Saturday, September 25, 2010

New favorite food alert

Except for the occasional pina colada or Jewish macaroon, I’ve never been a huge fan of coconut. I remember Vita and those other coconut water brands sending boxes of product to the office last year, and always hating the taste. But I became a coconut convert in Vietnam. Especially when the coconut has been on ice, and especially when it’s 1,000 degrees outside, and especially when the vendor hacks it open on the street with a giant machete and a smile, and then sprinkles the flesh with a little sugar and crushed ice.

(Please note the size differential between Gabe and the average Vietnamese woman. Giggle.)

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Tomato room!

Seeing Ben in Bangkok and visiting his school, where he has recently been promoted to head of the English language program, was in every way a treat. We couldn’t get enough of his classroom, Tomato, and his obvious joy in living and breathing Thailand. Plus, everything in his school is in fucking miniature! It’s brilliant!

Gabe naps on bed made for 4-year-old Thai children.



The boys, at the Tomato table. OMG OMG OMG.

We love you Ben-jamm-in. Til we meet again …

Happy long time


Exclamation point.

This pretty much sums up how we feel in Thailand.

Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand

Lies, lies, lies

Now that we’re safely out of the country, I can tell you all about how I bribed my way into India.

It starts with Yanik and Andy’s wedding. Days before we left New York for the Chermeo World Tour, I bought a ticket from Delhi to Cancun for their celebration. Vince got me an upgrade. All was awesome.

Nearly five months later, two weeks in India under our belt, Gabe takes me to the airport in Delhi. I manage to get out of the city in one of the last flights before the first major monsoon rain. Awesome.

Yanik and Andy’s wedding. Awesome.

I arrive back in Delhi five days later, pooped. I get to immigration.

Skinny mustached immigration guard: You can’t come in.

Me: Why not?

Mustache: Your visa says you must wait two months. Did you not read your visa?

Me: Hunh. No.

Mustache hands me back my passport, and written across my Indian visa (which I’ve had since February) are the words, “two months must separate any visits in India.”

Me: I’m so sorry! I never looked at it! I was in India with my husband and he’s waiting for me in the airport and I went back to the U.S. for my best friend’s wedding!

Mustache: What?

I repeat myself, and he calls for Senior Immigration Lady, who listens to my plea. “Best friend” gets upgraded to “sister,” as I attempt to play on Indian devotion to family and wedding and tragedy (my poor lonely husband worried about me out in the terminal!).

Senior Lady: Did you not read your visa?

Me: No.

She stares at me, and takes my passport to some back room.

Mustache leers at me for the next 15 minutes.

Senior Lady comes back with a gleeful, malicious look on her face, and I wonder what’s about to happen. She hands me a piece of blank white paper and a pen. She says, “Write down what I say.”

Senior Lady: I have been traveling in India with my husband. My husband is waiting for me in India. We have no business in India. I went back to the United States for a medical emergency. Please grant me a medical emergency visa. I came back to India to meet my husband, who is waiting for me.

I dumbly write down the lie word for word, signing my name, passport and visa number. Never mind that I was actually in Mexico for the past five days, but who’s counting lies now? I fill out a bunch of other medical emergency visa forms, in triplicate, because this is India, and if there aren’t 27 pieces of paper attached, it isn’t official. Mustache stamps me through, and continues to leer.

Senior Lady: Now, can you do a little something for the guards?

I am gripped with anxiety, as I have been visually raped at least 100 times since arriving in India. Sure, Senior Lady that just had me fill out official immigration documents filled with lies. What can I do?

Senior Lady: Can you buy some stuff in duty free? They can’t do it with their passports. You don’t have to pay, we pay.

They pay? Not much of a bribe. Okay, I can do this.

So Mustache ditches his post and the line of travelers waiting at it, and we sprint to the duty free. He whispers a little something to a duty free guy in a pink shirt. Pink Shirt takes me by the arm, grabs a plastic basket, and proceeds to fill it with 6 bottles of Johnnie Walker Black. He dumps me in line, and Mustache hands me a fistful of rupees. A large sign at the register clearly posts that people can buy two bottles of alcohol per passport, in either USD or Euros. Ah, so this is where I get screwed!

The line of 5 people takes 45 minutes, because it is an Indian line, and that’s what Indian lines do. Mustache stands a few feet away, leering and every once in awhile getting approached by another immigration guard. By the time I’m at the front of the line, I have 2 more bottles of scotch in my basket, a measly 500 rupees (around $18) in my hand, and wondering if Gabe has panicked yet.

(I didn’t know that in his spare time, he had flipped through his passport and actually read the visa, and began panicking mildly, and wondering how much the bribe to get me in would cost us. Apparently he decided if the bribe was more than 1,000 rupees he’d boycott the rest of India and we’d go straight to Thailand.)

At the front of the line, a female employee starts telling me I can’t buy that much liquor, when Pink Shirt elbows her aside and pulls another 2 bottles of Johnnie Walker Black from behind the counter. I show him my meager collection of rupees and ask if I can pay by credit card for this now $100 pile of booze. He yells in Hindi to Mustache, who yells in Hindi to some unknown other man, and for the next 10 minutes a relay of rupees makes its way into its hands. Always to my hands – never directly to the cashier 12 inches away from me, which would apparently breach some code of ethics.

Two hours after my flight landed, I hand several plastic bags of Johnnie Walker to Mustache and his friends. He says thank you (!!!!!), and I go find my backpack lying on the floor in baggage claim. I walk out to find a very stinky and very relieved Gabe, who has in this time talked to a security guard who informed him that he shouldn’t start to panic until at least THREE hours after the flight landed.

Namaste, India.


Over the past year, we’ve talked a lot about the course of our lives and careers, and how we want them to intersect. In a very simple sense, we’ve realized how fucking rich we are, and what responsibility we have to give back to those who don’t have as much. It means different things for both of us.

I’ll let Gabe speak for himself. But for me, for now, I can’t with a clear conscience waste any more time. I think about my twenties working in magazines in New York, and how hungry I was – I did anything and everything to survive, and eventually, to excel, and hopefully, abstractly, to write stories that matter. Not from the day I started working on September 10, 2001, to when I was laid off on November 19, 2009 did I not panic that I wasn’t moving forward fast enough, scrapping for whatever recognition I could. I was hungry in the kind of way that is dangerous, directionless, and insatiable, and in my first few years in New York managed to do enough damage to myself and my body for a lifetime.

My goal when I graduated college was that within 5 years I’d be a staff writer at a major consumer magazine, a place to do that “stories that matter” thing. Five years later, there I was a staff writer at BusinessWeek, still hungry and dissatisfied, watching the magazine world – which I’d fantasized about since I could read - fall apart around me. I can only imagine what terrors gripped the people who had devoted their entire lives and careers to the magazine. As for me, I can pinpoint maybe a dozen moments and stories in my career that I felt like MATTERED, which maybe at one point would have felt like an accomplishment, but now is just sad and embarrassing. Maybe it’s that my definition of “matter” has changed, or that I will always be dissatisfied, and maybe both of those are good things. I don’t know.

But I do know that I feel like I’ve wasted time and haven’t done enough. And I haven’t had any REAL challenges. I mean, my parents paid for college. I’ve never been poor. I was vaccinated for disease. I always had proper nutrition, for chrissakes. At the basic level, I’ve never had to survive. Whatever hardship or danger I have experienced, it is because I put myself squarely in its way. While I wouldn’t change how I’ve lived, I’m unsure what it’s worth. If I feel that my path to divinity is service, as I now do, I have to accept I am nowhere near God. And for the first time in my life, I really want to be.

We spent our last few weeks in India volunteering at Apne Aap, a non-governmental organization in Delhi that fights to eradicate sex trafficking in India and around the globe. It was an eye-opening window into the operations of NGOs, the skills we have to offer them, and how inspiring and small and agonizing the steps are to change. Working side-by-side with women who had devoted their lives to abolishing slavery, as we have come to see the sex trade, was a revelation. Learning about trafficking shattered our humored view of red-light districts and prostitution. Our day with a young girl who had been sold by her family and adamantly refused to go back to her village gave us the tiniest glimpse of rural poverty. Though the details are unclear, it seems she was being trafficked right under our noses for domestic labor, which often leads to prostitution – and it was no extraordinary day.

I left India with a different kind of desire than the one that has always pushed me, one that is not driven by fear of failure or inadequacy. I want to do more, and to do more with purpose. If I hated the daily elements of the grind in that country – the demoralizing, dehumanizing, filthy grind – I will always love India for giving me the gift of a new kind of hunger. Thank you.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Beatles whisper

The Beatles famously spent a long stretch at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in Swarg Ashram, where they, too, ate vegetarian and wrote most of the White Album. I would guess this is where they started diving into the funkier spiritual side of things, but I make this assumption based on the fact that I don’t think anyone can spend a significant amount of time in India and NOT start diving into the funkier spiritual side of things. But for the real Beatles story, Craig is the person to ask.

Beatlemaniac or no, it was hard not to get swept up in the magic of the ashram, which is now abandoned and returning to the jungle. Twisted into the vines are mossy statues and tiny shrines, and the empty, ramshackle bungalows seem to melt into the trees. It is ghostly, and beautiful. You can almost feel the faint images of former ashramites meditating and making music.

If you need a soundtrack for the visit, Gabe spent our week at the ashram humming My Sweet Lord.


We spent a week at the ashram Parmath Niketan in Swarg Ashram, Rishikesh, practicing yoga, eating sattvik vegetarian, and doing a whole lotta nothing else. It was glorious, and as long as we didn’t venture into Rishikesh proper and stayed on the ashram premises (Shiva festival overtakes Rishikesh! Agh!) it was a very tranquil week. Let me give you a compare-and-contrast:

The path from our dorm to the yoga studio:

Outside the communal kitchen, where we ate vegetarian food on straw mats:

The view from the yoga hall:

One of the many touches of inspiration:

Life on the street (please forgive the sideways-ness of this recording):

Burning bodies

Death in Varanasi is to be celebrated, both for the Hindus who are lucky enough to die and be cremated there, and for the caste of fire men who manage the cremations. For me, Varanasi is all of India: ancient, frightening, warm, steeped in sad caste traditions, entrepreneurial, occasionally horrifying, sacred, and profane, the line between private and public living blown to bits.

Take dying. Just dipping into the Ganges is enough to wash away a lifetime of sins. If, as a Hindu, you’re lucky enough to die in Varanasi, the holiest of holy Ganges cities, and wealthy enough to pay for a purification and cremation on one of the burning ghats along the river, you’re liberated from the horrors of reincarnation and your family celebrates your bliss. Your body is sunk into the Ganges (whose water people DRINK) and it’s a happy ending for you.

Not for your widowed wife. Because in traditional Hinduism, men who die and leave wives behind aren’t just dying – they are abandoning their wives to the world, and those widows are outcast, because they must have done something horrible to deserve that fate. Though the traditional suicide-by-climbing-on-the-funeral-pyre-of-your-husband has mostly disappeared, widows are still often abandoned by their families for the shame of being widowed, and turn to begging and prostitution to support themselves. Being widowed carries as bad or worse of a social stigma as being divorced. (Note that when wives die, husbands are free to remarry and start over, collecting more dowry, which is one of the root causes of violence against women and bride burning, which is a whole ‘nother story.) Which is horrifying.

Now there are several local organizations in Varanasi that serve as orphanages for widows, taking them in and providing shelter and trying to build a sustainable life for widows. Life after death, if you will. Which is wonderful.

Anyways, back to dying. So dying in Varanasi is auspicious and happy. But touching dead bodies and otherwise dealing with death is very, very taboo. So only very low-caste Dalits (Untouchables) are relegated to the task of preparing the dead for cremation, building the pyres, carrying the dead to the river, bathing them in the Ganges and lighting the fires. The caste system, no matter what anybody says about India and its progress and its vaulted democracy, is ALIVE. Which is horrifying.

But the Untouchables in Varanasi have capitalized on Hinduism’s desire to die on the Ganges, and have instituted a tax on all cremations. The tax goes to the head of the caste, who has a giant home on the river bank, a showy display of wealth among the squalor and quite a social statement from an Untouchable. Which is pretty great. Of course, there is no indication that he shares that wealth among others in his caste, who are doing the literal dirty work. Not so great, and yet another perpetuation of the system which has forced them to work with dead bodies all day.

Back to dying.

All night and day in Varanasi, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, men come barreling down the tiny, cow-strewn streets of the Old City chanting and ringing bells, bearing bamboo pallets of dead people bound in orange silks. They eventually land at either Manikarnika ghat or Harishchandra ghat, where wood is bought – sandalwood is the most expensive – for the burning. Priests say a blessing, and a male relative in attendance submerges the body in the river (more than 100 points of entry for raw sewage into the Ganges, in addition to all these bodies. Chew on that) or scoops river water over it. Then the body is placed on the pyre, where a fire man stokes the flames with a long bamboo pole. Due to the dampness, it can take awhile for a fire to get going, and the body smokes for some time. It takes about 3 hours for a body to burn fully. Sometimes the fire men have to use an accelerant to get the flames going.

But a stubborn fire isn’t the only delay. Sometimes, the traffic of bodies at the ghats gets too high, and after ceremoniously running through the Old City, the bodies of the dead are left waiting in the sun before they can be cremated. Discretion is nonexistent. Attendees leave the bodies scattered along the ghats in the middle of pedestrian traffic until their turn to dunk and burn, orange silks flapping in the humid breeze, goats and cows wandering past, people looking indifferently past them to the action on the lit pyres. Sometimes the dead don’t burn at an even pace, and an overenthusiastic fire man clumsily poking at the blaze can send a spine with a skull attached tumbling to the sidewalk, while mourners look on in dismay.

Gabe and I almost died ourselves when we saw this. Lucky we were in Varanasi. What is the appropriate response to the Pez dispenser remains of a human repeatedly rolling off a burning stack of wood as a boy with a bamboo pole keeps trying to stack it on top? Then another limb of unknown provenance fell off the pyre. When we finally got up to leave the ghat, smoke and the smell of the dead burning our eyes, the silks unwound from another body stacked on yet another pile of wood, and an expressionless face stared up at us.

Not 20 feet from the pyres, on a separate section of the ghat, washermen were beating laundry against the steps leading down into the Ganges, totally indifferent to the charred carcasses being sunk beside them. Another ghat down, kids were diving off platforms into the water, just being kids. Another ghat down, men were brushing their teeth with scoops of Ganges. Another ghat down, buffalo were cooling off in the river. Another ghat down, women in damp saris were combing their wet hair, regrouping after a ceremonious dip. Yet out of respect for the dead, tourists are asked not to take any pictures of the burnings – which they are welcome to watch, and where, of course, hustlers are selling disturbingly close-up action shots and postcards of the pyres for a few rupees apiece.

Filth. Money. Spiritual cleansing. Play. Death. Animal. And celebration.


Cow traffic

Of all my cow encounters on the Chermeo World Tour, this was among the most frustrating:

Old City, Varanasi, India.

She was totally steppin

Waiting for the ganga aarti, Varanasi, India.

Sunrise on the Ganges

Varanasi, India.

A peek at life on the river

Morning meditation:

Swimming with water buffalo:

Collecting, shaping, drying, selling cow poop:

Waiting for the waters to rise:

River pujas, big and small

Varanasi, Hindu's holiest city, is also one of the oldest cities in existence. You can just feel the ancientness - not to mention see and smell it, too. Wealthy Indians come to Varanasi when elderly and ill, in hopes that they are lucky enough to die in the holy city, cremated on one of the burning ghats and sunk into the Ganges, releasing themselves from the cycle of reincarnation. But cremated on the river or not, all Hindus are expected to make a pilgrimage to Varanasi at least once in their lives, plunge into the Ganges to purge their sins and pay homage to Shiva and the other gods.

Every evening the river ghats are packed with believers for the ganga aarti, or ceremony honoring the divinity in the river. Sadhus wander about, give and take blessings, and occasionally try to escape the pursuit of pilgrims:

The main ganga aarti takes place on Dasaswamedh Ghat, where hundreds gather every night on the steps or in river boats to watch the priests conduct the ceremony.

But all along the Ganges you will see smaller ceremonies by the faithful. On our way home from Dasaswamedh Ghat one night, we passed by these boys on a small platform, doing their own modest ceremony, no audience or glamor involved.

The next morning, the platform had been submerged by the river, all signs of holy ceremony erased. Loincloth-clad boys were diving in and around the platform, screeching with glee. India.

I shalt not ever bitch about trains again

Especially when I have a seat.

Haridwar rail station, India.

A taste of travel in India

As Gabe says: "There is no holiday, no festival, this is not a clown car."

An ordinary day, an ordinary bus ride, an ordinary village in Bihar.

Our Buddha pilgrimage, part 5

Okay, so it's not a holy site, or sight. But easily one of the highlights of our month in Bihar.

Monk laundry:

Our Buddha pilgrimage, part 4

Buddha lived for 12 years in Rajgir, preaching, meditating and creating his second wheel of law. The Japanese built beautiful, peaceful structure on Vulture's Peak, the Vishwashanti Stupa, in his honor. It is, bar none, one of the most beautiful, serene places we have ever experienced.

The view from the stupa:

Of course, this is still India. Requisite useless, out of shape police officers with guns and bats at the foot of a Buddhist pilgrimage site, check:

Our Buddha pilgrimage, part 3

Nalanda University was once home to tens of thousands of monks who came to Rajgir, Bihar to study Buddhism. The school was ransacked in the 12th century by Mogul invaders, and it is said that the texts of Nalanda burned for three months. The buildings and dormitories are in ruins now, but are a fascinating look at one of the first major universities in the world.

Gabe, trying out of a monk bed for size:

Our Buddha pilgrimage, part 2

Sarnath, where Buddha first began his teachings.

Our Buddha pilgrimage, part 1

Buddha first attained enlightenment in the tiny town of Bodhgaya, in the Indian state of Bihar. Bihar, which borders Nepal, is the poorest state in the country, and where we spent most of our time. Bodhgaya, though, is incredible - basically a United Nations of Buddhism, and home to monks and pilgrims from all over the world. Stunning.

Buddha was sitting under a bodhi tree when he first reached enlightenment. A descendent of that tree lives on in Bodhgaya, and serves as the main pilgrimage point for Buddhists and spiritual tourists.

While Buddha was meditating in Bodhgaya, a rain began to fall. The story has it that all of the animals came out to shelter him so he could continue meditating undisturbed. This image of the cobra protecting Buddha is ubiquitous in Buddhist monasteries and sculpture.

The Sri Lankan Mahabodhi Temple, which houses the bodhi tree, is also home to a stunning meditation garden, filled with tiny pagodas, meditation platforms, and inscriptions. It is the place modern India forgot, and it is glorious.

I like monks. Even their feet.

So. India.

We spent two months in India, and it's hard to put to words our feelings, which is likely why my ass hasn't blogged in two months. I dunno. Here's a go: Inspiring. Overwhelming. Fucking filthy. Stunning. Disappointing. Crushing. Oppressive. Enraging. And full, full, full of love.


I think that's probably the strongest response we had to India. Not necessarily love for India. But love, and the importance of love, and the strength of love, and the importance of taking love and using it as a fount of strength. Because in a place like India, love is all that will save you, and keep you steady during the highest highs (which you will experience) and the lowest lows (which you will experience). We thought long and hard in India about the worst impulses of mankind, and the incredible strides people make to amend those impulses. We want to help. We followed Buddha's footsteps. We traveled through the poorest and most cosmopolitan places India has to offer. We thought a looooooooot about God - as one friend joked, every rickshaw ride you take in Delhi will make you understand why Indians are so religious.

I'm still sorting out the details, but India has made a believer out of me.

One of our worst moments of our summer in India was getting stuck in the middle of a Shiva festival at the mouth of the Ganges. Hundreds of thousands of men and boys were collecting in Haridwar and Rishikesh for the festival, sleeping in makeshift camps, crowding the roads, shitting in the streets, squeezing into any mode of transportation available, and pinching, groping, staring and leering at anyone they could. We were stuck on a local bus for hours for a 30-kilometer trip, sweat streaming down us, kids crammed between our legs, spicy sweat thick in the air, staring out the windows and trying to catch a breeze while cursing the boys dressed in orange pilgrim rags and the horrifying heat of the bus and our stupidity for ever traveling to India.

Then we passed by a red truck parked in one of the camps - it was a typical people mover, filthy, caked with mud and shit, with metal cots nailed into the bed, boys in rags sleeping in, under, and on top of it. Nothing special to it, except for a giant decal on the passenger door. It said, "love is life."

Love is life. That's about right.