Planet Haolewood

A toolbox, a change of underwear, and a surfboard.

Monday, March 23, 2009


“How was India?” The question kind of stumped me when I got back. “Good” seemed a little anti-climactic. “Great” is how you might describe a vacation where you scuba dived and sun bathed. Like India itself, my experience there was many things at once. The best I could come up with for a one-word answer was “different.”

Maybe that’s what those who travel independently to far away places are looking for. Wanderlust is a kind of boredom with the familiar, a desire to experience something genuinely different. Difference wakes us up out a pattern of relating to the world we already know. Instead of being able to anticipate what was coming my way each day, I was forced rely on my senses and react to events as they unfolded one moment at a time. On Kauai, I already know what’s around the next corner, but in India I had no choice but to relate to the world as it actually is instead of an idea of the world that already exists in my mind.

Wanderlust doesn’t run all that strongly in my veins. It had been 12 years since I’d left the country. While rewarding in the long run, the difference was exhausting. Indians looking to scam tourists are adept at recognizing this kind of exhaustion in their potential victims. I had been warned that the Deli train station was a particularly bad area for these con men but I was still fooled, if only temporarily. As I walked from a cab toward the massive and chaotic station a friendly man asked me what train I was taking. When I answered he told me that train was nine hours late but if I followed him he would take me to where I could exchange my ticket for another train that departed shortly. Like an idiot, I followed him even though he was walking AWAY from the station. It only took a few moments before I came to my senses, stopped following the man and headed back toward the station. Even more incredibly, when another man approached me with a similar story seconds later, I started following him, too! Again I did not go far before realized my mistake and ditched my new “friend.” Needless to say, my train turned out to be right on time.

Why was I so vulnerable to these con men? I’m not really that stupid and I knew enough about traveling in India to know that they were probably trying to scam me. Of course, I only went along with them for a few moments, but even that is amazing considering the implausibility of their stories. Here’s my explanation: I was somewhere truly different and had no idea what to expect. Anything was possible. How could I even entertain the possibility that a strange man would approach me in the parking lot of the train station, know that my train was late and offer to help me exchange my ticket? Because stranger things had happened.

As I stood in line at the entrance to the Taj Mahal, a friendly man approached me and asked if I had my cell phone charger in my backpack. He explained security would not let me enter if I did. Cell phones and cameras were permitted but not ipods and cell phone chargers. He offered to take me to a cloakroom where I could leave any prohibited items. As it happened I did have my cell phone and charger with me. I left my place in line and followed the man for several blocks to a deserted looking building with a sign in English, a couple of men sitting behind a desk and some lockers.

I know what you’re thinking. “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. How could he be so naive?” But it turns out the guy was telling the truth. Cell phone chargers and ipods are not permitted in the Taj Mahal. When I arrived at security, they were turning away confused people who had these items with them and sending them to the deserted looking cloak room several blocks away which was in fact totally legitimate. There was no scam to steal my cell phone charger. I collected it without incident when I left. The man who helped me had hoped to gain my trust so that I would agree to hire him as a guide (which I did not).

How about another example of strangeness involving cell phones? I bought a SIM card in Mumbai and the man who sold it to me told me it would be activated in a few hours. My brother in law had bought a SIM card from the same man and his phone was working, but mine wouldn’t work. We had left Mumbai so I couldn’t go back to bought it. I found a help center and asked if they could get my phone working. The woman working behind the counter had a cold. It appeared to be near the end of her shift and she did not seem very excited about the challenge of figuring out what was wrong with my phone. She typed on her computer and fiddled with the phone, all the while sniffling and shaking her head. She told me I’d have to take it to the call center in Mumbai. When I told her I couldn’t do that she fiddled with the phone some more and then passed it around to several other people in the office, including, bizarrely, one of the other customers waiting for help. They all spoke to each other gravely in Marathi and shook their heads. I had been there quite some time and I was loosing hope. Finally she handed my phone to one of the other help center workers, who looked at it disinterestedly, pressed a few buttons and handed it back to me. “There’s a network problem. Try it tomorrow after four. It should work then.” I surmised this was the guy whose job it was to get me out of the office. I gave up. It seemed clear no one there was going to help me.

I did not have even the slightest hope the problem would magically go away the next day as the man had told me, but I tried my phone anyway. It worked and it continued to work without any problems for the rest of my trip.

What had seemed so improbable had turned out to be true. In other cases it was the other way around. A friendly woman at the tourist information counter at the Deli airport reassured me how easily I could catch a bus into the city but I wandered around in the chaos outside the airport and asked many people where the bus stop was. All I succeeded in finding were other confused people looking for the bus stop. I couldn’t get back into the terminal to ask the woman because I didn’t have a ticket. Eventually I just took a cab. What had seemed like a slam dunk turned out to be impossible, and that collision of expectations with reality is the difference between a trip and an adventure; it’s what creates the heightened awareness that I think so many of my friends with wanderlust like about international travel.

The day I left the ashram a boy approached me as I walked to the bus stop. He asked for my autograph. It was toward the end of my trip and the absurdity of the request registered only dimly in my mind. Dozens of foreigners walked up and down that road every day on their way to and from the ashram. I signed his notebook and continued on my way. I was getting used to the strangeness. Had I stayed in India longer, the feeling would have faded as that reality became more familiar.

Maybe it wasn’t a “great” trip or even a “good” one, but I got a lot out my travels in India. If I had it to do again I would have skipped the floundering and gone right to the good stuff, but that’s not how life works, is it? The floundering was an absolutely necessary part of a process and what I learned was that I’m more flexible and resilient than I knew.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Taj Mahal

For my last few days in India I totally abandon my practice of avoiding cities and tourist destinations. I took a two hour bus ride to Kerala’s capital, Thiruvananthapuram, spent the night there, flew early the next morning to Bangalore, then to Deli, the capital of India, traveled by train from Deli to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, the single biggest tourist destination in India, spent the night in Agra, went back to Deli the next day, spent the night there, flew to Taipei, spent the night there, took an overnight flight to Honolulu and arrived there the next day where I caught the short flight back to Kauai. That’s a lot of moving around!

The problem with the “seeing the sights” approach to tourism is that one becomes jaded and unable to appreciate even the most spectacular destinations. Since I hadn’t been seeing the sights, I wasn’t jaded and I arrived in a good state of mind to appreciate the Taj Mahal. It was worth the trip.

The first thing I noticed about “The Taj” as it is affectionately known, is its grand scale. The main building and its surrounding gardens are enormous. Its construction employed 20,000 workers and took 22 years. For comparison consider a wonder of nature such as a mountain. While its awesome size might take your breath away, there is also great beauty a wildflower you see as you walk along its base. So it is with the Taj Mahal. The great slabs of white marble from which it is constructed are inlaid with stones of various colors. In the interior the inlay work is done with brightly colored semi-precious stones. The amount of hand carved stone inlay work is staggering, it boggles the mind to think about how much time and careful work went into the construction of that building.

To my mind the scale and the fine workmanship are simply displays of wealth. The Taj Mahal is a mausoleum; it has no earthly function. Emperor Shah Jahan had a lot of money so he could afford to buy a lot of stone and hire all the best stone carvers. Anyone with that much money could do the same. What impressed me even more was the architecture. It is not known who designed the Taj Mahal but whoever it was had a kind of inspiration that money cannot buy.

It’s symmetry and singularity of focus are what really amazed me. It is as if all the beauty and careful work in every detail is focused on a single, unwavering goal, an architectural expression of the complete devotion to a single god so revered in Islam, the religion that puts the “mono” back in monotheism. While the gardens and the red of the surrounding walls and mosques are rooted in the earth the pale central building itself seems to float and shimmer as if it were almost perfect enough to simply float up to heaven at any moment.

Working hundreds of years before the invention of photography, the designers could not have anticipated how incredibly photogenic their creation would be. The urge to photograph is almost irresistible even when you know you’re taking the exact same picture that is taken hundreds of times a day and can be found printed with professional quality in books and on postcards everywhere.

It pleases me that people built such a sublime structure hundreds of years ago without the benefit of computers or modern engineering. Like all great works of art, it is a reminder that human genius is always present and that our age is no more advanced in its imagination despite all of our amazing technology.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Hare Krishna!

Of all the places I visited in India my favorite was the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwantari Ashram. At least ninety per cent of the monks and other people staying at the Ashram were foreigners. Many of them were studying to become teachers of the Ashram’s particular school of yoga. The rest, like me were there for a “yoga vacation.”

The yoga vacation was a bit like boot camp would be if the point were to train for inner peace instead of war. Accommodations were Spartan. Vegetarian meals were served twice daily with seating on the floor and diners were expected to eat in silence. Attendance at all services, classes and lectures was mandatory. It felt safe, clean and friendly but it was by no means luxurious.

The typical day (and pretty much every day was typical) began with a wake-up bell at 5:20. At six, we assembled in the main hall for 20 minutes of silent meditation, followed by maybe 40 minutes of chanting in Sanskrit. The head monk would then read something from one of their guru’s books and explain some of the ideas he wrote about. Then it was time for morning tea. At eight we had a two-hour yoga class followed by the morning meal which they referred to as brunch. After eating it was time for Karma Yoga during which time we had the opportunity to improve our lot in the next life by raking leaves or cleaning toilets.

In the afternoon we had some free time followed by a lecture at two and then another two-hour yoga class at 3:30. Having finished that class we walked our limbered up bodies back to the dining hall for the evening meal. At 8 we gathered again for another round of meditation, chanting, and discussion of Swami Vishnudevananda’s (the spelling checker didn’t have any suggestions for that one!) teachings. Lights out at 10:30.

Are we having fun yet? Fun may not be the right word, but it was certainly pleasant. While I did not understand or agree with all of their ideas, living according to their routine had a very positive effect on my mind and body.

Have you ever heard of churches or religious orders offering a free meal? I guess the deal they are proposing is that they will feed you and in return they expect you to submit to their attempts to brainwash you. The situation at this ashram was the same except the carrot in this case was yoga instruction rather than a free meal. The whole package, including lodging, meals and four hours of yoga instruction daily cost about ten dollars a day. Most of the yoga vacationers were interested in those classes and feelings about getting up at six and chanting in Sanskrit ranged from enthusiastic to resentful. The chanting in particular seemed to rub a lot of the westerners the wrong way. The highly repetitive chants were mostly invocations of Swami Sivananda, his disciple, Swami Vishnudevananda and various Hindu gods. Most of the yoga vacationers were not Hindus, did not speak Sanskrit and had never heard of Swami Sivananda or any of his disciples. So the chanting felt a little like a non-catholic might feel attending a catholic mass in Latin.

I personally didn’t mind. The chants were a bit boring and didn’t do anything for me but the tunes were kind of catchy and they started growing on me after a while. Besides, the monks and other volunteers at the ashram were not in the least pushy. In fact, they were very sincere and friendly. What I was being asked to do was not onerous and considering what I got in return I felt it was a good deal. The quality of yoga instruction was quite good and the effect of four hours a day of asanas on my body was amazing. When I lay down to sleep I would hear popping sounds from my back and neck

The monks at the ashram emphasized that they had a different definition of the word yoga than we have in the west. To westerners yoga is associated with certain postures and movements. It is a physical exercise for strengthening and stretching. To them the physical exercises are only one part of a way of living that promotes inner peace. They could describe it in more detail than I but suffice to say it emphasizes clean living, humility, devotion, and discipline in addition to the physical exercises. For some, but not all of the yoga vacationers those other aspects of yoga were a hard sell.

One of those aspects was karma yoga which they translated as “selfless service”. For my karma yoga I was assigned to help serve food at the meals. Perhaps in a previous life I was a glutton who gorged himself while others starved. I don’t know but I kind of liked the job and there was plenty for me to eat when I was done serving. Food came from the kitchen in stainless steal buckets with ladles to serve it. I would walk up and down the lines of diners seated on the floor with a bucket of curried vegetables, for example, and dish some more out to whoever wanted seconds. The tricky part was that no one was supposed to talk during the meal. People broke that rule frequently, of course. Often, they would say, “om” to get my attention, as if that were cosmically more appropriate than saying “hey, you with the curry.” Most of the communication was non-verbal, though. I would look for eye contact and when someone nodded at me I would slop some more food on their plate. When I was seated to eat and wanted seconds (or thirds) I found the most effective way to communicate my desire was to hold my plate up.

“Om” was actually a pretty popular word there. They told us what it meant but the definition was so abstract that it seems to have floated away from my mind. They believe that simply by uttering certain words, karma can be improved and one’s lot in the next life might be better, which I guess is why they’re so big on the chanting. But they even used the words in more mundane contexts, for example when I said hello to a passing monk instead responding with, “hello, how are you?” she answered “Om nimashyvaya.” At the snack bar, where one could order delicious fruit salads or “bliss,” which in this case was a little ball of mashed up dates, the volunteer who took my orders would ring her little bell and call out “om” instead of “order up.”

My first meal at the ashram was the final meal for the 180 students in a month long teacher training course. They had just finished some rigorous tests and their mood was jubilant. As they lined up outside the dining hall they enthusiastically clapped and sang out, “Hare Rama, hare Krishna.” I wondered what I was getting myself into. Over the next few days the teacher training course students left the ashram leaving just the yoga vacationers. With their departure the customary pre-meal chanting withered until it was just the poor guy on the microphone leading the chant with hardly anyone joining in. I felt bad for the guy and by the end of my one-week stay I was chanting and clapping and hoping more people would join in. I don’t know what to think about karma and reincarnation but why not just do as the Romans? It certainly couldn’t do any harm.

In the office there was a bin where people leaving the ashram could leave reusable items they wanted to get rid of and anyone else could take them. I lightened my load by leaving the lotus flower I had carved and as I made my way down the hill toward the bus stop I felt light hearted and ready for my next adventure.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Back to School

My arrival at the Vijnana Kala Vedi School of Traditional Indian Art in the little village or Aranmula coincided with the beginning of a ten-day festival at the local Hindu temple. The technicians in charge of amplifying the festival music were much more interested in volume than sound quality. Within the temple walls the music was so loud that I stayed at least 100 yards from the speakers at all times. To avoid the risk that those outside the temple might not be able to hear, they had set up loud speakers throughout the village. The loud speakers were set some distance apart from each other so sound reached one’s ears at different times. The cacophony was tremendous and they kept it up about 18 hours a day.

Aside from the near maddening and relentless racket of the festival, the village and the school were very pleasant. I shared a house provided by the school with two other students. Laurent was Swiss and studied tabla and cooking. Ludovic was French but lived in Ireland and studied Kalarippayattu, a martial art and Kathakali, a form of dance with striking costumes and make-up. They were kind enough speak English instead of French in my presence so that I would not be excluded from conversations. We sat on our balcony during the warm evenings and shared our stories while Ludovic rolled cigarettes.

For meals we gathered with the other fifteen students and ate delicious meals prepared by the school’s cooks and served on banana leaves. Each day I had one hour of woodcarving lessons and two hours of Karnatic singing. My singing teacher was Mr. Ravi, a jolly sixty year old whose diabetes had left him almost totally blind. He complained bitterly about the noise from the temple which made it hard for him to rely on his hearing to cross the street. He dictated long ragas from memory while I wrote them down in a notebook so I could practice them. My lessons began at 2:30 in a little hut near the area where we ate lunch. His blindness made it difficult for Mr. Ravi to get around so he usually hung around the area after lunch and waited until it was time for my lesson. With his belly full and the warm afternoon air, I often arrived to find him napping. I helped him arrange his things and we began our lessons.

On my second to last day at the school, I arrived again to find him napping but when I helped him up he was unusually sluggish and had trouble sitting up straight. I thought he was drowsy, but his strange state persisted until it became clear that something was seriously wrong. I went to get help and some of the school officials rushed him to the hospital. He seemed to be partially paralyzed on one side of his body. He remained hospitalized during the rest of my stay there but I don’t know what happened after that.

In the meantime I finished up the lotus flower I had been carving with the help of my instructor, Shagi. He drew the design on a block of wood and demonstrated how to use various shaped chisels to carve it. For someone accustomed to using power tools, it seemed laborious and imprecise, but the work was soothing to the mind.

The school had excellent Internet access which I used to arrange the next part of my trip.

Friday, March 13, 2009


Some people call Kerala the Hawaii of India. It’s certainly warm, pleasant and populated with even more coco palms than all the resorts and golf courses in Hawaii put together. It’s also more laid back than other parts of India but the comparison probably ends there.

Kerala has the world’s only democratically elected communist government. Che Guevara’s eyes gazed stoically at me from posters at bus stations, as if passing judgment on my capitalist intrusion. With excellent education and little industry, Kerala’s chief export is human brains. Often working in the gulf states, these energetic workers support Kerala’s economy with their remittances and return to build what we might call “monster homes” along the quiet by-ways of their home state.

Kerala has a tradition of matriarchy with better rights for women than other parts of India and the lowest birth rate in the country. Its health care system is the envy of the third world. The average life expectancy compares to that of the United States even though they spend a minuscule fraction of what we spend on health care. Kind of makes you wonder why our “free enterprise” health care systems couldn’t be more efficient, doesn’t it?

My trip to Kerala began in the wee hours of the morning when my overnight train pulled into a station near an area of lakes and canals known as the backwaters. Crowds of pilgrims slept on the platform I stepped onto and a short rickshaw ride took me to the ferry where I would catch the first boat of the day. In the beautiful light of the morning, the ferry slowly made its rounds through a complicated system of canals picking up men with their fishing gear and children on their way to school.

I spent a few days in the area, enjoying the scenery and warmth. Living in Hawaii has left me very little tolerance for cold and I had been quite chilly in the mountains. Southern India in the winter is like Hawaii in the summer. That’s more like it!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


I know people who told me they would never go to India. Others told me they would have cancelled their plans in light of the Mumbai attacks one month prior to my visit. My sister said me her biggest fear was that she or her family might get sick. Most people I talked to about their travels in India did get sick at some point. Others told hair-raising stories about bus drivers seemingly bent on taking all their passengers with them in a kind of involuntary suicide pact. But my greatest fear wasn’t that I’d be attacked by terrorists, poisoned by contaminated food or crushed in a high-speed collision. My fear was that I would be adrift in a strange land without any idea of what to do with myself. I never saw a terrorist. I never got sick and I never had a traffic accident. But I did face my greatest fear.

Grey skies seemed about to drizzle the day I wished my sister and her family good-bye, left the cozy enclave of the Indian Institute of Science and began the solo part of my trip. A jolly auto-rickshaw driver dropped my off at the train station. Ticket in hand I went to look for the train to Mysore. Maybe it’s difficult to understand my fear. After all the world was my oyster, right? I could go anywhere and do anything I pleased. India is really not a very dangerous place for foreigners at all, despite what many Americans seem to think. The problem was I didn’t really know where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do. I had come to India counting on inspiration to lead me once I was there. As I stood on the platform wondering if I were in the right spot it seemed like inspiration was running a little late.

India’s not a good place to lack clarity of purpose. I’m the kind of person who gets over-stimulated at the mall. I avoid them whenever possible and I only go when I have a specific mission so I can get in, take care of business and get out without having to wander around looking for things. American malls are clean and orderly filled with relatively friendly people who speak English. Even on the busiest day of the year they aren’t crowded by Indian standards. And I didn’t have any mission beyond a vague idea of “experiencing India.”

So imagine my relief when an Indian man I asked for directions at the train station turned out speak impeccable English and happily helped me find my train. It was his train, too. Perhaps sensing my vulnerability, he took on helping me with my travel arrangements as his own personal project. He phoned ahead to a hotel he knew in Mysore and made a reservation for me. Once we arrived, he personally took me to the hotel and gave me his two cell phone numbers in case I needed anything. The next morning he accompanied me to the bus station and made sure I got on the right bus. Things seemed to be going well.

I’d spent most of my time so far in Indian cities and I was determined to find some peace and quiet. Mysore is a smaller city than Banglaore but not small enough. I headed for the hills. But to what end? I read through my guidebook. An Indian woman on Kauai had told me about dozens of beautiful temples I could visit. Other travelers had told me about great food and “spiritual entertainment” in the nearby state of Goa. But none of the tourist spots really appealed to me. So what was I doing there? My lack of purpose was confounded by my lack of traveling skills. Up to that point I had relied on my brother-in-law who has traveled in India many times to make arrangements for me. Now I was on my own.

I had made it to Madikeri, a mountainous town in a coffee growing region. With a population of around 30,000 it was a quieter than other places I’d stayed, but very few people spoke English and I had difficulty figuring things out. I was floundering just as I had feared. It was a low point of my trip. I wanted to change my ticket and go home early. But go home to what? I had been laid off from my job and had moved out of my apartment and put my things in storage. I was homeless and unemployed. Rushing home to Kauai seemed like a ridiculous idea. I decided to give it a little more time. I would have to persevere even though I did not know what exactly I was holding out for.

Hiking is a natural choice for me but trails were neither mapped nor marked so trekking without a guide was out of the question. The guide I spoke to would only take me if he found additional tourists to share the trip. There didn’t seem to be any forthcoming but at the last minute a lovely English couple rolled into town signed up to go hiking into the hills with me. Now at least I was in my element, but southern India is not known for its adventure tourism and while it was pleasant tromping about I couldn’t help but wonder what was the point of coming to India to hike terrain I could have found in Hawaii or California?

As the three-day trip wound down, I was anticipating the question of what to do next. The English woman told me about a school of Indian art in Kerala that friends of hers had recommended. I figured it was better to have a plan than not and that sounded like a good enough plan for me. As soon as we got back to town I contacted the school. They asked if I would like to study Karnatic vocal music and woodcarving. I told them to sign me up.

How often does inspiration come as a flash of light anyway? The clarity of purpose I had hoped for finally arrived as a process that unfolded on step at a time. I still couldn’t figure out how to get the bus I wanted so I ended up going to another city fairly far out of my way that seem to have more buses. Maybe I wasn’t going exactly the right direction but at least I was moving.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Taking a Break

If I ever win the lottery (which seems unlikely since I never play) I won’t rush out to buy a new house or car. First I’ll hire a personal chef and I would have them decide what to make for me. It’s even better than eating out at a restaurant because you don’t have to make any decisions. Delicious meals simply appear before you.

Traveling in India is a bit like winning the lottery because though I’m not rich by US standards, just being able to afford to fly to India makes me fabulously wealthy by Indian standards. I didn’t hire a personal chef to travel with me but every meal I ate in India was prepared by someone else, ridiculously cheap and -without exception- delicious.

The next stop after our visit to the village was the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. While my brother-in-law met with a colleague of his there and my sister prepared to give a talk to ecology students, we stayed in a guest house on the grounds of the leafy, spacious campus that reminded me of Stanford University where as a kid I rode my bicycle to the video arcade. We played poker with pieces of yarn for chips, did laps in the pool and ate in the dining hall where visiting foreigners ate fabulous meals three times a day.

Not a bad existence, actually, and we needed a rest after all the long car rides. The pleasant pace of life at the IIS was a sharp contrast to the chaos of the streets of Bangalore outside its walls. One of the fastest growing cities in Asia, Bangalore is exhausting to navigate and has little to recommend it for sightseeing. So we mostly favored our pleasant refuge with only brief forays into the outside world.

Did I mention the food was good? India is without a doubt the most vegetarian friendly place I’ve ever been. Santa Cruz is a only a DISTANT second. Indian food is my favorite and I’ve lived almost three years on an island without a single Indian restaurant. I never got tired of the food and I never spent more than four dollars on a meal.

Friday, March 06, 2009


[Note that some names and other details have been changed]

Where were you on December 31st, 2008? I slept soundly in India. I was later told I slept through a lot of noise that night, but it had been a long and eventful day and I had completely forgotten about New Year’s Eve.

It was one of those days when the seemingly improbable suddenly became reality as if I had woken from a dream. The call to prayer rang out from a nearby mosque and the day began with my head stuffed up from a cold. I had slept terribly and the idea of piling into the car with my sister, brother-in-law, their two kids, driver and a social worker traveling with us for another long drive did not appeal. I thought about bowing out to rest and watch American movies at the hotel, but we had come so far it would have been a shame to miss out just when things might start to get interesting.

After all, this was the day I had come to India for, wasn’t it? Why HAD I come? What was I doing there? I was really just tagging along on my nephew’s quest to discover his roots, but he didn’t seem quite sure why he was there either. In fact, he seemed quite happier to play with his Nintendo GS and take pictures of any dogs we encountered than to search for the village where he was born. He’s seven. Fortunately, the leader of our group and the Don Quixote of this windmill mission was his adopted father and my brother-in-law, George. And he had enough certainty of purpose and enthusiasm for us all.

It was too early for breakfast at the hotel when we left so we accepted an invitation to have tea at the home of the social worker’s parents when we stopped to pick her up. My other nephew, 15-year-old Michael, had taken his anti-malarial medication on an empty stomach and was throwing up in the street outside. The social worker worked for the orphanage where Alice and George adopted my nephew and they had hired her to come with us to try and find the village where he was born. The orphanage does not approve of such projects and she could loose her job if her boss learned she was helping us. George clutched photocopied pages of information about the boy’s roots and drew the social worker aside frequently to discuss our plans.

We didn’t have much to go on. It started with documents they had obtained illegally when they adopted the Indian boy seven years ago. His name was (and is) Ishan, which has some spiritual meaning in the local language. No one knows who named him. The documents indicated that he was found in a field. They also provided the name of the village and of the owner of the field. Unfortunately the village was so small that it did not appear on any maps and there were several other villages of the same name. The man who found him was most likely dead.

Nonetheless, George had some pictures from google earth with the area where he believed the boy was born circled. It seemed like a long shot, but we had to at least try. So we had driven hundreds of miles across rural India’s spotty highways, with their cane-laden ox carts and relaxed approach to the rules of traffic safety. And that morning after a few more hours we rolled into the supposed village not knowing what to expect.

The villagers certainly must not have expected to see us. Since we had not been entirely sure where we were going and did not have any contacts, notifying anyone of our visit before hand was impossible. Instead, we simply showed up. The village was home to a few hundred people who farmed the nearby land and lived in dirt-floor houses made of sticks. We later learned that ten years had passed since a foreigner set foot in the village. No one there spoke English.

While the social worker went to find the village leader, which she enigmatically referred to as the “police patil,” we waited by the car. The villagers seemed afraid to look directly at us though they were clearly curious and when I said hello to one of them terror flashed in his eyes. We were invited to tea in one of the few concrete houses. In turned out to be the home of the son of the man who had found Ishan in the field and we waited while someone went to fetch him from the fields where he was working.

A small group of people gathered outside the house and starred curiously. They asked questions and the social worker translated. We told them who the boy was and why we were here. Fearful curiosity became great excitement and word got out to the rest of the village. The crowd outside quickly grew and people took turns standing near the doorway to catch a glimpse of us and especially of Ishan.

Our host told the social worker that we were in fact in the right village and that he remembered the baby they had found seven years ago. Actually, everyone in the village remembered. They knew who Ishan’s biological parents were. The mother lived there in the village. She had married another man and had a six month old child. The father did not live in the village.

The rapid turn of events went far beyond what we had expected to find. When Ishan was an infant medical tests revealed that he had been exposed to HIV. While he doesn’t have it, the test indicates that his mother probably did. Our assumption was that she would have died sometime in the past seven years. The possibility of learning her identity at all seemed remote. That we could discover who she was and that she was still alive was stunning. The chance of meeting her in person, and event we had not imagined possible now suddenly seemed close at hand.

The villagers took us the spot in the field near the village where Ishan was found. By now the crowd had swelled to over a hundred and they swarmed around us talking excitedly and snapping pictures with their cell phones. It was a celebratory mood and many photos were taken as we moved through the village and into the field.

Ishan’s biological mother did not come forward and the villagers did not tell us who she was. We can only imagine that she stood in the crowd and saw her son and his adopted American family. We stayed for a few hours and looked around the village but we were drawing a lot of attention and were worried that when word got outside the village others might come and our social worker wanted to keep a low profile. So we piled back into the car and headed back to our hotel. It had been an extraordinary day.

Ishan is shy around strangers and he didn’t really like all the attention, but he held up well during the visit. The experience did not seem to make much of an impression on him. The village was as far from his life as it is from any seven-year-old American’s life. Maybe when he’s older he’ll be more curious about that far away village where he might have lived had he not been adopted. Maybe he’ll remember this trip as he grows up and explores his identity. I’m just glad I didn’t stay in bed and nurse my cold.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Just a Tourist

Tourists in rented convertibles sometimes cruise Kauai highways with cameras held up, simply photographing the view from the road. Those of us who live here shake our heads and wonder what kind of idiot would take pictures of the road that we drive on every day. We’ve become jaded to the beauty around us.

So I had to laugh when I found myself pointing my camera out of the window of moving cars and trains as we traveled through India. “Look!” I exclaimed, “there’s a cow on the road!” I can only imagine the Indians who saw me thinking, “what kind of an idiot would take pictures of a cow on the road? What’s so unusual about that?”

Snapping photos from a moving car yields about on picture worth keeping for every twenty taken, but it’s something to do on a long ride.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Lighting the Menorah in Mumbai

In late November 2008 a month before I planned to fly from Hawaii to Mumbai terrorists attacked the city. They struck several places and shot it out with Indian commandos for three days. 173 people were killed.

One of the targets was Nariman House, a Jewish outreach center. Six people were killed there including the Rabi and his wife who ran the place. On their flight from New York to Mumbai, my brother-in-law, a non-practicing Jew, met a man who was headed there for a ceremony to commemorate the victims of the attack. He invited him and the rest of us traveling with him to come.

Amidst piles of rubble and riddled with bullet holes the building still stands. A crowd of mostly reporters and cameramen milled about in the narrow path at its door. It was clearly a media event but nothing was happening yet. As foreigners our arrival attracted some attention and when my brother-in-law began to chat with a French journalist the cameras all turned on him.

After a lot of waiting, they erected a huge Menorah and leaned out the window of the building to light it. A visiting rabbi made a short speech about the importance of persevering with the mission of the center and then they took down the menorah, strapped it to the top of the taxi and the whole party (which now included the five of us) along with the entourage of reporters made its way a few blocks away to the Gate of India, an important Mumbai landmark for another round of speeches and menorah lighting.

On our way to the gate some of the friends of the Nariman house got into a heated debate with police officers who had closed the road in front of the Taj Mahal Hotel, another one of the terrorists’ targets. They felt the police should make an exception and allow us to pass, but the police weren’t budging. Walking around the hotel would not take us far out of our way and the argument seemed pointless to me, but our new companions were adamant and we soon participating in a sort of spontaneous civil disobedience. Being the brother-in-law of some guy that one of them had met on the plane, I wasn’t really sure why I should be risking open defiance of the police, but breaking up the solidarity of our little party didn’t feel like the right thing to do so I stuck with the group. Cooler heads prevailed among the police officers and they let us pass.

While the gathering assembled and they re-erected the menorah, rabbis kept the crowd entertained by recruiting Jews from the audience to participate the ritual of laying of tefillin, in which leather straps are bound around one’s arms while something in Hebrew is recited. I’m don’t know what the significance of this practice is but my brother-in-law rose to the occasion and I took pictures.