I like myself better when I travel

ImageI like myself better when I am living in a different country. ButImage I don’t think it’s due to some neurochemical reaction to foreign soil. Rather, it has to do with how I approach life when I travel. I thought that by dissecting it, perhaps I could import some of these attitudes. I can think of no finer souvenir.

I accept minor setbacks:  Somehow when I am traveling I find it easier to understand that the journey is the destination. When I am abroad, minor (and major) inconveniences of life become hilarious- part of the experience! But when I am home, they grate on me and try my patience. I want to remember that patience and a go with the flow attitude should not be exclusive to international travel. And while a delayed train from Penn Station isn’t as exotic as a lost rickshaw driver or a cow-related roadblock, it would behoove me to remember that life is not about rushing from point A to point B.

I am more accepting: I am also more inclined to be accepting of others when I Imageam a guest in another culture. Certainly I don’t believe in cultural relativism when it comes to “big” things like child abuse or domestic violence. But for the small tensions of daily life I endeavor to understand others instead of judge them. But a quote I once read said something wise: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” (attributed, most thing wrongly, to Plato). And that is no less Imagetrue of what I consider boorish behavior in the US.

I am kind to myself: I am also more accepting of myself. I don’t know why this is. Perhaps because travel brings out what I feel is my best self? Or maybe I am too involved with immersion to be preoccupied with the narcissism of daily life? Or conversely, I am more introspective? ImageImageWhatever the reason, I find that negative self talk is minimized when I get off of the plane.

I am a “yes woman.” I am more open to new experiences. I am the consummate “yes woman” when I travel. Eat this homemade food? Read this book? Wear this dress? Meet your friend? Dance in front of a crowd? Try to cook this? Explore an unknown street? Have a cup of tea with you/your brother/cousin/wife/cow? Don’t mind if I do. This led to me playing an elaborate game of tag with a huge extended family outside a Jain temple, eating as the guest of honor with a Gujarati group at an ashram, dancing in front of a large group of Indian women during a holiday celebration and countless other memories.

I would do well to import this adventurous spirit and open myself up to new things even if they make me anxious.

I push myself. Similarly, this “yes” attitude leads to a commitment to squeeze the marrow out of my experience. I push myself to plan weekend trips, savor moments, take photographs, make new friends. Something about the experience being finite leads increased motivation to Imagemake the most of my time. But my time in any place is finite and there is no reason not to expend the same energy and create memories on US soil.


iLost it: My encounter with the Nepali police

ImageiPhone: gone. It was bound to happen I suppose. I decided on Tuesday that I was going to fly to Nepal on Wednesday and my spontaneity was rewarded with an unforgettable trip. But on my first (and only) day in Kathmandu (Nepal’s crowded main city) I was “liberated” of my brand new iPhone that I had saved up for and bought as a treat for getting my fellowship.  I was in Durbar Sq at the time when the phone “fell” out of my purse (I stupidly had it in an outside-ish pocket). It was Janmashtami, a celebration of Krishna’s birthday and the place was packed even though it was 8pm. The tourist police station was closed and I was directed to the district police station.

It was like a horrible Monty Python skit: I truly couldn’t communicate that I wanted to file a police report, nor could I really explain that I thought my phone was stolen: Image“snatched, grabbed, pickpocket, thief, they take, bad man,” I tried in vain. Mostly they filed in, uniform-less and just stared at me. “What country are you from?” (standard conversation opener), each one asked in term. And nodding, they each suggested I find the “tourist police.” I tried to explain that the tourist police were closed and I practically begged to file a report- a concept that seemed largely lost on everyone I talked to. What’s more, no one seemed to be in charge and without badges I had no idea who to target my inquiry to. And every five minutes a new guy would come in, gape at me and finally sidle over…”what country are you from?” I was at my wits end.

The next round of questioning involved asking about the serial Imagenumber of the phone. Everyone seemed astonished that I couldn’t simply rattle it off the top of my head.

Finally someone took pity on me and somehow persuaded 2 tourist police officers to come from the main station. They showed up, also uniform-less, and proceeded to take my “report” on a piece of computer paper. Then they ushered me into a rusty old van. “This is how I die,” I thought to myself. But no, they took me to a police station and had me fill out a slightly more official piece of computer paper which I’m pretty sure was basically a tourism survey. Or maybe an entry form for Publisher’s Clearinghouse. Or a deed to a new motorcycle. Who could tell? “OK what is the serial number of the phone?” asked one of the officers. I explained that I didn’t have it memorized but could probably find it in my electronic receipt. But no…power was out in the station and there was no internet.  O-K. By this time it was late and I was exhausted. I filled out the form as best I could, answered which country I was from for a few stragglers and allowed the head officer to help me find a taxi who, of course, couldn’t find my hostel and basically dropped me off somewhere random. Luckily a kind shopkeeper walked me there and I went to sleep a former iPhone owner.

I am not proud to say how much this incident upset me. I really did love that phone. It was my first iPhone and I had spent a long time deliberating whether to splurge and purchase it. It had allowed me to easily keep in contact with friends and family and share my new passion for photojournalism. I know that I can’t afford a new one at this time and I felt like an idiot for letting it get stolen. But I also hated myself for being upset over a stupid hunk of metal and plastic. There were literally children begging in the streets and I was sad over my iPhone. Pathetic. I was finally able to talk myself out of my funk. I decided to consider it an offering to the travel gods- a reminder that my possessions are really and truly unimportant  when compared to this fantastic experience. I’d sell my iPhone a thousand times over for these past few months. iPhone or not I know that I am the luckiest girl in the world. Plus, these things have a way of working out. And my birthday is in 3 days, after all. Maybe the iPhone fairy will take pity on me  😉

Below are some photos of Durbar square before the iPhone debacle:

Photoshoot in Old Delhi

IMG_6131 IMG_6166 IMG_6172   IMG_6209 IMG_6213  IMG_6178 IMG_6197I was out and about in the winding lanes Old Delhi doing a photo shoot for the WHO- trying to get pictures for lead and chemical safety at a wholesale market which sells any type of chemical you can think of (although, to be fair, I can’t think of that many chemicals- chemistry was  my weakest pre-medical subject). It was a fascinating visit to a this Muslim part of town that doesn’t get too many foreigners because chemical market is not usually in the Lonely Planet guidebook.

From a professional standpoint, however, it was pretty difficult. No one wanted me to take their photo. This was strange because people in India have been amazingly generous about allowing me to take their photos, especially when asked in my special brand of Hindi/English/charades (Hinglrades?). In fact, some people are downright insistent that I take their photo even when I don’t especially need or want to. I will almost always oblige (yay digitial cameras) unless it’s a particularly insistent group of young men because you never engage with a manpack.

For example, earlier I was trying to get a shot of an old man drinking from a watertap. But by the time I had communicated my request he’d stopped drinking. A young man nearby saw me ask and eagerly jumped in to pose for me. Errrr, OK. Seeing this, the old man subsequently pushed him out of the way and started to drink again, even moving his hand to give me a better angle. Another young man attempted to elbow his way into the scene for a moment of glory but by that time I’d thanked everyone involved and moved on. Phew.

Back to the chemical market: no one wanted their photo. My companion from a local chemical safety NGO asked why and it had something to do with terrorism investigations and the police (like they thought we were the government shaking them down I guess). Not entirely sure but I managed to snap a few shots that should do the trick.

The funniest moment for the daywas when we were grabbing a bite to eat and I was washing my hands at the sink in the middle of the dining area (common here). I reached for what I thought was a bottle of soap until I heard some kerfuffle, and my Indian companion came hustling over: “no, no! That is toxic floor cleaner!” I looked over and the cooks were shaking their heads like “stupid foreigners.” To be fair, it was in a bottle right next to the sink and it looked just like liquid handsoap. It was like a sanitation boobytrap.Is there any end to the mistakes I can make in India? Love it anyway.

Playing Dress Up: Sari I’m not sorry


I work in an office with 3 other women. Every morning they come in wearing the most beautiful kurtis and saris and we all oooh and ahhh accordingly. I have taken to calling it the “morning runway.” I, of course, mostly end up looking like a hobo. One of the administrative assistants, Madhu-ji (ji is a term of respect), was reImagetiring after more than 20 years of service. A retirement party was held in the office followed by a party near her home. One of my other coworkers brought in a sari for me to wear and they all dressed me up like Barbie with a matching eyeliner and bindi (dot between the eyes that historically meant that you were married but is currently a fashion statement also embraced by younger, unmarried Indian women). Let me tell you, a sari is a difficult thing to wear- it consists of a very short sleeved blouse and then a single piece of fabric wrapped, pleated and pinned in a regionally specific manner.

I, of course, loved it. In a ground-breaking first, I was told that people were talking about how “elegantly” I carried the sari (!) especially combined with holding my coworker’s adorable 6 month old. I perhaps broke that spell when I hiked up the sari to try to go down the stairs- a move that earned me a look of shock “no NO! Don’t do that!” You would have thought that I had try to disrobe completely. In fact, this particular misdeed was recounted to others who laughed at how utterly gauche this was. Quelle horreur!

The evening’s retirement party was also great. Half the fun was getting therae- I got to hold the baby the entire car ride (car seats aren’t a thing here as far as I an tell). When we finally arrived at the Punjabi Association after an hour of traffic there were delicious trays of food, fabulous Bollywood music and I managed to keep the baby in my arms the whole time. We even hit the dance floor together. I think that managing a sari, a baby and Indian dance moves is amongst my most coordinated moments (which are few and far between).

Independence Day!

On this day, in 1947, India achieved independence from Britain after a remarkably non-violent movement led by thought leaders including, famously, Gandhi.

We had a small celebration at work on Tuesday with traditional songs and yummy Indian snacks. In fact, the South East Asian Regional WHO office celebrates national days for all 11 member states because there are staff members for all countries. But our office is in New Delhi and thus there are lots of Indian staff members so today is particularly special and we all get the day off.

And me? I celebrated Indian independence at the American embassy (hah!). This was mostly because there was a security risk throughout most of New Delhi based on terror threats. Therefore, I tried to avoid any crowded areas such as the Red Fort where the prime minister hoists the flag and gives a speech. Instead, I enjoyed my day swimming in the pool with my boss 8 year old and eating tricolored Indian pastries. Of note: I am an equal opportunity celebrator, I celebrated American Independence Day by wearing red, white and blue and eating watermelon with a fellow American colleague- a tradition that baffled our Japanese friend.

But today I was feeling quite patriotic about India. It was one of those days where you just feel happy to be alive. And boy do I have a lot to be thankful about. Everything was cooperating: the autorickshaw drivers agreed to use the meter, the weather was comparatively mild, I got to practice some Hindi, the food was good, and I got to be part of a great family for the day. Tomorrow off to the sacred Ganges for the weekend. I’m already feeling sad about the fact that I only have a mere couple weeks left here.

Happy Independence Day, India!

Down for the count

ImageAs I alluded to in a previous post, a few weeks ago I fell prey to the plague. And by plague I mean a mild, self-limited illness. I won’t bore (or disgust) you with the details of my exact symptoms and their precise timing but suffice it to say that my intermittent fever to 103 had me worried that I might have malaria.

Of course, this wasn’t my Imagefirst thought. I had been engaging in some unscrupulous food practices: street food, unpasteurized buffalo milk, fresh veggies likely washed in not super clean water…pick your poison. So I had every reason for a bout of the famed Delhi-belly with only myself to thank.

But my second thought was that I have the dreaded MalariaDengueFeverSyphilisEbolaPlague. ImageWhatever it was, I felt awful enough to miss work (and as a medical student we are basically trained not to miss work unless we can also produce a death certificate) so I heeded my coworkers and went to the doctor here even though I knew I didn’t have any exciting physical exam findings. She listened to my lungs, pressed on my belly and raised her eyes disapprovingly when I mentioned my culinary exploits. “An Imageadventurous one, huh?” Alas, her eyes said what my conscious was already screaming: you stupid foreigner- a few long stints in Africa do not a steel stomach make.

I went to get my blood drawn near my house instead of at the fancy-shmancy medical center. For less than $3 they would come to my house to do it (perks of living in India) but the lab is literally Imagearound the corner from me so I managed to make it there. Now I am super paranoid and had brought my own needles to India (yes, you read that correctly). But in my weakened state I had left them at home. So, with visions of Hep C swimming in my brain, I became The. Worst. Patient. Ever. I demanded to see the technician open the needle, asked her to Purell, declined their communal spray bottle of (presumably) alcohol to cleanse my skin (I Purelled my own arm) and generally was a pain in her butt.

The cost for all my paranoia? 1,300 rupees for physician consultation ($21.50), another 1,300 for all my lab work including full blood count with cell differential (measures what type of cells are in your blood), blood cultures, sedimentation rate (measures inflammation) and peripheral blood smear (to look for malaria).Image

And the results? Well that is PHI: protected health information. Just kidding! I was, unsurprisingly, stone-cold normal with a slightly elevated sedimentation rate that means a big fat nothing.

Did I learn from my mishaps? That would be too intelligent. Two days after I recovered I was at a huge Sikh temple eating a free communal meal with hundreds of people. But when my coworkers mentioned family members with similar symptoms I deduced the true origin of my downfall- unrelated to my food-related stupidity. Bon appetit everyone!

Note for my grandmother: I am obviously exaggerating a bit here. I am far from cavalier about my food intake: I use a Imagesteripen to sterilize water or drink bottled water and avoid street food unless things are cooked in high heat. But, as I stated in my Baroda post- there are certain calculated risks I’m willing to take: you don’t refuse fresh Buffalo milk! And as you can see- I’m alive and well.

Travels in Thailand: Part 2

I was a bit temple-d out from my forays into India’s many ruins, temples, tombs, mosques etc. My brain can only take in so much amazing historical architecture- it has been addled by the steady diet of E! Reality Shows that I feed it (just kidding future residency directors- I exclusively read the New England Journal and thick, onerous medical textbooks for fun). Anyway, long story long, I was absolutely floored by the amazing temples in Bangkok. They are truly unlike anything I’d ever seen.

I took the public riverboat bus or walked between temples and along the way ate some amazing food, walked through a relic market and did some solid people watching. I especially enjoyed climbing the super steep steps of Wat Arun (although the way down left me a sweaty palmed mess- 

Imagemy mom would have hated it!) and grabbing a quiet moment in the queen’s textile museum at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.

I tried to be very helpful to my fellow tourists, always offering to snap a picture of the whole family. I even took a picture for some young monks who looked about 12 but were actually 16. The best was when I took a picture of a British family and when I walked away they were saying “so polite, Americans. That’s their way I suppose.” Umm, has our national image changed? I almost ran back to eat a big Mac in
one bite while firing a gun I bought at Walmart just to make sure he knew how we ‘muricans really are. ‘Murica!

I even splurged $8 for 30 min of traditional thai massage at the famous Wat Po massage school located in the temple complex. My blissful massage experience was somewhat sullied by the small British boy (around 4 years old) getting a massage next to me who was, I guess, bored with his massage and kicking the table pretty hard. Now my patience for the wee race is almost endless (I have been a nanny for several families) but I finally had to open my eyes and fix him with my best Mary Poppins look and ask him to “please stop kicking, bud. Just close your eyes and take a nap. Or squeeze your hands really tight and say the ABCs in your head.” And my babysitter magic worked like charm…not. I finally just tattled on him to his older cousin who threatened to tell his “mummy.” (tattletale: 1; tiny British tot: 0).

Please note that you can click on any of these pictures to make it bigger or view as a slideshow.