Sunday, November 8, 2009


There was supposed to be a flash mob near the Red Square yesterday. A month before the UN Copenhagen conference of Dec 7, a group of Muscovites had arranged to stand near the square, open up umbrellas under a clear sky and wonder what weather they might predict for the future. The choice of day was unfortunate, coinciding with Veteran's Day activities. A tight cordon of police officers blocking all access to the area, including the crossings and the actual Red Square and surrounding spaces, made getting to the scheduled spot impossible as a Communist Party procession blocked the entire road for a few kilometers (who knew there were so many of them still in Russia?!). The message? Political ideological struggles take precedence over worries about climate change, and the hundreds of pro-communist protesters were far more organized and visible than the handful of scattered people with umbrellas.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

150 kms from the Arctic Circle

Russians like to travel south for vacations but I have to tendency to do things backwards. I went to South America when it was winter there and now, I just spent the last bit of good summer weather by traveling as far north as I have ever been (and will ever be, most probably). I went to Solovki- it was cold, windy and full of pilgrims who were often just short of fanatics deeply concerned with the salvation of my atheistic soul, but it was mostly sunny, the two times it did rain I saw rainbows, I had a bicycle I could ride/pull through where four wheel drives were stuck in muck, the swamps were full of berries and mushrooms and oh yes, it was absolutely beautiful. I'll let the pictures speak for themselves. 

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The wrath of the carnivores

Different people have different notions about what it means to be a vegetarian. There are places where the concept is unheard of, while a fair number of people equate vegetariansm with 'malnourished hippies who only eat vegetables' or 'people who dont eat any milk, cheese or other animal products' (that's veganism). While traveling in South America I came across some other interesting misconceptions regarding this group of 'social radicals.' Here's an example:

An otherwise fantastic country, Peru, was fairly disappointing when it came to food for the vegetarian budget traveler (moi). The food seems to include a lot of meat (often fried, but I digress) and finding someting I could eat was a bit of a challenge. I generally resorted to "I'm vegetarian. Do you have something on the menu that does not contain meat?" I mostly subsided on rice and salad but there were times when joint after joint responded to my query with a negative and affirmative responses have been followed up with "we have chicken" or "how about fish?" While fish don't help me any, I can see where they might be coming from, but chicken?! How is that not meat?

My rant continues... I find myself seriously dreading the ordeal of airplane food. The vegetarian meal is generally labeled 'special', reminiscent of the euphemism for disabled people in nations like the United States. There have been times when I have forgotten to specify a vegetarian meal when booking my flight, but then I deserved what I got. However, it really disturbs me when there is a delicious-sounding non-meat option (like cheese ravioli) offered to ther passengers, but my tray is snatched away from me right before I can peel back the foil, as the stewardess remembers that I am consigned to a dessert-less vegetarian non-dairy version of boiled vegetables and rice. I get a bun of bread but no butter. Worse, someone goofed up on my flight from Lima to Sao Paolo and they had no meal for me. The flight was three hours late to start with and instead of giving us meal vouchers we were served ham and cheese sandwiches (for beverages, we had Coca Cola and Inca Cola- the South American version of radioactivically yellow cough syrup with gummy bears dissolved in it, but no water). I was understandably looking forward to the meal on the flight but after much waiting they offered me the 'chicken meal' with the pieces of meat picked out. (How is this not a perfect opportunity to sue the airline?) When I refuzed, not without the adamant tone of a martyr, the flight staff became apologetic and offered me extra salad, a bag of chips and a green puree of unidentifiable content that they called soup. Not the most fabulous meal I've ever had but at least I didn't have to go hungry. Something similar happened on my bus from Cuzco to Lima (the trip took 20 hours) but there I had to resort to pulling out the meat from the sandwich and trying to ignore the smell and taste.

In addition to being miffed about the inconvieniences my dietary choices often amount to, I'm sick and tired of having to explain why I'm a vegetarian as I eat rice around a piece of chicken or discover that the crouton in my soup is actually a chunk of bovine femur. I'd like to hear you bloodthirsty carnivores defned your hedonistic diet for a change! What pisses me off even more is when people knowingly nod their heads and say "aah, you're from India" (and thus vegetarian by default). My agency and the conscious (and admittedly somewhat self-righteous) decision are taken away from me, replaced by ill-founded prejudices about regional religious superstition. And those of you who find it funny to tell me to try a bit of your meal, that it's a type of shoot/exotic vegetable when in fact it's bovine intestinal lining, you may be my friend but you are throughly evil. I am right and you are wrong and you would be a vegetarian too, if only you knew better!

I'll end the rant here for today. Don't get me started again!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Adventures of Ali Baba and Vodka

Jamaica Kincaid points out that the tourist is an ugly thing: a squinting, camera-toting ball of dough who keeps bothering people who are trying to go on with their lives with silly questions barely framed in a bad mockery of the local language (if they try at all). While I'm all for traveling (a traveller is nobler than a tourist) I remember expressing disgust at people who sign up for slum tourism, for example. What do they expect out of it- to see people poorer than they had imagined possible so that they may feel happy about their own lot while also congratulating themselves for their ability to be a bleeding heart foreigner who helps the poor people by bringing in some revenue (it is arguable whether any of the money goes to the community)? Of course my holier than thou attitude takes a bit of a beating when I get to Sao Paolo or Rio and a part of me wants to take a look at the nearby favelas. This is perhaps also in part because of the danger, not despite it, though to say the truth I don't really believe that it is extremely dangerous (the ignorant tourist?).

When it comes to exoticization, I had thought of the tourist as the one with agency- the one who gawks at the local people and customs to come to some conclusion along the lines of 'how quaint'- while forgetting that the local people also have prejudices that they may be more than willing to share. There is currently a hugely popular soap opera running on Brazilian TV that becomes the topic of conversation every time my nationality is mentioned and after a lot of smiling and 'namaste'ing, I am asked questions such as "why do Indians follow the caste system?" While getting on the bus at Sao Paolo, someone asked me where I was from (this happens rarely unless I open my mouth, apparently I look Brazilian) and as the bus pulled away, he yelled "Ali Baba" after me. Tania, on the other hand, has almost awalys been greeted with the word 'vodka' when she mentions where she is from. I guess Indians can claim a slightly more varied heritage in the common Brazilian consciousness than Russia.

To be a foreigner can be a very convienient thing. People have generally been very helpful when it comes to navigation, sometimes stopping what they were doing to show us the way- some may call it mollycoddling but it's convienient and wonderful after hours of fruitlessly trying to find the place on our own, so I won't complain. We asked a cop for directions in Rio yesterday (we needed to figure out where to take a bus to the metro from) and instead of pointing out the bus stop, he gave us a ride to the metro in his car. He was very excited, in fact ecstatic at having met a Russian who speaks Portuguese and an Indian who speaks Russian. Of course we didn't mind the cool ride either. I doubt he would have done the same for people hailing from less exotic places. Maybe I should put on a bindi and start namaste-ing before any conversation with the locals :P

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Istanbul, July 30-August 2, 2009

I love Istanbul. The food, the sea, the tramway that makes navigation so easy, the hilly roads and by-lanes that make navigation impossible, the people, the food, the shopping, the magnificent opulence juxtaposed with colorful little European style houses with flowers on balcony grills, and did I mention the food? Of course nothing can beat baklava (and I ate enormous quantities of it) but I also loved sipping Ayran (similar to lassi), salatali pilav (similar to veg pulao for the desis) with kuru fasulye (bean soup) and kumpir (which is similar to крошка картошка, a baked potato served with cheese, yogurt, beans, peas and some 20 other toppings). I've decided I need to move to Istanbul, sit by the Bosphorous as I gorge myself on baklava and then trek back to my apartment on top of a hill on a hard-to-find nook of Beşiktaş.

Part of what might have made me feel so at home in Istanbul is the Turkish language. I only knew a handful of words before and the language sounds completely foreign but throughout the days in the city, I kept coming across words in Turkish that are either the same as or very similar to words in Hindi (talk about linguistic borrowings leading to a complicated displaced sense of 'home'!) Here's a sampler for those interested: kitap (book), hafta (week), sabah (morning), meydan (arena), hakim (judge), sabun (soap), amrut (guava), nar (pomegranate), sharap (alcohol), shikayet (complaint), just to list a few. In terms of hospitality, it also helped when I saw people going far out of their way to help us out- a woman who was rushing somewhere stopped when I asked for directions and asked around for about 15 minutes until she found and showed me the doorway of the house I needed. It's in stark contrast with the city I currently live in, which I love for other reasons, but where any pleas for assistance will almost certainly be met with a "не знаю".

I think my favorite part of Istanbul (besides the food :P) was the view. The hilly roads coupled with the view of the water reminded me of Athens and it made me nostalgic for a place I barely remember but want to return to. While we had some minor scares between me and my friend- like a lost cellphone (found), a lost MP3player (gone), overbooking on the flight and someone else with the same seat designation, a night spent at the airport due to late night arrival and misinformation about taxis, etc., they were minor blips on an otherwise excellent couple of days.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Hasta La Vista!

I haven't blogged in a very long time, what with the advent of summer, several camping trips, friends and parties, a reading spree and life otherwise taking precedence- this is also the first summer when I am not a child or student, but expected to work 10-6, five days a week...sigh. I've also been spending a chunk of my time planning a trip recently and several months of Spanish lessons, four visas, two immunizations, long waits in 'official' spaces and a bunch of hours of frenzied planning later, Tania and I are more or less ready to take off on a month-long trip in less than a week! For those of you who care, I'll put up the itinerary as it now stands and I'll try to touch base every once in a while when we are on the road.

Thurs, 30 July- Istanbul
Sun, 2 August- Sao Paulo
Wed, 5 Aug- Rio De Janeiro
Fri, 7 Aug- Lavras
Sat, 8 Aug- Belo Horizonte
Sun, 9 Aug, Brasilia
Wed, 12 Aug- San Ignacio
Thurs, 13 Aug- Santa Cruz
Sat, 15 Aug- La Paz
Tue, 18 Aug- Puno
Thurs, 20 Aug- Cuzco, Machu Picchu
[~] some days to make up for late buses, missed transfers, getting lost, and otherwise adding some time to breathe
Tue, 25 Aug- Lima
Fri, 28 Aug- Sao Paulo
And come September, its back to Moscow for me.

We touch Turkey for a bit before making our way through Brazil, Bolivia and half of Peru by road, before I fly back to Sao Paulo and then Moscow (and get back to work) and Tania spends another month traveling through Argentina and possibly Colombia before heading back through Brazil. (Those of you who might be feeling jealous of me, concentrate the evil thoughts and send them her way instead :P).

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Fiend

A Short Story by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Unlike most of Fitzgerald's short stories, this one is not about high society, the roller coaster ride of money gained and lost or love and relationships among wealthy (or stuggling upper class) Americans in Paris or Prague. Instead, this six-page story opens with a newpaper-article like report of the murder of Mrs. Crenshaw Engels and her seven year old son while they were taking a walk on a sunny afternoon in Stillwater, Minnesota. The particulars of the murder are not mentioned and the author tells the readers that the circumstances were "so atrocious that, fortunately, it is not necessary to set them here." The murderer is also never named anything other than "the fiend."

This story succinctly deals with the unique relationship that develops between Crenshaw Engels and the murderer. Crenshaw loses everything as a result of the events of that afternoon- his wife and child, all happiness in life, his photography shop business, his home and even a measure of his sanity. The fiend is caught and sentenced to life imprisonment and after several unsucessful attemps to kill the murderer- ranging from desperate attempts to strangle him in court and to sneak into the prison to shoot him to more planned attempts to make capital punishment legal in the state- Crenshaw settles into his life of work as a department store clerk. His life is society is like a biluous dream while what really keeps him going are his regular visits to the two graves and to the fiend, where he uses all the tactics of mental torture at his disposal. It is only decades later, after the fiend dies suddenly of a ruptured appendix that Crenshaw realizes that somehow, over time, the fiend had transformed into his "only friend." This story poignantly captures the utter solitude of a man who lost everything, including the hatred that had been his last refuge in life.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

How I Got so Black and Blue

I see you wondering, when you look at my knee
for the sight is certainly quite plain to see
there are bumps, there are lumps, a scratch or two
How did I get so black and blue?

It's winter you know
the street's full of snow
there's even some ice here and there
While talking a walk
I was crossing a park
When I most definitely got a scare

I was returning home
and chatting on the phone
while munching on a tasty snack
I was taking a shortcut
through a small park, but
suddenly, there was a crack

I was climbing a fence -it was small
I would save me some time, I was wrong
well I slipped and I fell
and the marks here can tell
the impact was certainly strong

I swear I've ammended my ways,
I still take the shortcut these days
But now when I walk, I don't also talk
and my hands are ready, I'm as stable as rock
I step over carefully, I focus, not laze
and attempt to avoid further shock.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Lafcadio: The Lion Who Shot Back

What is a lion to do, if a hunter insists on shooting him? Lafcadio tried to be civil:
"Hi hunter," he said.
"Good heavens," cried the hunter, "a ferocious lion, a dangerous lion, a roaring, bloodthirsty man-eating lion."

Lafcadio tried to reason with him but the hunter was simply not going to sway. The hunter exclaimed, "Lions eat hunters! So I must shoot you now and make you into a nice rug and put you in front of my fireplace and on cold winter evenings I will sit on you and toast marshmalows."
"Well, my goodness, you dont have to shoot me. I will be your rug and I will lie in front of your fireplace and I won't move a muscle and you can sit on me and toast all the marshmallows you want." The young lion was a polite as can be, if only perhaps a bit too curious about the ways of the hunters and the taste of marshmallows. When reasoning failed and the hunter attempted to load his gun to shoot the lion, Lafcadio had no option but to eat him up. Circumstances made out of Lafcadio exactly what the hunter had expected him to be, even though that was not what Lafcadio had started out as at all.

Well, time passed and Lafcadio became a great shot with the hunter's gun. After wave upon wave of hunters and other humans were shot by him, a man from the circus found Lafcadio and convinced him to become part of his business. Lafcadio accepted the offer, had his fill of marshmallows and was overall extremely successful in assimilating into the human world. However, at one point he seemed to have a mid-life crisis of sorts and his friends suggested going on a hunting trip to get his mind off of things. While at the hunt, he was recognized by one of the lions, and things came to a head when the hunters and lions forced him to choose a side.

"Poor, poor Lafcadio- what do you do when you don't want to be a hunter- and you don't want to be a lion?
"Look," he said, " I don't want to shoot any lions and I certainly don't want to eat up any of you hunters. I don't want to stay here in the jungle and eat raw rabbits and I certainly don't want to go back to the city and drink buttermilk. I don't want to chase my tail, but I don't want to play bridge either. I guess I don't belong in the hunter's world, and I guess I don't belong in the lion's world. I guess I don't belong anywhere.""

This feeling of having each foot in a different boat (or to stretch the metaphor, being an octupus with each tentacle anchored in a different culture, which are as differnt from each other as the worlds of lions and hunters) definitely resonated. "Is he a lion at all?" asks the voice in the blurb- and so perhaps the mixing of species in my metaphor is also strangely apt. Shel Silverstein's Lafcadio: The Lion Who Shot Back is a children's story in the form of a modern fable that is enjoyable and thought-provoking reading for adults too. From the creator of beloved childhood poems in "Where the Sidewalk Ends," this is a must-read. The illustrations are an added bonus.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A poem a la Silverstein

In one of my ESL lessons we read a couple of poems by Shel Silverstein and my 12 year old student tried her hand at poetry inspired by his work. The results simply tickled me, here's a sample for you to see ;)

I know I'm being a fool,
But I just can't go to school.
Although my friends are there,
My teacher's impossible to bear.
Oh, my darling mom,
Please stay calm;
For when you're mad,
It makes me so sad.
Fine, oh fine, I'll go.
But I will go slow.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Nijhny Novgorod, Russia

Tania and I wanted to go to South America and we wanted to go to the Caucasus. Given the time frame we had to plan a trip, Nijhny Novgorod was far more feasible. And so early this January, to Nijhny it was! We wanted to buy tickets for the train for late night on the 7th, bought them for the 8th by mistake, and realized, just a few hours before the train, that since the train was at 00:15, it was actually the same night as the 7th. Stupid, I know, but well, it happens. Anyway, we made it to the train on time and our CouchSurfer host in Nijhny also forgave us the last minute change in plans, so although there was a little bit of a bump, it wasn't even a rocky start.

Katya, our absolutely fantastic host, met us at the train station at 6am the next morning. After breakfast at her place, we went for a walk around the Nijhny Novgorod Kremlin.

Katya also took us to an ice-sculpture exhibition, replete with reindeer, a castle and even a tiny maze.

It was very cold, and I was bundled up enough to earn the nickname "Tistka Terroristka" (Tista the Terrorist). Well, it was -20C and there was frost in my eyelashes- who can blame me?!

The company was excellent, but the streets really were much too cold, so we alternated sightseeing outdoors with museums and cafes. Let's just say that copious amounts of glintwein and medovukha passed between us :D We saw a photography museum (with an exhibition of contemporary work too), an exhibition of landscapes made entirely out of pieces of leaves but that looked like paintings from a few feet away (amazing stuff), the museum in the Kremlin and a beautiful cathedral whose name I didn't even try remember (I was really cold by this time :P). The next day, we made the several hour trip to the town of Gorodetz where we saw a Samovar museum (I was apparently the first Indian visitor there, judging by the excitement of the guide), a pryanik museum (they have a museum for baking bread!) and a beautiful sunset on a land-locked 'sea'. The town itself was also worth seeing- most of the little houses were made of wood and each was brightly painted a different color and had intricate woodwork designs.

Well, we romped around for a couple of days and while Tania made fun of my Russian and I complained about the cold the entire time, it was an excellent trip!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

An evening on a train

She was bored. She felt a little tired, a little lonely, but most of all, she felt bored. She was on vacation in a foreign country that she had long longed to visit. She liked traveling alone, but she had just spent three weeks with strangers who had quickly become friends, and while the tired part of her welcomed the empty train coupe, silence had so completely taken the place of sounds that she missed it all, just a little. The place wasn't exactly silent- in addition to the usual sounds of the grind of wheels against tracks and the swaying squeaks of the train, there were sounds coming from nearby coupes- small groups of friends and families and even the slow but shrill whine of a baby at a distance. But after weeks of chatter with people who wanted to talk to her, who were almost laughably enamored by her foreign appearance and origin, who kept asking her how to say X in Y language, after weeks of barely threaded conversations in broken languages, she was alone again. She would miss some of the people she had met, particularly her roommate, with whom she had shared many hours of silly giggles, walks to the beach, hikes, evenings of gazing at stars and deliciously illicit afternoons of cooking in the room on a small camping stove. She knew that although they had shared addresses and may write an e-mail or two, they would never again have the same familiarity. They might even meet again in some different part of the world, but such a meeting would be nice at best and awkward at worst.

Any attempts at conversation with her neighbors, had she had the energy for it, would have probably been more of an intrusion than anything else. So she remained in her empty coupe, now sitting and now lying down, absently-mindedly reading a book, munching on some snacks, looking out the window at scenery that had been fascinating three weeks ago but had now become monotonous, closing the coupe door or opening it again and watching the children playing in the little hallway that ran lengthwise along the wagon. These children also stopped to stare at her from time to time, a brave few even venturing a step or two into her coupe, but as soon as a parent noticed it, the child was promptly reprimanded and pulled back to the hallway.

It was a warm evening and she languidly lay on one of the upper berths. From this vantage point she peeked out at people walking across the hallway on their way to the toilet, the smokers' corner or the samovar that was on one end of the wagon for passengers to make hot tea. This is when she saw a man in a large straw hat pass by, but she doesn't know if they made eye contact or not- her lazy, half-sleepy mind barely registered his presence. A few long minutes passed and, finding that the children were somewhat boring and the novel she had brought with her possibly worse, she tried to doze off for lack of anything better to pass the time with.

Although drowsy, she wasn't sleepy enough to be able to doze for more than half an hour. She tossed and turned and even put the pillow over her head to try to block out all the sounds and the electric lights. Finally, giving up, she decided to open her eyes and give up on sleep for the time being. Maybe she could try reading again. Thinking this, she was climbing down to the lower berth when she noticed that she was not alone in the coupe anymore. The man with the straw hat was sitting in a dimly lit corner, staring fixedly at her. She felt a little unnerved by the stare, but decided to welcome the opportunity to alleviate her boredom, reasoning that there were plenty of people around in case something did happen.

"Are you scared?" This was a strange way to start a conversation, but since he had asked, she decided to respond with the bravest face she could muster.
"No, why should I be," she asked, as if the thought had never entered her mind.
He didn't waste much time in preliminaries.
"I drank too much," he said. She didn't respond, trying to indicate that she had no interest in his level of inebriation, without saying it out loud, which would have come out rude. Needing little encouragement, he continued:
"My name is X. What is yours? Where are you from? What are you doing here?"
Although direct, the questions were more keen than rude. On her guard, she gave short replies and didn't encourage him by asking too much about his background. He didn't seem to mind.
"How do I look in this hat?" She wasn't expecting him to be fishing for compliments so quickly, but she replied with a non-committal "fine." This was not really something she was interested in developing, so she started gazing out of the window (though there was not much to see).

He quickly shifted gears.

"My brother died. He worked in construction in Rostov and yesterday, he had an accident. I came from Tula to pick up the body, but at the train station in Rostov, my pocket was picked. I needed money to transport the body but had not a single penny left. I sold my phone to get enough money to buy a ticket back to Tula, so I can come back again with the necessary amount of money. Then, with the remaining money, I drank. Now I am on my way back to Tula. I want to die. I feel like I can do anything. Are you scared?"

All this was very sudden and strange but he didn't seem to be making the story up to try and swindle her out of some cash. He never actually asked for money. But the repetition of "are you scared" and his assertions of being drunk unnerved her. She noted that the children were no longer playing in the hallway and were either eating their evening meals or even perhaps asleep. While the wagon had many people in it, the coupe also had a door with a lock, and she wondered how long it would take for someone to force the door open from the outside if it was locked. And if she were trapped in here with this strange man, and screamed for help, would people come to her aid? Realizing that her thoughts were wandering too far from what the present situation necessitated, she tried to reel them back in.

She tried to offer a word of sympathy to the man, failed miserably in actually helping the situation, wondered if it would be a good idea to sit and talk to this man for a while, decided against it, and pretended that she needed to go back to sleep. She lay on the berth, immobile as if she were asleep for what seemed like a long time (although it was barely fifteen minutes). To her relief, the ticket collector came by, saw that the man was not in his seat but in a different coupe, one with a single female half-asleep in it. The collector firmly insisted that the man return to his seat, and in another hour, a couple joined her in the coupe. They were quiet and boring, but she was not quite in the mood for anything more interesting anyway.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Success and Happiness

"Success is getting what you want.
Happiness is wanting what you get."
~Dale Carnegie

Cut out the influence of external factors like what your family and others around you wish you were doing, and he has hit the nail on the head!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

It's a small world after all

Do you ever feel disproportionately happy when you bump into an acquaintance on the street or in the metro? It's not like you had even considered the existence of this person in particular in recent times, but something about meeting someone you know in a crowd of strange faces, the few moments of smiles and snatches of conversation before you both separate again to scurry off to wherever it is that you were scurrying off to, creates a warm feeling somewhere in the center of the body. Well, I suppose the feeling is a little different if you bump into someone you have been actively trying to avoid at all costs, but in either case, the intensity of feeling is often stronger than merely meeting the other person would warrant. I think there is something about the element of chance, the fact that out of all the strangers in the city who are swarming your line of vision, you meet someone you know. There is a level of reassurance that you are significant, you know people or even, for some of us, that someone up there is pulling certain strings and setting up your destiny and whatnot- this little encounter only being a small, exemplary manifestation of it.

I think the more mobile your lifestyle is, the more likely you are to bump into familiar faces in new or unexpected contexts. If you have a fairly large friends' circle where most travel extensively by metro, and so do you, the chances of crossing paths is highly likely and perhaps even inevitable. But statistics aside, it still feels good- I know I get a kick out of it every time it happens. Just such an incident made me start thinking about some of the times where I met old friends in new places, and this blog will now veer from the pseudo objective generalizations of the first paragraph to verbose and subjective reminiscences of memoir. You have been warned.

My earliest memory of a fateful 'coincidence' was when I was 4 years old. At the time, we used to live in Mombasa, Kenya. It was my sister's 3rd birthday and we had gone shopping for presents on that particular sunny afternoon. I don't remember what exactly I was doing at the crucial juncture in time but my mom says I was staring blankly at the clothes in a shop while she was asking the shopkeeper to pull down a dress that was on display when my sister, thinking that we had left, walked out in search for us. In the few moments between getting the dress down and my mother looking back to try the dress on my sister, she had managed to disappear into the crowd on the street. What followed were harrowing hours of first looking for her on the street, then calling my father and repeating the search and eventually filing a report at the police station when the search proved futile. We were pushed out of the police station after a few hours, told to go home and that we would be informed as soon as any information was received. It was late evening by the time we reached home, exhausted and worried sick. Our neighbors were good friends and instead of going straight to our apartment, my parents decided to go there first and see if they had any suggestions or if there was something they could do. Imagine our joy but also sheer shock when we saw my sister eating some cookies and milk, seated next to our neighbor's daughter at the dining table! Apparently, she wandered out of the shop we were in and walked about 20 meters to a dentist's office and decided to sit in the waiting room and cry since "my mommy left me and went home." Our neighbor's daughter had an appointment at the same office that afternoon and they saw my sister there. My sister wasn't able to explain where my mother was, so they brought her home with them. This was before everyone had cell phones, so they just had to wait for us to come back home before they could let us know.

This was the first and perhaps most significant in a series of coincidences and intersecting trajectories that I have experienced till date. We were able to get back in touch with other friends from Mombasa who were then living in Bombay over a decade later, weeks before I was going there for a trip. I found friends from Athens (Greece, not Ohio or Georgia) living in Philadelphia through a random Google search of their name in a moment of boredom, when I was on vacation several hours away in Maine. When I went to work in Pune, India, two summers ago, I missed my Bombay-Pune flight and the lady who had been sitting next to me from London offered that I go with her by bus. On the bus, we talked about my plans and when I told her I hadn't found accommodation yet and that I was planning to stay in a hotel in the same area as my office, she insisted that is was a bad area and that I come with her to her brother's home instead. I initially hesitated, but then accepted. In a few more hours of conversation, we realized that her brother had also lived in Mombasa for a couple years, moving there after we had already left, but was great friends with the neighbor who had found my sister when she was three. A made friends with an Indian medical student living in Moscow over the internet and when I came to visit the city, I decided to meet up with him. My mother was worried about me meeting a strange guy and asked me to ask him if he, by any chance, knew the only Indian med student in Moscow that she knew. Turns out, not only did the two guys know each other, they were great friends and had been roommates for years! During the course of conversation, I found out I had a common friend with someone I met in a bar in NYC and that he had stayed with the same friend I had stayed with during our spring break in Florida, and he got there later the same day as when I left. Here's an example of trajectories that barely missed, but later intersected. I don't even remember the guy's name now, but it felt cool when we realized what had happened!

The latest in the series happened last week. One of my ESL students who I teach at her home (I also work with her teenage son) suggested I meet one of her daughters. She felt that the two of us had a lot in common and would get along fabulously. The daughter and I decided to go snowboarding and while the conversation was a little awkward at first, we ended up having a really good time. I later added her as a friend in Facebook and to our surprise, we noticed that we had a common friend. It was one of my closest friends in Moscow, whom I had met randomly at a cafe. She doesn't even speak much English but we get along incredibly well (we traveled to St.Petersburg and Nijhny Novgorod together, went ice-skating numerous times and plan to travel through the Caucasus and South America). Anyway, it turns out that my friend was an old family friend of hers, that their mothers were great friends from decades ago and that they had more or less lost touch in recent times. I gleefully anticipate the pleasure of setting up a surprise meeting with the two of them together this weekend. The daughter already knows that I know them both but she does not expect my friend to be there, and my friend has no idea that I am somehow linked to the other girl. Such 'coincidences' feel good when they happen to you, but it feels even better to be the 'hand of fate.' 8-)

Meanwhile, I'm seriously considering making an exhaustive list of all the people I know and going over the list every time I meet someone, to check if we don't infact have common friends from who knows where. Ok, maybe such an action will not only hinder new friendships but make me lose all old ones too- but it boggles my mind to think of how small this world is!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Another evening in the rabbit hole

Last evening when Alice climbed down the rabbit hole, she just missed her train. She was coming down the steps when she looked up to see the train at the station, ran around a bulky bear who was shuffling along oblivious to the soon to be gone train, and cleared the last three steps in a delightful almost-maybe-dangerous jump to get onto the platform, only to have the doors shut right in front of her face.

As a disappointed and dejected Alice watched the train pull away, she tried to alleviate the impending boredom of the approximately three minute wait for the next train by staring at the creatures around her. The bear had now shuffled its way to the platform and seemed to be looking at her from the corner of its eye, a faintly perceptible smile of what could only be ridicule stamped on the corners of its lips. Alice wanted to contemptuously wrinkle her nose at him, but fought the desire. She had read a random internet article about the harmful effects of stress earlier that day and scrutinized what must surely be the first sign of fine lines that would lead to wrinkles on her forehead later that very day, so she hurriedly pushed aside the desire to glare and attempted a blank stare instead. Taking a deep breath she looked to her right, where three flamingos stood in single file, facing the the wall with the station name etched on it, looking blankly (they must have thought about wrinkles too) into the mid-distance. The only indication of a potential for thought and feeling were headphones creeping out of inner recesses of their furry jackets and into their ears. Alice stared at these immaculately groomed stiletto heeled statues for a minute, admiring their features and feathers while not one of them showed any sign of noticing. She was certain that creatures could often sense it when they were being watched, even from out of their direct range of vision, but the flamingos in this country rarely ruffled a feather, as if expecting and welcoming the attention but being too regal to acknowledge it. Or perhaps it was because Alice was shorter than most of them and a foreigner to boot - particularly high heeled boots- so even if they did notice her, her strange behavior was exactly the sort of thing to be expected given her strange clothing and stranger skin. Meanwhile, already dangerously close to boredom as well as the intoxicating light drowsiness that creeps into an evening after a day of hard work, Alice paced back and forth on the platform a little. Just when she had almost given up hope of ever leaving this quiet, nearly deserted and somewhat chilly platform, she saw the lights of what must surely be hope, signaling a train in their wake.

And what a train it was! Instead of the usual gray-blue fare, this one was orange and had black stripes, simultaneously a tiger and a fire. Alice, never one to shirk from adventure, slipped into the raging maw and looked around herself in wonder. While the composed faces around her were the same as always, this could not make Alice overlook the novelty of this train. The seats on one side of the train had been banished by an invisible hand, with some standing space there instead. The lighting was like that of a state of the art museum and there was indeed art on the wall in focus- and what a state it was in! Framed into beautifully gilded borders, but nonetheless attempting to jump out and expand, there was a row of still lifes and landscapes suspended on an unassuming bark blue wall. The names of the artists rang no bells and the dates were within the last 10 years, but what these paintings lacked in age and name recognition, they made up for in composition. Alice delightfully made her way across the row, all the while trying her best to maintain her balance and not topple over in the speeding, rocking train. As she came to the end of the line, unwilling to be satisfied just yet, Alice hoped that the next wagon would continue the magic, and as soon as the train reached a stop, she jumped out and hopped into the next wagon. And there were more!

What followed was a game of hopscotch as Alice tried to both give each painting at least a fraction of the time it deserved, but be able to see all the paintings in a wagon and be ready to hop onto the next as soon as the train made a stop. Not knowing how many wagons the train had and what masterpieces might be in the next box, she had no choice but to ration her time, pulling and pushing internal forces that told her to linger as well as to hurry, in a staccato scurry from wagon to wagon. All animate beings around her were a blur- she noticed a few in passing only when they were standing in front of a painting she wanted to see. Noticing the look on her face, they all moved aside more or less promptly.

Only when she knew she had reached the last wagon was Alice able to relax, taking her time to really see what was before her. While the flowers had been pretty and the play of light or the motion of waves on water or fields beautiful, only here was she able to see sights truly mesmerizing. Each painting was a scene from the city that was hers and yet not hers, its buildings, squares, cathedrals, rivers and bridges. One painting in particular, of evening falling on a familiar yet strange cathedral that looked neither of one religion nor of another, with plain steeples capped by bulbous domes with geometric rainbow colored designs, drew her to itself. As she continued looking, one of the blue towers with golden stars turned into a hat and a long-haired wizard showed up to fill it.

She asked the only question she could think to ask in such a situation:
"What is your favorite color?"
"I like any," he replied.
As if this was the cue for the end of their conversation, he kissed the back of her hand without breaking eye-contact, bowed, and disappeared. Alice noticed that he had left something behind- a page with the outline of a rainbow colored lion, the sort of thing a five-year old or a famous impressionist might have made. Picking up her memento, she looked up and out the glass doors as she felt the train slowing down again. The dark tunnel gave way to a bright and blurry platform that came into focus as the train lost speed. Seeing the station that she knew must be hers, Alice climbed out when the doors slid open. She got off the train, climbed up a staircase, through the swinging doors that marked entries and exits between the upper and nether worlds, out the rabbit hole and into her regular, mundane world. The feeling of light intoxication spurred by the evening lingered.