Thursday, April 24, 2008

Winning the Lottery

I was extremely fortunate to have Matthew Davison, host and instructor of the Douglass Street Laboratory, show us this video this week.

It was a part of a writing exercise exploring an event that changed a character's life.

I was having a rough week. I was angry. In fact, I still am. It is an anger driven by hurt driven by insecurity. An awful cocktail.

This video shook me.

It reeled me back into the moment, the gears of reality, life (raw, pure potential) -- which never intended to have anything to do with superficial assessments of beauty and desireability, which is what I had been grappling with.

This video took me back to the day I saw "What the Bleep Do We Know" for the first time, years ago. I don't recall how I came to hear about this film, but I remember leaving the theater thinking that the film would save my life.

And as the weeks after the film unfolded -- I realized that this was true.

The hours of my life passed like pages turned in a book of theorems and proofs. I could influence my reality in a very literal way.

It is a strange thing once you realize you can do this -- in that you actually stop doing it sometimes. It is like winning the lottery all the time, so much so, that sometimes, you choose not to play.

I am Science

You step out of the movie theater,
popcorn dust and the odor of rancid butter
are in your clothes.

You walk through the lobby
and come out the other side of the glass doors, slightly dizzy,
lips trembling,
the way the baby leaves on the mint plant on the porch do
when you walk up the front steps.

It is night.

It is cold and you have no jacket.

The light from the streetlamps is refracted
and sends long-armed stars of bright white all around you.

There are kids yelling a few blocks down the street,
near the pool hall and the bank.
Something about fuck.
Something about someone not knowing anything.

The course is bone straight,
your steps crooked,
and the ground you walk on looks wet,
although it hasn't rained in months.

You are on the edge of knowing.

The cut glass of a secret is in your hand.

The excitement makes your nostrils tingle
and your breath and stomach are flipping like gymnasts.

Don't turn around,
because you don't care what the truth is.

Move forward through the night
as your shadow,
as cells sloughed off in the wind,
as stray hairs,
as even the tiny bits of rubber wearing off of your shoes
shuffle and reshuffle behind you,
like an airport arrival and departure board gone haywire,
as you take your steps away; toward.

Things lock into place
only when you look at them.

Definitely. Look.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Known Unknowns

I've been back in the Bay Area for over a month now.

I returned with the waning rash, ankles thick as daikon from not getting up often enough during the long plane rides I took to get home, and a cold.

But, of all things, jetlag was not an issue. My sleep habits are terribly erratic, so my body has low expectations when it comes to sleep.

As expected, many people have asked me, "So, how was India?!"

When I first returned, my response was, "Great!" "Beautiful!" "Amazing!" Basically, it was my way of not really saying anything about my experience, because I hadn't had a chance to compose the answer for people, or for myself.

When people ask, "How was your trip to Tahoe?" You can say -- it was awesome. We went sledding and the snow was amazing. Anita made awesome Indian Nachos and James made his famous chicken curry."

I found, at least for myself, that when I returned from India, the response was not going to be that easily assessed and expressed. I began to feel that one of the biggest mistakes I could make in my life would be to underestimate the transformational power of what I had experienced. Transformational not just for myself, but potentially for other people as well.

As I slowly began to digest everything that I had seen, heard, smelled, tasted, touched, and thought during the 16 days I spent across Hyderabad, Delhi, and Goa, a response of higher fidelity started to gel. This was not a forced or calculated digestion. It was the kind of thing where you're spacing out one evening after a particularly ugly day and a beautiful memory takes hold of you.

Synapses start firing and a new course is charted in the brain, like a trail of lanterns leading the way in meandering darkness, then you hear the ocean nearby, the inkling of a new thought; an original idea.

The closest I have come to a fully articulated response to my trip to India came during a conversation I had with my friend Annaji, who was the person who suggested that I create this blog in the first place.

In attempts to close this chapter of the blog, here is an account of this response, included in a letter I wrote to my friend Teja, which accompanied a book I sent him to thank him for the books he had given me during my trip.

How is life?

I went to Lake Tahoe a couple of weeks ago with some friends. While they were skiing, I sat in the lodge and read this marvelous book --
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

It moved me. It changed my outlook on life, if ever so slightly.

I thought you might enjoy it as well. Or it may potentially be completely irrelevant to you.

I am unsure of how issues of mortality and consciousness stand in your mind. Is the weight of experience of a wealthy Frenchman stricken with locked-in syndrome pondering his mortality and state of consciousness in a private hospital in relative comfort -- different from the weight of experience of impoverished people slowing dying of starvation in the countryside, as Nehru's account mentions?

I want to say that they have equal weight, because each life has the same value. However, I think there is something to be said for relativity -- that your perception of one person's tragedy is dependent on your own experience of the like. And sometimes, depending on your station, you can stretch your arms to embrace two extremes.

In my case, I can fathom Bauby's experience, though I think it could seem fanciful compared to other tragedies in the world, including those recounted by Nehru. Nontheless, I think it is a valuable, fascinating, and heart-breaking story.

Annaji asked me if I enjoyed my trip to India. I said I loved it.

He said -- what did you think? I said it was beautiful.

He knew that I was holding back something.

And then we really got down to business.

I told him that when I say that I love India, I mean it with a surging wave of adoration from the middle of my chest. I remember all of the beautiful people I met, who treated me like family, like an old friend, though I had just arrived in their country. They opened their homes and hearts to me. With greatest sincerity, they shared their food, their clothes, their culture, their stories, and their dreams with me. I love India.

And when I say this, I feel like I am laying down a pefect hand of cards, while guiltily hiding a few other cards behind my back.

Cards like poverty and casteism.

But then there is also the joker card. This card is the hope, the light -- the josh.

And one thing I noticed, and this may be a sweeping generalization, is that just about every Indian I met had this boundary-breaking card shining through his or her breast pocket.

Annaji and I went on to talk about what I saw, and likewise, what I did not see. Not what I did not see as in "I didn't get to see the Taj Mahal because I had the mutton keema."

We talked about what it means when you see astounding poverty, and if this is what you can see, can you imagine what it is that you cannot see?

When you see people, dogs, and birds -- all picking through the same huge pile of garbage on the side of a street in broad daylight -- what is it that is hidden? What kinds of things happen in darkness, in isolation?

And then Annaji referred to Donald Rumsfeld's famous "Known Unknowns" speech:

What are the Unknown Unknowns of India? What are the Unknown Unknowns of ourselves?

We closed the conversation with Annaji asking me,"Well, what are you doing to do about it?"

I told him, "I'm working on it."

I've joined the Douglass Street Laboratory, a writers' group run by Matthew Davison, trying to make sense of what happened in this blog, on the page and on the street, and the country that inspired it.

At the very least, I believe that it will help to turn a few Unknown Unknowns -- to Known Unknowns.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Life's a Wheel of Fortune and Y'all Can't Buy a Vowel

The Hyderabad Airport was a nightmare. In fact, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that getting into the terminal was like having to force my way into hell.

I could not check my baggage all the way through to Oakland from Goa -- so I was lugging everything around. People five rows deep were crowding around the fence that surrounded the walkway I needed to get to to get to my terminal.

I could not see where the opening in the fence was because so many people were shoved up against it. And once I found it -- it was completely blocked by people just standing around -- not even trying to get on a plane. Once I managed to get through the wall of people with my unruly luggage, the guards said I couldn't enter the terminal until 10 pm. It was now 4 pm.

I said, "Really. Really. Are you sure? What am I supposed to do here?"

Mysteriously, the guard then said, "Okay -- go in those doors and wait there until 10."

I went over to the doors and they slid open to reveal -- hell. It was a waiting area for crying babies, screaming children, people with the flu and horrible body odor, and me -- rashy.

People were pushing up against a wall of metal mesh through which they could see loved ones leaving and arriving.

I have little memory of what I did for six hours in that room. Although, I do remember the arrival of three women wearing fragrant garlands of flowers in their hair who sat in front of me. I was thankful for this.

When 10 pm came, I was asleep in hell. Who would have thought I could be so comfortable there? I woke up at midnight and dashed out of the room to the terminal.

If I thought it was a nightmare before, it was 10 times worse now. As I do in many situations in which things are beyond dire, I check out and turn on autopilot.

Before I knew it, I was in the Frankfurt airport paying $6 for a huge salt-topped bretzel.


I got on the plane and sat next to a guy who looked like Val Kilmer and acted just like my dear friend DJ Tanner. And strangely enough, they both work in outbound strategy for high-tech companies. This guy was a good seatmate because he knew how to steal stuff from first class. I'd fall asleep and then wake up to a seat tray full of Milka bars and cups of cold milk.

I love candy. It was awesome.

He was coming from a tradeshow in Hannover, which he said was a town with nothing to do in it. Oddly enough, I've come to learn that Hannover was the first home to Battle of the Year, a huge international breakdancing competition.

Here's a video of some of the members of Last for One crew from Korea, 2005 BOTY champions. To be clear, this means that the best breakdancing crew in the world in 2005 -- was from Korea.

The Koreans manage to breakdance, human beatbox, DJ, and play the kayagum to their hip-hop rendition of Pachebel's Canon in D Major in a video that I keep expecting to be an ad for LG. They also send kim chee into space.

These are just a few of the reasons why I believe the Koreans are going to take over the world.

That is, unless the Indians put together a b-boy crew...

Slapping Kids, Throwing Shoes, and No I'm Not From China

I was thrown by the matter-of-fact delivery Tony used to tell me how his father had been killed by police in his home country of Burma.

Uncharacteristically, I didn't know what question to ask.

I wanted to know the whole story, but Tony stood before me so awkwardly, as if I were forcing him to stand there naked.

So, I talked to him about his life in Goa instead and how it was pretty relaxed and pretty fun. I felt happy for him that despite this awful tragedy, he had made his way to this town in which people seemed to be all about a good time.

As I write this it reminds me of something the night desk clerk said to me after I looked at him as if he were out of his mind after asking if he could come back to my room with me.

He said, "You can learn a lot by getting to know more people. Like about business. And sex."

I was getting a lecture on how I should be more outgoing from a sociopath.


So, I saw that it was time to leave Goa as I saw Vinesh heading up the walk toward me. I got into his taxi van with the plastic bald eagle with flappy wings hanging from the rear view mirror.

As we made the drive to the Goa airport, I was pretty speechless as the rash was gaining in intensity and Vinesh was talking about all of the girls who had proposed marriage to him.

I was afraid that by the time it was time to board the plane, I'd look like frickin' Joseph Merrick and they'd put me in quarantine with some rabid monkeys.

Once at the airport, I thanked Vinesh for his excellent driving services and headed into the crowded terminal. I checked in and asked if there was a clinic at the airport. I was seriously starting to believe that I had some tropical disease. The agent told me that there was a doctor on duty right now and point at the little office just 50 feet away. I was thrilled.

I headed over to the office and the doctor and nurse looked up from their desks, stunned that someone was actually in the office. I said, "I have a horrible rash, can you help me?"

The doctor said, "You realize that this office is only for emergency conditions, right?"

I said, "For a person as vain as I am, this is an emergency!" Well, actually, I said, "It doesn't look like you have any emergencies going on right now - can you just take a look at it?"

He glanced at it for a second, with barely one eye, and told me I had a bad sunburn and that he didn't have any medications to treat it.

For the first time in the last two weeks, I felt like I was in the U.S. again!

I was resigned to my fate of sitting on planes and in airports for the next 24 hours with a horrible rash on my face and arms, which was slowly moving to my torso and legs.

I stood outside the doctor's office for a minute, dazed, only to see a little boy accidentally push a luggage cart into the back of his mother's ankles. She whipped her body around and slapped him. Then she looked at me like, "What are you looking at?"

It reminded me of the time I was walking around North Beach with some friends as the strippers were getting off of work and my eyes locked quite randomly with one of them who probably had one bad client too many that night and yelled, "What are you looking at?" and threw her shoe at me.

I was very lucky to be with about 10 Assyrians at the time, so no harm was done.

It also reminds me of the time I was wandering around in TJ Maxx in San Jose and a father and son were wandering around too. The son, who was around 7 years old, started running down an aisle and a worker told him to stop running. So the father went up to the son and slapped him, only to immediately whisper to him -- "It's okay. It's okay."

This was very strange -- but understandable at the same time. The father had to show the worker that he corrected his son's behavior by store standards -- but he also had to tell his son that he didn't really agree with those standards.

As I rode the crowded bus from the terminal to the plane, which would take me back to Hyderabad, I realized that I was standing face-to-face with the mother who had slapped her son. She was now smiling at me. Her whole family was smiling at me. I got paranoid and thought that maybe they were laughing at my rash. But then her daughter said, "You are pretty. Are you from China?"

The Rash and Tony's Tattoo

After my long stint in the WiFi shop, I was not feeling right at all. A lethargic nausea was taking over me.
I was slated to go to Tito's for dinner that night to see Ivor's son play and have Goa's famous fish curry rice. I could not let this momentary setback stop me!
So, I headed over and by the time Haydn stopped playing and the Australian hypnotist took stage, my face felt like an orange peel and my lips were like peeling paint. Not good. Awful, in fact.

Watching the hypnotist try to lull some drunk English girls into submission, I felt like I was in Muriel's Wedding. It was uncanny.

I headed back to the hotel and by the time I reached my room -- it was clear that I had developed illness #3! A full body rash. I took some Claritin, the only tangentially related medication I had on hand and crossed my fingers.

The next morning the rash was not better -- it was actually a weepy rash now. I was scheduled to check out at noon, so I packed up my stuff and decided to go down to the beach one last time, rash and all.

I sat at Swally's Beach Shack, the one I had sat at the first day I was on the beach. The people I had met that first day were working and came over to say hello. No one mentioned the rash, which was heartening.

At the urging of the woman who is in charge of seating people, massage, and mani/pedis -- I decided to get a pedicure, complete with rhinestones and other sparkly things. I was unsure of how she was going to manage to do this considering we were on a windy, sandy beach.

But she did. And it was beautiful! I talked with her a bit more as we waited for it to dry and then I headed back to the hotel to check out and get a ride into town to buy some Benadryl!

The Benadryl just made me sleepy and I did, in fact, fall asleep in my chair as I passed some time in hotel's outdoor restaurant.

I was panicked at this point. Did I have malaria? Did I have Dengue Fever? I had no idea what the symptoms of these diseases are -- but they had entered my hypochrondriac vocabulary somewhere along the way to India.

I took another taxi ride into town to get whatever else the pharmacist could offer. She gave me Allegra and some cream. I slathered on the cream and took the pills!

I was not feeling any better and just sat, moping, in the outdoor restaurant again, waiting for it to be time to go to the airport with Vinesh.

Then I saw Ivor coming up the walk. He came over and we chatted for a bit. He had come to pick up his paycheck from the hotel and also encouraged me to have a meal of curd rice and papadum to help calm my system. Never one to turn down a meal -- I decided this was a good idea.

Earlier in my trip, curd rice turned me off completely -- but it had really grown on me since my bouts with the mutton keema. Now with the rash, it started having the comforting power of okayu, a Japanese rice porridge my mom would make for me when I was little and ill. Okayu is the Japanese version of the more well-known Chinese jook, or congee.

I said goodbye to Ivor, happy to have seen him once again before leaving Goa.

A waiter, Tony, came over to clear away my curd rice plate -- and I noticed a tattoo on his arm that made me go -- "Whut?!"
I was sure that he was just another Goan horn dog -- with not-so erotic translation skills.

I questioned him about it, saying "That's a pretty controversial tattoo..."

He said that he inscribed this tattoo on his arm after his father was murdered by police in his home country of Burma.

My First Elephant

I was furiously writing up blog entries at the WiFi internet shop a short taxi ride from my hotel, trying to catch up after being laid out by the mutton keema and unable to get to easy-access WiFi.

I stepped out to get some snacks for the shop attendant and me and as I examined a rack of Frito-Lay India products and thought about Mr. Washington and his team of market researchers figuring out how to launch Doritos in India -- I glanced up and saw my first elephant in India!

I felt silly in the moment because I was staring at all of the Frito-Lay bags for a good five minutes before I noticed the literal elephant in the room.

Bebinca, Cashews, and an Indian Donut in Panjim

Vinesh took me to Panjim, otherwise known as Panaji, after showing me the churches of Old Goa.

Panjim is the administrative capital of Goa, while Porvorim is the legislative capital. You can see Porvorim from Panjim, across the Mandovi River.

I was desperate to get some food stuffs to take back to the states. My parents are huge foodies who wanted me to bring back tons of Indian snacks. But after looking at air-puffed bags of namkeens, which I love, I realized that they would push the contents of my luggage over the top.

So, I decided on two Goan specialties:
  • Bebinca!
  • Cashews!

My travel guide book told me that I'd find bebinca in Goa and that it was the perfect souvenir because they are vacuum-packed and ready to travel!

I was immediately curious about Goan bebinca because in Hawaii, we have Filipino bibingka. I was beginning to doubt my memory of the bibingka of my childhood being Filipino in origin -- and started thinking that it is Portuguese. This is because a strong Portuguese presence is what Goa and Hawaii have in common, in addition to the beaches, climate, old hippies, and recreational drug use.

After reading up a bit on the topic, a prevalent conclusion about the origins of bebinca is that it is a Goan recipes that migrated to Portugal! But how did it get to the Philippines to then make its way to Hawaii?

According to a fascinating discussion thread on this very topic, it sounds like the Portuguese and Spanish were often curious about each other's culinary discoveries and everyone stopped in the Philippines during their colonial travels -- so if the Portuguese didn't share the recipe, the Spanish did. This discussion thread also points out, interestingly, that Goan recipes are considered to be Goan or Indo-Portuguese, rather than Indian or Portuguese.

Vinesh pointed me in the direction of a good bebinca shop -- and I was off, while he read the paper in the car in the town square.

I could actually cross the street on my own in Panjim, but I didn't let it go to my head. I had been so conditioned by Hyderabad and Delhi traffic -- that I still flinched as I stepped onto the relatively empty roads.

As I walked to the bebinca shop, I passed by a toy store and spotted an Indian Barbie displayed on a high shelf. I immediately ducked in and asked to see it. It was a terrible knockoff for $50! I was tempted -- but imagined that she was made of lead and toxic plastics, so I was able to resist.

I found the bebinca shop and was pleased to find that they also sold bags of cashews, which my guidebook also told me to pick up in Goa. The roasted cashews were pale and huge and had a very different, yet pleasant, flavor than the cashews I've had in the states.

I regret not seeing any cashews growing in Goa, but this is what they look like according to Google images. The brown nubbin at the bottom of the fruit is the cashew! India is actually the country with the largest land area producing this crop. Cashews are native to Brazil and were introduced to Goa by the Portuguese, who also had a strong foothold in Brazil.

I picked up a few bags and headed back to the car, but was distracted by Cafe Coffee Day, which I had been to in Hyderabad with Srividya and Priya at the end of our sari shopping adventure.

It brought back fond memories, so I headed over to get a sweet lemon tea. Little did I know that I would soon be confronted with one of the most beautiful things I had seen in India yet!

Indian donut!

It was huge and gently warmed. I was in heaven as I listened to a heated discussion amongst some very westernized Goan girls smoking cigarettes and looking anorexic on the patio...

I finished my tea and headed back to Vinesh, who I was very happy to find because it isn't always a guarantee that J-Ha will find her way back to fixed locations immediately.

Oddly enough, I am more likely to be reunited with people and things in unfixed locations over relatively vast periods of time.

One of These Things is Not Like the Other

I was feeling a bit off in the morning, so I ordered a very unassuming toast and jam and porridge for room service breakfast.

When it arrived, I got toast and jam and a poached egg. This was the first time I realized how similar "porridge" and "poached egg" sound. I sent the poached egg back only because looking at it made me queasy.

I went down to the beach to people watch for a bit before going sightseeing with my driver Vinesh. The beach was pretty empty, which seemed to be the norm for morning hours. I sat at a different beach shack and did the incessant hand shaking and name exchanging.

Goa is a different sort of place from the rest of India, I think. Before I went to India, I read etiquette guides and called upon the "Cultural Awareness: India" class I had taken at Oracle and they pretty much said not to initiate handshakes because it isn't really what is done in India. But in Goa, I was getting OCD about all of the hands this person shook all the way down the beach before getting to my hand!

Also, locals and tourists alike, all seemed to be constantly trying to get some in Goa. This is not what I had expected either. Well, maybe I had expected tourists to be...but not the locals. But I think a large percentage of the "locals" are transplants with the sole purpose of trying to get some with the tourists. You know, you get a tourist girl high on ecstacy at a beach rave -- and you don't know what could happen!

For the record, I did not go to any beach raves. In fact, I pretty much made sure to be back in my room by 9 pm, lest anyone get the wrong idea.

So, it was time to meet Vinesh for a day of sightseeing in Goa. We headed for Old Goa. Here are some photos I took on the way:

For those of you who are unaware of this, Goa was Portuguese colony for about 500 years. This may partially account for why Goa seemed to me to operate a little differently than the rest of India. This is also why Vinesh took me to see a lot churches. Churches are all over the place in Goa. Colorful shrines were constantly popping up along roadsides as we drove through winding hills.

Here are some photos from the Basilica Bom Jesus, which is dedicated to the worship of the Baby Jesus and is the home to the tomb of St. Francis Xavier, who is the patron saint of Goa. The church is built primarily of laterite, a locally available red stone.

There was another church across the street, St. Catherine's Cathedral. According to my guidebook, it is the largest church in Old Goa. I had had enough church for the moment, so I didn't go.
I went back to the car and Vinesh said that people usually spend two hours looking at the churches. I had spent 20 minutes.

So then, of course, he took me to another church! This one was way up in the hills and you could not go into the church. It was locked up tight.
People were just milling around trying to peer into these beautiful quirky windows whose panes were made of what looked liked squares of mother of pearl:

The view of Old Goa from the churchyard was gorgeous:
We saw a barge going down the river. Vinesh said that it is taking iron from an iron mine his dad used to work at all the way to Japan:
Here's a pretty Goa blossom in the churchyard:
After discussing his mother's dislike for his ex-girlfriend and her current plans to find him a wife herself, we headed toward Panjim, the capital of Goa.

The "I'm So Done" Moments

For those of you who are interested, my two "I'm so done" moments referred to in "The Anti-Plan" posting were:
  • Suffering from the "mutton keema" and having to jump over a sewage canal to get to a hospital to get treatment for it.
  • Finding myself in the Hyderabad airport having to perform a feminine hygiene task with no toilet paper and no trashcan. Just imagine...

The Anti-Plan

One thing I never thought I'd get used to in India is the idea of a bathroom that is meant to get wet.

Like, wet, ALL OVER.

In the Blue Belle Hotel in Delhi and in Hotel Estrela Do Mar in Goa and in a few other bathrooms I saw along the way -- the showers have no doors, no curtains. When you shower -- the entire bathroom showers with you.
This made me uncomfortable.

I tried to splash around as little as possible, which made for a somewhat repressed shower experience.

But you know what? By the second day of my stay at Estrela Do Mar -- I had changed my mind. I now loved the open shower bathroom! You just need to put the toilet seat down -- and then go nuts. When you're clean -- the entire bathroom is clean.

This post is not really about bathrooms actually. It is about adaptation. It is about seceding to India's ability to change you.

Repeatedly, before I left on this trip, people gave me the advice to just go, let go, take it all in, and then get up the next morning and do it again.

India's modus operandi was so completely different from that of my daily life in the Bay Area, and she was relentless! At no point during my trip did I ever say to myself -- "Oh, this is just like back home!" and you know what, I didn't want it to be.

With the exception of a few "I'm so done with this biotch!" moments along the way -- I realized that India had convinced me to go along with her open and swirling anti-plan without ever asking, and without my ever realizing that I had been convinced.

I love that about her.