Saturday, July 10, 2010

In Virtual Memoriam

A friend passed away this week. A friend that was an avid commentator on this blog and a presence that filled any room he entered. Yes, he was that guy. The guy that took time out of his busy day as a husband, father, and man of a million talents to make sure that you know, when you're out at sea and feeling lost, that someone is there and listening.

Though we met back in the late 90s on our student Semester at Sea voyage, I have had the pleasure of staying in touch with he and his lovely wife, who was also a college friend on the S.S. Universe Explorer. Since hearing of this tragic news, I have been struggling with what to say and where to say it. So many of our interactions over the past few years have been via facebook, and as I've now witnessed this virtual collage of memoriams and shout outs, sadly on more than one occasion, I've been faced with a moral dilemma. Is this what we do now?

Part of me feels like it is a community space, a place where friends from all around the world can share and remember, and another part of me feels like it is cheap and impersonal, and perhaps the ultimate relegation of a life to less than 140 characters. Then there is the question of presence. Some seem to write as if he is reading. Others immediately dispel him to the past, which is grammatically correct but somehow feels hollow and raw, like a giant bug bite that appeared out of nowhere and has suddenly taken over your leg.

My mind is heavy and my heart still aches as I continue to wake up every morning having dreamt about him and/or the loss of a loved one, but in thinking about the incredible legacy this lovely man is leaving behind, I am reminded of Ubuntu and how he put it into action. Having sailed with Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 2007, my friend was so inspired by his wisdom, that he took it upon himself to spread the word and pay it forward. Not only did he create and hand out T-shirts, he literally lived by it:

‎"A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed." - Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Laureate

In honor of my friend, please think about paying it forward today. Pick up the phone and reconnect with someone. Help out a stranger on the street or remind a loved one of how much you care. He did it. Every. Day. And will continue to, in all of us. Which is how, past or present, he will always be alive ...

Monday, June 28, 2010

Why I love San Francisco

This just happened about 5 minutes ago while I was on the phone with SAS.


The doorbell rings. I open the door to find a 60-something man dressed in a light blue suit with a tweed cap.

MAN: "I'm here to have lunch with Mr. Wilkerson."

ME: "I'm sorry. He doesn't live here, this is the Owens-Ganatas residence."

MAN: "He lives at 2333."

ME: "This is 2333. But unfortunately, he doesn't live here. And neither do I. I'm just a house guest. Maybe try next door?"

MAN: "I need your yellow pages."

ME: "If you want to come in we can try to look him up on my computer. I don't think my friends that live here have the yellow pages. And if they do, I have no idea where they'd be."

MAN: "I'm going to be late for lunch. (snarky) Are you gonna help me or not! ."

ME: "I don't have the yellow pages, sir. I'm sorry."

MAN: "No, you're not sorry! You won't even help me!"

ME: "I just offered for you to use my personal computer. What else can I do?"

MAN: "Screw you." (He walks off in a huff, and the office is hysterical on the other end of the phone.)


Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Roan if You Want To ...

I had initially tried to arrange a safari on my own before realizing that our time in South Africa would fall over Easter weekend, making it a busy, extended weekend for locals and foreign tourists and void of any deals. I don't normally partake in any of the big trips offered through Semester at Sea, partly because I'm not fond of big groups, and in larger part because I just simply can't afford it. So when it worked out for me to lead one of the safari trips to Kruger, making a jaunt into the South African bush fiscally feasible, a lifelong dream was solidified. I chuckle as I write that, for every other day someone on this ship has "a dream come true." Seeing the 'Taj,' as so many flippantly call her as if they are dating, climbing the Great Wall, and as I can now relate, seeing a giraffe outside of the Los Angeles Zoo.

I chose the trip to Motswari, a private reserve in the Greater Kruger area after my friend Hans, whose parents used to own a South African travel agency confirmed my initial hunch -- it is the way to go for anyone seeking a comfortable but not obnoxiously luxurious stay in the African bush. It's glamor is understated -- local art, clean cement and thatched floors, circular en-suite bungalows. Fluffy white bed and deep bathtub, yes, but no flat screen TV or modern distractors. Set right on a watering hole, I could literally sit on my front porch and watch giraffes grazing on trees and hear warthogs talking as I soaked. And with a 30 person maximum, the lodge is quite intimate -- oftentimes giving you the feeling that is just you and the spiders. Which speaking of, they were abundant, mighty, and took up residence all around my bungalow named "Roan."

There were 21 of us, and the cast of characters couldn't have been better written by Christopher Guest. The rather conservative and older science professors, who cracked the virtual whip on the kids though they weren't in charge and offered me lots of free leadership advice -- um yeah, thanks, but if they want to sleep in instead of going on the game drives they spent thousands of dollars on, so be it. Lah-weese from Louisiana and her delightful husband, whom I could picture drinkin' tall boys of mint julep as they paraded around the African bush in perfectly pressed khaki and sun hats. The laid back librarian who carries around a plastic statue of Einstein and his jockey wife who, toned as a lightweight bodybuilder sports a pair of boots with 4 visible inches of metal coil for shock absorption. Malcom the tour leader whose perspiring pores give away the secret that the wrinkles in his hardened skin are so anxiously trying to spill, "look at me, I'm a big smoker with heart problems who probably shouldn't be leading vigorous trips." A kid who never stops listening to his ipod. A 19 year-old who fancies himself a verbal expert on absolutely everything, including the African Bush.  A girl who has a rapidly-increasing allergic reaction to her malaria medication, and four Jewish girls from Vanderbilt who, sigh, could not give any greater ammo to caricature writers of JAPS.

We were divided into three groups for our game drives, thus we spent a large chunk of time with the same people. I had waited around on the first day to ensure that everyone made it onto a jeep. Which consequently meant that I would end up hanging with the kids who were late in the first place. The good news is that we were assigned to Godfrey's jeep, who just so happens to be the senior guide and has 12 years of exploring the Bush everyday under his wing and is further a bird specialist. He has the top level of certification, and if he soon passes the test, will become the first black man in South Africa with a credential in birds -- the most difficult of the specializations as it requires visual and sound recognition of 1000s of species.

Heading out on a game drive, both at dawn and at sunset is like living in a Disney movie, and not the scary 80s ones with the dark undertones, perhaps a blend of "The Lion King," "The Jungle Book," and "Indiana Jones."  Tiani, our tracker, would sit at the helm of the jeep, shining a spotlight until the sun took over, and while driving 20 KPH could spot something as small and incognito as a chameleon. Thus, when Little Expert (who sidenote spoke about himself in third person multiple times) demanded to sit in Tiani's seat one night and shined the floodlight right on a group of 3 giraffes, I had to ask myself whether these girls were legitimately impressed or were smooth enough to play into his narcissism as a joke as they oooed and ahhhed over his manly ability to shine a flashlight on a group of giant giraffes standing 3 feet in front of him.

As our plane landed in Hoedspruit, we were greeted by 2 cheetahs on the runway and saw buffalo and elephants en route to the lodge, so the search was on from the get-go to see the "Big 5," which refers to the lion, elephant, buffalo, rhino, and leopard. The occasional rain had made it particularly difficult to follow the rhinos, who were acting skiddish, but I was thoroughly impressed with the wildlife we were able to see. And who needs to check-off a list to have a worthwhile experience -- so what if we saw 4 out of 5.

A group of elephants surrounded our jeep, whisking their tusks through the air and creating dirt clouds. Hippos popped their heads in and out of the water, which gave me the urge to want to plunk their heads with a delicate mallet, or fill their mouths with marbles like the game. Baboons ran around like toddlers on a sugar high, making it hard to see their pink butts; though the waterbucks gave us a good, consistent view of their toilet-seat-behinds. Kudus. Impalas. Venomous snakes. Steenboks. It was exciting and even unsettling at times to literally pull up next to these animals -- who tolerate and are used to the green Land Rovers, as long as none of the people in them make noises or stand.

One of the perks of a private reserve is that the jeeps are not limited to the roads, thus we were thrilled when Godfrey pulled up to a pack of three sleeping white lions, which I later learned is a very rare color mutation of the South African lion species that is created by a recessive gene (even the woman that has managed the lodge for 25 years has not seen one). Despite the giant land rovers and photo flashes, they were so beautiful and calm. Their stomachs expanded and fell, gently, with each breath, and even the moment of the mother opening her mouth seemed like more of a yawn than a human-killing growl. When the occasional student would stand up to take a photo or make a ridiculous faux animal sound, Godfrey would immediately pounce -- thank bejesus. That's the last kind of incident report I need to be writing, for it is hard to think that this gorgeous animal, that seems so calm, friendly and pet-able would rip you in two in T-1 should you ever get out of that protective shell of army green metal.

Though we spent at least a cumulative hour tracking a Flip mino and a strap-less safari hat (who wears a hat without a strap on a moving vehicle), the highlight was a group of 3 leopards. The mother sat perched in a tree, her arms and legs hanging down like little floating nubs of fur, while her two cubs played. They batted each other, licked each other, and in a true cat lady moment I couldn't help but think about my little furballs back at home -- who thankfully, have been sending me lots of mail.

We saw a hyena when we stopped to have a glass of wine, and after stopping literally every 20 minutes for one of the girls to urinate, were given a delightful spread of coffee and biscuits while a group-sized porta-pottie was formed behind a lookout shack. I was astonished at how the commentary never stopped. Never. And how it was usually about something very trivial and non-safari related. From the legalization of marijuana, to Lady Gaga and a state of the union address regarding the ridiculousness of Land Rovers having so many useless buttons -- "I just want to like drive my Land Rover. Four wheel drive. Pfff. It's so retarded. Somebody should just like call them and tell them that they need to just like stick to making a car, not all of these stupid buttons that nobody uses (nevermind that we were driving in a 4x4 Land Rover through the African bush during this rant).

"Godfrey's Girls" was the jingle that one of them had started singing on repeat. She was the same one that asked a question at least every 10 minutes, usually prompting a reiteration of what was just said, and always beginning with "Godfrey," as if there were someone else on our little Land Rover who would be fielding questions (except for Little Expert, but he preferred interruption). The constant chatter, albeit annoying at times, was a good reminder that I am traveling around the world with 650 20 year-olds, and am sometimes seeing it through their eyes. I like to joke around, pull pranks on my friends and tell stories. And when it came to having things in common, I was just as game as they were to sit in the infinity pool with a beer (even if I did soon leave to take a bath). However, for these four girls from Vanderbilt, who were sure to make it glaringly obvious that they come from the kind of wealth that enables you to talk on your iphone in the middle of Africa and to talk about the tens of thousands of dollars you have spent on shopping, I have to admit that I was shocked at their lack of generosity. Here they were, coming up with jingles for Godfrey and calling him by a not-very-funny-to-everyone-else nickname ("God"), and spending hundreds of dollars on art and Motswari-wear after having dropped a few thousand on the trip, and at the end of the day when everyone from our group gathered a tip for our lovely, hardworking guides who are trying to support families, they seemed almost offended and each put in the equivalent of $2.

As Godfrey says, upon being asked about happiness, "being true to yourself" is the ultimate high. And since I disagree with all of them that marijuana will soon become legalized in California, I hope they will take a lesson from "God" and find a better high, and a better self to be true to. For if Godfrey is God, he was surely listening.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Day in the Life ...


0600. I wake up 5 minutes before my alarm goes off. With all of the time changes, there's a bit of discretion between my alarm, my two watches, the bridge and the map channel. I reach behind my bed, pull up the curtain by the chain and am surprised to see it still dark out.

0630. No bootcamp today, so time to hit the elliptical and do some abs and weights on Deck 7 Aft. I watch the sunrise over the Indian Ocean as I do a round of jumping jacks and push-ups. I laugh out loud when "Steppin' Out" by Joe Jackson comes on my ipod shuffle. Dave Miraglia and I had a huge debacle over that song last year and I am suddenly reminded of my friends at home.

0730. Grind my Duncan Donuts decaf beans, head to the garden lounge with french press, Hawaiian coffee mug, curry sauce, peanut butter, soy milk, and kashi. I'm always prepared though breakfast tends to be my most reliable meal of the day. Over a plate of fruit, pineapple yogurt, cheese, a small slice of veggie omelet and biscuit with strawberry jam, I joke with Nate about his intestinal suicide and compliment Danielle on her department store Ethnic-wear.

0900. Unexpected muster drill, shower ends early after hearing the announcement. I throw on my lifejacket, head to Deck 5 Starboard and watch jumping dolphins in the distance.

1000. After setting up sessions around the ship, I jump into the AIDS Quilt meeting where I close my eyes, hold hands with the strangers sitting next to me and in 20 minutes make a quick collage based on a story about a Nigerian girl who was excited to get a desk after sitting on the floor at school.

1100. Running around again. I sit in on part of Tobie Weist's lecture about her time in a South African village during her Peace Corps stint. I've had it on the mind again and am picturing myself in her photos.

1200. Just when I think I'm going to lunch, a theatrical rehearsal I didn't know about comes to find me. We do some blocking, then they run after me. I come back to deal with the non-existent theatrical lighting. I'm feeling annoyed that neither my new crew member nor my notoriously unreliable workstudy has shown their face.

1245. Lunch with the crew. Almond pastries are my nemesis.

1300. Back to the chaos in the booth. A powerpoint conspiracy around the ship -- nothing is working. I help Edeltraud solve her youtube problem and am reminded of how much I love Germans and how much I hate Ghanaian E-Waste.

1330. Hiding in Classroom #9. I finally get to see Audrey Springer in action. Giving a lecture on "American Cool," we go from the slave trade, to Save the Last Dance, to improvisational jazz, to Jack Kerouac. I'm entranced. It feels good to be academic again. Now I'm thinking about a PhD in sociology.

1400. More chaos in the booth is interrupted when Jenny Finn makes a visit. Her class started late because my student wasn't there on-time, but we quickly transition into an impromptu, intimate conversation in front of the video switcher while she is holding her laptop and I have a pair of pliers in my hand. The message of Jesus is lost in modern Christianity. Even in relationships you need to bring it back to yourself. The most important thing in life is to find a community that works for you and a spiritual path. Will is in near tears discussing his high school girlfriend.

1530. Still no Zakiyah. Working on putting out multiple fires including movies for the night and crew talent show scheduling. Anatoli finally pops his head in for the day. I ask him 6 times to lock down the classrooms. 30 minutes later I do it myself.

1630. Trying to solve an itunes crash.

1700. Summonsed to Union for swing dance rehearsal I didn't know about.

1800. Called to Union again for church service that wasn't on my radar. They are incredibly kind and it takes me back to my conversation with Jenny Finn. Are these people focused on the man of Jesus versus the example he tried to set?

1815. Feeling really overwhelmed as multiple crew members approach me in the hall about the talent show. I still haven't seen a schedule of the event and have no idea how to answer anything.

1830. Twenty minute dinner with Chris on Deck 6 aft. The rain and clouds have cleared and the sun is shining, making the deck a popular dining locale. I eat a rice dish with raisins, vegetable soup and a barley salad.

1845. We watch an incredible sunset from Deck 5 Starboard. I look at the ocean. I need this breath. This reminder.

1900. Theatrical rehearsal with the South African interport lecturer. There's sound cues, blocking all over the stage. With the church service beforehand, there was no time to set up. Now the ship is really rocking and I don't want to get on a ladder to refocus the lighting. I'm having to really wing it -- showtime is in less than an hour and I frankly have no idea what I'm looking at.

1930. Aids Quilt ceremony in Tymitz Square.

2000. Theatre involving "District 6." I'm thankful my best 3 boys are at my side. We wing it, seeing it for the first time having had no tech rehearsal. One of the mics keeps crapping out. Grrrr.

2130. Union strike. Too tired for the "Bitch Slap" screening I had tentatively planned for my cabin. Instead I start to watch "Finding Nemo" by myself while re-synching my ipod to my laptop.

2200. I join the impromptu ipod dance party on Deck 7 aft.

2215. We finally hit play and I am running around the ship with 30 students, dancing, laughing. Cables connect me and 5 other students to a mini-jack octopus found only in Japan. Red Hot Chili Peppers. Jackson 5. We dance all around the ship, invading the dining hall, the FSL, forming conga lines up and down the stairs as confused onlookers look around in near dismay. I turn on the disco lights in the union and am reminded of what it felt like to be a student on Semester at Sea. To feel active. Creative. Slightly mischievous. I miss that me.

2300. We all stand against the rail on Deck 7 aft as we listen in unicen to the last song, "It's a Beautiful Day." Earbuds come out and the sound of the world sneaks back in. Introductions are made ex-post facto and my heart smiles at the camaraderie.

2330. Back in the 5033. Everything is on the floor and I don't care. A beautiful day it was.


Friday, March 26, 2010

The God of Small Things, Big Smiles and Yummy Food.

I had already made tentative plans to stay with Asok and Sudha Jacob in Aymanam before realizing that it is the same village where Arundhati Roy grew up and consequently set her Booker Prize winning novel, "The God of Small Things." Mathew had kindly mentioned this connection, not surprising given his impressive array of literature. The first time he had inquired why I wasn't staying more than one night, I had briefly mentioned that I was doing another homestay and that I also had a Keralite friend from the ship that was visiting family in Kottayam whom I might meet up with. I don't know why I felt guilty leaving the Mundax, and why this guilt had led me to remain as vague as possible. It was like I was cheating or something, and I especially felt it when he offered to let me stay for another night free of charge, saying that "I went there for a reason and shouldn't let money get in the way." Finally, when he asked me again as I was leaving I admitted that I didn't know these people, and was literally staying in a family's home, which to me is the true meaning of "homestay." In India, many people use "homestay" in place of "bed and breakfast."

It is true that not paying to stay somewhere for two nights (the Mundax cost around $50/night) had a practical allure, but my main inspiration was to experience the life of a middle-class family in a village on the backwaters. Mr. Jacob described himself as a retired architect, father of two and proud husband of 25 years on his couchsurfing profile. His smile was wide and I figured that if this family was gracious enough to let me in, particularly with only a few days notice, I had an obligation to come through on their generous offer, no matter how much I was entranced in the Mundax.

Going back to this issue of trust, I am continually amazed by the kindness of strangers and the experience of being human that I fear so many miss out on. This family doesn't know me from Bob, yet they were willing to open their lives and their home -- all for nothing more than for the chance to experience new cultures and meet new people. They've hosted over 75 guests (including families) from around the world, and not only have they now made friends to go potentially stay with, they have also never once had a problem including theft, which is a sheer testament in my opinion to the power of karma and goodwill. I wish we lived in a world where this was the norm, and instead of staying in hotels we could all go get to know each other. I know there's a bit of naivete in there, for not everyone and everything in this world is filled with good intention. But I'm telling you, it's also not overwhelmed with negativity. And even if you're not willing to invite a stranger into your home, perhaps the next time you see a tourist visibly lost or out of place, you can simply ask if they need any directions or help. Or hell, even flashing them a friendly smile is likely more than they get fro most these days.

I waited at the Kottayam bus station for about 20 minutes, accidentally using my left hand on one occasion to pay the phone attendant. I blushed as the coins fell out of my hand and I immediately realized my mistake. When I had left the Mundax a few hours earlier, I felt overwhelmed with warmth as three people I barely know, Mathew and the British couple, stood by my side and bid me farewell at the bus stop; waving and even calling Mr. Jacob like concerned parents to ensure that he would pick me up on the other end. I loved that the universe was taking care of me, and there wasn't a doubt in my mind that a kindhearted architect would pick me up, even if I had violated Indian cultural code with the phone man.

Asok looked exactly like his photo, and over a bottle of Kingfisher I soon learned that he lived for 20 years in Saudi Arabia working as an architect and had come home to Kerala to retire at 50. We stopped on the way home to meet up with some of his friends in a nearby alley in front of a Hindu temple. This was one of those moments that I like to call my "photobooth" moments .... where I imagine sending a snapshot to my earlier self, who born and raised in Fresno, California would never have guessed I'd become an international transient. Here I was, standing in an alley filled with feral cats and soiled ice cream wrappers, standing with a group of middle-aged Indian architects, joking about our horrible past with George Bush (Obama fever was running high) and covering for Mr. Jacob by insisting that I made him drink a second beer, causing us to be a wee bit late. And the best part is, he didn't even need to say anything, for I could tell from the nature of their conversations and gestures that my humor and ability to construct his fake alibi on the fly would go over well.

I could tell that he was very proud of his work as he took me on a tour of his marble-floored, 3 bedroom home, describing his design in detail. While he no longer works from an office, he is about as retired as Bill Clinton. He sat at the kitchen table on his laptop for much of my stay, scanning through AutoCAD drawings and meeting with clients. He loves his work, and when I asked him point blank what makes him happy, a question I have been pondering on these travels, he responded with his lifestyle. He loves working from home, being able to spend more time with his family and hosting guests.

On the first morning, after having been woken up by the crying turkey, Sudha and I had a giggly non-verbal conversation as she tried to teach me how to make Muttakuzhalappam, which are essentially coconut pancakes with an Ethiopian breadlike texture. Her eyes stared in amazement as I wasn't able to spread the batter evenly within the pan, a maneuver that I'm assuming most of her female guests have been able to perfect after a few tries. Later that afternoon, I observed as she sat on a rocking chair on the porch for hours, looking out at the front yard full of spices and citrus trees. She spoke limited English, and while she was very kind and friendly, I wondered for a second how much she enjoyed her life of being a housewife and entertaining international guests? Within seconds of Mr. Jacob delivering the coconuts I had watched him pick from his brother's house, she served me fresh coconut juice. And in the morning, just when I would crave coffee she would somehow know and arrive with one on a silver platter. I'm guessing she cooks a lot of the same food over and over each day, and spends a fair amount of time in that, albeit beautiful, house.

As we went on a tour of Aymanam, waving to every person that strolled by, I was impressed with the camaraderie. Catholic churches share the same footprints as Hindu temples, and neighbors of different religions live side by side, in peace and even friendship. The invention of the television, in speaking with many of them, has somewhat changed the social climate as many people now stay home and watch TV versus strolling about the streets at night, though I still witnessed quite a few out and about, walking the narrow paths between the rice fields and purchasing "curry chips" from the corner stand. The sky is also not as dark as it used to be, Asok pointed out as we stayed up one night looking at the stars, thanks to the boob tube, though the warm feeling of home is still incredibly pronounced. Half of the people living near the Jacobs are related, but for those that aren't there still seemed to be a feeling of family. The kind of people that wave as they pass by and join you on the porch for a chat.

When he was born, Asok's mother traveled via canoe to the hospital for there didn't used to be any streets in the village. However, people still bath and wash clothes in the river, oftentimes standing at the bottom of concrete stairs. They don't dump dead bodies and drink from it, like their Northern neighbors, but the water does still seem to be a focal point of village existence. Of course, in addition to "Dancing With the Stars" and the Discovery channel. Though we had discussed my ship and shipboard life for hours, when a special on rogue waves and a clip of the MV Explorer serendipitously appeared on their television after a scrumptious meal of curry and eggs, I decided not to take verbal ownership.

As we flipped through the Sunday matrimonial ads, the question came up once again why I'm not married. I felt completely comfortable with these people, but just wasn't sure how to answer that question honestly without potentially landing in a cultural taboo. Since their daughter has turned 25 and they are now searching for her mate, they've been paying more attention to the ads and have even created an online profile. Set in-between ads for computer monitors and puppies, the ones in English seem to have a classified-ad feel and tone. "Jacobite. B.S. in Computer Science and M.S. in Communication Technology." It's hard to imagine your parents being involved in your pants, but since marriage there is largely about the joining of families, there's admittedly something exciting about the whole rigamarole.

When he showed me another photo of some previous house guests, two girls embraced in one portrait shot, my stomach dropped. "They are homos, you know, ka-weer, gay," he explained. My heart pounded as he continued on, clarifying that he didn't realize they were gay until he read through their profile and saw that they are part of a "queer women" group on couchsurfing. I had gleened throughout my stay that he is open-minded and rather liberal -- he is open to his daughter having a love marriage if she finds someone, he is friends with his Hindi neighbors, he is not afraid to criticize his Catholic church even despite the fact that his grandfather literally built it, and to showcase his humor, he joked that Sudha should rob old ladies after having seen a local news story with a smiliar plot. Based on our long-winded conversations about everything from how Americans deal with dividing assets upon death to how food is served on a ship, Mr. Jacob is arguably one of the most inquisitive people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. So though it came as a bit of a surprise, I was relieved when he went on to say that he and Sudha hosted the lesbians because they were curious about their lifestyle and are still in touch with them.

In addition to talking on his cell phone, Mr. Jacob loves to collect coins, so I felt really excited to hand over my baggie of leftover currency as if we were sitting around a Christmas tree before I boarded the local bus en route to Kottayam. As he trolled through my stash of Japanese Yen, Hong Kong Dollars, Chinese Yuan, Vietnamese Dong, Brazilian Reals and the Malaysian Ringgits still sitting in my passport case, he shared the story of a former Mexican guest. At 23, she left home (and Mexico) for the first time, nervously arriving at their doorstep with a giant bag of rare coins, for her parents had misunderstood Jacob's amateur hobby to mean that he expected to be paid in coins. Lost in translation, she arrived with a few hundred dollars worth of rare coins that had been passed down to her father. As we looked through photos of this girl, including one her parents had sent after Sudha had sent her home in a sari, I couldn't help but notice how genuine his bubbly laugh sounded, and how proud and fatherlike he spoke of this young girl's courage to leave home for India of all places, and to now be sending him postcards of all of her travels. Mr. Jacob, perhaps the busiest retiree known to mankind, says that he will one day soon start traveling himself. However, as he sits quite contently at his kitchen table, in a home he built surrounded by international ghosts, I have a feeling he, like Mathew, might continue to sit back and let the world, and its currencies, come to him.

Monday, March 22, 2010


As I pushed through the crowd at the Kottayam train station, a short man stood at the top of the stairs, holding a sign with my name on it. Mathew had made arrangements for a driver to fetch me and I at first had given a deliberate stare to another man holding a sign that read "Vanilla Country." I'm white. Country is kinda like Courtney ... okay, maybe not. Anyhow, I followed Phillip to his beautifully air-conditioned, white mid-size and smiled when MJ soon accompanied us on our drive; "Heal the World" had never sounded so heavenly as we drove past swaying banana trees, smiling villagers with large jugs atop their heads and an occasional cow.

The Mundax home stood on a green mountaintop, surrounded by sprawling tea and rubber plantations and hosted a welcome breeze that gave merit to the Keralite slug "God's Own Country," for it truly sounded like someone or something whispering throughout the trees.

I had been speaking to Mathew Joseph over email for a few days beforehand, and though I could tell from our correspondence that he was a caring and gracious man, I wasn't expecting an Indian man with a moustache to come through the front door when we pulled up to the end of the dirt road. I feel embarrassed by my sociocultural blunder -- I had assumed he was Caucasian given his Biblical name. Euro? Australian? I think I had even asked him where he was from in one of our email exchanges. Had I not been challenged over the previous weeks with an unexpected personnel change aboard the ship, I might've been able to actually listen to Global Studies to learn that Kerala is not only a communist state within India, it is also a primarily Christian one.

One of the psychologists on the ship had made a quip about Indian spiritual travel during his pre-port presentation (which was consequently the longest pre-port in the history of Semester at Sea), joking how people in the 60s and 70s came flocking to India in search of answers, studying with people falsely claiming to be gurus. I heard some of this criticism in my head as I entered the Mundax home. Was I nothing more than a lame, lost American clinging to an age-old cliche?

Maybe I am, but I felt my heart well up in my eyes as Mathew unexpectedly said to me, over a plate of fresh oranges and dahl, "no person is ever going to make you happy," as if he has somehow seen me crying in the shower and knows my lifelong struggle of falling for women that are either straight or uninterested. With eyes as soft as marshmellows and the physical grace of a monk, his words felt like tings of comfort, and in that moment, as we continued to share stories and fears, including his battle with cancer that had resulted in the loss of two ribs, it's as if we knew each other.

As we walked through his spice field and drove around the countryside, we had the kind of two-day conversation that I am used to finding between myself and the pages of a self-help book. He too is the black sheep of his family, not having married and having chosen to build a homestay on his family's land for a living, and the courage and dedication with which he stays true to himself is an inspiration for anyone endeavoring to live a more present and content existence; something that many of us Westerners seem to be grappling with as we sit back and realize that this life of consumption we've been born into is leading us down a path of disappointment and unfulfillment. If things are what we're after, we will simply never have enough.

Looking back, I can honestly say that I lived all of my twenties "waiting for it," as if something would one day happen in my life to make it feel more real. More full. More happy. But really, when I've tried to break that it down into tangible terms, I'm not even sure what I think it would look like. Nobody says at the end of their life, "I wish I would've had a bigger car, a bigger house, or a bigger career," yet we somehow live each day aspiring to be something more involving the "what" of our existence versus the "who." I feel trapped sometimes when I cannot respond to the simple questions like "what do you do?" or, my favorite, "what are you doing after you get off this ship?" But not only does it not matter, nobody ever really knows. All we have is this breath, this moment. And instead of letting the world pass by while I fret another moment regarding what's next, I'm trying to just enjoy what's in front of me. I could have a corner office with an Aeron Chair or work at a soap factory, either way, I'm still me.

I made a brief visit to the Sahyadri Ayurveda center, which was nestled in the beautiful countryside and offered me a tour of their pharmaceutical division in addition to an oiled-body massage and Lepam treatment. I could feel my pores bursting open as the women slathered a muddy, spicy herbal concoction all over my body. Typically used as an herbal remedy to reduce inflammatory diseases, I'm not sure what my limited consultation with the Doctor might've signaled diagnostic-wise, for I'm not aware of any health problems outside of my hypothyroidism and chronic pink eye, but my skin felt rejuvenated as I watched the mud fall down the drain along with three days of dirt and sweat. India is a country you wear at all times -- she sneaks into your clothes, hides beneath your nails, latches onto your teeth, your shoes, your watch, and just when you think you've bid her farewell she sneaks into the bottom of your purse.

Mathew's idea of meditation is that it doesn't have to be formal. "If you take a cup of coffee and just be present with that cup of coffee," he says, "that's meditation." So on my last afternoon at the Mundax I sat on the porch and drank my coffee, looking out at the trees for hours, trying to focus on nothing more than their existence. Birds flew in and out of their branches like little hellicopters on a joy ride and as the smell of ginger would occasionally hit my nostrils, I further witnessed the leaves occasionally being sucked into the vortex of the whistling wind. I don't stare out the ocean nearly as much as I should, and until that afternoon I can't even begin to think of the last time I starred at a tree and listened to birds.

A British couple soon arrived and while they were incredibly friendly, I felt very aware of their demeanor. They took us down memory lane at the dinner table without stopping for one second to see if we wanted to purchase a ticket. And in between all of the "remember whens," I couldn't help but cringe at the mere thought of probably having been that person on multiple occasions myself. And I also felt like, while they had every right to brag about their impressive array of globetrotting, they were speaking of it in the home and presence of a man who, most likely, will never have the passport or means to see it for himself. Which is why, I would imagine, Mathew has found a way to bring the world to his doorstep.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Midnight Train to Kerala

Trust. It's one of those words that feels heavy, like the thick layer of condensed milk that waits at the bottom of a Vietnamese coffee cup. One knows, in taking a single sip of liquid bliss, that the amount of sugar and calories being consumed may or may not be something worth checking into, depending on dietary persuasion. Some would prefer to drink away never knowing the contents, the bliss trumping the potential consequences; some need to read the label, and some, like meth addicts, know that a mere sip would keep them pumping Vietnamese cocoa-crack into their bodies for life.

Not everyone will face a battle with the "Weasel Chon" variety, but how you take your trust is an evolving, universal issue. Do you tend to drink it black, indulge in all of the cream and sugar that life brings your way, or spend your life sticking to water or decaf?

I didn't know what the next 5 days would look like, smell like, or feel like when I boarded the Trivandrum Mail en route from Channai to Kottayam, but I knew in my gut that the universe would take care of me. Whether it is God, myself, or sheer stupidity, I had trust. Despite the warnings against single women traveling alone in India, especially blonde American ones, I took my coffee black with a side of soy. I emailed a few people ahead of time, made some loose arrangements that I forwarded along to Chris in the event of an emergency, and threw on my backpack full of clothes and good will as I set out to explore the Kerala region on a spiritual journey of sorts.

With an unanticipated line of students at the gangway and a 30 minute walk out of the port, I was covered in dirty sweat when I jumped into a rickshaw and bolted to the Central Madras train station. He said 100 rupees and we quickly settled at 70 though I would've paid whatever he wanted to get me there on time. I managed to pick up a Dosa and a coke while running through the station to platform 5 and climbed into my upper side bunk at around 19:55. It was plenty big for a small girl of 5' 2," though I can't imagine where an extra foot of person might fit -- length or width wise.

My vision of sipping on chai tea while staring out at the Southern India landscape didn't quite come to fruition -- I didn't have a window, and was only passed by the coffee man in the morning who, for 10 rupees, would fill a plastic cup of joe from his metal jug. Instead, I spent the night reading Paramhansa Yogananda's autobiography, listening to Indian businessmen's phone calls and shivering beneath the AC fan. As I stared up at the rusty blue ceiling, which was about 10 inches from my head, I tried to envision the manifestation of other people's fears that had surrounded my decision to travel alone. Someone could steal my bag, sexually assault me, or even worse, I suppose the train could roll off the tracks, but I must confess that outside of feeling a little chilly, I felt nothing but safe. Yes, I'm in a foreign land that is filled with dirt, poverty and bouts of male aggression, but there's a slice of that anywhere you go. When I awoke, I was met with dozens of smiles. An Islamic man handed me a pamphlet about God, another offered me his window seat, and yet another explained that our train was running a little late and gave me a personal notification upon reaching Kottayam.

My journey through Kerala was as much a philosophical quest as it was an exploration of India's lone communist state and the people that reside within it. Without trust, I wouldn't have met Matthew, Asok and all of the people I will soon write about. And without faith, in something, I wouldn't be back on the ship, a few days later, drinking my Trung Nguyen and blogging about it.