Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Year Ago

"A Year Ago" says the subject line of the email in my inbox. "A Year ago" writes Kevin, musing about meeting Brad in the ER and watching the Eagles take on the Redskins. He emails us now as Donovan McNabb takes the field in a maroon jersey. Huh.

It was a year ago that we went to see Brad down at the University of Pennsylvania the day after Thanksgiving, a year ago when I walked into his room in the ICU, the place I would return to less than a month later, where I would become a midwife to the afterlife. The swelling filled out his face, the edema filling in some of the hollows carved by the MD, in many ways a mirage of healthiness from far away, one that faded when you approached the bed and saw the shimmer in the sand wasn't water after all. A signpost in the desert: This journey is almost over.

Kelly moved around his bedside so easily. I watched her soothe and rub lotion into his feet and thought, "She is going to make an excellent nurse." Nearby, her husband held her purse where it couldn't touch the ground, away from germs that could come between her and the NCLX.

Every now and then he'd wake. I'd feel his gaze and stir from my thoughts. I know he can see the worry and fear on my face, but when I catch him watching, all I could do is smile back.

I didn't hear from him on his birthday. No light bulbs blown, not one note of a Tom Petty song. No internal hug, no child pointing to an empty sand dune and seeing his Uncle Brad. There *was* a Catholic Church full of sunlight that day, a sunbeam on October 16th perfectly timed with the Prayer of the Faithful in memory of those who'd recently died. I held my telephoto lens steady on a groom who'd lost his grandfather weeks before, but like a special dedication going out on the radio with another couple's song, I knew without a doubt- this sign was not for me.

Two weeks later, I'd finally squeezed in a family portrait session I'd had to reschedule in the dark days After. It took the family 11 months to rebook. We met at a mansion and then drove in tandem to a nearby park. "Did you know," my client said, "one of your brake lights blew?" Nope. But thanks for telling me. I smile, seemingly to myself. Hey, you. Missed you on your birthday.

One week later, in India, a firework will explode WAY too close to the ground and mourners will gather to cremate their dead in the lap of the Mother Ganges. Death fills my nostrils and dogs prowl the burning ghat, and Death, my old friend, works across the river speaking another language entirely. I waive tentatively from my wooden boat, but Death isn't expecting to see me here. I set my candle afloat and Death carries on with his work in without sparing me a second glance.


Nephew-Child: "Aunt Angie, I wanna tell you a joke."
I want to hear a joke, A.
"I put a cheesbuhguh, anna piece a' cheese and a television IN MY MOUTH." Hysterical laughter ensues.
That's a pretty good joke, buddy.

I make hot chocolate, build a fire in the fireplace and since we had to move the couch into the garage to make room for everyone around the table, improvise a "cuddle nest" substitute. Aiden and his mom and I snuggle with Joel and Ollie and my own mom on the living room floor. "If I lay down I won't get up," she says. "Good. That's the idea, Mom" I say, and I toss her an afghan.

Aiden gets to stay up past his bedtime to watch "Miracle on 34th Street," and as tears fill his eyes after he burns his tongue on the hot chocolate, I hand him the nearest cold drink I can find: an open can of Coke. He gulps it down, hardly believing his luck, and moments later as we spray whipped cream directly into our mouths, it hits me- I am simultaneously the best auntie in the world, and the worst friend on the planet.

I say as much, but Kristen shrugs. "We've done this before," and sprays the whipped cream into her own mouth. I promise to wear him out, at least. She notes the time and reminds me that she plans to hit Toys R Us at 6 a.m. for the Black Friday sale, so honestly, if Aiden sleeps in, I'm doing Adam a favor. I balance my sweet boy on my shins and gently take his hands, "flying" him carefully back to Disney World, the beach and wherever else he wants to go. He giggles non-stop and when he grins he looks so much like his uncle, hovering just above me. All I can do is smile back.

I'm thankful for each and every one of you, my readers and family and friends, in this world and the next. Thanks for the visit.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Hey. Remember this post
where aallllll the way down at the end of the entry I talked about going to the Sufi temple for the musical gathering that takes every Thursday evening before the Muslim holy day? (Sufism is the mystical form of Islam where music is seen as a way to worship and connect with God on a personal, almost sensual level. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban hate these people. A lot. )

Here are the videos and stills to illustrate that. The still photos are here.

Schizophrenic Snake Curse Lady and gawking children come in at the very end, and yes, that's the music that I could actually hear playing in the bazaar in the opening clip. I'm telling you, if you squint your eyes and pretend that the light bulbs are lanterns, it really feels like it could be 2,000 years ago. Unbelievable. Also, the woman singing the call to evening prayer (about 15 seconds before the end) was haunting and lovely.

Also haunting and lovely is the thing with the red threads. When you go to Nizamuddin, you're expected to take some sort of offering. There are hundreds of candle and flower garland stands for you to purchase your offering in case you "forgot"- how handy.

(I'm being a little bit cynical about this, because the constant requests for money all around you everywhere: to hand you your shoes- like a guy wants 50 rupees to bend down and hand you your own sneakers from a big pile in front of you when you come back out of a temple- to buy a candle to float in the river, to go on a rickshaw, to go on a boat, to buy a postcards and cell phone chargers, to give to a street child who will be beaten by mafia-style street thugs if he doesn't come back with enough money but who will be permanently maimed so he remains a beggar his whole life if he comes back with a lot. It's heart-breaking and annoying and guilt-inducing all at once! Yay! Conflict-y!)

Anyway, making the flower offering at Nizamuddin and giving money for someone to watch my shoes that ultimately went to a charity providing food for the soup kitchen there was easily the best "strongly suggested donation" experience I had in India.

When you walk up to the sepulchre, you're supposed to make a wish and tie a red string in the marble honeycomb surrounding the tomb. It is said that when your red string is untied, your wish comes true. If it DOES come true, you're obliged to return and remove a string as soon as you can, thus enabling someone else's dream to come true. I loved it and kind of want to start my own red string wishing.... thing-y... somewhere.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Ah, screw it... photos at last!

Here are my photos from the Taj Mahal and nearby Agra Fort... There's so much catching up to be done in so many places, so I'm pretty much camping on the couch until Joel and I leave for Lancaster for Thanksgiving Wednesday night. My body has been telling me in more ways than one that I MUST TAKE CARE OF MYSELF. So we're catchin' up here, on just about everything. Have some pretty pictures of India. I'm still workin' through the... well, the everything else. Enjoy!

Thursday, November 18, 2010


Two and half years ago, Joel and I set a wedding date, put down a deposit and felt all self-congratulatory at our planning prowess until..... (cue Psycho shower scene music) I realized that College Roommate Jo couldn't be there because she'd still be finishing her semester in grad school. So we cried and fought and scrambled and cried and tried to get another couple to switch dates and then- ding!- everything fell together with fairydust and sweetness and light. Yeah, in the end we changed our wedding date for a friend, because she was just that important.

One blog comment, two rapid-fire phone calls from India at $4.99/minute, one silent bout of tears on a train through Uttar Pradesh and a reported SIX newly engaged discussion/fights of, "Should we? No. Well, wait...what if?" and in the end, two very good friends ended up changing their wedding date. It suited them better, moved their event to the venue of their dreams and ultimately got another engaged couple out of a jam as well, but still... They did all of that, in no small part, for me.

What goes around comes around, and in my case, it's a heaping dose of humbling gratitude and friendships worth calling halfway around the world for at midnight, between another groom in a turban arriving in a horse-drawn carriage followed by a generator truck nearly side-swiped by a moped avoiding a cow.

In case I forget to say it another hundred times: Thanks, you guys.

Still Processing

India is a constant paradox. I'm still trying to understand a lot of what I saw, photographed and experienced. I'm also swamped with deadlines and all the mundane necessities that go into running the business. Thanks for your patience. Mwah!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

I'm home! And sick!

Quick update: I'm home from India, and I'm sick. Boo. I was keeping illness at bay successfully the entire time I was away, and I was doing really well until the final flight from Heathrow to Newark. I have a cold, no big deal, but then I was stuffed up on a plane and my sinuses are not happy about all that.

I'm happy to be home, though it feels surreal to be back where everything is the same. Everything I saw, and did, and experienced has changed me, and I almost have reverse culture shot. Food tastes bland, colors seem dull. Of course, my nose is stuffy so I can't smell, which makes food taste bland, too. So more sleep and Sudafed Sinus for me. My phone is dead; my charger still packed, and my ability to talk about everything with Joel is faltering. I'm trying. Meanwhile, here's something I wrote on the plane shortly before starting sneezing...


That's how much battery power I have left on my laptop. It's an interesting writing challenge. How much can I tell you about India before my laptop dies? I got on the plane with best of intentions. A fully charged laptop. Work to be done. Stories to tell. Photos to edit. But Aristu, my friend Hema's 3-year-old, was his sunny chatty self. He is bright, chatty, polite and inexhaustable. You add in a non-stop dose of attention from his grandparents, great-uncle, doting cousins and a cadre of India house servants who ADORED him nonstop... Aristu was smothered with love given from the purest place in everyone's hearts.

You multiply the cacophony of a traditional intergenerational family home by the logistic nightmares of a five-day wedding for 400 guests elevated to the power of Diwali in a culture where children are hand-fed until about age 5 and factor in jet lag and breaks in routine and by the time Aristu reacted to his 3-year-old cousin Tilli stealing his stuffed crocodile by biting her (not hard enough to break the skin), I was completely and totally not surprised.

For the record, I bit P@trick M!iller when I was 3 after he stole a block from me at playgroup. Last I heard, he was a drug addict. I'm not saying the two events were related. Just FYI.

The bottom line is that by the time Aristu barfed in the cab just outside the airport in Dehli, his parents both really, really needed a break. This whole international travel thing? Is a whole new ball game with a child. To use the language I've been carefully censoring for two weeks: Hol-y Shit.

Aristu really, really, really- and I mean REALLY needed to watch Ice Age 3, and my laptop was the only place that was going to happen. I handed his mom my headset, an eye mask, a travel pillow and said, "I've got this. You're on a break. We'll talk somewhere over Western Europe." She laid her head on her husband's shoulder in a row of their very own, and Aristu was my buddy for the first 8-hour leg of our 18-hour journey home.

Two showings of Marmaduke, half of Ice Age 3, a 90-minute nap, one mad dash to a ladies room while the rest of his family still going through security, one round of "Let's make a Deal: The Picky Eater Pre-Schooler Version," four imaginary shark sightings, a failed attempt at a puppet show sponsored by the Virgin Atlantic Standard Issue Red Airplane Sock Repertory Company, three potty breaks, and a modified English/Urdu semi-game of Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes with a little Sikh kid later, I didn't even mind when he puked in my lap during the landing, somewhere at around 71 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.

There is a time when this would have set off my gag reflex without mercy, but not anymore. That is how I now know I will be able to change diapers without puking on Joel's and my hypothetical future child. If you've every heard the horrible, involuntary retching that I'm capable of, then you know how big of a milestone this is.

For the record, there was also a stunning solo performance of "The Wheels on the Bus" that went on for an unprecedented 13 verses, including the improvistional and ground-breaking debut of "The Nani on the bus says, 'Eat some ghee'" with a "'Tilli on the bus says, 'Don't bite me'" encore. To the passengers of VS Flight 030 from Indira Ghandi International Airport to London Heathrow, I am so, so sorry you had to hear me sing.

Anyway, Aristu's projectile vomiting is also how I now find myself wearing $135 Juicy Couture sweatpants from Heathrow's Harrods stall. There were literally no other pants to be purchased, except for more expensive items at Chanel, Burberry or Prada. Dear Heathrow Duty Free: TRY SELLING SOME INEXPENSIVE PANTS, FUCKERS. There was one bright shining moment when I lunged hopefully at a set of Hello Kitty pajama pants, only to discover that they were dishtowels. The Juicy Couture sweatpants are courtesy of my extremely grateful, well-rested friends, with a promise from me to try to sell them on eBay and give them whatever I get for them.

For sale: Geniune Juicy Couture sweatpants, size L/XL,heather gray, worn only once on airplane. My laptop power is now at 3 percent, and I still don't know how to start talking about India, except to say that the puppy that I saved from being hit by a car at the engagement party GOT HIT BY A DIFFERENT CAR FOUR DAYS AGO.

Jesus Christ. The pup was bark-screaming in the middle of the road while twelve men stood around awkwardly staring at the mama dog alternated between pacing, licking her offspring and HOWLING at the sky. The puppy lived because the car only hit his paw. There's no such thing as a run-in-of-the-mill vet in India. I tried. Oh, believe me, I tried.

The mama dog at least let me get the puppy out of the middle of the road. He whimpered in my arms while I ran my hands over his hips, ribs and ankle joint. He only bark-screamed when I touched his paw. For the record, if I never hear a dog scream again, that's fine by me. My hosts think I'm bananas, but I checked him every day since. Finally yesterday before I left, he was putting weight on the injured paw and seems reluctant to come out from under the makeshift plywood bench, which means he's not in the street. Definitely a good thing.

Now, I need to see about some more medicine.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Travel Theories: Part Two of Two

So yeah, I did a guided "matching t-shirts and name tags" tour of New Zealand and Australia after ninth grade with a school ground. Then, I spent my Isaac's earnings on a smaller school trip to Spain that allowed us a little bit more freedom after tenth grade, supplemented with a cash infusion of spending money from grandparents and emergency "travel money" from my mom and dad. I won a fundraising raffle for a trip to Italy with my sister and the Boston College Chorale in '97 and met the Pope by sheer dumb luck.

Then in '98, I dog-sat for an American expat family in Prague while they were on vacation in Spain and backpacked through Austria and Germany before heading to Venice. I studied abroad in London in '99 in a photo program where the academic focus was "shoot a buttload of pictures and, you know, take a bunch of artistic risks and get better at shooting and stuff and maybe someday we'll make a book about one small town recovering from an egregious act of terrorism and you know, why don't you go to France for a long weekend and then take a week off to shoot in Ireland and Scotland and since you have those frequent flier miles, Denmark has great Christmas lights and Norway is cold as fuck and the sun is only out for about four hours, but the light is COOL, so... go take pictures of THAT." So I did.

After that, I pretty much didn't leave the country again for about nine years, unless you count South Florida as a foreign country. (Many people do.) Things came full circle for me when Joel and I went to Australia on our honeymoon, only this time we were completely in control of what we wanted to see and do. Considering that my first trip abroad was one where an adult chaperone held onto our passports, renting our own cars and handling everything ourselves marked a move to the opposite end of the spectrum.

All in all, I've been to 12 countries in the past 16 years. In that time, I've met world leaders, fended off muggers, got myself lost and found again. My sister Amanda, Rome, 1997: "I'm going to put you on a leash." I've seen the Sistine Chapel and the Mona Lisa and the Great Barrier Reef and the Eiffel Tower, and as of tomorrow, the Taj Mahal. I drank Guiness in Ireland and Chianti in Italy and this morning, I had chai by the Taj Mahal.

These things are as beautiful as you think, but while the experiences are transformative, they are very rarely transcendental. The postcard version you imagine you'll see is almost always marred by throngs of tourists from, oh, everywhere, with their own customs and norms and ideas about hygiene, how to wait in line, and what constitutes an appropriate amount of personal space.

Since I started traveling in 1994, I've been hit on, spat at, humiliated by street performers, and arrested. It is scary and hard and frequently smelly and oftentimes sad and depressing (concentration camps, bullfights, dead kangaroos and children in abject poverty, anyone?) but I wouldn't change it for anything.

The transcendental changes come in the in-between places. Tonight Hema and I ventured in to a Muslim neighborhood to see Nizamuddin, a temple where a Sufi saint is buried. Every Thursday night, musicians gather to sing and play music, preparing for the dawn of the next day, Friday, the Muslim holy day. You wind your way down through a labyrinth of side streets lined with stalls selling shawls, DVDs, scruptires and strings of flowers for offerings. You leave your shoes behind with someone who hands you a disk with a number on it, thinking- tetanus?- but holy places where thousands of people go barefoot are surprisingly free of pointy things and broken glass. If you squint your eyes and imagine candles and torches in place of the eco-friendly CFC bulbs, really, it feels like 2,000 years ago. A woman approaches me, begging for money, but she is particularly insistent and chatty. In Hindi. I look at Hema questioningly, and she says, "I think she has psychological problems."

As it turns out, the woman is saying that she has had a Bengali curse on her for years which enables her to turn into a snake. My presence at the shrine tonight has broken the curse. Ah. Well, then. You're very welcome. Glad I could help. Then, she goes to "soup kitchen" part of the shrine and tries to give me food, then tells Hema I owe her `10 rupees." When we refuse, she says, "By the grace of God, you should become Indian." Alrighty then.

I talk myself out of from trying to rescuing the world's saddest kitten, unsteadily lapping up water from the spigots where the Muslim men wash before they pray. Heart. Breaking. Small children crowd around my tripod as Sufi supplicants chant and sway, tying red prayer strings around the lattice walls surrounding the saint's tomb while nearby devotees light incense sticks by the dozen. An Indian eunuch sashays past.

But I? I am practically a sideshow exhibit. Dozens of people come to gawk at the white lady with the camera. I turn to the starers with a smile. "Salaam alaikum," I say. Some of the children reply, "Walaikum salaam," but several of the man ask Hema why on earth I would greet them? Women don't initiate conversation, as it turns out. Like, EV-ER.

She doesn't tell me this until later, so I feel warm and fuzzy when they nod in return. See how a smile and a warm hello translates in any language? I think dopily. I'm feeling all connected to every living thing in a Coke commercial "I'd like to teach the world to sing in per-fect harmoneeee" sort of way when two little girls ask H to settle a bet. One girl thinks H speaks English; the other is betting that she doesn't understand a word I say and is only humoring me. They ask then if I'm an Englishman, and when she whispers this to me with a giggle, and I'm hearing a Gilbert and Sillvan song instead of the call to evening prayer. "He is an Englishman, he is! Hurrah for the English man!"

We head for home, collecting our shoes from the pile and calling the driver on the cell phone, leaving behind the musicians, the gold tomb, the flower-sellers, the wet kitten, the schizophrenic snake lady and the castrated man in the sari with makeup a drag queen would envy. The small children with kohl-lined eyes run behind us, trying to touch my feet with theirs before I go, and in my mind, Pirates of Penzance gives way to David After the Dentist. Is this real life? It is.

Travel Theories: Part One of Two

Travel Theories: Part One of Two

Okay, so I've been really, really lucky to get to travel around the world as much as I have. For those of you who haven't known me forever (I'm lookin' at you, sisterfriends who went topless on a beach in Barcelona with me, and sisterfriend who, perhaps wisely, did not ;) I first ventured abroad in 1994 with the People to People Student Ambassador program on a group trip to New Zealand and Australia when I was 15. I got the international travel bug and have been hooked ever since.

Prior to that, my family traveled all around the U.S. and parts of Canada on long road trip vacations. Our vacations were always a combination of camping, first in a tent, then in a pop-up camper. Both my parents were teachers and/or worked in schools, so we had all summer to go to Rehoboth Beach once or twice, then meander down to Memphis and back; or head up through New England, into Canada, back down into Maine through Boston and home; or to Disney World and back via Stone Mountain and Ebenezer Baptist Church.

My sister and I would always ask, "Where are we sleeping tonight?" The answer from the front seat was: "Don't know yet" or "In the camper." Of course, we also bugged them with, "Are we there yet?" but more importantly, "Where is THERE exactly?"

My parents would plan our trips around a combination of educational, recreational and/or genealogical pursuits. It was always, always expected that we would go to college, so starting at around age 10, we'd usually stop at, say, Duke University for lunch, just to see the campus. We'd take a break from being herded around historic Governor Mansions with other families making precious, precious childhood memories to buy sweatshirts at the College of William and Mary.

Mmmm, CoIonial Williamsburg. I know my parents were annoyed with my sister and I for being obnoxious little snots while we were there. But twenty years later, I stand by my belief that shuffling through a blacksmith shop while wearing a rain poncho that stank like mildew and lightly rolled condom does not hold with commonly held definitions of 'fun' by anyone's standards. Sorry. No.

Of course, getting herded through a blacksmith shop by a chipper but wilting 20-something in a hoop skirt (Look at all the drama majors, everybody!) and trying to remain cheerful with two obnoxious tweens in tow can't be much fun either, but as the keeper of car keys and credit cards, THEY TOTALLY COULD HAVE BAILED AT ANY TIME. CAN WE PLEASE GO TO IHOP NOW?!?

Heh. I say that, but truthfully, it was the times that we changed tack at the last minute and the unplanned adventures (IHOP in a thunderstorm, then bunking in a Super 8 hotel and watching the amazing two-part Vietnam episode of Quantum Leap the night it originally aired as a family) that constituted the best of times in my memories. You can't plan that stuff. Must remember this when I spawn and all my carefully plotted plans for Precious Childhood Memories go to shit.

But I wouldn't be in India stalking water buffalo with a telephoto lens had I not been corralled into petting oxen at Sturbridge Village. I wouldn't have opted for the full 44-room tour of the Hapsburg Palace in Vienna if my dad hadn't turned around from a will call window with a booklet of ticket stubs at Graceland and said, "We're gonna see the bus! We're gonna see the plane! We're gonna see the car museum AND Elvis' gravesite AND the personal effects museum AND the Jungle Room." I wouldn't have kept my shit together while getting arrested without my dad's steady example: "Don't panic until I do."

Of course, this is the same man who attempted to keep us all on track and moving forward with the gruff instruction: "I'll tell you what to do and when to do it." on our first big family vacation when I was 7. That shit did NOT fly with my mom, and while I can't say for certain that the Great Gaul Girl Disney World Mutiny of 1986 set me on a path to academic feminism, it certainly didn't hurt. One minute you're standing behind your mom with your hands on your hips as she verbally tackles your dad before a character breakfast, the next thing you know it's twenty-five years later and you're wandering around thinking critically about global feminism and issues of race, class and gender in a Third World country where widows are abandoned by their children in the city of Lord Krishna's birth to await death in isolation and squalor.

These journeys, they change you. Say it with me, fellow members of the station wagon/minivan generation, "Are we there yet?" But the more important question, both now and then, is: "Where is THERE, exactly?" The answer is, "Don't know yet," and thank God for that.

Monday, November 08, 2010

One More Night in Varanasi

...and then I head back to Dehli for the wedding marathon. These past few days have been fascinating, with an 18-hour train trip and striking out on my own. If I were to write a memoir about the experience, we could call it "Shoot, Sweat, Poop," (instead of Eat Pray Love) but truth be told, it feels a bit isolating at the end of the end when I crash, shower and edit photos. Mind-blowing but isolating.

If you're reading, could you please leave a comment and say hi? Although we've been in touch via text, I haven't heard my husband's voice in almost 11 days. Woe is me, I know. Oh, I'm off on this amazing adventure whine whine whine. The only all English thing on TV worth watching is "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas." Profressor Lupin is a compelling and creepy Nazi. Cheerful, no?

Please say hi, and tell me what you're up to. Divorce proceedings? Wedding venue booked? Rally for Sanity? Miss you guys..

Sunday, November 07, 2010

On Holy Ground

I'm in Varanasi, also known as Benares or Kashi, the oldest and holiest city in India. It's been continually occupied for more than 3,500 years, making it "the oldest living city in the world" depending on who you ask.

Ironically, the oldest living city is also a place where people come to die. If you die here, you have the best possible chance of skipping the cycle of reincarnation and achieving nirvana. People save up their entire lives to pay for their cremation wood at Marnikarnika, a temple on the Ganges River. People travel from all over India to have their loved ones cremated and spread their ashes here. The fires burn twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

Pregnant women, children, lepers and people who die from snakebites are not eligible for cremation and are buried in the river. While I personally did not see any corpses floating in the river, it is common. I did however see people swimming, bathing, drinking, washing their clothes and brushing their teeth in the water, as well as harajins (Ghandi's word for Untouchables; it literally means "children of God") sifting through the ashes for gold teeth and nose rings, as well as other jewelry. Like a lot of other things in India, it's hard to witness, hard to think about, hard to wrap your head around.

As usual, there are cows and dogs everywhere. On the riverbanks, the dogs are not emaciated. You can put two and two together and google it if you really want to. While I sleep in my hotel room tonight- not fancy, but clean and safe and stocked with bottled water- 40 to 50 people will not make it through the night.

Buddha gave his first sermon just 15 km away, after walking from the Ganges River temples to Sarnatha. The theme of his first sermon was on suffering and how it can be stopped. I will go there tomorrow, and think some more about everything I've seen and photographed.

Stories, But Without the Photos and Videos That Would Make Them Awesomer

India makes you think about things differently. I did a lot of reading before I came- blogs, travel guides, native accounts, emails from Hema. "India can feel like an assault on your five senses. It can indeed try your patience," said National Geographic. Yes. It does. It's overwhelming. Hema warned me about that. "You know, I grew up in a home where everyone is in and out of your room, up and down the stairs, the maid is in the bathroom and the cook is in the kitchen, but now when I visit sometimes I just want to shut my bedroom door." Ah, I said. Yeah, going home to see my family over the holidays or for a big wedding can be like that for me, too.

Um, no.

Here is what you encounter in any given two-minute period of time while walking down a main road in Old Dehli: Five goats, a herd of cows, a decrepit dog, a woman balancing dried dung patties in a basket on her head while four different people beg you for money including a one-legged guy in a Playboy sweatshirt (eat your heart out Hugh Hefner), a dozen people entreat you to enter their shops, (Pashminas! free to look!) as a man blows kisses and grabs his dick in your general direction. On the other hand, the gesture could be intended for the rickshaw of schoolchildren mugging for your camera while a toddler poops on a curb before nearly getting side-swiped by a family of four on a moped as a monkey fucks with electrical wires over their heads and a retired couple from Britain pays three times as much as they should for an decorative throw rug while acting smug about the bargain they think they've gotten.

That's a typical two minutes in Old Dehli, and it never ends.

Note: I have pictures of all of these things, minus the pooping toddler, and while this entry would be SOOO much better if I posted them, I'm blogging from a hotel in a holy city on the Ganges, and there's so much more to shoot. It's almost time to leave to capture sunset I can upload later. Sorry.

"India is a functional anarchy," said one blog. God yes. There is no unifying language, religion, or culture. Yes, there is a tremendous economic boom. You really, really can't function here without a cell phone. Hema's sister-in-law has loaned me an old one of hers, loaded with about 200 minutes for about US $.50, mostly so I can call my driver to pick me up wherever I am.

My driver.

Let's talk about that. One of my goals for this trip is to shoot the kind of pictures I would need should I ever find myself in a meeting with an editor from, say, National Geographic or Getty Images, something I could show and say, "Look. I got myself there on my own. I know now that a trusted driver makes all the difference. I am capable. Please send me back and pay me."

And my driver, who was hired for me by Hema's protective big brother- so protective, in fact, that she chided him, "Angie is not made of glass" after his eyes grew to the size of dinner plates when I announced my desire to take a first class train to the holy city of Varanasi on the Ganges- made a world of difference. My driver in Agra, where the Taj Mahal is, negotiated rates for me, translated, hired a nice, reputable guide when he *couldn'*t translate, paid tolls, and stayed resolutely by my side when a holy man decided I needed to be aggressively blessed in the extremely polluted Yamuna River.

My aggressive blessing is recorded for posterity on video, which I showed to Hema when I got back to New Dehli. It's pretty funny hearing me try to recite Sanskrit phonetically. At one point I accidentally say, "" Completely unintentional. About five minutes into the video, Hema said, "At this point, I would have told this guy to fuck off and walked away." I endured and escaped unscathed onto a boat, and then off it again when my driver told me, "cheating, cheating." I waded through the water to another boat, thinking "tetanus, tetanus."

Truth be told, if it weren't for Ram, there were a few situations where I might have been totally fucked. Then again, I wouldn't have ventured beyond the tourists' path without him, so maybe not. I've only had the smallest glimpse into the driver/photojournalist dynamic, but when I think of all the drivers and translators who've died helping journalists in Iraq and Afghanistan, there really ought to be some sort of monument.

Anyway, back in Dehli.... I've given up feeling guilty about having a driver. After watching my friend's sister-in-law got dropped off from work, then driven back out to pick up a freshly tailored blouse for another sister before asking her driver to pick up Hema from the mall, I decided to surrender and agreed to have the driver take me to and from a salon. Look, there's a whole lot of "taking off your shoes to be respectful" here, and my feet were so frightfully unpedicured that if I were home, I could have gone out for Halloween with my un-pedicured feet serving as my only costume.

Also, my eyebrows could have doubled for caterpillars marching across my face. I decided that today was "immersion day" and that having a personal driver take me to get my eyebrows threaded at a salon where I was handed the October issue of the special India edition of Marie Claire (Our Big Wedding Issue! Hand-woven saris you'll treasure for all the years of your marriage!) practically counts as professional research.

That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

A Quick* (by my standards) Dog Story

So Gwen's comment below about how many dogs I would adopt if I were able means that I really have to tell you this little anecdote in which I kind of... embarrass and endear myself simultaneously. Right, okay.

Day Two was the day of Sandeep and Sumya's engagement party. They've opted for an arranged marriage, which mostly means that they were set up by a matchmaker and then took the decision into their own hands to build a relationship and get married. The contemporary, arranged marriage thing is a subject for a whole other day, but I'll just say this for now... I came here with an open mind about it, having worked with Hema on a story about arranged marriage and knowing she arranged a marriage for a cousin a few years ago. Her cousin was tragically and unexpectedly widowed with two daughters, which was... not good. Long story. She's happily married now and lives in Virginia, thanks in no small part to my friend who arranged the marriage, which involved screening out anyone with an email address like "" Not making that up.

Her family, especially her parents, are incredibly liberal. Her brother married his high school sweetheart. Her sister the news videographer married a newspaper reporter in an arranged marriage, and Hema's story is one that I simply sum up by describing it the way she does- she broke all the rules. Ultimately, she's a suburban working mom who moved to America after marrying a world class American artist who has a painting hanging in Buckingham Palace and used to be in a band that played in between sets for the Grateful Dead. Oh, and he looks like Jim Henson. Her family LOVES him. He isn't arriving until the sixth with their older son who can't miss that much school, but already they're making special arrangements for a distant cousin in culinary school to come over and make him beef. This is HUUUGE. (G- they wouldn't care that you're Jews. ;)

Right, okay, so! The dog story! As I said, the neighbors across the street live in a squalid lean-to and iron clothes for families in the area and have a few dogs that hang around being all emaciated and besieged by their own puppies. The puppies? Are really cute. I mean, they're fucking puppies, alright?

So the engagement party involves a lot of blessings and symbolism and exchanges of rings and saris and bangles and feeding sweets and bestowing of coconuts (yes, really) followed by a huge dinner (be jealous; the food is amazing every day) and there'll be tons of pictures of this later. At this point, I'm the only non-bilingual white chick around.

A toddler on the groom's side was toddling around being adorable and I'm making faces and going round for round in an international game of peekaboo and generally holding an ice cream-type dessert thingy and smiling. I'm being chatty, and I call the toddler "babu" which is a general term of endearment in Hindi, not unlike "cutie pie." I turn around for a second, and the toddler... well, he toddles away and turns back toward me, and... alright, there's a lot of shouting and noise in general, okay? God, this is so embarrassing.

The toddler runs back to me without my really noticing, despite the adults calling out things like, "Look out!" and "He's going to fall!" and "Hey, you! White chick eating ice cream! Catch that baby before he falls and skins a knee!" but since my Hindi/Urdu crash course from Hema's 10-year-old niece Anvi only included, "Hello, nice to meet you!" and "Not too much spice, please," a special greeting just for Muslims who speak Rajastani with a few silly words for bodily functions** thrown in for good measure, what happens is that I blithely stand by eating ice cream while the toddler falls. Fail.

**If the party guests had been shouting "Pee pee!" I would have been fine.

Hema tried to make me feel better, "What, you called him 'babu' and now they think you know everything? Don't worry about it" but soon we're all distracted by the groom's family leaving. The bride is starting to sway under the weight of her jewelry and various bangles, and after much bowing and hugging, they start to drive away. Everyone starts shouting and one of the puppies narrowly escapes death by wheel-crunching. The cars start to move again, but it's Puppy DeathWatch the Sequel. People start trying to shoo the dog to the side of the road, and it's not really working, and I'm standing right there, so I scoop the dog up and say, "Aw, I got him; it's fine."

People gasp in horror. They actually gasp out loud, in unison. (Um... I kind of kissed the puppy on the head without really thinking about it, though it was really dark and I think only 10-year-old Anvi saw me do it.) Truth be told, the mama dog? I would think twice about touching. The cow that eats trash? As it turns out, it would be incredibly auspicious if I touched its rump. So.. yeah. Anyway, the groom's party leaves, and I set the dog down carefully next to the mama dog and make a big joke about having to go burn my shirt. Everyone laughs, except for an uncle who thinks I really am going to burn my shirt and feels the need to tell me emphatically that it's not necessary. Washing will be sufficient. Next language lesson? Learn to say: Hi! I'm Hema's crazy American friend! I kiss dogs and ignore unsteady toddlers near cement steps! Now I must burn my garment!

Hema's brother-in-law pulled me aside to tell me he was just about to grab the dog if I hadn't; and it was generally agreed that touching the puppy was a good deed. For the record, the last dirty street puppy I pulled away from a busy road is now sleeping on my pillow in New York next to my husband and two formerly dirty street kittens turned spoiled housecats, one of whom likes to lick shower curtains. I miss all four.

And now, the first photo I'm posting from India...

Oh fucking hell. Blogger hates photos from India. It's on flickr. Go see it there. Clicky!

Chunky Photojournalist Barbie in India: Part One

Note: We're on a two-to-three day delay here. I have Wi-Fi at the moment because I'm in a hotel in Agra, which is where the Taj Mahal is. Here's an entry I wrote back on October 29th/30th, depending on if we're referring to the hemisphere I'm in or the one that most of the rest of you are in.

Hi! Guess what? I'm in India. I know I mentioned this on Facebook, but I never got around to talking about it here and I kept having conversations with people who were like, "You're going to INDIA?!?" Yes.

I'm staying at the moment in New Dehli with my friend's Hema's family. Hema and I worked together at the Nournal Jews. Her cousin is getting married, and the bride wasn't thrilled** with the photographer her mom hired, but he was, in fact, hired already... So they asked me to come and take pictures, said that I can use them however I wanted and in exchange, offered me accommodation and help with transport around Dehli.

**Now that the engagement ceremony/party/ritual has happened... "Not thrilled" is the understatement of the year when it comes to the bride's opinion of the "official" photographer. His camera is held together with tape. I'm glad I'm here.

Hema and I flew together so I could help out with Aristu, her adorable and precocious 3-year-old whom I happen to adore. I sometimes joke that I am a "freelance aunt" to my friends' children, and Aristu is definitely on my roster of kids for whom I would happily buy a pony wrapped in a bow. Just sayin.'

He did so well on the flight, too, rarely even crying, except for when we were landing in Dehli and his ears wouldn't pop. He would also occasionally hiccup and say in the clearest, most heartbreaking, tiny voice you've ever heard, "I want to go home!" melting the hearts of even the grumpiest travelers on ground transport during a short layover in Heathrow, during which I also managed to fry my laptop cord.

Self- reminder: don't let other people plug into your power strip when it's attached to a converter and adapter and working perfectly fine, thankyouverymuch, even if they're Mets fans and they call you a "lifesaver."

Otherwise, we arrived without incident, got whisked through customs with a uniformed police escort, which- as I am the girl who once got arrested in an airport prior to 9/11 over a keychain- I found disconcerting. As it turns out, its fairly common for anyone who has any sort of connection in India to work 'em for all its worth to cut through some bureaucracy, and as a retired police officer, Hema's dad made that happen for us.

Hema's family lives in a typical multi-generational home in a suburb of New Dehli. I'm staying in a very nice guest room off the rooftop terrace and will be moving to a guest house later in the trip when other wedding guests arrive. As I understand it, I'll be bunking with the bride's younger sister's law school friends. I am so lucky. There is no other way I would be having the experience I'm having here without them. India is everything you've ever heard it is: colorful, dusty, crowded, a land of contrasts.

Hema's family is well-to-do, somewhere between middle class and upper middle class.Their home is spacious and beautiful, filled with marble floors and indigenous artwork. As is incredibly common here, they have domestic help and a lot of it. "The help" is kind, omnipresent, range in age from about 13 to 55, and seem to cook three full course meals a day, clean pretty much constantly, answer the door, baby-sit Aristu, provide elder care for a sweet 93-year-old man who is somebody's father and a great-aunt I've not yet seen, and drive anyone anywhere they need to go through the labyrinthian streets full of luxury cars, scooters like Joel's transporting families of five, guys on bikes hauling a shocking amount of cargo and the occasional cart pulled by a bull, water buffalo, horse, donkey or camel. Remember: this is the 'burbs, about as far from the heart of New Dehli as Fort Lee, NJ is from Manhattan.

My hosts have arranged for me to have a driver at my disposal which is something her cousins- who are my age, college-educated, and live at home- find completely ordinary and not the jaw-dropping, "accepted with guilt" luxury I consider it. Once cousin is a working attorney; the other, the bride whose wedding I'm here to photograph, has been fully occupied with wedding preparations since her engagement six months ago.

We're in a suburb, one with an Apple store where I could replace my laptop cord the first day we were here and pick up Soy milk for the otherwise allergic Aristu. Hema's sister, a video photojournalist for a large news outlet here, took me to the mall with the dual goal of finding a new dress for Diwali for her 3-year-old. As we sat at a red light, small girls approached the car begging for money, then reached through the window to pet my white skin, their curiosity momentarily distracting them from aggressive pitch for alms. I am not only a minority, I am an outright oddity with my freaky pale skin.

The caste system- which in my experience was something I learned about in tenth grade World Cultures class and never heard discussed by any of my Indian friends in any kind of real life way, except with Hema once, who told me the reasons Indians in America never discuss it is with outsiders is because "it's embarrassing"- is indeed alive and well. Caste and class, however, are not the same thing. Their next door neighbors have three fluffy, immaculately groomed and pampered Pomerians, but the neighbors across the street live in a lean-to, spend their days and nights ironing expensive, intricate fabrics in squalor and seem to have a herd of emaciated street dogs who bark semi-regularly at a wandering fly-covered, worshipped cow who eats trash.

Again: suburb. I venture into Dehli itself later today.