Beijing, China: Afro-licious


I decided not to buy these snacks (shrink wrapped chicken parts) before boarding my 22 hour overnight train to Beijing. Unfortunately I bought this (Diet Coke with Lemon) which tastes like a mix of lighter fluid and well…lemon. I really didn’t know what to expect of the train but I was woefully surprised when I realized that in China…they make things to their own physical proportions. So being 1.5 Chinese folks wide and about 3-6 inches taller I was in for a night of pure hell in terms of physical (dis) comfort. I had the last “hard” seat and there were no sleepers available. So I prepared myself for a long night of sitting upright with my legs crammed under a small table and a Chinese guy with the most awesome hair ever tucked up against my side. But here’s what happened:

The train was oversold so there were 13 of us in a space that “normally” would seat 10 people. I was the only American/non-Chinese person in a 200 mile radius. I hadn’t seen any of my SAS compadres in 2 days and I know 3 phrases in Mandarin (Hello, Thank You, You’re Welcome). I questioned the sanity of my solo travelling decision with no prospects for communication or company and a night with no sleep on the agenda. But, I ended up having the most hilarious time in my train car.

The Chinese are not a “warm and fuzzy” people. This at first took me slightly off guard being an over the top southern girl but I realized that if I lived with almost a billion people…I probably wouldn’t smile and say “hello” to anybody either, that’s a lot of grinning and waving. But the night on the train gave me the opportunity to observe the wonderfully warm, collectivist culture of the Chinese via two examples. First, in our car of 100+ people, 15 men didn’t have tickets for seats. So they were standing up, ostensibly for 15 hours. It never occured to me to proffer my seat to any of them but that is exactly what all the other men on the train did. All of the guys sitting in aisle seats would rise after a time and insist that a guy who was standing take his seat. Like they ordered them to sit down. There was no negotiation, no clock watching, no requests for someone to get out of their seats. For 22 hours I watched men who did not know each other, care for one another in the most basic way.

I was as you can probably imagine, quite the curiosity. Most Chinese people haven’t seen many, if any african americans and certainly none that are female, taller/larger than them and sporting an afro and settling into a cross-country train car like she belonged there. I got the normal stares and points and giggles (never mean spirited) that all of us of african american descent have gotten in Asia, but it didn’t bother me. I knew people were interested in my hair (huge afro at this point) and so I would bow and indicate that they could touch it and they did, which would send them and everyone else into a fit of giggles. Fun for them, fun for me. Breaking down cultural barriers one afro at a time (sounds like a t-shirt, no?). Plus, the guy sitting across from me was totally down with me stretching my legs out on either side of his to relieve my agony.

The second example of the warm Chinese spirit occured at dinner time. At about 9pm people started breaking out food from all sorts of places, one guy had drinks, another had some type of beef, someone else bought enough rice for all of us, and people started digging in. I was handed a pair of chopsticks and a spoon and via hand gesture, commanded to join in the food. Being my shy self I thanked them all, tossed in my ginormous bag of pretzels and a pack of gum, thanked the dude for the iced green tea, and joined them in the impromptu potluck. I should mention that only 4 of the 13 of us knew each other (two pairs of friends). So this was a touching moment for me, sap that I am.

After a while it emerged that two guys spoke a little english and a woman in our group of 13 spoke pretty good english. So the three of them served as translators. So while we sat up all night and I watched the guys play cards, someone would tell me the gist of what was going on in the conversations. They invited me to play cards, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out the game, so I settled for shuffling and cutting the deck for the guy who was losing. We talked about their culture (what they did and didn’t like), USA culture, movie stars, music, what we did for fun…the usual “getting to know you” stuff with a Mandarin twist.

After 22 hours, awake on a train (no rats this time!) I felt a comraderie with my seatmates and it must have been mutual because:

-Gabriel invited me to a wedding the next day (and followed through with the address, etc via e-mail)
-When it was time to get off the train there were hand clasps and smiles all around and one guy kept saying “they really like you”
-3 of the other 12 wouldn’t leave me until they deposited me at my hotel in Beijing, despite being tired, ready for food and a shower, they escorted me (literally) to my hotel
-I met up with the aforementioned 3 and 3 of their friends the next night to chow down and hang out
-Gabriel continues to e-mail me despite our language barrier, and my inability to attend the wedding (no formal clothes and a pre-booked day tour)

What I did in Beijing

1. After 3 nights of little to no sleep, sketchy hostel sheets and an afro and wardrobe full of cigarette smoke (they can smoke anywhere here in China), I checked myself into the very posh Beijing Hotel and rolled around on the very comfortable featherbed after a long shower.

2. The Great Wall. Amazing, inarticulable. Worth the 3 hour round trip drive but next time I will go to a less popular spot. There were thousands of people. It was like Disneyland on the 4th of July. But the pictures you’ve seen don’t come close to the spectacular hugeness and longness (i know they aren’t words!) of the wall. Its like when you see the Grand Canyon after only seeing pictures your whole life.

3. The Summer Palace. Set on a man made lake, it was a great way to cool off from clambering around the Great Wall and the architecture is amazing. The history had me totally engaged and wanting more.

4. Tianamen Square. Impressive in size but after 5 minutes you realize its just a piece of outside with an intriguing and important historical moment attached to it. It is framed by 4 important buildings though. 3 of which we couldn’t get into because they are renovating in preparation for the 2008 Olympics.

5. The Forbidden City. Large pictures of Chairman Mao and amazingly interesting history of this home to 3 Chinese dynasties. Over 9000 rooms, lots of Feng Shui and architectural elements and also about a million people visiting on the same day.

6. The Jade Factory. I didn’t like the fact that tour guides pretty much have to take you here in an attempt to get a captive audience to buy something. It reminded me of the rickshaw drivers in India. But I learned all about the different types of Jade, how to tell real from fake, how it is carved and polished and what they are used for, etc. Totally nerdtastic which you know I love. Then I said thanks and figured if they didn’t mind wasting my time without my permission, I shouldn’t feel bad about not buying something I didn’t want. Plus the cheapest thing in the place was $25 US for some knick knack crap. I still enjoyed it though.

7. The Pearl Factory. Same concept, same method of captive audience but again I loved learning all about the pearls, oysters, harvesting, real vs. fake, and I even got two tiny pearls for free!

Guanzhou, China: Beijing Dreams


I survived! Actually I thrived I think. Despite the sketchy hostel (with stains on the sheets!) and the traditional chinese mattress (imagine sleeping on top of your dining room table). I survived Guanzhou. I actually really enjoyed it. I ended up in Shiaman which is a little island/backpacker area. Despite the ramshackle internet room with the ancient computers and the loft that the semi-naked dude descended from giving me a scare. And I’ve never been anywhere that you could use the internet and then purchase a full-sized sword while you’re paying the bill!

A little about this lovably curious little place, Guanzhou is an area where many Americans and Europeans come to adopt children. There’s a US embassy, lots of businesses catering to these types of growing families and a pretty good chance that you’ll stumble across someone who speaks enough english to point you in the right direction. But I still don’t know what this sign is all about…Mexican siestas? Sad people of Latino descent? Sombrero store?

So after a night of red wine and pringles at the local 7-eleven with about 15 other multi-national knuckleheaded travelers, I can say that I am willing to go (almost) anywhere and try (almost) anything once. Katie and Jess (The Canadian sisters pictured in previous photo) scooped me up the next day and we wandered around. The park was full of locals playing hacky sack, dancing the tango (I swear I’m not making this up) and working out on these strange public exercise machines (think monkey bars and see saws with a health related twist).

We were near the canal so it was nice and breezy which made the walk around town pleasant. We checked out a huge church where there were some wedding photos being taken, the local statuary which was amazing, this one was my favorite, but there were quite a few stunning statues. I also found the greatest boot.leg. CD/DVD store on the planet and a place that sold pretzels and mini quiche to supplement my growing love for Chinese noodles and beef.

We worked up an appetite and stopped for lunch at a little place that didn’t look like it had a large crowd and despite the delicious food, we had to wonder if it was the Celine Dione CD that they were playing that kept business at bay? No matter to us, it was all about bottled water and fresh squeezed juices. We laughed and got to know each other over Indian, Chinese and European dishes that we shared without hesitation. Curries giving way to Cordon Bleu.

Both of them are amazing young women who have taken a 6 month sabbatical to travel Asia as they trace their father’s cultural heritage (they are half Chinese). We parted ways late afternoon so that they could catch their sleeper bus south and I could catch my train north. We hugged, traded e-mails and I made a tentative promise to meet them in Mexico later this year.

Unfortunately I couldn’t get a flight out of Guanzhou under $350 US, so I bought the last train ticket to Beijing leaving on an overnight 22 hour train. I guess this little independent side trip was going to go from bad to worse! I thought the train left at 8pm and fortunately I had to show the ticket to someone to ask which station I needed to go to and she pointed out that the train left at 6pm – crisis number 23 averted! I was also a bit proud of the fact that I had a regular sized back pack and my nikon d50 case, which meant that I was adhering to the backpacker moto (that I can never manage to follow) “never carry more than you manage at a dead run for a half mile and keep your hand free”. Score!

So I stuffed my newly acquired Blackeyed Peas “The Remixes” and the much talked about “Lily Allen” CDs next to the Chinese Hip Hop I had tracked down (not hard) and shoved pretzels and a ginormous bottle of water into my pack. I stuffed my towel into a stuff sack and strapped it to the outside of my pack and bid Guanzhou and its ill timed Trade Show Zai Jian (goodbye in Mandarin). But not before these students pulled me aside to ask me to complete a survey on the detrimental affects of beauty pagents on the self-esteem of Chinese youth. Because you know, that’s my area of expertise.

Somewhere In China


You see this monkey (pictured above)? I feel like that guy looks. CRAZY! I’m stuck between Hong Kong (AMAZING!) and Beijing (??). The ship docked in Hong Kong a few days ago, and everyone had the option of sailing with the ship to Qingdao or traveling overland/whatever and meeting back up with the ship before she sails to Kobe next week.

Er, guess which one I chose? Right.

I decided that after 3 months of traveling with 900 people (who I adore), I’d strike out on my own and see if I could get from Hong Kong to Beijing to Qingdao on my own. Craving the challenge of living out of a regular sized backpack and trying to navigate almost an entire continent with a wicked language barrier.

Now I find myself in some random metropolis dead in the middle of their major bi-annual Trade Show! I tried to get a room at the Holiday Inn because well…in the U.S. its like what $70 a night right? In China, not so much. They wanted $350 for one night! Granted it is the sexiest Holiday Inn I’ve ever seen. Stupid Trade Show!

So, I’m paying $70 night for a double room in a sketchy hostel and doing e-mail/trying to book tickets in the back room of a knick knack store on one of two ancient computers. There are exposed wires and extension cords EVERYWHERE!

The good news is that the Chinese LOVE McDonalds, 7-11 stores and neon lights. So if I squint real hard and blur my vision I can pretend I’m in Times Square or somewhere else where I’m reasonably sure things are going to work out okay.

PLUS! At 5 ft 6 inches I’m exactly average height for an American female, but I’m the shortest person in my family, but in China…being tall ROCKS!

Okay, I just met two Canadian chicks who said to meet them at the 7-11 in 45 minutes for beer, wine and to meet the multinational crowd of backpackers they hung out with last night. So, I guess that’s where I’ll be…at a random 7-11 somewhere in southern China, resisting sleep and praying for some transportation magic.

Wish me luck.

 ***Live Action Update (10 minutes later)

I’m sitting in the internet place and there’s a fairly low ceiling in here (maybe I’ll try to take a photo). Anyway, I just assumed that it was for extra storage, supplies, etc but I just heard some rustling and a grown man just climbed down from HIS LOFT BED naked from the waist up (in pajama pants), grabbed a mug that held a toothbrush and toothpaste (which I had noticed a while ago but didn’t think much about) and disappeared around the corner! You see that monkey’s face? Now add a look of surprise, the swemi-naked bed loft dude just reached over my head to turn on the lights and I can hear water running in the background. Lawd Jeebus. I’m outta here!

OH, I thought you said “Drinking Blogger Award!”


Though my internet connection is expensive, slow and generally non-existent, I’m still soaking up some linky-love! First, Marilyn over at California Fever tagged Funchilde for a “Thinking Blogger” award. As if that wasn’t enough, my colleague Adrienne from Gadling, nominated one of my shots from India for the “Photo of the Day” on April 14th.

So, as part of the “Thinking Blogger” award/meme, I’m supposed to nominate 5 (five) bloggers for this award. This is a virtually impossible task for me because I read so many and I only read blogs that make me laugh or make me think. So I’m going to highlight some blogs that I normally wouldn’t/don’t mention here.

Mad As Hell Club: I don’t even know how to describe this. Just read their description here. They aren’t happy with the way things are going and they’re using their brains and creative talent to give voice to some solutions and ideas. AND they are pretty funny if you like smart, fast, acerbic wit.

Lynne D. Johnson: If I wasn’t me, I’d want to be Lynne Johnson. She’s smart and her profile resonates with me, black, feminist, hip-hopper, nerd. She writes and publishes on several spaces/platforms and I have been following her off and on for about 2 years. I found her current platform through Swirl’s blogfeeds.

J. Brotherlove: Freelance writer, web designer, and all around smart guy. Love his socio-cultural view on events and personalities. Just when I think I’ve got something figured out, I wander over and J blows me away with his perspective.

Opinionistas: Reformed lawyer chick Melissa Lafsky in Manhattan. “A continuous examination of the ridiculousness of human behavior”-how could you not rush to check out something with a tagline like that? Her acerbic wit and biting commentary on the legal profession specifically, and mundane office work in general make me laugh and make me think about how I’m living my “work” life.

The Happiness Project: Gretchen’s posts are at once personal and intellectual, social commentary and scientific examination-all on the subject of happiness. She and I would have almost nothing in common except a love of reading from what I can tell (she doesn’t enjoy listening to music—WHAT?) but I dig the way her brain works and the tips, insights, quotes and struggles to obtain and maintain that elusive zen state.

So get to it, I’ve just handed you nuggets of gold with which you can further delay doing actual work or performing necessary errands.

Things I’m thinking about:

Should I head to Beijing from Hong Kong?
Tragedy at VA Tech
RIP Kurt Vonnegut
Don Imus controversy

Cochin, Kerala (India): Pulling it Together

Yes, Indian Boys ARE Cute!, originally uploaded by funchilde.

“ is about family. humanity. community” -archbishop desmond tutu

No doubt some of you think I’ve suffered a nervous breakdown after my last two posts. I’m actually doing great, the last two posts were the accumulation and result of more than two months of travel and study of some pretty impoverished places, the sum of the knowledge gained in our Global Studies course on human rights indexes, women’s right’s indexes, health and family indexes, education and literacy indexes, environmental reports and of course, our day to day interaction with each other and the locals that we are blessed to meet.

As one commenter points out, of all of the people I’ve met and observed as we are traveling around the world, all of them have a base “joy” that owes nothing to materialism. Almost without fail, everyone I’ve met wants to talk about themselves, their family, their community and life. And there really isn’t much that separates us in the general sense. I’ve just come to a place personally where I’m “fully” (I think) aware of my privildge and acknowledging that I no longer want to keep my head up my @#$ about the world and my place in it.

What that means I don’t exactly know yet (maybe nothing beyond that?). Nor do I harbor condescending thoughts of “saving” anyone, colonialism already took care of screwing many people out of their land, culture, family and in most cases their freedom (think slavery in America and Brazil, Apartheid in South Africa, the plight of Native Americans and the indigenous ethnic groups of Mexico. And I’m not sure about missionary work which looks to me like it trades bibles for food, money and education-things I think should be free regardless of your religious affiliation. This is just my opinion.

That being said, despite my heart’s pain at the poverty I encountered in Brazil, Africa, Mauritius and India…I wouldn’t trade a minute of this trip for anything. I also hope that my descriptions of India in particular, do not dampen anyone’s desire to visit this amazing land. India and South Africa are tied for my favorite places that I want to return to. For very different reasons. In India I felt like a real traveler. The culture shock was larger than any I’ve experienced so far on this trip. The smells, the pollution, the bargaining, the traffic, the heat. The diversity of the Indian people, the beauty of the land, their unabashed love of all things Bollywood and sing along dance numbers. Their devotion to their families and communities.

I loved packing my backpack to head down to Kerala. The Pepto, hand sanitizer, headlamp and book. Check. Underwear, spare roll of toilet paper, bag locks, picture of my parents. Check. T-shirts, sarong, sunscreen and deet. Check.

I also enjoyed using the eastern style “squat” toilets which take a little getting used to. Fortunately, I quickly recalled my technique from using the “squatters” in Kenya. What else? I enjoyed the Welcome Committee, and the daily game of guessing how many people I would see on one moped/scooter (the most I saw was 5!). I couldn’t get enough of the Masala Dosa (potatoes, etc in a thin dough wrap spiced to perfection). Sweet, hot, coffee is a must on those early mornings when we had to get up before dawn to see/do more things in 24 hours than I ever thought possible.

My first overnight ride on the infamous blue trains of India. Even the rat that ran towards my feet made the adventure that much sweeter (and made me jump onto two bunks faster than I’ve moved since middle school!). We dubbed the Kerala trip “Rats on a Train” from there on out, but the cars were clean, the people were friendly and Man We are in INDIA! The daily surrendering of your life to auto traffic and rickshaw drivers really makes you face your mortality and move on. The markets for EVERYTHING from onions to fish. The Temples, Churches and Synagogues. Divine. Cooking Pepper Chicken Masal-I hope its not the last time.

You also have to love Squat Toilets! Even when we had the choice, I chose “squat” over “western”. For example in the trains there is a squat and a western at the end of each car. Sandpiper beer (and others) made the heat and dust almost worth it. Every night we’d drag ourselves to some restaurant or watering hole looking like all shades and sizes of Indiana Jones crossed with Laura Croft (Tomb Raider) with a little bit of Pigpen (from Charlie Brown) thrown in.

More than anything I enjoyed the people. The scenes of daily routine in a foreign land make me think about my own routines when I’m at “home” whatever that is anymore. I really enjoyed watching people go about their day in India in a way that made me feel like a cheerful voyeur. But it is their languid pace, the fact that everything has to be done from beginning to end, and there are few short-cuts. There are no Wal-Marts or Targets, no Ikeas or laundromats (outside of major metro areas). These scenes make us all reflect on how we spend our time, what “convenience” versus necessity really means, and how appreciative we are (or how appreciative we ought to be) for the many ways our lives are made easier.

I loved floating through the Periyar game reserve. The Monkeys! The trip down Kerala’s backwaters was something I’ll never forget. These are things that are indescribable and even photos do them little justice. I can’t tell you what it feels like to stand in a temple, church or synagogue that was built in the 1500’s. The craftsmanship, the caretaking and maintenance, the joys, secrets and pains those walls must know. I laughed my head off talking with the fisherman and hauling in a net of “catch” and strolling through the markets and seeing the wide variety of fresh fish and seafood. I enjoyed seeing the sights from the back of Adil’s (pictured) motorbike, zipping from church to church to snake charmer, holding tight to his beltloops and and even more tightly to the moment.

Snake charmers. Fishermen. Mothers. Daughters. Fathers. Sons.

Finally, here’s an example of the type of traveler that I am. We returned from Kerala via overnight train at 0600 (early morning) on our last day in India. I hadn’t slept much on the train but was in good spirits, if a little grubby and greasy around the edges. One of my colleagues (Erika) who was on the Kerala trip was also on another trip due to leave the ship at 8am and she feared that she would miss the trip because we were getting in so close to departure and she wouldn’t have time to shower, etc. I was like “eh, just dump your gear, and go”.

By the time we got on the ship it was 7:30am and after a long, pretty involved but very cool story…I ended up with a ticket leaving at 8:00am for that very same trip (a long day trip out to some amazing temples). I literally didn’t even have time to go to my cabin and change my t-shirt, shower, or even store my pack/gear. I just dumped it in the admin office, prayed it would be safe (aforementioned belongings including iPod etc) and grabbed my Nikon D50, a bandana and a bottle of water and ran for the bus. Erika laughed and said we should be seatmates since neither of us had showered, washed our faces or anything.

But the sunlight streaming into the bus windows on a beautiful morning as a foreign city wakes up and doesn’t feel quite so foreign anymore, is worth a missed shower any day. I pray that you all have a chance to visit !ncredibe !ndia one day, she’ll take your breath away and you’ll love her for it.

**Turns out from a spiritual perspective that I was “supposed” to be on this last minute trip. about 2.5 hours away at the first temple we visited, one of the students got really sick with diahreah (sp?) and vomiting, etc. Everyone on the trip was really into it (about 40 people and three other staff), and the student didn’t want to leave the trip and tried to make it through. I made the call and told her I was hiring a car and we were going back. It was only going to get hotter, dustier and more uncomfortable for her. Her face showed her relief that someone was making definitive decisions. We hired a car for $30 (for a 5 hour round trip for the driver-crazy) and got her back to the ship. The driver stopped along the way as needed so that she could be sick in decent facilities. She recovered nicely by the next day and I was only too happy to be in a situation where I could actually DO something. The upside is that I was also showered and in my pajamas by sundown.

Periyar, Kerala (India): Simply Beautiful

Kerala India: Simply Beautiful, originally uploaded by funchilde.

I recently had a great conversation recently wherein someone said: “This (traveling around the world, and long term travel in general) is the ultimate selfish act, I left all my stuff behind, all my responsibilities and packed up my necessities and hit the road.” I laughed and said that travel will actually cost you dearly, not necessarily in money, but in ignorance. You won’t be able to ignore anymore what we’re doing to our planet, our fellow human beings, ourselves. By striking out and opening your eyes, you sacrifice the “blinders” that allow us to forget/ignore, the poverty, hunger, and unequal distribution of the world’s resources. I “knew” that when I said it, but now I “feel” it in my bones. I have to do something, I want to do something. But what?

The next morning I woke up with mosquito bites on my arms, and a stirring in my mind. The beginnings of something, but I don’t know what. We headed out to the Periyar Tiger Reserve at 6am (I told you we don’t sleep in on Semester at Sea) and took a misty boat ride around the channels of the reserve looking for animals, but really just enjoying the coolness of the mist coming off the river as the sun rose. I enjoyed the quiet comraderie, the scenery, the myriad of birdlife and despite seeing elephant droppings, we only ever saw Bison and Wild Boar and a bazillion frogs (no, not Brazilian).

I enjoyed getting my Nikon out and just shooting until my heart was content. It was hard for me to take photographs of the Indian people. I don’t like the austere, impersonal act of pointing a camera at someone going about their business, and without their permission taking a piece of their moment in time. I have done it, and will do it again, but I struggle with it. Imagine how you’d feel if a busload of people road through your neighborhood speaking a language you didn’t know and took dozens of photos of you while you were cutting your grass, walking your dog or working on your car…weird.

We hustled out of the reserve to make our next bus but got held up by the cutest monkey troop that would make your heart burst out of your chest. We headed down to Kottyam with a lecture on the tea fields, rubber plantations and different customs in the regions we were crossing. But no matter what, the poverty, lack of water, lack of resources, trash, dirt, and shacks that served as homes were our relentless scenery. By late afternoon I couldn’t contain my tears and cried quietly in my seat staring out the window with my iTunes providing a melancholy soundtrack for my travels. But once finished, I felt cleansed and human. I am not ashamed of shedding tears for souls less fortunate, I am ashamed that I can do nothing for them and somewhat terrified at the reality that the only difference between me and them is the toss of destiny’s coin. My $500 iPod, my $700 camera, my $200 outfit, my full stomach, my backpack full of snacks and two liters of clean water, my moneybelt with two credit cards, a passport and cash, more than 90% of them will ever see in a decade if not two. And the bus rolls on.

We spent the rest of the afternoon into the early evening floating down the backwaters of Kerala. It was beautiful, peaceful even with 19 other people. We rarely spoke, but we would laugh often as the kids along the canal ran alongside waving. We watched life on these gentle waters unfold as people went about their daily routines of cleaning, cooking, bathing, harvesting rice, transporting it downstream, piloting tourists on houseboats. Less poverty, less dust, less heat, less pain in my chest. These people looked happier, healthier, and I relaxed into our surreal float towards the Arabian Sea.

Chennai & Madurai, India: A Different Kind of Love

Meenkashi Temple: Amazing, originally uploaded by funchilde.

India. There’s so much to say about this country and yet, no words at all that are adequate to describe the heights and depths of emotions I experienced in a week. I love South Africa like a lover. I can see a future, laughter, good food, wine, music, a life created together. I love India like a friend. I want the best for her, I’m better for having known her, she confuses and challenges me, points out the good and bad in me, and calls me on my bullshit, makes me want to be a better person. This post is likely to be fairly unpopular as it isn’t my usual beer and BS.

We sailed into Chennai on a steamy, morning. An industrial marina with ambiguous fires burning in the background, majestic temple spires scattered along a skyline of familiar looking business high rises. We had been warned about the dirt,noise, pollution, grime, beggars, poverty, heat and dust for weeks before we arrived, and I felt as ready as I ever would to face this country of contrasts. Solbeam’s stories and love for India ignited my curiosity last year, I read books, magazines and scoured the net in preparation.

I initially couldn’t decide if I wanted to head north to Delhi, Agra, Jaipur and the majesty of the Taj Mahal. Should I head toward Calcutta or Bombay? Auroville? In the end I chose to head south to Kerala, the most southern state in India, for two reasons. One, its the homeland of one of my best friends, Anil, and I was intrigued to see the country of his parents and grandparents. The other was the November/December issue of National Geographic Traveler Magazine. The Special Section: Passages Through India. Though in my opinion there is nothing that can prepare you for India, I am certain that I made the right choice and I am more certain that I want to return one day.

I spent my first day in Chennai (on the east coast of India in the state of Tamil Nadu). Though I consider myself a fairly seasoned traveler, I was challenged, frustrated, exasperated, and mesmerized. First, the heat is unlike anything I’ve experienced yet on this trip. Cape Town was cool and breezy, I spent the majority of my time on Mauritius either in or on the water. But Indian heat is different, its the heat of a billion bodies, millions of animals, hundreds of thousands of vehicles, thousands of trains and boats, hundreds of ships, dozens of factories…and you. The dust billows at every turn, making me shield my eyes whenever the windows are rolled down.

That first day we hired a taxi driver to take us around and found out the universal truth of tourism in India, they’ll take you were THEY want to take you. They beseech you to spend “little time here” and “just look, just look” at the wares of the various stores and shops that promise them either liters of petrol or commissions based on the number of visitors they bring each day.

This led to us spending time in mega bazaars with prices that had doubled, tripled, etc as soon as the ship pulled into port. The Indians bargain, and expect you to partake in the game. This got to be fun when I adjusted my attitude and remembered my global citizenship versus my american aculturization. When they’d quote me a ridiculous price I would counter with “That’s not a price you’d give to someone you love!” which left them exasperated but kept everything light and full of humor. We got ripped off by our cab driver in a long story I won’t get into, but in the end we suffered the loss of a mere $6 and a hot, sweaty walk back to the ship.

I didn’t get a malicious vibe from India. It isn’t a place that I worried for my safety beyond the general precautions. Yes, someone might pick your pockets, yes someone might snatch your bags, but I wasn’t nervous except for the one time when our cab was surrounded by men and one tried to open the door. Not understanding their language or intent, I demanded that we be taken where we
wanted to go. Ultimately they were just trying to be helpful.

You know all turned out well because I’m typing this, but it reinforced that women the world over always have to be on guard and this pissed me off because its not fair that men can take up space, move and roam freely, without fear of violence or rape and women, even in the safest of communities, bear the responsibilities for preventing or anticipating violence against us.

But I’m getting too deep.

I headed south via train to Kerala. First we stopped in Madurai (still in Tamil Nadu), arriving on an amazingly sunny morning with barely time to brush our teeth and change shirts. We headed out to see the Meenakshi Temple, one of the focal points of Hinduism and the 2nd largest temple in India, drawing over 15,000 pilgrims and visitors a day during festivals and events.

When we first got dropped off by the bus, I couldn’t see any sign of a temple, instead shoving down my exasperation at being dropped in a dusty, dirty side street with animals all around, the hot sun beaming down and no idea what the hell we were doing. We started walking and our guide stopped at a little shop to buy dhotis (long skirt like apparel) for everyone in our group who had on shorts. To enter any temple your legs and shoulders must be covered, you must remove your shoes and leave them with a guard (you can’t carry them with you).

We walked some more, laughing in the sun at our western t-shirts and Indian dhotis, relieved to be off the ship/train/bus in the sunlight and safe in pursuit of adventure. Trading our frustration for flexibility and a new experience. And there it was, Meenakshi. We rounded a corner and I saw the first tower and I literally stopped in my tracks. It was breathtaking and you could tell it was going to be massive in size. And it was.

We spent 3 hours walking barefoot on hot stones, lulled into dreamlike states by the incense, the incessant and beautiful chant ” om namah shivaya” which roughly translates into “I bow to the divinity that resides in me”, broadcast over and over again without pause, on speakers throughout the temple of Shiva.

We saw thousands of people going about their daily business of worship, prayer, offerings, fellowship. The bright colors, the flowers offered in honor and love, the chants of peace, the statues, the architecture-beautiful. Like the Churches in Mexico, the Choir in Cape Town, they were quite simply divine. And not the least because I was blessed by an elephant.

Next we headed to a truly Brokedown Palace that at first didn’t hold any appeal to me, but when a fellow traveler exclaimed “could you imagine what this place would’ve been like as a working palace?” And I let my imagination wander the long hallways with amazing arches, the carved and painted ceilings, the sheer scale fo the place transported me to a past that I may not have known but could feel in the pillars.

We finally headed out for lunch which was an amazing array of Indian food and attempts at western cuisine-all of which were fine by me. After rehydrating with equal parts water and Golden Eagle beer, restoring our sodium balances and cooling our sun-kissed skin down, we headed out for the long drive down to Periyar in Kerala.

Along the way we saw monkeys, cows, cows and more cows, humanity going about its daily business, cotton trees (yes, really!) and we scaled a mountain full of treacherous switchbacks, with few guardrails, and many other vehicles careening up or down alongside us and I had to just let it go and relax. If my fate ended on a road in India then I would have perished doing something I love.

Periyar gave us a short break from the constant barage of poverty, a change from the unremittant scenes of hunger, lack, dirt, hopelessness, illness, deformity. We spent the night in a lodge in a spice grower’s paradise. complete with pool, a cooking class (pepper chicken masala!) and a performance of local dance and music. I fell asleep that night dreaming of a golden sun, dust, haunting brown eyes looking into mine, and the rythm of an ancient chant reverberating in my chest.

Somewhere in the Indian Ocean….

In the ultimate nod to narcissism (and per my father’s request for more pictures of myself), I present to you: My Dirty Fourth Birthday in Pictures.

I was awakened at 0800 by a knock on my cabin door and went out to find a delivery of 50 cookies from my shipmate Shayla! 

I had all kinds of cards and balloons and stuff on my door which I quickly took down because I do all that I can to ensure that the students don’t know exactly where I dwell. Because they barely let me walk from one end of the ship to the other as it is.
It was a “No Class Day” which meant everyone got to sleep in a bit, so the ship was really quiet. I spent the next two hours roaming around the ship trying to off-load cookies on students, staff and crew.

I received a nice surprise in my Senior Staff Meeting…the best ice-cream cake.ever.period. But my birthday didn’t keep us from working. Or rather, I did all of the work as usual. But there were lattes, smoothies and hot chocolate to supplement the sugar high of the cookies and cake.
At 1200 hours I had lunch with “The Boys.” The one to my immediate left in this pic is one of a pair of twins. Joshua (and his brother Gregory) played tricks on me for the first week on the ship before I knew they were twins and thought it was just one overzealous, cutie-pie kid who might need an “after school special” talk about “inappropriate feelings for your elders.” However they are now two of my favorite students.

Later, I went to my office and did some important work.

I capped the night off with a meeting with the “Students of Color @ Sea” group and much later a get together and a margarita (or 3) in the faculty/staff lounge. It was a great day indeed. Thank all yall for your well wishes, e-mails, e-cards and shout outs.

A special “Happy Birthday” goes out to my birthday buddy Sarah Grace!