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Gone a few days

Just FYI I’m back in the US for family reasons so I will not be posting again for a few days. Check back next week.

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Driving out of Bombay was a shock to my senses — could we really be this close to lush green mountains? Apparently it had been here all this time while I was living in my little city cocoon.

I took a bit of small break from writing for the last few days because Daniel and I took a long weekend to Pune and I wanted no computer distracting me from my first moment away from Bombay.

On the highway driving out of Mumbai

And it was those first moments that truly stuck out – the feeling of traffic fading away, of noise and honking dissipating, of seeing rolling hills and no crowds of people. This was a piece of India I hadn’t seen yet, and it struck me that while I felt at home in ‘India’, my whole notion of India was based on Bombay.

We had decided to break up the four-hour drive by stopping at the Karla Caves. The literature I’d read about these caves was oddly imbalanced – the caves are beautiful, but not a major site. It’s an important historical landmark but certainly something you could skip. The caves are hard to believe, but not if you’ve been to any of the more major caves in India. So I didn’t really know what to expect.

We drove up to the base of a hill and started hiking up. On the way Daniel and I ate some roasted corn while we looked out onto a spectacular vista. I was already convinced this was a good stop. We made our way past sellers jockeying to play their Bollywood music the loudest while women weaved garlands together. But none of the usual attempts to sell us items came our way – they were mostly baffled to see white tourists.

When we’d hiked up and paid our 100 rupee entrance ($2 compared to the 5 rupee entrance for Indians) we entered the main cave. And it was magnificent. In the 2nd century Buddhists had carved out the interior of the cave to create a hall with grand pillars lining the walls. At the entrance and above each pillar were intricate carvings.

I am the tiny person...

The Karla caves interior

I stood there and took in the site, marvelling mostly at the fact that this is a site considered “off-the-beaten-track”. In a country so large and so full of rich history it’s amazing how much goes unseen. And I’m sure that if I had gone to the Ejanta and Allora caves (something I’m hoping to do while I’m here) before coming to Karla, I would also have been fairly unimpressed. But here was a cave that more than 2,000 years ago people had dug into (with no modern tools or explosives) and created a pillared hall out of the stone. And it still stands today in pristine condition. How is that not something to shout from the rooftops about?

It mostly just gave me a big reality check that I cannot get too settled into Bombay – I have to see this incredible country.

Of course, after feeling that, the rest of Pune was ironically slightly underwhelming. It certainly is a vibrant city – it’s three or four hours south of Mumbai, a hub for colleges and universities with a thriving cultural scene. I’ve heard it described, for all these reasons, as the Boston of India.

View from a fort in Pune

But we were mostly there to see some of our friends who were in town from the US – and as such the few forts and temples we went to took a backseat to the enjoyment of seeing familiar faces (especially since these forts and temples were not as nice as other temples and forts we had already seen. I’d already forgotten my earlier reminder that we shouldn’t stop appreciating the seemingly less-impressive-by-comparison sites).

One other thing that did strike me about Pune was the presence of Marathi, Maharastra’s main language. I know a lot of people speak Marathi in Bombay (in fact, many native Bombayiites try to argue that everyone here should place more emphasis on Marathi), but Hindi and English rule outside of residential areas. But in Pune, Marathi is king.

Of our two friends (both American second-generation Indians), one spoke Marathi and the other Hindi. And our Hindi-speaking friend (and Hindi-speaking driver from Bombay!) had quite the difficult time. I had heard so much about India’s multi-lingual idiosyncracies, but since in Bombay I am always the foreign one, it amazed me that even a few hours away, Hindi speakers also were lost.

On our last day in Pune we ventured up to a temple on the top of a hill that overlooked all of Pune. It was beautiful to see the whole city laid out in front of is. It was large and sprawling and just another reminder of how small we are in this country with so many people, cities, languages and cultures.

And so we drove back to Bombay, but with a newfound determination to see the rest of India – not just the small India that I know.

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We marched out of the Dharavi hospital with a sense of purpose. I’d come back to begin my project here with the domestic violence prevention center. I’m going to be documenting the work they do and so I’m starting by shadowing for a few days.  I’d met up with the supervisor in the main office, but he was taking me to the field office, in the heart of the slum.

We had to go single file – there are no sidewalks in Dharavi that I’ve seen. We were walking along 60 Foot Road, which is named quite literally for the width of the street.  It’s a bustling thoroughfare with shops on either side and then trucks, cars, motorbikes, people, stray animals, and trash all crowding the road.  Because of the monsoon everything is wet and mud sticks onto my feet and legs within the first steps. At times I had to breathe through my mouth when passing a particularly garbage-filled (or excrement laden) area.

I tried mostly to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other and following my leader. I kept one eye on his black shirt in front of me and one eye on the ground so I didn’t fall or step on anything that could hinder me. We maneuvered through large good carrier vehicles parked on one side of the road while cars and motorbikes went around us on the other side. It’s like an elaborate game of Frogger getting through the Dharavi streets, and you can’t stop paying attention for more than a moment.

But when I could steal away moments of attention, I tried to take in the energy of the place. It’s like it’s own small city in the middle of a metropolis. The commotion has a pattern and every shop and stand is bustling with the breath of the community. It’s colorful and chaotic and exciting – even while you’re trying not to get run over.

By the time we got to the office my sandals were soaked through and the bottom of my blue kurta was splattered with mud and dust and who knows what else. The office is mostly just an empty room with no windows and no formal door – paint cracked on walls that were entirely empty except one team photo. Everyone sat on the floor, paying no attention to the one piece of furniture in the room, a desk with an unused old computer. But the circle of women that occupied the space filled the room with their vibrancy.

I took my shoes off and sat with the women, who were diligently writing in notebooks on wooden trays perched on their laps. One volunteer, who had been brought along to translate for me, alerted the group to my presence. In Hindi she explained who I was and why I was there. Everyone looked up and smiled at me – without words I knew I was welcome.

Through slow translations I began asking questions. The most vocal of the group, a woman of approximately 30 in a blue kurta with her hair pulled into a tight bun, started by explaining their day to day activities. In the morning they document the previous day’s work (hence the writing when I walked in) and do office activities. In the afternoon they hold sessions.  The sessions consist of groups of women from the community who want to talk about any issue that’s bothering them, whether it be sanitation concerns, food rationing, or safety. The field workers try to use these sessions to solve community issues as well as raise the problems of domestic violence.  Even though all of this was being said to me in Hindi, the woman speaking looked straight at me as she talked, as though she wanted to make sure the message was coming through.

I asked why the subject of domestic violence had to be addressed in such a roundabout way. A quiet woman in an orange sari with a slew of bangles and earrings responded animatedly once my question was raised. She said it’s an impossible topic in Dharavi. No one would come to their group sessions if they were just speaking primarily about domestic violence. Most of the time, if a woman raises the issue, she begins by saying she has a cousin or a neighbor who is experiencing violence in the home. Then the workers have to approach her later to find out if it is really she who is in need of help or counseling.

We talked for over an hour through translations about the various work they do beyond the group sessions – outreach campaigns and talks and films, youth groups and now even a men’s group. They have an upcoming campaign August 15th for Indian Independence day where they will try to recruit new members. They’re also now training more active members in how to deal with domestic violence throughout the community beyond the group sessions.

The women truly lit up when I asked why each of them had decided to make a career out of community work. All the field workers are originally from Dharavi and all the ones I spoke to had originally gotten involved through the groups they now lead. Most of them originally didn’t even know you could have a job where your duties were just helping others. But as every one went around the circle and told their individual stories it was clear that each had been inspired by the small changes they could create and now all were devoting their life to it.

We took a break for lunch before they went out into the community for their afternoon work. I sat, hesitant. I certainly didn’t want to get sick from eating street food in Dharavi. But even before the Hindi was translated I could see that they all wanted to share their food with me. They all now had questions for me and it was my time to share. As they pulled out their rotis and various vegetables they started quickly asking questions to my translator while motioning for me to eat.

I didn’t want to be rude. I couldn’t be rude – they had answered every question I had and had welcomed me in without hesitation.  And now they wanted to share with me.  So I took a roti, said a little internal prayer hoping to not get sick, and ate. As I ate I answered all their questions – why was I here in India? What country did I come from? Did I like being in Mumbai? Did I miss home? Did I like Indian food? Through the translation they all laughed and smiled and kept asking more and more questions.

And when lunch was over and they were off for their afternoon work I said goodbye and made my way back through the crazy streets of Dharavi. I’d be back the next day to see the group sessions and I already felt truly lucky to be able to watch them work in this place they loved so much.

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Malaysia

Anyone who knows me will have noticed by now that a major character in my life has been missing from this blog: Food.

Yes, my favorite thing in the world has gone unmentioned because, while I loved the sights and people and culture of Indonesia, I found that the food didn’t knock my socks off. I got into the Nasi Gorings and the Pisang Gorangs (that would be fried rice and fried banana to those of you who inexplicably do not speak Javanese) — but, as they say, it wasn’t anything to write home about. When I crossed the border into Malaysia, however, I found enlightenment.

Where did I find it? In the form of cheesy crabs.

What is a cheesy crab you might ask? Well, it’s very simple and yet while you’re eating it you can’t possibly imagine ever eating anything else again. You take crab meat out of the shell. Mix in some cheese. Put the mixture back in the shell. Then bake. Whoah nelly.

Georgetown architecture

Daniel and I began our time in Malaysia on the island of Penang, which is known as the culinary capital of Malaysia. The main town, Georgetown, has beautiful colonial architecture and is a UNESCO heritage sight. But none of that really matters while you’re eating cheesy crab.

And not just cheesy crab. We also had this dish that consisted of fresh oysters cooked (baked? fried? who knows) into an egg mixture with some herbs and a tomato sauce on top. Or, at another restaurant, we had a lemongrass prawn curry whose sauce I could have just kept eating all day. It was pure delight.

After our food binge in Penang we hopped over to the island of Langkawi. This was intended to be our 2 days of ‘beach time’. Again, anyone who knows me knows that I am not one for sitting on a beach. But Langkawi is a breathtaking combination of stunning beaches, towering mountains, and jungles that come right down to the surf. So while in Langkawi I mostly just read under a tree, looked at the ocean and enjoyed the moment of peace and calm before heading back into Mumbai (while thinking of cheesy crab).

The beach, jungles and mountains of Langkawi

I’d also found some unexpected comforts here. As I’ve been away it’s been continually hard to reconcile the distance that separates me and the people I love. There have been moments where the unfamiliarity has hit me.

But I was lucky enough to have a quick succession of little signs telling me that wherever I am in the world, home is always close by. My first day in Langkawi I was walking along the beach when I saw a sand dollar – it was smaller and more misshapen than the ones we find in South Carolina. But it was undeniably from the same family. A few moments later as I sat reading, I saw that the guy sitting in front of me had a shirt with a palmetto… and a crescent moon… and when he stood up I saw it read “Charleston, SC.” I struck up a conversation with him and it turned out that he had lived in Charleston for a few years and was from Virginia originally. A little piece of home all the way out here with me. I hope that moments like that can help relieve the pangs for home as my days in Asia turn into weeks and months.

We left Langkawi for Kuala Lampur, a complete turnaround. KL (as they call it here) is about as modern a city as you can imagine. We pulled into our hotel and across the street I saw a mall with a ‘Forever 21’ and down the road was a Starbucks. Everything is clean and sleek and anything that hasn’t been built is certainly in the process of being built.

We went to Chinatown for lunch and had another amazing meal. We had laksa, a coconut shrimp soup. We walked around the city’s Chinatown and I couldn’t stop marveling at how the old colonial architecture melded together with the shiny new. It will be an interesting juxtaposition to go back to Mumbai.

But go back we will. Tomorrow night we’ll leave Malaysia and board a plane back to our new home. With our apartment (hopefully? theoretically?) ready for moving in it’ll be round two in the adventures of setting up our life. I think after our time away we’re ready to go back. We’re once again ready to let India take us in.

Addendum:
As I was going through pictures I realized that we were constantly taking pictures of particularly funny signs. Malaysia seems to have an abundance of them. I’m going to share a few below:

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Yogyakarta

The only way for me to describe Yogyakarta is to start with my vantage point from a becak.

Becak

A becak is like a rickshaw where the bicycle is in the back, so as you ride around you see only the city in front of you. Imagine that you start by negotiating with a becak driver, most of whom appear to be above the age of 50. You offer someone at least twice your age to ride you across town for $2 and they laugh at when you offer this price because apparently $2 is HILARIOUSLY overpriced. You are then clearly marked as a silly tourist for thinking that a human being riding a bicycle for 20 minutes with two people attached is worth the exorbitant price of $2. You should have offered less than $1.

But what you see as you go through the town is that this is one of the most charming place you can imagine, pulled together by an amusing range of transportation options. While riding around you’ll see families in cars, becaks with Yogyakartans and their groceries, actual honest-to-god horse-drawn carriages, and motorbikes with 2 year old children holding the handlebars as their parents hold them. It’s a busy city and a small town all at once, bustling with the movement of all the various ways to get around.

Family on a motorbike

I’m going to pause here to explain what in the heck Yogyakarta is, because I myself didn’t know about it until Daniel told me it was a place he wanted to go. Yogya (as its called for short) is in central Java (a one hour flight from our Bali paradise) and is considered by many to be the soul of Indonesia. Art and culture permeate this domestic tourist hub. If the Westerners flock to Bali to see Indonesian paradise then Yogya is the answer for Indonesians looking for their own heritage.

And beyond the initial vantage point of the becak, what I have found here is that Yogyakartans, are kind and interesting like the Balinese, but with a sophisticated urban edge. Our first day here started with lunch and a walk. But I soon found myself in need of a restroom – and none were to be found. A man seemed to notice we were looking for something and so he asked if he could help. He told us to come on a walk with him. Along the way he told us he was the Sultan’s accountant and that we could

In the Sultan's palace

use the restroom in the Kraton, the Sultan’s palace. The Kraton is the center of Yogya and it’s public areas are only open in the morning – so we were getting to go in post-tourist time.

When I emerged from what was described as the ‘cleanest toilet around’ (really a squat toilet with no flush or toilet paper), Daniel said our friend had had to leave because he was late to meet his wife. But HIS friend also worked at the Kraton and offered to show us around. Really. I kept waiting for the catch, but there wasn’t one. Our new friend’s friend took us all around and told us the story of the city- he explained that in all of Indonesia only Yogya is governed by a Sultan. And even the Sultan sounds like a good guy – he and his wife have five daughters, meaning he has no male heir to the Sultanate. But he has dismissed previous Sultan’s methods of taking concubines because he is a believer in women’s rights. Could I love the people of Yogya any more?

Me with Slamet Riyanto (amazing Batik painter) and our new painting (the yellow one)

We tell our new friend as we’re leaving that we were hoping to buy some Batik – the traditional art form in Indonesia that is a painting made with a particular type of wax dye on cotton – and he told us the best place to go where the artists were creating original works and that wasn’t a tourist trap. Once again I waited for the catch, but there wasn’t any. Various Batik artists had pieces on display in this gallery and we were able to buy one piece there and another from a nearby artist’s studio. For prices that I’m too embarrassed to even share (because they really are incredibly cheap), you can get some incredible one of a kind art in Yogya.

Borobudur exterior

Borobudur entrance

Our second day we left Yogya to go see what everyone comes to central Java for – Borobudur. It is the country’s MOST visited tourist attraction and yet 75% of these visitors are domestic (most of the others are from Southeast Asia or Japan). Borobudur is a 9th century Buddist temple that is over 10 stories high (or about 400 feet). It is a massive circular structure with hundreds of buddhas looking out onto the mountains. It was hidden under layers of volcanic ash and jungle growth for hundreds of years until it was rediscovered in the 19th century. A huge UNESCO restoration project in the 1970’s saw the whole structure taken apart, new foundations and drainage put in, and then the entire temple was rebuilt (its actually unbelievable to see before and after photos).

But the most amusing part of Borobudur is that the structure is not the most exciting tourist attraction for visitors: we are.

Me fulfilling the role of "giant white person" aka the bule

Yes, Daniel and I are the most interesting phenomena here. After the first group of giggling teenagers asked to take a photowith us our guide explained that it was because we are ‘bule’, Indonesian slang for white people. “Most of them never seen white tall person before. So they take your picture and then they show it back in school.” Great. At every turn people asked our guide if they could have their picture taken with us. Kids. Families. Mothers with infants who cry as they look at us (I’m not kidding). Each with a dutiful photographer cradling multiple phones with cameras so that no one person misses out on the photo with the bules. But none of them minded while I shot video as well, so at least for our own amusement we have a record of this hilarious phenomena.

We spent our third day among the hidden temples across the region and the other main temple, Prambanan. It’s truly incredible the amount of history that exists here. And yet, it shouldn’t be surprising since Indonesia has 240 million people and is the 4th most populous country in the world. Somehow I didn’t know that before coming here. Indonesia had never seemed to be a particularly important place in my limited worldview, but how blind I was. I feel so incredibly lucky to have experienced the sights, culture and people of this wonderful many-island nation.

Daniel and Ali at Prambanan

We’re off next to Penang and Langkawi in Malaysia. A new country and a new adventure before we return to Mumbai!

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Bali

(Side note: I’ve gotten a lot of emails asking why I haven’t been writing. I see this blog more as a place to share my experiences living in a new culture, not as much a travel blog. So while I’m travelling I won’t be writing every day, but I will be posting a few times. We’ll be back in India June 30th though!)

So…

The second time we tried, India let us go. And we arrived in Bali – a tropical mountainous volcanic paradise halfway around the world from where we started in New York.

Mount Batukaru and rice paddies

We drove an hour and a half north to Ubud, which is in the center of the island. When most people think of Bali, they do not first think of Ubud (unless you’ve read Eat Pray Love where Ubud features prominently. And at this point it seems everyone has read it). Bali to most people is beaches, partying and, unfortunately, nightclub bombings.

Daniel and a monkey side by side in the Monkey Forest

But Ubud is a thousand years away from any party central you can imagine. Ubud is an ancient city hidden among jungles and mountains. When we arrived we first went to a forest that is literally called “Monkey Forest.” It’s called this because when you walk inside you curiously find yourself walking along with hundreds of monkeys. Most are waiting for you to feed them one of the bananas you can purchase at the entrance (“Official Monkey Forest Bananas”. The only thing official about them is that they are 10 times the price of a normal banana). But these monkeys live among thousand year old temples in a forest sanctuary. Let me just say it is not something you see every day.

Daniel and Ali in Monkey Forest temple

Our first night we met a driver named Wayan, and we agreed with him that he would take us on our varying excursions over the next few days. Meeting Wayan I think was the luckiest part of our stay in Bali – but as Wayan would say, “You do good things, so you have good karma, so good things come back to you.” That is the wisdom of Wayan. He is a man who owns his own business in partnership with his friends, speaks three languages (English, Japanese and Balinese) and is devoutly Hindu. I think that the wisdom of Wayan should be written down somewhere, so I shall do it here. A sampling:

“No one feel stress as long as they don’t have target. Target means you must make more money than you make now or must get better job. But without target, you just happy living your life.”

or

“I do not understand Muslim Jihad. Why would they want to hurt people? Jihad brings very bad karma I think.”

or, after Daniel asks how the government prevents tax evasion in cash businesses like his:

Me and Wayan on a rice paddy

“Yes, the government doesn’t know what I do. But God does. So even if I get away with it with government, I would not really get away with it. Bad karma.”

Karma. What a beautiful amazing concept. It drives Wayan and it certainly seems like a very good way to live. But, as you learn wherever you go in the world, people can lead happy successful lives but they are still only privy to the knowledge that their society affords them. And while Wayan lives by his karmic wisdom, not everyone around him does. For example, when we ask Wayan if he has a website he says he can’t have one anymore, because its too expensive. But more importantly, it’s too dangerous because the website operators in Bali will take bribes to steal emails from their site and give the emails to competitors. If they pay even a day late the operators will send viruses to their computers.

Seriously.

So Daniel very animatedly told Wayan about how you can build a website for free or even just get a domain name very cheaply. It really hit home that education and technology can do so much to even the playing field in a world where monopolizers will take what they can when they can. So, while I write this, Daniel is currently helping Wayan build his website. Wayan says this is good karma. I certainly hope so, because we need it after our initial difficulties in India.

Gunung Kawi

Prayer march at Besakih

But beyond website building we’ve also been able to explore the incredible and varied sights of Bali. On our first day with Wayan we went to a number of ancient Hindu temples, such as Besakih, which was built in the 14th century at the foot of a large volcano. You can’t imagine a more beautiful view.

Besakih

On our second day we decided to take the more scenic route and go for a hike near Munduk, in the north of Bali. Wayan took us to meet his friend Budi, whose family owns a plantation in Munduk and gives tours of the plantation and the nearby waterfalls. It turned out that Budi was no ordinary tour guide – he speaks 5 languages, has a civil engineering degree from a university in Tokyo, is an architect, and is sought after for his knowledge of coffee, specifically the rare Kopi Luwak coffee (if you’re thinking this is the world’s most expensive coffee that is made after a cat-like creature digests the beans, then you are correct).

Daniel and Budi in Munduk

And yet, when Budi was asked to speak in Denmark about his architecture (he designs and builds villas when he’s not running the plantation or showing people around the plantation. Naturally.) he didn’t enjoy it because the cold was too off-putting. Like most Balinese people he can’t really imagine why anyone would want to live anywhere else.

And when you tour the plantation with Budi you tend to agree with him.

What I’ve come away with from my trip to Bali is that for all the amazing things there are to see, the people here are very special and that whatever their station in life is, they all tend to find comfort just in being from Bali. I think that in itself describes the beauty of the island.

I know this blog is more about people than places, but for the rest of our visit the pictures truly are worth more than any thousand words I could write. I also have included a video – because things like monkeys up close, sprawling vistas, waterfalls and loud bugs that sound like the whole world is coming to an end are things you can only watch for yourself.

Gungung Agung

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