Friday, October 2, 2015

Brunch Bunch

After nearly two years we finally treated ourselves to one of, arguably, the world's finest brunches. It wasn't that we didn't deserve it all along, it's just that we prefer lazy mornings and casual south Indian breakfasts at Sangeetha. 

Off to the Leela Palace we went.

This week we bid adieu to my friend and photographic parter-in-crime Ed Malcik. I am a mess of stupid emotions that always accompany goodbyes for me. This never gets any easier and if it did it wouldn't be worth a hoot. Brunch was a group of acquaintances from the consulate and our dear friends Ed and Sue. Worthy of spit shining this Band of Hannas for brunch at a palace and springing for the champagne upgrade. 

There have been so many reasons I've neglected posting here more frequently in the past two years, probably the same ones that have kept the bounty of written words from the heart of my husband at bay, but now that things wind to a close I hope to open up the floodgates that have been holding my thoughts from becoming words and pages and pages of words will be set free.

In short, this place in complicated, it's pleasures as bountiful as it's pain. A thing that I'll always hold close to my heart in photos and the quiet glances with the people that bravely walked this path with me. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Two Months Too Long

There was an ant in my contact lenses.

They have invaded our bathroom now, eating toothpaste and drinking coconut oil, having a regular 'ole ant party.

After succumbing to what was most likely dengue a week or so ago, our nanny, Rita, got into an auto (tuk-tuk, not automobile) accident and lost her bridge. We're just glad it wasn't worse. Elise was shaken up, and as we sat in Papa John's waiting for carry-out pizza, she looked at me and repeated something I had already been thinking, "Two months too long."

Then, Papa John's got the order wrong.

We left in a huff, me warning the kids that when we get back to the States, we're not ordering Dominoes, Papa John's, or Pizza Hut, because in the United States those places are crap. We're only going to eat good pizza. I'm not a huge fan of delivery pizza to begin with. I'd match rather go out for pizza and pair it with a cold IPA. I think this preference goes back to early childhood visits to the Pizza Hut on North Lake Blvd and unlimited refills of Mt. Dew or Dr. Pepper out of Big Gulp-sized bright red plastic cups.

We stopped at Papa John's after an impromptu trip to Foreshore Estate Beach. The previous week, Elise bought us our own Ganesha clay-idol to place in our home as part of the ten-day Ganesh Chaturthi festival. At the end of the festival, on the tenth day, you are supposed to take the idol down to the beach and place it into the sea.

After much haranguing, Elise and I finally convinced all the kids to pile into the car on a Sunday afternoon so we could drive down to Elliot's Beach and place our idol in the Bay of Bengal. As we were driving to the beach, we passed an ox cart pulling one of the giant (nine feet tall!) Ganeshas to the shore.

Elise was apopletic, because according to her usually extremely reliable sources, the parade of the really gargantuan Ganeshas was supposed to happen next Sunday, not this Sunday. She practically grabbed the steering wheel from me and ordered me to make a hard left toward the beach, screaming, "This is not supposed to be happening now!"

As we got closer to the beach, the traffic increased, until we came upon an interminable queue of trucks and ox carts--each with both a giant Ganesha and a pile of celebrating Tamils in the back--lining up to hook their Ganesha up to the construction crane that would raise it into the air, swing it out over the waves, and drop it into the ocean.

We parked and joined the parade. Think Mardi Gras, Carnival, or New Year's Eve in Times Square. There were bands beating on drums, men dancing drunkenly in the streets, and flowers being thrown from the trucks. I picked up Clementine, and soon we were both drenched in sweat. Elise--camera out--started clicking away. Young Tamil men ran up to us, cajoling Elise for a photo. Though the scene was clearly crazy, and Elise said it was ten times more wild than it was last year, we never felt unsafe, despite the furor.

Everyone smiled broadly and wide. All the men in one van had been doused in day-glo purple powder, shimmering gold in another. We climbed over broken sidewalks to the beach, then--just as we saw the crane in the distance, a giant Ganesha swinging lazily high in the air--we decided to turn back, having had our fill. The kids were disappointed, but happy. If we hadn't left the house at all, instead surrendered to the heavy gravity of home, or left India two months earlier, we would have missed one of the biggest festivals of the year entirely.

Last night, after Peter got out of the shower, I played the same games with him and sang him the same silly songs ("Mas alguma coisa or mas ou menos a mesma coisa!") that I did when I used to pull him out of the bath in Brazil. This got me reminiscing about our time in Brazil. I told Clementine that she used to get up very early and I would bring her into the kitchen in her bouncie chair while I washed the dishes from the night before and made breakfast and school lunches for the boys. It made me miss that house, that kitchen. Though the more I thought about it, I started to wonder if maybe it wasn't the house or the kitchen that I missed so much. The kitchen was bright and hot. It didn't have air-conditioning, and on when we did eat dinner there--which was frequent--we would all sweat through the meal. It smelled like gas, like Sitti's old kitchen on Flamingo Road.

The more I thought about it, the more I wondered if I didn't just miss the routine, the familiarity of doing the same thing every morning, the ease of our life then, and I suspected I would miss the same thing about India, not anything specific about India, not our house or our kitchen in India, but the routine, the getting up in the morning, washing the dishes from the night before and making breakfast and school lunches for the boys the same way I did in Brazil. Certainly, there will be routine in our new house in Falls Church or Washington, D.C. or wherever we end up living when we are back in the States.

On my way to work this morning, Sundar and I were stopped at a red light a few cars back from the intersection. An old woman with white hair in a sari and carrying a plastic bag full of groceries was working her way slowly across the intersection. A young man on a motorcycle was also stopped at the light, and she limped up to him and said something into the side of his helmet. Of course, I don't know what she said, but the motorcycle rider jerked his head to the jump seat. She bent, flipped down the running step, and hopped on the back. When the light turned green, they sped away.

They clearly didn't know each other, and this shared mode of transportation was something that I just didn't know existed in Chennai. Everyday, I see hundreds of scooters with two men, but I guess it never occurred to me that they didn't know each other and that the one guy was just giving the other guy a lift.

Needless to say, seeing this young man on the motorcycle give the old woman a ride stuck with me. I imagine there will be a lot of things I see, hear and do in our last two months in Chennai that do and make me glad we didn't leave two months earlier.  

The Brotherhood

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Fun with Tropical Diseases

I admit it. Elise knows it. I know it. I'm the worst sick person in the world.

For most of almost two years, I swore off mosquito repellent. I can't stand the smell or how sticky it makes my skin feel. Elise would try to spray me down when she doused the kids, and I inevitably waved her away, mistakenly believing myself immune to mosquito-borne illnesses. Boy, was I wrong.

Though the blood work came back negative for dengue, the doctor seems convinced that's what it was. When I woke on the fourth morning with swollen hands and the beginning of a rash creeping up my arms, even Elise was convinced maybe there really was something wrong with me.

I was standing on pretty shaky emotional ground before I got sick. Now, after the illness has passed, I'm convinced our two-year assignment in India should have only been for one-year and ten months. I'm ready to go.

I know this is a terrible thing to admit--and I know there is a part of me that is confident that when Elise and I look back on our time in India, we will recall India with nothing but fondness, if only because of all India taught us about our own limits, human frailty, and about the importance of being humble as we travel the world. But I also know that I will recall India with fondness when I remember how much I children grew in India, and how India shaped part of the individuals they will become.

The other morning, Sam sat at the breakfast table, eating his bowl of Crispix. As we got near the bottom, I asked him if he wanted another. He didn't say anything. All he did was bobble his head at me. He was completely honest in his response, and I knew exactly what he was saying. It was beautiful and maddening at the same time.

I was sick in bed with a 102 fever for four days. On the fifth day, I had to fly to Bangalore for a work commitment. As I was waiting in line for security at the airport, I had to hold my arm up and keep not one....not two....but three men from cutting in front of me as I was waiting to walk through the metal detector. Part of me understands that in a country of over one billion people no one gets anywhere by waiting in a queue, but after almost two years of people honking at me all the time, I think I need a break from the constant press of humanity.

We have six weeks to go, and I wish it was tomorrow. I am already a ghost at work, merely a phantom wandering the halls. I remember experiencing the same thing at my office in Brazil, a feeling of being obsolete, written off...especially after my replacement arrived, but I don't remember it happening so early. I feel trapped. I want to be outside....all day long....without dying of heat exhaustion or battling a million mosquitoes....eating a turkey sandwich and peaches, drinking a very hoppy beer, looking into the sun filter through oak trees, watching the kids play on the playground equipment. I want to go to the Lion Man park and climb the trees and pretend like I am on the TV show American Ninja.

I remember when Elise and I first moved to Ballston, when we first left Florida to start this new adventure. I took Sam and an infant Peter to Quincy Park. We walked from our apartment building in the city; I pushed them in our first double-decker Phil 'n' Teds stroller through the busy city streets, and I remember the sun shining in my face and feeling such a sense of accomplishment. I had saved my family from financial destitution. I had a job, a good job, an exciting job, and I was proud and happy.

There is so much sadness, angst and stress associated with moving from India back to Northern Virginia. There are so many unknowns, but there can't be as many unknowns this time as there were then, when we didn't even know where we were going, before we knew what wonders awaited us in Brazil and then India.

And all I want is to be back there with the sun in my face again. We will go to Starbucks everyday, and I don't care if we go broke doing it. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015


I received an email today from Elise with the above photo attached. The subject of the email was, "Oops we might have self gifted." Elise was supposed to be shopping for a silver gift for Sundar for his 60th birthday. Before I opened the email, I expected to see a picture of a precious, sparkling jewel that caught Elise's eye and that she couldn't possibly live without.

I was right. :) 

Monday, August 10, 2015

Dungeons & Dragons: Lesson One

This past weekend, Elise demanded we have a "Star Wars"-free day. Quite frankly, I think she's just become sick and tired (and maybe experiencing a little bit of PTSD from all the ion cannon explosions going off around her) of all the laser fire and questions about Star Destroyers.

We acquiesced. Saturday morning, I told the kids we were soon going to start our Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Immediately, their ears perked.

When we leave India, we will be greeted with two months of vacation. The first month will be spent in South Florida, and my dad has already agreed to let us stay in his vacant beachfront condo on Jupiter Island. This will be amazing: not only is it on the beach, has a great pool.... it is FREE!!! But I did say it was vacant, right? No furniture. No beds (we'll sleep on air mattresses). No plates or silverware (we'll eat off paper plates and use plastic cutlery). No TV. No internet. Holy crap! What are we going to do with three kids in a vacant condo for four weeks?!?!

We'll need games. And lots of them. That's what gave me the idea of Dungeons & Dragons.

This weekend, I started explaining them the very basics of the game. Lesson 1: Character Creation. So everyone got out pads of paper, colored pencils and pens and started drawing their respective teams. Below, is Sam's drawing which is nothing short of amazing:

Yes, that is a knight (with a coat of arms). I also told him his team might need a thief to sneak into palaces or dunegons, so Sam drew the ninja, and a dwarf to be a metalsmith. There was also a wizard.

The best part of this drawing is Sam's hands. I don't know where he learned how to draw hands that well, but it wasn't from me. 


It has been over a month since Elise and I visited Varansi, the city regarded as the spiritual capital of India. Located on the banks of the Ganges River, it is a pilgrimage spot for many Hindus who come to bath in the Ganges holy waters or, as they near death, to be burned on one of the city's spiritual funeral pyres.

It has taken me a long time to write this account of our journey to Varanasi. Not only because I have been incredibly busy and short on time, but also because it has taken this long to process what we experienced there. Our trip to Varansi was a major turning point in our time in India. It was the beginning of the end of our time in India.

I had originally promised Elise a trip to the Maldives for her birthday. When she told me she, instead, wanted to go to Varanasi, I may have raised my eyebrows a bit, but I didn't question or second-guess her.

One reason we decided not to go to the Maldives was that it sounded really far. We would have to fly to Colombo, Sri Lanka and from there catch a flight to Male. That trip alone would have been five hours (On Sri Lankan Airlines which would have been a vacation in and of itself). Once arriving in Male, we would have had to take a seaplane to the remote island where we would spend two glorious, peaceful days the whole time wondering if something happened to the kids back home how the heck were we going to get off this island to get to them?

Though Varanasi sounded closer because it is in India, it didn't end up being a much shorter journey. From Chennai, we had to fly to Delhi and from Delhi catch a short flight to Varanasi (on Jet Airways, not quite as luxurious as Sri Lankan Airlines).

It amazes me sometimes how little it takes to feel like I'm on holiday. As Elise and I practically skipped through the Delhi airport, I remarked that I could fly back to Chennai right now and feel refreshed (in retrospect, maybe that is what we should have done). We stopped at Starbucks in the airport and I got a Venti Java Chip Frappacino. We have two Starbucks in Chennai, too, but they are both in malls on opposite sides of town and don't open until 11:00 a.m. so they might as well not even exist.

We frolicked, caffeinated beverages in hand, from moving walkway to moving walkway through the gargantuan Delhi airport. we had flown through Delhi before, but I don't remember it being nearly that big.

We arrived in Varanasi in the middle of the monsoon. Before we departed Chennai, Elise had been watching the weather and had seen that it was basically going to be pouring rain the entire time we were there. Who's bright idea was it to travel in India during monsoon season?? Anyway, we were guided to a waiting Toyota Innova, windshield wipers screeching reluctantly across the windshield, as we were blocked in. Every car at the airport had blocked every other car in in the airport, in an effort to get as close to the terminal and out of the rain. After some time, we were off and zipping through rural Uttar Pradesh.

As the landscape became more urban, the streets narrowed until--at one point--we stopped at the mouth of a river. Traffic halted as drivers and bicyclists surveyed the river ahead, pondering the wisdom in testing its waters. Many would not move forward. Rather they decided to execute u-turns that reminded me of the seen in Austin Powers where he tries to maneuver a golf cart out of an impossibly narrow corridor and only achieves through many, many forwards and reverses, to wedge the golf cart even more resolutely into the narrow space.

Finally, it was our turn. The Innova lurched forward and water lapped over the doors. We thought for a moment it might start spilling in, but we kept moving forward ahead of the shooshing whoosh of water. An auto puttered next to us, its exhaust pipe, completely underwater, like a snorkel sputtering bubbles.

We emerged from the narrow street/river, and drove through a square, feeling a wild sense of relief and adventure. At that point, I distinctly remember seeing a father, elbow on the counter of his tea stall, chin in hand, watching the rain. What ingrained the image in mind--even to this day--was that his oldest son was in the exact same pose next to him, and the boy's younger brother was in the exact same pose next to him, all three in a row, pressed together against the rain, no customers to be had.

Suddenly the car stopped, though it did not look as though we had reached anyplace that seemed like a destination. The driver got out and opened the door. Two teenage boys hopped into the rain and greeted us. They took our bags--smiling--and wrapped them in garbage sacks and held an umbrella over our heads though the rain had started to slow. We would go the rest of the way by foot.

We followed the two boys as the streets narrowed and we plunged into the winding passageways if inner Varanasi. Our hotel was riverside and only reachable by boat or foot. We leapt over rugged paths, dodging puddles and pile of cow manure. We followed the boys blindly, perhaps foolishly, through a veritable maze, passages no wider than an arm's-length across.

One of the boys was Raj, who we would come to know well, or as well as a person can know another in such a short amount of time. He would be our guide for the weekend when the guide we had arranged to meet us in the hotel lobby failed to show; a misunderstanding between myself and the tour company through which we had worked.

We finally arrived at the hotel around two in the afternoon, completely famished. Neither of us had eaten anything all day, after leaving the house in the early morning. There was a restaurant in the hotel, but disappointingly, the food (nor the service, truth be told) was commensurate with how nice the hotel was. We ate mostly french fries for lunch and a crappy tomato sandwich in a dreary restaurant on the rooftop, watching rain run in thin rivulets down the window panes outside.

When we got back to the room, we may have napped; I don't recall now, but later in the afternoon we went out exploring. We had arranged for Raj to loop back and pick us up at five. I'm not sure if he ever left; we had a view of the river from our room and he waited with his friends at one of the ghats, passing the afternoon.

He didn't strike me as a typical boy eager for a hand-out or to glom on to a foreigner flush with cash. He spoke English well, had an iPhone, and was familiar with American movies....recent ones, too. He was passionate about his home town and knowledgeable. At the end of our stay he asked Elise if she was on WhatsApp, a social networking site. She's not, but they're friends on Facebook now.

We set out to see the sites, walking along the river. I won't try to describe the scene. Pictures speak a thousand words, and Elise's ten thousand. Raj immediately took us to one of the ceremonial pyres. Amidst the swirling chaos, I glimpsed a body in shroud this as gauze. Dressed in yellow, I saw his or her brown skin and bone-white hair.

Elise pulled up short of the funereal pyres. I don't think either of us had properly steeled ourselves for this, much less to be thrown in so soon after our arrival. We felt like it was something we had to build up towards. You don't go to Disney and immediately hop in line for Space Mountain. Or maybe you do. I don't know.

When we got back to the room, Elise was visibly shell-shocked. I think we were both feeling like we'd maybe gotten in over our heads a little bit. We showered and decompressed with something mindless on television, American Idol, and I admitted to Elise that maybe I felt bad leaving the kids behind. Obviously, we could not have brought them to Varanasi with us (a city where people go to die isn't exactly Legoland), but I did feel as though something was missing. Maybe it was a mistake to share this with Elise at that time, feeling as vulnerable as she was. She wanted to go home. I never feel as though the children are a burden, but it goes without saying that it is nice to get away and it's something that we have been able to do only a handful of times before: to Rio, to Mumbai, on a wonderful trip to Kerala, and it is an opportunity that living with three small children rarely affords; we are not able to make such trips in the States. To spend a weekend alone, focusing solely on one another is vital to a healthy marriage.

I cherish date nights and weekends alone, but maybe I was feeling something different this time around. Maybe I didn't feel like I was leaving behind three loud, high-maintenance kids. I was leaving behind my three loud, high-maintenance kids, and as loud and high-maintenance as they are, they are not little babies anymore. They are small people who you care about and when you go away you miss them, you think about them, most everything you see or do relates back to them and you wish they could see and do the same things you're seeing and doing. It's hard to describe (obviously), but this time away from them felt distinctly different than previous times. It wasn't the huge relief I was expecting it to be. It was neither worrisome nor troublesome, but it was a sensation than I wasn't used to experiencing, and come to find out Elise felt much the same way.

Before we'd come upstairs, we'd asked the concierge to deliver Kingfishers and a bucket of ice to our room, and those arrived soon after we snapped the TV on. We ordered room service, and eventually called it a night.

By the next morning, we were both feeling better, and abandoned thoughts of fleeing Varanasi presumptively. The rain clouds miraculously parted, and the sun came out, and Elise and I (guided by Raj) took the streets of Varansasi, Elise clicking away madly. It was hot, and at one point we pulled in to a small two table restaurant for cold water and bottles of Mountain Dew. We spend much of the next day and a half that way, wandering up and down the ghats.

Mid-day, we escaped the heat and napped. That evening, we climbed into a boat and were rowed down the Ganges at sunset, thunderclouds sparking in the distance. We joined a giant flotilla (part of the aforementioned pilgrimage) to take part in viewing a Hindi fire dance taking place on shore.

The trip to Varanasi was intense. It was intensely beautiful and intensely emotional. The afternoon of the second day, Raj guided us through a winding snafu of garbage-filled, shit-lined streets with no beauty or purpose. The walls swirled around me as I became overwhelmed. Later that same afternoon, we emerged within the courtyard an apartment building with lines of multi-hued clothing criss-crossing overhead. There, we bought me an Afghan-type scarf to wear this winter in Washington, D.C.

The month since we have returned from Varanasi has not been fun. Sometimes, India is a hard place to live, and as much as we loved living here, we understand it is time to go home.