08 December 2010

Gains and Loses

November 5, 2008

My back's to the wake of the ship, roasting. Sitting crosslegged on the wooden deck against the metal railing. Journal in lap. Pen ready. The assignment: write a list of things gained and lost thus far on this journey. Here goes.

friendships, connections
passion for writing things down
a floating home
the notion of self- morally, professionally, humorously
a sense of adventure, and open-mindedness 
travel bug
this could go on for a while...

the birth of my nephew
a landmark election (the first time I ever voted was absentee via sea)
football season
the change of seasons
some of my vulnerability
my own reality 
a sense of time 

I recommend writing this list whenever you travel, especially on long journeys. Write it at your halfway point like I did, and then rewrite it again when you get home.

01 December 2010


Randomness and highlights from a week in Vietnam, in no particular order, with no particular meaning.

The view from the bar that I brought my laundry to.

Bag of laundry in one hand, Tiger beer in the other. Travel will definitely push the limit on what you're willing to carry around with you. We've even got a backpack in this one.

 Kem Bach Dang ice cream topped with pineapple, figs, and my first strawberry since leaving the United States. Amy's face says it all.

Peace and quiet.

Drink menu...

... I ordered the avocado shake instead (didn't order the American flag). I'm still wondering what a "Sex on the Pool" is. 

My final journal entry before boarding the ship: 

Vietnam was the most all-encompassing port yet. Educational, culural, visual, fun!, entertaining, tasty, emotional... the most meaningful.

16 November 2010

War Journalism: A Question of Ethics

An image at the War Remnants Museum has got me thinking about ethical journalism. It was a photo of a terrified family holding on to one another; the caption read that the photographer asked a firing squad standing out of the photo’s frame to hold fire so that he could take his shot first.

I think he exploited the family in their time of ultimate fear and confusion –at what point does documentation become dehumanization?

I went on to irrationally slander war journalists for passively witnessing cruelty for their work. I called them cowards. The writing, which I’ll respectfully exclude from Global Osmosis, reflects the frustration and sadness that I felt as I examined the gruesome, chaotic, devastating photos at the War Remnants exhibit. Ignorant to the extent of the war before visiting Vietnam, I was overwhelmed by its chronic impact.

I am a visual learner. It wasn’t until I could see the conflict (euphemism for carnage) between America and Vietnam, in the museum photos that I could even begin to comprehend it.

War photographers, as a whole, are far from cowardly. It would be hypocritical to nark on these journalists who have heightened my understanding of what exactly a war is. And in the same breath I still question where you draw the line and put down the damn camera.

01 November 2010

War Tour

While I'm not typically an advocate of guided tours while traveling, I can honestly say that I got more out of these few hours in Vietnam than I've gotten out of days, even weeks, in other places. The war became tangible for me on a tour of the Củ Chi Tunnels.

Here's a photo tour; I hope you approach it with skepticism. 

A series of underground tunnels underlies Ho Chi Minh City. This network called the Củ Chi Tunnels is deeply rooted in Vietnamese soil and history. During the war, the tunnels hosted a whole range of activities- from hiding to combat, from transportation of supplies to access to medicine. 


The tunnels have since been expanded to accommodate large groups of tourists, and large tourists. 

Here's my foot next to the entrance. Hard to believe it used to be smaller, let alone the fact that people lived down there.

Paintings on the walls at the Cu Chi Tunnels exhibit.

The military cemetery for the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army.


The final stop in the tour was a shooting range. Yes, a shooting range. It cost extra, and it was a spectacle, to say the least. I couldn't shoot a gun on these grounds. Couldn't even consider it. 

18 October 2010

"Effects Yet To Be Reckoned"

I once read that the United States military troops sprayed at least 20 million gallons of Agent Orange, or toxic herbicides, in Vietnam during the war. I looked it up, and according to the U.S. Department of Veterans affairs, this deadly chemical causes a variety of cancers, heart diseases, Hodgkin’s disease, Leukemia, diabetes, neuropathy and liver dysfunction. The chemical also causes birth defects, such as Spina Bifida, in the children of veterans. The physical mutations of Agent Orange in people in Vietnam were prevalent, to say the least.

I wrote one sentence in my journal the day we visited the War Remnants Museum:

Why does history keep repeating?

In Steve Hawley’s feature “What We Leave Behind” in the Winter 2004 Issue of the Bear Deluxe Magazine, he predicts, “Amid former battlefields [in Iraq], contaminated with depleted uranium, or DU, the true costs of war have yet to be reckoned.”

Hawley’s article reveals the overwhelming amount of toxic DU in Iraq from U.S. bullets. The numbers are staggering- some 260 to 270 millirads of radiation are emitted with a single charred bullet. Hawley points out that the limit of exposure for non-radiation workers is 100 millirads per year.

He also points out research suggesting that damage done by DU often manifests itself in the next generation. Just like Agent Orange, DU is a genotoxin that alters DNA, often in the children of people who have been exposed to it.

I’ll write it one more time:

Why does history keep repeating?

13 October 2010

Quite The Show

"Show don't tell."

That's what every teacher and professor has instructed me to do with my words for as long as I can remember. Writing should paint a vivid picture with sensory statements and artfully incorporate detail.  It should establish a sense of place, so much so that the reader feel as if he or she is there.

It's often difficult to show rather than tell travel stories because they represent my individual perceptions. They are not generalizations about these places or these people; they are just my own experiences. In no way am I qualified to speak knowledgably about these cultures. I'm simply documenting the mere hours I was there.

As you read my blogging, specificially about Vietnam, I encourage you to keep in mind that these are my own experiences painted with colorful words. In order to explain the things that I saw and how I felt about them, I must write candidly.

I visited the War Remnants Museum in Saigon and joined a mass of other tourists to mill through it's sobering maze of artifacts, books, testimonials and photography about "The American War in Vietnam." The western world calls it "The Vietnam War." Enough said.

As I scanned war photography, an English woman came alongside of me to ask what information I'd learned about the war in American school, and I was ashamed to respond "not much." Sure "The Vietnam War" had been in my textbooks, but certainly not in the graphic detail I experienced at the museum that day. It was at that photography exhibit that the war became tangible to me, and this is what I wrote...

Images That Will Never Leave Me

A soldier doubled over magazine crates, sobbing. The photographer must have caught him taking a private moment.  

The black and white of an airplane lifting a dead American soldier from underneath. Bold and simple. While dead American soldiers were flown home, dead Vietnamese soldiers were left to die in the ruins.

An American soldier crouching in the grass to hold the bloody remains of a Vietnamese civilian. His face is ragged and torn. I have no words.

05 October 2010

Worthwhile Wake-Up Call

I woke up early and sleepily trudged to the bus that would be taking me to one of the most authentic forms of entertainment in Vietnam, or so everyone said. I was skeptical. In my pre-coffee haze I started to question why an early morning water puppet show had sounded like such a good idea.

Maybe I was intrigued by the ambiguity involved with Vietnamese water puppetry. It takes two to three years of training in school to learn the secrets of crafting the bamboo puppets. Historically, some shows were performed in villages in secret so that overruling governments couldn’t copyright them.

Our bus arrived and we assembled into a small outdoor amphitheater with a pond-sized pool where you’d expect a stage to be. From seemingly out of nowhere, a cast of bamboo characters appeared on the water. They erupted into an intricately choreographed routine.

I finally awakened from my slumber after the first splash of water on my face. The energetic, multicolored puppets held my captive attention for the rest of the show.

The puppeteers came out from behind the back curtain at the end of the show to reveal a bit of the mystery. During the performance, they wade in the pond and operate the puppets from underneath the surface of the water.

It’s clear they’ve put a great deal of practice into the routine, and their beaming faces suggest the amount of pride they take in their performance.

Water puppets are integral to Vietnamese culture; they represent a commitment to detailed craftsmanship, and emphasize the significance of education. The puppets have been used in the rice and rain ceremonies. They even suggest a certain gender division of labor. Our speaker tells us that women were not allowed to know the secrets of the puppets until 1956. He says, “Since then, the shows have become more gentle and beautiful.”

The puppet show is one I recommend to anyone traveling in Vietnam. It’s bright, entertaining and bound to make you smile. It’s worth waking up for.

17 July 2010

Catching a Buzz

My good friend and seasoned traveler Leah Olson discovered weasel coffee during the several months that she lived and backpacked in Vietnam. She regurgitates what she found in an article about the country for Ethos Magazine, which I was proud to provide the photos for.

I often write in coffee shops - I settle into a freshly brewed cup of java and flow to the caffeine buzz that follows, attempting to sync head and hands completely as I convert rambling thoughts into text-heavy journal pages. Here's a direct excerpt from one of the best coffee producers in the world.

I'm in tune with the rhythm of the world today. I'm marching to the beat of whatever grand drum is pounding out there and somehow finding contentment in the midst of the insane chaos that is Ho Chi Minh. Maybe it's timing, maybe I'm becoming a skilled traveler, or maybe I lucked out. I'm sipping caramel coffee at Trung Nguyen. Body and mind are at peace while buzzing motos speed past, flashing lights in the coffee shop window. We're in writing moods, occasionally stopping to share excerpts, jotting and sipping. We are right in line with today's cadence. While in Vietnam I'm finding the universe. 

12 July 2010

A Place to be Savored

The Mekong Delta dominates Southern Vietnam. It's a 15,000-square mile network of channels and streams that empty into the Mekong River. Known as Vietnam's "rice basket," the region feeds the rest of the country, in essence. And it's the lush home for countless species, more than one thousand of them which were discovered within the last decade. Recent news articles spout conflicting opinions about the future of the delta, some in favor of mass preservation of the area, and others hoping to develop it with more extensive infrastructure. With 10 million tourists who have already visited this year, I'm not surprised the Mekong Delta is high on media radar.

I'm also not surprised at that striking number of tourists -it's a beautiful place. It makes for relaxing days of floating down canals on sam pam rowing boats while munching on sweet lychee fruit, swaying side to side in hammocks above the water to the sounds of banjo bands behind, and strolling through the waterside marketplaces. There is locally farmed honey and coconut candy called Que Dua to taste.

Life moves a little slower on the delta. It's simplistic. Neighborly. Archaic even. These photos remind me of the authenticity of that place, and the fact that it should be savored.

26 May 2010

City Verve

I got lost in the Bin Thang marketplace today. It's an explosion of trinkets, t-shirts, bags, fabrics, perfume, scarves, souvenir boxes, buddha figurines, candy, posters, shoes, purses, bracelets, paintings, plates, dresses, robes, and anything else you might want to buy cheap and haggle cheaper. I've never seen more stuff packed into one place before.

I met a friend: Lei Lei. She told me Tiger Beer t-shirts and wrote Vietnamese phrases in my journal. She kept passing me in the market and tapping my shoulder, saying "ello friend!"

The crowded marketplace is much like the crowded city streets of Ho Chi Mihn. It's a frantic environment- excessive signage, spiratic bursts of color, flashing lights, thousands of motos zooming by, crammed shops, street vendors yelling wildly into crowds and steam sizzling off food carts from every direction.

I met another friend, but I never did get his name, or much conversation out of him at all. He saw me walking, or attempting to walk, across the crowded street and came quickly to my aid. He left his moto alongside the brick wall of an alley and then darted into the street in front of me. He raised his arms up and held up his hands as if to stop traffic on both sides, never losing his steady pace. The zipping motos didn't ever stop for him, but they did manage to veer around him, and I followed closely behind to safety on the other side. When we got there he shook my hand with both of his, flashed me a toothy grin, and turned around with his arms up to cross back. Then he disappeared into the verve. 

24 May 2010

Good Morning, Vietnam

I miss the sensation of getting rocked to sleep by waves –and waking up in a place I’ve never been. From the inside of the large cruiser, the waves were usually so mild, and combined with the sound of gentle splashes against the side of my small porthole window as it filled with scenes of water and then starry sky, they soothed me to slumber that I didn’t know possible. On those nights when I could only see water and sky around me, the ship felt small. And then it would pull into port and rest aside vessels of similar caliber, and it felt a little more significant. And then the ship drifted from the ocean and squeezed into a river with walls of lush vegetation immediately surrounding it. Folks along at the riverside with rolled up pants looked wide-eyed at the immense transportation slowly passing by. And then the ship felt massive. I was more than aware of its presence that first morning in Vietnam. In the next week I would become painfully aware of my own presence as well.

20 May 2010


Like most spontaneous traveling, my time in Malaysia was a sundry mix of experiences, so eclectic that it's been difficult to organize them into succinct posts. The journal pages are not only scattered, but scribbly due to documenting during moving traffic and transportation. So, I'll just go with it. Here are my last few takeaways from the land of the flag with the sun and the moon...

I learned to use chopsticks for the first time at that food court, right after my discovery of Tiger Beer. Despite my love for Asian food growing up, I'd never been able to master those little bamboo widdles that always made grains of rice seem so daunting. With the help of a patient friend and a determined "when in Rome" attitude, I conquered them that day.

Into incense? Imagine these babies outside of your house.

Family-style meals make for some interesting dinner companions, who sometimes even invite themselves to your table.

And finally, before the ship docked, en route to Vietnam, I wrote these words:

At the end of each port, I always seem to have the same conversation with a local I've befriended: "I love this place. I don't want to leave." 

29 April 2010

TOURIST turned traveler

The days after visiting India gained velocity –traveling became a rush against the clock as we docked from one Asian country to the next for the following few weeks, taking the days at sea in between each port to alleviate sleep deprivation and travel-worn, tired feet. India marked the physical halfway point in our journey ‘round the globe, and the thought that we were now turning around ignited our stamina to see and do everything possible. As a result, journal entries became more and more scattered; statements quickly turned to phrases and jots. Like all travel experiences, those crazy days have required some significant processing time. After all, it’s been more than a year since the voyage and I’ve only documented the first half… and I’ve only skimmed the surface.

Before the whirlwind begins, I’d like to take a step back from Malaysia tales and return across the Bay of Bengal to India, to the day I realized how not to travel, and the day that inspired the creation of this blog.

The last two days in New Delhi have been a blur of sights and sounds and buildings and tour guides. Traveling in a large group is getting intense, and half the time we can’t even get out of the bus that reads “TOURIST” in huge block letters across the front. This is not experiencing culture- it’s a human zoo with a metal barrier.

To elaborate on the intensity I described, I’d like to add that the bus reading “TOURIST” was filled with at least 50 American students, and it followed another bus with the same capacity and the same demoralizing word slapped across the front. It was a scorching day with no clouds in the sky. The windows of the bus wouldn’t come open. Someone threw up that morning, and the stench had permeated throughout the entire vehicle. I was doused in sweat and could only focus my thoughts on how rewarding a tall glass of ice water, or maybe a cold brew, sounded. As the bus jumped from Agra to the Taj Mahal to the Fatehpur Sikri village, I watched them float across tattered, foggy windows. Although I spotted all of the famous buildings that the tour guide pointed out, my memories from that day still consist of tang and discomfort on that mucky bus.

When we did get out of the bus, street vendors swarmed us… And for good reason: The “TOURIST” label was practically an invitation to attack us with trinkets for sale. Most of the desperate vendors couldn’t have been more than ten years old, and all I could wonder was whom they would bring their magnet-sale money home to that night, or if there was home to go to at all.

I decided that if I have a label I'd like it to be "traveler" instead of TOURIST.  I knew I was missing out on conversations, (bearable) scents, sounds of the city, smiles with passersby, and the like by sitting sedentarily watching it all go by. I had flashbacks of the huge bus that invaded the favelas in Brazil, and the standardized lion-hunting safari drive in South Africa. In all of those situations I was just sitting in some sort of transportation, removed from the activity around me. It was one of those epiphany, “a-ha!” moments –I didn’t want to be an audience to the bustling streets of India; I wanted to be a participant.  

I kept writing frantically. As I formulated my plan for this blog, the oh-so-overused cliché kept running through my head. “Live for the journey, not the destination.” I overuse it here once more because although chestnut, the phrase reminds me to slow down a bit and take it all in.

I think this blog will help me to tell all my stories –and it will get me started on my future journey. It will be a “travel” blog about virtually anything I do. Let’s face it –traveling means waiting in lines, getting lost, experiencing mass transit, getting confused, feeling uncomfortable and doing a hell of a lot of sitting. You don’t have to be in a new country to do all that. Traveling can happen anywhere, and the results are transformative. I think I’ll call it “En Route” or “In Transit” until I can come up with something cleverer. Endless possibilities because I’m always headed somewhere –I’ll be in transit my whole life.

So now with a breath of fresh air, so to speak, back to Malaysia, and the following countries, and beyond. I continue to journal to this day, and I'm excited for the evolution of Global Osmosis (a much more fitting title than "In Transit," if you ask me). 

27 April 2010

The Petronas Towers

"A visit to Kuala Lumpur wouldn't be complete without a visit to the infamous Petrona Towers, the second-tallest buildings in the world, surpassed only by Taipei 101 in Taiwan," -or so the travel books say.

I never made it to the top of the skyscrapers, but I did lay on the pavement below.

25 April 2010

"Lip-Sweat Warrior Water"

It’s water. Deliciously frothy, light and crisp lip-sweat warrior water.

I wrote this statement stuck to a plastic chair in the mucky humidity of a fishbowl food court in an outside shopping mall, pillows of steam clamming my face from every direction. The pillows are drifting from lines of food stands of all sorts. One for curry, one for dim sum, one for sushi, one for fresh fruit, one for pad thai… the list goes on.

And then, in the middle of it all, is a food stand dedicated to Tiger beer. Just Tiger. In 22 ounce bottles. Only 22 ounce bottles.

It’s on tap in seven countries, and available in 60, but I could only find it in those big bottles. They would immediately accumulate a layer of watery condensation, much like the beer inside.

Typically I’m more of a dark brew devotee, but there was something about the Tiger that I couldn’t put down. Apparently there’s something in the water, too, because Tiger has been internationally recognized by brewmaster’s associations since Heineken crafted the first batch in 1930. It won the 2004 World Beer Cup and the 2005 Wine & Spirit International Beer Challenge. And it won me over the week I visited Malaysia. 

16 April 2010

Family-Style Feasting

Deep-fried prawns and a round of Tiger Beer. It seems as if our menu orders arrive before we can even sit down on the plastic chairs in the restaurant. The cheery man, presumably the owner, serving us moves hastily to deliver the Heineken-crafted Singapore beers and a plate of sizzling hot seafood onto the plastic sheet covering the lawn table at which we’re seated. There are three of these tables; one of them serves as a cash register where the owner sits behind a box of bills, pretending to read his newspaper, but actually peering over its edge to see that any empty plates are quickly cleared and any dwindling beers are replaced. He never asks us if we need another 32 ounces; he just keeps them coming.

Much like the beers, the heaping plates of food that we order seem to come out of nowhere. We’re dining in a long, skinny concrete room with high ceilings and what looks like open garage doors on either side. There are no windows, the closest bathroom is probably two blocks away and there isn’t a back room or a food prep area. We don’t even smell food from where we’re sitting.

We don’t hesitate, though, to order a large meal from the mystery kitchen, and we certainly don’t mind all the beer on this burning hot day. After a few days in Malaysia, we’ve realized that tiny concrete hole-in-the-wall lawn chair parties are a Pangkor Island local treat not to be missed.

The owner doesn’t hesitate in bringing out our feast: shrimp cabbage salad with orange slices, thick black rice in lemongrass curry, bamboo shoots and chicken, green bean noodle soup, and spicy scallops swimming in coconut water. The once-oversized table is now laden with carefully arranged fresh ingredients that we transfer to our plates family-style with a drizzle of chili paste that we wash down with Tiger swigs. Food coma is inevitable.

A violent burst of island rainstorm begins outside the warehouse-esk tunnel. We can see steam rising from the hot streets. Another round of Tiger please. And some coconut ice cream with durian fruit to top it all off.

12 April 2010


I can't find the words to describe the most memorable sunset I've ever experienced. But I did just find the pictures.

04 April 2010

A Vindication for Audacity

I spent my last afternoon in Chennai at Mocha, a hookah bar clad with tapestries and dim hanging lights and gem-toned embroidered pillows to lounge on. Friends and I posted up outside to sip chai tea under a the green canopy and write some postcards.

My message to my family couldn’t fit in the scarce white space on my postcard, so I composed a letter in my journal instead. Here’s an excerpt.

          This trip has taken me so far from my comfort zone in so many ways –just as I had hoped. Before the first port, I made it my goal to take a risk in every country, or at least try something new. I would do something that terrified me, or something that I would absolutely refuse to do at home.

         I hiked LenSois and jumped off cliffs in Brazil. I get nervous while precariously hiking because I don’t know where to put my feet and II was once terrified of heights because of what jagged, deathly edge I could land on. I surrendered to all that, though, and finished the six-hour, potentially treacherous hike in its entirety. I marched to the top of the rocks, and dove fearlessly into the dark waters... And I lived.

         I went sand boarding in Namibia. I’m the shameful Coloradoan who has never skied or snowb.oarded in her life. When my traveling group in Africa decided to board down a sand dune, there was no way I could continue being so lame. I lugged my heavy board up the dune and crashed, tumbled and struggled the entire way down... And I loved it.

         I went skydiving in South Africa. At this point, I was a self-proclaimed thrill-seeker, an adrenaline junkie. I had newfound confidence from jumping off cliffs and falling down sand, so I decided the best option for this port would be jumping out of an airplane. I can honestly say that those four minutes of soaring through the sky and falling toward Table Mountain were the most alive I’ve ever felt.

         Now I’m writing from India, where a week ago I was raring to go on the next adventure that would speed my heartbeat and mess up my hair.

But India didn’t have any extreme sports or natural structures that I could jump off of. Although I felt overwhelmed with the intensity of the traffic and crowds of people, I never felt fearful. There was only one instance when I felt especially out of my comfort zone.

         A friend and I wanted to buy silk scarves and saris, so we hailed a rickshaw driver and eventually broke past the language barrier to explain to the driver that we wanted “shopping.” He bobbled his head, which we took as “yes I know exactly where you want to go.” When he drove us to St. Thomas Basilica, we realized that the bobble head meant “I have different plans for you.”

         He drove us to a variety of destinations, and in between each stop we tried to tell him where we wanted to go, each time in a different way –hand gestures, different words for shopping and scarves, drawing stick figures on our arms with a pen – and each time he bobbled his head back and forth, grinned happily and zoomed down the highway. He would pull hastily to a hault at his next stop and wave for us to follow him. He speedily ran everywhere he went. We would shake our heads and submit to his strides. This went on for several hours.

At the mercy of our rickshaw driver and unable to communicate, we never did make it to the shopping center. We did; however, observe a prayer grotto, visit remains of the tsunami damage on the shore, enjoy a snake charming show down a dusty dirt path, and sip spicy tea while at a carpet-weaving lesson in a rug and silk shop. We even arrived back to the ship on time.

         Well, it seems that I did find my risk. I trusted a man whose language I did not speak to transport me through a country I’d never been to before. I kept getting back into the rickshaw after each stop, well aware that I had no clue where I’d be going next. I risked getting lost and missing the ship’s departure. Now that I write about it all, my heartbeat is pumping a little faster. The windy rickshaw ride tangled my hair, too. 

08 March 2010

Q and A with the Working Women's Forum

India’s census information reveals that just over a quarter of the women in the country are employed by the labor force. Most of these women are cultivators, or somehow involved in the agricultural industry. One third of them are self-employed. (http://ideas.repec.org/p/ess/wpaper/id2064.html

In a country where one is likely to see only one or two women out of every five men on the street, the stats about women’s employment make complete sense. One out of five is not a documented fact, but merely a personal observation from roaming the streets of Chennai. I concluded that the many women I did not see were indoors, at home doing unpaid domestic work.

I was wrong. At the end of the day I found a great number of them at the Working Women’s Forum. And they probably would have been irritated to know that I thought they’d been cooking and cleaning all morning. 

The Working Women’s Forum (WWF) is an Indian grassroots nonprofit that helps women get grants to start their own businesses or go to college. It also provides job training and banking education, so that women can take control of their finances and eliminate debt. It helps them get involved with unions, sign up for inexpensive healthcare and provides education about reproductive rights and care.

The group of women at the organization dressed in vibrant wrap dresses, or saris, and many of them had gold jewels pierced into their noses and ears. They came into the conference room like a rainbow peeks out from the rain, their gems sparkling in the light from the windows. They were incredibly gracious, absolutely insisting that fellow travelers and myself sit in chairs while they all teemed onto the floor. They were also incredibly warm; they communicated with their huge smiles, which I received and reciprocated. None of us spoke each other’s language. I felt welcome nonetheless.

Via translation, the women engaged us in a question and answer session. They asked questions about what jobs women do in the United States, and what roles they fill in families. They wanted to know if men or women controlled household funds, and what single moms did in our culture. When it was our turn to ask questions, here are some of the responses we got in return.

Who works more in your families- women or men?

Women, by a long shot. Many women come to the forum because their husbands aren’t working and they need to sustain their families. Women often work their jobs and then come home to care for children, cook and clean. We don’t know how we find all the time, but we make it work.

What do your husbands think about your involvement in this organization?

Many of them encourage us to come and get involved. Others are threatened by our empowerment. But no matter what, they shut their mouths when we bring home money at the end of the day.

Our mother and father-in-laws present greater opposition. They are more traditional, and feel as if their sons need to be the heads of the household.

When do women in India usually get married?

Usually around the age of twenty, but the socialized limit is 21. One woman here got married when she was ten.

And how many babies do they typically have?

We are different than many women because we know about family planning now. We all hope to have one or two, so that we can provide better for less people. The Working Women’s Forum sponsors a family planning project that many of us volunteer for.

The WWF provides the means to get loans, but do they ever give out actual funds?

No. Sometimes women’s immediate response to cash in hand is to bring it straight to their husbands. That defeats the point.

What are some of the biggest challenges that you face in your every day lives?

The same challenges that you face. Sure there are financial issues, violence, poverty, our children, and many other social problems that lack public solutions, but our biggest challenges are internal rather than external. One woman here pushes a breakfast cart for her job. She is often scared that she will be robbed, and sometimes the police wont even let her set up for her sales. Each woman’s challenge is different than the next.

What keeps you coming back to the WWF?

The sense of community. These are our friends, and we bring our children.

What are you doing at WWF today?

(They pull out a bottle and pass it around for us to smell.) We’re teaching a workshop on how to make aromatherapy products and make profit off of them.

Our day at WWF ended with a shared cup of caramel-flavored chai tea, and a hoopla of dancing and singing with the ladies. We hugged and kissed everyone on our way out. I left hoping to one day exhibit some of the strength, and complete gorgeousness, I found in that room. 

To learn more about WWF and get involved, go to http://www.workingwomensforum.org/index.htm

31 January 2010

Sunset Slippers

If you’ve seen a picture or a postcard of the Taj Mahal, then you’ve seen the Taj Mahal. You’ve even seen it in its prime.

If you were to see it with your own eyes, it would be much like the postcards that I sent out from India, except the postcards don’t have masses of people in them. Thousands of people walk around barefoot or cover their shoes with gauzy bags to protect this notorious space from their tread. Some of them kneel to pray, and others kneel to get the right camera angles. The immaculate tiled walkways are swarmed with tourists and tour guides, lovers and families, the old and the young. Even with chatter and camera flashes in the background, the scene seems to go silent at sunset just when the planet aligns with the sun to cast a orange glow on the grandiose structure. The orange becomes purple as the sun softens into horizon. And it is brilliant.

So it’s possible to see the Taj in its prime via postcard, but that piece of paper could never allow you to feel it. Standing on that brick is humbling; it makes you fell small, and young. Gazing at those colors and that design is perplexing. And wearing those slippers is itchy, but certainly completes the dazzling experience.

The experience is one inspired by Mumtaz Mahal, the wife of emperor Shah Jahan. As the love story goes, the emperor told the empress on her deathbed that he would build a structure symbolic of their love. One year later, the devoted widower began designing the marble tomb with patterned gemstones.

Maybe it’s the massive headcount on the premises, or perhaps it’s the charming origin that creates the Taj’s majesty. There’s a power about that place that no camera could capture. But it makes sense that we’d all like to take a little sliver of it home... I brought the booties.