Monday, November 25, 2013

Loving India

Ready for the school holiday party.

I'm falling in love with India. Some might think it's a crush. We've been here not even two weeks, after all. Am I seeing India through rose-colored glasses? Don't I see the social problems, the garbage, the crazy traffic? 

Of course I see these things. But this is unconditional love. I'm not in this relationship to judge it but to soak it in.

There's a vibrancy pulsing through Chennai in the shops, temples, streets, and homes. Everywhere there are adorable children in school groups or with their extended families. I'm fascinated by the juxtaposition of ancient and modern, as well as the co-existence of so many different religions and ethnicities. I love that yoga is important here, and I feel transformed after each yoga session. I ascribe that not only to the stretching and movement, but to the super oxygenation from the breathing exercises.

School children. Cuties!

I'm aware of how saying "I love India" after having experienced only Chennai is like saying "I love the U.S." after visiting only California. India is a huge country. But I'm glad we aren't hopping around at break-neck speed to snap photos of every iconic site. Instead, we are rooted at the home of our friends, Karen and Widi. We have the privilege of experiencing their daily life and exploring places with the help of their driver, John.

John has lived in Chennai his whole life and has worked as a driver for more than thirty years. I asked him how Chennai has changed since he was a child. He told me back then, no one but the super rich had cars. Everyone else got around by walking, mule, rickshaw or bicycle. Now there's a larger middle class, and many more people have cars, motorcycles and mopeds. The human-powered rickshaw is a relic of the past; now auto-rickshaws buzz around like honey bees at a hive. Also, it seems everyone has a cell phone, even many of the poor.

Kapaleeshwar Temple

One of the most memorable places John took Dave and me was to Kapaleeshwar Temple in Mylapore. (Almost everyone calls it Mylapore Temple, probably because that's pronounceable!) Built in the 8th century, it's covered in stunning sculptures.

There's an area of the temple where only Hindus are allowed. John and his cousin went inside and got two gorgeous, fragrant garlands blessed and then placed them over our heads.

With John at Kapaleeshwar Temple

We had to take off our shoes not only to walk inside but on the outside part of the grounds. You can't be persnickety about getting your feet dirty here. I noticed that in the city, there's a lot of barefoot walking (and, frighteningly, motorcycle riding)! The weather is generally quite warm, so that makes sense--as do the free-flowing clothes that shield the body from the sun yet keep it cool.

Another incredible outing was to Mahabalipuram, which is about an hour outside of the city. I enjoyed seeing the rural areas and a number of seaside resorts as we passed. Mahabalipuram has to be seen to be believed. It's a 7th century mix of magnificent historic rock temples and alfresco bas reliefs butting up against beautiful beaches. (Who knew we'd see surfers in India?)

Lunch that afternoon was an incredible whole fresh fish cooked for us in garlic butter, served with rice and veggies. 

We chose the one on the right.

Food here is very inexpensive. Twice now we've been to a crazy-delicious restaurant, Sangeeta, that John characterized as "medium-priced" at $2 a person. That's compared to the  20 cents you can spend for a very filling portion of street food. We haven't braved street food, but Karen and Widi--who have lived here for five years--eat it, and they've never gotten sick.

That could be because they are citizens of the world. They met 27 years ago when they were both working at a refugee camp in Sumatra. Prior to that, Karen had been in the Peace Corps in Benin. Widi, who's Javanese, was recruited to work with the refugees while he was still in college. After they married in a traditional Indonesian ceremony, they moved to Thailand to work in another refugee camp. The decline of Karen's father brought them to Massachusetts, where they stayed for 18 years. They both worked as teachers there: Karen in the public schools and Widi through Lutheran social services. 

Widi and Karen's wedding picture
Widi told me the move to the U.S. was an adjustment for him. He was bowled over by the abundance of goods in stores. His first time in the city of Albany, they went into a huge mall and he'd thought the mall contained the whole city! Also, Widi said that Indonesians maintain harmony by agreeing. It took some time for him to learn how to "agree to disagree" in both his work and personal life.

Soon, their son John (yes, there are two Johns in this household) was born. John is now a senior in the international high school here in Chennai where Widi and Karen teach. Like his father almost 20 years before, John underwent an adjustment period upon moving. In fact, he's now writing an essay for his college application about his personal transformation. He evolved from hating India to being grateful for the opportunity to live here. He feels he's grown in ways he couldn't have if the family had stayed in small-town Massachusetts.

At Mahabalipuram

I find it fascinating how life brings people together. We met Karen and Widi on an Alaska cruise three years ago. And now here we are with them on the other side of the world. I thought about that the other night when we took a walk with Jaga, their sweet dog. It was hot and humid out, and the gold full moon shone over the Bay of Bengal. People were out and about, walking, eating at stalls, riding bikes and motorbikes, or sitting on the ledge of the promenade. Cows, down for the night, slept in groups of three or four along the road. Many of the street dogs slept too, but others barked at Jaga as we passed.

On the beach with children, Jaga and other dogs.

Widi took us on a detour down a dirt road through a village filled with small shacks. Most had their doors open to dirt floors. People hung around out front and nodded at us as we passed. Suddenly a group of girls--probably ages 4-8--came running up to me, squealing with delight. They grabbed my hands and reached up to touch my hair. 

"What is your name?" asked the oldest one. 

"Kate," I said, and they chanted "Kate! Kate!"

I asked each of them their names, and they stared into my eyes. Their accents made it hard for me to hear but I did my best to repeat each name. They laughed and caressed my arms. As we pulled away, I waved and we all said, "Goodbye, goodbye." Then I felt the tears come. I was so moved by these lovely little spirits who live a life so different from mine but who connected deeply with my heart.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Lights of the Gods

Giants save the day.

Ever since we decided to come to India, I was thrilled that we'd be spending time with our friends Karen and Widi, who have lived in Chennai for five years. I was also excited to know I'd get to do yoga in the place where it all began.  Our second morning here in Chennai, I came downstairs ready to go in my favorite yoga pants and purple tie-dye yoga top.

"Do you have a regular tee-shirt that covers your shoulders and reveals no cleavage?" asked Karen.

What? Well, that certainly tweaked my concept of a yoga class.

I went back upstairs and donned my Giants World Series tee-shirt. It has a bit of a vee-neck. Being a large-breasted gal, I wasn't sure if it was suitable, but it's the only tee-shirt I brought.

Karen gave me the stamp of approval. I wondered how comfortable I'd be because I do yoga only in sleeveless shirts. Then it struck me how being a little more covered up might suggest a shift in the focus of the class from external to internal.

Karen and Widi go to Swami Sivananda yoga. In fact, Widi will participate in the teacher training in the Himalayas next year. He's more than ready to teach, if you ask me. Not only has he been a language teacher for years, he can rock yoga poses that make me sore to watch. During class when he did the peacock with grace and (apparent) ease, I felt I was in the company of a master.

The class incorporated chanting, breathing, sun salutations and various challenging poses with welcome rests in between. I was familiar with most of the poses although there were some variations new to me.

At the end was an extended savasana (corpse pose) with relaxation guided by the teacher. (I've read we are practicing to be corpses when we are in that pose. If so, death will be luxurious.)

Family decorating the sidewalk for Kartik.

After class we were given a snack: half a banana, a kind of sweet sticky rice, and tea because it was a special day: Kartik Poornima. This festival coincides with the full moon. Kartik means "star" and the day is also knows as the festival of lights of the gods.

Not only did we get an edible treat, but we put dots on our foreheads of three different color pastes (yellow, red and black). The black is ashes from burnt offerings.

Streets of Chennai.

The peacefulness of the yoga center was greatly contrasted with a walk we took that afternoon through the neighborhood. It's truly mind-boggling for this Westerner to be walking along crumbling sidewalks through throngs of people, stray dogs, and the occasional cow interspersed with cars and motorcycles and bicycles weaving through, horns blaring. In what appears to be chaos, everything actually flows in an improvisational pattern. Widi told us that cars honk not in aggression but to inform others of their location.

Cuties.  (That's Widi in the back with the family dog.)

We made our way over to the beach where smiling kids ran up to us shouting, "Photo! Photo!" After we'd take their picture they'd say, "Zoom! Zoom!" I realized they wanted to look at the picture and have me zoom in so they could see their faces. It was a beautiful thing to laugh with these children. Some of them were playing with balls, kicking them around. We also saw three boys playing with pieces of a styrofoam cooler, clearly garbage from the beach.

There is a lot of trash everywhere, no question. What a striking contrast the garbage is to the activity in the stores and streets, the colorful saris everywhere, and the energy and beauty of the people.

Near the beach I saw a little girl--not more than three--perched on the front of a motorcycle driven by her father. I wondered how she balanced so well. She was adorable; I couldn't help but stare. Her father looked directly at me, and I sheepishly smiled at him. He grinned back so fully it felt like he was beaming joy right into me. Perhaps he was happy I appreciated his little girl so much.

That smile--with teeth brilliantly white--stayed with me. Widi told me that many Indians use a twig for brushing their teeth (which some do incessantly). That, indeed, makes them very white.

He mentioned this as the four of us sat on the roof that evening, sipping wine. Fireworks lit up the sky in celebration of the Hindu festival. From a distance the haunting Islamic call to prayer echoed, and I recalled how that morning I'd been awakened by the bells of a nearby Christian church.

As the sun set, the golden full moon rose--just as it does on this day everywhere in the world.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Nothing's Wrong in Hong Kong!

"Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving until the right action arises by itself?" - Byron Katie

On our journeys, I'm realizing whenever something "goes wrong," something "right" awaits in the wings.

Of course the most profound example for me is the brain tumor and surgery. This has led me to develop a greater appreciation for life's moments, for love and friendships, and for my incredible self-healing spacesuit called the body.

Even in less dramatic cases, choosing not to freak out when life veers in unexpected directions is the way to go. We'd planned to stay in Hong Kong with my friend Kathy and her husband. But after we'd made our flight reservations, they were suddenly transferred to Canada. Instead of worrying and scrambling around trying to figure out what we'd do (definitely my modus operandi in the past!), we sat with the news for a while.

Then, before we could begin investigating alternatives, Kathy's husband offered to set us up in a five-star hotel at his firm's discount rate. Our mantra these days is: "And now for something completely different!" This certainly fit the bill. Even though five-star hotels aren't the norm for us, we figured it would be a unique opportunity.

View from our room.

The W in Kowloon has the highest pool in Hong Kong. Spread out over the 76th floor roof, the infinity pool and Jacuzzi seem to spill into the spectacular skyline. One evening as Typhoon Haiyan whipped its tail through the area, we were pelted by both rain water and warm Jacuzzi water lifted by the winds.

Feeling like we were on the edge of the world, I thought about my surgeon busting into my skull, about all those elevators and jets and trains hoisting our bodies around at break-neck speed, about the faith it takes in tumultuous times to wait for the mud to settle.

We held out our arms like wings and yelled into the howling winds: "To infinity and beyond!"

We never would have had that experience if things hadn't "gone wrong." While I'm sure it would have been fabulous to stay with Kathy and her family, I'm not into dwelling on what could have been. Instead, I prefer fully experiencing whatever the bend in the road reveals. 

Nothing is wasted. There is no wrong path. 

Nothing is the end of the world but the end of the world. (And whenever that happens--as it will to us all--I guess it's time to move onto the next thing anyway.)

Another example of wrong-going-right occurred our last day in Hong Kong. We were on the small island of Lamma--a half hour ferry ride from Central Hong Kong--enjoying the tranquil scene at an outdoor waterfront restaurant. 

The sun sat low in the sky. Little fish jumped, creating pretty ripples that spread out to the fishing boats docked nearby. Dave sipped fresh young coconut water, and we ate yummy spring rolls. We soaked up every moment until it was time to catch the ferry. But the ferry was full and not taking on anymore passengers! One irate woman cursed the captain in Cantonese. A dock worker sheepishly untied the ropes and shook his head.

We had a plane to catch. The next ferry wasn't scheduled to depart for an an hour and a half. That would be cutting it close. But a calm descended. What could we do but trust it would all work out? 

So we returned to that sweet waterfront spot. We realized we now had the chance to experience the beginnings of sunset in the company of the genial woman who ran the place and her two dogs that lazed by our feet. There was something about her that felt so comfortable and familiar. Like she was a Californian. But no, she assured us in very good English, she was a Lamma native. 

In the moment, we knew that the missed ferry created this bonus island time. As though to punctuate our certainty that it was all working out, our bill came to exactly $111 in Hong Kong dollars. We consider the number one, especially in succession, a good sign in our lives.

The next ferry came early. But it wasn't just a regular ferry, it was a hydrofoil that flew us back to Hong Kong in record time. It felt more like a fun high-speed train ride than a slow boat in China. We made our flight no problem. But if we hadn't, after the mud settled, I'm sure something quite interesting would have emerged.

Here are a few of our other Hong Kong highlights:

1. We loved the Chi Lin Nunnery and adjacent Nan Lian gardens. The nunnery is an awesome display of fanciful, powerful statues of god. But you'll have to see for yourself since no photos are allowed.

Nan Lian Gardens, a juxtaposition of ancient and modern.

2. While Lamma Island was sweet, even better was Cheung Chai island. It's an authentic Chinese fishing village with a bustling market and winding streets with no cars but a throng of bicycles. We saw innumerable tiny homes and shops. Very charming with a beachy vibe. At a waterfront restaurant called Hong Kee, we ate the most delicious crunchy fried noodles. This was actually our favorite day--punctuated by the fact that we did this trip on 11/11 and boarded the ferry at 11:11!

3. I adore that Hong Kong has an outdoor escalator that takes you up the side of a mountain. You can see into the windows of all kinds of businesses and homes as you go--reminiscent of the aesthetic of Hitchcock's Rear Window!

Hong Kong has miles and miles of maze-like air-conditioned malls that serve their purpose, but for us the most memorable experiences took place outdoors.

We are now in Chennai, India. I write this from the beautiful home of our friends Karen and Widi. I can feel that a million possibilities await us here. It's nice to know that no matter what, nothing can go wrong.