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Posts Tagged ‘cultural differences’

There are days when I feel like I understand India. And then there are days where I sit agape, wondering how on earth I came to live in this country.

The sign near the border

Yesterday was one of the latter days. We had arrived in Amritsar in Punjab and decided to make our way to the Wagah Border to watch the evening border closing between India and Pakistan. We’d heard it was a spectacle not to be missed and so we left our hotel early to get good seats.  I knew the scenery was changing when I saw a sign letting me know that Lahore was only 23 kilometers away (apparently, before partition Lahore was part of Punjab with a thriving Hindu and Sikh community. After partition the non-Muslims fled the West and the Muslims fled East).

We approached the border and were swarmed by a sea of hawkers – this was not a solemn or serious occasion. We could buy DVDs, Indian flags or popcorn. We made our way through an immense crowd, in and out of security checkpoints and on to the ‘VIP’ entrance. Apparently being a foreigner makes us VIP. The Indians want anyone not from their country to have an excellent view when they put Pakistan to shame.

The inda crowd

We walked into a stadium that was already full an hour before the ceremony began. We took our seats as a bus was crossing from the India side to the Pakistan side – the Indians in the crowd cheered and waved.   The Indian guards in their fantastical fan-shaped hats stood stoically, trying to keep the crowd under control.

I looked to the left and saw Pakistan – they also had a stadium but it was mostly empty.  I kept wanting more of a glimpse; I wanted to somehow understand India’s neighbor from across the gate.

Running with the flags

As we waited we got a preview of how silly the whole ceremony would be.  They started a relay race with large Indian flags. Children ran giddily, gripping the flags. For some children the flags proved too heavy – and when even an edge of the flag touched the ground the guards would sternly chastise them and take the flag away, handing it off to the next participant. As music blared I started to notice that the Pakistan side was coming together. They too were playing music and someone was waving a flag around. As time went on both sides of the music grew louder and louder, as though diplomatic superiority could be ascertained by the decibel of sound blaring.

Dancing to Jai Ho

As the time grew nearer we were treated to a round of India’s favorite song – ‘Jai Ho’, which Americans know as the song at the end of Slumdog Millionaire – and a spontaneous dance party.  While the guards were blowing their whistles at anyone standing they seemed completely okay with the dozens upon dozens of women who had come down to the center to dance as vigorously and excitedly as they possibly could, as though their dancing could drown out the sound of Pakistan’s music.

Marching guards

But then it was time to begin. The eccentrically festooned guards marched into a line, legs kicking and hands saluting. They then began a call – it just sounded like someone seeing how long they could make a sound without taking another breath – that was immediately replicated on the Pakistan side. Indians cheered; Pakistanis cheered. I really couldn’t make out that it was anything more than a contest of lung capacity.

I looked over to the Pakistan side, which by now was mostly full. The men and women were separated on either side of their stadium. But I was struck with how similar the Pakistani women looked to the Indian women. Where I expected to see a sea of black, instead I saw mostly colorful saris and kurtas. Most of their heads were covered, unlike on the India side, but I wouldn’t have been able to easily differentiate the crowd. It was strange to see a place that we read about so often in a negative context or hear of as a place of danger. At that moment they seemed just like the Indians that they used to be so close to.

Flags lowering, with Pakistan in the background

The absurdity continued with long high-stepping and fast paced marching.  It was like something you’d see in an over-acted Gilbert and Sullivan spectacular. Their movements were so highly choreographed and theatrical I wondered how they did it every day with a straight face.

The gates between the two countries were opened so each side could furiously untie their flag rope, as though doing it faster than the other was another sign of dominance.  As the flags came down both sides tried to drown out the other with their cheers.  And then, with a flourish, the gate was slammed shut as hard as they could do it.

As we walked out I saw a sign proclaiming: “Welcome to India, the World’s Largest Democracy.” There would always be another opportunity to try and make the Pakistanis feel inferior. I’m not sure which side ‘won’ (or whether anyone could actually win at a display of complete silliness), but I certainly enjoyed the effort.

(I didn’t get a great video of it, but here’s a link to a good one if anyone wants to witness the craziness:)

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When you’re out of breath, it doesn’t take a lot to take your breath away. But coming over the hill on the hike to Triund and seeing the snow-capped mountains of the Dhauladhar range of the Himalayas would certainly have had that effect on anyone.

A view from above of Dharamsala

I had arrived in Dharamsala the day before and stepping off the airplane was like entering another universe after time in Mumbai. Instead of the oppressive, dusty heat I was hit in the face with cool, crisp air and a view of mountains all around me. Everything was clean, the trees and flowers had changed from tropical to mountainous, and the people were no longer mostly Indian.

Dharamsala is most well known for being the home of the Dalai Lama and over 35,000 Tibetan refugees (number according to the Dalai Lama’s website), who moved here following the 1960 takeover of Tibet. The Tibetan government operates here in exile. Everything here feels far more Tibetan than Indian – Tibetan faces, Tibetan temples, Tibetan food, Tibetan prayer flags every way you turn. Monks in bright crimson robes walk past the backpackers and tourists without so much as a thought. When the Dalai Lama and his followers left the real Tibet they certainly created a convincing version here in India.

But beyond the cultural experience the most notable part of a visit to Dharamsala is the Himalayas – towering above the city, the Dhauladhar range of the Himalayas is a good layman’s viewpoint. Dharamsala boasts the ‘easiest’ hike to a Himalyan snow-line and we wanted to experience the world’s greatest mountain range.

A view of the mountains on the climb up

We set off in the morning with a rag-tag crew: myself and my two friends; a friend from Mumbai who also happened to be here this weekend with her friend; a guy I’d met at the airport; and a group of three we’d encountered at dinner.  Everyone wanted to hike and we figured we’d all take it in together. We began hiking and I was keen to not stay at the back of the pack – I am obviously not the best or most experienced hiker and I was worried from the get-go about rocky terrain and high elevation.

Hiking up!

But we moved slowly, taking in the scenery and stopping to gaze out at the beautiful view as we climbed higher and higher. At a few points along the way there were chai stalls where we could stop and have a break. We walked up and up – we started to feel we were getting close when we encountered a a snow covered area. My legs were starting to feel a bit like jelly but I wanted to continue on.

A few of us with our first snow sighting!

As the elevation grew and the slope became steeper I started to hope that the top was close. I wasn’t sure how much longer I could balance myself on varying rocks along the way and climb up. But just as I started to wonder how much further I’d have to go, I came over the top and saw the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas.

The sign letting us know wed arrived

We were at Triund, 2,827 meters above sea level. And the view in front of us was like something out of a postcard. I think I audibly gasped. One minute we had been climbing and then suddenly, there it was. Every step had been worth the journey.

A shop at the top of the hill was happy to sell us more chai and some noodles. The two men who ran it lived on Triund 10 months out of the year in nothing but a small hut. I wondered how they managed. A few dogs ran around, happily enjoying their surroundings. How could they not? It was as though we had escaped the rest of the world and all there was was the sight of the Himalayas.

The Himalayas and a happy dog

Eating our very well-deserved noodles

We could have gone further up to the snow-line, but clouds started coming in quickly and we decided that our view was quite spectacular enough. I had to admit I was relieved- as much as I’d wished they would, I wasn’t sure my legs would carry me up much further.

We came back down and had a hot bowl of Tibetan noodle soup. I felt victorious – we’d achieved what we’d set out to do. And beyond that it gave me a greater context to the Tibetan culture and their home away from home. I may not be able to comprehend the depth of their plight, but I do know one thing now: if you had to find a new home for a spiritual movement, this would certainly be an inspiring place.

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Dad with a turban

“Hey Al, what do you think of this?”

I looked up from the enormous pile of intricately designed camel leather shoes. My dad was sporting a large colorful turban and laughing to himself.

“Are you really buying that?” I said.

“Oh, I already did. The guy was wearing it so I know it’s really great. It makes me look like the Maharishi.”

“You mean Maharaja.”

“Yes!”

Traveling in India with parents is one part hilarious adventure and one part I-am-an-adult-so-I-must-not-get-frustrated-or-embarrassed-by-my-relations.

They arrived on a Thursday night after I had stood nervously at the outdoor arrivals area waiting for them. I knew I couldn’t miss them in the sea of Indian faces – especially my mom’s shock of blond hair. I waited and waited, nervous that they would get lost or go the wrong way. Daniel kept laughing at me and reminding me that they had survived their entire lives; they could make their way out of an airport. But this was India and this was foreign to them and I wanted more than anything for them to love it here as much as I do.

When I saw them I ran out, excitedly. They were fine – and as ready to embrace India as I was.

All of us at VT in Mumbai

Their first days in Mumbai I tried to warn them about everything- don’t brush your teeth with tap water; don’t eat that tomato until it’s been cooked; no ice; wash your hands; look the other way when you’re crossing. Every time they would just remind me that they were only eating things I gave them and that they were following me, so I shouldn’t worry.

The funniest thing is that once again their biggest problem was with me: while buying my mom a kurta in Bandra’s winding stalls on Linking Road my dad stopped me mid-haggle.

“You’re arguing over $2! You’re being rude to a grown man!”

“It’s not being rude- it’s just how business is done here! He offers me a price, I counter with something much, much lower, then we argue, we both say we’re insulted, I begin to walk away, he offers me a new price, I counter. Trust me, Indians haggle much more than I’m haggling now.”

But everywhere we went it disturbed them that their little girl was always wary, always ready to argue over a price or a bill. I’m so used to it now that I don’t even notice. But they certainly did.

Mumbai's dhobi ghat

They were, however, much happier with Mumbai than they were with my haggling.  They loved the gothic architecture of South Mumbai. They were amused by the plethora of Indian tourists wanting pictures with them at the Gateway of India – villagers who wanted to show they’d seen a real-live white person. They marveled at the fishermen as they cut off fish heads and re-tied their bright blue nets. They listened intently as our guide explained the dobi ghats, the vast outdoor laundry business.  My mom chatted up our tour guide at every stop trying to understand each complexity of this new place she was in.

All my fears about India overwhelming them were unfounded. They took in every sight, asked every question and continuously seemed amazed by the beauty amidst the chaos. I was really proud that they were enjoying ‘my’ city so much.

Mehrangarh fort

But the trip must continue and so off we went to Rajasthan – the capital of tourist India but the place that inspires so many dreams of Maharaja’s forts and palaces towering over cities and colorful saris against a desert backdrop.

We started in Jodhpur and the Mehrangarh fort there took my breath away – I’ve purposely stayed away from every place I was visiting with my parents so I could be as surprised as they were. And this truly was stunning- 400 feet up a steep hill and very well preserved. It was built in the 16th century and when you walked up the ramparts into the fortressed walls, you felt like you were stepping into another time.  We wandered around, listening to a particularly engrossing audio guide, and enjoyed the scene. I also enjoyed watching as my dad sat down to ‘learn’ sitar with a musician, decided to take pictures in a funny maharaja photo booth and put on the aforementioned turban.  For all my attempts to be a non-tourist, it was hard to resist watching.

A view of Jodhpur, the 'blue city', from above

 

Mom with one of the cows she loves so much

Dad's new best friend selling him a painting while on an elephant

The hijinks continued as we made our way to Jaipur. We stood in line for an elephant ride up to the Amber Fort and I was finally vindicated – after warning everyone, once again, that being polite would only make all the sellers think you were willing to buy something, my dad politely declined a painting a man was trying to sell him.  For the next 20 minutes the man whispered in his ears, tapped on his shoulders,  lowered his price and generally berated my dad. When he asked for help I just reminded him that my brand of helping would be construed by him as ‘rude’. When the guy followed him up the ramparts even as they were on the elephant I couldn’t stop laughing – the polite tourists finally gave way to realistic understanding of the new culture (although, just to make it stop, my dad did buy the painting).

It’s wonderful seeing India through fresh eyes and it’s really a treat to see the majesty that Rajasthan has to offer. Tonight we drive to Agra and tomorrow morning at sunrise we’ll be greeted by India’s greatest treasure- the Taj Mahal.

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About seven months ago I agreed to direct a short film about domestic violence prevention in Dharavi. From the moment the project was conceived and I agreed to take it on, I’ve been very nervous about how I could represent a place where I couldn’t even properly communicate to people. How would I possibly be able to tell their story in an accurate way?

Because of my desire to keep the film as honest as possible, I spent a few months going to Dharavi and shadowing the women I’d be filming. I got to know them through the translations and I decided that I would center the film on the lives of three of the women who worked for the organization, and tell the story through their stories.

It’s been a really long process- everything in India takes time, but working with NGO’s is an extra layer on everything. People are late, meetings get cancelled, filming gets moved, equipment isn’t procured in time and on and on and on. It shouldn’t take seven months to make a twenty-minute film. But that’s how long it did take – months of studying and researching, deciding, making decisions, hard drives breaking, making phone calls and filming over and over again in really difficult conditions without a lot of help.

But I loved it. I loved everything about working with these women. I loved their defiance of the only system they know. I love how they don’t even realize how amazing that seems to an outsider. I love the colors they wear and their children and the hot cups of chai they’re always shoving down my throat despite never having enough for themselves. I might even love (just a little bit) their penchant for always being late and changing plans and standing me up, since that’s a slice of India.

So as I wrote out the script and edited the pieces together I started to become very nervous again. Every word of narration was scrutinized: Does this fit their voice? Does it sound like the narrator is coming from a place above these women? Does it take too many liberties? Even though the narration only counted for less than two minutes out of twenty, I was so concerned with the tone. And I spent just as much time cutting together the words the women had spoken. Did they really want to share this much? Is it exploitative to show this much about the violence that they have faced? Am I including everything that would be important to them?

I wanted it to feel accurate. I wanted the women to watch their film and feel like it came from them. Because that’s what their organization is all about: they are focused on their community, on raising each other up and from building a new set of norms from within. They don’t have trained social workers parading into Dharavi telling them what values they should have. The women from Dharavi try to coax each other into fighting for the rights they deserve.

And I didn’t want to be that outsider parading in.

Yesterday we had a small screening of the rough cut of the film. It’s not done – I still need to add in the real music and do color and audio correction. But I wanted to show it to the woman, N, who runs the domestic violence center in order to get her feedback before finalizing it. After all, if she didn’t like it I would need to make some serious changes. I’d already shown it to B, the woman who runs the organization sponsoring the film, so B invited us over to her place to watch it again and get N’s feedback.

When everyone had sat down I, of course, started babbling like an idiot.

“Just keep in mind that this is a rough cut…”
“Oh and the music is being replaced with other music that’s being written…”
“We still need to do color correction…”
“We can change or add anything…”

Finally I looked over and saw B shaking her head at me, laughing a little. She knew I was nervous. I knew I had to start. So I pushed play.

Throughout the whole movie I kept trying to look at N out of the corner of my eye. Was she smiling? Was she engaged? Was she about to check her watch out of boredom? After twenty very long-seeming minutes, the film ended.

I turned and looked at N, just waiting to hear what words would come out of her mouth. I couldn’t breathe, I just wanted to know what she thought.

“I really loved it. It was honest. It felt like the story came straight from them.”

I exhaled. Those were the magic words.

It really isn’t finished yet – I have all those polishes and tweaks to make. And I know when I’m sitting through the larger screening with all the women from Dharavi I’m still going to be just as nervous. But for the moment I feel like it’s a little bit of mission accomplished – all I wanted was for it to feel genuine and I’m really glad that’s what came across. Hopefully I’ll be able to share it here when it’s done.

Now I get to transfer my nervous and excited energy into something else: my parents’ arrival in India. I’m sitting here writing while they are in the air. I’m counting down the minutes (a lot more than twenty!). So next time I post you’ll get tales of parents and a trip to Rajasthan (where I will finally see the crown jewel of this country I’ve spent so much time in, the Taj Mahal). A lot of excitement for one week. Until next time…

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Comfort Food

“Americans can’t adjust because there’s no such thing as an American. Variety is in the name.”

I sat back and thought about this as I looked at my Indian friend. We were having a delicious lunch that Nisha had cooked, and she had asked me whether I was sick of Indian food yet. I admitted that, while I wasn’t sick of it, I was certainly missing the variety I used to have in my diet.

It’s never felt like a strange concept to eat everything under the sun. Tonight we’ll have Thai. Tomorrow sushi. Salad for lunch. Risotto for dinner. This weekend we’ll grab a burritto. The quintessential American ‘restaurant’ tells us to “have it your way.” We don’t consider that almost everyone else in the world subsists on whatever type of food is native to their country.

And in India, unless you’re in the very very top bracket of people who can afford fancy expensive ‘alternative’ restaurants, most people eat Indian food pretty much every day of their life. They’ll get some fast food or pizza here and there, but the concept of variety is really mostly limited to whether you’ll have roti or rice.

It’s always strange whenever I get reminded that the American way of doing things isn’t necessarily normal across the world.  But maybe people don’t mind eating the same thing because it’s comfort food. And I think I have a better understanding of this after getting a little taste of my own comfort food here in Bombay.

Recently, I was able to have a food flashback. Or at least, a food recollection. Because one of my favorite restaurants has opened in Bombay.

I noticed it a few weeks ago – I was driving in South Mumbai and suddenly, like a flash or like a person you see unexpectedly in the wrong place, I noticed a sign with a very familiar symbol and name: Le Pain Quotidien. For those of you who have not had the pleasure to eat at one, it’s a Belgian chain that focuses on the art of bread and everything delicious that can go on it. And in New York I eat there as much as possible.

So the first minute I could grab Daniel to go, we drove into town and sat down at a table. It was bizarre – this just wasn’t India. It was like any other Pain Quotidien. Communal tables. Counter with bread behind it. Menu with tartines and mint lemonade. My comfort food. This wasn’t just in the ballpark of something I was used to, this was a place where I could have recognized the food anywhere.

I ordered a sundried tomato, mozerella, prosciuttio and olive tapenade tartine. It tasted like home. It was like being at an Embassy – I may physically have been in India, but I was in Belgian territory.

In that moment I could have agreed to eat this food every single day. I got it: people want what they know.  They don’t mind eating something every day if it’s embedded in their system.

I do suspect though, that once I’m in a place again where I have Le Pain Quotidien and all my other favorites, I’ll stop appreciating the idea of consistency. I’m still an American after all.

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Post It

I’m not quite sure how I had managed to avoid the Indian Postal Service until today. I didn’t realize I was missing one of India’s greatest bureaucracies in action.

Normally when I have to mail a letter, Daniel can send it from work. But I wanted to mail some presents to friends in the UK and I figured it was a little more complicated so I should do it myself. Of course, I’m really a fool for assuming that something more complicated would be a better task to take on.

The difficult to identify Bandra Post Office

I arrived with my lovingly packed presents in hand. The presents themselves represented one of my favorite things about India: they were two unique hand-made gifts and I’d wrapped them in a beautiful hand-painted yellow wrapping paper made from recycled paper. But my I-Love-One-of-A-Kind-Amazing-Things-Made-In-India joy for my presents was soon mockingly destroyed by the fact that India’s own postal service wanted to crush my spirit.

 

I tentatively walked into the Post Office, or, more accurately, what looked like an abandoned building. Confused by the darkened hallway, I walked up to the only window I could find. Heavy wooden shutters were open onto a window with heavy wooden bars. The only large opening in these bars was well below my height (clearly, and understandably, made for small Indian women), so I ducked my head down and said hello. The representative looked back at me, amused. He seemed delighted by the fact that a gangly white person in a kurta had to be so uncomfortable to talk to him.

My new friend and his wooden bars

“I’m trying to mail two packages to the UK. I want to use the regular Indian Postal Service.”
“No Indian Postal Service now ma’am.”
“Why not?” I replied
“Ma’am, Postal Service only until 2pm”
“Oh, you mean it won’t go out until 2pm tomorrow?”
“No, we do not process after 2pm. You can only do Speed Mail now, but its ok because then you can track it. Look at the sign.”

The very useful sign

I looked over to my right at a large red sign that indeed had a whole listing of times for different services. Of course, you wouldn’t know these times unless you were standing in this particular post office. And, of course, it also made no sense. Why couldn’t they process their own mail system after 2pm? I decided to not ask these kinds of questions to a man sitting with a ledger instead of a computer. In fact, when I looked behind him stack upon stack of dusty old ledgers sat haphazardly as if they’d been there a lifetime.

“Hand me the packages, I’ll weigh them to determine the cost.”

I did this and he started opening and looking through them- and not in a gentle way that indicated his love for artisanal wrapping paper (I know, I’m lame), but in a way that one would normally handle trash.

He actually opened them...

“Oh… sir… I… those are wrapped. They’re presents!”
“So?”
“So…. You’re ripping the paper.”
“I just want to see what they are.”
“For customs?”
“No, I’m just interested. What ”

I stood there, dumbfounded. He looked up and me and saw that I wasn’t amused so, as a gesture, he started to tape it all back together. With packing tape. I gave up trying to salvage my paper.

“Ok,” I responded, “So how much is it to send two packages to the UK?”
“Well if you send separate it is 900 rupees for each. If you send together it is 1,000 rupees. It is based on weight, you see.”

I didn’t really see. It made no sense. But I made the executive decision to send them together (the packages are going to two friends anyway, so I figured they’d see each other). My new friend told me to go outside and deal with a guy who would help me with my customs form.

What could he possibly be making?

Baffled as to why this would take place outside, a new man gestured for me to come towards him on the sidewalk, so I just went with it. I tried to explain that I’d need bubble wrap or paper or something to keep everything from breaking. But he wasn’t’ really listening.

I started to stare intently at what he was doing – what was he doing? He had taken what looked like a piece of burlap and was sewing it with a large needle and a piece of string. I couldn’t make out what he was creating. So I just stood there, in the street, where homeless people were sleeping and one child was urinating while a man from the post office sewed something together that apparently was needed for international packages. No one else seemed to think this was weird. To them, I was what was weird.

Finally it came together – he was sewing a sack to put everything in. Was this intended as my bubble wrap or buffer?

Yes, my presents are inside

No, no it was not. This was my package. There’s no “International Mail Box” I was being given or even a padded envelope. I was required to send my packages via burlap-sack. Then handed me a customs form to fill out and I wrote in all the details and gave it back to him. He started sewing the customs form onto the parcel. I had to stifle a laugh. It was just too absurd. Really? Really? I’m standing on the street while a man sews a customs form onto my burlap parcel?

He handed it back to me and told me to go inside to pay. I went back to my original friend and gave him the package.

“It’ll be ok, right?” I said, hoping he might tell me about the greatness of ‘Speed Mail’.
“Ma’am, only God will tell.”

I guess in three to five business days I’ll know how the sack held up.

My customs form being sewn on

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I really thought that I was being brave – darting around traffic for 2 hours in 90-degree heat in Dharavi to try and film from every angle; walking backwards to get the image of the women walking forward; holding the camera up without a tripod while my arms started to get sore. It was pretty daring for me – normally in Dharavi when I walk anywhere I spend most of my time watching my feet so that I don’t step in something unsavory or trip over a broken tile.

But I’ve got nothing on these women. They are truly something.

At the back of the rally

Today we were filming a rally – the workers and volunteers from the domestic violence prevention center were going to march through the streets in Dharavi with signs and banners while handing out leaflets and putting up signs about preventing abuse. That alone should be considered brave in the place and culture they inhabit.

But around the moment when the rally stopped right in front of a mosque, and women began talking on a bullhorn about rights while others taped signs to walls detailing how to report abuse I thought to myself: these women have chutzpah.

There’s nothing like the look on the faces of conservatively dressed Indian men watching women in saris and hijabs tell them how to act (and educating their wives on what they’re legally entitled to). It’s priceless.

I love watching the camaraderie of these women. They all come from different castes, they’re ethnically different, religiously different; many speak different native languages from each other. Two Tamil women – whom I had previously gone to a meeting with – grasped my hand when they saw me; Dharavi is practically a foreign country to where they grew up and yet here they were, marching in a rally with signs in Hindi (a language they can’t read), and welcoming a random white person who is filming them. They walked away holding hands with each other – even as they marched they still held hands, stronger together than they would be as individuals.

And for me that theme pervaded the whole march – in Dharavi, women’s rights are so tenuous; without a group behind them to remind them that they deserve better, it would be hard to go so strongly against the grain.

I don’t know if people really read or take seriously the pamphlets that they’re handing out – maybe no one does – but I think it’s worth it even if it just makes these women feel like they’re in it together. And I’m happy to be there with them – even if my arms certainly hurt the next day!

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