who TRAVEL. God forbid they ever make it to the heartland.  

Many Americans, I've found, also try to avoid anything other than the briefest contact with me, afraid that any extended affiliation might expose the Canadian flag patch on their backpack for the fraud that it is.

So far the friendliest person I've randomly met and spent a few days with was a Korean girl who sold beauty salon products and smoked like a chimney. She told me no one wanted to hang out with Koreans. We became fast friends.      

Anyway back to the monk. 

So the monk comes up to me while I'm reading and asks me where I'm from. In the next sentence, he tells me that he has written a book, and its for sale right over there! He was a political prisoner for 6 years in Tibet. The Chinese fired bullets into his legs. He was in a french hospital for 2 years. And he has written a book about it and it's right over there! Yes right over THERE! This entire exchange takes place in about 12 seconds. At this point I'm kind of stunned. If this had been any old Joe I would have not been that keen to the sales pitch and told him to move along. But he's wearing a freaking monk robe, prayer beads, and pointing to the bullet holes in his leg. I say I will definitely take a look at the book. He smiles at me, expectantly. I say, akwardly "well it was good to meet you, thank you for pointing out your book!" And he shakes my hand and leaves. 

So at this point I'm feeling incredibly akward and on all accounts unpersonable. I feel like i should have asked him to sit down. "So tell me, exactly how many bullets were there? What was the prison food like? And the Chinese - good hosts? Does being a refugee, like, totally suck? I bet the journey to India was AMAZING." Im being flip here, but only partially. I need to be in a certain frame of mind to engage in that kind of conversation, and I definitely have to be eased into it. The truth is that sometimes I just want to be alone, reading about OTHER people having interesting conversations. Does that make me so odd? 

Monday, December 21, 2009

some photos!

Finally I found a place to upload some photos. Here is one of me and my Guru on the Ganges, in Rishikesh. He practically fades into the background. See his dred locks draped around his legs?

This is atop the so-called Beatle's Ashram.

The Tibetan Prime Minister in exile, Samdhong Rinpoche

The view from my hotel balcony. Yesterday some women from the farm and I hiked up to the top of the closest mountain range, right above the red pole in the picture.

The peak of our climb, 2850 meters (9350 feet). It was a bit tough (read: steep) at the end, but so worth the view of the Himilayas when we got to the top, and were greeted with a warm cup of chai masala! We were tempted to spend the night at the top with other trekkers, but it started to snow, and we were totally underdressed and unprepared for that cold of an evening.
All the towns in India are flush with stray dogs, although they seem to be the healthiest in McLeod Ganj. On our way up, which took 4 hours, we were followed by a pack of 5 dogs, which eventually dwindled down to 1. He was an excellent guide, loyally staying with us the whole 9 km and got us safely to the top. Once we departed the top, in order to make it safely back before dark, a beautiful black collie (?) decided to leave his resting spot at the top and show us the route home. He was really amazing, staying with us even when passed by other dogs, and led us directly into the main square of McLeod Ganj at rush hour. He looked up at us as if to say, what next? Can I show you the Dalai Lama Temple? Or perhaps you'd prefer a hot meal? Later we surmised that these wonderful dogs were likely buddhist reincarnations of souls who were looking for a better gig in the next life, so they spent their days guiding foreigners in an act of good karma.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Back to school

One great thing about India and particularly mcleod ganj is all the lessons and schools you can attend while visiting. It's a lot like summer camp (or college, depending on your major). I'm taking Tibetan cooking class today - we are learning to bake five kinds of Tibetan bread. There's also woodcarving which I really wanted to do but it required a 5 day commitment at 6 hours a day, so I had to pass. I am however, teaching English to Tibetan refugees this afternoon at a little cafe. The cafe is decked out with Christmas decorations and was playing Celine Dion's Christmas album which made it a unique place in India on both accounts, and made it feel oddly like my mothers kitchen. The German and swede I met there yesterday said that they are hosting a Christmas eve party complete with Christmas movie. I'm very tempted to stay here until Christmas, but I don't want to devote such a large chunk of time to only one place. But if I stayed, id have time for so many more classes! I saw a sign today that read "December 24: learn self-defense, just in time for Christmas!" This made me think that the Tibetans had not been properly briefed on Santa's raison d'etre, apparently mistaking him for a 250- pound bearded burglar rather than jolly giver of gifts.

There are Hindi lessons, yoga lessons, political movie screenings, Ayurvedic massage lessons. Yesterday I saw a man sitting on the road with a little box of cotton balls and tooth picks and a sign that said "world's best ear cleaner". If it had read, "world's best ear cleaning LESSONS" I might have signed up.   

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

McLeod Ganj

Since this is my first backpacking trip, I'm learning as I go. This style of travel is actually much more condusive to my personality, as I hate to plan. I do not know from day to day, or hour to hour what I would like to be doing at any given moment. Some call me flakey. I prefer the term 'spontaneous'. At the very least, traveling alone makes me accountable to no one which is kind of nice. Case in point, my beautifully detailed itinerary is now in my waste bin and I am currently staying in a town I didn't know existed till last week. I find myself relying on word of mouth rather than my guidebook and it's turned out swimmingly so far. 

It's easy to take it day to day india. Transportation reservaions generally require a day or two of notice, but hotels can easily be found on the fly. When I showed up in McLeod Ganj at 7am yesterday after a brain-jarring 15-hour bus ride, I was easy pickin's for the 'hotelier' who was stalking the bus depot looking for customers. His cottage was a bit of a walk, but the room is huge, the view is outstanding, there is a hot shower, and the price is right at $4 a night. 

I made friends on the bus with a Dutch med student. We went to a small theatre last night to see Darjeeling Limited, which was a hoot to watch in India (and made me miss Lauren and John!). Tonight were going to see a film about the life of the dalai lama.

The Tibetan population in McLeod Ganj definitely gives it a different feeling than the rest of India. It feels like a village in the Swiss alps, with quanit shps and cafes and brisk mountain air. It would be great to have some family here with me as Christmas is around the corner!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Ways to pass the days

Rishikesh is stunning. I am sitting at the DevRaj Coffee Corner at the Laxman Jhula bridge at dusk. The ganges river winds between soaring green mountians and the temples nestled on the banks look like 10 story castles in a children book. There are two walking bridges, the laxman jhula, where I am staying, and ram jhula where many of the ashrams are located, about 2 kil away. There are many foreigners here. Mostly Brits and israelis. My Indian friend tells me that the Israelis come here after their 2-3 years of mandatory military service is done. Everyone here seems to be on some sort of yogic spiritual journey which includes hours and hours daily to loll about in cafes and smoke until you can't see throuh the haze. People come here to stay until their visas run out.

My favorite cafe/hang out spot so far is the pyramid cafe in laxman jhula, on recommendation from a 65 year old french lady i met at the farm. You have to climb a fairly steep hill about 200 meters to get to it. It's  cosy, away from the chaos, and has a great view of the river and town. They serve all organic here and they even make their own kombucha! (the vinegary carbonated drink with live cultures that repulses pretty much everyone but Camilla and me.) They have wi-fi access and phenomenal vegetarian food, which explains how I've managed to spend half my waking hours there.

I had day four of cooking lessons today and then just laid out on the roof and read all day, feeling guilty that I wasn't power walking to all the pilgrimage destinations. Then an Israeli girl materialized on the roof with a thick rope, attempting to tie it to the rickety balcony guardrail. She is trying to teach herself how to tightrope walk. Apparently her guru can do it, so she thought she'd try it on our roof. After we deduced that this particular roof might come crashing down, based on the spiderweb of faultlines at the base of the railing, she went back to her own roof. In the distance, over the ashrams of rishikesh, I could see her very steadily and successfully navigate the rope accross her roof. An odd but im sure very pleasureable way of wearing out your visa.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Guru on the Gangez

I've seemed to have unwittingly attracted a tour guide/eager companion - a nice young guy who leads treks in the mountains and speaks English very well. Two days ago he showed me some waterfalls near town and yesterday he took me to see the Beatles ashram (of monkey-substance fame). It is a stunning piece of land with these beehive looking meditation rooms made of small stones. The ashram has been slowly retreating back into the earth for the last 17 years, and is covered in vines, wild chickens and monkeys. And of course handfuls of tripping hippies that appear to have been sitting there since the 1970s. I have a particluar affinity for historial spaces, especially spaces where great art was created. The story goes that the Beatles wrote much of the White Album while staying there with their families.

On the way back along the path next to the Ganges river, my friend asked me if I wanted to meet a guru with 7 foot long dred locks. I mean really, who wouldn't? He took me to a teeny tiny hut down on the beach and inside was a fire, an alter to several gods, three painted, dusty men in loin cloth, the guru, and his famous dred locks wrapped about his torso and legs. They are so heavy that he has to fashion them into clothig to keep his neck aligned. They were either so stoned or so enlightened that I don't think they were consciously aware of our presense. After about two hours in there, i verified it was a lot of both.

 So we sat next to them and mused about Indian gods v. christian god (only one? How boring. How many wives did he have?) and about the population of america (only 250 million people? How quaint.) About an hour in, the cushion I had been leaning against moved and I realized that it was a man under a blanket. Even more startling was his clean-shaven face and tidy hair and western looking sweater, when compared to the other guys, who were essentially covered in dried mud and decades of dredlock growth. Realizing that he spoke some English, I asked him how long he had lived in rishikesh? He said he lives in Agra, but was just visiting rishikesh to pray with the long-dreded guru. He comes once a year. He's a political scientist who works for a non-profit, and needed respite from the city. And dred-guru is his spiritual teacher.

An American might rent a room on the pacific ocean and down several bottles of Pinot Noir to get away from the madness of city life. An Indian might snuggle up on the corner of his guru's Ganges shack and get stoned for a week. Tomato, tomaaaaaato. We're not that different after all. 

Friday, December 11, 2009

Delhi Belly

A month plus in India does not make me an expert on anything but the daily confusion of an American tourist, but let me see if I can take a stab at the source of the phenomenon called "Delhi Belly".

Delhi Belly is what occurs when foreigners get a crippling bout of food poisoning in India. Even putting this to print is really tempting my own fate, but I have always had a relatively strong stomach. Once in France, Nikki, Camilla and I ate the same salmon for lunch and the two of them spent the night on the train writhing in agony while I did not feel a thing. So we'll see how it goes in the remaining 28 days here. Fingers crossed.

Lonely Planet guidebook explicitly tells you not to eat street food unless it has been fried in front of your face, not to drink fruit lassis (smoothies), not to eat salad and not to eat any fruit that lacks a peel.  I have so far had fruit, salad and lassi and have been fine.  

The cause of the Dehli Belly is not poisonous apples or lettuce, nor an intolerance of hot spices, but the bacteria that abounds on every surface in the country. I'm trying not to speak disparingly of the hygene habits of an entire people, but it is fair to say that American hygene far exceeds the norm here. The result is that an indian's constitution can simply handle more bacteria in their diet than we frail Americans. Hence, the Delhi belly.

Yesterday, after climbing a steel ladder in an abandoned (except for monkeys) ashram, I noticed a peculiar yet identifiable brown substance on one of my fingers. I immediately began rummaging in my purse for my antibacterial wipes only to realize that they were missing. Bottled water and vigorous rubbing would have to do until I found a bathroom. Well bathrooms in India do not offer soap or even toilet paper. (One might put two and two together to determine this as the source of Delhi Belly.) 

So I spent the rest of the day obsessively compulsively wiping, wetting, and smelling my finger to direct if any offending microbials remained. At one point I considered holding the finger over an open flame and then just decided to leave it ungloved and out of my pants pocket hoping the frostbite would sever it.

Cows do their business all over the streets. People inevitably walk in the dung, walk in their homes, then sit on their floor and prepare a meal. This is how we do it in the home of my cooking teacher, Purnima. If a piece of cauliflower jumps out of the pan onto the floor, she makes a noble and obvious effort to wash it off before she puts it back in the pan, but I'm sure that this show of concern is only for my benefit.  

What can one do? Live on the handful of Powerbars I brought with me? No, I just have to close my eyes and eat the food and convince myself that a little dirt never hurt anyone. Or at least not yet. 

And I'll remember the antibacterial gel next time I'm climbing monkey ladders.

Monday, December 7, 2009

This morning, I stood in a steam filled bathroom, drenched in hot water flowing like manna from heaven. I could ruminate on the pleasures of my first non-bucket shower in weeks all day long.

Just wanted to share. 

Last night I ran in two British ladies who'd ID met at the farm, so we stuck together and had a nice dinner together. It's nice to see familiar faces in such a foreign place. 

Sunday, December 6, 2009


Ahhh rishikesh. I feel like the locations have been getting better. Dehradun (the city near the farm) was way too intense although not as bad as Delhi. Rishikesh has a beautiful charm to it. The Ganga (Ganges river) is a stunning milky pale green. As we walked over the second bridge to laxman jula, the people hushed their voices in reverence of the holiest river in India. I had to walk about 20 minutes to get to the hotel a friend recommended. On the way down a steep hill, a group of elderly Indian women started
laughing and talking to me in Hindi. The ones closest to me grabbed my arm to steady themselves down the hill, all the while looking up at me a smiling with gapped smiles and gold-adorned faces. Lovely ladies. Hate that I know so little Hindi. 

On the way to my recommended hotel, an older man asked me if I needed a room. I'd already declined several offers, but my bag was getting heavy so I followed him to his newly built hotel run by his son and his sweet wife. I have a clean room, my OWN shower and toilet with HOT WATER and a mirror. By the looks of my reflection it seems I could have used a mirror in my room weeks ago. But hey, I've been living on a farm! And the best part? $3 per night. I really like what I see so far in his town so I might be here for a week or so. If I can overcome the intimidation factor I might even join a yoga seminar in the birhplace of yoga! We'll have to see about that as there are copious westerers who look quite serious about their yoga studies here and I am clearly an imposter. Odd how the most critical eyes come from other foreiners?

And this is being sent via a wireless cafe at 75 cents an hour. It is cheaper to live here than in my own home.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Where to go from here?

It's really hard to put into words all that has happened over the past two weeks of the course. Today the remaining attendees are catching rickshaws, buses, trains and planes scattering them about India and the globe. I will head via bus to Rishikesh tomorrow.

Yesterday during our final lecture, an older French woman asked the Prime Minister of Tibet a question. They each struggled in English to understand each other, English being neither their second nor probably third language. It struck me that all these people - Indians, French, Germans, Japanese, Portugese - were participating in the course in what was not their mother tongue. It felt like an incredibly generous gift, one that I couldn't return if I had to. If the course had been in any other language, I wouldn't have been unable to understand. So one of my goals when I return is to become proficient in at least French or Spanish. It's hard to be a global citizen when insisting that everyone know your language.

The theme of the course was "Gandhi & Globalization". We were exposed to the very real, tangible result of our way of life, how what we consume and shape the world, affects the global south and the ecology of the planet.

On a very cynical level, at several points during the course, I felt like taking out a red white and blue switch and flogging myself. Whenever the "west" was mentioned, it was in a negative connotation. Whenever he U.S. was mentioned, it was followed by a scowl. When I brought up the excessive population, I was shot down immediately and lectured that 1 American child consumes the resources of 30 Indian children. Ironically enough it was he Americans who jumped on me. I had already been aware of this statistic, and it's implication. But still it felt that I garnered a different response simply because of nationality.  

My initial reaction was to defend my own country, our way of life, our military adventures around the world. But the objective facts are not on my side. 

In assisting my young Austrian friend with her Tibetan article and interview with PM Rimpoche, I summoned all my recently acquired international relations knowledge to explain to her exactly why international law doesn't really matter. Why the UN will never force China to move on the Tibetan issue (or on Darfur) because China has veto power. Why the US can use torture, even though it's against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, without consequence. And why at the end of the day, in the world we've created, the country with the most dollars and the most tanks win. She is an incredibly intelligent 19 year old with a good understanding of world events. And yet when I finished explaining why no one can do anything about Tibet, she looked at me like I was crazy. How do ethical people, intelligent people, capable and powerful people let this happen? After living in the world for a while, you start to accept things as unchangable But through the eyes of a (relative) child, you can see the madness.  

We've all decided that it will be hard going back to our daily lives. Hard to constantly explain why we don't eat meat without sounding preachy and holier-than-thou. Hard to pay taxes that support violent endeavors but don't pay for the healthcare of my loved ones. Hard to ease into consumerist world around us. Even this paragraph sounds preachy! I don't want to be that girl. But I have seen a sort of raw truth come from our experiences here and overlooking it does not mean it ceases to exist. My challenge will be to bring what I've learned into my world and share it wiht others when hey are curious, rather than force it upon them.

So yes, I'm setting out to the wilds of India. I am much more comfortable with the country than when I arrived. I've learned a few steps of the dance of the busy city streets. I no longer fear the rickshaws rides. I know a bit of Hindi. I think I will be fine. I'll try to update as I go!       

Thursday, December 3, 2009

What did we do back in the olden days?

We've been spoiled with wireless internet on the farm all this time and when it went out last week we were like puppies without chew toys. So much has happened during the course, but I can't go into it now because there is a queue behind me of salivating internet junkies trying to get their fix on the one computer we must share. I will write more as soon as I get some access. Doing fine and eataing (too) well!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Earth Pilgrim

Last night we sat around the campfire (an in-door campfire - it's fuh-reezing here at night) to listen to one of our teachers, Satish Kumar, tell the story of how he and a friend walked from the grave of Gandhi in India to Moscow to Paris to London to D.C. and Jfks grave to protest nuclear weapons. It was 8000 miles, it took them 2.5 years and 8 pairs of shoes. This was 1962, the height of the cold war. And they left without a rupee in their pocket. 

Their first border was to cross over into Pakistan, a country with which India had had 3 wars. When they go to the border, a concerned friend met them there and pleaded with them, "please at least take these sacks of food I've prepared for you. The pakistanis will not feed and shelter you because you are Indian." Satish said that he equated the food with "beautiful delicious packets of mistrust" for if he were to go to a pakistan with his own food, it would be a sign that he did not trust the goodness of he Pakistani people to feed him as a guest. His friend cried and told satish he feared he would not ever see him again.

Within 5 minutes of crossing over into Pakistan, a pakistani man approached him and said "I've been looking for you every day! I heard about your journey on the radio and I too believe in stopping all this nonsense war." the man took them in immediately for the night and fed them and introduced them to many others who gave them food and shelter along the way. 

His story is truly amazing (especially because they entered the Russian border in the midst of winter, Napoleon-style and almost had to stop because of the cold.)

He's written a book about it called No Destination. He is a riveting story teller and I'm sure that translates into his writing, if anyone is interested in hearing more about this fascinating man.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Community stew

The course participants have started to trickle in. There is a farmer from washigton state. A 65 year old travel addict from Bordeaux who is here for 7 months (don't you miss the wine and cheese?!) there's the yogi fm Canada, the German coeds, the Canadian doctor, the Aussie on a post college tour, the international studies teacher from Denver who is on a 2 year tip around he world with his wife. And of course the British ladies who adore their oneness with nature and abhor Delhi. On this we can all find common ground. 

The rest of us seasoned volunteers (I'll indulge myself with membership in this crowd) have been simmering and carmelizing in a pot of Navdanya spices and are now called upon to flavor the newbies with membership in the farm community. What a fragrant and delicious dal curry we make! It's like summer camp for earth lovers! Tomorrow will bring even more ingredients and from what I understand, even an Okinawan girl! I bet a touch of Goya would add a tasty flavor...

Thursday, November 19, 2009

20 points for the bovine

Commandment for Surviving in India #23: 

Thou shalt maintain complete and utter faith in thine driver. Failing to heed this commandment could expose you to cardiac arrest, hysteria, or cause you to inadvertanlty fling yourself from a bus window in a fit of madness.

In any instance where you feel your faith slipping, You shall reassure youself repeatedly with the following mantra:

"This man is a PROFESSIONAL driver.
I do not understand the roads of India.
I'm SURE these breaks work. 
No that tire doesnt look THAT flat. 
Of COURSE the driver sees the cow in his blind spot. 
Those children are TOTALLY going to jump out of the way.
That oncoming truck will DEFINITELY stop before it t-bones the passenger side of this rickshaw. 
This fully-loaded bus is most certainly NOT going to topple off that cliff, it has the center of gravity of a 15-passenger van!" (inside joke for mom).

Repeat these words as necessary. It is best to sit back, RELAX, and enjoy the scenery as if you were playing a driving video game or some other such diversion.

Oh, and an add-on to commandment #23 which was tacked on during the 2nd Delhi Council of Rickshaw and Bus Drivers in an attmept to adjust the Word to more modern times: if your rickshaw is driving on the wrong side of the road, dead straight for a manuere truck and your driver is checking out the girl on the side of the road, a quick "twack!" to the back of his head is recommended and may even be appreciated. After all, he may be a professional drivers but no one's perfect.    

Mussoorie - the Queen of the Hill Stations

My lodgings in mussorie were wonderful. The hotel is surrounded by terraced gardens and it hangs off a hill. My room had a little enclosed glass solarium with one of those wicker bird swings so I could sit inside while I watched the stars and the night life across the valley. The shower was hot as can be, although the pressure left much to be desired.  Finally I just started filling up a small bucket with warm water and dumping it on myself which felt lovely. Also having a bathroom IN your room and not having to venture into the night air is something I will never again underestimate.

The night time views are stunning. Mussoorie hangs from what seems to be a bottomless mountian and glitters like the raj's jewelry box. The road up here twisted and looped about. I don't think they have the same 6% incline max on roads as they do in california. It reminded me of the road to hanna in Hawaii. I was defintiely nauseaus but made it with my dignity intact.

Daytime views are just as beautiful. The main road that links both ends of the city wraps around a valley that is fillled with fog, but is clear enough for you to realize that you are way the he'll up there. 

Since this is a vacation destination, and they are perhaps used to seeing people of different stripes, I know longer feel like a fish walking around on legs. Also the store keepers are attentive but respectful when you choose to browse but not purchase. I remember in Korea they'd practically snarl at you if you failed to buy after taking up their time.

This morning I'm going to enjoy some chai and some gohbi parantha, a thin torilla like bread stuffed with a spiced cauliflower mix. Then I will walk up to a town called Landour via a 5k trail and absorb some of the mountain air.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

"Just Don't Sleep With a Samosa Under Your Pillow" or "Comfort is Relative"

Me: So where did you stay in Mussoorie? I'm looking for a good hotel.

Volunteer Kate: Let me think... oh, the Broadway Hotel

Me: Yeah I saw that in the Lonely Planet Guide. Was it nice?

Kate: Oh yearh It was really nice. Very peaceful and spacious and kind of quaint.

Me: So you'd recommend I stay there?

Kate: Definitely. I mean, we had rats in our room but just don't keep food in your bag and you should be fine.

Me: Alright, good tip. Thanks.


*** note to concerned husband and parents, i splurged for the $20/night place and it has a toilet AND a shower. Higher roller baby.

Monday, November 16, 2009

You can take the girl away from her laptop...

I wish I could figure out how to upload my photos from my camera to my blog. There are so many great visuals in this country! But alas, we must make do with with the written (typed) word. I should be more than happy - after all, I am blogging wirelessly from an iPod touch on which I just scandolously downloaded and watched the season finale of Mad Men this afternoon while the other volunteers were off chanting sacred mantras or some jazz. Shhhhh don't tell anyone. Sometimes a girl needs a little Don Draper escape every now and then. (I KNEW they'd bring Joanie back!!)

I walked down the main road today to buy some sweets - the road consists of two lanes with the occaisonal motorcycle or truck passing by and then a metal shack every 50 yards or so that sells something. Of course there are the cows and goats everwhere. And the children no older than three crossing the road as they please, not even flinching at the blaring honks of the trucks swerving to miss them. Is the US the only country on earth where kids get runover by cars or is this an old wives tale? In japan it's the same - kids seem impervious to the threat of traffic. Nor do their parents bat an eye.

Anyway, I brought my Hindi phrasebook with me and repeated the phrase over and over in my head - "I'd like to buy 8 sweets please". I delivered the translation to empty stares and they had to bring some guy over who knew a bit of English to figure out what I could POSSIBLY be saying as I pointed to the candy and held up 8 fingers. 

Defeated, but with candy in hand I got home and downloaded a Hindi Lesson podcast on to my iPod. And a "This American Life" podcast for later tonight. Steve Jobs, how do I love thee? let me count the ways...ek, do, teen, chaar, paanch...  

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Why I'm here

Nov 15
So I don't think I've actually ever explained to most friends or fam what I am actually DOING at the navdanya farm. Let's see if I can boil it down to it's choice bits:

The global food system is a wreck. Currently, large corporations such as monsanto and cargill are trying patent seeds - patent LIFE as it were - and prevent farmers the world over from saving seeds for the next years harvest, by forcing them to buy this patented seed every year. This is wrecking lives and livlihoods amongst the worlds poor. These companies have gone so far as to take natural pesticide plants (the neem plant, indigenous to India) and patent it to sell back to farmers at a cost then suing them and putting them out of business should they reuse to pay! (even though Indian farmers have been using this plant for years and years). They also take seeds for corn that have been honed and selected over thousands of years by seed keepers (usually grandmothers), add one little genetic tweek to it in a lab, and then patent it as their very own to sell back to the farmers! What was the modification they added in the lab? To make the seed require monsantos very own brand of chemical (toxic) fertilizer to stay alive! Great business plan. Oh and if the farmers don't comply by paying each year for the seed, the court systems intervene and make them. This has happened in the US and in Canada as well. 

If there was any doubt as to the intentions of these seed corporations (actually they are chem corporations- the ones who gave us agent orange) they have now created the "terminator" seed. What does this technological innovation do? It up and dies after 1 generation of harvesting. So instead of being replanted every year like has been done since the beginning of the agrarian age, this seed acts as monsanto's own little patent enforcer and keeps the farmer from being able to use it again. He must instead by more from monsanto. What do you think this terminator seed does for world hunger??

The us supreme court has ruled that life can be patented and the WTO tries to enforce these patent laws world wide. There is a giant campaign funded by these chemical companies to make us believe that these patented and genetically modified seeds will save the poor of the third world and anyone who disagrees is a Luddite and an environmental nut who does not care about the starving in Africa. 

Chem company represnetatives write for influencial publications such as foreign affairs magazine. They contribute MILLIONS to universities so that they can influence the research that comes out, such as one scientist who was denied tenure for his work against gmos at berkeley. Yes we'd all like to hope that the university is the last bastion of independent thought, but research needs funding, and corporations are increasingly the ones providing the dough.  

The yields are not necessarily bigger with the new seed and the monoculture destroys the variety that is needed to keep healthy soil for future generations of harvests. 

There is so much more to this that I can't fit on a blog post and that I don't yet understand. The thrust of the reasearch navdanya does is to show that poverty is a result of political choices, and cannot be solved with a scientific fix. The planting and seed keeping on this organic and sustainable farm is actually very scientific and based on thousands of years of knowledge passed down through the women of India. 

Many students are here to learn how to farm organically - to make potent fertilizer from cow dung and worms instead of chemical fertilizer (which by the way uses a ton of fossil fuels to make.) this farm teaches farmers how to take these sustainable practices back to their own farms. My particular interest is in the politics of agriculture globalization, and in particular the extent to which the World Trade Organization acts as a patent enforcer and what that does to third world farmers. 99% of economists would argue that the principal of comparative advantage means that if one country produces grain best, another should produce corn and yet another cotton and thentrash trade through the market. But does this really make sense to do with with food when you have communiies who cannot even afford to buy food at the local market and all they grow is cotton that they cant then sell becuase the US subsidizes its cotton to make it cheaper than african cotton? Not to mention the enormous waste of fossil fuels that it takes to ship the stuff around. These are areas I am examining.

We have a tendency in the West to think that the Global South is backwards - that progress means creation in a lab and that reductionist science can cure all ils. The navdanya organization attempts to view the entire system - the politics, the ecology and the PEOPLE to come up win real solutions to hunger that do not include destroying the earth with chemicals or putting the wealth of a third world county in the hands of multinational corporations.

Anyway that's my little tirade. I worked for two hours last night preparing this mornings breakfast (naash-TA) so I am not going to miss it! Tootles.   

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Whatchyu lookin' at

This afternoon I walked with another volunteer to the local Friday market in a nearby village. The other volunteer is American but of Indian descent, although her denim pants give her away. We went to check things out and to by some fixings for a salad. The Indian cooks don't serve us raw vegetables - just cooked, and we were hankering for a salad.

As I approached each booth, people would stop and stare at me. My natural reaction is to give a brighter-than-normal smile and the occaisional "namaste" with hands in prayer position. I also throw in an okinawan bow for good measure. In japan you might not get a smile but you will definitely get a bow, and you feel the exchange is complete and you can move on. In India I am constantly left hanging with nothing but an emotionless stare in response - my presense a seemingly personal affront to them.

 In all likelihood, I am over-analyzing the situation. I usually assume they think of me as an imperial oppressor or a peace corps volunteer on some self-fulfilling mission here to save them from themselves, or a rich tourist with a grip of 500 rupee notes who needs change when she wants to buy a shawl from your stand for 50 rupees ($1) 

...(on a side note, in japan, 500 yen ($5) is a coin instead of a bill and here they have 10-rupee bills, the equivalent of $0.20)...

 In Okinawa, I walk around with a lot of American guilt. My cheeks flush red with shame when the f-15s screech by as if I had some control over the flight pattern or our imperial overreach. "Gomen nasai!" I apologize, ears covered, "i hate the noise too!" But I have learned the rhthym of Okinawa. I know that most okinawans blame their government and ours, but they are kind to us as individuals.

 In contrast, i have no idea what to make of indian stares. Perhaps they are just curious and smiling is not part of their normal interaction. Perhaps the lack of smiles should not be intepretted as disdain? I really dont know what to think or what they think of me. It's the intense stares I cannot handle - from both the men and the women. I'm speaking as someone who shrank from the prospect of walking down the aisle at her own wedding for being the focus of so many eyeballs. Imagine you walk into a party and everyone just stops and looks at you - not scornfully, but not pleasantly either. And then it happens again and again EVERYWHERE YOU GO. 

I'm a bit worried about leaving the farm and traveling again on my own. Hopefully by then I'll have knowledge of some more Hindi which will make these interactions somewhat easier to bear.    

Friday, November 13, 2009

This is LIFE

Yesterday we were visited by about a hundred students from a nearby boardingschool of Tibetan refugee children, grade 8. They were here to study ecology. The English they spoke was quite impressive. "ma'am, can you please tell me was this plant is? Ma'am can you please tell me what is the county with the largest apple exports? Ma'am at what latitude is best for growth of papaya?" and then they'd scribble furiously in their notebooks.  
Once they'd uncovered that I was from the US, they wanted to know if ID been to the inaguration of president obama, if I knew Harry potter (?) and Hannah Montana. Also, had I ever met the dalai lama? Well, they all had - of course, and told me that when I did (not if) my heart would be filled with immeasureable joy.

As their Teacher attmepted to corral them for the walk home, a few of them walked out with one of our puppies. They assured me that the kitchen staff said they could have him. "no!" I said "he's not old enough! (only a month). Jeetpol says to me "Anne marie, everyone must eventually go- I livey family too, this is LIFE." I suppose he is right but I missed the pup all night long.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

sweet leaves

Newsflash - farming is physically demanding. Who'd a thunkit? Yesterday I planted basil and cut down massive amounts of it for drying. When planted in a field ( not a windowsill planter) it grows quite high and study. You have to hack at it with a sickle then prune it more than put it through a manual grinder. We ground bales of it. Today I pruned weeds, which is not technically even fieldwork but gardening. It was still very hArd on the knees and back. Elena, a yeAr long volunteer from Myanmar, says that since 'my people' are not familiar with this field labor, I should only work for half the day. Astute observation.

Jeetpol is my best Indian friend here so far. He calls me Anne Marie because apparently I look just like his white friend Anne Marie who was here last year. Now I'm sure everyone here is confused what my name actually is. He made me the best chai I've ever had - he adds black tea to hot water, basil, lemongrass, mint & stevia. Stevia is this magic sweet plant that tastes like it's leaves have been soaked in honey. It can be used in place of sugar. I'm planting pots of it when I get back home. 

Last night we walked about 35 minutes to the home of bindu, a woman who works atthe farm, for her daughters bday. Literally throngs of children flocked to our entourage as we approached. They live in a small two bedroom house on the main road with about 7 people. Four of the kids kept trying to drag me away so finally I acquiesced. They took me to a temple and had me pray to each of the statues od goddesses and gods, giggling like mad whenever I would repeat after them. The kids were so happy and fun to be around.

I caught a bit of a cold last night (cow flu?) so I'm layinglow. Most of the volunteers are going to Delhi for a climate change conference this weekend, but im staying put. You couldn't drag me from here back to Delhi with 100 barrels of stevia.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Redemption in the north

This morning I left the chaos of Delhi behind for the unknown (but very likely much improved.)

On the train i sat next to a german couple who are visiting India for 5 months. They had been delayed in my hotel for 3 weeks while recovering from typhoid (yikes!) and a nasty case of street food poisoning. Cautiously, I ate nothing but naan yesterday so as to avoid that predicament. The train ride was very pleasant, as was the scenery. 
Dehradun, 6 hours from Delhi, was it's own chaotic amalgation of smells and sights. But it was clean and more inquisitive than intruding. I suppose they see even less foreigners up here.

I arrived at the farm via a rickshaw outfited with a lawnmower engine after only one flat tire, a very close head on collision with a truck, and completely uncertain of what I'd find. Having had my romantic notions of delhi rather rudely upended, I was afraid that either I would never find the place or that once I got here, i would be sorely disappointed.

It seemed that the bazaars of Delhi were my test, and the farm is my reward. The sprawling 55 acres are beautiful. The lead volunteer here took me on a tour of the grounds and introduced me to countless varieties of vegetables, millets, seeds, cows, worms, puppies, mango trees (35 varieties of those alone!) This was after I was offered a meal of course - "I must warn you it is nothing fancy- simple organic, vegetarian, all grown on this farm, is this okay with you?" um... Yes please! There are several volunteers: Aistrian, potugese, colmbian, Japanese and a few from California. (C-town always represents.) There's a large library on the farm and we are viewing a documentary on global food issues after dinner.  

My room has an outlet! It is a crisp cool evening. There is a meteor shower this weekend. I bathed for the first time on the trip so far (no facllities at the last place) with a bucket of warm solar heated water. And this post is reaching you through wireless Internet!!! Yes, I am one very happy camper. If only my hubby and gunner could be here too, i just might make a home here. 

Redemption in the north

This morning I left the chaos of Delhi behind for the ownknown (but very likely much improved.)

On the train i sat next to a german couple who are visiting India for 5 months. They had been delayed in my hotel for 3 weeks while recovering from typhoid (yikes!) and a nasty case of street food poisoning. Cautiously, I ate nothing but naan yesterday so as to avoid that predicament. The train ride was very pleasant, as was the scenery. 
Dehradun, 6 hours from Delhi, was it's own chaotic amalgation of smells and sights. But it was clean and more inquisitive than intruding. I suppose they see even less foreigners up here.

I arrived at the farm via a rickshaw outfited with a lawnmower engine after only one flat tire, a very close head on collision with a truck, and completely uncertain of what I'd find. Having had my romantic notions of delhi rather rudely upended, I was afraid that either I would never find the place or that once I got here, i would be sorely disappointed.

It seemed that the bazaars of Delhi were my test, and the farm is my reward. The sprawling 55 acres are beautiful. The lead volunteer here took me on a tour of the grounds and introduced me to countless varieties of vegetables, millets, seeds, cows, worms, puppies, mango trees (35 varieties of those alone!) This was after I was offered a meal of course - "I must warn you it is nothing fancy- simple organic, vegetarian, all grown on this farm, is this okay with you?" um... Yes please! There are several volunteers: Aistrian, potugese, colmbian, Japanese and a few from California. (C-town always represents.) There's a large library on the farm and we are viewing a documentary on global food issues after dinner.  

My room has an outlet! It is a crisp cool evening. There is a meteor shower this weekend. I bathed for the first time on the trip so far (no facllities at the last place) with a bucket of warm solar heated water. And this post is reaching you through wireless Internet!!! Yes, I am one very happy camper. If only my hubby and gunner could be here too, i just might make a home here. 

Monday, November 9, 2009


Arrived in Delhi last night, and all I can think is... naive, naive, naive. Me with my romantic notions of India. Apparetnly when the Lonelyplant guidebook said the Paharganj Area had a "seedy reputation for drugs and dodgy characters - not everyone's cup of tea" I eroneously pictured something like Mission Beach, where I lived in college, where your neighbors all sold pot, but the vibe was chill and artsy. Recall that hotel room in Leo Dicaprio's "The Beach" where his acquaintance OD's on heroine? Well apparently that hotel is a chain and I'm staying in the India branch! It's my own fault - who could resist $4 per night lodgings? I'm going to have to up the budget a bit.

I have a day to kill in Delhi, but it seems that I'd have to get in a car or rickshaw to leave this area, and let me tell you there is no roller coaster ride that compares to my ride home from the airport last night. Lane lines do not apply, cows are everywhere, pedestrians are for target practive, people bicycle on the highway with carts at their backs. lights don't mean much either.

I never really comprehended what it was like to be a woman in a country like India. perhaps it is better for locals, but the searing glances and advances from Indian men are a bit demoralizing. And they come at you 10 at a time. This morning, I resolved to stiffen my back and I threw a shawl over my head and neck and donned some mirrored sunglasses, which gave me a nice "rich Dubai girl" look. You basically just have to not respond to them, even when they are right in your face insisting you respond. If you say no, or respond in any fashion, it only eggs on the conversation further. The next time I hear an American bitch about the political correctness of treatment of women, or the next time I hear an Anerican, man or woman, claim not to be a feminist, I'm going to scream. We don't know how good we've got it.

Happy to find an internet room, though. Going up to get a bite on the roof of this place and watch the bazaar pass by. I will be in Dehradun tomorrow and at the farm shortly thereafter. I keep picturing Vandana Shiva as my Mother Mary, knowing that if I can just reach her, she will provide safe, clean lodgings and a respite from these pestulant men. Will write from there! Please disregard the somber tone of this email - it was a tough night, but I'm sure once I leave the city it will be much better!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Ronery, So Ronery

John left for his 5-month deployment today. I've had about 15 hours now to digest, and resist the urge to be overly dramatic. I feel a bit of perspective is in order - or at least the situation requires it of me:

First, we've been living the life of tropical island bums disguised as a "military family" when there are ever-increasing numbers of active duty members deploying to very dangerous places every day. Our time had to come eventually. Secondly, he is only going to be gone for 5 months, when many are deployed for 9-12 months, and often repeatedly deployed. It's not the time or place for complaining. And still, this whole military world is not quite my reality. I'm used to a very pedestrian life back in Los Angeles. We wake up, go to work, come home, watch Project Runway, eat bagels, go to Del's, roll over to Vic & Judi's to read magazines, play with Gunner, go for bike rides. Eat, Drink, Be Merry.

Providence seemed to be having some fun with me this morning. I came back from the airport to a flat tire in the car, a kitty "situation" (the "bootie-drag-boogie" I think Aviva called it?) and a broken Skype phone I have no idea how to fix. But I'm sure this is only fate's way of pointing out that I have become way too dependent on the pillar of stability that is my absent husband. It's time to remember how to take care of myself again - if only till February.

It's odd to realize, but I'm kind of a loner. Which is strange, because I have been particularly social in stages of my life that called for it. I seemed to have a million friends when I was in school and never at a loss for a companion, even for a mini-drive around town at night. I loved that time actually. But because of my current mix of school and jewelry company and applications and plans for my Indian travel adventure, I am not as inclined to try to crash every social gathering on island. In fact, most of my friends have their own families, and their own goings on. It's more difficult to insert myself. Especially since some of my close single friends have left this summer, it's a bit lonely.

Of course, most obviously missing from this "Woe-Is-Me" post is John and what he is going through. He has forgone our insanely comfortable memory-foam mattress to stay in a bunk in the scorching hot middle east, work pretty much 7 days a week, away from his family. But the thing is, and anyone who knows John can attest to this - he will be fine. He is an eternal optimist and can find the best in any situation. I can't decide if that makes me sadder and miss him more, or happy because we're both going on our separate adventures and will have some pretty awesome stories when we see each other again. He would vote for the latter. So, I'll lean towards that angle too.

Anyway, if any of you would like John's PO address while he's in the Middle East, let me know and I'll email it to you. I'm sure he'd like even a postcard from you!

Monday, August 3, 2009

A scuba-heavy weekend

I'm exhausted from a fantastic weekend. John got back in town Friday night - he had been sent on a ONE DAY work trip to Virginia, if you can believe that one. His total travel time was twice as long as his work conference. Luckily, he was able to parlay the trip into a stateside visit, and see friends and family for about two weeks. I, on the other hand, wet a little nutty by myself. Probably because this short trip was foreshadowing of his diployment to come - less than a month from now. I will have school to keep me busy and jewelry designs to come up with, and a voyage to India! But I'm still sad in anticipation of the months to come.

So this weekend, yes. I completed my four ocean dives and am now scuba certified! Saturday we dove off our local beach and Sunday, we took a 45 minute boat ride out to the Kerama Islands and dove there. John was able to come with us and it was a great day. I apparently am still trying to excise the Nitrogen from my blood because I am exhausted. Last night I could barely lift my arms. Scuba diving felt like flying. There are these underwater landscapes with sandy bottoms and great jutting mountains of colored coral. You can stand in front of a cliff of coral, and just bounce up and swim right over it. While I did feel a bit constrained by the amount of gear, once you get used to the slower speed, it's a heavenly feeling.

Saturday afternoon, we picked up some friends-of-friends and took them to Pizza in the Sky to enjoy some Okinawan views. They are Americans living on the mainland and were just down for a visit. One thing living and traveling abroad does is really open you up to a sort of global "community". You make fast friends in exotic places - both because you want to share your experiences with people and because you realize that the world is much smaller than you had imagined. The networks of people I've met these past couple of years have made the experience that much better.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Trying to earn a good gig in the afterlife.

Here's a cute picture I found of John and me in Kyoto. That's our tour guide Yui, and her pet monkey. That little primate knew all the hottest spots in town.

So, I'm not too familiar with Buddhism - but isn't there some tenant that says that each time you are reincarnated, you are born to specific parents and put in specific life situations that really test a certain part of your personality that needs improvement? Like if you are a soul that latches on to very materialistic possessions, you will be born to a pauper. I haven't quite figured out the specific purpose of being born to my parents or my family - perhaps in a past life I was an attention-seeker, so in this life I was born as the oldest of 10 children, so as to put me in my place? Perhaps I was a lazy soul in a past life and therefore born to two incredible over-achieving parents so as to get my derrière in gear? Not sure, I'm still trying to figure it all out. I like the idea though.

One flaw I have started to discern in myself is an unfailing need to convince and persuade someone to my point of view. I don't like this tendency, as it always makes me feel really irritated for days after a confrontational conversation. What good does that do me? My most recent example was my (8 hour long) lecture today. By the end of the lecture, I was literally shaking with anger at about 9-10 things the professor had to say. Clearly we came from different view points, this is not unheard of - I have some unorthodox opinions. But I just couldn't wrap my head around (nor could I be quiet about) so much of what he was spouting (something about the innate beauty of a bomb when is is dropped from a B2, about Nixon being the best president of the 20th Century, Gandhi being a moron who destroyed India, and Sadam having somehow caused 9/11, among other pronouncements). Yet, something must be wrong with me that I cannot just let this person exist, in harmony with me, and accept that these are his opinions. They just... make me a little insane.

What do I know? I'm young and have not lived in the world half as long. It's absurd really - what makes me think that I could have any affect on this person's opinions? I just don't get how we could look at the same set of events and come to totally opposite conclusions. I should be able to learn, live and let live. But I can't, and it makes me crazy. See now I'm getting angry just writing about it. I really need to work on this. I should be doing homework, and instead I'm venting in the blogosphere. Ugh, that makes me even more mad.

So yes, my point: I think (or I would if I were Buddhist) that the Universe plucked me out of my Southern California pool house and plunked me right down on to an Air force base in the middle of Kansans and Arizonians and Nebraskans and Texans (oh so many Texans) to remind me that I do not have the monopoly on wisdom - not even close.

Oh it's hard, so very hard for me to get down off my high horse. But I'm going to sit through my second 8 hours of class tomorrow (I should get reincarnation bonus points) and meditate on the cushy gig I'm working towards in the next life.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

A celebration and good-bye

In Okinawa, we have a great tradition called the Olympics. No, this does not involve javelins or lap pools, balance beams or 50-meter dashes. But it’s definitely NOT a spectator sport. The Olympics is the whirlwind of events preceding a PSC (Permanent Change of Station) that usually involves trips to as many Okinawan hot spots as you can squeeze into a 2-week period. Said PCS-er determines what restaurants, hikes, scuba spots, and tourist destinations they absolutely must see before they leave the island for good, and then all their friends make it happen.

Ironically, I believe the term Olympics found its origin because one particularly popular girl had about 12 going away dinners and someone compared it to the real Olympic ceremonies that, well, never seem to end. But now we cherish our Olympics. It’s our last chance to bid our friend farewell, and to get in our seasonal trips to Okuma beach, the Okinawa Aquarium, and Pizza in the Sky. During PSC season, it becomes an absolute marathon of activities, exhausting even the most energetic participants.

Today, we climbed Hiji Falls for the Becca Olympics. It was a beautiful May day, just cool enough to be able to breath without an inhaler. Becca is a flight nurse who has been on this island longer than any of us and most of her close friends have already gone. She was here when we arrived, and made us feel at home.

We’ve come to find military life (well, so far – this is only our first assignment) to be like college life. (Sometimes a little too much like college.) You arrive on the island, not knowing anyone, or what the heck all those darned acronyms mean.
Then, some kindly upperclassmen will take you out to lunch, show you the ropes. Tell you that the cafeteria food sucks, but happy hour at the local pub is a great time. You will feel part of the group – this amazing group of people that have been happily living in a foreign country and sucking the marrow from it. With each new year, a few more of those upperclassmen leave, and before you know it, you are the Seniors, ready to take on your final year. Senior year is great, but it’s never quite as good as those freshman days, when college life seemed never ending, and there was not where to go but up.

This is why it’s important to participate in the Olympics. It’s a proper send off to those who came before, who trekked through the jungle to find the best hikes, who ate at all the bad sushi restaurants so you could eat at the best. It’s a thank you for making this island so welcoming.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Good Friends, Good Bagels

What a beautiful day. It is starting to push the limits of my heat tolerability index, but sitting in my favorite shady cafe, reading a travel memoir, is just about the best way I can think of to offset the humidity. We have an amazing bagel shop here in Okinawa, called Cactus Eatrip. The interior is lovely and odd - wide, cool, cement floors, white stucco benches with scattered pops of brightly-colored pillows. It is staffed (and owned?) by three young Japanese - two men and one woman. They speak almost no english, but since I order the same bagel sandwich every time, it's never been an issue. The bagels are PHENOMenal. They boil them in a wok and then toast them in a pizza oven. They are never more than 1/2 hour old, and so incredibly soft. Could it be possible that the best bagel in the world is made by Okinawan hands? Think of the consequences of that....

I had lunch with a schoolmate of mine - a guy who's been in the Navy for 9 years. He did his undergraduate and graduate work since he's been in, very impressive. He's one of those wicked smart people that knows a little about everything. Definitely a good meal companion. Then I ran into another workout buddy of mine. This whole life here is so interesting - these are people I would have never met had we not taken this adventure. I'm not generally the type that seeks out new people, that's more John's department (although I reap the rewards). It's so easy, past a certain age, to stop making new friends. My closest friends are the ones I met in college - but I had just stopped there. That was 9 years ago! I find myself incredibly lucky to be surrounded by these fantastic new people. Some sadly moving along - we lost Cortney to the plains of New Mexico last month. Some to leave soon, Lauren's heading off to Los Angeles (JEALOUS!) Most sticking around. I am a lucky duck.

John is acting out his "ahoy matey!" fantasy right now as he is participating in a lawyer exchange with the Navy. Somehow I think that sleeping in a foldout bunk with 3000 other dudes is not quite as romantic as his 2001 voyage across the Atlantic on a 4 person sailboat. But John will make the best of it, he always does.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Happy Spring Welcome Summer!

You know you're a blogging disappointment when your blogging partner won't return your emails (at my other online home), your grandmother enlists your father's influence to get you to post more, and your sister says "oh you still write that internet thingy?"  Yes, I get the point.  I'm a bad bad girl.

The thing is, and I've stated this before, I have only so much capacity, and I generally put all efforts towards one project at a time.  This wouldn't be so bad if I didn't come up with a new project every day. I just finished my latest quarter of school work. My last paper was an examination of American unconditional foreign policy support for Israel and the resulting consequences...(I know you're begging me to post it cause you're DYING to read something so intriguing, but trust me on this.  I'm sparing you.)  

In April (seems like only days ago) my good friend Masumi and her boyfriend Scot came to visit.  I met them up in Tokyo and then they flew down to see our life here in Okinawa. 

It was a glorious spring in the capital city.

Here's a lovely one of Scot and Masumi.

Scot and Mas are rapacious foodies, much like myself. Scot came armed with a culinary itinerary that included Kyubei, what is considered the most famous sushi restaurant in Tokyo. They served the nigiri at room temperature which was surprisingly delightful and the subtle flavors were well worth the insane journey to actually find the place (the kindness of Tokyan strangers is not to be underestimated).

The Benito, with a subtle garlic, ginger flavoring was truly out of this world.  

Overall, it was a marvelous trip.

The day my friends left, I had a glance at my calendar and realized that from that moment until, oh about 2 hours ago, I had only barely enough time to finish all my papers and finals. So, in a nut shell, that's where I've been.

Now summer is upon us (the humidity fairy has struck) and I'm looking forward to enjoying our last summer in Japan!

Sunday, March 15, 2009


I love a good rant...why is that?  What else is dinner conversation for? Religion and politics, of course. I wonder where I got's not like my parents are especially opinionated. Ha, yeah right. Have you met them?

Good grief, no wonder no one wants to dine with me.

MAN there is a lot to rant about these days. But, sometimes it's good to just take a breaaaath.  I think it's time to offer a nice appreciative "Namaste" to the lovely little life we've created for ourselves here.

John's been gone for three weeks and thankfully returns tomorrow evening, as I was starting to speak cat.  Gunner's a faithful companion and all, but I think I'm starting to get on his nerves. John's return gives me a reason to do the dishes, and really, they need to be done.

Met lots of good new friends this week, some just arrived on island, some just about to leave. Went to the Kadena wine festival last night and talked extensively with someone who happens to know a lot about grass-fed cows and the perils of ethanol, which is, interestingly enough, what I'm reading about right now.  Then we went off to the Kadena Officer's Club where I took tons of video footage of men in onsies (pilots) dancing the electric slide (although the kids today call it the Cuban Shuffle). Really, it's like Saturday Night Fever, disco balls and all.  Even got out in the dance floor a bit myself, and managed to keep from falling off the stage like I did last week. Home at a reasonable hour, listened to the storm all night.  What an island.

Tonight I joined some new friends at their lovely beach-front home, watched the sunset from their porch and ate delicious food and enjoyed sparkling conversation.  People in the military can be one-dimensional if that's all you think they are.  Or they can be witty and hilarious and generous and remind you of your best friends from home if you just open yourselves up to them. Guess that's true of most situations.

John gets back tomorrow and Gunner and I are beside ourselves.  Classes start on Tuesday and although I only got about a book and a half of "pleasure" reading done in the interim, I'm happy to be back on heavy diet of dense political reading. Yep, I'm a big geek.  Give me a highlighter and a deadline and I'm happy as a clam. Oh, I'll rant the whole semester.  But inside, I'm beaming.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Mother Nature doesn't do bailouts

Thomas Friedman put into words in Sunday's NYT exactly what I've been mulling over for about 6 months now.  Basically this:

Our economy is in large part based upon stuff we don't need. Entire industries are floating on the fact that we are obsessive over-consumers. A different pair of sneakers for walking, hanging out, hiking, cross-training, etc. Baby-wipe warmers (saw that one at a baby shower today). Wine tags so you don't drink the wrong glass of wine at a party (I mean, it's not like I have cooties, geez).  

Basically, the way you can draw money out of the system, provide for you family, etc., is to come up with something no one else has thought of, and market it to the point where no one would consider living without it. Hiking up a mountain in walking shoes? (no traction!  no balance! no ankle support! no way!) And so we buy our 4 pairs of specialized sneakers.  We know deep down that young women in China are getting paid next to nothing to make them. 90% of goods in Walmart are made in China. 90%! It's a buzz-kill to talk about but it's the truth.

I'm reading Omnivore's Dilemma right now.  The author spends a great amount of time on corn - just how pervasive it is in the American diet.  Food companies have twisted and mixed and chemically altered corn into pretty much everything we eat.  Marketers sit around and try to come up with new products made from corn all the time - breakfast cereals, chicken nuggets, energy drinks, you name it.  Why do they do this?  Because corn is what we have.  It's cheap (though nutritionally vapid) and it grows like wildfire in this country.  So even though our diet certainly could do without high-fructose corn syrup (1 in 5 Americans being obese and all), that's what we get.  It's not what's good for us, it's what's good for shareholders in General Mills. Hmmm....bad for our health, good for the market, that's a poignant dichotomy.

Which takes us back to this economy. Friedman says "the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall — when Mother Nature and the market both said: 'No more.'"

I don't think it was in anyone's plans to have half the world working for a pittance just so the industrialized West would be able to afford 4 pairs of $60 sneakers per person.  We refuse to work for less than $10/hour, yet we won't pay more than a dollar or so for the labor of making those sneakers (most of that ticket price going to marketing). It's an unequal equation. Someone takes the hit. I think we'd all be happy to pay $200 a pair if we knew that the girl making them could afford a pair too. But we weren't asked to make that sacrifice, and so we'll just avert our eyes. Perhaps that's the underlying picture behind this economic chaos.  We've all been living like mini-Madoffs, knowing we were getting wealthy (and tons of cheap stuff) off the backs of others.  Maybe this is mother nature's way of righting the balance.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

It's 2009 already??

Where does the time go??  School is going well.  Knee deep in the Vietnam war. I had never been that aware of France's colonial involvement at the genesis of that quagmire. Maybe I wasn't paying attention in school, but my history classes never really went into it. Interesting....

Speaking of those pesky French, I just finished my little research paper, and realized that my vocab could use some work. When a professor asks you for 6000 words, there are only so many times you can write "Becuase, you know, like, France is like, totally anti-hegemonic."  Ugh. Happily moving on....

...In case anyone was wondering, my husband has one of the coolest jobs ever.  When he's not taking a field trip to the Supreme Court....

Or jumping out of black hawks...

He's backseating in an F-15 plane.

Truth be told, I wasn't all that excited about it.  The prospect of vomiting in the back of a $30 million rollercoaster is just not one of the things I look forward to in life. But when I showed up in the F-15 parking lot to take photos of him upon arrival, I have to say it was a pretty amazing feeling.  And I didn't even make it into the air!!

So yeah, go to law school kids...see how much fun it is to be a lawyer??

John is back in the states for 3 weeks so Gunner and I will be spending a lot of quality time together, cleaning the guest room as we prepare for Masumi and Scott to get here in April. He's promised to clean up all the mini-Gunner dust bunnies as long as I give him hourly rubs.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

ADHD and one too many projects

Turns out I have massive Adult Onset ADHD.  This is self-diagnosis, of course, as I'm not going to waste the air force's medical resources just for them to tell me that yes, I bounce around a lot and need to learn to concentrate. On one project. At a time.  Clearly they don't know me at all.

I just completed a final on GeoStrategy that kicked my behind. What is geostrategy, you ask? Well since the entire class was only NINE DAYS LONG (two 16-hour weekends and 1000 pages of reading), I stored all the info needed for my test in my short term memory compartment, which I promptly dumped all over an US Weekly the minute class was over. (US Weekly is the girl version of beer, just dumbs you down in a really comforting way.) So - sorry, you're going to have to go to Wikipedia for the definition because I can barely muster the word. 

So now I just need to write the paper for that class, but I swear, I cannot summon the intellect. I tend to stick with subjects I understand (hence that dramatic hole where math and science should be on my transcript) but this class was just a little too much.

Anyway the point was (see how I drift?) that I have been a horrible blogger lately because of other commitments.  Actually that's not true, I've been blogging, just not here. I guess I never really mentioned it, but last year my friend Judi and I started another blog - Creme de la Mode - with an eye towards fashion and design. It's gradually getting more readership in the design-field which is great.  I think with the demise of certain magazines, like the recent shut down of Domino, there is an opportunity for taste-makers in the blogosphere.  Anyhoo, if you are so inclined, you can read it here:

Other than that, I have another midterm tonight. (But instead of studying, I'm writing a blog.) Just heard confirmation that my friend Masumi and her BF are coming to visit us in April.  Astonished by this news as even my family has made no mention of visiting prospects.  Oh and John and I are heading to Kyoto next week for a much deserved mini-honeymoon.  I will be sure to take lots of photos.  Jewelry designs due in the states March 1....other jewelry designs due in Tokyo mid-february...John has a mini-trial set for's a busy little factory over here at the Preston-Tomans! 

Oh and BTW, it's about 80 degrees without a cloud in the sky.  Don't you wish you were coming to Okinawa?

Friday, January 30, 2009

The Erin Brockovich of the Auto Industry

Hi Everyone.  I've been so busy with school that my blog has been tragically neglected.  But I thought this warranted special attention - my mom is being awarded tonight for Consumer Advocate of the Year for her decade of work trying to make cars safer.  Thought I'd share the article with you.  Isn't she puuurty?

PHILADELPHIA, Jan. 27 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- Paula Lawlor, a former legal assistant, now independent contractor to attorneys nationwide who represent victims of automobile rollovers and the founder of the non-profit People Safe in Rollovers will receive the Consumer Advocate of the Year award from the Consumer Attorneys of San Diego at the Annual Awards & Installation Dinner at the U.S. Grants Hotel in downtown San Diego on Thursday, January 29, 2009.

The dinner and program, in the Presidential Ballroom will begin at 6:30 p.m. Other award categories are Trial Lawyer of the Year; Legislator of the Year; Judge of the Year and the J. Alexys Kalafer Award.

For the past 10 years Lawlor, who sees herself as a "social entrepreneur" -- one who believes that "to get things done and change society, you must be willing to go outside the normal channels" -- has been on a mission to fight for a stronger roof strength standard and to inform the motoring public about the devastating effects of "roof crush" while alerting consumers about the ramifications of the proposed inadequate Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard, FMVSS 216.

Due to the efforts of Paula Lawlor and Kevin Moody, a father from Oklahoma who lost his son Tyler to injuries sustained from "roof crush" in a rollover 6 years ago, and Senator/Dr. Tom Coburn, there was a June 4th, 2008 Senate Oversight Hearing on Vehicle Roof Strength in Washington, D.C.

Despite the fact that every year in the U.S. 10,000 die in auto rollovers and 24,000 are catastrophically injured, the roof strength standard has not changed in thirty-six years and the deadline for a new roof strength standard has been repeatedly postponed. The July 1st, 2008 deadline imposed on National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, NHTSA, was derailed by the June 4th Senate Hearing because both Republican and Democrat Senators alike objected to the new weak standard proposed by NHTSA and the insertion of a preemption clause that would have robbed litigants of their constitutional right to sue and preempted all common law liability for manufacturers.

A new deadline was set for October 1st, 2008 and missed.

A second deadline was set for December 15th, 2008 and missed. The third deadline for the new roof strength standard is now April 30th, 2009.

It was while working with attorney Michael Piuze on the Robbie Lambert vs. General Motors trial in 2000, which resulted in a $25.7 million verdict for rollover and roof crush victim Robbie Lambert, that Lawlor realized that General Motors was not only aware that its roofs would not hold up in a rollover but that General Motors wrote the woefully inadequate standard to ensure that its own vehicles would pass the test.

Lawlor wanted the public to know what she knew and what juries were hearing: American auto manufacturers are fully aware that there is no occupant survival space built into many of their vehicles in the event of a rollover. The problem was that the documents Lawlor unearthed were protected and went back into protective status after trial and were not allowed to be given to the press or others to inform the public.

So Lawlor changed course and began urging attorneys to help her get documents free of their protective claim. She persuaded Alabama attorney Dana Taunton, to ask the judge to declassify the videos and test reports of the early GM drop tests from the late 1960's. Taunton walked out of court with a judge's order in her favor. The visual evidence of the early GM drop tests provided proof that GM knew its roofs would not hold up when subjected to forces in a rollover. Yet these same vehicles passed the government's static strength test FMVSS 216.

Then in 2006, Lawlor with Dallas attorney Todd Tracy, gathered the "roof crush" documents that Lawlor had worked to declassify and wrote Deadly By Design (which is linked to

For Lawlor, it has been a battle every step of the way with setbacks, roadblocks, threats and intimidation from auto manufacturers and others opposed to her mission to change the standard for roof strength and save thousands of lives annually.

NHTSA's proposed rule, which now appears to have been categorically rejected, would only save 13-44 of the 10,000 people that die annually in rollover related accidents. "This," says Lawlor, begs the question, "Who is protecting the people?"

Friday, January 9, 2009

My foray into socialized medicine

I don't like going to doctors or hospitals, and tend to try to cure my ailments with "Eastern remedies" as john would call them.  This can mean herbs, vitamins, acupuncture, a serious anti-oxidant diet, or really just letting the old immune system do its job, even if I have to wait it out. (Note to reader, never try this with an aching tooth.  Your immune system will not "fix" it.  And you will find yourself crying in an oral surgeon's chair begging him to rip it out.) Generally, my health is pretty good, and managed to dodge some medical land mines when I went home (flu, colds, poison oak).

I can't remember going to the doctor when I was young, except to get my ear pierced. It's not that I dislike doctors, I just have very rarely had decent medical insurance, and it semed like more of a hassle to go to one than to just stay home. Sometimes, though, the garlic/spinach/eye-of-newt concoctions I whip up at home just can't crack the problem, and so off to the doctor I go.  

This was my first time using the socialized medicine that the Military so graciously offers its active duty and their dependents.  I called up at 7am, said I'd like to see a doctor.  "Ms. Preston, how does 8:40am today sound?"  Sounds like good service to me.  Within an hour I was out, on my way to get my prescription (in the same building).  I asked the pharmacist how much I owed him for the little brown bag, and he says "surely, Ms. Preston, you must be new.  Your medical care is our first priority, it's all on the house!" Imagine that. Medicine that is timely, free and doesn't drag a sick person through the mud in order to just get in her car, drive home and go back to bed.

Okay, I left one little part out.  When I was waiting for the MD to come in the little room, a "tech" (not a nurse, but a very early 20's young lad) had to run down a list of my medical history with me.  Typical questions: 

Q: Are you a smoker?  

A: Not for a year now. (yay!)

Q: Do you drink coffee? 

A: Not for about 5 months now. (another yay!)

Q: Do you drink alcohol.

A. That would be a yes.

Q: How many drinks would you say you have a week?

A: (let's see, one while making dinner, one while eating dinner, a few at the club, a beer at the beach....boy am I glad I quit drinking for New Years) "I'd say ten.  About ten."

Q: I'm going to go ahead and put down 3.  3 is a much more acceptable Air Force Number. 

Excuse me? Acceptable Air Force number?  What exactly does that mean?  I have visions of being summoned to AA meetings by John's commander. Who exactly sees these records anyway? Does HIIPA even apply?  What about doctor-patient confidentiality?  Who is this kid anyway, he doesn't even look old enough to work here.  Is there a camera in this room?  I start to glance around. What if my illness is directly related to the number of alcoholic beverages I consume weekly, and because you are trying to shield me from Big Brother, the doctor might never find the cure for me.  This is how episodes of House begin.

All in all, I'd give socialized medicine an 8 out of 10.  Especially when I think of the various times in my life when I did not have insurance. Yes, the Big Brother aspect of it creeps me out. But it's better than sitting at home sipping that stinky garlic tea waiting for my immune system to kick in.