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One element made the “adjustment period” easier. She wasn’t an element actually; she was a friend.

Then, much as now, I could “get along” with just about everyone, but it was a rare person to whom I would open my heart or share my thoughts. With her, though, I knew my secrets were safe, and that my thoughts were not only understood, but even mirrored at times. You know, those times you think that you’re the only one who sees life a certain way and finally someone comes along who says, “that’s what I’ve always thought too”. Or you say something and they say, “that’s just what I was about to say.” It’s not just conversation; you feel comfortable with silence too. No awkwardness or, feeling that “I need to say something. It’s been quiet for too long.”

And of course there was the invariable finishing of each other’s sentences or adding to the other’s train of thought.

A year before I traveled to India, she thought it sounded like a great idea…for me. Three months before I made the journey, she wasn’t sure what her plans for the near future were. One month before I was to travel, she was already in India. I thought it somewhat ironic that I had been planning for about a year, and she spontaneously made it there in about a month. I didn’t mind though. Having her already there when I arrived added that element of stability and reassurance to my otherwise rather topsy-turvy sense of being at that point in my life.

That first evening, we took a walk around the neighborhood. I pretended not to be overly overwhelmed by the new sights, strange sounds and smells—both pleasant and on-the-opposite-end-of-the-spectrum. After all, I lived here for three years when I was young. Hadn’t I seen it all before?

As we headed to a little shop, she spoke of her adventures shopping over the past month, and the few phrases she had picked up so far.

“Hide and seek?” she said to a shopkeeper with her ever-present smile. I looked sideways at her questioningly. Did she just invite him to play a kid’s game? He didn’t seem too surprised as he turned to get something. He presented a package to her and she, in turn, handed it to me. Hide and seek—a brand of chocolate chip cookies. They might not have been chips ahoy, but they weren’t bad.

Those evening walks became a bit of a tradition, and when we didn’t feel like being a spectacle in the rural area we were living, we chose to sit and chat up on the roof. Our discussions were never superficial. To this day, I still can’t abide surface relationships and conversations. There’s gotta be a deeper side, some substance and it’s been a rare blessing to find a friend as deep as she.

View from the roof, trees and flowers

View from the roof

Unlike me, she had only a three-month visa. What I knew was going to be somewhat of a life journey for me I realized was a short trip for her. It was not long before I was to realize that would be the case in more ways than one.

Since she had arrived about a month before us, it seemed I had barely arrived when she began talking about going back to North America. She had plans to return to India though. We discussed so many plans that now it’s hard to remember what had just been great ideas, and what were actual concrete plans.

I made pineapple up-side-down cake the evening she left. It wasn’t a favorite of either of us. I just hadn’t yet discovered a single local shop that sold baking powder. We sat on the roof. I was quiet. These last couple months had brought so many changes. It sounds silly now, but a concern on my mind was, did she still consider me a close friend?

It was one of those times we sat in silence.

Somehow though, she knew what I was thinking. Over plates of juggery-sweetened cake, and under a darkening monochrome sky, she thanked me for being the best friend she ever had, and I knew she knew I felt exactly the same.

We headed back downstairs and said goodbye. She left carrying a single suitcase and a backpack. She always vowed that she would never own more than she could carry on her back and in one hand, leaving the other hand free to help someone else. After she left, I noticed the pile of things she had left of things had decided not to take with her, not to be bogged down with. She was always a traveler, just passing through. I sat at the foot of my bed, going through the items, feeling a hole in my heart bigger than the pile in front me. It felt like my adjustment stage in a new land was starting all over again.

Funny how a hundred people can come and go and not make much of an impression, and yet just one person can be in your life for but a moment by comparison, and change your life and perspectives forever.

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misty sky over forest and hills

Future: unknown, exciting, foreboding, yet beautiful

One old, large suitcase that couldn’t decide whether it was red or purple… Maybe it had known in years past but by the time it came my way, it had lost its sense of identity.

One steel-string guitar, with colors deeper and richer than any tune I ever played on it—complete with a plush lined black case. I remember the day I spent with my dad as he drove from one music store to the next helping me to choose the perfect instrument. The fact that I didn’t play guitar was non-essential at the moment. I planned to learn and anyway, I had to spend my babysitter money somehow before making the “big trip”.

One green backpack, lined with brown leather. You just got a feeling it was worthy of the name. I still own it and it’s still my preferred bag for any journey.

Each piece of luggage was stuffed to the full, to where I and a friend had to sit on my suitcase while another person finally managed to zip it.

Then there was me. I knew what I wanted to do with my life, but how to do it was another matter entirely. I knew where I was going, but what to focus on once there was beyond me.

Just a few months before the journey, I had been thinking of different friends and siblings, comparing myself with them—as we all know we shouldn’t do but most of us do anyway. My perception of myself became smaller with each person I considered.

She sings and plays guitar.

He’s great with people and always knows what to say.

She writes beautiful poetry.

He has an awesome sense of humor, and is an artist to boot.

I was familiar with the story of the talents in the Bible. My question at the moment was, what about the person who didn’t have any? Like not a single one. What are they supposed to do? I had placed myself in that lonely and disadvantaged category, and I did not know the answer.

I made it through the first week or so in India. Jet lag had been overcome, the tummy bug passed, and the toughest phase entered—culture shock. For me, it wasn’t so much as case of,

“OMG! Is that a cow walking down the street?”

Or:

“Seriously, that guy is peeing on the fence.”

It was more a case of, “What am I doing here and what am I hoping to accomplish?”

I have since realized something I wasn’t quite aware of at the time—a part of my personality. I think ahead, like, way ahead. I always like to have things planned for way in advance. I remember when I was seven and my parents told me we would be taking a camping trip. I packed 26 days in advance, taking my toothbrush out of my backpack every morning and evening for the next three weeks. It’s not always a conscious thing, but I run through tasks mentally in my head, or the step-by-step plan of what I will do that day.

Having just arrived in India, I didn’t know what was next. I knew we would be involved in projects. A part of me was happy just learning new things and experiencing life. Another part of me was reeling through space, not knowing what the future held, and not sure I would be able to just wait around to find out. I realized that I didn’t have a choice but the feeling of “not knowing” was disconcerting.

Other things took some getting used to as well, which just compounded the perpetual hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach. I was used to the dry heat of California’s central valley, not the extreme humidity of Bombay. My nature took to wide open spaces and I found the density and congestion of the city suffocating. I loved the blue sky and clouds of every color. When I went to the roof, no matter what time of day, it seemed as if an artist had made a photocopy error and created the vast expanse in “grayscale”.

“Give it six months,” a friend told me. I can do that, I told myself.

Little did I know my experiences over the next six months would leave my emotions stretched thin to the point of drooping, and then squeezed back again into a tight wad, like a piece of silly putty in the hands of an experimenting child.

Or maybe it was akin to something else. Maybe it was like a piece of clay in the hands of a potter, who had a particular creation in mind, but had to start with the squeezing and molding before he could get into the shaping, polishing and finishing.

After all, He doesn’t give the talents we think we need or that we are sure we deserve. He gives us what He knows we need, when He knows we need it most and will decide to use it for a greater purpose than we might originally understand or plan, to make for an exciting and wonderful future.

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cooking dinner in India

One of my first cooking experiences in India: peeling garlic = tedious

I must have spent at least 80% of my first 24 hours in India under a cold shower, trying to cool down; the humidity would take a bit of getting used to. By the second afternoon, though, I was ready to pitch in. Hoping to make a good impression on those I would be working with for the next few months, I enthusiastically volunteered to help with anything that needed “doing”.

 

 

They immediately took me up on the offer. “Can you cook?” was the question AJ eagerly asked. “Angie, who has been doing a great job in the kitchen, is going to Orissa for a few weeks to help with relief work due to the flooding.”

 

“Yeah, no problem; I cook.” After all, I had taken Home Economics in high school, and my mom had taught me a few things from her kitchen expertise. She was a great cook, and they say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Up until now my actual practical experience in cooking had been heating up ready-made lasagna and making a salad while the lasagna was in the oven; or opening a can of cream-of-chicken soup, pouring it on boneless chicken, roasting it while making a pot of rice—in the rice maker of course, no chance of burning there. But how much more complicated could cooking be here? I’d be done in an hour or so and ready to check out the city.

 

“Great!” AJ said, a little too enthusiastically. “I took a trip to the market and got some fish. It is in the bucket there, enough to feed 20 people for dinner. You just need to clean it and…”

 

“Excuse me…sorry, did you say, clean it?”

 

“Yes, they’re whole fish. But they don’t have much of a smell, compared to some of the others at the market.” He wrinkled his nose as if at the memory of “the market” as I made a mental note never to find myself in such a place. “But give me a holler if you need help with anything. I’m sure you’ll do great.”

 

I strongly considered hollering right then and there, but remember my original intent: being a help and making a good impression. I took a deep breath and, with an attempted smile on my face, nodded my assent. I had no idea how to even cook fish. My last experience with fish was while camping with my dad when I was about 10, well, besides Long John Silver’s.

 

I got started…

 

Five hours later, I was still in the kitchen. I had not realized that everything needed preparation from scratch, no help from the familiar cans and jars.

 

The rice turned out crunchy. The fried fish did not. Everyone attempted to compliment me at my noble attempt to cook. I took another mental note: learn some genuine cooking basics, and quickly!

 

The next day I was eager to improve my culinary reputation, before it was permanently irreparable. No more grading on the curve of what I had thought signified a good cook.

 

“What’s on the menu?” I asked Angie, as she was packing and preparing to leave.

 

“Dahl fry, with rice.”

 

“Rice, I think I can do. What on earth is dahl fry?”

 

“Dahl fry is one of the most common staples in Indian cuisine. It is something you need to learn to cook, and cook well, if you plan on staying here for any length of time. It is like a pulse, boiled and then fried with masala (spices), garlic, onions and tomatoes. The way they make it in each state or region of India is slightly different, as some people eat it with chappatis or naans, as they do in the North. In the South, they always have it with rice, so it’s not as thick.”

 

I stopped her before she continued the interesting but presently irrelevant history of dahl. “Mental overload. Bottom line, how do I make it?”

 

“Come on, I’ll show you.” We worked together and the meal was not just passable, it was downright tasty, thanks to Angie’s expertise.

 

I can do this. I affirmed to myself, in regards to success in the area of culinary arts. But for now, I’m ready for another cold shower.

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India’s welcome

airplane window paneTouching the thick glass window, I could feel heat emanating from the window pane, although I was seated in a chilly, air-conditioned passenger plane. It had just landed and was still coasting the rough gravel runway of the Mumbai airport, yet the familiar clicking of seatbelts being unfastened, though the “fasten your seatbelt” sign was still on, brought my senses to full wakefulness.

Everyone around me was rushing to gather their bags and depart the cramped quarters, as I just sat, contemplating. “Am I really here?” I slowly got my backpack and stood along with the rest of those waiting to disembark. As the plane’s doors opened, a wave of heat rushed in to greet me, along with a blend of unique scents: some good, some not-so-great.

Excited, but terribly nervous at the same time, I tried hard to remember why I was doing this. “Come on!” I told myself. “You’ve wanted to do this for a long time! You’ve been working for more than a year to afford it. Imagine, a year in India, working to help the underprivileged, giving classes to inmates, cheering mentally handicapped children. This is what you want to do.” Having sufficiently psyched myself up, I stepped out of the airplane, descended the rickety staircase, and my feet touched the ground of the land I had dreamed of so long.

At the main exit of the airport, there must have been hundreds of people, forming a massive, teaming throng. Some held signs and were waiting for specific individuals; most, however, seemed overly happy to see someone like me walking toward them.

“Taxi?” was the friendly greeting I received from half of them. From the remainder, it was, “Rickshaw?” and all of them calling me “madam”, though I was only 16. Each of these eager escorts had a large smile and a mustache. The mustaches almost seemed to be highly valued, the older and more experienced the individual, the larger the mustache they sported. Some of these men were so enthusiastic in their attempt to usher me to their waiting vehicles—and thus be able to charge “foreign fare”—that they began vying to carry my bags. This would be the right time for a knight in shining armor to ride up on his stallion and whisk me away.

Suddenly, there he was. Actually, it was a friend with whom I would be working for the next few months, AJ, driving an old Maruti van. It was such a relief to see a friendly face after the 30-hour journey, which had included boarding and disembarking from three different aircrafts and enjoying an 8-hour layover on the way.

“It’s a long drive home. You need anything?” He asked once I had disengaged myself from my heavy backpack.

“It’s already been a long trip. I just want to get where I can shower and relax.”

“At least have something to drink.” AJ stopped the car by a little shop, one room behind a counter that traversed the entire opening, and a great variety of things within, from candies to snacks, cigarettes to drinks. A boy worked busily behind the counter, fetching everything that was ordered, while an elderly man painstakingly wrote down each item twice, one copy for himself, one for the customers waiting, not quite in line. I watched my friend press through the crowd and place his request. The boy looked happy to serve a foreigner and jumped to fill his order. He returned with a bottle of orange liquid.

“It’s Maaza, a mango drink. Try it.” It was thick and sweet, very sweet, but cold and refreshing at the same time. As I sipped, and AJ stopped at a red light, I looked out the window, keen to see the sights of India.

A child dressed in oversized clothing ran up and began to dirty our windshield in a concerted attempt to clean it with a worn rag. He headed around the side as AJ rolled down his window and gave the fervent child a few coins.

As the light switched to green, it seemed to me that cars, motorcycles, trucks, and even the random cow or dog, were all fighting for the same strip of asphalt in a frenzied scramble to be the first one through the traffic light and on their way. Although white painted lines signified lanes, it seemed more a gesture of hope than an actual rule, as the lanes all merged together in one throng of traffic.

“Just to warn you, we are going to pass by a pretty big slum area now” AJ mentioned as we continued driving.

“It’s no problem. I’ve seen slums before.”

“Where, on TV?”

He was right. I was not quite prepared. I smelled it before I saw it, and then, there it was, what I later learned was the largest slum in all of Asia. At first it looked like nothing but a huge stretch of ridged tin sheets. As we drove closer, I saw that they were rooftops, covering a massive area. A row of huts connected together, with alleys that could not have been more than a couple feet, separating one row from the next, and the next. Young children wearing next to nothing played at the edge of the rows and I was scared for them being so close to the busy street. A girl who couldn’t have been more than five years old was carrying a younger child, half her size. At a nearby river, muddied from overuse, women washed laundry, more children played, and men washed up.

AJ spoke up, “Pretty intense, huh?” He noticed my taut expression, which I quickly tried to hide.

“It’s okay. By the way, this is one place we visit for our polio child relief programs. Hundreds of children get treated, who either suffered from polio or other birth defects. Doctors volunteer to help; and our volunteers assist both pre- and post-operation with comfort and counsel for the patients, transportation and admission, as well as distributing clothes, blankets and other needed items to the patients and their families. It’s not an easy time for them; for some the recuperation stage lasts months, yet seeing a child with previously deformed limbs walking properly for the first time gives me a feeling that can’t be matched.”

My attention was suddenly diverted when AJ swerved the vehicle to dodge a cow, and then another one. A whole herd was slowly making their way down the main thoroughfare, without a proverbial care in the world. “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” AJ quipped with a smile.

Somehow I knew he was right. Before long, we pulled up to a well maintained two-story house. The yard was big with beautiful foliage.

“Here we are.” AJ said with a smile. I smiled too. It was April 6, 1999 and although I did not realize it at the time, I had come home.

(re-posting from http://www.scinti.com/)

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drawing of the states of India

sketch I made (at 16) of the states of India and a few facts about the country

It is April 6, 12 years to the day since I arrived in Mumbai (Bombay), India.

 

 

When doing the math, calculating the three years spent in India when I was a child, even subtracting about half a year over the past 12 years, of times when I was “visiting” the States, I realized that, at this point, I have spent half my life in India.

 

The worst thing about those 12 years in India is the embarrassing fact that I still don’t speak Hindi, or any other of the many languages and dialects of the nation. I can read it passably, but need someone to let me know what I’m reading. When I was 17, I vowed that I would be fluent in speaking the language within five years of arriving in the country—proof that good intentions don’t necessarily pave the best of roads.

 

The best thing about that half of my life, and specifically the 12 years I recently spent there? I know one thing: it would take more telling than what I can put in one blog. Here’s the idea though. Starting with this blog, and continuing for I-am-really-not-sure-how-long, I would like to write about my time in India—highlights, low points, and lots of stuff in between.

 

One main thing to start with… You never know, when making a decision in life, just how far that choice can take you, but if it’s a choice you are making to follow God and to pursue your passion and/or what you feel inspired to do, you will be amazed by the journey.

 

I hope you enjoy taking this trip with me.

 

You can read about my “first impressions” of India, when I arrived at 16 years old, from this post at Scinti.

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When you saw the crib from highManger scene

Did You see Your death and sigh

Or did You see that You again would rise

And chose a humble womb from heaven’s skies

 

When you lay in a manger, damp and cold

Did you long for angel’s wings to enfold

Or realize we too would want such things

So You forsook the comfort of angels’ wings

 

When you tasted this world’s humble fare

Did you long for Heaven’s sumptuous care

Or knew the taste would be richer with us by your side

And gave us the truth while You chose to abide

 

When you felt weary and weak and worn

Did you long to leave this world so forlorn

Or knew that we needed to be shown the way

Our truth and light, and for our sake did stay

 

When you had to see and touch and feel

This homesick world from one so real

Did it pain You to stay a while

Yet, I think I saw You smile

 

For You knew that Heaven’s touch

On this poor world would mean so much

So You lived and died, and rose to glory

To begin life’s deepest true love story

(Written December 1999)

 

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