Monday, August 29, 2011


Dear Life,

I'll start off by being blunt and straightforward [something I've avoided being for a very, very long time]: I've fallen madly in love with You.  Not in an "Obsessed" kind of way, but more of a "When Harry Met Sally" kind of way.  Please don't worry.

As I write to You from my balcony, eating custard apple, drinking coffee, and waiting for You to get ready for another day, I can't help but think of where we were half a year ago.  Stuck.  Stuck in a very black and white world, and preparing ourselves to stay stuck, anchored, and running around in circles.  As limiting as the word can describe the feeling, we were unhappy.  With each other, with the lack of direction we had, and with [what I considered] the lack of things we accomplished in our 22 years of knowing each other.

But all of that changed, no?  We ran away together with plans of seeing the world, not really knowing what to find except everything that we couldn't at home.  Yes, the first night in India scared the crap out of us; the only thing we had [prepare for the cliche] was each other.  And let's be honest: can you trust someone you don't like?

Now look at us!  The colors, the smells, the sounds, and the tastes of just one country have made you my best friend, my most loyal companion, and my trusted sidekick.  We've eaten more food than we thought we'd enjoy, and gotten more lost navigating the public transportation system than our legs wanted to handle.  You pushed me to argue with the auto drivers, foolishly dance like an American at weddings, and speak as much broken kannada as I possibly can with strangers.  You convinced me to wake up at 5 am to catch a 6 o'clock bus so I could practice kalaripayattu at 7 am on an apartment rooftop with a five time national kalari winner and professional dancer.  Oh, and we've talked about our other teacher/dancer/dentist who's been nothing but another mother and inspiration to us.  And how many people from the U.S. can say they've read and enjoyed the Bhagavad Gita in India?

Let's not forget the mysterious skin condition that didn't even phase our plans of practicing dance or martial arts or going out to see more of India, regardless of the number of painful blisters.  [ More of that later. ]  Or the mosquitoes/foreign tick-looking bugs that find their way into your net-covered bed.  Or that any bus/auto/vendor that doesn't "have change" for your money will assume we're fine without receiving the difference.  Or how that bus will sometimes kick us out before arriving at our stop, forcing us to walk for an extra 45 minutes home.

We've come a very far way, love, and we still have a very long way to go.

I'm excited knowing that I have this next year to spend with You, and many years after that in whatever I choose to do.  We'll keep running around until we're tired, and then probably run a little more.  I love spending time with You, which is why I don't want to waste it checking Facebook or Skype or Youtube or Xanga or Twitter or [insert other social media website here] - essentially everything that I could be doing in the U.S.  I think of everything I can/could/would be doing back home [staying stuck], and I'm glad that I got away.  I'm the one that got away, who escaped the waiting place, who refused to run in circles, who left home to search for something bigger, who wanted to fly rather than walk.  I left because I knew I could.  I traveled to keep changing and growing because where I was at the end of college wasn't enough for me.

And You were always there.

In the month that I've traveled with You, I've realized a very important thing: I'm [as limiting as the word can describe the feeling] happy.  And regardless of how stressful You can be, I realize that I'm consistently happy.  Another thing I haven't been in a very, very long time.  I don't feel bigger or smaller, just like my skin fits better.  Not perfectly [still far from that], but better.  Thank You, Love You.


[The One That Got Away]

Friday, August 19, 2011

You Raksha My World

There are few times in one's life when someone so ground-shakingly inspiring comes along and whisks you away on her electric scooter through the streets of Jayanagar, Bangalore.  This someone, when you meet her, may arrive at the most inconvenient time, say two weeks before you [think you will] leave for another state, and promise classes in traditional dance choreographed for each god in the Hindu religion.  Sometimes, she may arrive at the most opportune moment, two weeks after you discover the reason you came to India [Sunadha] will not dance on the same continent for the next two months.

Today, our young hero meets this woman, Raksha [ meaning "protector" - ah, the symbolism ] at the most opportunely inconvenient time during his journey.

Raksha carries two business cards: one in plain white, displaying her contact information as a "Dental Surgeon" and the second in black and sepia pictures, displaying a woman elegantly dressed in traditional Bharata Natyam clothing, posed in a series of candid performance shots.  This second card bears the title "Artist & Consultant Dental Surgeon."

She NEVER had to make a choice between performing and becoming a doctor.

"As with most Indian parents, mine wanted me to become a doctor.  So I did.  But unlike most Indian parents, mine wanted me to keep my passions alive.  They wanted me to stay in touch with art; art shows how we live, how we feel, how we think, and everything that cannot really be accomplished by our jobs."

Her mom also sits in the living room, and hands our hero a cup of coffee.  "I wanted my daughter to be able to do everything."


Raksha has finished discussing the practice plans for the week with a group of women in their home.  Our hero sits next to her, drinking guava juice and smiling politely, debating about whether or not he should try speaking in Kannada.  Instead, he asks about who she usually teaches.

"I teach anyone who wants me to.  These women, who are almost fifty, have never danced before.  But they want to show some people who are coming from New Zealand at an upcoming festival, so I'll try to teach them something before that.  And there's this dance with sticks, janapada, that I was afraid to teach children because there's a lot of smacking - you're always worried they'll hit each other instead of sticks.  And with the handicapped students at Samarthanam?  They learn by feeling and touching.  You're always surprised at what people are capable of doing."


The couple are hurtling through JP Nagar on Raksha's scooter when a parade of drums, men covered in colored powder, and women smacking sticks together comes into view.  They slow down, and our hero relaxes his grip on Raksha's waist.

"You should meet my husband - he's a technology communications consultant, but he's also very much involved with community service.  In his free time, he organizes fund raisers here and there for non-profits, mostly ones for blood donations.  Actually, right now he's in New Orleans giving a talk to young adults about working for NGOs, because so many young people these days just don't think about giving back to the community as an occupation."

The parade clears, and Raksha speeds off.  Our hero is momentarily caught off guard and imagines what it would be like to fall off the back end and into traffic.  Raksha doesn't miss a beat.

"You can hold on to me now."


Just before dropping him off at the bus stop, Raksha asks our hero why he studied neuroscience AND dance at his school.  He explains how at first, his parents didn't really approve of the dancing thing; being a doctor brought in money, and with money came comfort and luxury they never had.  Which explains the neuroscience.  But with dancing, he continues, he knew what it meant to really be passionate about something.  You know, to lose yourself for a little bit while doing something that makes that fire burn.  If that makes any sense, of course.  Raksha removes the helmet and raises an eyebrow.

"Like I told you, when I was young, my parents wanted me to become a doctor.  And I did want to become a doctor.  But I was also lucky; I had parents who wanted me to pursue my passion.  My dad worked for Pfizer, so he knew what it was like to work from day to day and put bread on the table.  But he always said that if we didn't stay in touch with our passion, if we didn't do what we loved... Well, we'd become stagnant."

It is at that moment [of several] our hero realizes where this electric scooter, this woman, and this year will take him: very, very far from having to make a choice between profession and passion.


Monday, August 15, 2011

Cordially Invited

Two weeks back, I attended an Indian wedding.  A friend has asked to write about it and post pictures/videos that [supposedly] I took.  In a fit of frustration, I've spent the past two weeks thinking of how I'd present my experiences; anyone who's heard a story from me knows that I almost never tell a story in chronological order, and that there are normally interruptions and anecdotes within other anecdotes.  Additionally, weddings are [traditionally, depending on your culture, upbringing, and family's views] special events, and thus require special story-telling treatment.

In honor of the family that so graciously took me in for the weekend, I've decided to describe the wedding through the traditional poem that is thought to bring good luck to the bride who wears the following articles of clothing.


Something Old:  Getting Lost

I've spent a considerable amount of time this year wandering around a city or town, not for the sake of curiosity, but because I have a terrible sense of direction, lack a smartphone in which I can find my exact coordinates on earth, and am usually surrounded by police officers who don't speak a word of English except for "no."  So it makes sense that on August 6, I found myself running around the steps of ISKCON Temple during the wedding, as pictured below.

Imagine Laura Croft or Indiana Jones running trying to reach the top of the pyramid or the Temple of Doom before the Russian art collectors or Nazis do, all while trying to convince temple guards that they have good intentions and therefore should not blowdart them in the eye, and you'll have a rough idea of what the morning of the wedding was like.  Already two hours late from taking public transportation, I found myself in a terribly long line; security surrounding the temple consists of velvet ropes, x ray machines, and bodily pat-downs.  I had read online that buying an express ticket for 200 rupess | ~ 5 American dollars is well worth it, and looking at the flow of people going into the temple, I decided to give it a shot.

BAD IDEA.  The line wasn't that long, and all my "guide" for the express line did was cut in front of non-express-ticket-holders and stuff my backpack and shoes into rice bags and hand me plastic tokens that would allow me to reclaim those belongings [ me: "Excuse me, I'm just looking for the wedding - is this really all necessary?" guide: "Yes yes bags and shoes." ].  In reality, I probably saved myself ten minutes in line, which I will discuss later on.

I followed the long path to the top of the temple, made of an unbelievable number of stone stairs, turnstiles, steel stanchions and water flowing across the stone steps [ over which I jumped, and later found out was meant for washing feet before entering the sacred place - oops ].  I found myself between two things: a very golden statue of Radha-Krishna adorned with at least a wedding's worth of flowers, and a flock of heads touching the ground; the people I had seen in the non-express line were praying and I [ of course ] was standing in their way.

A temple monk led me out of the room and up and down several other flights of stairs, and right to a police officer.  The police officer shuffled me in the direction of the wedding, which was flights of stairs below the temple, and yards away from the entrance.  Oh.


Something New:  Attending an Indian wedding, duh.

I was expecting to burst in through the chapel doors two hours into the wedding and completely interrupt the ceremony, somewhat similar to Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate.  Actually, I don't think many people noticed me walk down the aisle, jump over several laps, and settle into a chair, drenched in sweat.  Turns out that most people go to an Indian wedding to congratulate the bride and groom AND catch up on years of gossip.  Although the ceremony took place on stage [flooded with enough flowers to make the Botanic Gardens look like a flower pot] and enough chairs were set up to house a small army, most of the wedding goers milled about - in front of the stage.  And talked.  And talked.  Laughed, cried a little, shouted, etc.  Wait, what was it that the bride and groom did?  What did they tie?  What did they do on opposite sides of that flag?  What did they just set on fire?  Don't even bother worrying about what they just said, or even hearing "I Do" - at one point, I found myself three feet from the stage and I still couldn't hear anything from the ceremony.  Even the bridesmaid equivalents were allowed to walk on and off stage to say hello and chat with the guests.  You could say the ceremony was relaxed; regardless of the amount of effort put into planning the event, you would almost consider it another dinner party.


Something Borrowed:  A spot on the bed with two women I just met at the wedding.

Dear Penthouse,

This was not that kind of night.

As a college graduate, I've been told to network as much as possible, and my school even hosted networking dinner/hors d'oeuvres events to practice it in the real world.  Although my given circumstances are a tad more exceptional than most, the times I've networked during this journey has never happened at a gathering created for the purpose of meeting future contacts.  In this instance, I was introduced to some other travelers - a wanderlust, as she called it - Linda and Laura who were more than welcoming to let me spend the weekend with them.  Oversimplifying everything, Linda is essentially Liz Gilbert from Eat, Pray, Love; she's touring the world studying yoga!  Meeting with the bride a while back, Liz was invited to the wedding.  Wanting to visit Liz during her year abroad, Laura met up with Liz only a few days before the wedding; they plan to travel around India for a while.

Here's where things get interesting [as if they haven't been]:  Liz is super good friends with a woman from Berlin who is currently in Kerala studying kalarippayattu, the same martial art/dance my host has been urging me to study.  If this wasn't a sign to go, I don't know what would be.  Liz has since put me in contact with her friend, and my plans to go to Kerala are about 90% set in stone.  Laura, on the other hand, is a corrective exercise specialist.  Within the first ten minutes of watching me walk, she was able to tell me that there was "something wrong" with my walk, and how to stretch and breathe correctly to keep my lower back young and supple.  Mmm.  We spent the afternoon sipping coffee and chai, eating desserts, and discussing coming-of-age novels [ah, the symbolism] and terrible horror movies we have/never want to watch.  The wedding reception at night consisted of [in Linda's words] "showing her what I got on da dance flo."

Being the ever so kind people they are, they insisted I spend the night with them in their bed [Naidu, my host: "YOU WHAT?"] instead of navigating public transportation at midnight.  If this is what networking is like...


Something Blue:  The color of the backpack, shoes, and camera I was forced to check in at the temple.

As mentioned before, I was supposed to take wonderful photos of the wedding and post them on le blog.  After trying to explain to my guide that I wanted to go to the wedding, not the temple ["Wedding.  Weh-ding.  WEDDING."] and that if it was okay to bring my camera [Me: "Okay if I bring camera?"  Guide: "Yes yes camera."  Guide proceeds to take my camera and put it into my bag.], I found myself walking through ISKCON with no recording device.  As I ran up the marble steps covered in bowls full of water and flower petals, an unsettling sensation flooded into my veins; flashes of light popped over and over again, and so did the clicking of shutters opening and closing.  Walking into the ceremony, I realized that the official photographers weren't the only ones with cameras; the guests had them as well.  Confused?  I was too - until I realized that none of these guests had gone through the security check.  They didn't have to.  There must have been another entrance to the temple especially meant for the wedding in which people were allowed to keep their belongings.

Case in point: no pictures of the ceremony.  Sorry, friends.


And a Silver Sixpence in Her Shoe:  I would if I could, except...

[The original Victorian poem had this line at the end, so why not include it?]

I lied before.  I knew something was wrong before I saw the camera flashes; the first thing I actually noticed was that everyone was wearing shoes.  Except me; I was barefoot.  Security had taken my bags and especially my footwear, remember?  I sheepishly and shamefully padded my way over to a seat, bewildered and clutching the plastic tokens I was given before.  This was where Linda first decided to come over and say hi.  After introducing myself as Shwetha's friend of one week, she asked, "Are you okay?  You look a little stressed."

"Yeah, it's been a long morning.  But I think something's wrong - they took my bag and my shoes but I don't think they were supposed to."

"Hm...  Yeah, that sounds like something that would happen to a tourist."

I spent the rest of the ceremony barefoot.  And lunch, too.  Since the wedding was between an Indian girl and an Irish man, the temple decided to have an American lunch room and an Indian lunch room; I'm still hazy on why the families were segregated as such, but I'm pretty sure it was to reduce culture shock.  I started walking towards the Indian side out of curiosity; I saw guests eating off of what looked like very large leaves.  Almost immediately I was shuffled to eating with the Americans.

I felt cheated by a country to which I had no allegiance.  How could they do this?  Stick me in a room with people who used knives and forks.  Please; I had been using my hand for seven days.  My hand shook while clutching the fork and as I carried out awkward conversation with the other western travelers around me.  Had I really been in India for this long?  Where I was completely incompetent with utensils and my social skills had taken a dive?

Linda and Laura answered that: they immediately started scooping rice with their hands and said, "If you're fine with it, just use your hands.  Those people don't like trying out new things, especially with how they eat. That's kinda boring, no?  I mean, you're in India.  Oh, and they are that weird to talk to, it's not you."


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Cost of Living

Some everyday expenditures and | their American equivalents.

Fresh coconut: 15 rupees | ~ 33 cents

Chicken Maharaj Mac Meal: 150 rupees | ~ 3 Dollars and a sense of guilt.

Streetside vendor plate of food: 20 rupees
45 cents and 20 minutes on the toilet the following morning.

Late night visitors at your bedside: Origami cage made of newspaper
Reassuring your blind roommate that it's not that big.

Phallic fried food: Free, when it's made by the children's home | Well, it cost someone something.

Running into camels for rent after wandering around, lost the morning after an Indian wedding:
A glare from the boy who offered you a ride and was refused | 

Sunday, August 7, 2011

A Video?

On the bus ride back from Sunadha's performance at Alliance University's One Year celebration - a professor danced on a brass plate, I'm just saying - Nilmara, one of Samarthanam's social workers/teachers/adult figures decides to learn more about what I'm doing.

Nilmara:  So what is it that you hope to study here?
Josh [oversimplifying for clarity]:  I want to study dance in different cultures and volunteer programs.
N:  So you are a dancer?
J:  Yeah, I guess you can-
N:  -And what type of dance do you study?
J: Oh, I don't think I have one sty-
N:  -Did you enjoy the dance program tonight?
J:  Yes!  It was very entertai-
N:  -And you saw our girls perform?
J:  Yes.  I actually videota-
N:  -Did you videotape it?
J:  Umm, yes I did vi-
N:  -And you watched the university students and professors perform as well?
J:  Yeah, I videotaped them als-
N:  -Did you get a video of the fatty?
J:  The what?
N:  The fatty.  The fatty.  You know, the girl dancing with the boy.
J:  Oh, the one dancing hip hop and bollywood?
N:  Yes, the fatty.
J:  Now, well, I wouldn't call her fat, real-
N:  -Yes, she needs to stop eating all those sweets.  She was kind of slow, no?
J:  I thought she kept up with the boy very-
N:  No.  Too slow.  Fatty.
J:  Oh, okay.
[ Awkard lull in the conversation.  Josh stares out the window. ]
N:  So what style of dance do you practice?
J:  More than one style, I guess it's a lot of karate, contemporary, hip hop-
N:  -So you can teach the children at Samarthanam?
J:  I guess I coul-
N:  -Western dance?
J:  What do you mean, Western dance?
N:  Anything!  Western!
J:  I guess I could teach the Macarena.
N:  The what?
J [Lying, pretending it's still the 90s]:  The Macarena.  Very popular back in America.
N:  Okay.  You teach the children.
J:  Yeah, sure.  It won't be too hard-
N:  -Not too hard!  I will also learn.  And I'm a little fatty too, no?
[ Second awkward lull in the conversation.  Josh stares at the floor. ]
N:  How old are you?
J:  I'm twenty two.
N:  Ah, see, I am twenty three.  We are compatible, no?
[ Premature third lull.  Josh fidgets.  ]

Ah, India.  The Promised Land of impatience, desserts, and honesty.


Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Oh, the People You'll Meet!

A list concerning [most of] the people I've met in Bangalore.  Know this: they're awesome.

[ Swetha ]:  Like a Journey song, I met this unbelievably wonderful woman on the plane ride from Frankfurt to Bangalore.  Not only was she patient with listening to me panic about living in India, she also gave me basic rules to live by, namely: 1)  Don't drink tap water, 2)  Don't eat food from the street vendors, and 3)  All will be perfectly fine.  Oh, and we discussed So You Think You Can Dance.  Without hesitation, she invited me to her sister's wedding and nearly all of her family's contact information in Bangalore, and even offered me a ride to a nearby hotel.  I owe her a ton.

[ Naidu ]:  My host.  He claims his first name is Sam, but most of his coworkers prefer to refer to him by his surname.  He's picked me up at a McDonald's after I wandered around Bangalore for three hours [ "I was literally shitting balls, not even bricks!  We were so worried about you." ], helped make my cell phone function [ "The first time you call the dealers, you have to be nice.  If you have to call a second time, you kick their ass." ], and even empathized with my insecurities [ "Good god, man.  You're not having a hard time, you've just been in India for 36 hours." ].  He's helped me find ways to dance in Kerala, a nearby state, and regaled me with stories of the different festivals he's seen in India; these stories have convince me to come back in the future.

[ Eddie ]:  My first roommate, from Taiwan, is here to officially volunteer with Samarthanam.  Taught me how to navigate the buses between JP Nagar and Bangalore, and helped get the cell phone.  He took me to his favorite restaurant, a nearby McDonald's, where I spent a considerable amount of time translating Katy Perry lyrics and explaining the difference between "books" and "box."  He probably suffers the most Josh Magno exposure in India so far.

[ Taffy ]:  The second roommate, from Zimbabwe, is here to study blind cricket, and eventually start his own company for the visually impaired who wish to participate in sports.  His name's short for Tafadzwa Nyamuzihwa, and he ironically doesn't know that there's a type of candy named after him.  Really active, very relaxed, and enjoys dancing in night clubs.  Oh yeah, he's blind.  He's used the phrase, "You know, I believe the sky's the limit" at least 50 times in the four days he's been here.  Intends on making his life into a movie or a book, meeting Oprah, and living in a world where the visually handicapped aren't considered any differently than the general populous.

[ Mary/Miriam ]:  Three times a day, seven days a week, this woman cooks for 50 people.  And it's delicious.  It's probably the most authentic South Indian food I'll ever eat, and I'm lucky to get it for freeeeeee!

[ The Children of Samarthanam School, HSR Layout ]:  They live where they learn.  There are about 80 under-privileged students here, anywhere from 3 to 15 years old.  Some are blind, partially blind, crippled, have learning disabilities, and even survived polio.  Most of them come from families that can't afford a "normal" education, and don't see their parents until the holidays ["Then again, it's always a holiday here, in India, the f*cking land of holidays," Naidu claims], and some of them don't know where their parents are.  Most are - relatively - perfectly healthy.  They eat on the floor, wear the same clothes for the week, and sleep on straw mats in the classroom.  Funny thing is, they all seem happy.  That much is clear after sitting with them in class for one day.

[ The Adults of Samarthanam Hostel, JP Nagar ]:  Think of them as, well, the adult versions of the kiddies at Samarthanam School.  These ladies and gentlemen all have a disability, whether it's a visual handicap, skin condition, facial irregularity [there's a 23 year old man who looks 40], or a crippled or missing limb.  Right now, a lot of them are going to college, and applying for "normal" jobs.  We all eat lunch on the roof of the hostel, and it's crazy watching them sing together before a meal and... gossiping?  Yup, sounds and looks like nonsensical schoolgirl chatter.

... I wonder who else this week will bring.

Performers from the Sunadha dance team get their make up on.