Stepping in or stepping on?

Tucked behind a lone tree and rusty gate, it took us a week to figure out that the billboard advertising Fitness Basics Gym was directly in front of the gym itself. The first time we noticed the sign, and with it the list of classes, we took a picture and said we’d call.

We still hadn’t the day I looked a bit closer and noticed one more sign inside the gate. “Is it right there?” I inquired. As I did, the picture became clearer: there were stairs leading down just below the second advertisement— and was that music I heard coming from below? Curiously, I wandered in and met Meenakshi, the owner of the gym.

Sure enough, just as the billboard promised, there was a full schedule of classes: Power Yoga, Zumba, Bollywood Dance (!), Extreme Core. Behind the mirrored area were a handful of machines and, further back, some weights.

I joined that night. Continue reading “Stepping in or stepping on?”

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Wake up calls

Photo credit: Anya Zakhour  Jaipur, India November 2013 Title: India Struggles
Jaipur, India November 2013
Title: India Struggles
Credit: Anya Zakhour

Writing to you from India! Where tuk tuk drivers are sages and sages hail from Canada to teach you Everything You Need To Know. Where sages then tell dirty jokes and play dirty tricks to get your number or get you to their home.

I’m spitting out the bones and still chewing the meat as my friends, the Christians, say. Continue reading “Wake up calls”

Catching Up

With the first half of our time in Thailand spent doing less settling and more exploring and the second half enjoyed in a remote village in the mountains, there are many untold stories between the dates and lines of recent posts. Given this, it felt like time to interrupt my storytelling and share of our travels more generally. The bulk of my past posts are written around my experience in Jaipur, India, where we lived during our unit on education.

Today, just a week remains of our subsequent unit on sustainable agriculture. I write to you from a hot spring resort outside of the hippy town Pai. I am enjoying my vacation and time to connect with loved ones from home and Self. I spend each day on the river’s edge marveling at the beauty and laughing, somewhat uneasily, at the “elephant trekkers” who pass by. I watch the sun go down, its rays reaching out across the clouds and inspiring paralleled warmth within while the chorus of frogs sing me to sleep. I’m getting ahead of myself, though…

We left Jaipur at the beginning of December and spent a week traveling in India. We first went to Pushkar for a camel trek. If you ever have a bruise on your bum from falling down the stairs, I don’t recommend this. Actually, I don’t know that I would recommend camel trekking to anyone. I spent the whole ride thinking about the notion (read: fallacy) of having dominion over other living beings and wondering what life events led my guide to this place where he walks tourists through the desert with his camel by his side, calluses building as shoes wear.

It did provide a rejuvenating night of camping in the desert and a pleasant hike out when I opted to decline camel round two (in my defense, I actually rode the baby of the group who spent the earlier ride trying to buck me off). We spent the rest of our week in Udaipur, a charming town with bustling markets and stunning views. I was reminded frequently of Stone Town, making the Indian influence of the East African slave trade quite visible to me.

When I walked the streets of Zanzibar’s hub in the spring of 2008, I was not a huge Stone Town fan. Having just spent three months living in the rural south of Tanzania, it felt like a commodification of a culture I’d grown to love and know intimately. Fast forward to this December: I did not have this same struggle in Udaipur, which raised questions for me about the ways that I’d received and experienced India. If the two (Udaipur and Stone Town) really are similar, what made them illicit such varied responses within me? As I write this now, I realize that you could also ask how I’ve changed in the past six years. Ha, we’ll leave that for another day [book, blog, etc.].

My head swirling with questions and memories, we concluded our demanding six weeks in India and flew to Chiang Mai.

As soon as we landed, I felt myself release a huge sigh, making me wonder how I could not have known that I was holding my breath for so long. The wide streets, clean roads, and green- so much green- revived pieces of my self that Jaipur’s dust choked out. While I’m quite skeptical about notions of love at first sight, this is precisely how I experienced Chiang Mai. What Thailand represents, how much my infatuation was influenced by the contrast of my previous month and a half, I’ll leave untouched. For now.

We spent the week in the alluring city soaking in the wisdom and experience of our partner’s ajaans (teachers) by day and enjoying the markets by night. The local organization we work with here, ISDSI, runs a study abroad program whose partnership confirms and revives my own dreams of one day doing the same.

Then, we proceeded to join the idyllic farming community of Mae Tha. Just an hour outside of Chiang Mai, this inspirational group of farmers developed a cooperative and transitioned from a monoculture of baby corn to organic farming methods. It felt so good to consume fresh picked vegetables with every meal! I was surrounded by heroes from our pa who founded the cooperative to the twenty-eight year old homestay brother of some of our students who created a CSA.

So much of this felt like precisely what I needed. Just as the vegetables replenished my body, the mountains reached down and nourished my soul, their peaks’ gentle touch received like a lover’s hug after months a part. One-on-ones with students transitioned to hikes throughout the rice paddies and my co-worker and I took a break from work to enjoy a long bike ride down the road through neighboring villages and farms.

That first sigh of relief I took when we stepped off the plane evolved into a living ujjayi- the oceanic breath of yoga, breathing in all that is good and exhaling all that one needs to let go. I rode on the tide of my breath as I entered a time of spiritual awakening, creativity, and love.

Just in time for the holidays of my tradition, we packed ourselves onto a bus and took the 8-hour journey to Mae Hong Son. Mae Hong Son is a quaint city at the base of the mountains of the north, one that has nestled into my heart and found its home as the site of the joyous Christmas and birthday celebration of my twenty-sixth year.

We gathered as the TBB family we’ve become and enjoyed laughter, a gift exchange I stubbornly called “secret snow person” despite the fact that the timing was anything but inclusive, and even some Christmas hymns for those so inclined. I assured my students that my family had long since figured out the Chirstmas-Birthday dilemma with daytime Christmas and nighttime birthday and they followed suit. I meditated on Love-incarate during the day and danced through the street markets by night. The dancing followed a birthday dinner where my students whipped out streamers and we enjoyed banana fritters (so much easier than a cake with a per-order and pick up to forget, my mom laments in recollection of our long-standing tensions over the cake scrambles of 1998, 2004, etc.). Despite the distance from my family whom I lovingly tease, it was a dream of a holiday.

Two days later, we drove up the mountain. And I mean up the mountain. The journey takes about three hours, spent bouncing along in the back of a truck with benches and a plastic cover. We passed our time making up stories and singing songs while enjoying the view as the trucks brought us above the clouds’ lines. Our stay with the hill tribe community of Huay Thong Ko deserves its own post, which I’ll write in time. For now, I will just say that sustainability takes a new form immersed in a peoples who live it. And nature continues to soothe, always generously reaching out to my deepest parts just as the hospitality of our moogas and patees did.

We (you- the readers- and I) then find ourselves at my present: poolside in Pai. Rest is not always my strong suit, but I’ve leaned into it quite well and am enjoying the emotional and spiritual benefits. I feel quite restful, and awake in all senses of the word.

My only complaint of my accommodation is that, despite the hot springs bursting from the ground, the shower never manages to get hot enough. I am boycotting in protest and it’s beginning to show. I guess my neglect of showers is really not new news though, is it?

So I will leave you with that: an image of my happy, hopeful, and sun-kissed face framed with oily, unkempt hair. It’s an image of me at my best, if I do say so myself. Until we meet again, bloggity boggers. Be wakeful (and don’t forget to rest).

p.s. If you are still reading this very long update, I’ll reward you with the secret password I leave after rambling voicemails so friends can alert me of their faithfulness. It’s grapefruit. Though, now that I’ve shared it publicly I suppose that it will change. Just as well, I don’t care much for grapefruits.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it

If I told you the truth, it would be this:

I did not see India as much as the inside of my eyelids. The glare of my computer screen. Endless tricks of Pinochle from my iPad’s small frame.

I turned up my nose to the stench of polluted waters. I vomited out the spices, and with it all flavors of the city. I closed my door to its outstretched hand, letting the rapping on my door and my heart persist while I pretended to sleep through the sound.

What travel I did do? I left for a week to lay on a stretch of a beach, made by the Portuguese and maintained for the Russians. On our weekend away, I hid in my hotel room with marathons of shows from home. With relief, I saw the curtains on the bus and closed them with gusto.

What I did see? Western establishments: the cafe filled with ex-pats, a rooftop restaurant with a hotel below, the deck and dance floor of one of the few bars that serves women. More often, my own hypocrisy, or limit. The extent to which I do not live what I espouse. I stepped out each day to stare squarely in the face of a neighbor’s home that I did not frequent enough.

If I told you the truth? I stepped out every other day. The rest, I did not leave the building in which we resided and taught– the smog-veiled sun never meeting my skin, the shouts of welcome rarely penetrating my heart.

I do not want to tell you the truth, one so far from the traveller’s tale of wonder and awe. If I did, it would be this:

I did my best,
and it wasn’t very good.

If I told you a truth, it could also be this:

India was difficult. And I wrestled with her, lethargically, but persistently. I was slow out the gate, yet continued running. Towards understanding. Engagement. Relationship. Health.

I turned inward to my neglected self-care and then counted this against myself with every measure of my level of immersion. I opened the door of my heart and listened to need. I slept when I tired. I responded to illness by slowing down. I tended to both self and students and gave to India what remained in the reserve.

What travel I did do? I enjoyed my breaks and remembered that life is still life no matter where we live it.

What I did see? The same things I cherish in cities at home: coffee shops, people watching, slow dinners, and nights out dancing. The ways that lived-values are a daily, momentary choice. While I saw my limit, I also saw myself stretch. Reaching out– despite the sexism and beyond the classism, amidst the dust and chaotic streets–to find that which is there to be cherished.

I squinted through the smog to stare at the light. Simultaneously, I did not deny the shadows lurking in the alleys of the city and the chambers of my heart.

If I told you a truth? India was challenging.

And I faced the challenge. I allowed myself to rest and pushed myself to grow.

I did my best,
and sometimes it was good.

Gender buffet has a whole new meaning

When I arrived in Jaipur, I felt as if the gender dynamics people spoke of were exaggerated or sought out. I sensed that we came expecting to see sexism, so we looked for it and then cried out against it: a ladder of inference filtering our experience through our pre-conceived bias. The longer I am here, the more this view changes.

At first I was unfazed.

Walking into the club, I feel the familiar rush of the feeling of the base vibrating below my feet. Beth smiles and shakes her head to the beat, lip syncing the words. We grab hold of each other and push our way through the crowd, finding a pocket on the dance floor where we can settle in.

Letting the music take hold of me, I dance. I feel at home in this place: unaware of my surroundings, only tuned into the music that surrounds. I let go.

Suddenly, Beth calls me out of my rhythmic stupor. She motions around the dance floor. Leaning towards my ear, she shouts over the music. “Are we the only women here?!” she asks.

I look around and see what she means. We are in a sea of Indian men. A swirling shirt catches my eye and I notice one woman dancing in the corner with her beau.

Smiling, I shrug. Pointing to the girlfriend, I reply: “not the only women,” and dance on.

Then irritated.

I look up from my book to realize that the group of men on the benches in front of us has doubled. Averting their gaze, I shift my eyes only to discover a man sprawled beneath the tree blatantly propped up so to see us better. Sitting up to turn my back to the onlookers, I face yet another set of men, unabashedly perched in the middle of the park. Just. Staring.

Literally surrounded by gawking men, I turn to my friend. “This is getting a little creepy,” I say. She agrees and we pack up our things and start down the path.

We hear the footsteps behind us and silently confer with one another. We veer right and step back into the grass for our uninvited guest to pass. He does not take the hint and turns with us. “Your names?” we hear as we notice him pull out his phone for the camera.

“No.” My friend says strongly. “We will not take a photo and we don’t want to talk. Please go.”

Now it’s him whose startled. Bewildered, he defends his past hour of staring and now pursuit, “Me? I am not a bad boy.”

It made me feel vulnerable.

I notice he is keeping pace with us from across the street. My co-workers and I are walking from the restaurant we just ate at to karaoke a handful of blocks away.

When it lasts too long for my comfort, I share my concern under my breath. “We have company,” I inform my friends. Fortunately, it is at this moment that Jaipur’s streets fool us once again. We turn right, one block too early.

When we realize our error, we turn back and head down the long road we strayed from. Crossing the street, I see the man cross so he is opposite us yet again. I watch as he slows his pace to meet back up. We counter by slowing ours.

When he nears the next intersection, unable to anticipate our move, he crosses the street and stands in the alley waiting, watching, for which direction we will go. We warily turn right and enter the restaurant.

As we get our hands stamped, I explain to the bouncers. “There is a man following us. Will you not let him in?” I give his description, but the man with the stamp is too busy laughing with his friends, inching towards us so that we have to contort our bodies to squeeze through the gate without making contact. Our request goes unnoticed while our presence and bodies certainly do not.

There was no reprieve.

I have come to acknowledge this: friendship with men here comes with undertones of something more. No, contact with men here comes with undertones of something more.

After all, they’ve seen our TV shows. They know what American girls are like.

Our favorite tuk tuk driver, the one about whom I was preparing a post because of the freedom and thrill of dancing through the city when he turns on his flashing lights and turns up the music, ended our evening with a crash and burn.

“So, you have boyfriend?” he inquires as he pulls up to our house.

And I just wanted to leave.

It is not just that these advances feel unending. It is that I feel my humanity being stripped from me as I am collapsed into what I represent: sex, promiscuity, desire. I don’t feel seen as much as consumed. I then watch myself participate in this cycle of violence, no longer seeing people or accounting for cultural difference. I deny a friendly handshake and glare at the laughter between friends as I pass by. I am defensive, on-guard. Disinterested in connecting to the humanity of others with the anticipation that it is not my being whom they seek, but instead my body that they crave.

Mental models and musky mosaics

[Drafted November 12th]

Upon my arrival in Jaipur, I became aware of how many mental images I held of India. All of the messages I had been taught about how to think about this place surfaced as I stepped out into the city and raised my hand for a passing tuk tuk to escort me through her winding roads.

I felt the “supposed to’s” of India crowding in…

My Christian upbringing subtlety if not explicitly taught me to think of her with sadness. In fact, second maybe to Africa, India is the Church’s favorite place to love. Inspired by Mother Theresa and fueled by the atrocity and prevalence of human trafficking, they visit, they pray, they reach out.

My yogi friends spoke of her as a country with which to be enamored. This community says the name India with reverence, a site for pilgrimage, an inspiration for its spiritual richness. We celebrate the temples, the practice, the prayer.

At the same time, feminist friends prepared me to be enraged. I felt nearly programmed to count the ratio of men to women on the street. To be appalled at the limited number of bars which will serve women alcohol. To contest the stares and advances that seem unceasing.

These expectations crowd my vision, their many colors converge and create a cloudy haze through which I struggle to see out my window. I wonder if I can trust what I observe, or if I merely look to confirm the images I carry?

While I feel all of these things, mostly I feel none of them.

I feel surprise. Confusion. Humor. Ambivalence.

Overwhelmingly, I feel congestion from the smoggy city we call home.

I experience the love of friendship budding with a whiplash of hesitation and self-doubt as I wade through gendered dynamics with every man I come to know. What are his intentions? How will he perceive this relationship? Was that suggestive or am I searching for signs of objectification?

I navigate the tuk tuk system with light-heartedness, enjoying the jolting ride and silently laughing at the frequent stops to ask for directions. I watch all of this in an amused sort of way that matches my delight as I spot a decorated elephant waltz down the street.

As the ride drags on with a tuk tuk driver clearly lost, my frustration sets in when the same driver pauses to load up more chewing tobacco. I feel my impatience and desire to impose my Western schedule and values of efficiency, time, Reign of the Clock.

Negotiating for every ride or bottle of water, I watch myself become the rude American as I grapple with just a bit, yet not enough English. Amidst my unraveling, I am aware that the true target of this resentment is me, for my lack of sensitivity, patience, understanding.

I feel tired. Of the crowds. The cold water. The frequent requests to pose with strangers for a picture.

Nearing a tent city, my hostility dissolves as I meet eyes with its inhabitants. I see the poverty and dig to see the humanity below the layers of dirt and scarcity. How do I reconcile these realities with my own? What are the parallels between this community and the homeless populations at home?

The tuk tuk turns, and with it my attention to these questions of ethics and responsibility fades from the foreground of my thought.

It is through literature that I feel most connected to the culture. So, I read my books and with the turn of every page wonder if this is an acceptable way to understand a place when it is before me- beneath my feet, its air filling my lungs with my every breath.

So, I breathe deeply and try to take her in. I think of all of the people in my life who love India. And those who hate India…My experience does not feel consistent enough to land in either camp.

I close my eyes and try to see India. My vision blurs, providing only half-pictures that are conjured and colonized. The noise of the city crowds my mind, pushing clarity beyond my grasp. The chaos seeps into my veins like a poison, leaving my vitals too dull to be fully present.

From this place, drugged and beaten on the street, I look up to meet the eyes of an Indian woman. “Namaste (the light in me honors the light in you)” she offers, extending her heart to mine.