Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Return of WendyBird

I arrived on a Sunday, which means it’s a day off for the volunteers. The house has about  13 volunteers at the moment- a far cry from the meager 5 I am used to working with. I must say, I prefer having more people, or maybe I just prefer having more people like this. All charming, intelligent, good-looking go-getters- but what would you expect? They've given their time to a worthy cause-  they face the bugs, monkeys and shower-less days of Nepal smiling. The salt of the earth. I love every one of them.
Though it was the day off, I couldn't help myself. I was dying to see the boys. I put my things down and within an hour was waiting on their porch for them to get home from school. Like a puppy, with each noise I heard I would go running to the gate with the hopes that the boys were home to play.
After a half an hour of waiting they arrived. In groups of 2 or 3 they came so I got to re-enact my “I’m SO HAPPY TO SEE YOU I HAVE MISSED YOU SO MUCH” reaction over and over.  They all remembered me. Called me by name. Matched my enthusiasm. God, I could relive that moment for the rest of my life.
After the initial SHE’S BACK! Things settled down surprisingly quickly. It felt more like I’d been away for a long weekend rather than an entire year. We simply picked up where we left off- with a guitar, a soccer ball and a lot of teasing. Exactly how things are meant to be.
When I left I had 33 boys. Since then, 6 of them have gone off to their advanced schooling and one has been reintegrated so I am down to 26. It’s still the same gang for the most part but I miss those who aren't around.
As for things that have changed- voices definitely. Heights. Complexions. But they’re still the same cheeky monkeys they always were. Kind, handsome, and a little wild. The best three things to be. My heart is so full. 

I'm back.

When it comes to blogging, I am the worst. In fact, I should wear a crown.
But I’m trying.
As many of you know, I am back in Nepal. I was meant to stay for 6 weeks but due to visa issues (dammit India), my trip has been cut down to five. I'll manage. Why am I back you ask? Well, I have a few reasons. 33 to be exact. Last year I was a volunteer for the Umbrella Foundation, I lived in Swoyambu, Kathmandu for 3 months in a house called “Kanchanjunga” of 33 teen-aged boys. Long story short, I've really missed the hell out of these knuckle-heads.
I have never laughed as hard, cried as hard or felt as alive as I do around these guys. They both keep me sane and drive me completely crazy all at the same time. I had to come back. It wasn't even a choice- I had to come back.
And so I did.
Life at home is grand, in fact the weeks just before I left were better than usual. My life, which I have always considered a dark-comedy, man versus self, coming of age story suddenly and unexpectedly turned into a witty slap-stick romantic comedy. Funny how life is. In fact, things were so wonderful, I can’t say I was too heartbroken each day when I called the Visa office to say “when the hell is my visa getting here?” and got “Tomorrow..I mean the day after tomorrow…I mean the tomorrow after that…etc”
But Friday my visa arrived at 10am and I was on a flight by 3pm, once again- armed only with a backpack and a ponytail.
Flights were fine- didn't miss one. The guy who sat next to me on the way to Amsterdam was 6’9’’. I liked him a lot because he carried my bags for me, and when our food came, he opened my butter and jelly without me asking. We chatted most of the way and watched Les Miserables together. We were friends by the end of the flight and I made a point to walk next to him through the airport. I imagine this is how Emily Elizabeth feels when she walks next to Clifford the big red dog. Much to my chagrin, he wouldn't say “Anybody want a peanut?”. Rats.
Due to the visa office being so unreliable, I didn't buy a ticket from Mumbai to Kathmandu- I decided to get one at the airport. Not great planning on my part, as per usual.
I arrived at Mumbai around 11:30pm Saturday. Customs, which normally takes 2 hours, took me all of 6 minutes. I went to the ticket counter to catch the very next flight and….well. Among all of the merriment of my weeks before the departure I managed to forget to call my bank. Debit card Declined. And my credit card? Declined. And cash- don’t worry, I was slick. Thought ahead. I had 5 one dollar bills. The minimum for an exchange to rupees is 20 dollars. I was in India, had been flying for 20 hours, and was all of a sudden out of money- not enough to even make a PHONE call to the bank. Once again, the Mumbai airport brought out the worst in me. I was afraid. I was out of options. It was midnight. The only person to blame was me. I explained to the ticket counter what happened and they replied with a sympathetic…"Next in Line!...Miss, Move. Miss, MOVE”
How does Maggie Rogers solve a crisis?
See picture.
I cried. No one stopped. Not even westerners. I was sitting there, bawling like a little princess and no one stopped. Finally someone came to talk to me, and what did they say?
And what did I say?
Politely, I wipes my eyes, sniffed my nose and cried “HELL NO”. I put my things down in the middle of the crowd and set up camp. You have to help me. You have to help me or drag me out of here kicking and screaming because I am NOT leaving.
Finally a 20 something working for a hotel company came to my rescue. (There may have been some winking and come hither looks coming from me, my memory fails me…)
He let me borrow his phone. After an HOUR on the phone, things had been sorted out. It was 1am. The flight leaving at 5am was booked so I had to book mine for 10am. Me and India just don’t mesh.
  I could’ve saved a little money and had a 10 hour layover in Delhi.
I’d rather eat my hair.
My flight was STRAIGHT to Nepal.
One other charming feature of the Mumbai airport I forgot- you can’t stay there. You can’t even come in until there are 3 hours until take off.  They kicked me out. It was 1am. I refused to get a hotel out of pure stubbornness. I sat on my suitcase in the parking lot for 7 hours. My ipod, computer and kindle were all dead. I flipped through a book but mostly I did nothing. Periodically people would come over to take photos with me (I’m famous in India apparently).
I managed to make a friend with a 25 year old who works for Air India. He has been working there for 10 years and never taken a day off. His English was remarkable despite having no formal schooling. He has memorized every flight coming and going in the airport.
 After 7 sleepless hours they let me into the airport. I drank coffee for 3 hours and then boarded my plane.
My mood was so good, you’d never know that I had spent the night in the parking lot. I literally skipped when it was time to board. I sat down and couldn't contain myself. I squeezed the hand of the little Nepali woman next to me and whispered through a toothy smile “Isn’t this great?”
She asked to move.
3 hours passed. My flight landed and I was safe. I was home.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Bye bhaai

Bye Bhaai
My first goodbye. You're not supposed to have favorites when it comes to kids. I know. But I do anyway. I can't help myself. There is one boy in particular who caught my eye on the third day. He picked me first for his football team. He knows I'm no good, I think he just didn't like seeing me sitting out. He's that kind of kid. From that day he picked me every time, even though I was the reason for our losing streak.
I love all of my boys, I do. They're all special in a different kind of way. This one though, he's extra special. He's one of those people that lights up a room. He's about 12 and very smart. He helps me with my nepali and doesn't get annoyed when I ask about the same word a million times. He is teaching me to sing a popular nepali song and doesn't grow impatient when I forget the words. When we pass flowers, he always picks one for me. He's just that kind of kid.
A major goal for the Umbrella Foundation is reintegration. Kids deserve to grow up with their families. When they're sent home, they're frequently checked in on. Umbrella continues supporting them, but now they are with their family, in their village, speaking their native tongue and appreciating their regional culture.
Sometimes the kids talk to their parents on the phone and when they hang up they're teary eyed. They miss their homes so badly. I've asked a couple of my boys about their villages and they light up. They have so much to say. For all of the benefits of 33 brothers, it must be easy to get lost in the crowd. Their personal village gives them a sense of individuality. They all have a story, they all come from different places. Sometimes I forget that no one is born into Umbrella.
Today, one of my boys got to go home. My extra special boy.
We're all gathered in one room, about 60 young boys and all of the didis and all of the house parents and a few volunteers and some of the office staff. Three boys sit at the front of the room, prayer scarves (gifted from the house parents) around their necks and smiles on their faces. The group of boys that form the majority of the crowd have just wrapped up a song. One by one the staff approaches the three boys and puts a teeka on their forehead, whispering well wishes to each. The boys are brothers, blood brothers, and this afternoon they're going home. The one from my house, Kesh, is in the middle. One of the Umbrella staff is giving a speech in Nepali, so I find myself paying close attention to the scene, but filtering out the noise. The boys are smiling so wide, and it occurs to me- maybe this is the first time they've sat in front of a group and been told how special and wonderful they are. For most, every year on a birthday- groups of people sing a song publicly so that you know you're loved. I think of all of the award ceremonies, and graduations, and applause I've received in my life and wondered what it would be like if this was the first and maybe last time that would happen. I'm tearing up pretty badly and I think of my mother and how she gets choked up every time one of her children is on stage or on the field. I'm looking at him and I'm just...I don't know. Proud.
There's a woman sitting near them, someone I've never seen before. She's listening to the staff member talk and you can tell she has something to say. When he stops,she begins to speak. I think she is thanking him. She begins to cry. I think this is a relative of the boys, the one who came to pick them up. The mother? The aunt? I look at the sea of boys. They all have a mother. They all have a father. I imagine not knowing where my child was. I imagine saying goodbye and not knowing if I'd ever see them again. I imagine lying awake at night, wonder where my child is. My heart aches not only for my boys, but for their families.
Kesh and I keep making eye contact and I'm pretending not to cry. There's a pink flower tucked behind my ear and I can feel it beginning to wilt.
Right before the ceremony, me and Kesh sat outside. I was pretending to be hysterical over his departure and he was amused by my charade. We're sitting on this brick wall and I take his hand. "I'm really going to miss you." I tell him. He rolls his eyes at me, but smiles all the same. I slip my bracelet onto his wrist and say "Remember me, okay?"He pulls from his back pocket a key chain that has cards attached to it, each is a picture of a Hindu God. We've played catch with this before and he's taught me their names though I still refer to all of them as Shiva. He presses it in the palm of my hand. "I'm going to miss you too." He winks at me and hops off the wall. I wonder if he'd have given it to me if I hadn't given him the bracelet. Something tells me yes. He's that kind of kid.
We walk silently next to each other, headed to his departure ceremony and begin joking around. He's making fun of the way I walk when he notices a bed of pink flowers. He pauses mid joke and picks one. He tucks it behind my ear and says, "Last one." He flashes me a smile and we go into the ceremony.
I'm sitting there listening to this speech the staff member is giving but I'm not listening, I'm studying Kesh. I'm looking at his face and trying to picture him as 16, as 25, as 60. I'm wondering what his wife will one day look like. I'm wondering if he's going to be okay. I trust Umbrella. I know he will be. The ceremony ends, everyone leaves.
The boys say their goodbyes and help carry Kesh's belongings to the taxi. He has one metal box about the size of a briefcase and one book bag with hardly anything in it. This is everything in the world that is his. I reach into my pocket for the keychain. This is one of the only trinkets he owns. And he gave it to me.
The tears are coming and I'm trying to keep it together. A few of the boys are teasing me and I'm trying to explain: I am just so happy. I want to send all of these boys home. I love them so much, I want to send them home and I hope they never have to come back. My heart hurts for the boys who won't be going home.
Today, like every day here, I have gained more faith in Umbrella. They get results. I've seen it.

*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those mentioned
*Picture credit to the Umbrella Foundation, these are my boys with a rugby player about a year ago. Aren't they handsome? Raamro chha

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Wendybird and the Lost Boys

I don't know what part of the goat I ate but I'd have to guess it was the tentacles. I made a point to ask but was met with laughter so for the rest of the meal I chewed in silence and tried to think of anything but what was in my mouth. When I came here I promised myself that I would do as much immersion as possible. So far so good. I have dal bhaat with my boys twice a day, and Tiffin in the afternoon- nothing else but with the portion size here it I plenty. My first night of it was a Just have to ignore how spicy it is and stretch your stomach. These children are al very small but somehow they manage to eat about 50 times as much as me.
I'm lucky, I'm not a picky eater. In fact, after getting used to the taste, I find myself craving the stuff- especially the Tiffin, the sweet ,milk tea. Dudhchiya.
I've begun taking Nepali lessons and think I'll go on to have private sessions. I'm getting pretty good. Ok. That is a lie. I'm doing okay though. I'm actually picking up more Irish slang than anything and I fear in the states I'll be slagged over it.
Blog posts are long overdue, but I just keep adding things of talk about. I can never cover it all but somehow I have managed to leave out the biggest part of the story. The reason why I'm here at all. It isn't to flush the toilet with a bucket.
Wendybird and the Lost Boys
I have a lot of shortcomings. I have a lot of things that I struggle with. My capacity to love total strangers is neither of these. It's actually my greatest strength.
I have been assigned to one of the boys' homes, Kanchajunga. It houses 33 boys between the ages of 10 and 16 (roughly.) I say roughly because age is a funny thing around here- a lot of times you can never really know. So much of these boys history is shrouded in mystery. Some of them have been at Umbrella for so long, it's most of what they remember of their lives. Some of their histories are too dark to ever be talked about. But I don't want to talk about that. I don't want to tell you what has happened to them (as if I'll ever really know.) I have done my homework, read their files. Most of it isn't pretty. But that isn't who they are. What has happened to them, what they have gone through, what they have or have not seen or done- it isn't who they ARE. You can't read who they are, you just have to see it for yourself. You cannot take a person and put them into words- not when that person is magic like these boys. What has happened to them- it's really no reflection on them. Shame on the rest of the world for allowing it, shame on the rest of the world for not even noticing their pain, but these boys- they are fighters. They are triumphant. They are thriving despite the cards they were dealt. I am so humbled to be a part of this family. Family- that's what Kanchejunga is.
The boys call me sister and I call them bhaai (brother). They don't call me sister because of a special bond we share, but rather they call all white females sister. They laugh that my name is Maggie, so close to Maggi, a popular brand of just-add-water noodles. Like being named Ramen stateside. Affectionately, they call me chow chow sister.
What's probably the most remarkable is what good care they take of each other. There is a hierarchy within the house that I am slowly learning. Though there is plenty of hitting, it is all in good fun. The smallest one gets the worst of it and always gets back up, and jumps in the middle for more. This is a tough kid. They all are. Wiry and agile. There is plenty of banter but they love each other like brothers and aren't shy about it.
My first encounter with the house was in my induction ceremony where I was welcomed. I was given two prayer scarves, one by the house mother, one by the live-in tutor. A few of the boys, speaking no behalf of the group stood up to say that I was welcome here, they were happy to have me and they look forward to our time together. This is customary for all new volunteers but I was touched none the less. They pulled out the guitar and serenaded me with a few popular Nepali songs and an English song they knew I'd know- "Jombie" which half way through I figured out was "Zombie" by the Cranberries. After each song they'd become silent and one would say "And now Maggie Sister, we will be pleased to hear a song from you." Looking back I don't know why this embarrassed me as much as it did. When they asked I just froze, unable to form words. This, of course, made putting me on the spot a lot more fun. It's not that I'm shy in front of crowds, though I suppose musically I am. I could have at least faked it and sang the Oscar Meyer Weener song or SOMETHING. They didn't expect me to be brilliant, just to participate. On the spot I was drawing a blank. I just turned red and shook my head. Why was I so anxious?
I think it's because a part of me is very young. A part of me is desperately seeking their approval. For some reason, I don't just want them to like me, I want them to think I'm cool. This is an embarrassing revelation. A short coming I was so sure I'd grown out of. Fortunately they were able to laugh at my reluctance rather than be annoyed or offended.
The next day was my first real day with them one-on-one.
So, I'm standing on the porch, just standing and they're all busy with their own thing. I'm not really sure what to do. I'm wracking my brain to think of a hilarious joke to tell or a creative game to play but all I'm getting is cold feet. My initial novelty has warn off and none seem bothered to entertain me. It's the worst feeling. It's that feeling when you've already gotten your food at the dining hall and you realize you have no one to sit by. You take a few laps and then dump your plate and leave. It's that feeling. I come from a small town. I'm no good at being the new kid.
And then a sweaty hand grasps mine. One of the younger boys. "Ok sister, we play football now. I show you where." He holds my hand the whole way there. I can never thank him enough for this. If you ever see some one taking laps around the dining hall, invite them to have a seat. On the walk I learn his name and age. I notice how remarkable his English is. I notice how he carries himself, how familiar it is. I notice how much he reminds me of every other ten year old I've ever met. How remarkably normal he is. Another boy follows us-he catches up to give me a flower he has made from paper. This is the first time I feel myself wanting so badly to never have to leave.
I can't record everything they've done to make me love them, all of them. I can only share a few anecdotal stories.
They are always begging me to sing to them. It's not because they love my voice, it's because they like to tell me "Ok sorry sister, try out again next year." Khouse has two tutors, both former Umbrella boys who are now at University but work for Umbrella. I have become good friends with one of them, who brings his guitar to the porch to sing with me every night. This is my favorite part of the day- and I'm even learning some Nepali songs. The sun is going now and about 6 boys are hanging off of me. I'm a little out of tune and no one notices or maybe they just don't care. Everyone is winding down and we're filled with dal bhaat and the air is cooling. I think I could do this everyday.
I'm leaving out so much, like my fellow volunteer at Khouse who just left a few days ago but was absolutely invaluable in helping me adjust. Like how I ended up barefoot in Tamel. Like how I managed to seriously offend Krishna. There's too much to recount.
A few things that deserve mention. The first is how resourceful the boys are. I find myself so in love with Umbrella because of the way they run the houses. They're focused on raising Nepali children. If they pop the football, they aren't just handed a new one- no Nepali child has an unlimited source of footballs. And clothes- they each have about two pairs. They cannot grow used to being handed everything. They will soon be Nepali adults who need to learn to go without.
I watched a little one proudly stitch together his shoes, flip flops so torn that the sole was almost in half, with a wire- the type that would keep a bread bag from spoiling. I wanted to reach over, offer him duct tape or something but stopped myself. This is a skill he actually needs.
What I want to do when I see their shoes in such a state, or them kicking around a football (and by football I mean soccer. "shocker? What is this shocker sister?") is laugh, an exasperated "Oh you kids!" kind of laugh. But I stop myself. It's not something to tease about. To me, flip flops are flip flops-disposable. To them, it's one of the few things they own and wont be seeing a new pair for a long time.
Let me be very clear when I tell you that these kids are very very happy. They have very little and they need very little. They don't get bored. They have 32 brothers- how could you ever be bored? They're incredible the way they entertain themselves. Some of them use broken rubber bands to shoot flies out of the air. They never miss. They all play "rocks" an elaborate version of jacks played with rocks. They aren't just ok, they're thriving. They're also remarkably good at sharing everything they do have. There's a little area with a concrete table- they've built a net by lining up bricks and play table tennis there. No matter how old or young, they all wait their turn- sometimes for an hour. They keep score fairly and everyone gets a turn. They just do. It's the same with football. Two teams for three, one goal wins it- the victors remain and play the next team of three. Simple. I think of all the 11 year olds with cell phones and ipads and wonder how many pairs of shoes that could be bought with that.
I'm sitting there on the living room floor paying close attention. I'm kneading dough, hoping that somewhere in the world Peeta Melarch is looking down at me with approval. They're having a Momo party to say goodbye to my fellow volunteer. A momo is a dumpling- made with different fillings but today we're having buffalo. Folding a momo is an art, an art I was not built for. One of the boys, I've been watching him for a while. He's an artist. He reminds me so much of some one back home. He's very quiet, kind of blends in to the background. He is often upstaged by others in the house- so many are class clowns- dancing, and yelling, and performing slapstick comedy routines for attention. This kid is content just hanging around, but I watch him folding the momos and I'm just in love with him. There's just something so delicate about the way he moves. He's got a very slight build, just like my friend at home and he moves with grace. It's these little things about the boys that I've begun to notice that I love the most. On him , I love how he moves with ease. How when I tell him how impressed I am he just smiles and looks at his feet.
I'm writing this from restaurant in Thamel. Thamel as I've hopefully mentioned before- is the tourist district. It's crowded and busy and I can't help but love and hate it. It's wonderful for music, for going out, for meeting fellow travelers. If you need to get something, it's the place to go. But for all it has to offer, it has one thing that I can't even look at.
Street kids.
You can't not see them, they're all over. It's not so difficult to turn a blind eye- to pretend to be so immersed in the noise of Thamel that you don't see the 14 year old with matted hair and no shoes trying to catch you eye and put his hands to his lips, sign language for "food"? You can ignore it until he wraps his arms around you and calls you mama- a rehearsed but effective method. You take him into a store and tell him to pick what he wants to eat. He immediately goes to a milk product that he can sell to make money to buy more glue. He's got an empty plastic bag in his pocket from his last hit. You can't get it for him so you get his crackers, something he can't sell and will have to eat himself. You hand him the box and he runs out of the store. Just get to the taxi. Just get to the taxi so you can cry privately. The next morning you find a few small sores on your head. You've given him crackers, he's given you lice.
I think to myself- my God, he looks just like one of my boys. Then it hits me with such force I can't believe I'm still standing. That was the fate of my boys. Those little knuckleheads who call me chow chow and braid my hair and bring me flowers and have a favorite color, and a favorite subject and a best friend and a dream for their future-this was the life of some of them. This and worse. These kids are no longer statistics, they're the people who I eat with, who I tease, who I wrestle with, who I sing to. In my head I call them the Lost boys from peter pan, but these are the found boys. These are the ones that got away. The ones that have a chance...and For every one that has been found- there are a thousand out there, still lost. I'm going to be sick.
I started writing with more to say but the last paragraph has made me numb. I've been sick this week, fatigued with a weakened stomach so I'll blame it on that.
I remain blissfully happy here. Happy, in love and so alive but feeling older and older with each day.
My birthday is coming up- please visit my new page. My love to you all, hug your children tightly tonight- count your blessings dear loves.
-Wendy Moira Angela Darling

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Arrival and other outdated posts

Flight to Kathmandu- not a problem.
Nepal. Amazing, beautiful, perfect. I'm not leaving.
These were the only words I managed to write before it was too dark to continue. I want to start from the beginning but every minute that passes I feel I have something new to rejoice in. Just now, I am sitting outside a cafe drinking milk tea and eating homemade bread but at my side is a large stick to scare away monkeys. I can honestly say this is a first. Right now I can see a bull (male monkey) eyeing my bread but I'm ignoring him as the locals do. Never look a monkey in the eye, never smile at a monkey. Easier said than done. These bouncy little rascals are adorable through a TV screen or when depicted on birthday cards but in real life when you see then screaming at each other, fighting dogs, and robbing little old ladies of their groceries- the cute factor wears off. They're a little like hostile toddlers with super human strength and no conscience. I'm also talking to a group of 3 volunteers with an Israeli organization nearby- 2 Americans, one Israeli. Kathmandu is kind of a melting pot- I've met people from all over.
Just went inside to the back of the bakery which doubles as the owner's home. He saw me typing outside and said I could use the WiFi, a service not offered to most but business is slow this morning. All of this typed up and I'm only describing what is happening now and what has happened in the past 10 minutes - to think I've got 24 hours to recap. Ok, enough with the stream of consciousness, time for some structure.
From where I left off:
New Delhi was nothing special...for me Thatis. Apparently the sleep deprivation caught up with me. I landed at about 11:30 pm (here you will read that as 23:11) and got through the airport no trouble. Since it was a domestic flight I was able to avoid the hang-ups of customs. I got to my hotel around 12:30 am (00:30) and began typing up my blog. It had to be done in pieces because it's based on a 20 page journal entry. I had free internet in my hotel and a lot of people from home were online so I talked to friends and family. I went to bed around 5:00am and woke up the next day at about 6:00pm. Woops. I finished typing my blog post, posted it and then hung around the hotel- it was already getting dark and the part of New Delhi I was in (from what I could see) was a great deal seedier than the part of Mumbai I'd been in the previous night, a lot more urban devoid of little neighborhoods and vegetable carts- in fact it looked a little American, a very dirty New York. These observations come from the taxi ride to and from my hotel. I really cannot speak for nether the city of Mumbai nor Delhi because of what little exposure I had. The only thing I noted in were squatters, make shift homes on the side of the road built from tarps and other materials that aren't exactly house-worthy. It tugged at my heart to see the feet of people sticking out from under the make-shift shelters they called home. Naturally, after sleeping all day, I was up all night mostly watching crazy Bollywood movies and playing on Facebook. Interesting thing that I've never really considered: hulu,netflix, and pandora only cater to the US (maybe Canada too). I assumed the WORLD wide web meant everyone but I suppose not. My yahoo homepage now gives me the latest gossip on bollywoodstars and the articles about dating are pretty funny when translated.
I flew in from Kathmandu into Tribhuvan International airport around 9am. Tribhuvan International is pretty shabby but fully functional and not busy enough to be terribly confusing. We land on the runway and I climb aboard a bus that takes us to the actual airport. Customs is fairly easy.
Nepal is...amazing. I don't want to post the pictures I took because I see the thumbnail and it's just SO frustrating. I simply cannot capture it in a photo. Kathmandu is crowded and dusty but so full of life. Shops line every street, the roads are winding and hilly, and the people are everywhere. I passed through Tamel, the tourist district of Kathmandu. It's incredibly busy, incredibly colorful and incredibly loud. My taxi arrived in Swyambhu , a great deal less intimidating than Tamel and dropped me off. I climbed out of the taxi, so grateful I had packed light and stared at what is around me. I am surrounded. In Georgia they'd be mountains but here they are simply hills but to me they are giants, wonders of nature. A temple is behind me, draped in colorful prayer flags. There are dogs and monkeys and children staring at me. My coordinator met me and gave me the lay of the land. I can't tell you what he said because I was so overwhelmed with my new neighborhood I wasn't listening- I was just gawking at my new life.
From what I see, Kathmandu is beautiful, but it's certainly not perfect. Trash is an ever present. Poverty is also ever present. Luckily for me, Swyambhu (though it is not wealthy) is a tiny close knit area, void of beggars and tragedy. The people of Swyambhu have very little, but they are quite content. (from what I can see.)
After a quick tour, I was taken to the Volunteer House to get settled. This is where i met my fellow volunteers, the people I'd be spending a LOT of time with for the next three months. Call it karma, call it chance, I prefer to blame serendipity- these people are awesome. They are exactly who you'd want to be stuck with in a developing country. There are eight: 2 Americans, 2 French, 4 Irish- 2 men, the rest women. All lovely, just lovely.
I have many more posts to come but I simply can't keep up! Sorry to leave you hanging.This should hold you over for now- know that I am madly in love with life these days.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

To catch you up

3/15/12-3/17/12 (Well, in India it's 15/03/12-17/03/12)
My journey has officially begun and thus far it has been quite an adventure.
7am March 15 and we're on our way to Hartsfield Jackson airport. I'm neither excited nor nervous, but numb- still in disbelief that I may've pulled this off. I was fully convinced that this day would never come. On the drive I kept thinking-statistically this is the most dangerous leg of the journey. After a late departure from Macon, we (my mother and I) made it to the airport with time to spare. We mess around buying last minute items including the final installment of the Hunger Games and as we trudge slowly to the gate I hear "Maggie Rogers, Last Call." Didn't mean to cut it THAT close but now my adrenaline is flowing a little. After a teary goodbye I board the plane. Actually, I wasn't teary. I didn't cry at all. The night before, I said goodbye to Olivia with the same stiff upper lip. Leaving two of the most important women and not one tear from me. It's not that I'm not sad, I just feel so guilty making them cry I can't really acknowledge the situation without having second thoughts- so I am distant and seem indifferent. There is such a sweetness in their vulnerability, it makes me want to protect them. They love me so much it just seems like it would hurt more to know that I too was scared.
The flight to Newark was nothing of consequence. The 7 hour layover was not of consequence either except that I received a stow away gift in my purse. Olivia had recorded herself reading the entire 2nd Harry Potter book to remind me of home and keep me company on lonely days. I'm touched but I don't listen to it. I'm not ready to think about home. For the first time ever, I'm very much alone.
7pm I board the plane to Amsterdam. Take care USA! The only thing noteworthy here is that while boarding , I made eye contact with an Indian boy near my age. I noticed him because he walked with a slight limp and because he smiled at me. I secretly hoped in that moment I'd be seated next to him. I wasn't. 8 hours of flying and we arrive in Holland blood clot free at 7am. Just before descent the sky is blinding pink. I'm watching the Holland. It's at this time I begin grinning like an idiot. Unfortunately when we land, the ground is blanketed in fog so the scenery is bleak.
During the 3 hour layover I saw my friend (he doesn't know we're friends yet but I do. I have a 6th sense for such things.) I sat at the gate and he approached me. "YOU'RE going to Mumbai?" he said flashing the same smile that had eased my nerves just hours ago. We chatted comfortably for a while and I realized that I've only been gone for 15 hours and I'm missing home like hell. He tells me he's a Mumbai native who frequents NYC working in the jewelry business. He gave me his card stating that if I ever need anything, he's a phone call away. He has no idea what kind of peace this gives me.
Soon it is time to board. European security regulations are not the same as American. All liquids must be removed from your bag, put into a separate plastic bag and sent through security (which is at the gate.) A flight attendant grills you on how long you've been in AMS and if your luggage has remained in your sight, has anyone given you anything since you arrived here. I consider mentioning the business card but think better of it. The Dutch flight attendants are not like the Atlanta ones. Sometimes the Atlanta airport reminds me of Disney world with the staff's perpetual pep. The Dutch flight attendants don't laugh or tell me that the flower in my hair is pretty. They do their job and roll their eyes. I notice that I am the smiliest person in the whole airport. So much as eye contact with another person causes me to reflexively flash a full set of teeth and wave emphatically (what gives Europe?). More about security. After the initial baggage security you have to stand in what reminds me of an upright MRI machine-let it scan you and no matter what it says you still get pat down by an attendant. It doesn't bother me but it's time consuming. It's in the pat down that I meet Jim. His name isn't really Jim but he reminds me so much of Jim from the Office I can never think of him as anyone else. Rule to live by: If he reminds you of Jim from the Office, you can trust him.
"Rogers? M Rogers?" Calls a flight attendant from behind security, waving a boarding pass. I investigate and find I've been bumped to 1st class. "In trouble miss Rogers?" asks Jim as he is frisked with a metal detector. We talk for a while until we board and he and the other poor people sit in coach while I ride first class- perk of flying standby. The flight attendants are much more cheerful in first class. They feed you constantly, your chair massages you, and you drink from real glass. They show you Oscar winning movies and tell you you're smart and beautiful. I love first class.
I also love who I was seated next to in first class. John is a business owner who frequents first class and laughs at my jokes. He has a 16 year old daughter and insists he walk me through customs. After 24 hours of flying, no make up, an oversized shirt and a pony tail I don't look a day over 16 which is what prompts him to make the offer. 30 minutes until we land in Mumbai and I've got butterflies. We land smoothly and head to customs, I'm at John's heels. The airport isn't crowded-in fact it's eerily quiet. Customs gives me grief about my forms being incorrect but won't show me the error. They just keep shoving the paperwork in my face-literally- and sending me to the back of the line. I can see John ahead of me patiently waiting. I feel very stupid.
Finally past customs, I have to exchange currency so I say goodbye to John. He gives me the contact info for an employee of his that lives in Mumbai- in case I ever need help. John is on the growing list of people who have moved me with their simple sweetness since the trip began.
Currency Exchange and Visitor's Services are at the same desk so I ask if there is a shuttle to my hotel. They answer yes and point me towards the exit. Call it culture shock, temporary insanity or extreme jet lag but I am NOT prepared for the next part of the journey.
I step into the Mumbai night and see a big courtyard, empty except for two security men holding big guns. Around the perimeter are literally hundreds of taxi drivers holding signs and begging you to choose them to give you a ride. I stand rooted to the spot, staring. A shove awakens me as a security person (same uniform, same gun as the two in the yard) thrusts me firmly into the courtyard. Evidently I am holding up traffic. I'm pacing the perimeter back and forth reading signs and after 40 minutes I'm ready to panic. I ask around and keep getting different responses. "Oh that hotel is 45 minutes away, oh that hotel is an hour away or I know that hotel is an hour and a half away". People keep carrying my luggage for me no matter what I say and expect payment every time they put the luggage down. I pay up- I'm a mess. It's about now when I start to fall apart. Out of the corner of my eye I see Jim. I wave frantically. Sensing something is wrong he quickly comes to my aid. I have just enough motive to look cool in front of him, I somehow keep myself from crying. "Just don't leave me." I say. Jim nods and proceeds to interpret the situation. I'm not listening- I have shut down. All I can do is bite my cheek and look skyward so tears don't run down my face. I can see now that it's not that big of a deal but I'm jet lagged, I am alone, I don't know who to listen to and it's 1am.I could still go to the hotel that's been reserved but I can't justify getting into a car and driving in the middle of the night for that long if I'm not totally sure where I am going.
The day before I left, I realized my flight was landing at midnight and perhaps it would be unwise to wander to find a place to stay. After an hour of Google searching hostels, I was frustrated. As if it fell from the sky, a message from Imaad appeared in my inbox. Imaad is an old flame of an old friend but we've managed to stay in touch on the grounds that I think he is amazing.
In the message he wished me well and said if I ever need anything, he's got connections in India. I responded immediately outlining my predicament. His brother works for a hotel chain that has a hotel in Mumbai. Within the hour Imaad had a room booked with a family discount, claiming me as his fiance. (if only.)
Everything was set until I got to Mumbai and it all crumbled. Taking some one the longest route possible is an old trick meant to run up your taxi bill but no one was letting up on this and I was too tired to fight. Jim and the man devised a plan. The man would get me to a hotel near the airport, transportation is covered. I was still too much of a mess to be happy about this problem solved. I just wanted to cry. I bit my cheek and asked Jim not to leave. He hangs out a while and a man who works for the hotel comes be my escort. "I have a good feeling, I think you can trust them." says Jim. He gives me some contact info and waves goodbye. If Jim from the Office trusts him, so do I.
Minutes later I climb into the back of an unmarked van. Typically this is where the story ends but Jim is right and I get to the hotel in one piece. I go in to check in and get charged 9,000 rupees for one night. For the room I got, this is completely insane. I paid without hesitation, I just needed to get into a locked room and break down. (Jet lag guys, don't give me that look!)
My bellhop refuses to leave without a tip. I've probably shelled out around 11,500 rupees tonight. That is INSANE, but for now I don't have a backbone and everyone knows it. I lock the door, I break down. I HATE India. I proceed to sob and completely over react for an undocumented amount of time. The only thing keeping me going is the thought that tomorrow I'll buy a train ticket and be on my way to Delhi, then to Kathmandu where at least I'll know where I'm staying. Imaad calls the hotel and tells them to help me with everything in the morning. He talks me off a ledge. I love Imaad. Still restless, I sleep for one hour.
Morning comes, no seats available on today's train. I have to check out in 4 hours, I'm running out of cash and I need a place to stay. I need a plan NOW. I should've gone into survival mode. Instead, I assumed the fetal position and picked up where I left off the night before. I pull myself together and get breakfast downstairs. It's some spicy chick pea soup and bread that tastes like grits. I'm the only one in the dining room except for the staff. Sensing my mood, the staff (about six 17 year old boys) changed the channel from the news in Hindi, to the English channel where Spy Kids is playing. They do this to make me feel welcome and comfortable. I can't hide my smile. Even in my self pity, I keep stumbling upon these rays of sunshine.
I return to my room and cry some more. I finally contact my dad, the colonel. If you ever need a white knight, this is who you call. After explaining the situation to him and declaring my trip and therefore my life over-- he fixed it. He just...fixed it. He's a good man. In a few minutes he had booked a flight to Delhi and a hotel for me when I got there. That's all I needed. My mom also deposited some money in my bank account when I told her about all the rupees down the drain. I have excellent parents (even is 2/3s of their offspring are kind of weird), they do their best and I'm so lucky to have them.
What's next? I check out in an hour and my flight isn't until 11pm. Mumbai airport isn't like Atlanta where you can hang out all day. They won't even let you in until 3 hours before your flight leaves. My plan was this- get my things and sit outside. For the next 7 hours. I was so over India, I'd rather just sulk. Still.
Good GOD I am so embarrassed about this never ending temper tantrum.
I check out and the man says, "So, plane or Train?" and I remember that sweet Imaad has told them to look after me. I tell the man my plans and he rolls his eyes and takes my luggage. I swear if he wants a tip I'll break his fingers. "Come back..say...7? Your things will be safe here and I will arrange a ride to the airport."
I take only my camera. I FINALLY shake the mean reds- everything is turning up roses. I walk with a renewed faith in humanity. I am very famous in India, people simply cannot keep their eyes off of me. True confession, I love the attention. I walk about a mile and a half. I don't stray from the main road, I don't want to get lost. There is plenty to see. Probably the most nerve wracking thing I've discovered about India is that the people are in no way afraid of cars and the cars completely disregard pedestrians. I can't believe how people walk amongst moving traffic like it's no big deal.
Can't beat em'? Join em'. I spent time following groups dodging cars and really, it's not that scary. Within 30 minutes, I'd turned pro. Thus far the street has been low scale shops,nothing of interest except for the copious amounts of trash everywhere. To my right there is a dirt path leading into a neighborhood. To follow the path would feel so invasive. It's people's yards, I'd be in their space...but curiosity takes over. Down the rabbit hole I went.
It was exactly what you want to see when you think of India. Big carts of vegetables, bags of spices, people weaving rugs on the floor, everyone bartering, everyone knows everyone's name, kids playing cricket and lots of naked toddlers. I suddenly felt very guilty for hating India, for making a mental note to high five the next British person I saw, and for not really giving it a chance.
People are staring but it's because they don't get tourists in the neighborhood. They're smiling and waving and seem genuinely happy that I've stumbled upon this place. Seeing my camera a man approaches me and asks, "Photo?" I snap a photo and he exclaims "Now THAT'S handsome!". Thus began my job of taking headshots for everyone in the neighborhood. Literally people were lining up. I met SO many people. I couldn't remember all of their names but they remembered mine. "Maggie! Come look at this! Maggie! Meet my family!"
In all, I visit four neighborhoods. The occupants aren't well to do but they're certainly not suffering. Everyone is so happy and content with their lives. The children literally run in packs.
After 4 hours I'm exhausted. I hit the main road again and a voice calls out from a shop window, "You! You come to my shop, I want to show you, 5 minutes!", I told him no thanks. His voice changed a little, "You don't have to buy, just look." So what the heck. I go inside and we start talking. He's about my age, maybe a little older and his English is great. He's selling jewelry and these figurines made of silver. After browsing for a while he pulls out some food he has brought from home. "Eat with me." I shake my head, feeling intrusive. "Homemade Indian food made special for a Mumbai first-timer, just for you." He insisted (Indian people are very insistent so I have learned.) I sat down and dish up some yellow meat (goat) and rice. I ask what part of the goat we're eating and he just laughs. This i my cue to stop asking. It's weird, but definitely not bad. I continue talking to this guy and he gives me an impromptu Hindi lesson. "This isn't your first time speaking Hindi," he tells me. In high school I bullied my friend into teaching me a little. I don't remember much but I'm familiar enough in the sounds to do a decent impression even if I don't exactly know what I'm saying. His comment makes so happy. I thank him and leave when we've finished eating.
I'm so exhausted now. It's hot outside and I've been walking for hours, not to mention I have slept but one hour since leaving Atlanta. There aren't any coffee shops or places to lounge so I perch on a dusty wall right outside of my hotel that can be seen from the nearest neighborhood. I am so tired and it shows. People still pass and wave, stop to talk a bit but I can really only smile weakly and say a few words (before I would have jumped up and done an animated interpretive dance to illustrate my point in the conversation.) An hour passes and three girls approach me wearing their school uniforms. They've been watching me this whole time. They're probably 8 years old. One hands me a bag of chips. "To make you feel better!" she squeaks and the three run away.
30 minutes later, a girl of about 10 gestures for me to come to her. I obey. She leads me to a shady bench on her porch outside of her building. Tons of kids come, most of whom I met earlier to tell me about cricket and their day and their friends etc. The boys are rascals and the girls all seem mature for their age. One of the girls gives me a piece of chocolate. Soon, adults come over. "You made us so sad sitting alone!" they tell me. I'm surrounded by people. The little girls translate for the old women who tell me they're coming to live with me in America. Everyone is bubbly and funny and extremely talkative. A women I don't recognize comes over and whispers in the ear of a lady I've been talking to and the mood changes. Everyone gets serious for a minute and they consult each other in Hindi. I look to my 10 year old translator and she tells me a boy from this neighborhood is missing. He left for "tuition" (school) this morning and wasn't back yet (it's almost 7pm.)
After a few minutes of Hindi, the women feel obligated to continue entertaining me so they switch back to English. The girls play with my hair and the boys perform an impromptu slapstick comedy routine. And me? I'm falling deeply and madly in love with India.
I leave when the airport taxi arrives and I retrieve my things from the hotel. A small army is waving goodbye.
I'm sitting in the airport now about to head to Delhi. I'm sitting in gum that I just now noticed and I haven't showered since the morning. I have dirt under my fingernails and these clothes will never get clean. I couldn't care less. I'm having the time of my life.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012