Wednesday, July 15, 2015

I am.

I am standing in the rain, waving to Lalita who is sticking her head between the bars of the second story window of her school and smiling her no-front-teeth grin. I've walked what feels like a mile at 10am with Juma and Kumkum to drop her off at school. Water soaks my hair and my kurti from the late morning monsoon downpour, but I smile and wave furiously at the tiny face who is proudly pointing us out to all of her grade school bandhus

I am breathing in clouds. We are in Darjeeling, at 8,600 feet at the base of the Himalayas. I'm wearing jeans and a rain jacket and haven't produced a drop of sweat in 48 hours. The cloud air fills my lungs and cleanses them. Later in my room I cough up black mucus that has settled in my chest from two months of breathing in exhaust, dirt and dust in Calcutta.  
I am sitting cross-legged on the wooden platform in the car park underneath of the apartment building where Nirmal works as a night guard. Juma is rolling out chapatis and I am braiding Kumkum's hair. After I part her hair, I notice that the day's earlier lice treatment has worked. I pick out the dead congee with a fine tooth comb and Kumkum whines that it's taking too long for me to do her hair and too long for dinner to be ready. Juma and I exchange a smile, because nine year olds are nine year olds, no matter where you go. I stop counting the dead lice when I get to 100. 

I am gripping the handle on the inside of a jeep as we hurtle down a busted road past towns with names like Ghum and Kurseong and Pankhabari. The monsoon rains caused landslides just days before that have washed out roads that result in major traffic jams. There is no guardrail to our right and although our driver seems confident that he will deliver us safely to the airport, I take out my phone and compose a love letter to my mom and sister, just in case we careen off the side of the mountain like the beloved principal, his cook, and her five year old daughter did just four days before. 

I am eating tiffin at the dining room table and for the first time ever, Juma sits down next to me. Every single other day, Juma cooks the food, puts it on the table in serving bowls, covers them and then leaves or sits on the floor in the living room. But today she sits next to me. I watch her watch me eat, and she carefully inspects my face for a reaction. I tell her the few sentences I know that could apply to cooking: "Khubhalo! Ami Juma Food bhalo lagey" (Very good! I like Juma Food). She smiles but doesn't speak. I can tell she wants to say something. She keeps opening her mouth slightly, with a look on her face like she is searching for the right words in her limited English vocabulary. I wish she would tell me everything she's thinking in Bengali, even if I can't understand it. The silence in which we sit becomes comfortable and we watch each other. Ami Juma bhalobashi

I am sitting in the backseat of a taxi, with Lalita on my lap and Kumkum between myself and Juma.  We've just dropped off Kate and Audrey at the airport and Nirmal in front is lamenting the fact that I only have 9 more days in India. Kumkum lays her (now lice-free) head on my chest and sighs, "Pisīmonī..." We get to a red light and the bādām man comes to the window. We buy five bags and Lalita gleefully dispenses one to each family member.

I am watching Lalita hand out small bowls of payesh to her family and three pisīmonīs on the morning of her birthday. A sweet, simple celebration of her 7 years on earth.  

I am standing on the metro and the entire car is staring at me. I wear appropriate leggings to my ankles and a plain green kurti that covers everything. My sports bra straps aren't showing and my hair is in a simple braid, no design. Yet, everyone stares. I wonder what they're thinking. I wonder, "Should I have put on coverup today?" "Are the slits in my kurti too high?" "Is my backpack taking up a not appropriate amount of space?" "The staring has to mean something, they can't just be that curious about me. What am I doing wrong?" I make eye contact with some of them. Some of them smile and wave their head to the side. Some just stare back. I put in my head phones and close my eyes and try to be invisible. 

I am watching Juma eat my mashed potatoes with a fork and a smile. She takes seconds and then eats the leftovers from Lalita's plate and my heart explodes because she likes it. Juma likes something that I cooked. Even if she does have to add a pile of salt to her plate and one green lankā. ;-)

I am at Durbar for a meeting with three other people working on the Drishti project. They are speaking in Bengali and I am picking up every 4th word or so, which is enough to provide context clues so that I can figure out what is happening. When my friend translates for me, I smile at my knowledge and ability to somewhat understand the loveliest language I've ever heard. 

I am watching Nirmal watch a video on my phone. It's Lalita and her three pisīmonīs at Banana Leaf earlier that day, singing her Happy Birthday while she smiles into her ice cream. Nirmal is watching, "Dēhkhā!" and crying and wiping his face with a rag. 

I am standing in my bedroom while Juma wraps me in a sari. It fits me perfectly because Nirmal has taken my measurements under the guise of me trying on one of Juma's saris, and then he disappeared for an hour and a half. He returned with the most gorgeous patterned sari, with petticoat and chama. I've never owned a sari and had no reason to before now, but I am so thankful for this gift and even more thankful at having the experience of Juma dressing me in it, fixing each part perfectly, safety pins between her lips and her daughters on the floor, inspecting the length to make sure that the sari isn't too long. 

bandhus = friends
congee = lice/bugs
tiffin = lunch
pisimoni = Auntie
badam = peanut
payesh = a type of sweet Bengali dessert made of rice, milk sugar and pistachios
lanka = chili pepper
chama = the top portion of a sari that looks like a crop top
dehkha! = look!

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Well Sunshine, She Came Out Today

I woke up this morning to the sun shining brightly instead of the usual monsoon mist that's been greeting me upon waking on most days. It made me smile and I immediately opened all of the curtains in my bedroom. It's going to be a good day. 

Tomorrow I'm going to cook Sunday meal for Nirmal and Juma and the girls. Usually both Juma and Nirmal spend hours on Sundays to prepare a huge meal for everyone. But tomorrow I'm going to attempt to make Fried Chicken, Mashed Potatoes and Sauteed Carrots. I think I'll make Masala Fried Chicken by adding some garam masala into the flour mixture for the fried chicken. We'll see how this goes since there is no all-purpose flour nor buttermilk in India. I did some research and I think I can use maida or atta flour. I also found a way to make my own buttermilk...but with buffalo milk? We'll see!

It's been an eventful few weeks. Rajasthan and the Taj Mahal were beautiful. We stayed in an absolutely lovely hotel where I became well acquainted with the bed in our room. We arrived on a Friday and I woke on Saturday morning with a terrible headache and then realized I wasn't just hot from the desert heat...I had a high fever. Lucky for me, I had some pretty amazing people taking care of me. They had the hotel call a doctor, gave me fever reducers and cold washcloths for my head and wrists, and forced me to drink water by waking me every once in awhile. 

Eventually once I was feeling better, I was stuck drinking yucky electrolyte solution instead of the Kingfishers that everyone else could have:

Perhaps this is a good time to point out the obvious in this photo - I got my nose pierced! Surprise! More on that in a bit.

Here are some photos from our hotel in Rajasthan:

Rajasthan and Jaipur were gorgeous. We visited Amer Fort, a fort built in the early 1500s. I think this was one of my favorite days in India thus far. I was finally feeling better from my sickness, the sun was shining, and I was exploring with really fun people. 

Amer Fort, Jaipur

Spices at New Market in Jaipur

Me and a goat friend.

Ellie walking down the street.

And finally, the Taj Mahal. I was so, so sick this day. I was throwing up all over the place. You can even see the ziploc bag in this photo that I'd been carrying around. Also note that Kelly (to my right) is clearly propping me up in this photo. 

I'm really lucky to have everyone on this trip, but on the day that we went to the Taj Mahal I was very, very lucky to have Kelly by my side. When everyone went inside of the Taj, she sat on the benches outside with me. Indian tourists were stopping in front of me and taking photos of me while I was wretching into that ziploc bag. As if it isn't awkward enough when people try to take photos without asking first... but being so sick and having entire families attempt to pose near me while I'm throwing up was so unsettling and weird. Luckily Kelly was on top of it and she stood guard in front of me while I puked so that people couldn't photograph me. She also chased away a few families. ;)

I was also just really thankful to have someone sitting next to me as I slowly made my way back to the entrance of the grounds to meet the rest of the group. I had to stop and sit and puke every so often, but we made it. Thanks for that, Kelly. xo

Since Rajasthan, we've been finishing up work on the students' projects at Durbar and saying goodbye to people as they head back to the US. 

Here's some more photos...

A few weeks ago we visited the Howrah Bridge and the Mullick Ghat Flower Market. It was hectic and crazy and beautiful. 

Oh! The nose piercing! So one morning I was upstairs with the girls. Eventually once she was done in the kitchen, Juma came up and joined us. I'd been trying to ask the girls who had pierced their noses. If it was Ma or at a shop. They translated to Juma what they thought I'd been saying and then all of the sudden Juma was coming at me with a safety pin that had a string tied to it! Luckily I dodged the pin, but it did get me thinking about how I've only ever had my ears pierced, no tattoos, etc. 

So I planned to do it. And 3 others did too!

We went a few nights before we left for Rajasthan. The girls and Nirmal joined us. Thank goodness, because I needed someone to hold my hand ;)

The girls were pretty pumped to go on an adventure with us.

Lalita held my purse AND my hand. I volunteered to go first which reminded me of this time that I was white water rafting in Idaho with my cousin and his wife and my mom and sister. We came to a bridge and everyone was given the opportunity to jump off of it. I went first, into the iciest, chilliest water I've ever felt in my life. I knew that if I didn't go first, I wouldn't go at all!

"Ouch" is an understatement. Also, check out Nirmal's hand gripping mine. So sweet. 

And then it was done. The ring in this photo isn't the one I have was just a placeholder and the one that they use to do the actual piercing. After 3 days we went back and had our tiny diamonds switched in.