August 30, 2011

Sweet Surrender

I’m a recent convert to Yoga - the twisted poses, the deep breathing exercises, the headstands - I currently can't get enough!  One class on a freezing Monday back in March was all it took to draw me in and I've been downward-dogging it ever since.

While holding the yoga poses, I’m reminded of the beautiful, graceful movements of dance that once filled my evenings.  Peace and spirituality fill the studio in quantities that are elusive on most normal days of busy city life.  When I’m up to my neck in negative thoughts caused by the world’s a**holes and selfish actions, and am convinced that we’re all on a path straight to hell, yoga forces me to weed through all that, find the good, and meditate on it.  And…..well, it’s an incredibly sweaty work out and I’m getting awesome bicep muscles from all the high planks.  

Aside from the obvious physical benefits though, I love the feeling during practice when I look at the instructor incredulously and think, oh no, there is NO way I can do THAT, but then I try, and…I can.  I love the time taken out of a busy, self-centered schedule to focus on something other than myself and daily worries. I love when the instructor reminds me to take a deep breath and open myself up to the universe.   

Does my love of all this come from the inner New Age hippie in me emerging: that free spirit that was born in the wrong decade?  Partly, but a larger part comes from continuous excitement at discovering with each new pose, each deep breath, that God and love can be found in so many other ways than just the conventional route.

I’ve been moved by the idea of surrender that is so important in the principles of yoga.  I’ll be holding a particularly difficult pose, struggling against myself when the instructor walks by and says softly “surrender into the posture”.  And I do.  Not that I can automatically do it, but that fighting/ struggling/ hating feeling passes, and it’s somehow, almost imperceptibly, easier.  

As we were abruptly reminded of recently, life doesn’t go according to plan.  Obstacles pop up, things fall through, opportunities arise, and in some especially sad cases, it’s all over in an instant and way too soon.  

That’s where surrender comes in.  Whatever comes, comes, and you can fall into it – maybe not with ease, or painlessly, but at the very least with a certain acceptance. 

Back when we were traveling, it seems like our best experiences came when we put down the guide book, and went with whatever came along.  For example, Sonagir, India, February 2009:

Two weeks into our travels through India, we unexpectedly tumbled into Sonagir late in the afternoon. The village of Jain temples on a plateau was on our list of things to see, but had a big question mark by it, since there wasn't any information in the guide book or on the internet about the place. It's not even marked on most available maps.

We jumped onto a delayed train in the usual manner – amongst the chaos of the train platform, hoping we were hurling ourselves towards the train that would take us in the general direction of where we wanted to go. As the train started moving, leaving Gwalior behind, we learned through stilted English conversations with other passengers that this particular train didn’t stop in Sonagir, since it was an express route.  As the sun moved closer to setting on the horizon, we gave up hope of going to see the temples that day.

We were busily consulting the Lonely Planet, trying to decide what to do next when we felt the rocking of the train halt to a stop, heard the squeal of brakes, and we pulled up to a station, waiting for signal clearance.  Our local friends on the train started to gesture rapidly to us, Get off, Sonagir!  Sonagir!  

So we did, in a tumble of our backpacks and confusion, we landed on the train platform of Sonagir, a little unsure of how exactly we got there, but glad to be there nonetheless.  We were then officially off the beaten path.

There were no buses, no taxis, no local trains: no public transportation to speak of.  We began walking down the main street of the village, asking advice from locals on how to get from the train station to the temples some 5km away.  One store owner sadly told us that there was nothing, but offered us his motorcycle to borrow for a couple hours.  Then an army truck pulled up.  Our new local friends negotiated a ride for us with him and we set off through the simple countryside. 

The ride wasn't free, of course.  Our driver's fee? Posing for a picture with Sergio. With his gun too.  

The soldier dropped us off at the front entrance to the temple area, promising to look after our backpacks and give us a ride back later.  So, we took of our shoes and headed up the path. 

A young, eager-to-practice-his-English guide got word of the foreigners visiting, and he caught up with us halfway up to the temples.  He gave us a nice, if somewhat word-y guided tour through the temples, and left us alone at some points. We wandered through the temples, in the last bits of sun before the sunset.

For one of the first times in my life, I suddenly feel like words aren’t enough to describe Sonagir.  It seems mundane to describe it only as beautiful, because it was way more than that.  Up on the hill, between the hundreds of temples and shrines, we could see for miles.  It felt like we were nowhere and everywhere at once.  In some areas, we were the only people around, but at the same time, there was an energy that buzzed through the air, as if we weren't alone at all. 

After watching the sunset from one temple overlooking a valley so serene that we could hear the exact moment the sun dropped past the horizon, we made our way back down to find our military man.  

He ended up finding us, then we had a chai in the dusk at a small cafe with some local military leaders and our guide.  Then, we returned to the train station, in a big hurry because our train was supposed to leave in 20 minutes!!!.....only to arrive and find that no one knew when the next train was going to stop by.  We settled onto our backpacks, grabbed two samosas, and made friends with a group of kids who had gathered to play “look at the foreigners”.  

The kids were so sweet and so curious about us, the only bad part about the four hour wait for the train was that we couldn’t take them with us, and that our camera had run out of battery.  Another one of those evenings that is best captured in the heart.  

Finally, the train pulled in to Sonagir station, perhaps on time, perhaps late, no one really knew, but we stepped on to the train, looking back to wave at the boys gathered on the train stop, and settled into our berths wondering how in the world that afternoon had come to pass.  We had stopped planning, pushing, and controlling for a couple of hours, and surrendered to India.  

This concept of surrender doesn’t necessarily mean giving in and giving up.  I think of it more as an emptying out of expectations and doubts, making room for the unknown- whatever that may be.

Surrender is essential when we’re about to start a new challenge like a non-profit.  It’s scary, looking into the void, having all these unknowns popping out at us, and instead of backing away from it, letting go and giving in.  

Negative what if… what if … what if’s drown out anything else, and because of all the questions, we can’t tell if this is even the right thing to do.  What if we fail, what if it doesn’t work, what if we blow it?

But conversely -  what if we can do so much more than what we’re doing right now?  

Because, in the end aren’t all those question marks kind of….great?  Don’t they leave the door open for so many exciting things that couldn’t happen with safe, declarative sentences?  

The pervasive conventional thought is that since we're married and in our upper 20’s right now, we should be thinking about settling down, “growing up”.  But the way we see it, right now is the time where we’re full of confidence, just enough experience to be wiser, but not quite enough to be bitter and jaded.  Now is when we’re finally taken seriously when we talk, and actually have the means to do some of the things we talk about.  Now is the time to keep building on that momentum.  Not settling down, but shaking things up.

Now is just the time to take a crazy idea like creating a non-profit to the next level, not the time to fade into the monotony of the quotidian.  Call it unending optimism, call it youthful delusion, but whatever it is, we should take advantage while it’s still around.  

And who says that the scary ‘what if’ elements are unknown, per say…they’re just unknown to us.  Just like in Sonagir when it felt like we had some kind of invisible hand guiding us along, I think it’s time to throw ourselves at the mercy of the universe again – open our arms and say, give us what you’ve got: we’re open to suggestions.  

And if we do it right – with open minds, staying together, looking forward, and using love as that unwavering force and guide that should become our signature scent, the future “what if” can be: 

What if we accomplish anything we ever set out to do?     

It takes a certain amount of courage to give in to whatever is coming next, and a weird sort of thought process to both extensively plan and surrender at the same time.  However, if yoga has taught me anything in the last few months of practice, it’s that killer biceps and a sweaty yoga mat are only the beginning if we close our eyes, find our balance, and surrender to the flow.

*For Ya-ya Girlie, whose continued presence in our lives reminds us that we should sing karaoke every chance we have, dance the cha cha when there’s music, smile like it's the only option, and makes us ever so more determined to keep our eyes focused on the good.  

July 11, 2011

Postcards from Hell?

A moment, if I may, on the soapbox this morning...

Last week, I happened upon a photo essay on the front page of MSN – “Postcards from Hell”.  It linked to an article on

It is a list of 60 “failed states” based on a 2011 Failed State Index, compiled using a list of cookie cutter criteria, with accompanying graphic pictures of various depictions of the “hell” of these countries.  Most of the nations on the list are either African, or Southeast Asian Countries.  

The pictures, admittedly, are riveting.  And it’s true that many of the countries on this list are facing poverty, ethnic and racial tensions, gender inequality, government corruption, and sweeping human rights violations.  

But I felt increasingly uncomfortable flipping through the pictures.  Not because they showed stirring images that awakened my state of ignorance – but because they seemed to exploit the problems in the country, as if the editors only wanted to show the most shocking pictures – 'look at us, we can make a list of places that are “hell on earth” and call it hard hitting journalism'.  The thing is, I don’t think these countries need our journalists’ help in making them hell on earth.  

I also strongly disagree with their placement of Bhutan (our version of Bhutan) as the 50th failed state on the list.  What criteria did they use to place a country that values “gross national happiness” over GDP on this list?  But that is another debate – my biggest problem with the article was the overall tone.  

I suppose it’s the nature of journalism today to make sure that everything reported on is  newsworthy and dramatic.  And I’m not saying we should gloss over the bad parts of any country just because we have a good experience there.  It’s much easier to have a great time when you’re a visitor making the rounds.  But I’m also not saying we should deem the country “hell”, well, just for the hell of it.  

It reminds me of this documentary I saw about a year ago by Laura Ling with Vanguard about Burma (Myanmar). 

In the Burma documentary, with the intent to critique the awful Burmese government, a cameraman followed the intrepid Ling on a visit to the country.  Throughout the piece, she was shown hunkered by a pool in a government hotel, quietly whispering into the camera about how she was constantly being watched.  She glanced over her shoulder suspiciously, pointed out many bad things, and the whole documentary was dark, negative, and secretive.  I'm not sure if a single smiling Burmese was shown at any point in the show. 

Now, imagine someone who knows nothing about Burma, sitting comfortably in their air conditioned living room watching that documentary.  They’re going to think to themselves, “Wow, what a shame, those poor people.  But there’s no way I’m ever setting foot in that country”.  

Which will only cause isolation.  Isolation is not the answer to the human rights violations constantly and willingly being committed there.  Big news stories that expose the terrible aspects of the country only drive a wedge between the victims of these regimes and the lucky people on the other side, rather than creating a connection that is the way out of the tyranny. 

My opinion on visiting Burma: avoid any hotels and restaurants directly run by the government.  Stay only in private guesthouses and don’t book one of those package tours that cost loads of money, almost all of which goes to the government.  But, go, go go to Myanmar, because not visiting Myanmar for ethical reasons punishes the warm, friendly, curious Burmese people much more than the government.

I'm sure that a portion of our carefully spent money was handed over to the government.  And, of course, the signs of oppression popped up the whole time we were there; censorship, a quiet reserve of the people, lack of access to the Internet, a complete absence of outside news, and poverty.  However, it’s as if the people have found a million other ways to make up for their misfortune, to be happy even when circumstances of their lives make it hard to be so.  

Bagan, Burma - we came across a small isolated village, where life is simple and traditional, but happy.

Here’s an idea.  How about giving Sergio and I a prime spot on Vanguard programming to tell about our version of Burma, during the 10 days we were there in April 2009?  I bet nothing can more effectively show how wonderful the people of this country are than the tale of our 2009 visit during the Burmese New Year, which also happened to coincide with Buddha's birthday: 

For our documentary, we would begin with our first day in Yangon, Myanmar, just to set the overall tone.  We took a private taxi to a privately owned, small hostel in the center of town.  The owner greeted us with a big smile, checked us in and made absolutely sure we were headed up to the roof of the hotel to sample the “World’s! Best! Breakfast! Buffet!”. 

Downtown Yangon and its remnants of the British colonial era.

Then, a few hours later, I left my extremely sick husband on the toilet, to explore the city a bit and return with lots of water and saltine crackers.  Walking down the streets of Yangon, it was the first time in our entire trip throughout India, Nepal, and Thailand that I felt completely comfortable and safe walking alone.  I passed so many people who looked at me, smiled and called out a friendly “hello!".  I stopped to lunch at a small restaurant I found along the way.  Within minutes of sitting down at an outdoor table, a cold beer was placed in front of me, followed by a delicious plate of steaming noodles, a soup, without asking for anything at all.   

On the right bottom corner is one of the largest and most beautiful reclining Buddhas in Burma.

We ventured out of the hotel the next day to see Kandawgyi Lake, the Chauk Htat Gyi Buddha (reclining Buddha) and its adjacent monastery before finishing the day at Schwedagon Paya, the main temple in Yangon that was absolutely bustling with people, gathered to celebrate the birthday of Buddha under the full moon.  

Kandawgyi Lake on the top. A friendly monk at the monastery adjacent to the Chauk Htat Gyi Buddha on the bottom left. And the summit of Shwedagon Paya on the bottom right.

Enjoying the peaceful and spiritual atmosphere at sunset while everyone waited for the full moon to start the celebration of Buddha's anniversary.

Shwedagon Paya at night under a full moon and hundreds of people praying in unison.

Cut to four days into the trip, as we entered Mandalay, THE place to be to enjoy the biggest and best New Year's Water Festival celebrations.  

Preparations were in full swing as we arrived.  Locals were setting up huge stages around the perimeter of Mandalay Palace, a government-only square of the city that is made up of army barracks.  There is also an interior “new palace”, which carries an expensive entrance fee, and a violent, sad history of being built with forced labor.  The irony of huge stages blasting hip hop and rock music, prepping to be the site of the rowdiest partying in the country for the New Year lining the borders of the center of the military’s barracks and the site of so much human suffering was not lost on us.  It was the first incredible testament to the Burmese spirit to see locals partying their hearts out around such an oppressive site.  

During these festival days, the normally subdued (oppressed) country took on the air of a great big backyard picnic.  Repeatedly throughout the day, people doused us with buckets of water, sprayed us with water guns, and emptied any other container that could hold a respectable amount of water onto us as we passed by them, laughing hysterically while doing it.   

A party stage on the top left and some of our water battles around the country.

On foot, we were constantly approached by people celebrating. With an irresistible ear to ear smile, and a bucket of water in one hand, we would hear:

“Hello!” in the cutest, most clichéd Asian accent possible.  “you happy?...a little water?  Good luck!!” 

And they proceeded to pour cold water from questionable sources all over us, our backpacks, and anything else we were carrying.  Then as their grin got even bigger, they walked away, waving and full of gratitude as if we had just done them the greatest favor.   

Later in the day, for reasons that will have to wait to be detailed in another blog post, we found ourselves stranded without transportation in the middle of Burma, still 2 km away from our afternoon destination - Inwa, an area outside of Mandalay filled with temples, rice fields, and pagodas.

It’s ok!”  I cried.  “Let’s just walk across the bridge and over Inwa, it’s only a kilome…..”  My optimism drained away as we came upon the bridge, the concrete magnifying the hot, dry, 100 degree heat from the sun that was quickly draining all my energy.   

We made the mutual decision to hitchhike and soon a jeep full of men pulled over and beckoned for us to join them, smiling, waving, and giving out a really happy vibe.  

I only realized after settling down into the back that an incredible 15 men were crammed into this Jeep, and they were all, including the driver, completely and totally wasted.  Safety be damned, they were all so friendly, I was torn between giving in to the rising panic in my throat and demand to be let off, or just trust that it wasn't my fate to die in a ball of fire during the Water Festival. 

I looked over at Sergio who seemed to have created a fan club - one man sat at his feet, hugging his left leg and kissing it repeatedly while asking if he was happy, and another shouted Ronaldo, Ronaldo, Ronaldo! The driver was having more fun looking back at me than keeping an eye on the road. I weighed my options and decided it was time to get out.  

“Time to get out.”  I smiled politely to them all and said this calmly to Sergio.  

“No, no! Where you want to go?” came the chorus of drunken Burmese.  

“We can just get out here!”  I said a little more urgently, but refrained from saying much more since I realized that in speaking I was drawing the undivided attention of the driver who was spending less and less time looking at the road.  

One of the men continued kissing Sergio’s leg and asking in between kisses “Happy?? You happy?”  

“OK, WE’RE GETTING OUT, NOW!!” I practically yelled after we took a curve in a roundabout literally on the two left tires of the vehicle.  

We slowed to a wobbly stop, hopped out, and had a sigh of relief.  However, relief quickly turned to apprehension as I looked down the road at a huge expanse of Burmese road and realized we were still kilometers away from where we wanted to go.  

We began to walk again, deciding to either flag down a taxi or try hitchhiking again, whichever came along first.  After a few minutes of walking, a white pickup pulled to the side in front of us, and motioned for us to get in.  It was one man, an extremely friendly Burmese who spoke absolutely no English and may or may not have also been drunk. 

Although the risk was high that we would end up miles away from our true destination, the chance of a miscommunication was almost inevitable and the man seemed a, we hopped in again, grateful to have found someone willing to pick us up.  

The man’s English was nonexistent, much like our Burmese, so he had no idea where we wanted to go and we had no idea where he was taking us.  We set off in what seemed to be the right direction, and I began holding our breaths that we wouldn’t disappear into the heart of Burma, never to be seen again.  

After swerving once into the median, I was ready to get out again, when I realized that he wasn’t swerving, he was parking.  In front of a cute little house, where we were introduced to about four more Burmese who also spoke no English, but communicated their friendliness in smiles and gestures.  We were offered two cold sodas, and a table at which to sit down.  We had a quiet but smiley drink, two more Burmese friends joined us, and we set off again for our destination, at this point unsure of where our destination might be.  

Hitchhiking our way to Inwa.

We drove and drove.  All of sudden, as if it was a mirage, the exact monastery we were wanting to see emerged from the foliage.  Our new friends waited for us to look around and took us to the next sight, and then the next, and the next.  They gave us a personal tour of the area, and each pagoda we came to was more interesting than the one before.  

Maha Aungmye Bonzan Monastery, Inwa.

They dropped us off at the last monastery in the area.  We said happy goodbyes and offered money, but the driver waved it away emphatically.  

“No, no” translated his friend.  “Good Karma”.  And they drove away, waving to us, and of course, smiling.

Time for a group photo with our driver, in the middle, and his friends by the Bagaya Kyaung wooden Monastery.

We made our way back to Mandalay by walking through a cute little village tucked between the jungle and the riverbank and negotiated a boat to take us across to Sagaing where we spent the afternoon sightseeing.

A passing local pointed us towards a little path through the jungle into a small village by the riverbank where we could catch a boat across the river.

We were probably the first tourists that had passed through the village in awhile, but the kids welcomed us with a curious smile.  The women doing laundry on the banks of the river sent some of the kids on a mission to get a captain for our boat.

We wanted to end the day’s adventure by climbing up the hundreds of steps to Sagaing Hill, the site of a large, beautiful pagoda, with great views of the sunset and down into the valley.  We flagged down a drunk tricycle driver, and the ride to the base of the Hill took an eternity.  Our driver was more than happy to slow down to a crawl for happy partiers to circle our little tricycle and pour buckets upon buckets of water all over us in the name of happiness and good luck.  

"You not wet! You no good luck!"

At the top of Sagaing Hill, we met some monks and enjoyed the endless views.

We climbed Sagaing Hill drenched in water, but reached the top just in time.  I perched on a ledge, watching the sun set over the beautiful flat landscape of the valley, lighting up the white and golden pagodas that dotted the area, half listening to Sergio’s conversation with a group of young monks in red robes.  They wanted to practice their English, know where we were from, and talk about soccer players with Sergio (they weren’t technically allowed to talk to me as a woman).  

After sunset, we climbed back down Sagaing Hill, ready to go back to Mandalay. 

“Now, who wants to give us a free ride to the bus stop?” I said out loud, jokingly, to Sergio.  Two seconds later, a guy on a motorcycle pulled to a stop beside us and motioned for us to get on.  

We jumped on; he took us to the bus station, waving off any offers of payment.  We quickly found a bus to take us back to Mandalay and two hours later, on the walk from the bus stop to our hotel, we stopped for a dinner of ice cream sundaes at a delicious ice cream place that was teeming with happy Burmese. A little girl and her mother who stood nearby begging received ice cream and change from us on our way out of the restaurant. 

We passed through a night market on the way to our hotel.  As we approached the end of the street, the lights from most of the stalls fading away into darkness, a voice called out to us from the right.  

“Helloooo! Anything you want?” came the heavily accented greeting.

The merchandise from the stall glowed, like a patch of sun on the dark street.  The stand was filled with porn: sex toys, pictures, postcards, magazines, all with a grinning Burmese man behind it, inviting us to survey his wares.  We politely declined, but laughed all the way back to our hotel, repeating his call to us, and his gorgeous, blissful attitude that suggested he was selling rainbows and bunny rabbits instead of dildos and raunchy videos.   Back at our cheap guesthouse, we fell into bed with the day playing through our heads. 

And...Cut.  Fade to black. 

The country has its problems, but the Burma I know is full of warm, giving, inviting people in a national water fight, ice cream sundaes with sprinkles on top, and the happiest porn store in existence.  I know that it’s also a devastatingly poor country that is terrorized by oppression, an over controlling dictatorial regime and natural disasters. I'm not advocating that we close our eyes to it.  But, good exists in abundance in this country, and it’s doing a great disservice to the people to only show the horrific.  

We should focus on the efforts of people like Aung San Suu Kyi, a champion for the Burmese people.  She has fought for years against the government and for democracy.  What should stand out from her story isn't that she has been on house arrest for years and has been constantly knocked down by the government, but that in spite of all she's been through, she keeps on going.  She has won the Nobel prize, support from the international community, and the hearts of the Burmese population.

Yes, things in this world are tough.  We know this.  We’re bombarded with stunning pictures of it daily.  What we’re not bombarded with are images of how, even through the bad, the good can still shine through; in the most unlikely of places.   

So maybe, just maybe, if we started focusing on the little rays of sunlight as much as we already do on the ominous storm clouds, we actually could (and yes, I'll be using this line in my Miss America acceptance speech) make this world a better place.  

I’m thinking “Postcards from a Burmese Porn Stand” has a much better ring to it.

June 20, 2011

Water, water, every where / Nor any drop to drink

Remember when you were a kid in school, and around Halloween, Christmas, or Easter, a huge jar of candy corn/jelly beans/gumballs would appear on the teacher’s desk? Remember when you'd get to guess how many jelly beans were in the jar and write it down on a little scrap of paper with your name on it, and turn it in to the teacher? And whoever guessed the actual number of items in the jar most accurately won the entire jar of candy?! I desperately wanted that jar.  In my 13 years of school from kindergarten to senior year, in which I had at least 30 tries at guessing the number of various candies in various jars, I never once, ever, won.  

This is because I have horrible estimation skills.  Ask me to guess how many people fit into that college football stadium over there, and I would say, "1500!"  Ask me to judge how cold the water in Lake Michigan is right now, in June, and I would say, "25 degrees Fahrenheit!"  Or how many more miles we have left in a cross country road trip to reach our destination and I'll blurt out "2,000!" without looking at a map.  Poor me, I never stood a chance at those jars of candy games.  I accept that for the rest of my life, I will have to buy my own giant bags of candy corn and big glass jars in which to put them.

But now, thinking back on one particular day in our Southeast Asia travels, my hope is renewed!  I can think of one of these types of games at which I would actually win.  I need to find a contest that asks: How many stairs can you climb in the midday sun, in 100F degrees heat, in the middle of the dry season in India, without eating breakfast or lunch and without water.  These steps would be climbed all at once, without stopping.  Guess the exact number and you win a lifetime supply of jelly beans!!  (whooo hooo, and the crowd goes wild!).

Please tell me this contest exists somewhere, otherwise, that one day of our trip where I found out this piece of information will be a cautionary tale that I get to tell when people ask, “so does traveling day in and day out with your husband affect your relationship?”. Let’s just say the easy answer to the question is: if you can make it through India without one purposefully pushing the other into a fresh pile of cow dung (on accident is a different story), not stalking off into opposite directions in a fit of frustration, or still laugh when you realize that the contact lens you both spent a bumpy and dark 20 minutes searching for on the dirty bus floor turned out to have fallen directly and neatly into your'll probably make it through anything.

Sergio, being so good with maps, routes, and distance estimations, did the majority of the technical planning of our trip.  I’m a little more “loose” in my planning style.  Had I been in charge of that aspect of the trip, we would have arrived to Delhi, eaten breakfast, wandered around aimlessly a bit and then said “ok, now what?”  I believe that style of travel is great in a place like, The French Riviera, or Venice, but do that kind of thing in India, and you might end up washed away in a sea of people and cows.  Thankfully, Sergio more than makes up for what I lack in this department, and he meticulously planned out an awesome six months where we saw SO many things.

Our traveling schedule was such that sometimes we would plan to see one thing in one place in the morning, and get to another place quickly in the afternoon.  On one hand, it meant that we were able to see a huge amount of things in our short time in each place, but on the other hand, it meant that sometimes we stretched ourselves out a bit too far.  Sometimes, it meant that I wanted to sink down wherever we were and start crying for a warm bed and a TV.  And others, it meant that I had the uncharacteristically violent urge to push Sergio in the path of the train that he was running in front of me to catch.  

One of these times was in Palitana, India where I learned exactly how many steps I can climb up in the hot sun, on an empty, slightly sick stomach, without breakfast or water.   Ah, just mentioning the name now makes me instinctively reach for a glass of water.  The golden answer?  2,843 steps up.  (which, as those of you familiar with the laws of physics will know, also means 2,843 steps down).  

The plan was simple.  On our way from Diu to catch our 5pm flight at an airport that was 230km away in Bhavnagar, we would stop for the morning in an ancient and religious place called Shatrunjaya Hills in Palitana.  These hills are the most sacred pilgrimage site for the Jainism religion. The act of ascending a steep path to reach a place of pilgrimage is a part of the Jain consciousness, so every Jain wants to complete this pilgrimage at least one time in order to be fit to get into heaven.

The area in Palitana is filled with over a thousand temples but the main attraction is a cluster of 863 exquisitely carved marble temples which have been built over the course of the last 900 years at the summit of Shatrunjaya. The path up extends for 3.5km over 3,200 stone cut steps that climb over 600 meters of height, offering amazing views of the valley and the Shetrunji river.

 At the top of the Shatrunjaya Hills overlooking the Shetrunji river bellow

View of the Shatrunjay Tirthadhipati Shree Adinath Derasar

Our taxi dropped us off around midday, and we approached the main temple area.  We took one last look at the Lonely Planet, and Sergio noticed something.  

“It says here that we can’t take any food or drinks into the temple area.”  

“Not even our water bottles?”  

“Nope, nothing in the temple area.”

Being used to these kinds of rules by then, we took one last long drink, dumped out our water, stepped through the gates, and began to head up the hill.

Highlighted in red is the path that winds up all the way to the very top

At step 500, I was enjoying myself.  There were hundreds of pilgrims surrounding us, mostly dressed in flowing white robes.  It was a very spiritual experience - climbing  towards sacred temples in the sky amongst pilgrims.  They were quietly praying, or just concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other.   At the bottom of the steps, there were groups of skinny but muscular men standing around, offering rides up to the main temple in a dholi, a little swing chair suspended by a long stick and ropes.  Two men held on to opposite ends of the stick  and carried people up and down all day long- mostly those who were too old or sick to walk, but a few obviously rich Indians took advantage too.  I looked down my nose at the rich ones who just seemed lazy, wondering if being carried up to the temple when one can perfectly walk completely negates the whole pilgrimage/sacrifice aspect.  These groups kept offering me rides, and I kept shooing them away, slightly offended that they thought I couldn’t/wouldn’t make it all the up.

An older pilgrim being carried on a dholi swing chair around step 500

Around step 1,000, I began to see why they thought I would need a ride up, as my enthusiasm drained away quickly.  I slowed down considerably.  The Stair Master at the gym had nothing on these Jain temple steps.   

At step 2,000, we came to a lesser temple with beautiful statues, great views of the valley, and prayer flags strewn all over.  We encountered a very open and friendly family at this temple, and they were very curious about us and our reasons for visiting Palitana.  We received several blessings and these interactions were what kept me going during the rest of the climb up and back.

Around step 2000 on the left. Around step 3000 on the right.

However, also around step 2,000, we happened to pass another backpacker on her way down, happily swigging water from her water bottle.  “Excuse me” I asked her.  “Are we allowed to have drinks up here, we read somewhere it was prohibited?”.  I was talking more to her water bottle than to her.  She replied with a peppy “No, I think it just means at the very top of the temple.  Good luck for the rest of the climb, it’s so worth it in the end – it’s breathtaking up there!”.  She then skipped off, fully hydrated and content.    

At step 2,841, I gave up.  I took two more steps then sat down on the 2, 843rd step, gave a nod to the goat who winked at me as he crossed the path, and told Sergio to take a lot of pictures.  The view from where I was sitting was beautiful in itself, so I spent a very content couple of minutes, waiting, catching my breath, resting my muscles and watching the pilgrims stream by me on their way up.  Sergio went ahead, made it to the top, and then met me again on his way back down.  We then began our descent.

Upon reaching the summit, a narrow opening through some temples exposes the views of the Shatrunjaya Hills and the valley bellow.

A closer look reveals some of the exquisite carving details.

The way down was excruciating.  My legs were like jelly, and whoever coined the phrase "it's all downhill from here" as a reassurance obviously had never walked down over 3,000 steps before.  We were absolutely parched, and were constantly teased by these big basins of drinking water that lined the steps on both sides.  It wasn’t filtered drinking water, and we held back from drinking, knowing the instant gratification wouldn’t be worth later distress. It was a hard decision though; intense gastrointestinal problems were beginning to seem like a viable cost for one tiny sip of the water.

The last 300 steps passed by in a blur, and I focused on getting down and buying a bottle of water.  I fantasized about opening the bottle, pouring the sweet cold water through my lips, letting it linger on my tongue and drinking it down.  When we finally bought that first bottle (of 10), it seemed like Sergio opened it in slow motion.  Water, in that moment, NEVER tasted so good.  Water, something that I take for granted on a regular basis was the best thing in the whole world in those few moments.  

We then headed back out into the parking lot to reunite with our cab and head to the Bhavnagar airport.  We fell into the cab, dirty, tired, with a bottle of mango juice in one hand, a large bottle of water in the other, and a new found appreciation for the simple things in life.  

Looking back, we could have stopped for breakfast first, could have inspected the rules a bit more closely, could have tried to not cram so much into a day…but then, I wouldn’t have learned to appreciate water in such a profound way.  

Think of the last time you were really thirsty, but then not being able to just go buy a bottle of water, or open your faucet to get a drink.  Or say you slightly burn your hand cooking and can't run over to the sink to run it under an endless flow of cold water. Think of how much water we waste in a day. Think of the last time you were brushing your teeth and left the water running throughout those whole three minutes.  Or when  you stood in a hot shower with water pouring over your body because it felt good.  Think about watering the lawn, watering the plants, how many fountains and monuments we have with gushing water.  Every day in my life I take water for granted: that it exists, that there will be enough of it, and that I won’t have to work harder than turning on a faucet to get it.  

So taking care of a simple thing like water is another main goal for our non-profit.  It would take so little to install running water in every household.  Right now in Mactang, along with the lack of toilets and electricity, few huts have running water.  Most people have to fill up jugs or basins at the community tap, and carry it back to their houses.  Villagers take showers out in the open at the tap, or do their laundry there. There are plenty of water sources on the island, but they haven't been harnessed and brought to each individual home yet.  There is also a rainy season, which would provide ample water if we could establish a rain water collection system.  These are things that we can take care of easily, and will do as one of the first projects of the non-profit.    

Quotidian moments by the community tap in Mactang

Water is and always will be a source of life, and we will bring a water system to the village of Mactang.  

How many gallons a day will then be pumped through Mactang, or how many liters can be collected using a rain water collection system? 100! wait, 3100! I can’t even venture a realistic guess - I’ll have to defer to Sergio to answer that technical question.  

How much will quality of life in Mactang be improved by the installation of a basic water system?  This one I know the answer to:  My life in that moment back in Palitana was improved by 1,000% when I had the first drink of sweet, readily available water after only 3 hours of "deprivation"  So, I'd say that life quality for these people will be improved by an amount equal to all the candy corn, jelly beans and gumballs in the world, which is - and I’m just estimating here - a whole awful lot.  

Group bath at the tap!

May 19, 2011

Always and Forever

Once upon a time, there lived two kids on opposite sides of an ocean.  

Era uma vez um rapaz e uma rapariga que viviam em lados opostos do Atlântico.

One kid, a boy, loved buildings and soccer; the other, a girl, loved music and dancing.  They had little in common except that they had always felt a pull to get out of their small towns and see what else was out there.  One day, each of these two kids was given the opportunity to leave the comfort of their hometown, families, and lifelong friends to move to a new country for a few months and see the world. 

O rapaz gostava de arquitectura e futebol, a rapariga gostava de música e dança. Tinham pouco em comum, a não ser o querer mais do que tinham - queriam experiências maiores do que as suas vidas em cidades pequenas. Um dia, a cada um deles foi dada a oportunidade de deixar o conforto da sua casa, família e amigos, para viver num país novo por uns meses e ver o mundo. 

Somehow, some way, each of those two kids, on opposite sides of the ocean with nothing in common chose the same city, made the same friends, and ended up at the same discoteca one cold night in March.  Had they unknowingly spent their entire lives moving towards each other?  Or had they simply tripped over the same loophole in time and space to end up in the same place? That’s unknown, but through a haze of tequila, Spanish dance music, smoke and hundreds of other scantily clad, attractive bodies, the boy locked eyes with the girl and they both smiled.  

De alguma forma, de alguma maneira estas duas crianças, em dois lados opostos do oceano, sem nada em comum, escolheram a mesma cidade, fizeram os mesmos amigos, e numa noite fria de Março foram à mesma discoteca. Teriam eles passado a vida inteira, sem saber, a caminhar um para o outro? Ou teriam simplesmente tropeçado no mesmo buraco no espaço e tempo para acabar no mesmo lugar? Não sabemos, mas por entre uma névoa de tequila, música espanhola, fumo, e centenas de outras pessoas atraentes, o rapaz fixou o olhar na rapariga e os dois sorriram.  

During the next 6 months, the boy and the girl definitely spread their wings and saw the world through the amazing international kids that had also joined them in that city.  They traveled, partied, spent hours on the beach, and soaked up every single moment.  They spent time together, but also spent plenty of time discovering things on their own.  They moved in the same direction, then moved in opposite ones, then back in the same directions again.  They kept finding themselves unexpectedly looking at each other in various moments, always with a smile on their faces.  

Durante os seis meses seguintes, o rapaz e a rapariga abriram as suas asas e viram o mundo através de todos os outros fantásticos jovens que se lhes tinham juntado naquela parte do mundo. Viajaram, festejaram, passaram horas na praia e absorveram cada um dos momentos que viveram. Passavam algum tempo juntos mas também passavam muito tempo separados, fazendo descobertas por si próprios. Andavam na mesma direcção, depois andavam em direcções diferentes, e depois de volta à mesma direcção. Encontravam-se sempre em momentos inesperados, olhando-se sempre com um sorriso na cara. 

At the end of those 6 months, the boy took the girl to the airport to send her back across the ocean.   When the excitement of Erasmus hedonism, filled with new exotic people, endless nights out and skinny dipping in the Mediterranean had fallen away at the moment of good-bye, they were both startled to find that they were still side by side. They suddenly realized their wings had not only spread in the same direction, but had somehow become intertwined.  Without either one realizing it as it had happened, they had become quite impossible to separate.

Ao fim desses seis meses, o rapaz acompanhou a rapariga ate ao aeroporto para a ver partir de volta para o seu lado do oceano. Quando a excitação do hedonismo do Erasmus, cheio de pessoas exóticas e novas, noitadas, e a nadarem nuas no Mediterrâneo acabou, no momento da despedida, eles ficaram surpreendidos por ver que ainda estavam lado a lado. Eles aperceberam-se subitamente que as asas não se tinham apenas aberto na mesma direcção, mas que se tinham, de alguma forma, entrelaçado! Sem que nenhum se tivesse apercebido disso, tinha-se tornado impossível separarem-se.

At the airport, the girl, hearing her name over the loud speaker for a final boarding call, took one last look at the boy, not knowing when she would see him again, painfully extracted herself, and boarded the plane back home.   

No aeroporto, a rapariga, ao ouvir o seu nome no altifalante para a última chamada para embarcar, olhou mais uma vez, a última vez, para o rapaz, sem saber quando o voltaria a ver. Ela, dolorosamente, saiu dos braços do rapaz e embarcou no avião de volta a casa.  

The End.  

Except it wasn’t the end.  This moment that seems like the end of the story wasn’t the end at all.  It was actually the moment where it all began.  

Mas não era o fim. Aquele momento que parecia o fim da história não era, de forma alguma, o fim. Na realidade foi o momento em que tudo começou.  

That moment lead to two seemingly unending years of a long distance relationship.
Aquele momento foi o início de 2 anos de relação à distância.

Then, two blissful years living together in Portugal.
Depois, 2 anos felizes a viver juntos em Portugal.

Then six months of traveling like this:
E depois, seis meses de viagem assim: 

On a scooter in Goa, India

All culminating in this moment exactly two years ago today:
Até culminar neste momento, que faz exactamente dois anos hoje:

The Philippines Wedding – May 19, 2009

O casamento nas Filipinas – 19 Maio, 2009

The wedding was wonderful. Sure there were moments of stressful, overseas planning, cultural misunderstandings, and last minute accommodations. But thanks to a lot of patience and support from my parents, aunts, and some fabulous wedding planners, the actual wedding went off amazingly.

O casamento foi perfeito. Claro que houve momentos dificeis, com muito stress, mal-entendidos culturais e mudanças de última hora. Mas graças à muita paciência e apoio dos meus pais, tios, e fabulosos planeadores de casamento, o dia do casamento foi incrível.

I would only change one thing for certain looking back, and this would be ensuring there were fans running in the sweltering church. As entertaining as it is to see grimaces of torture on the faces of our wedding guests in the video and to make fun of Sergio for the sweat/Tanduay rum running down his face as he said “I do”, I’m not sure if that was quite the sentiment we were going for.

Mudava apenas uma coisa daquele dia – punha ventoinhas na sufocante igreja. Agora, quando vejo o vídeo do casamento, tem a sua piada ver as expressões dos convidados, que pareciam estar no Inferno, e a rir do Sérgio com suor/Tanduay (rum) a escorrer pelo lado da cara enquanto dizia o “Sim”, mas não era bem aquilo que pretendíamos!

To summarize, there was a white dress, there were vows, kisses, and love aplenty. The reception had roasted pigs, toasts, awkward games, and dancing until sunrise. It was all lovely.

Para resumir, havia um vestido branco, havia os votos, beijos, e muito amor. A recepção tinha “lechon” (leitão), brindes, estranhos jogos de salão e as pessoas dançaram até o nascer do sol. Foi adorável.

But what sticks out in my head the most from that time was how touched I was by the village of Mactang, by my family, and neighbors who, even though they have SO MUCH LESS than we do, gave, gave, gave. People left their homes so that our guests could stay in relative comfort. Uncles stayed up during the night to man the generator so we could have electricity all night long. Our pre-wedding celebration the night before made us very happy as the entire village broke out into a fully choreographed ballroom dance routine, and then followed up with native dance performances. My aunts and cousins cooked up a storm to feed our guests with the best cuisine Mactang had to offer on the days before and after the wedding. My uncles and male cousins were more than happy to enfold Sergio, my brother and other guests into the Tanduay rum drinking circle, and gave them the fullest shots. Having a wedding in a place where there are no hotels, restaurants, running water, electricity or roads can certainly be a challenge. But lucky for us, we had a whole lot of hands to help us out.

Mas a coisa mais importante para mim, que me deu mais felicidade do que tudo mais, foi como as pessoas de Mactang - a minha família, e vizinhos - apesar de terem muito menos do que nós, nos deram tanto. As pessoas deixaram as suas casas para os nossos convidados Americanos e Portugueses terem um sítio para dormir. Os meus tios ficavam acordados as noites inteiras de olho no gerador para nós simplesmente termos electricidade durante a noite. Na noite anterior ao casamento, a aldeia inteira preparou um espectáculo de dança só para nós e os nossos convidados. As minhas tias e primas cozinharam imenso, cada dia, para dar a melhor comida que Mactang podia oferecer. Os meus tios e primos acolheram de braços abertos o Sérgio, o meu irmão e outros convidados, iniciando-os, à maneira filipina, ao círculo da bebida, com shots de rum Tanduay. Ter um casamento num sítio onde não há hoteis, restaurantes, água corrente, electricidade ou estradas não e um desafio fácil. Mas, com muita sorte nossa, tivemos muitas mãos para nos ajudar.

Just a taste of the dance performances the night before the wedding
Boys, girls, and a small part of the people that couldn't fit in the church.    
Our joy was increased hundred-fold by the people around us, sharing in our joy too, making it happen.

A nossa alegria foi aumentada 100 vezes por causa das pessoas à nossa volta nas Filipinas – partilhando a nossa alegria, e a fazer tudo acontecer!

Which then led to this shift in heart and mind.

Que depois levou a esta mudança no coração e mente. 

Which is where we are today.

Que é onde estamos hoje.

It all reminds me of one of my favorite quotes of all time, from the amazing book Shantaram:

“There’s a kind of luck that’s not much more than being in the right place at the right time, a kind of inspiration that’s not much more than doing the right thing in the right way, and both only really happen to you when you empty your heart of ambition, purpose, and plan; when you give yourself, completely, to the golden, fate-filled moment.” Part 1, Chapter 5 (p. 119).

Faz-me lembrar de uma das minhas citações preferidas do livro Shantaram:

“Ha um tipo de sorte que é pouco mais do que estar no lugar certo no momento certo, um tipo de inspiração que não é nada mais do que fazer a coisa certa na maneira certa, e os dois só acontecem realmente quando esvazias o teu coração de ambição, objectivos, e planos; quando te entregas, completamente, ao momento dourado, pleno de destino.” 

Two years after their wedding, the girl and boy looked back on all the good that had happened in their collective life so far, then looked at each other. They smiled, held hands, and prepared to jump into the next thing that came along.  They didn’t know exactly what it would be, but they knew that when the time came to jump, they would do so with their hearts leading the way – hearts open and unconditionally ready for the next adventure...

Dois anos depois do casamento, a rapariga e o rapaz olharam para trás, para tudo de bom que tinha acontecido nas suas vidas e depois olharam um para outro. Sorriram, deram as mãos um ao outro, e preparam-se para saltar para a próxima coisa que iria aparecer. Eles não sabiam exactamente o que iria ser, mas sabiam que, quando o momento de saltar aparecesse, saltariam com os corações a indicar o caminho – corações abertos e incondicionalmente prontos para a próxima aventura... 

Algarve, Portugal