One Year Later

We came home a year ago.  It hasn’t been an easy year.  It actually was harder than our year of travel.  Many things had changed by the time we got home.  The stressors in our lives had increased.  Cat began middle school, and seventh grade had a lot more demands.  Her weekends were full of soccer games, frisbee games, and homework.  Hank had grades and finals for the first time in his career as a student.  He was confronted with the strict, black and white rules of a Catholic high school.  My job as medical director had changed during our year away as new affiliations and politics had blossomed in my absence.   Bill took a real job, as an employee, for the first time in decades.  His schedule was no longer his own.

And, frankly, we were burned out.  Hank said he was done with field trips.  He had had a lifetime of them in one year.  Cat had missed her friends so badly during her year away, and they were the only people she wanted to be with.  I was tired of dreaming up adventures and then working to convince someone to come with me.  And Bill had a new job.

Cat on BroadwayOur vacation time was now limited.  Cat and Hank were, for the first time, in different schools.  Their vacations rarely overlapped.  Family vacations were almost impossible.  We did take a holiday trip to visit family in Boise, not quite an adventure in travel, though the company and the peanut brittle were extrememly good.  Cat and I escaped for four days to New York City.  Hank and Bill did a real escape to Honduras to scuba dive.  But for Bill that was his entire “allowed” vacation time, maybe more.  He did, after all, have a new job.Hank in Honduras

But we’ve done a lot of reminiscing this year.  Little things will set off a flood of memories.

When we got home we looked at the old rugs on our floors.  They were dirty and worn.  We talked about getting a new rug.  But then we remembered the rug sellers of Turkey.  In Istanbul we were approached by a Turk who spoke perfect English.  He was accompanied by a blonde American woman.  He asked us where we were from (were we Americans?) and volunteered that he lived in North Carolina.  He invited us to visit his house, see his collection of antiques and rugs.  He imported rugs and other Turkish artifacts to the US.  We told him we needed to get lunch.  We were, actually, quite wary.$20,000 rugs for sale, Ürgüp, Turkey

We had met many Turkish rug sellers already throughout the country, in Kaş and in Ürgüp.  They all used some ploy to get us into their store.  Once inside they taught us about the value of the Turkish double knot and about the mistake that was purposely placed in each rug (because only Allah is perfect).  They showed us the stories told in the rugs.  The woman in the rug with her arms akimbo symbolized the young woman telling her village she was ready to get married and have babies, or the tree of life symbolized the hopes of ascending from  the world we know to the world above.  And the sellers always talked about their own trip out into tribal Turkey to find the antique rugs.  It was harder to find the antiques, they said.  They pushed us to buy now, before it was too late.  They kept us there saying that somehow, their rugs were better, different, truly unique.  We told them we weren’t in the market for a rug.  We only carried backpacks.  We still had 10 months of travel to go.  Don’t worry, they’d say.  We’ll ship you the rug.  For every excuse we had they had a retort, a solution.  And always, always they talked while we drank tea from their tulip shaped glasses.  When we got to Istanbul we swore we were not going to visit another rug shop, ever.  Rug seller in Kaş

But the blonde said this guy’s house was amazing.  It was like a museum.  He just wanted to share his collection, not sell anything.  We must see his artifacts.  And we believed her.  She was American, just like us.  She couldn’t possibly be part of a sale, part of a scam.  He did have a small collection of masks (or was it hats).  But then he took us upstairs to see his rugs.  He had hundreds, maybe thousands, piled up in multiple rooms.  We were there four hours, through lunch, looking at rug, after rug, after rug.  Each truly one of a kind, different, better than any other rug sellers.  At least that’s what he said.hundreds of rugs in Istanbul

We never did buy a rug.  Not even when we ended up with a rug seller in India who told us about the knots and the stories and the tribal women who wove the rugs.  He even gave us tea to drink.

BeautifulInstead we have the memories of the rug sellers.  These are the memories I love to relive and to tell.  I feel sad that a year has gone by already, a year with so few adventures.  The weekends have blurred into each other, full of homework and housekeeping.   I know I should be gathering up more memories, not dwelling on the old.   But more grand adventures will need to wait.  The kids just want to be “normal” American teenagers.  They want to go to school studying math and history in the classroom with their friends.  They want to go to the movie, the beach, the fair, and just hang with their friends.  My boss won’t let me go for any more sabbaticals, and Bill has a new job.  But I do have hundreds more stories to tell from our year of travel.  Keep in touch.  I’m going to keep telling them.

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Road Schooling

The school year is ending.  It’s the last day of finals week for Hank.  Cat has another week and a half before she’s done with seventh grade.  Hank has spent the year adjusting to the rules a Catholic high school, the load of school work, and the pressures of grades.  Cat has struggled with ADD which led to evaluations and tutors as well as frequent spats over homework.  And they’ve both done a lot of work.  Hank just finished a 40 page report on the Northern Spotted Owl with in-text sources.  Cat is working on her report on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and the Uprising of 20,000 complete with  annotated bibliography.  But on our trip their education was even more full and much less stressful.  It was one year-long field trip.geometry/trigonometry set we bought in Nairobi for $1.50

They did spend some time on regular school work.  They wrote in their blogs and practiced math online.  Cat drew maps of the places we visited.  Map of South America by CatShe was able to Skype with her tutor back in Oakland when the internet was steady.   Amy gave her assignments to complete but no hard and fast deadlines.   They read books set in the places we visited.  They learned about Gandhi in a graphic biography we found while in India.  Hank read a memoir of the Killing Fields in Cambodia.  He was horrified and knew too much when we visited the Khmer Rouge prison S-21 in Phnom Penh.  Cat read the book, Shiva’s Fire.  She loved the book about a girl in India with magical powers.   She could envision the setting and the people of the book because she had been there among them.   We all spent a month in a Spanish language school, going to classes and doing homework on our patio over looking Guanajuato.Cat's study carrel in Guanajuato

But most of their studies were outside of a regular worksheet filled curriculum.  Their comparative religion class started on Lamu off the coast of Kenya. They were awoken by the muezzin every morning at 4:30 with the first call to prayer.  Sun God in a church door in MexicoThey continued their studies looking out over rice paddies of northern Thailand.  They meditated mornings before breakfast and evenings after dinner with a buddhist monk named Pi Nan (Brother Monk).  The kids learned about the Greek gods in Turkey, reading the myths and searching out the art in the ancient ruins.  They learned only a few of the thousands of Hindu gods in India, singing songs to Vishnu and Shiva at aarti with the orphans at the ashram.  The Hindu gods showed up again in Bali with the addition of Ogoh-Ogoh, the ugly, scary creature who was cast out on Nyepi.  Many times they saw how Catholicism had absorbed native tradition, adapting them into its own set of myths.  Native gods were carved into the door of a church in Mexico.  In the cathedral in Cusco we all laughed at the painting of Jesus at the last supper, a guinea pig on the plate in front of him.Hagia Sophia at call to prayerJesus eating cuy at his last supper in CuscoOne iteration of Ogoh-Ogoh

A Swahili dinner with Arab and Indian flavorsHuman evolution was the lesson in the museum in Nairobi, so close to where the our ancestors first lived.  We looked at maps of the migrations of humans out from Africa to Syria, the Middle East and on.  Human migration was also taught in the museum in Mexico City where a giant map showed the waves of migrations over the land bridge between Asia and the Americas.  Trade routes were introduced in Turkey as we explored areas where the Greeks, Lycians, Christans, Turks, and Indians came together to make  a living.  The kids got to taste the results of trade in Lamu with food that combined Arab and Indian flavors over a base of African foodstuff.

An ancestor in NairobiAğzikarahan Caravanserai, Turkey

Lessons of war started in Vienna as we gazed at the balcony from which Hitler spoke after the Anschluss.  Ancient sacrificial site in Teotihuacan outside of Mexico cityThey examined the gruesome photos of the bombing by al Qaeda at the American Embassy in Nairobi.  The kids explored the Viet Cong tunnels outside of Ho Chi Minh City.  A video started the tour.  It extoled the heroism of the rebels and ridiculed the efforts of the “American aggressor”, a view not often presented in the history books back home.  They studied a map of US bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Cambodia.  The bombs were dropped not just along the Vietnamese border, but all through the country.  Cat grasped the meaning of landmines placed by the Khmer Rouge as she became friends with an amputee selling art on the streets of Siem Reap.  We explored the history of the Spanish conquest of the Incans in a museum in Cusco and the history of the wars of the Aztecs in Mexico City before the conquest.Crawling out of the Chu Chi Tunnels, Vietnam2011-07-18_16-58-46_51The US bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  Note all the red dots nowhere near the Vietnamese border

The kids’ science curriculum included learning about tectonic plates as we climbed the steep mountains of and Nepal, crossed the Bosphorus river in Istanbul, and drove into the Great Rift Valley on our way to safari in Kenya.  In museums they studied a diorama of the tsunami in Bangkok and played in the earthquake room in Singapore.  They learned about the rotation of the earth when they lost their shadows during the autumn equinox on the equator in Kenya.  Bill lost his during the spring in Peru.  We were at Jantar Mantar, an 18th century planetarium in Jaipur, on the winter solstice and watched as these shadows moved over the solstice clock.  Hank studied the physics and physiology of diving when he took scuba diving lessons in Turkey.  Cat studied elephant behavior at an orphanage for babies in Nairobi and a sanctuary for abused and injured adults in Thailand.  She watched their behavior in the wild on safari in Kenya.  She fed, bathed, and loved the beasts, while feeling the thickness of their skin and the coarseness of their hair.Where tectonic plates meet, Mt Everest and the HimalayasCat learning about Asian elephantsAutumn Equinox at 2º South, LamuJantar Mantar, Jaipur, India Winter Solstice

Caricature of Bill by CatTheir studies of the arts began with watching my brother rehearse Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony in Vienna.   There were drumming lessons in Africa and tabla lessons in India.  The kids watched tango in Argentina, apsara dance and shadow puppets in Cambodia, and whirling dervishes in Turkey.  They carved wooden animals and soldered silver pendants in Bali.  They met my brother’s friend, Andreas, who makes jewelry out of felt and crowns out of flowers.  They explored expressionist art in a museum in Austria and ancient Aztec art in a museum in Mexico.  And Cat drew.  And drew.

apsara dancerSkulls found in the temple in Mexico CityYoshiko, Cat and Hank wearing Adreas' creations

Most importantly, the kids experienced humanity.  Hank visited homes in the slums of Nairobi.  He measured and weighed kids at a clinic in a floating village on Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia.  He counted out medicine in the pharmacy of a medical mission in the Mekong Delta.  He thrived in these environments.  The lesson was much harder for Cat.  She often held back.  She was more upset by the poverty and filth that most of the world must call home.  Still she bonded with a Buddhist nun when a sickly kitten died.  She learned how to communicate without a common language.  She befriended the girls in the orphanage in India.  She found out they weren’t all that different than her friends back home.

Hank visiting an orphanageCat's friend, the nun in Siem Reap

friends at the Sri Ram Ashram

I know my kids have enjoyed this school year.  They’ve reconnected with friends and have felt like normal teenagers again.  They’re learning new skills.  Cat is playing ultimate frisbee, and she’s perfected a chocolate chip cookie recipe.  Hank is learning to drive.  But school has meant spending time and effort on learning things they just don’t care about, or they don’t relate to, or they just can’t quite understand how it’s relevant.  Most of what they learned this year I’m sure they won’t remember.  The nature of the daily routine makes it hard to lay down lasting memories.  But they’ll remember much of what they learned on their trip.  It was filled with change and charged with emotions. They got to learn about the world by being in it, not just looking at it.   And the lessons haven’t stopped.  They’re continuing to learn as they process what they saw, heard, tasted, and felt.  It was a real education.God help usthe tastiest cc cookies I've had in a while

Posted in Thoughts on Travel | 4 Comments

My Commute

We stayed in an apartment looking over the river in Siem Reap when we were in Cambodia.   A road tracked along both sides of the river.  Most mornings I sat on our deck overlooking the river and the road.  I watched as people laid nets zigzagging across the river.  I watched as a pack of three dogs did their morning rounds looking for good smells and eats.  And I watched the commuters on their way to work or school.  Very few cars passed by in the mornings.  There were some on motorbikes, but most of the commuters were on bikes.  Often there were two or three to a bike.  Many wore school uniforms.  Some carried a mountain of goods strapped to their bikes.  There were dozens of styles and makes of bikes.  My favorite was a common all pink bike, including the rims.Riding bikes in Siem Reap

When we got home I continued the way of the Cambodians and have biked to work.  I’m lucky, I don’t work very often.  I work 24 hour shifts only six times a month.  Before we left on our trip I only had to get to work six times a month.  But my job as medical director has become more demanding.  I’m often at the hospital four, sometimes five times in a week attending meetings.  Still, I have driven to work only once this year.  Early on a Sunday.  BART wasn’t running yet.  My commute brings me too much joy to miss out and drive.

When I used to drive to work I left 45 minutes before I was supposed to arrive (9 am).  The drive without traffic is only 25 minutes.  But there’s always traffic.  I usually got to the door right at nine.  Now I leave at 7:50.  I get to work at 8:50.  I have time to get ready, and I’ve had a wonderful time getting there.

I start my commute riding past Lake Merritt.  Lake Merritt is a tidal lagoon, and when the tide is high, the water bulges against the stone walls holding the lake in.  The lake feels swollen.  Fountains grace the corners of the lake where the underground streams add their water and silt to the lake.  The fountains help keep the lake clean and aerated.  They sparkle when the sun is shining, and I feel the sparkle as I start my day.Lake Merritt on a summer morningLake Merritt, downtown Oakland, and pigeons

Ducks, geese, pelicans, and coots float on the lake looking for edibles growing under the water or fighting for edibles thrown in by a kid with a stale loaf of bread.  The lake is the nation’s first wildlife refuge, and birds come to roost and to breed and sometimes stay.  In the spring the cormorants build dozens of oversized nests in the dead tree branches on the islands.  Goslings follow their Canada geese parents through the grass looking for bugs.  Dozens of egrets turn a portion in of the lake into a delicate patch of white during their spring migration.  Buckminster Fuller’s first geodesic dome now houses sick and injured birds on the shore.  These are the things I see as I ride along the path.Buckminster Fuller's first dome

But it’s not just birds who visit the lake.  Oakland is an amazingly diverse city with people coming to live here from all over the world.  All of Oakland descends on Lake Merritt to be outside and exercise.  While riding I get to listen to Spanish, Vietnamese, Arabic, and Tagalog.  I’ve watched as elderly Chinese women dance to a boom box playing traditional Chinese music.  Gorgeous muscular runners use the lake as a gym as do women in their early morning boot camps.  Groups of fit rowers skim the lake in skulls while groups of older rowers, wearing matching white caps and blue scarves, plow across the lake in rowboats.  There is one older, African American gentleman who is always there when I ride.  He is sometimes with a friend, sometimes alone.  He limps a little and always sports his white newsboy hat.  I always nod and smile at him.  He nods and smiles in return.

I ride past Children’s Fairyland, the amusement park which inspired Walt Disney to build Disneyland.  The park is full of fairytale themed rides and playgrounds.  From the path I get to see the merry-go-round with characters from Alice in Wonderland as its seats, the queen, the caterpillar, and the Mad Hatter, are waiting for a kid to climb on and laugh.   It’s early when I ride past, and the park is not yet open.  The donkey who decorates Pinocchio’s home is out gnawing on the grass of the field where the birthday boys and girls will later picnic.  He is often joined by a llama.Children's Fairyland

And then I arrive at the BART station.  I carry my bike down the stairs and am almost always greeted by music.  Sometimes an older man is singing tunes from the 40′s a capella in a baritone.  Sometimes a Mexican man wearing a cowboy hat and cowboy boots is singing traditional songs while playing an out of tune guitar.  I am reminded remotely of the vast amount of music in Guanajuato.  It was much better there.   A Peruvian sometimes plays guitar and blows on his pan pipe.  He once was playing “Hotel California”.  I sang that song to karaoke at a Christmas party in Thailand.  If I have a dollar in pocket I donate it to the artists.

The train ride takes less than 30 minutes.  It is my time.  I get to catch up on my reading.  There are always journal articles to read, although more often I read a good book.  I’ve read about the collapse of the Incan Empire and the discovery of ancient Roman texts while on BART.  I’ve learned a lot while sitting on the train.  Still sometimes I just watch the scenery.  I admire the old theater marquee in Orinda or honor the war protest memorial in Lafayette.  There are thousands of crosses commemorating all of the American soldiers who have died in Iraq and Afganistan.  Since it’s the reverse commute, I always get a seat, and my bike is rarely folded.  Yes, a folding bike.  It allows me to take BART whenever I want.  My kids are embarrassed by it.  They have yet to understand the adult need for function above style.My bike in the garden

Sunrise over Mt Diablo from Heather Farms ParkWhen the train ride is over I have another two miles to ride, from Pleasant Hill station to the hospital in Walnut Creek.  It’s all on bike trails, mostly along a canal.  I get to hear frogs croak and watch ducklings learn to swim.  I watch as the morning fog burns off in Walnut Creek long before the sun shows its face in Oakland.  I watch the sky change color over Mount Diablo as the sun rises.

By the time I arrive at the hospital I have spent half my time commuting on my bike.  I’m high from the exercise.  I’m not mad at anyone for cutting me off or stressed out that I didn’t pick the fastest lane through the tunnel.  Even if someone frustrated me on my travels I quickly forget about it as my legs stroke out another round with the pedals.  There’s a certain lightness of being on my bike as I stand up in the perfect gear riding up an easy hill.  It’s like walking on tiptoes, but flying.

hazards of bike ridingI’ve been taking this route for years, but this year my bike has become my dominate mode of travel.  I am happier than ever with this choice.  Sure it’s wet in the rain, but I bought a pair of designer rainboots at a resale shop.  Now I get wet in style.  I change into scrubs when I get to the hospital.  I’ve fallen as well.  Once in the winter as I turned onto the wooden bridge in the park in Walnut Creek.  It was covered in frost, and I slid on my thigh for five feet.  I arrived at work with a big bruise on my thigh.  And once in Oakland as I turned onto the gravel path by Lake Merritt.  I fell on my knee and arrived at work with a hole in my new jeans and  a bloody knee.  Small dings that are just part of the story.

We sold my car before we left on our trip.  We now only have one.  We’ve been forced to get around on our bikes more.  Cat rides her three miles to school and home again almost every day.  I often accompany her.  It’s a time we can talk.  Or not.  It’s mostly a time to just be together.  Recently, though, she’s wanted to ride alone.  She’s a teenager now.  She doesn’t want to be seen with her mom on a folding bike.  Bill has been riding to his office downtown.  He now feels uncomfortable driving to places as bikes whiz past our car.  Only Hank is committed to the car.  He’s 15.  He just got his learner’s permit, and he’s learning to drive.  On a twelve year old minivan.  God help us.

Happily ever after at Children's Fairyland

I wrote this to commemorate Bike to Work Day which is today.  I want to thank my colleague, Scott, an adult hospitalist at John Muir.  He lives in Berkeley and taught me how to stay out of the gym and get to work without ever using a car.  Thank you, Scott.Bike to School Day in Siem Reap - every day

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Dad

My wedding dayLittle DadMy dad died in his sleep this week.  He was done.  He had been too weak to walk so went everywhere in a wheelchair.  He slept most of the day.  He had Parkinson’s and had lost his sense of smell and his sense of taste.  His days were filled with doctor appointments, protein shakes, and dialysis.  He was so tired.  When his brother died last summer, my dad was jealous.  The night he died Mom spent a long time telling him how much she loved him.  She had to help him pull in feet into bed.  He fell into a very deep sleep.  So deep he couldn’t wake up.

My dad (on the right) and his younger brother, DougIn 1943 my dad worked for the railroad.  He was 17.  He worked the nightshift at a switch station.  During that time, for some unknown reason, he developed glaucoma.   He lost his right eye.   In 1944 he turned 18.  He should have been drafted and sent to battle in Germany or Japan.  Dad with his father, sister Jean and brother Doug.  Dad's the fat one.He had worn uniforms as a boy scout, a sea scout, and an eagle scout, but he wore never a military uniform.  He was 4F, and that saved his life.  He was not a fighter.  Years later when he and my mom were crossing the street, a car zoomed past them in the crosswalk.  My dad tapped the rear fender with his gloves.  The driver screeched to a halt, climbed out the car, and towered over my father.  He grabbed Dad by the collar, lifted him off the ground, and started shaking him.  It was my mom who started pounding the mean man on his back with her fists.  My dad didn’t even clinch his fists.Dad as a sea scout with his brother and mother

I found out Dad had only one eye when I was just a little kid.  My brother, Steve, my dad, and I had gone swimming one hot, Iowa summer day.   I found my brother and father pacing the shallow end of the pool.  “What’re you doin’ ?” I bounced up.  “Looking for Dad’s eye,” my brother responded.  Now, my brother had teased me nonstop all of my short life.  This time I was not going to be a sucker.  I knew they weren’t looking for his eye.  Finally, after I had pushed and pushed for the real answer, Steve said, “Show her, Dad.”  My dad opened his eye, and sure enough the blue iris was not there.  Then I believed my brother.  They did find the glass eye at the bottom of the pool that day.  I can’t imagine what it would have been like for another swimmer to look down and see an eye staring back up.Dad on the beach

My dad was a scientist, a geneticist.  He moved to Berkeley to begin his doctoral work in 1951, the same year that Watson and Crick found (some say stole) Dad in the late 70'sRosalind Franklin’s x-ray crystalographs and figured out the double helix structure of DNA.  It was a blossoming science, attracting scores of budding scientists.  Like many other geneticists of the time my dad chose fruitflies for his experiments.  Dad’s lab was wall to wall fruitflies, stored in small vials with a layer of nasty smelling, yellow-brown fruitfly food at the bottom.  He would put the flies to sleep with a can of ether then dump them onto a plate so he could examine them under a microscope.  The microscope had two eye pieces.  My dad only needed one, but the better microscopes always came with two.  When Dad no longer had use for the sleeping batch of fruitflies he would exterminate them.  Next to every microscope was a large coffee can full of oil.  He would dump the flies into the oil.  Over time a mountain of greasy, tiny flies would accumulate.  I never found out what happened when that mountain reached the rim of the can.Mom and Dad in 1951

At times we had to help in the family business.  My mom would often head to the lab with my dad to help out sorting sleeping fruitflies.  fruit fly aspiratorMy older brother, Jym, followed dad to the lab as well and eventually followed him in his career as a geneticist.  My father would employ all of us to catch “wild type” flies.  We used a barbaric contraption.  We held a glass vial in our hands.  The vial had a rubber stopper, and out of the stopper came two bent glass tubes facing in opposite directions.  One of the tubes had a rubber hose which we put into our mouths.  We placed the other tube near the fruitfly and … sucked.  The fruitfly ended up in our trap, sucked into the vial.  The tube that was connected to our mouths had a screen over the bottom part so we never found ourselves sucking a fly up into our mouths.  I remember trapping fruitflies over rotting fruit at a stand in Iowa and over cactus after we’d moved to Arizona.Dad the scientist

We moved to Arizona at my mom’s insistence.  We were trying to find a place where she could escape her headaches.  My dad took a sabbatical from the University of Iowa and left my older brother in Iowa City.  We first lived in the outskirts of Tucson.  My dad taught at the University of Arizona for a semester.  We lived in a 14 foot wide mobile home.  The next summer we left my other brother in Tucson and moved to a small fishing village on the Olympic Peninsula.  My dad taught at the University of Washington, and we lived in a VW bus and a polka dotted tent.  That autumn, my parents moved the mobile home to Apache Junction, Arizona, and the three of us spent the next school year there so my dad could teach at Arizona State.

My dad couldn’t do much of his research while he was on sabbatical.  But he continued to teach.  He had his PhD. He was a professor.  He was the classic absent-minded professor.  He forgot things, lost things, and broke things.  Helping me with my flipflops at age 2 1/2Maybe some of it had to do with having only one eye.  He would trip when he couldn’t distinguish the variations in the sand or on the pavement.  He totaled a couple of cars that were coming from the right, but still he was Dr. Mohler.  When someone first called me Dr. Mohler, it didn’t fit.  Dr. Mohler was the person the students called after dinner for help with an assignment from zoology class or the name a graduate student would call out during a department picnic to get help with the roast pig.  It took awhile before I could fully assume my father’s title.

Me and my dadI was twelve when we first moved to Arizona.  I became a teenager during those tumultuous times.  Along the way we left my brothers to go to college, and I became an only child.  I became a daddy’s girl.  I loved playing with my dad.  When we finally moved back to Iowa, we got season tickets to the ballet.  We had really good seats in the balcony.  We saw Alvin Ailey, and we saw Les Ballets de Trocadero de Monte Carlo.  Before we left for the theater we would agree whether we were dressing up or down.  I’ll never forget sitting next to the ladies in their furs while we worn jeans with holes in them.  I bonded with my dad rebelling against the norms.  When Dad moved to Oakland from Oregon he was about 80 years old.  I wasn’t surprised to see he had pierced his ear.  He wore a single, small gold loop in his left ear.  Still bucking the norm.

hikingDad had studied zoology in college at the University of Missouri.  He loved nature.  We spent hours outside, hiking and looking at the flora and fauna.  He often carried a flower guide and a bird book in his hands and binoculars around his neck.  The eye pieces were never focused together.  He took us hiking in the woods of Iowa, the desert of Arizona, and the forests of Oregon.  When it was cold he wore a black stocking cap my mother had knit for him.  When I was seven months pregnant with Hank he took us hiking past the douglas fir covered in moss and ringed by giant ferns in the rain forest along the coast of Oregon.  Dad in his stocking cap and a homemade sweater on an Easter picnicHe outpaced me and was soon far ahead.  When I caught up I suggested we go back to check on Mom.  I couldn’t admit he’d whipped me.  For a while my parents kept a trailer near Bend, Oregon.  Hiking was Dad’s passion.  In the mountains of the Cascades we found blackberries in a burn area, so much sweeter than any I’d ever tasted before.  Hank was a toddler in my backpack.  He relished the berries Dad gave to him his lips turning purple.Steve, Dad, Jym, and me

When Hank was born the first thing we noticed was a dimple on his chin.  And we saw that his head was far more round than either Bill’s or mine.  We couldn’t figure out where he got those features.  He didn’t look like us.  Then when Hank was two and a half months old we visited my parents.  As we met Dad at the door both Bill and I, without saying a word, started laughing.  There was that head.  The chin was lost under the beard, but my dad swore he gave Hank his dimple.  And Hank doesn’t have a nose like either Bill’s or mine.  Now I know where it’s from.  It’s genetic.Hank, Bill, and Dad

Berkeley in the early 50'sMy parents marriage survived raising three kids, sharing living space in a mobile home, a VW bus, and a polka dotted tent, headaches, and several broken glasses and crashed cars.  In fact, over the years Mom and Dad fell more deeply in love. Iowa City in the early 70'sWhen Dad retired they moved to a one room house in Waldport, Oregon.  They lived there for 17 years.  The new house only had space for two twin beds which were lined up head to head along a wall.  They spent their nights in one bed together, spooning.  When they moved to Oakland, they got a double sized bed.  They continued to spoon.  They spooned in bed for 61 years.

Mom and Dad on the Oregon coast

In high school I took a photography class learning to take and print black and white photos.  Dad was one of my subjects.  I had one spot light for lighting.  It cast deep shadows across his brow, his sculpted nose, and his high cheek bones.  His hair was dark, but his beard was grey.  I submitted the photo as part of my final project in the class.  My classmates didn’t like it.  They said it made him look too severe.  My teacher said, “Have you ever seen her dad?  That’s what he looks like.” But he wasn’t a severe man.  A friend of mine wrote in his memory, “He seemed gentle and kind with eyes that had a gentle twinkle.”    He was gentle.  He was kind.  But he only had one eye.  It was crystal blue, and it did twinkle.

Mom and Dad

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Traveling Companions

The Moseley kids and Dixon kids at Beng MealeaWe met the Dixons half-way through our trip.  We had dinner together at a local restaurant in Chang Mai, Thailand.  We pushed several formica tables together and gathered enough plastic chairs to seat us all.  We ate traditional Chiang Mai food: some chicken in coconut sauce, a spicy beef stew, a strange dry sausage, some green vegetable curry for Cat.   Dessert was ice cream.  The beer was Thai: Chang beer.

Eating traditional Northern Thai food with Chang beer and the weird sausage

I found Ainlay Dixon on a travel forum.  I had been posting requests in Turkey, Africa, and India trying meet up with another traveling family.  Ainlay was the first to respond when I posted we would be in Thailand.  I went to her blog to learn as much as I could about the family before we met.  Where were they from?  Where had they been?  I learned that when they left the States they left their home in New York.  They were planning on coming back to a new home in Philadelphia.    They had started in SE Asia and had been to countries all over Asia including Borneo, Singapore, China, Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, and India.  We were disappointed when we learned that we’d missed them by one week in the communist, Christian state of Kerala, India.  We had bought Christmas decorations in Kochi to put up in Rajasthan on Christmas Day.  They exchanged their Christmas gifts in Kochi. Christmas stars from Kerala decorating our tiger camp on Christmas Day

We spent hours together that first evening, talking.  We learned we had different styles of travel.  My family had for the most part spent three to four weeks in one place, sometimes volunteering, sometimes just touring.  They had moved to new locations every three or four days, experiencing a whirlwind of adventures.  We talked about the places we liked and the places we hated.  The Dixons hated Nepal; we loved it.  We talked about the experience of travel, how previous experiences and expectations colored our appreciation for the places we visited.  They had visited Nepal from Bhutan; we had come from India.  For the Dixons Nepal seemed chaotic and filthy.  For us, Nepal was a breath of fresh air.  The Dixons used the trip as a way to move homes.  We came right back to where we started, in Oakland.   We talked about how we were educating the kids.  They had to prove they had some sort of a curriculum and submit it periodically to the state of Pennsylvania.  The state of California was more flexible with home schooling.  Our kids had to complete a certain number of days of school, and on the road, every day was a school day or at least a field trip.  We all agreed that it was amazing to have the opportunity to go on these adventures around the world, and it was precious to be creating such intense family histories.  We spent a couple of nights in Chiang Mai with the Dixons, happy to be sharing time with people who shared our sense of adventure and our priorities.

Ainlay and Vincent have four kids. Ming, the eldest, was 18 and taking a gap year before college, traveling with her family.  Their son, David Evan, was almost 13, and like my middle schooler was not thrilled by the experience of spending a year away from friends but instead spending it with his family 24/7.  The twins, Leontine and Miriam, were eight but almost nine when we met them.  Miriam was quiet; Leontine filled in the silent spaces.  Hank and David Evan wandered together throughout the streets discussing Dr. Who.  Cat played with the twins, but she also enjoyed Ming’s young adult insight into all things, including multiple episodes of Glee.

Angelina in Ta PromhAfter Thailand my family moved on to Cambodia so I could work in a children’s hospital there.  The Dixons came to Siem Reap to tour the ruins.  We had them over to eat pasta.  They had already explored some of the Khmer ruins including Ta Prohm where Tomb Raider starring Angelina Jolie was filmed.  Stalls throughout Siem Reap sold cheap copies of the movie.  The Dixons brought a DVD for us to watch after dinner.  The film was bad.  So Ainlay, Ming, and I spent the evening getting to know each other and ignored Angelina.

The next day they invited us to cram into a van they had rented.  They were going to visit one of the better ruins of the Khmer Empire, Beng Mealea.  It was outside of the main temple area so there weren’t a lot of visitors, and unlike many of the ruins it had not been refurbished.  Tigers in Beng MealeaThe walls had been broken by the giant roots of fig trees.  Large stone blocks lay in haphazard piles.  They had tumbled over each other as they fell, and no team of anthropologists had put them back.  Our guide told us that Two Brothers had been filmed there.  We had already seen the movie.  We imagined the baby tigers jumping around on the jumbled ruins as we watched our children climb up and over the broken down walls.Beng Mealea

Hank and David Evan climbing on Khmer templesBeng Mealea

After the ruins we took a boat on the Tonle Sap Lake to look at the floating villages.  Map of Tonle Sap showing dry season and monsoon season boundriesCambodia is flat.  Very flat.  During the dry season Tonle Sap covers less than 3000 square meters.  During the monsoons the lake expands to over 15,000 square meters.  People have developed various ways to live in such a variable environment.  We saw houses three stories high, the first two stories made only of stilts.  We looked up and wondered how the people didn’t fall down.  We also saw floating villages.  Everything floated.  Homes, schools, and stores used pontoons as their foundations.  There were even floating gardens and pigpens.  We waved to the kids who paddled past on their way home from school.

A floating store on Tonle Sap

Houses on stilts on Tonle SapComing home from school

Miriam and Ming floating on Tonle SapThai style bus - a songthaew.  The kind of vehicle Ainlay jumped from in order to break her wrist.After this visit we didn’t expect to see the Dixons again, but Ainlay had a mishap (read it in her own words here).  They were traveling to Laos from Thailand when her luggage fell off the truck.  She tried to rescue the bag by jumping off of the still-moving vehicle.  She ended up with a broken wrist.  She hurt, but we benefited from her misfortune.  The family came back through Siem Reap.  We went shopping in Cambodian markets and had our feet massaged by fish.  Together we visited more restaurants and shared some more beer.  Angkor beer in Cambodia.  Ainlay had to toast with her left hand; her right arm was in a cast.Cat behind another serving of beer

It takes only an hour to walk all the way around this island.The Dixons finally did have their adventure in Laos and went on to trekking in cold, cold Myanmar.  They then headed south to the warm islands of Indonesia.  Vincent had to go work for a bit so Ainlay and the kids met us on Gili Air, a tiny island east of Bali.  We rented a boat and snorkeled with turtles.  We marveled as our captain dove down 5 meters and swam around a shipwreck, holding his breath for a scary long time.  We watched as the pinks and reds of sunset sky reflected in the beautiful blue-green water of the sea.   our dining room on Gili AirDuring the days we hung out on the beach together playing in adult sized swimming toys.  The sun was warm, and the water was perfect.  We ate dinners sitting on pillows on bamboo platforms over the sand.  We ate Indonesian nasi goreng and Italian pizza.  We looked out across the water to another of Indonesia’s 18,000 islands, Lombok.  Every evening we watched as rain soaked Lombok.  The rain only made it to Gili Air once.  We remained sheltered in our bamboo dining room.  In the morning we drank coffee grown and roasted the previous day on Lombok.

walking along the beach on Gili AirMing snorkeling looking for turtlesCat, Miriam, and Leontine playing in Indonesia

Hank's batik

We moved next to the island of Bali, and met up again with the Dixons in Ubud.  Ainlay had lived there many years before.  She shared some of her insight into the place and used her connections to find us adventures.  We visited an artist who taught us how to batik.  We spent an entire day learning the technique of waxing and painting the cloth.  We painted the melted beeswax on with a small metal cone attached to a stick of bamboo for a handle.  Watching the artists paint we were sure it would easy to trace the intricate patterns onto our cloth.  Instead our wax clumped, dumped, and smeared.  The artists rescued each of us at some point in the process. When Vincent finally arrived on Bali we told stories of our shared adventures.  It was Ainlay and his anniversary, and he had brought bubbly from Australia.  We once again raised a glass with the Dixon’s.  We shared in their celebration and their sparkling wine.

Painting my batik.  The dyes became green and blue by the end of the process.Cat's creationAfter a day at the waterpark in Bali

The elevator to the Dixon's apartment

When it was time to return to the western hemisphere, the cheapest flight from SE Asia was through Qatar and onto Argentina.  We hadn’t really thought about visiting Argentina, but the Dixons owned an apartment in an old building in Buenos Aires.  They invited us to use it for a week until they could join us.  It was a large, three bedroom apartment built in a beautiful, old Argentinian buildings.  It had more bathrooms than our home in Oakland.  My kids were so happy to have their own rooms.  They were tired of sharing.  We tried to explore Buenos Aires a little that week, but there was a late fall in May and cold.  We enjoyed the heat of the apartment a lot.  When the Dixons arrived we explored Buenos Aires together.  We watched as bakers squeezed dulce de leche onto lemon shortbread cookies.  We inspected the maté mugs and jewelry in one of the many street markets in the city.  We explored the Recoletta cemetery where Evita was buried along with generations of the Argentinian wealthy.  Vincent chose a restaurant where we ate Argentinian pizza, and drank, of course, red Argentinian wine.  Bill and I thought the town was like New York.  Vincent said Paris.

Recoletta cemetary, Buenos Aires

Sweets, many with dulce de leche, at Shmetterling in Buenos AiresMaté mugsThat was May, and it was the last we saw of the Dixons.  Until this February.  Cat and I went to New York City for a four day excursion.  Ainlay, David Evan, Leontine, and Miriam met us there.  hot chocolate and marshmallows at City Bakery, New YorkIt was like we never left off traveling together.  We went right into another shared adventure.  We started with lunch grilling our meat at the table and topping it with kimchee, lettuce, bean sprouts, and other Korean vegetables.  Afterward we went for hot chocolate.  It was February, and it was cold.  City Bakery was celebrating its annual hot chocolate festival, and Cat and I had planned on sampling the daily hot chocolate flavor while we were in New York.  We brought the Dixons with us to try the lemon hot chocolate.  We were saturated with chocolate, but still they led us to Max Brenner’s Chocolate Shop where chocolate poured through pipes hanging over our heads. We just looked.  The comic book section of Strand Bookstore, New YorkWe walked further and inspected the goods at stalls in the Union Square market.  We explored Strand Bookstore: David Evan the comic book section; Ainlay, the travel section.   We entered the Halloween store that extended from Broadway through to 4th Ave.  Ainlay told us how David Evan used to walk from his home on Broadway through the store to get to his school on 4th Ave.  He never needed to cross the street.  We bought some curios and said goodbye to the Dixons once more. Saturated with chocolate: Ainlay, Miriam, and David EvanWatching chocolate temper at Max Brenner's

We were lucky to find the Dixons.  They gave us the chance to escape from the tensions of travels.  The kids shared adventures, watched movies, and had sleepovers.  The adults talked and sometimes kvetched.  It was an opportunity for the families to compare notes: to talk about what we had done so far, what we had planned to do, what it was like on the road, and what it was like at home.  Again and again we got to hang with a family from the US and to tell stories of all things foreign.  While we were together in New York, Ainlay described her adventure plans for this summer.  Maybe we can join them in Mongolia.Cat and Leontine climbing trees in CambodiaCat, Hank, and Ming getting their feet massaged by fishVince in Cambodia

Posted in Argentina, Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, Thoughts on Travel, United States | 3 Comments

Souvenirs

packed up and ready to goWhen we started our trip Bill and I were determined not to buy souvenirs.  We spent a lot of time before we left clearing our home of junk.  We had no desire to refill it with stuff of little meaning from our trip, and we knew almost everything sold overseas could also be found at home.  We kept our luggage to only one backpack each.  Anything we bought would only add to the weight we had to carry on our back.  We thought this would be a true disincentive to shopping.   But, of course, we did buy things.  We didn’t shop often for souvenirs.  We shopped mostly for things we needed.  We couldn’t bring everything for year in our backpacks.  Weather changed, things broke, and pretty things caught our eyes.   We had adventures searching for the items, finding the items, buying the items, and even using the items.  While shopping we had to struggle with foreign language, with foreign money, and with foreign culture.  The things we brought home evoke stories of adventures and discoveries.  These are the true souvenirs.The Spice Bazaar in IstanbulShopping at the Diwali market in Haridwar, IndiaEntering a store in Lamu, KenyaGlasses from India:  While we were staying at the orphanage in Haridwar I broke my glasses.  In two.  So I went to an optometrist recommended by all the Westerners, Vishal’s, right across the street from Vishal’s Megamart.  Brand new glasses in India and a hugMy time with Vishal consisted of a quick refraction of my eyes,  a small selection of frames, and a wait of less than one hour.  I paid him all of $20, and  I had my new glasses.  They weren’t exactly handsome, but I could see clearly.  In fact, a couple of weeks later as the moon was setting in the night sky of New Delhi I clearly saw two moons.  It turned out that these new glasses didn’t work very well for looking at things with both eyes at the same time.  I would often have to close one eye to really tell where things were.  Wearing the glasses in PeruI found hiking the steep hills in Nepal and Peru difficult.  I couldn’t tell where my feet would land.  Now, of course, I don’t wear the $20 glasses.  I have a new pair with progressive lenses worth hundreds of dollars instead.  But I’m keeping my Indian glasses.  They’re in my dresser drawer with other old pairs of glasses, a few necklaces, and old photos.  Over the coming years I’ll stumble across them as I look for random things within that junk drawer and I’ll be reminded of seeing twice as many things as were really there throughout my trip.

Waiting for a plane in the Doha airport

Shirt from Turkey:  The shirt is gone now.  It went in the trash even before we got home.  Working in the blue shirt at the Mindful Farm, ThailandWe only have pictures left.  A lot of them.  When we first got to Turkey, Bill wanted a shirt to wear in the heat.  He had a backpack full of shirts that just weren’t right:  “Breathable” shirts from REI that made him sweat and  T-shirts that weren’t a good style in a foreign land.  He wanted some shirts that would be comfortable and handsome.  It turns out old fashioned cotton worked best in the hot, humid weather of Turkey in August, as well as Kenya in September, Cambodia in February, and Mexico in June.  He started his search in the stores of Antalya, Turkey.  He got off the plane and then hopped from store to store along Ataturk Avenue.  The stores blasted techno-pop catering to the young.  Most shirts were too small.  This was true almost everywhere.  Americans tend to be larger than the rest of the world.  Finally Bill found a light cotton, blue plaid, extra large, short sleeved shirt on sale for $10.  He loved it.  In every tropical town we visited he searched for another shirt just like it.  Shirts purchased in Turkey, Kenya, India, and Cambodia.  All left in Mexico.In Lamu, Kenya, he found an African cut, pullover shirt as well as a Tusker beer t-shirt.  Neither reached the same status as his Turkish shirt.  Our vikram driver in Kochi, India, drove us from clothing shop to clothing shop.  Bill bought several shirts, his favorite a red plaid.  He used all his new shirts but the Turkish shirt was the first one he grabbed when the laundry was done.  By the time we were in Mexico the light blue plaid shirt was a dull grey plaid shirt, with a few Jackson-Pollock-like stains scattered all over.  Months of wearing days on end, traveling through dusty destinations, and trying to hand wash out the grime had trashed the thing.  We don’t have the shirt anymore, but we have plenty of pictures.  When we envision Bill over the past year, he is wearing that shirt.  The memory will never fade.washday for the shirtLong green scarf:  When we visited Singapore it was the end of April, and it was hot.  An escalator three stories highA frequently seen sign in SE AsiaWe were sweltering  in shorts and t-shirts while riding what seemed like the world’s largest escalator, eating designer popsicles, and trying durian on our last day in SE Asia (what we had tried to avoid in our four months of smelling it everywhere).   On Bill’s birthday we took 40 hours and flew to Buenos Aires.  It was autumn in Argentina.  We weren’t ready for the cold snap that was waiting for us.  We only had light sweaters and light pants.  The kids continued to wear their flipflops.  We were cold.  And we had to go outside and tour the city.Durian.  Thank God that you can't smell it.Singaporean popsicles

Buenos Aires is known for its weekly fairs.  In the San Telmo neighborhood the fair is known for its antiques and tango dancers.  The one in the rich neighborhood of Palermo is also full of antiques.  In the Belgrano neighborhood is a market full of gourmet foods.  But I was most attracted to was the Feria de Mataderos.  It’s in the meat packing district and is filled with guachos, horses, and dancers.  It took us an hour to get there by city bus.  Our friend's home in RecoletaWe started in the upper class neighborhood of Recoleta along the waterfront.  This neighborhood was beautiful.  It looked like a cross between Manhattan and Paris with old stone buildings faced with balconies and carved eaves.  As the bus headed southwest, the buildings became less stately and more homely.  Maté mugsThe buildings were abandoned and tagged with graffiti.   It started to look a lot more like Oakland than Paris.   When we finally got off the bus we noted the meat packing plants lining the street were all closed on Sunday.  But across the street people were crowding around numerous stalls of vendors selling their wares.  There were vendors of maté, the herbal drink of Argentina, and maté mugs made from gourds trimmed with silvery metals.  Butchers were grilling steaks and sausages.  Artists were selling photos and paintings.  And knitters were selling hats, mittens, and scarves.  Buying a sausage, note the name Nueva Chicago, the nickname for the Mataderos neighborhoodFor $10 I was able to wrap a long, green, soft wool scarf around my neck and fend off the cold as I went to watch the dancers perform.  Up on the stage men and women danced in traditional gaucho outfits in groups and pairs.  As they left the stage the loud speakers continued with local music, the onlookers cleared a space, and couples from the crowd took their places in rows for more Argentinian folk dancing.  For one dance they all brought out their scarves of white or pale blue, the colors of the Argentinian flag, to wave in the air as they danced.  When the music changed to a tango the couples held each other closely, the women on the their tiptoes, swooshing and dipping, avoiding each other while all dancing in a counter clockwise direction.  I came to believe that Buenos Aires is a city where everyone knew the dance steps.

Staying warm on my 50th with a green scarf and a pisco sourHank using my scarfPeru was our next stop after Argentina.  We flew to the ancient Incan capitol of Cuzco, celebrated my 50th at Machu Picchu, danced to pan flutes at Lake Titicaca, and went hiking in Cañon de Colca.  We traveled as high as 16,000 feet, and I was once again cold.  We all were.  I pulled out my green scarf for anyone who needed it, and I remembered the dancing as well as the sausages and maté.  Now, in the winter in Oakland, as I wrap it around my neck the soft, green scarf takes me to the Feria de Mataderos and the Argentinian dance steps.  Just as a souvenir is supposed to do.Outside of all the tango house of Buenos Aires is this diagram for the tango dance steps

Posted in Argentina, Coming Home, India, Peru, Turkey | 7 Comments

The Beauty That Is India

Our family went to the movies this summer to watch The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.  We had a good time.  Some of our friends didn’t like the movie.  It was full of stereotypes.  But as I saw it these were stereotypes of the Westerner’s experience in India, stereotypes of a Westerner’s misperceptions.  Up on the big screen the actors were playing out our experiences of India for we had been the Westerners with misperceptions.  The experiences we shared with the characters made us laugh.  That’s when I started to get nostalgic for India.  I reread what I had written about the difficulties of India.  I added more to the piece.  I published it.  But I began wondering what it would be like if I returned to India.  Would I be able to dwell on the beauty?  Because there is plenty of beauty.

Smiles:  In my last post I talked about how I couldn’t get people to smile.  There were a lot of people who just stared at me, who did not want to smile back.  That was hard for me.  But I only told part of the truth; we did get smiles.  Frankly, we met a lot of friendly, gracious, and smiling people.  When we wandered the village near the ashram two little girls followed us.  We turned around, and they covered their mouths and giggled.  Once I turned around quickly just to catch them.  They almost burst out loud from laughter but managed to contain it with their hands. In a village about an hour from the ashram is another orphanage, this one for disabled kids.  It’s nicknamed the “Polio Ashram”.  When we went to meet the kids, they were sitting on the ground in two rows, one for boys, the other for girls.  At first they just stared at our family of four.  Then as I knelt down and took a hand from a boy and asked him a question, he relaxed.  And smiled.  I went down the lines and met each kid, asking questions or telling stories.  They all gave me big smiles.  And when Bill gave them his camera to play with the room lightened up.  The kids laughed loudly looking at the photos they took.  Except for the mute.   But her smile took over her face.

In New Delhi we stayed at an airport hotel on our way from Nepal to southern India.  The doorman was in his mogul finest: a long coat, pointy shoes, a tall turban, and an impossibly stiff handlebar moustache.  The moustache didn’t bend despite the breadth of his smile.  He brought our bags upstairs to our room, smiling and joking.  When he left for home, we were eating dinner at the hotel restaurant.  He knocked on the window to wave and give us one more smile under that moustache, this time carrying a motorcycle helmet instead of the turban.We were often an attraction for the Indians who were touring their country.  We were novel.  They wanted to be in photos with us.  So we stood in front of a lot of Indian cameras.   It was tiresome at first, but we quickly got used to it and would jump right into our pose.  We learned we’d get rewarded with smiles and laughter.

The head bob:  There a scene in the Marigold Hotel with a man who’s a serious head bobber.  I laughed remembering Hari, our innkeeper in Kochi, who couldn’t talk without bobbing his head.  He couldn’t listen without bobbing his head.  He could barely stand still without bobbing his head.  As an observant Hindu he went to temple every morning, and every morning his forehead was painted with a small stripe of red paint.  The tilak added a red focal point to the bobbing.   It was like a hypnotist’s watch swing back and forth.

Religion: Everywhere you turn in India there is evidence of someone practicing their religion.  Hinduism is most common, of course.  People everywhere wear a tilak on their forehead having received it somewhere, from someone.  We were often approached by a finger with fresh red paint not just at aarti or prayer service but also on the street.  The beggars would want to paint a tilak on our foreheads as an the opportunity for payment.

Haridwar is a holy city where the Ganges flows out of the Himalayas onto the plains of India.  There is a prayer service along the banks of the river every evening.  We joined thousands of Indians to watch one evening.  We were told it was a poorly attended service.  Bells and drums sounded from the temple across the river.  Women washed their clothes in the river as a blessing.  Men washed themselves.  Multiple holy fires were lit as holy men moved the fires in patterns like a dance.  Afterward, Hank placed a burning offering into the Ganges next to a hundred more.

The music of religion was everywhere.  We listened to the songs of aarti every morning and evening at the ashram.  We often joined the kids in their temple following along in the song book.  But when we didn’t attend we could hear the music creeping into our rooms.   My kids can still invoke the tunes.   We could hear songs of prayer from outside of the ashram as well.  Not far from the orphanage was a purple temple.  I could hear songs praising Vishnu as I walked toward the Ganges.  I sought out source of the music for about a mile as it blared from the loud speakers.  All night celebrations such as the jagran blasted their music despite the dark night and sleeping neighbors.  We could hear the parties as we lay in our beds.  The music was not just Hindu.  We also heard the call to prayer outside of the ashram and  as well as outside of our bedroom on a beach in Kerala.  The bright yellow and green mosque was only feet from our window.   We watched and listened as men in dhotis drummed and chanted while carrying a long Christmas palm tree down the streets of Kochi.  We listened to Christmas carols in a 500 year old church.Nature:  It is overcrowded in India.  People and their stuff are everywhere.  But we found a few hidden corners where nature was still the dominant force.  On Christmas morning we went out searching for tigers. Rajasthan is mostly desert, but in Ranthambore National Park a forest of scrubby trees, dry grasses, and tall banyans provide shelter for the tigers.

We rode through the forests of Rajasthan in an open jeep dressed in hats, coats, and blankets to ward off the Indian winter.   As we entered the park we drove through the river that spilled across the road and under the roots of a banyan tree.  We laughed as someone said, “It’s like Disneyland!”  But while we were searching, the tigers remained hidden among the vegetation.  We saw other wild creatures and a tiger paw print the size of a salad plate but no majestic cats.The state of Kerala was beautiful.  We took a tourist boat trip up the backwaters.  Wide rivers settle out into lagoons as they slow down near ocean.  Canals link the lagoons.  The jungle weighed in on us from both sides as we sailed up the canals in our quiet punt boat.  We took a walk and picked wild spices: nutmeg wrapped in its shawl of mace, black pepper hanging like green and red grapes, and cinnamon peeling from the trunk.  Catherine was in heaven eating pomelos right off the tree.

We spent days on a beach five hours by train from Kochi.  It was an uncommon tourist beach for India.  Here there was no one pushing their wares and no one dumping their trash.  We shared the space with a daily pickup game of cricket and some fishermen.  We ate our meals looking through a grove of palm trees at the waves of the Indian Ocean.  We swam in the morning, catching the warm waves with our bodies.  We woke up early to sit on a rocky spit that jutted out into the waves.   We watched as the red sun rose and the full moon set.  We walked trails along the beach and discovered the delight of touch-me-nots.  We settled ourselves in the calm of the Indian beach before heading back into the chaos of Indian life.

The colors:  It’s a colorful country.  Sometimes the colors are hidden under the dust.  Sometimes the colors butt up against the dust becoming even more vibrant .  Everything is decorated: the homes, the temples, the cars, the animals, the people.  For all the struggles of daily life in India, people still find the energy to beautify it.

There is so much to India.  Sometimes too much. But I want to visit India again to explore the culture and history, food and friends.  And the beauty.

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The Chaos That Is India

We arrived in India a year ago now.   Our visit there had a huge impact on all of us.  We had a lot of great experiences there.  Diwali and the jagran, ashrams and Kathakali.  We made friends at the orphanage and body surfed in the Indian ocean.  But it was a difficult place to visit.  It was draining.  We were often overwhelmed Most of our time was spent in the north between our month volunteering at the orphanage in Haridwar and a couple of weeks in Rajasthan as tourists.  We did get down to the southwestern state of Kerala to enjoy the warmth of the tropics, but most of our impressions come from the north.  I recognize that my view is limited, therefore.  India is a huge, diverse country, and in two months we barely scratched its surface.  My feelings about India are also colored by the countries we visited before and after India, specifically Kenya and Thailand.  It turns out, in travel as in life, everything is relative and is colored by previous experiences and current expectations.  We had no idea what India had in store for us.  I don’t know that’s it’s possible to be prepared for the experience of India.  What follows are some of the things that made India an exhausting, overwhelming, sometimes brutal place to visit. Too many people:   This is the biggie.  It is estimated that India has over 1.2 billion people, maybe even as many as 1.4 billion.  There can be no way to get an accurate census.  The population is still growing.  If it continues to grow it will have more people than China in 2025.  There are no wide open spaces.  When we drove from Delhi to Haridwar there was never a break in the pedestrians or bicycles or oxcarts on the side of the road.  I think this is the number one cause for all the of the other difficulties below. Air Pollution:  When we got out of the Delhi airport on the first day we were greeted by a dull brown haze.  We expected that.  What we didn’t expect is on one return flight to be greeted by that haze inside the airport.  Haridwar was also polluted.  During our visit, there was a mela celebrating some guru’s 100th birthday.  Over half a million people visited during a one week period.  They cooked with fire and worshiped with fire.  Smoke filled the air.  The sky went from a light brown to a deep sienna with midday sunlight barely filtering through.  The mela was shut down when seven people died in the crush of a stampede.  As the makeshift city was dismantled the smoke began to lift.   But the sky never became clear.  Throughout all of India, the only place we found clean air was on the beaches of Kerala where fewer people lived and there was an onshore breeze. Trash:  It was everywhere.  My daughter, when searching for a trash can, was told by her friend from the ashram to throw it on the ground.  “Do not litter” was not an ethic we saw observed.  There were no litter bins.  There were very few recycling programs except for dumpster diving.  So the trash piled up.  It piled up on the sides of the streets where pigs and cows buried their snouts deep inside looking for something edible.  What didn’t get eaten got burned.  This added to the haze of smoke.  Trash burning has a particular smell.  It was nasty but not uncommon in many of the countries we visited last year.  In India it was pervasive. Dust:  It was everywhere.  It was on the roads, the cars, the furniture, the floors, the temples, and the people.  It got kicked up by all the people and the buffalos and the cars, and it seldom got wiped away.   The layer of dirt was like a veil over the statues of the gods, obscuring the glory of their paint or layer gold leaf. Filth: Open sewers were common throughout the developing world.  We knew people squatted on train tracks, in the fields, by the side of the road in other countries, but with the sheer number of people in India no one tried to hide when relieving himself.  I couldn’t look away when a woman just 10 feet away from me squatted in her skirts over the train tracks.  She left a large pool of urine in the dirt  as she stood up and walked away. Traffic:  I’ve already discussed this at length in my last post.  Driving in most of the developing world is crazy and chaotic.   What made India different was, again, the sheer number of people.  In India the driver had to avoid not just cars but pedestrians, bicycles, rickshaws, and oxcarts in such numbers they filled the roads.  There was no patience for waiting.  During a traffic jam, cars began to drive past in the oncoming lane.  This meant that the oncoming traffic also had to stop.  The cars in the other direction tried to drive in the oncoming lane.  It became a form of gridlock so that no one could move.  At railroad crossings, after the gate was lowered, cars filled the oncoming lane.  When the train passed and the gate was raised there were cars and motorcycles and buses facing each other without a path for driving onward.  There were no stop signs and few traffic signals.  I don’t know how we survived this. We even got used to it to a degree, but we spent energy being on guard without even recognizing it. Eve-teasing:  Here expectations colored my experience.  Nothing ever happened to us.  But I had heard so many stories from female tourists and Indian women of being squeezed, poked, or fully assaulted.  I was always on guard against prodding and groping by strange men or, worse, groups of men.  Especially with my daughter at my side.  One day in a crowded rickshaw a drunk (quite an uncommon thing in the holy city of Haridwar) climbed on board.  He sat on the floor at Cat’s feet.  He leaned toward her knees reeking of liquor and body odor.  I leaned over her lap glaring at him.  Cat was just too young to have to deal with harassment.  I was too old to let it happen. Food poisoning:  The food was wonderful; it was, in fact, delicious.  Paneer, masala, puris, and samosas.  Who wouldn’t love it?  But it was always overcooked.  It has to be.  It’s unsafe to eat it any other way.  By overcooking the food, the Indians are assured that all the pathogens are dead.   It gets tiresome, though.  Salads start having a certain lure.   We risked it one day because we just wanted to eat a vegetable we could recognize.  We ordered “Mexican” food, and we ate the raw cabbage.  Eight of us got violently sick 30 hours later.  As a doctor I was fascinated by the pathophysiology.  As a patient I was in pain.  Being ever so cautious about what we ate was exhausting.  It was so tiring we weren’t always vigilant.  And besides that, for our family, a major reason to travel is to eat and experience the local cuisine.  We each got sick again.  Luckily after the first time we weren’t ever all sick at the same time. Rabid animals:  We never saw any, but like all the Indians, we were always on guard.  “Don’t look the monkeys in the eyes.”  “Don’t approach and don’t pet the dogs.”  Our friend had been attacked by a group of monkeys at the Delhi train station; she had two wounds from two separate monkeys and needed rabies shots.  Her story was terrifying.  When we went up on the roof of the ashram to hang laundry, we had to always watch out for monkeys.  Cat once discovered herself up there alone with one.  She came down shaken by the experience.  The ashram kept dogs to keep away the monkeys.  The kids at the orphanage were scared of dogs but more scared of monkeys.  Cat fed her need to play with animals and played with the dogs at the ashram.  She avoided the dogs on the street. Stares:  I’m a happy person.  I laugh a lot.  I smile often.  Kenya was an easy place for me.  Everyone smiled back.  But not in India.  As I walked to the Ganges in the morning, everyone just stared at me.  A few nodded and responded with a “namaste” when I greeted them.  Very few ever smiled.  Maybe it was inappropriate of me, as a woman, to be walking alone.  Maybe I attracted stares.  But the stares without smiles were common in town with Bill at my side.  At the ashram I ran across a book by Amartya Sen entitled The Argumentative Indian.  Sen proposes that there is a culture of skepticism in India.  Maybe skeptics don’t give up smiles as easily as those of us who are naïve.  Life is hard in India.  There are so many people to compete with for such limited resources.  Innocence is lost early in the competition.  Maybe this is why the smiles are slower to come.  I don’t thrive without a lot of smiles.  This was the thing that made all the chaos I’ve described so difficult.  Chaos can be fun; it can be something to revel in, something to laugh at.  But I needed the people around me to laugh, too. I could have easily stayed longer in India, but once we left I didn’t know if I could ever return.  I was seriously wrung out by the experience.  It was only after leaving India that we started recognizing just how much work it was to visit the place.  We talked about India constantly for weeks afterward, trying to process what we had seen and heard, tasted and felt.  Much of what I wrote above I wrote shortly after leaving the country.  Now, a year later, I’m nostalgic about the country, even curious.   I want to try to visit it with a different perspective, a more knowledgeable, less naïve perspective.  There is so much to see and learn.  The country has so much to offer: history, culture, food.  I want to visit the friends we made who helped us have amazing, fun experiences.  I learned a lot and made good friends.  It was a good place to visit.  But it was rarely ever easy.

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Driving

One of the big things that has changed now that we’re home is how much time we spend driving.  Bill and I are not happy about it.  Granted we don’t drive much.  We tend to bike to work and school.  Hank takes the bus.  We do drive to get a large load of groceries, or to take my parents to the doctor, or to schlep the weekly carpool to high school.  But during our trip we spent a whole year not driving.  Neither Bill nor I ever got behind the wheel of an automobile.  We rode in cars, vans, trucks, and buses and never drove ourselves.  Instead we were chauffeured by the locals.  They drove us around their own land, on their own roads, by their own rules.  We were their guests.  We could never have managed driving in many of the countries we visited.  In most of the world it was not like the rule-bound driving of the US.  It was wild, unregulated chaos.

In Turkey the driving was so crazy we were sure we were going to die.  Before we left the States a friend had told us that a stop sign in Turkey was just a suggestion.  We soon experienced cringing when the cars sped through the intersections without even slowing down.  We held our breaths as our friends from Kaş passed the car in front of us while speeding around a blind corner.  We sighed when we got back into our lane without crashing.  And we had to trust our lives to bus drivers.  We often rode the smaller buses or “dolmuş”.  These buses swayed and lurched but were so packed with people, packages, and backpacks, we were buffered against falling.  The overnight buses were larger with luxe seats that laid down almost flat for sleeping.  Bill spent one night on the flat bench in the back next to the hacking, coughing Turk.  Thank god his TB test was negative when we got back.  Cat got car sick on this bus.  She and I moved up to the very front.   A huge windshield exposed the entire road in front of us.  We could only see the broken, painted lines on the freeway as they sped under the bus, lit by the bus’ headlights.  The vertigo was intense.  Then the driver sped up to the car ahead nearly touching the rear bumper before changing lanes.  The bus swayed.  I prayed.

Then we went to Kenya.  There we knew we were going to die.  Our safari guide, Ben, drove us throughout southern Kenya.  At first it was hard getting used to driving on the left side of the road.  It shocked us every time we looked into an empty driver’s seat wondering who was driving the van. Only then did we remember the driver’s seat was on the right side of the car and there sat the driver.    Ben sped through the potholed roads of the countryside and through the dirt roads of the safari parks.  We tried to use the malfunctioning seatbelts in the van, but then just gave up and handed over our lives to Ben and to fate.  As we toured Kenya with Ben we saw the coffee plantations of the highlands, the tall Kenyan marathoners running the hills, and tons of African wildlife.  But we also saw so many smashed cars and flipped over semi trucks.  Luckily Ben showed us the elephants and giraffes, then brought us back safely to Nairobi.  In Nairobi I had a private driver, Ahmed, and learned to trust his driving.  Still I’d find myself sucking in my breath as another car edged to within an inch of us.  There was no personal space on the roads and the roads were packed.  In traffic jams cars stopped within inches of each other.  We breathed in the diesel fumes spewing from the trucks as they stopped and started with the traffic.

The Chinese are building miles of new roads in Kenya, so many of the normal routes had detours over dirt paths full of potholes.  There were no lanes painted on the roads.  Where the roads widened more cars filled poured in.  As the roads narrowed the cars merged, coming with centimeters of each other.  This didn’t slow anyone down.  If a traffic jam filled the road in one direction drivers would take to the wrong side of the road.  We closed our eyes tight as cars approached us at full speed head on.  They always changed course within seconds of a crash.  We really didn’t think we’d survive.

But then we went to India.  Like Kenya they are supposed to drive on the left side of the road, but driving on the wrong side of the road (the right side) was just as common.  As we got stuck in a traffic jam on the way home to the ashram in Haridwar cars started passing on the right which only caused the traffic to jam up in the opposite direction as well.  No one could move in either direction.  And while in a taxi in Kerala we stopped at a railroad crossing with one car in front of us.  Soon a motorcycle pulled up and stopped ahead of us on the right.  Cars pulled up behind us and then more cars to the right.  There were cars, buses, and motorcycles filling the road from left to right waiting for the train to pass and the crossing bar to rise.  When the train did pass, the road across the railroad track was full from right to left of cars, buses, and motorcycles also waiting for the crossing bar to rise, facing us head on.  Somehow when it was time to start up again the cars, buses, and motorcycles wove their way between each other and drove on.

On Christmas day it took Vishal, our driver, six hours to take us from Ranthambore National Park, where we’d been searching for tigers, to Agra, where we planned to tour the Taj Majal.  It’s only a 200 kilometer drive, 120 miles.  Unlike Kenya and Turkey it wasn’t just too many cars and trucks on the road that caused traffic to move so slowly.  It was also the bicycles and pedestrians and motorcycles and vikrams and bicycle rickshaws and carts pulled by camels and dogs and pigs and, of course, cows lying down in the middle of the road, all which impeded our drive to the Taj. Vishal drove quickly for short bursts, then slowed and swerved around the brahmin cow chewing her cud with no regard for the mass of people trying to move along the road.   Catherine cried over a Christmas spent feeling car sick in India.

When we got to Thailand we felt safe again.  Like in Kenya and India, they drive on the left side of the road, but they actually stay on the left side, in their own lanes.  They use turn signals and follow the traffic signals.  The fact that there were traffic signals in Thailand made everything feel so much safer.  From that point on in the year whenever another traveler complained about the driving in some country, whether it was Mexico or Vietnam, we’d all say it was fine: it wasn’t even close to the chaos in India.

 

 

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Shoes – Addendum

The last day of summer for Cat was a sad day.   She started crying.  So we went out and got our nails done.  She got a “mani-pedi”.  She had one hand painted yellow, the other blue; she had the same for her feet.  I only got my feet done.  I chose a traditional red color for all my toes.  The colors on our toenails popped as we walked out of the salon wearing our flip flops.

At the end of the first week of school, Cat and I were riding our bikes home together.  She was behind me and somehow hit her front wheel up against my back wheel.  Out of the corner of my eye I could see her swerving.  Then I heard the crash of her bike as it hit the asphalt.  Her bell made a small ping.  I looked back.  She was sprawled out on her stomach, her eyes wide in fear, shock, and pain.  Her sobbing quickly followed. She had scraped her knee, and she had scraped her elbow.  But worse a big chunk of skin had ripped away from the tip of her big toe.  Blood oozed out onto the ground leaving large dots of red on the sidewalk.  People came by and offered help, one with tissues to help stop the bleeding, a few with first aid kits.  A neighbor ran home to get us bandaids.  He came back with the perfect one: the fingertip style.  I was a happy doctor mom.  Until he said, “I guess that’s what happens when you wear flip flops while riding bikes.”  I stood up in quiet anger and grabbed one of her flip flop.  It had been stuck flat between her chain wheel and her bike.  I had to pull hard to get it out.For the weekend Bill and I left the kids in Oakland and went to San Francisco for our anniversary. We spent the afternoon walking all over the city.  We ate tacos in the Mission, admired Ken dolls in the Castro, and shopped for boots on Fillmore Street.  It was a full day of city hiking.  Despite stepping in a mud puddle at Delores Park, I had walked for miles wearing my flip flops in complete comfort.  But as we headed out from our Union Square hotel I stubbed my big toe stepping on a curb.  Hard.  I walked to North Beach with an aching toe and a big scratch in my nail polish.  We took a taxi back to the hotel.

I always knew flip flops had their dangers.  In my last post I talked about what people wear on their feet around the world.  I wasn’t denying that shoes are safer.  But I didn’t think the gods would feel the need to prove it to me so quickly.  I’m in the market for boots.

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