My Chaotic Lover

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Neat. Spotless. Organized. All things that were a rarity in India are now in abundance in Dubai. Immigration is a breeze and feels legal, a stark contrast to the lines, or lack their of, in my blurry first night in New Delhi’s immigration, where Middle Easterners were cutting and herding each other, talking excitedly and basically ignoring that I too was standing “in line.” Outside the Dubai airport it is quiet and empty with the exception of the queues of taxis lined up in precise rows. No men shouting taxi, no haranguing, no gawkers. There is even a queue of ladies only taxis, white with pink trim, driven by Muslim women with their hair cloaked in traditional veils.

The hotel shuttle picks me up. We emerge onto a well maintained, ok, let’s make that pristine highway. I traveled on one of those once in India, on the way to Agra. It was quite a talking point anytime I mentioned I had been to Agra. “Ohhh, you must have taken the new expressway. How was it? Did you like it?” They’d ask, beaming with pride. We are further from the airport now. The streets remain deserted, the lawns manicured, the grass uniformly cut. There are sidewalks again, I haven’t seen those in a while either. I don’t see any people, trash, Chai stands, dogs, cows, goats or monkeys. It’s a desolate oasis.

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I have spent my whole life living in a world of order and cleanliness like this one. But in just five short weeks I grew accustomed to the chaos of India. What freaked me out from time to time, in the end became what I found most beautiful. The entropy endeared me to India. Today when I stepped inside the newly renovated Mumbai International Terminal I was shocked. It was immaculate. Detailed. Sophisticated. I have used a lot of positive synonyms in my attempts to put India into words in the last month, however I never had occasion to call on those three words. I thought of Modi, the hopes and dreams of the people hinged on the promises of their newly elected prime minister and wondered if the Mumbai airport would be a bench marker of what’s to come in India’s bright future.

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Everyone I met and spoke with about the election talked of change. In the last ten years India has fallen disparagingly backwards instead of striding forwards. Progress has been miniscule, corruption plentiful. On my flight to Dubai, I sat next to a woman (wohoo, the first woman I have sat next to on any form of public transportation in India) from Mumbai. An entrepreneur named Hema. She mentioned the price of petrol (read gas in your best over the top American accent) has doubled since 2006. How can India handle that kind of inflation, she mused to me. As she shared her thoughts on India with me I felt guilty. Sitting in the Mumbai airport, marveling at the ornate light fixtures, the marble tables with semi precious stones inlaid—like the Taj Mahal—and the swanky overpriced restaurants I felt a pang of sadness that this might be the India I someday bring my children to. It was too neat, too perfect. Too much like home. Where was the life? I had come to see India as a cup that was always overflowing with both life and potential. Sometimes that felt oppressive and exhausting. Most of the time though, it touched me deeply. Looking at this utopia of an airport I appreciated the beauty, but it was so sterile in contrast to the India I had come to know.

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Hema went on to tell me that she splits her time between Mumbai and Dubai, having recently moved back to Mumbai after 17 years in latter. Her husband does not want to move back to India. She told me, “I’m in love.” I assumed she meant with her husband but her next words surprised me, “…with India.” In five words she had just summarized what it was that I felt in my tears earlier that morning. It’s the chaos she said. In Dubai, she said it is so easy. Everything functions and works the way it is supposed to. It’s boring. Sterile. In India, the most basic aspects of everyday life can pose a challenge. Yes, she wants change. Her eyes grew fierce as she talked about the possibilities of real change. But she also recognized that some of India’s greatest strengths are born out of the struggles her countrymen and women face. She wants to protect the chaotic spirit of her greatest lover. Me. Too. Me. Too.

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See You Soon India

When I went to sleep late last night I knew that I would wake up and have just a few hours left India. I knew early this week my trip was coming to a close. I knew when I reached Kashmir and the halfway point of my trip that it would be over before I knew it. I knew all these things and yet when I open my eyes and quickly sit up in bed today, nothing prepares me for the small pangs of grief that wash over me. I am leaving India today. I’ll enter the airport, board a plane, climb up high into the sky where men really have no business being and this time when I land it won’t be on India soil. In this dingy Mumbai hotel room I find no comfort in, I feel the reality of my adventure’s conclusion so sharply, intensely.

As I write tears well and fall down my cheeks. I’m crying. I thought I might, but no, I thought I’d want to but that the tears wouldn’t come. My sentimental heart is full. Instinctively I pull my hands palm side down to the bare shot of my chest just above the scoop neck of my plain black t-shirt that I’ve slept in the past five weeks. I hold on. I don’t know why I do this. Maybe I’m trying to touch my heart and hold onto the place that India has so firmly taken hold of, afraid that if I leave and let go with my hands her grip will slowly fade away—the experience will be nothing more than a few fleeting memories. I don’t want to let go of it at all. In small ways India has changed me and pushed me and opened me up even more. If I go home can I keep those things? Can I continue them?

One other time I’ve felt the loss of a place so fiercely. I was 21 traveling back from studying abroad in Australia. When I woke up from the semi-overnight flight and saw the sun rising on the Pacific Ocean that touches LA and no longer Australia there in front of the new friends I’d made I wept. Like crazy wept. Australia changed the course of my life. I probably wouldn’t be in India if it weren’t for that choice to study abroad. Again I was afraid to let go and just relish in the completion of one adventure and the beginning of the next.

In Kashmir they don’t like to say goodbye because of the weight of parting with loved ones. I don’t like goodbyes either. Today when the plane ascends and this place that has been home for over a month grows smaller and smaller, I will say, “See you soon India. Thank you for everything.”

 

The Widow of Vizhinjam

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“Her husband. Dead. Train accident.”

I look at the widow in her mustard colored dress and see that she is smiling as her sister explains this to me casually, as if she’s telling me today’s weather forecast. The smile is not sad, and it is not happy. It’s matter of fact. Life and death walk hand in hand, don’t you know? In her arms she holds a naked little girl, feet dangling, happy and unaware of her fatherlessness. She can’t be more than a year old.

I’m right. Her father’s premature death occurred when she was still just a little thing growing in her Mom’s belly. “I’m so sorry,” I say and I wish there was more to say. Her smile persists. Death is different in India. It’s a lifelong companion. At home, it’s a demon we pretend we’re able to hide from.

I’m seated on a simple plastic chair in a bare room. The only light sources are the door-less entrance their small home and a few pale beams struggling through the thatched roof above. As I rub my toes against the cool of the packed mud floor I take a drink of the soda these sisters have given me, it’s sugary fizz ever so slightly reducing the sting of this hot hot morning. A few innocuous photos has turned into an invitation into their home. They present me with the widow’s  wedding album. It’s huge. Maybe 12 x 16, maybe bigger. I’m surprised at how professional it is with thick laminated pages and a hardbound cover. Inside is photo upon photo of the bride and groom, though happy their smiles are often strained, as if the photographer waited too long to press the shutter. Still, the hope and promise characteristic of all newlyweds, saturates their expressions, reaching deep into their laugh lines. Looking at this bride today, given her recent struggles, I still see that vibrancy. It’s in her big laugh and the way she handles her daughter, and talks to her sister and cares for her nieces and nephews. Its in the loving smile she gives me. It fills that small but perfect home. I really like this woman. Death is different in India.

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Knowing I have a train to catch, I must say goodbye to them and the village of Vizhinjam. I don’t want to. They ask if I can mail the photos, like to the post office. There is no email address for digital files. I like that. I pinch myself as I walk out their door making sure that really just happened.

Love,

Tori

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A Chocolate Olive Branch

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“School pens? Please, school pens?” two little girls run towards me chanting. They’re both clad in headscarves, one pale pink, the other a tropical sea blue, the color accenting their doe-eyed expressions as they look up at me expectantly. Again, “School pen?” But I’m not quite sure what they mean. Money, I understand, I’ve been asked for that almost daily, but not school pens.

I’m walking along one of the better maintained roads I’ve seen that winds along the sea into the fishing village of Vizhinjam (which I swear is pronounced more closely to a word we’d spell like Woolingham (silent h like the Brits), explain that one to me). It’s a short walk from my hotel in Lighthouse Beach but given the 150% humidity each step is duly noted. The girls persist and tail me. I try to take their photo but they immediately cover their faces. I assume this has to do with the school pens. Reluctantly, the little girls give up and run off to do much more exciting little girl things than follow around the school-pen-less lady.

Every child I walk by asks for the same thing. The mothers too. It’s all about school pens in Vizhinjam (aka Woolingham). Again and again my photos are denied. I’m surprised by this. Everywhere in India I’ve been my camera has been like a secret password to getting ”in.” Why is this village different? I can see that this is a largely Muslim part of the village. I am walking straight towards a sizable Mosque. Is it because of religious conservancy? Are they wizened to tourists? Privacy? Maybe I really need a school pen or some other form of payment? A few children though, are excited when they see me and forgive my lack of pens and are co-conspirators in a game of hide and seek with me and my camera, by far the best use of a fancy dSLR.

The next day, I take the same walk, but armed with chocolate—school pens were in short supply. A mother with a half naked child on her hip, smiles when she sees me, the smile reaching all the way to her eyes. I pull my camera up cautiously and ask permission with my eyes. Quickly, the smile dissolves to a small protest as she shakes her head, no. I let go of my camera so that it again rests at my side and smile. A smile that I hope says, I understand and it’s ok. Instead, I reach for a piece of chocolate that has already softened. I extend the chocolate towards her daughter and again look to the mother for approval. Her face changes to a grin. I hand over my goods and tell the mother how beautiful her child is. I tell the mother how beautiful she is, with her crooked grin and lavender dress. While she can’t understand my words, my meaning is clear. I tickle her child and we all have a laugh. I turn to walk away but reconsider, again reaching for my camera and once more asking for permission. Shyly, the mother with the crooked grin agrees.

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Again and again chocolate works it’s magic opening up otherwise closed doors. Chocolate puts a crack in their exteriors and then I’d like to think my smile and sentimental spirit allows me to firmly put my foot in the door. I find the mothers are still a bit apprehensive, nervous maybe. Their children yes, take all the photos you want but once the camera moves from child to mother, hidden face, sheepish laughs. This modesty surprises me. Is it out of vanity? Disinterest in being in the spotlight? Or is it something else? My guess is the modesty is a mixture of maintaining privacy and not always understanding what we tourists in our effort to see the “real” India want from them.

Village life by it’s very nature is a public existence. You’re laundry hangs on the line, your dirty dishes washed and dried for everyone to see, bathing is often right on the street. At home, we keep everyday life hidden in a shroud of privacy, privacy that is culturally expected if not demanded. In Vizhinjam, they are used to sharing their intimate moments with neighbors, friends, and extended family. The tourist though, who they will probably only see once and hardly speak to, the tourist who will never watch their children, lend some rice, or hear their cries when a loved one is lost, well why do we get to have a permanent glimpse into their private lives in the form of a photo?

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Most of my favorite moments in this wild country have been seeing the “real” India. And yes, I have taken hundreds and hundreds of photos most of which have not required an olive branch of chocolate. But in an area that sees throngs of tourists, it’s only natural that they’re a little wary. I could see how all those photo-taking tourists could leave them feeling a little used and uncertain of the tourist’s motivations. The chocolate is a small act of kindness and suggests we’re genuinely interested in them, that we care. We all want to feel love from the people we meet. I share the chocolate with them because I want to smile with the moms, tickle their kids, maybe share a cup of tea and get a small glimpse of their individual stories. And when they’re willing, I take the photos and try to do justice to their stories here.

Cheers,

Tori

P.S. I try not to give money in exchange for photos. The begging culture in India is corrupt. Yeah, I know how can a non institution be corrupt, well it’s India. Many guidebooks, travel experts and fellow travelers will advise you the same. What feels altruistic often perpetuates the ongoing problems. That’s why school pens were what the kids wanted here. Other westerners who do want to show gratitude and try to at least do a little something chose a tangible gift that can be used for learning and creative pursuits. Both of which every kid and adult in the world should have opportunities to explore.

P.P.S. There will be people in India who expect payment for the photos you take. Usually, this is in the major tourist sites and people who are already begging or expecting alms. But sometimes this happens in the villages. I often said in the villages I didn’t have any money and gave chocolate or just a smile and they were understanding. But in the larger cities, twice I had to pay because they were very insistent and intense individuals.

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Birth of an Indian Wedding Addict

This is the story of how another Indian Wedding addict was born. Read with caution, as addiction may be spread through linguistic and visual stimuli.

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A rickshaw drops me outside a fairly ordinary white building with lime green trim. There is always a pop of color in India. Surrounding the entrance ways is a sea of saris—rich red, orange, green, blue, purple, fuchsia and lots and lots of gold. I will never get tired of the vibrancy that constantly greets me in India. In a week it’s back to the US and I think my eyes will be bored with the earthy and subtle tones in our buildings and clothing. Someone whom I’ve never met quickly grabs my sweaty hand and pulls me through the thick crowd. Around me the Indian guests white radar is going off. Giggles, big grins and whispers encircle me as my presence is noticed.

When the hand lets go, I’m in a less crowded room filled with all the young girls putting the finishing touches on their ensembles. Their hair is pulled back and draped with jasmine garland, their foreheads, wrists, necks, ears, all bejeweled. Their saris are equal in every way to their mothers. Kohl lines their eyes. They are beautiful. They are sight in themselves. A precocious girl of 11 introduces herself right away as Joty. She will be my best friend and guide for the rest of the day, introducing me to every family member with an explanation of how they are related to every guest we have previously met. I loose count at relative 50. She announces the best friend status within a few minutes of meeting.

Joty takes my hand and I am pulled here, shown there, led this way and that way. I’m told again and again how beautiful I would look in a sari. Why didn’t I wear one? I am beautiful anyways, but in a sari, wow. You should have worn one of mine. What is my good country? My good age? My good name? Children giggle and hide behind their mothers when my eyes meet theirs, eyes reappearing only when they think I’ve looked away. After a month in India, I still feel excited by the pseudo celebrity status that my pale skin awards me. It’s hard not to feel a little special with all the unwarranted attention. All I can compare it to is visiting somewhere like Paris. Let’s just say that if I devised a rating scale of locals appreciation of foreign visitors India and Paris would be at opposite ends of the spectrum. (And for the record, I love Paris and the dismal, dreary Parisians).

I’m given a seat right at the front of the understated auditorium. The room is large but not as big as you’d think it would need to be for a 1000 people. There is stage right in front of me, that is so high it looms over us like a King’s throne. I have the good fortune of watching the photographers and videographers prepare for the ceremony. It looks an awful lot like a circus performance of electronics and operators of said electronics. To my dismay, they set up not one but four blazing lights at the front of the stage blocking everyone’s view. I think two things. 1) No one can see anything and 2) They just made that stage even hotter, which I didn’t think possible. Only in India.

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And then it happens. A man on stage waves to me and makes the hand gesture of an invitation to come up on the stage. Does he mean me? I’m tentative, he’s probably waving to someone else who actually knows more than one person there. But he gestures again and makes eye contact. He definitely means me. So up to the stage I go. The white American woman is now part of the circus. Yay, I can see. And awkward because I’m now a part of the wall blocking the actually family and friends views, my nicest tunic, purchased in India is shabby compared to the glittering saris around me and I don’t even know the bride and grooms names. This is one of the parts of India I love most. They love their culture and want to share it with you. They want you to feel welcome, like a part of the family. This ridiculous hospitality has been extended to me dozens of times in the last month but it never ceases to amaze and overwhelm me. This is why I came to India for the legendary love they show foreigners.

The ceremony is a blur of color, cameramen and lots of sweat. The stage is packed with people and the only circulation of air includes breathing in and breathing out. And those video lights are working overtime to increase the temperature on stage a few degrees for good measure. The poor bride. I am literally swimming in people and sweat, mostly my own. And I really have no idea what is going on in the ceremony. I’m given flower petals I’m supposed to throw after a necklace is put on. In many ways it is as chaotic as the rest of India, but this chaos too is beautiful. A necklace is put on the bride and they throw the petals. I think that means they’re married.

I get my picture taken with the happy couple, say congratulations to the bride and groom whose names I still don’t know and again my hand is grabbed and I’m pulled into the sweaty sea of people, lost once more in the crowd. I have loved every sweaty moment of this day.

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Why I Travel: An Anecdote from my Time in Bosnia

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People. It’s why I travel. More than anything else they’re what entices me to pack my suitcase and get on the road again. Whether it be the locals or my fellow travelers, my fondest and strongest travel experiences revolve around the individuals who became a part of my journey.

In 2007, I was backpacking around Europe solo and had just arrived in Mostar, Bosnia (really amazing place by the way, go if you ever have the chance). I went out to dinner alone and saw this girl a few tables over who was also alone and had the distinctive look of not from around here. For several long minutes I went back and forth about whether or not I should take the very small yet somehow terrifying risk of saying hi and asking if she too was visiting Mostar? Seriously, why is rejection so frightening to many of us humans?

Dinner solo turned into dinner of two and plans to explore Mostar together the next day. The next day arrives and it’s pouring rain. We spent almost the entire day going from shop to shop drinking tea and coffee, talking about love. Turns out we were both crazy in love and each in our own predicament. It is so much fun to talk about love, especially with a perfect stranger. You get to relive some of the best moments of falling in love all over again, because unlike your girlfriends back home who’ve heard it all before and are really sick of what’s his name, the stranger knows nothing. She also turned out to be quite wise and told me something I desperately needed to hear. I will never forget that day and I will never forget her.

Travel connects you with individuals from different cultures and life experiences you might never have encountered otherwise. These chance meetings can lead to learning something new, getting advice you didn’t even know you needed, falling in love, finding a hidden gem of a restaurant, making a best friend, going to another country you never even considered (that’s how I ended up in Macedonia at a little lake you’ve probably never heard of), getting into a disagreement, having your beliefs challenged, a good laugh or a good cry. There is potential for this in everyday life too, but so often we’re busy living our lives when we’re at home we don’t have time to see the people around us, let alone talk to them. Travel gets rid of the busy, especially when you’re alone.

Two nights ago, a group of seven of us, whose only connection is that we’re staying at  the same hotel here in McLeod Ganj went out to dinner. We were one Indian, two Finnish, one Aussie, one Brit, one Swede and lastly one American. Ages ranging from early twenties to early sixties. Professions from film making to house flipping to still trying to figure that out. Our conversations danced between travel in India, the issues facing the Tibetan people, starting a wedding photography business in India, books to read, holistic medicine, nationalized healthcare and so much more. Sitting there, I felt again, this is why I travel.

And a few photos of just a small handful of the people I’ve met so far.

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Starting in the Middle

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I’m halfway through my trip to India. It feels like just five minutes have passed since I boarded my 6am flight in Bozeman and it feels like five months. This trip has been a lot of things. A mixture of beauty, fear, a little frustration, excitement, highs, lows, tears, big grins, peace… And I’m sure I will tell you more about those things in time, but first let’s talk about good ideas and perfection.

I wanted to write a travel blog about India. I knew this fairly early into planning my trip to India. Problem, I couldn’t think of a name that a) I liked and b) wasn’t already a registered domain. So with weeks to go, I thought about it some, tossed some ideas around and then before you know it, it’s the night before I depart, I’m packing and still no blog name. Which also means, no blog. No big deal, I’ll create the blog in India. It’s a country known for many things, cows, food, a bit of trash, love, and IT. So they must have good internet. Oh and creating something from scratch, especially when you aren’t so WordPress savvy, while on the road on an epic life adventure—piece of cake. Said no one ever. But this, this is how I roll.

I’ve spent much of my life with ideas, plans, dreams and with a careful mix of procrastination and perfectionism, several of them never have never made it from point a to point b. I’m really really good at procrastinating. Lots of all nighters in college, if my flight departs at 6am, I’ll start packing at midnight, I know I’m speaking the same language as many of you. Add to this my addiction to perfection and you can see why I have a hard time getting things done. In the last year, my business has taught me the price of perfectionism. Some really smart people showed me the light and finally, I was able to see all the missed opportunities in this futile attempt to create and make perfect things. And I thought it was just the opposite.

This has been somewhat of a hallelujah moment for my whole life. And why today, I realized I could start this blog in the middle. Sure, I’ll probably go back and share some of my first experiences, photos, thoughts and reflections with you from the first two and a half weeks but for the last two and a half weeks I’ve been thinking I need to have all those posts written and up before launch. Blog not launched. Blog not written. Another day goes by. Waiting for perfection again. Oops.

My blog looks a little funny (note: India may have great IT but fast internet seems to be an elusive foreign beast), it’s incomplete but I had this plan to write a blog and I’m going to do it.

Photos are of my view as I write to you today from McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, headquarters of Tibet in exile.

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