I recently came back from a week’s journey to India. One week to Kolkata and Mumbai, Kolkata being a spot i visited with my father and grandmother when I was twelve and Mumbai being a completely new place for me. It is hard to go from urban Thailand (I was in Bangkok before leaving for India) and urban India. Compared to India, Thailand seems urbane, calm, clean and organized (as a generalization). But I still find that India hold my attention in a way no other country has. Every time.
Kolkata was smoggy, congested and completely beautiful. We stayed in the random and wonderful Bodhi Tree Guesthouse in South Kolkata, down a narrow street with tall, crumbling Victorian buildings shadowing the lane. It was a Buddhist Art Monastery and a place of solace from the chaos of Kolkata. I was fortunate that my traveling companion also had a penchant for wandering the streets and exploring interesting looking byways, and we scouted out several different areas of Kolkata including our neighborhood (very working class, very congested, shrines crammed into every nook and tree trunk), Downtown (full of Imperial buildings, delicious street cart vendors and businessmen drinking chai from tiny tin cups) and Park Street (a disconcerting upscale street with tea houses and sterile hotel bars). We managed to re-visit some of my childhood haunts. And got caught in a proper monsoon downpour. I must preface this by saying, every single guidebook and resource advises against visiting India at the height of the Monsoon season. The humidity is oppressive and the streets the streets were supposed to be flooded with liquid filth. And the humidity was oppressive. But with the exception of some avoidable streets, rain-boots were not necessary. Although one evening we had to bolt down central Kolkata streets in an absolute Monsoon downpour. The very drops of rain during monsoon season seem bigger and strike the pavement with more force then usual. They also usually do not come straight down to an umbrella is so protection against the deluge. We sprinted to the chants and cheers and claps of Indian men who huddled under overhangs waiting out the storm. Soaked, we made it to what turned out to be an amazing Bengali meal and feasted as our clothes dried.
Mumbai was nothing like what I expected. I was prepared for unbridled squalor and a claustrophobic jumble of urban wasteland but I adored it. We stayed in the Colaba/Fort area, a”historical” section right near the sea. But everywhere there were amazing hulking Victorian buildings, transformed into Indian storefronts and schools and department stores. It was also refreshing to be somewhere more religiously diverse than Thailand or Kolkata, we spent time in Chorr Bazaar and stumbled upon a celebration for a Bohra festival. The streets were lined with men in long white gowns, stalls selling coconuts and rose bunches, and streamers of white cloth strung from one apartment to another. It did not seem appropriate to take pictures, but we were very intrigued as to who this people were. A stall-owner told us they were the Isma’ili Dawoodi Bohra. Wikipedia can definitely do a better job of explaining who they are than I can. The Bohra women wear a very gown called a Rida. I managed to find the antique Bollywood movie poster my heart desired and Choor Bazaar was deemed a success.
To be honest, the company and the food were the best two things about this trip. Food pictures dominate my photos, and the rest were taken with the film camera. But here is a peak into what we did..or what we ate, anyways.
One of the best meals was at a restaurant called Swati Snacks, in the Malabar Hill area of Mumbai. Its the only restaurant in Mumbai that just serves street food. Its delicious and cheap, and has air conditioning. Bhel Puri, the plate on the right, is my most favorite street food and a classic Mumbaiker snack. Consisting of puffed rice, fried noodles, tomatoes, onions, chillies and tamarind & coriander chutney.
But I was not satisfied with Swati Snacks alone, and also bought Bhel Puri from on-street vendors. Mumbai’s food really echoes its location as a trading crossroads, with Middle Eastern food, South & North Indian food, Pakistani food & Chinese food being the strong favorites.
We also heard that there was an Iranian bakery near our hotel so on the last day we sought it out. It was filled with ancient industrial baking machinery, regulars eating bread-pudding and rolls, and the smell of chai and baked goods. A phenomenal find. We ate dense bread pudding and sipped chai from tiny cups while old men muttered into newspapers and young women flitted in and out buying loaves of bread.
We had a brief flirtation with Monsoon Season, but Hot Season is hanging in there. The beautiful reservoir/lake that separates the Thai and Mon side of Sangkhlaburi is now almost entirely dry leaving houseboats stranded in the mud and turning the banks of the lake into veritable prairies. Sunken temples have emerged as the water evaporated, including one which has been seen for 18 years (or so they say)…but my desire to explore it is hampered by the afternoon’s unrelenting heat and the evening’s swarm of mosquitoes.
But I have been finding parts of the day I absolutely adore. There is a brief stretch in late afternoon when I’m usually laying in my bed planning my evening lessons, when the air cools and the wind blows through the banana trees outside my window and I feel simply lovely. Or the stretch of time I found myself walking down a back-road at night and discovered that solitary lightening bugs flit through the jungle. I haven’t seen fireflies since I last visited the east coast and somehow the fact that here ,they fly solo or in twos, really struck a chord with me. The blissful moments have enough force to overpower the bugs and the heat.
As I teach two classes with vastly different English levels and goals I often feel that I am straddling a gulf..once I plan one lesson on discussing whether technology is “a blessing or a curse” I must then switch my mind back to explaining simple present tense…to a lovely, earnest group who does not exactly even speak the English to understand my explanations OF English. I speak too quickly with my beginners sometimes, or too slowly and deliberately with my college level group, but mostly it works itself out. Their enthusiasm thankfully fills in the gaps in my explanations/teaching.
I finally visited Burma, for a particularly uneventful thirty minutes. The border crossing at the Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge is quite anticlimactic. you just walk across a long bridge and you’re in Burma. And as you walk you can peer over into the river where other crossings are being made..namely people taking inner-tubes from Thailand to Burma or Burma to Thailand. I think the fact that I arrived in Burma alone and in the rain definitely added to my general opinion of being underwhelmed, but i did scoot around some streets, peaked into shops and scoped out the food. Oddly, Mirrawaddy (the border town) reminded me of places in Pakistan: too many men just sitting around without anything to occupy them, shouting at each other and staring at the lone foreign woman. Not exactly pleasant. I’d love to venture further in, or with friends, or on a non-rainy day or with someone who spoke Burmese.
Food has been grand. I am still trying out new Sangkhlaburi restaurants, including a lunch this past weekend at The Nature Club restaurant a short bike ride outside of Sangkhla. The food was delicious and then the four of us were offered a ‘tour’ of The Nature Club. It ended up being a several-hour affair in the air conditioned truck of a wonderful Nature Club employee which took us through a lovely slice of the club’s 2,500 acres. We ate rambutans and mangosteens right off the tree. We looked at ancient limestone cliffs. We drove past killing fields from ancient Siam Kingdom battles and the Japanese railroad relics from World War II. Our guide filled us in on local lore, gossip, his take on thai politics, the thai take on the various refugee peoples who live in the area and also took his truck through a rough ATV course. It was a wonderful and unexpected adventure.
The political situation here has died down, not gone away, but died down. I was in Bangkok before going to my border crossing and saw the burnt out shell of CentralWorld Mall. Police has set up a table for questions and tourists took pictures. The city seemed to ave returned to its normal frenetic pace and after braving several shopping pavilions I found myself glad I was staying in the leafy residential neighborhood of Arii at the lovely Chew Guesthouse and not in more bustling central spots.
My life feels ‘normal enough’ here that I have become a bad blogger :) This Saturday we will be celebrating Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s 65th Birthday with the Mon community, so it should be grand weekend!
My life in Thailand is shaped most by weather. The hottest part of the day finds me at my favorite tea house, desperately slurping down pineapple and mint shakes (delicious!), parked in front of the largest fan, sweating and desperately trying to find out whats the latest in Bangkok. Or else the hottest part of the day finds me sprawled on my cement floor in the dark, planning lessons by the blue light of my computer. When it gets truly unbearable hot we suffer for a bit and then rain comes crashing down, bringing with it the hatching of thousands of winged ants in my room…or they also might be winged termites, I honestly do not know. What I do know is that they hatch in batches of hundreds and swarm my hair, the bed (they’re just tiny enough to get through the net), and crawl over the floor. Waging battle against these ants is a typical part of jungle existence :)
But I took a break from that reality for a week and have just returned from Bangkok and the lovely seaside AlilaCha-Am Hotel. Pictures of that week to come shortly. The Alila was amazing and my body was thrown through a loop at suddenly walking on carpet and sleeping in air conditioning. Bangkok was both intense and completely calm. Outside of the Red Zone, the hustle and bustle I normally associate with BKK was taken down several notches, and there were few tourists. My hotel was right outside the Red Zone, and on Friday signs were put up saying “Live Fire Zone”…so i steered clear of that. A haze settled over the city on Friday, right after the Red Shirt Commander was shot, a haze from hundreds of tire being burnt by protesters. And now it’s spreading, with town halls being burnt and the protesters digging further in. I don’t see any solution by Monsoon Season, we need thundering Monsoons to put out the fires and drive everyone indoors.
Teaching has been going wonderfully, and I just started teaching my second class, as part of an internship program for a youth organization here. The interns will be here for three months and they’ll be spending two hours a day, each week day, learning English from yours truly. In our “Getting to know you” section this morning, one interns listed “raising living standards” as a hobby while another listed “politics” and draw a picture of Aung San Suu Kyi–I love my job. My college-level students are also doing well, yesterday in our discussion section we compared American ‘cliques’ to notions of ‘cliques’ in Burma…Burmese cliques are certainly more industrious and interesting than American ones, with less focus on clothes and general nastiness and more of a focus on fundraising (one student was in a Poem Book clique and the produced and sold poem books) or just general awesomeness (another student was in a Bird Shooting Clique at age twelve and made bows and arrows to hunt bird in the jungle with friends).
There have also been a slew of Buddhist Holidays and Mon Cultural Celebrations. A Picture summary of the past weeks in Sangkhlaburi is below:
Sorry for the long lag time, I have been sick (tonsilitis..the most random of jungle illnesses) and my computer charger met its death during storm power surges (new one coming in the post this week, Thanks Pop!). But i survived Songkran, and taught my first class this morning.
Illness Saga: somehow i ended up with tonsilitis in Thailand..but for many days we thought it was Malaria/Dengue due to the weakness and hallucinations. Although, my hallucinations were somewhat tame; visiting a cake shop (unsurprising) and my Mon Grandma reading me fairytales in my room. Pp. and F. eventually persuaded me to go to the hospital where they administered a horribly painful test that involves cutting off your arm circulation for five minutes then checking for skin patterns. There was also blood drawn, but not in the private US hospital rooms where I can show my utter fear of needles privately..Yes, I wept in front of a large portion of the Mon and Thai community, but they seem to still like me anyways.
My boss is visiting this weekend, which meant he was present for my first class, which was nerve-wracking. But I only had three students in town today, all three of whom I know so that helped take off some of the pressure.
Earlier this week I had the pleasure of attending a Critical Thinking Seminar put on by the amazing and inspiring Dr. Thein Lwin, EdD. The seminar was actually geared towards teaching Mon teacher-trainers, who will now return to Burma and disseminate knowledge, train other teachers and work with their pupils on critical thinking & writing. Dr. Thein Lwin was F’s (my “older sister/mum”) teacher and mentor, so I was able to attend the seminar despite not being a Mon teacher and not speaking Burmese (the Dr.’s lovely assistant translated for me at the back of the room). I received lots of tips and techniques for encouraging my students to examine the academic material they’re presented with with a critical eye, and to actively engage with material.
As many of you have undoubtedly read, bombs have started to go off in Bangkok, and grenade launchers are being used against skytrain stations. Every night F., Pp., Grandma and I are glued to the news. I obviously don’t speak Thai, so I am constantly asking “what does that mean?! what is that video footage of?”. The violence is escalating to such a degree I am not sure how it can be resolved. But is the violence really being carried out by RedShirt protesters or by Thaksin-hired thugs whose sole goal is to create all-out civil war? It seems like The YellowShirts will soon amass in Bangkok to fight the Redshirts… will the Yellowshirts be even more violent than the Reshirts? And who are these fabled PinkShirts?! Further violence seems unavoidable. More in-depth analysis of this issue can be found here: http://www.economist.com/world/asia/displayStory.cfm?story_id=15955366
and with various opinions from all sides : http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/8639618.stm
The Storytellers Bazaar I visited in Peshawar and posted about earlier on this blog was also attacked with suicide bombs this week. This is yet another place I’ve physically spent time in which has now been attacked, another place I enjoyed and felt comfortable exploring at the time. I am feeling exceptionally sad for both Thailand and Pakistan these days, as it looks increasingly like I’ve left a country going up in flames only to arrive at one which is sliding towards urban civil war. What is similar and striking having been in both for bombings now, is the lack of decent in-country reporting. The Bangkok Post’s coverage has been frustratingly slow, and the Pakistani Newspapers could not be trusted to report honestly and accurately.
I will post another update once my computer cables arrive next week, as well as a montage of Songkran stories which simply must be accompanied by pictures.
So I have arrived in my new home, Sangkhlaburi..which, although it is a small town, seems like a vast cosmopolitan metropolis after the isolation of my Bani Gala home in Pakistan. I arrived in Sangkhlaburi after a seven hour bus ride, including a Bangkok leg on which I got to see the Red Shirts scooting across the road ad well as a Red Shirt Encampment. In case you have been avoiding the news, Bangkok is in upheaval, with political unrest, 20 killed and 800 injured in just one night this past weekend..Thailand has more in common with Pakistan than I expected!
However, I am far far away from it all in Sangkhlaburi. Where I have finally been unable to unpack and move into my new home. There is something so incredibly psychologically satisfying and necessary about unpacking a suitcase, hanging up clothes, taping pictures to the wall and settling in. I have been in a state of flux for so long that I had forgotten what it was like to have a permanent base.
And I have arrived just in time for Songkran, the Water Festival, which means that the entire nation engages in a giant water fight for several days. As such, I have not begun teaching yet, but have been exploring my new town, gorging myself on thai food and adjusting my wardrobe to reflect the insanely humid climate I now find myself in.
Songkran Story: yesterday Iona, Sam and I wandered into town to purchase supersoaker water guns, get drenched and take part in the water mayhem. Sporting the latest in plastic water weaponry we were approached by the local Sangkhlaburi Police and invited into the back of the police truck. Normally this sort of invitation is bad news, but the cops insisted it would be fun and its gawdawful hot so we hopped in. The truck was complete with a rusty set of handcuffs in the back, but the local po’ drove us to the temple and then insisted we hop on a Songkran Parade Float! With The Law behind us we were allowed to hop on a truck filled with Karen Musicians beating gongs and drums and bamboo clappers. I believe we were invited onto the truck to dance, but it’s hard to dance on the back of a water drenched truck so we perched on the sides, clapped in time to the music and smiled for the myriad of camera. I am here to teach the Mon, who were also a contingent of the parade, looking very stately and serene. As the parade wound through the streets I felt a familiar feeling of living in crystal clear moments..perhaps this was simply my mind and body being constantly refreshed by the buckets of water dumped on us, but I think that it was the feeling of yet again being in just the right spot at just the right time.
Thailand is ‘The Land of Smiles’ and I do relish being able to smile as just about anybody without it being misconstrued or backfiring (as was often the case in Pakistan)..but my experiences in Pakistan remain relevant and a frequent topic of conversation as I discuss the politcal situation in Myanmar and Thailand with folks here.
And the food, oh holy moly the food. I live a fifteen minute walk from the Thai Side Market (there is a ‘Thai Side’ and a ‘Mon Side’ of town)..a market filled with fruits, veggies, food carts, coffee carts and all manner of snacks. Ive been buying lots of roti, sold on carts by Muslims (5baht for a plain roti with condensed milk on top, 10baht for a roti with egg and condensed milk.
I had forgotten the vital role Seven Eleven plays in Thai life. They are everywhere and sell absolutely everything..Seven Eleven is where I head when I need to recharge me phone, buy bug spray, take advantage of AC or buy any number of the prawn flavored chip snacks available here. There is also a Chinese knockoff Seven Eleven rival here…but it just doesn’t hold a candle to the real thing.
This is the first part of the Epic Journey Update:
So Much has happened, the March bombing in Mansehra of WorldVision Offices really shook up everyone in Islamabad, including my program. Thus, it was decided that international teachers would not be living up at the school this year due to safety concerns. I am pretty heartbroken, but Pakistan works in mysterious ways and I respect KMT very much for not putting us in harms way. Instead, I filled my time fundraising, visiting The Khan Family in Peshawar again and working on lesson plans to be executed by the Pakistani teaching assistants at the school. But I came to South Asia to teach, so it is with much sadness I have left Pakistan and am now in Thailand (to be discussed in the next post).
Pakistan has won me over, hook, line and sinker. Not only is it a nation where women head straight to the front of the line (amazing!) but I have also never felt so welcomed and (surprisingly) comfortable. I enjoy wearing my shalwar kemeez and dupattr and have not encountered anything less than respect and tolerance from people I’ve spent time with here. I have had so many conversations with Dr. Khan about science, religion, politics, “young people”, travel and life in general–conversations which leave me feeling hopeful for the future…ideally a future in which I can picnic at the Khyber Pass :) I haver learned more about Islam in these past months than I have in 16+ years of excellent schooling, more knowledge that leaves me feeling encourages and inspired.
But I am going to miss a whole passel of folks here. I will especially miss Pasha (although not his cooking), Ali, Ummer, Faisal, Mohammad Ghool, AlimShir, Yusef, Amir Zaib–the wonderful staff at the Bani Gala house. When I left, AlimShir told me I was like a little daughter to him and that he would be looking up into the sky when my plane took off..very moving. Pasha dug out an old, red velvet box, and showed my pictures from throughout his life. Most showed a much younger Pasha, with all of his teeth, sporting a very dapper brown suit. Amir Zaib told me his mother said I could come visit his house whenever I’d like, and Yusef told me a long story in Pashto–I have no idea what it was about but it contained Sayira (his name for me) so I’m going to assume it was a compliment or grand advice. The casual, unstinting kindness I was shown in that house by even just the gardener really resonated with me.
But there is also a tiny part of me that is relieved to be going: I visited Peshawar this past weekend, left Peshawar on Sunday, and then there were triple suicide bombings on Monday. Parts of a suicide vest ended up in my friend Hina’s yard..this was incredibly unnerving and I spent several hours texting to make sure folks in Peshawar were ok. I have gotten so used to waking up each morning and checking BBC South Asia for headlines, checking throughout the day, and then again before signing off for the night. I don’t think this is a habit I’ll be able to break easily as I found myself waking up in Thailand and still scoping the South Asia BBC page for tidbits and updates, with my fingers crossed that it would be good news and not disasters.
I really hope to return to Pakistan–I already miss the muezzin calls… especially the dusk ones, I miss the look of excitement and incredulity that often appeared on peoples faces when they said “but you came all the way to Pakistan? You wanted to come to Pakistan?!” I miss the remarkably cheap cell service (even calls and texts to the US!) and, of course, the lovely long suffering Bani Gala Tailor.
The Universe has really dealt me a good hand this time though, I have been fortunate enough to be offered a position working with refugees on the Thai/Burma border, and have arrived in Thailand safe and sound. The journey started off on a high note with a remarkable upgrade on Etihad Air to Business Class: more comfortable than my own bed & with limitless cheese plates ohmygosh. I have not lived in Thailand since 2002, but am excited and eager to be back.
Insha’Allah I’ll spend another chink of my life in Pakistan with the many people I’ve come to know and care about, hopefully in a more peaceful and prosperous nation–Pakistan Zindabad!
(a post explaining the Thailand situation in more detail will be forthcoming once I finish busing and flying to my final destination)
Much Belated Peshawar Trip post:
Sorry for the delay in posting, much has been happening. I am currently in Peshawar for my second visit, my first was the weekend of March 21st. My father’s friend Dr. Khan has completely opened his home to me, and Ive utterly fallen for Peshawar. There is nothing quite like walking around somewhere and being literally the only westerner out and about. Those westerners that are still working in Peshawar do so behind closed doors, sandbags and armed guards. I never felt in danger, although at one point people were so intrigued by my presence in the market that they surreptitiously began taking pictures on cell phones. Here is a photo- montage of my Peshawar Adventures. With the lovely Mahjabeen as my guide I visited the Storytellers Bazaar (really old wonderful market with narrow winding streets), The Smuggler’s Market (the end point for so much of the supplies intended for US troops in Afghanistan) and Kouchi Bazaar for fabulous cloth.
Peshawar is full of soldiers, women in blue and pink burkas–front part lifted over their heads to shop, and men. Thats one of the most startling things Ive noticed in during my time in Pakistan, there are so many men around and so few women out and about. The pink and blue burkas Ive seen are really quite beautiful, with delicate embroidery all over and delicate mesh netting over the eyes. I did not feel comfortable photographing these women, although when I smiled they smiled back very openly and warmly.
On Saturday night Mahjabeen got me all dolled up and the five of us went to a wedding, the Barat, the theme was Pink and the dancing was wonderful
The next day we went to one of the spots I’d heard most about, The Peshawar Smugglers Market. It is right on the border of Peshawar and the Tribal Areas, and the crossing is very busy. The Sitara Market sells everything you can possibly imagine, and then ten things above that–all smuggled in from supply convoys in Afghanistan. It is definitely not a tourist destination and we decided that I should probably just be quiet and wear my headscarf. It worked! with one shopkeeper asking if I was Mahjabeen’s daughter :) Some of the stores were orderly and sold specific things; only cleaning products, tons of food, toiletries. But many of them were just a jumble of stolen goods. For the first time in months I laid eyes on Jiff Peanut Butter, every American Candy Ever Made, and (sadly) lots of Foreign Aid…packets of baby formula from CanadianAid and Tea Packets from USAID (boldly stating “A Present From The American People, Not For Resale Or Exchange”. US Army socks and guns and board games…very overwhelming.