An 80-Year Old Traveler

January 17, 2011                                         Calcutta, India

When you travel you are prepared to face the many obstacles that may come your way. Sometimes things go extremely smoothly and other times, everything seems to go wrong.

I arrived at the Mumbai airport at 3am to board my Sri Lankan Airlines flight to Bangkok. Checking in, I was asked for my onward ticket out of Bangkok. I confidently pulled out my Bonderman letter from the UW graduate school, explaining my fellowship and why I don’t have an outbound ticket. The agents quickly dismissed all my explanations and firmly stated that without a ticket out of Bangkok I could not leave the country.

A wave of nausea came over me and within the next 4 hours I: missed my flight, sat in the middle of the airport and cried until someone came to my rescue, was conned into buying a fake airplane ticket, ran to the bathroom intermittedly to vomit, and was shoved into an open-air Rickshaw and taken to another airport in the middle of the night. Definitely a low point but I guess all part of the perils of traveling.

After all the drama I was finally rerouted from Mumbai to Calcutta and then on to Bangkok. I was so relieved until I arrived in Calcutta to find that after everything I had been through, my plane was delayed and I was stuck in the airport for another 5 hours. I had a moment where I wondered why I am doing this. I longed for home and just hated being alone, vulnerable, and so unsure of everything.

As these thoughts were going through my head, an old, petite, Indian man with thick glasses looked at me from across several rows of seats and said, “Bangkok?” I was puzzled as to how he knew where I was going. With hope that he might have some good news about my flight I said, “Yes, you too?” He told me he was also going to Bangkok but was on a different flight that was not delayed. I wondered why he even bothered asking me as I was still feeling nauseous and couldn’t  make small talk with anyone.

Ignoring my clear disinterest, he stood up and came to sit beside me to tell me about his life. I  superficially listened to his story until he said, “I am going to be 80 next month. I have traveled to 89 countries in the world and want to see every country before I die. I started when I was 17 and since then I haven’t been able to stop. I love traveling. Experiencing different cultures and people makes me feel alive. Even though I can’t see things the way I use to, I will always follow my passion. The day I stop traveling is the day I die.”

I was speechless. So impressed by his tenacity and strength yet puzzled as to why out of all the people in the airport this man chose to share this with me, during a time when I desperately needed to be reminded of my own passion for traveling.  We talked a bit more, exchanging opinions about our favorite places in the world and for a brief moment, I forgot about all the chaos of the last 24 hours. Soon he left to board his flight and said, “Don’t forget, this is just the beginning for you. There is so much more to see in the world. You have to keep going!”

I thought about my encounter with him and how throughout this trip, I often operate under the assumption that I have to maximize each moment because it may be the last opportunity I have to travel and see the world. Somehow feeling like the excitement of life will come to a screeching halt once I return home. Since I have been on the road, I have met so many people with different, unconventional stories of why they decided to leave the routine of their lives to travel. Though everyone’s reasons are vastly different, through my encounters with others I have realized that in life, we create our own paths instead of following what has been paved for us. This 80-year old man reminded me of the many possibilities of life, that your passion never stops and sometimes, on the road when you least expect it, a little inspiration is right around the corner.

Incredible India!

 January 13, 2011                                            Udaipur, India

Incredible India! That’s the slogan you often hear as a tourist in India. One that seems so clique yet you come to see there really is no other way of describing this country.  

India is a land of mystery and excitement and whether you love or hate it, you cannot escape its complexity. It keeps you on your toes by constantly awakening your senses. You are forced to give up complete control over your life and succumb to where the country takes you and what it has to teach you about yourself.  Once you manage to let go, you suddenly begin to come face to face with an array of magical, unexpected things: Joining a wedding procession with a crowd of 1000 people chanting prayers and enacting Hindu folklore; Being invited for a cup of chai in a local home in a village; Frequently stopping in the middle of the road to allow elephants, monkeys, camels and cows to cross;  Walking into a tiny shop on the side of the street and finding 100 year old antique exquisite saris lying in a pile in the corner; Joining girls on the street for traditional Rajasthani dancing while en route to the market; Leaving a 5-star hotel and feeling a tug on your shirt from a desperate child begging you for your bottle of water and licking the residue off the outside to quench their thirst.

I spent a month traveling in India, visiting the places I missed during my initial trip (mainly the north) and trying to expand my understanding of this fascinating nation. Visiting the different region s I realized that the amazing things about India are not only tied to my experience in the village but is the essence of the people. Their interconnectedness, sense of community, openness, and ability to embrace life and whatever it brings their way, whether heartbreak or joy, are all things you can feel in people all around the country. Walking through the quaint villages of Rajasthan, I would sit down next to woman weaving baskets, selling vegetables, or feeding their children and just lock eyes with people whose lives were so far from mine yet we somehow magically shared an unspoken connection.

Each day I spent in India I fell more in love with the country and came to see that deep down, through all the chaos and difficulty, it has now become a part of who I am. Though in the Middle East I questioned homeland and where I belong, coming to India I found that a home is not necessarily where you grew up, the country your parents are from or  the background of your ancestors. It is somewhere that you feel closely connected to a place and its people. Ironically, India does not include a part of my history or heritage yet somehow, among the many unexpected things, I have seemed to find a place to belong here.  India will always hold a special piece of me and coming here for the second time, made me realize I will always feel moved by this nation. For that very reason, I know it will be a ‘home’ I will visit for the rest of my life.

More photos from my time in India:

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A Return Home to Pargaon

December 25, 2010                                Mumbai, India

I was nervous about coming to India again. Worried that revisiting this country where I have so many amazing memories and experiences could somehow be erased. I wondered if being a tourist in India would change my perspective; cause me to only see the negative aspects and miss the beauty I saw in the subtle things during my initial trip.

During the relatively short plane ride from Bahrain to Mumbai, as much as I thought, I could not remember India. Though throughout my time in the Middle East, I compared all my experiences to India, I could not take myself back to what it felt like to actually be there.

The moment I stepped out of the airport and took in a deep breath of the humid, stuffy, Mumbai air, all the emotions I felt 15 months prior came rushing back to me.  The people, the culture, the emotions, and the complexity that makes India was suddenly so vivid in my mind and I was so excited to experience it again through a new perspective.

In the following days, I spent some time in Mumbai and Pune, the cities I would escape to anytime I needed a bit of western modernization. I reunited with old friends and the organization I worked at in Rajgurunagar. I visited the site of the coffee shop that I spent many weekends in to sadly find it was bombed last year and now is nothing but ruble.  I walked through the same markets I bought my sarees and shalwar kameez in with the vendors and tailors yelling out to me, “You are the girl from America. We remember you!”

There are times in your life that you think you can never recapture or go back to. I would often think about my ‘Indian’ family in the village and know that even if I went back to visit them, it would never be the same as it was during the monsoon summer I spent there. Yet, during this trip, somehow I had transcended this impossibility and transported myself back in time.

Together with my friend Smita, who is now pregnant, and my cousin Haleh, we made the trek up to the village of Pargaon to reunite with Uncle, Savita Tai, Kunal and Neelam. Though I jumped up to embrace them with excitement, initially, they just stood there and looked at me with a blank stare and nervous smile. I was not sure how to read their reaction but soon after realized that they were still in disbelief that I was actually back in the village. After taking a few moments to let it all settle in, the distance disappeared and suddenly it felt like time had stood still as we quickly reverted back to our old ways.

Little had changed for them since I had left over a year ago other than a new computer they had acquired for Neelam’s studies in computer science and a wooden desk that houses it. They took a major loan from a friend in the village to purchase it and are the first family in Pargaon to own a computer. Although their electricity is quite unreliable with frequent power outages and a computer was not only way out of their budget but so far from their reality, they believe in their daughter so much that they are determined to provide her with any educational opportunity. Kunal has also enrolled in a trade school for mechanics in Pune and the family scrounges money together each month to pay for his tuition, room and board.  Other than that, their lives have continued as normal. They still wake up each morning at 5:00 am and wait in line to bring water from the well and tend to their daily chores.  Savita Tai still lunch at the elementary school every day while Uncle tailors saris for the local families.

While I was there, we embraced every single moment we had together. During the day we made our rounds through the village, visiting everyone from the school children to each family who invited us for Chai  and Pooha (a special yellow colored rice dish made with turmeric, peanuts, coconut  and green peppers that is served to guests). Smita and I would talk about our days wondering the village and how life has changed since receiving our MSWs. Once dark set in, although we neatly laid our blankets on the floor to sleep together in a long row like sardines, we would stay up all night dancing, laughing and reminiscing about our time together. Much of our conversations were not understood by either one side or the other yet the emotions that transpired were so clearly felt by all of us that words were not needed.  

At one point Savita Tai, my Indian mom, turned to me (with the help of Smita translating) and said, “I never actually believed that you would come back. I thought it was just a fantasy I kept alive in my mind. Now that you are here, I feel like I am dreaming and I don’t want to let you go again.”

Though the time was very short, and saying goodbye again was so hard, this time I was not filled with the same sense of sadness I felt the first time I left. Seeing my family in the village reaffirmed how deep of a connection and bond I have with them that miles, years and even silence between us can never break. The overwhelming caring and feelings of love filled with purity and genuineness reminded me of how much they taught me about life and myself while I was living with them. I felt a different part of me, one which I now see as a really significant part, come back to life. I know that no matter what happens what I have there, with this special family, is irreplaceable and will not disappear. Last time I said goodbye, I felt like I was losing something so special and leaving it behind. Coming back I realized that I have this special bond, and this family’s presence in my life, ALWAYS, and  it is something that cannnot be lost. I no longer wondered IF I would ever come back to them and this part of my life again but knew it was only a matter of when.

To read more about my time and experiences working and living in India please visit my blog: http://www.roxanaindia.blogspot.com/

Leaving the Middle East

December 16, 2010                                            Amman, Jordan

I passed through Israeli customs and once again, entered the space between the two borders that I stood still in two weeks prior. This time, looking behind to Israel and ahead to Jordan, I anticipated feeling different yet not much had changed. I was hesitant to move forward, tempted to turn back. Not sure if I was ready to re-enter a world where I had to leave a piece of myself behind.

As I was waiting for the bus from the Israel customs point to Jordanian immigration I looked around at the people waiting and wondered who they are: Israelis going to Jordan for a visit? Jordanians coming to Israel? Other tourists?

 I had not yet witnessed the two worlds colliding so I was fascinated by those who bridged the gap.  

After 30 minutes, I finally approached a young girl and asked her when the next bus is coming. She told me that she crosses this border often and to just stay with her and we can travel back to Amman together where she lives. I was relieved to not have to make this journey on my own and grateful to her for taking me under her wing.

The bus finally arrived and once we boarded I asked her about the nature of her travels between Jordan and Israel. She told me she is Israeli but has been living and working in Jordan for the last 4 months for an investment company that is cautiously trying to forge business partnerships between the two countries.  She acts as the intermediary. As the only Israeli (other than embassy officials) living in Jordan, she told me about the stigma and all the complicated situations she has to navigate: Never knowing how people will treat her, if they will accept her or not, when to tell the truth and when to lie about her nationality and what the implications are in each case.

I told her about my travels in the Middle East and the difficulty I experienced being Jewish in the Arab world. We talked about how it felt to be at the border and prepare ourselves to cross over from one land into the other. How we oddly felt comfortable in the spaces between, and how we felt like we were the only two people in the world who understood this feeling.

We arrived at my guesthouse in Amman and as I was getting out of the car, she asked me if I wanted to go out dancing with her  and her friends before I left Jordan and of course, I couldn’t resist.

On a Wednesday night, she showed up at Husseini mosque in the backseat of a black Range Rover with tinted windows to pick me up for our 80’s themed night out. She rolled down the window and said, “Hop in.” I got in the back with her and met her two Jordanian co-workers. She quickly introduced me as her Jewish friend, a title I was quite uncomfortable with being that it was the first time I had been openly Jewish in an Arab country. To my surprise, they didn’t seem to react to this identity I presumed bared so much weight.

I turned to her and quietly asked her what her co-workers thought of her Israeli nationality. She told me that initially they were both very skeptical of her and had many preconceptions about Israelis, though they had never met one. “I understand why they are suspicious. My people have caused them nothing but pain and suffering and I am also accountable for that,” she said. Though it took them a few weeks to warm up to her, eventually became the best of friends. Now, they are the ones who look out for her, protect her like a sister and are her surrogate family. She told me that knowing her has made them want to come and visit Israel and see for themselves what life is like across the border.  

Her friends drove us around Amman and stopped the car at a lookout point where the lights of Jerusalem were visible in the distance. We stood there together, first just gazing and then discussing how now that we are on the other side, we feel so disconnected from Israel; a land we were both in just two days ago. How most people either live on one side of the border or the other and somehow, the two of us have found ourselves on both sides.

As we were talking, I thought about our identities and how our experiences are the same but so different. Though we share a common history and religion, unlike me, she can’t hide who she is. She is not only Jewish but she is Israeli. A label that implicates her in so much and defines her in situations which I have the privilege of running away from when it is not in my favor.  I admired her bravery and courage for coming to a country she knew she would not be accepted in and still being herself at all times, even if it means people will turn away from her.

I asked her the proverbial question, “Do you think there will ever be peace in the Middle East?” She is the first person I have come across that has responded with a bit of optimism on the topic. “Yes I do.  I believe we can learn to see each other as human beings and I have hope that even if we can’t tear down the physical walls at least some of us are taking risks to take down the walls that have separated us for too long. We, me and you, are the beginning of that hope and we make small changes every single day. Look where we are sitting now. This is hope!”

Once we arrived at the club, we were escorted to the table where the rest of her Jordanian friends were socializing. She introduced me one by one to each friend again saying, “She is Jewish too.” I felt vulnerable and exposed. I was puzzled as to why she would offer this information that I tried so hard to conceal up on a platter.She brought down the mask that I had so meticulously built for myself in the Arab world and revealed my true identity. Something I was not sure I was ready for.  Yet, they all nodded their heads, embraced me and said, “Welcome to Jordan.”

The rest of the night, I observed her relationships with her Arab friends. I saw that although she may feel isolated as the only Israeli in Jordan, she also has a strong community of people who genuinely love and care about her. She has built a home here far outside of her homeland. It confirmed for me that home is not only about where you belong but where you can make connections and form relationships, even if you don’t belong. I told her, “In some ways you are lucky because you know your friends here really love you and accept you for who are. It’s always easy to connect with people who are like us but doing it across barriers means so much more. I admire your strength and willingness to be out of your comfort zone. I know every single day is hard for you, but you are here for a reason. To bring people together.” She responded, “You are the only one who gets that. I try to tell my friends and family back home, and they just don’t understand.”

We danced the night away with a sort of freedom and uninhibitedness neither of us had felt in a while. There was a vibrant energy and dynamic in the air that made each moment that passed so exhilarating. In the mist of the dancing and 80’s music she came over and gave me a big hug. I was surprised by her sudden display of affection. She said, “You don’t know what you did for me tonight. I have never had another Jewish person with me in Jordan. This is the first time I have not felt completely alone. And my friends love you. Seeing you helped them to accept me more and see we are not who they think we are. We are just like them. I can never thank you enough.”

My eyes filled with tears. I was not only touched but in that moment I realized the reason she was telling everyone about my identity was to ease her own isolation and share the burden she was carrying with someone else. To show her friends it’s not just her but that there are other Jews in the world who are caring, fun and actually very little (other than politics) separates us. I was so fixated on keeping my religion a secret that I overlooked how revealing it had the power to bring someone else comfort and strength.

When I said goodbye to her later that night, I realized that she had also given me a great gift. The entire time I was in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, I wondered how people would treat me if they knew who I really was. Ironically, on my last night in the Middle East, she allowed me to finally integrate all the pieces of myself into this region of the world. In the end, the space in between that held so much significance for me, was the very place in which my paths crossed with someone who brought some solace and closure to this portion of my journey. The next morning, I boarded my plane leaving the Middle East feeling whole again and with a glimmer of hope for the future.

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