Goodbye India!

Culture shock is a funny term.  In my case, I’m not sure it’s accurate.

OK; maybe that’s a lie.

December 9 and 10, my first two days in India, I spent basically hiding inside a bewilderingly abandoned hotel complex, waiting for Fenwick to arrive, too nervous to enter the chaos of the city of Aurangabad without her.

Fenwick, after she arrived, speaks to one of our many personal staff members at the weird abandoned hotel

When I say the hotel was abandoned, I mean it was abandoned in terms of guests.  After emerging from an interrupted night’s sleep in which the front desk called me three times to confirm the spelling of Fenwick’s name for her airport pickup the next day, I crossed the lawn to the dining area for breakfast to be attended by about 15 waiters.

I could barely get a bite of food into my mouth before they were clearing dishes away and asking if I needed anything else.

I asked if there were other guests.

“Oh yes; many,” they said.

But there were no other guests.  I know because I was there continuously for a day and a half and no one but staff members appeared anywhere.  If they had, I probably would have sprinted over, scaring the daylights out of them.

I asked about the swimming pool and the concierge pointed the way.  I approached it eagerly.  It was lovely and big.  But there was no water in it.  I returned to the front desk to ask about WiFi. “Go to your room,” they told me.

So I went to my room and stayed there for a day and a half, experiencing culture shock.

The culture shock of everyone wanting to have photos taken with us on our first outing - the Ellora Caves near Aurangabad

From there, Fenwick and I learned together that no matter how much money you spend to protect yourself from India, you cannot spend enough.  Even though we rode in private taxis, took flights when we could, booked rooms in impossibly fancy hotels, we still breathed the black air, still stepped in puddles of excrement and garbage, still were harassed by men and street children, trying to take advantage of us in different ways.

Money didn’t solve the problem of culture shock in India.

For me, time did.  After a while, the shock wore off.  I became (sort of) used to breathing toxic fumes throughout my yoga practice.  This trip has been about challenging some of my most fundamental expectations of life.

1.  Air – In New Zealand, I breathed in mold and cat dander.  I felt poisoned and couldn’t wait to fill my lungs with air in India.  Ha – have I mentioned?  The air in India is poisonous.  I am angry about it because now there are friends all over the country, breathing that air, becoming sick.  Breathing, so vital and key, is a gift we ignore.

Best meal by far in India - Banana Leaf Ayurvedic Thali!

2.  Food – In India, you can’t eat raw food.  In the north, sometimes your only options are sugary or fried, or both.  Feeling nourished by nutritious food went out the window for a while.  Now, in Thailand, I think I scared some fellow travelers because after one bite of intoxicating, crunchy, sweet, spicy green salad, I couldn’t fill my mouth with more of it fast enough.

3.  Movement – I couldn’t hike or run and the yoga I knew then was pretty gentle.  My body wasn’t getting its daily sweaty exertion-dose of endorphins.  Poor Fenwick had to deal with the fall out.  Throughout the three months, I learned to listen to my body in new ways.  Instead of forcing it up a mountain first thing in the morning, I gave it time to tell me what it needed.  Which, it turns out, is powerful Ashtanga asana first thing in the morning.  The difference?  Ashtanga Primary Series is a specially formulated process to develop strength and flexibility in the body AND mind, while focusing the thoughts on the Divine more than on the firmness of one’s ass or the time you are beating in summiting the peak.

4.  Men – None.  Enough said.

I lied again.  There was a pudgy gentleman on the flight down from Delhi to Aurangabad back in December who was escorting his sister down for a visit with him, his wife and their two children.  He asked me about my life and I told him I was unmarried and a yoga teacher and wanted to learn to cook the saag paneer we were served on the flight. I was feeling quite contemptuous of everyone’s advice to lie and always say I was married.  I didn’t want to lie.

To make a long story short, my gentleman friend visited me at the strange abandoned hotel complex the next day to “learn meditation” which I learned means something culturally different to at least one Indian man.

That dose of culture shock was healthy.  I misplaced my shock and sadness about a real live Indian person (the first I had met in India!) not knowing the secrets of yoga and meditation, his own cultural treasures!  In this case, my desire to share yogic knowledge led to questions about whether my boyfriend needs Viagra (because present company finds it unnecessary) and persistent suggestions to move the session from the patio to my hotel room.

Ayur Dara Panchakarma in Kerala

My desire to help got me into trouble many times in India.  Culturally, I needed to learn boundaries and respect.  When the Ayurvedic Doctor’s neighbors had an unhappy and unruly yellow lab puppy that was locked in a cage all day and night, I offered to train it to give it more freedom.  Instead of the joyful wagging I expected, I got a nasty cut and trail of bruises across my arm from its vicious attack.  Culture shock, big time.

These lessons out of the way, halfway through the trip I began to embrace India.  And India truly embraced me back.  I paid tiny bits of money for thin mattresses, freezing showers, all night bus journeys.  I gave up my agenda of fitness and salads even though it was scary to think of what my body would become.

Walking ashram dogs along the Ganga

By now (this was early January), I began to prefer India.  At Santosh Puri ashram, I chanted and prayed and blessed my food before consuming everything (even buttermilk) with my hands.  I roamed by the Ganga with cows.

Mataji, chanting at the 5 AM Aarti fire, Santosh Puri Ashram

Listening to Mataji daily speak about devotion to God, how everything is God – even suffering because it purifies and burns away what keeps us from God, I was beginning to change.  I was feeling peaceful and content.  I was afraid, though.  I was afraid to go back into the world and lose what I had gained.  What I had gained was a glimpse of what truly matters in life – getting close to God.  What I was afraid of – being pulled back into the pursuit of all the things that don’t matter in life – how I look, what people think about me, whether I can do handstand.

Lighthouse Beach, scene of my dismay

The next day I met the cool yogis for a course in Ayurveda.  We lay on Lighthouse Beach in Kovalam, after a beautiful early morning swim, listening to the bass beats of some American song from 15 years ago, baking in our bikinis as Indian men in business suits walked past and pretended (or didn’t) not to stare.  Suddenly, I was crying.  A lot, and loudly, on that bright beach.

Pushti, source of much contentment at Santosh Puri

I couldn’t stop.  I missed the ashram – Pushti, its tiny puppy, its quiet order and respect for what matters.  How could I give that to myself?  I didn’t know how.  I had said goodbye to Mataji; now I just wanted to be near my mother.  But also, I didn’t.  I wasn’t ready to go home.

I spent the afternoon crying and wandering around the hotel room, glugging bottled water.  I felt at a crossroads.  I didn’t want to spend my life in an ashram but I didn’t know where else to go.  Re-entering “normal” life was too much of a shock.

Kali, at her temple in Hampi. See how she slays those men while looking lovely?

Happily, I adjusted and began the last segment of the journey, which we shall call “Boot Camp.”  My new friends Liza and Merrin decided to school me in the ways of Kali, since I had been adopted by that destroying, fiery Deity that same week in Kovalam.  Both Liza and Merrin tend to live-by-Kali already.  We decided they needed the grounding, sleepy, sweet-eating Ganesh for their journey.

Anyway, my Kali-boot-camp entailed overhauling my eating habits – taking away sweets and adding fiery spice to pretty much all food; drinking coffee black; drinking vodka for dinner on occasion; I speak as if in jest.  But truly, the “diet plan” gave me freedom from this idea I’d picked up somewhere along the way that a hungry, empty feeling is one that should elicit panic.  That anxiety can be soothed, always, by sweets.  Really, what I was doing by eating in excess of three times a day, by satiating myself with sugar regularly, was keeping me from what I truly wanted – strength.

Other Kali bootcamp lessons – wear shorts, and purple eyeliner.  Lie in the sun. Don’t take things so personally – be a bit tougher.  Stop doubting yourself- be confident.

These are not the lessons I came to India to learn, per se.  My Liza and Merrin gurus, cute yoga teachers from San Diego, were the opposite of ash-smeared holy men inhabiting caves in the Himalayas.  The biggest lesson I gained, upon reflection after graduating Kali bootcamp, was not to be so shallow.

I was judging my San Diego gurus and their gin-drinking, sun-tanning ways.  I wanted a real guru, chanting mantra 20 hours a day.  I wanted to escape my desires, transcend the need to inhabit my body and the challenges I face with it.

Instead, I inhabited my body by doing stronger asana.  I learned how to dress more flatteringly (you need a waist – Merrin).  I even learned to stand up straighter and walk more gracefully – Kali bootcamp style.

My desire to have a strong body and accomplish challenging poses is not wrong, I learned.  In fact, as Liza said, my desire to be above that desire is shallower than anything else.

We are all given a body.  We’re not just floating ethereal shapes wasping around the firmament.

And in embracing this desire to be strong and accomplish poses with my body, I actually feel more free.  To think about what counts – which is loving God, and serving others.

Hmmm, so dear Kali, put me through culture shock any day, and send me gurus in any form that might be humorous to you.  I know I don’t need to be in India to learn these lessons, but I’m sure grateful I got to learn so much in your shocking homeland.

Slowly, slowly

Hello, sun in my face. Hello you who made the morning and spread it over the fields…Watch, now, how I start the day in happiness, in kindness. ~ Mary Oliver

I don’t know about you, but I used to open my eyes in the morning, blink…and panic.  The panic was unremitting and two-fold.  Here were the early AM options:

1.  Shoot.  I have so much to accomplish.  How can I get everything done efficiently and completely?  Most importantly, how can I fit a lot of exercise into the day to burn off every calorie I consume?

2.  Yikes.  I don’t know what this day holds.  What if I can’t find anything fun or productive to do?  What if I’m lonely/bored/missing something, etc.?

Even in the first daytime moments, there was no way to win.  Anxiety was my faithful companion, like a rescue dog with baggage that seems sweet but could turn on me at any second.

Anxiety is a friend because it gets shit done.  Anxiety is an enemy because it tortures you constantly.  It’s important to begin to quietly mention to yourself the following: being you, you will probably always get shit done.

I always have trouble discerning between hunger and anxiety.  Between fatigue and anxiety. Basically, between being alive and being anxious.

There are endless metaphors.  Here is one: I am the vehicle; anxiety is the fuel.

There are endless reasons: childhood messages, ambitious Western culture, friends and family who can’t determine either, for the life of them, where anxiety leaves off and life begins.

There’s a reason I found yoga and ayurveda, the two sciences that intertwine around freedom like the ida and pingala nadis around the shushumna, or astral spine.  (Sorry, but months of yoga and tantra discourse makes me like this.)

Yesterday in a Goan jungle clearing, a fellow from the University of London described the roots of tantra (from which originated yoga and ayurveda).  Tantra was a rebellion against the Brahmin priests’ obsession with cleanliness and purity.  To sum up the lecture, yoga began with ash-covered cemetery dwellers experimenting with disgusting practices involving corpses and urine.

To be completely free, those early yogis believed, you free yourself first of social convention

To be completely free, I have to ask my mind to throw off its coils of anxiety.  To help with this process, I find myself balking against much of what I’ve ever been taught to believe.

I am not covering myself with ash in a crematorium, but I am changing my eating, waking, exercising and thinking habits.  (And to be honest, at this point, if covering myself with ash and growing dreadlocks facilitated the process, I would probably do it.)

The whole basis of yoga is this: The repeated action of mental discipline with building heat in the body is designed to change the brain’s chemistry.

Ayurveda gives you prescriptive methods to support the yogic system by telling you how to eat, how to wake up, how and when to move and rest, all for your specific constitution or dosha.

I have changed the way I wake up because I have changed the way I live enough to begin to change the way I think.

Here, for your benefit, is a recommended Ayurvedic morning for all doshas (meaning I have left out some of the weird stuff – email me if you want to know more specific info.):

1.  Wake up 30 minutes before sunrise.  Think about how well your body has assimilated the food you ate the previous day.  Drink a glass of warm water.  Practice alternate nostril breathing to balance the brain’s hemispheres.

2.  Brush teeth.  Gargle with sesame oil.  Wash face with cold water.

3.  Practice Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation).  This is also the time for extended physical yoga practice.

Maybe it is a placebo effect, but my mornings have changed a bit.  I open my eyes now, and if I forget to think about my very efficient digestion, at least I have a strong and inspiring yoga practice to begin before the coils of anxiety clamp down at all.  And ever since Mataji taught me about true Bhakti, the practice of yoga inevitably draws me, at least for a moment into acknowledging the Divine.

It seems small and ordinary.  It may not be full moon rituals in cemeteries.  But as Ganga, Santosh Puri’s yoga teacher says about change and progression, “Slowly, slowly.”

Yoga of Meditation

This morning at the ashram, I hit a wall. I was playing happily with the yellow lab Pushti in the sun, with a plastic water bottle (if it is not going to be recycled, at least it can be reused!) and Babaji (the cute Sanyassin with a white beard and orange sunglasses) grabbed the puppy, making her yelp, dragged her over to the gate, and tied her to it.

Babaji feeding Pushti peanuts on the rooftop (vegetarian ashram dog)

She looked at me, crying because she had so much puppy energy just bubbling over.  She wanted to play.  I saw red, and not the orange-holy-meditation-type hue.  I rushed over and wanted to release her, but what would be the point of that?  Instead, I piled all kinds of pieces of wood and little scraps of things next to her.  If she couldn’t be free, at least she could bite and destroy things.  Which to a puppy is nearly as good as running around free.

I went into the sadhana room and stood at the top of my yoga mat.  I placed my hands in prayer at my heart center.  I could not calm down.  I just stood there, angry.

I wasn’t just angry about the puppy, I realized.  Here are some other contributions toward my rage on the mat:

1.  This morning, Ganga informed me that today is the solstice, marking the burning away of winter.  To celebrate, we were going to walk to the freezing cold Ganga, and immerse ourselves.  I ran upstairs to change into cheap huge Indian clothes.  All the others stripped down to their underwear but I, being a woman, had to plunge into the water fully clothed.    “Close the gates,” Ganga said, and having been around yoga long enough, I knew to put my fingers in my ears, over my eyes and on the sides of my nose.  Closing my lips together, I plunged under.  I was supposed to chant underwater, but it was a#$ cold, so I chanted on my way back out, turning once to offer water in my open palms to the sun.  My clothes were so heavy I kept slipping on the green slime-covered rocks and had to slog my way home while the men happily put their dry clothes back on and practiced Pranayama on the banks of the river.  Oh, the holy chauvanism of India!

Santosh Puri monkeys on the rooftop

2.  Last night I skipped evening Aarti chanting, because I was overloaded with the day’s spirituality beginning as it does at 4 AM.  On the way to my room, I passed the balcony where the chained monkeys sit.  The boy who holds the flame and decorated the hoven fire altar was there already,in the moonlight, watching the monkeys.  The smallest one was squeaking.  He noticed me and said, “Maybe she is cold.”  Just then the larger monkey came to sit with her and put his arms around her.  “Oh good,” I said, smiling at the boy.  “Yes but she is afraid of him,” he said.  “Sometimes he fight her.”  The thought of her chained to something that would attack her was a bit too much.  I walked up the darkened steps to my room, put on six layers of clothes, lay down under all the sheets and blankets I could pile together, and turned out the light.

Santosh Puri from the rooftop where I write the blog

3.  Sadhana.  Part of my advanced yoga teacher training is to practice the same thing at the same time for the same amount of time each day, preferably before sunrise.  I haven’t done this.  I didn’t realize how much I’ve been chastising myself for it until I was eating breakfast (Indian sweet potatoes that taste faintly of passionfruit) with a German man Volo who practices the kriyas.  He asked me about my sadhana.  “I do yoga every day,” I said.  “But I don’t have much self-discipline.”  He said, “I disagree.  You are here every day; you do not go out to have fun in the town.  You wake up every morning at 4 AM for chanting.  You have a great deal of discipline.”  It felt so good.  I realized I had not thought something nice about myself since my friend Fenwick left India a month ago.

So what did I do?  I practiced yoga asanas.  I lay in shavasana and pictured a pink lotus opening at my heart center.  I practiced Pranayama breathing, Bhastrika and Nadi Shodhana.  I even did Prana Mudra, moving energy from the base chakra up the spine to the space behind the eyebrows and back down, which is energizing and calming.

Then I sat still and watched the space behind my eyes, moving my mantra throughout the body with breath.  The orange color of peace washed through the space.

Krishna says in the sixth chapter of the Baghavad Gita, The Yoga of Meditation, “offer your desires to me, your hunger, anger, wealth, to me.”

Mataji goes on to explain, “You are not the Master of your life; you are not even the doer.  Nothing can ever be complete without faith in the Divine.”

I think I have that, but it’s hard to put into practice.

“You can never suffer if everything is God,” Mataji says.

The way women, animals are treated, the way I treat myself, is still part of what exists outside.  Maybe the way to live within an imperfect world is to submit to something larger than my small self.

“You are sitting to purify the senses,” Mataji says.  “”You are sitting to come to the soul.”

So I do.

“See me in everything,” Krishna says.  “I will never become lost to you and you will never become lost to me.”

I guess if I can’t be truly free, and am always tied to something like anger or confusion or desire, at least I can retreat to that silent space within.  Which to anyone living in this imperfect world is nearly as good as it gets.

Business Plan via Meta Meditation

Ahh, money.

This dedication to the blog is getting a bit uncomfortable.  Everything I would prefer not to publish on the internet about myself is apparently exactly what I am supposed to publish on the internet about myself.

It’s best to give in.  The tiny whisper you hear that says “Write down all your thoughts and impressions about money,” will not stay a whisper very long. As no doubt you’ve experienced, the voice will get louder until it’s a shriek.

And I am sensitive to sound.  (That’s why I choose remote mountain hamlets in which to live and places like ashrams to visit.)

This trip is a good example of turning all my childhood lessons about money and security right on their head.

Instead of making a steady salary with excellent benefits, putting some into a profit-sharing plan and slowly accumulating enough to put down a payment on a house (which would come complete with large kitchen, garden and corgi), I am spending the last of my savings to gallivant around the world, mainly to watch my thoughts.

Needless to say (and to be fair, he’s been nothing but supportive), this is not the ideal vision my father had for his (I guess by now it’s true) grown-up daughter.  It is not the ideal vision my completely self-made grandfather had for me either.

My mother and grandmother, as mothers and grandmothers tend to do, just want me to be happy.  Preferably with a well-off man (who is also a Presbyterian church pastor).

Me?  I want many things.  But mostly, I want to be peaceful.  I see being peaceful as a sort of golden glow that starts from within, and lights up your being.  Then I see it spreading, in varying speeds, across to family members, and friends, and contributing quite a bit of light to an often grey-ish world.

As a business plan, this sort of thinking does not work.  I realize that.

I learned Compassion (Meta) Meditation from a Buddhist Monk this summer at the Telluride Compassion Festival.  Part of the meditation is to imagine that this is your last day on earth, that you will die today.

Then you imagine anything you might want to change.  You ask yourself, “how would I do things differently?”   You think of the Native American saying, “Today is a good day to die.”

When I am in this state, meditating, thinking about priorities, money thus far has not come up.  My job HAS come up.  How I spend my time.  How I treat people.  Also, what I’ve accomplished has come up.  Have I used my creative strengths to their utmost?

To me, it is getting in line with this (ok, how have I written a yoga-related blog for three months and not used this term already?) energy, that is important.

If you become very quiet, thinking about your life and what matters, do you feel in tune with that silence?  Or do you feel uneasy?  If you feel uneasy, are you willing to change, to align yourself within the natural pattern of your own precious life?

That, in essence, is the my interpretation of Compassion Meditation toward yourself.  (I have the full version for anyone who is interested.)

Here’s a good quote from Thomas Merton to round out my point:

Finally I am coming to the conclusion that my highest ambition is to be what I already am. That I will never fulfill my obligation to surpass myself unless I first accept myself, and if I accept myself fully in the right way, I will already have surpassed myself.
Thomas Merton

The next step in Compassion Meditation is, of course, compassion toward others.

By accepting what I believe to be the natural course for my life, I expect money to flow in to support that course.  I also need to be open for money to flow out again.  (In Christian terms, tithes.)  If the money I receive is naturally flowing in, it is not really mine.  (I guess it belongs to the universe or something esoteric like that.)

As the wisest man I have ever met, my boss and friend Paul Spates, used to say, “Money is just there to grease the wheels.”  Money is not the end, it’s the means.

It’s Elizabeth who’s gotten me started thinking this way.  Hardworking Elizabeth, who needs $500 to pay off the partially-finished cave-like home where she lives with her hardworking son, his equally (if not more) hardworking wife, and their three impossibly clean, smiling girls that wear gold-colored bracelets.

To honor the way money works (it flows in; it flows out), I need to give.  I don’t need to give to Elizabeth, but I want to give.  Well, part of me wants to give.  Part of me is afraid that I won’t have enough for the rest of my trip.  I’m afraid I won’t have a job right away when I get back to the States. That I will be shivering and homeless, in the snow, on a bench in Town Park.

But this part of my journey, in India, has opened my eyes to the abundance I receive daily.  The whole point is to pay into the cycle of abundance, in the same way that I receive.

That’s what I think anyway.  Let me know what I said here if I come home broke and need to crash on your couch!

Stop Fixing It. It Was Never Broken.

Beauty.

The women of India are striking, the luster of their dark eyes, the smooth polish of their skin.  The way they carry themselves – with strength, steadiness, implying inner resources (which it seems evident they use, considering their outer resources are often few).

I may be generalizing, but so do they.  Every woman I talk to (whether they are at my guesthouse or asking me to pose for a photo with them on the street) tells me how beautiful I am.  The first time, I was flattered.  As it continued, I realized, it’s because I am white.

The business of super-toxic, endocrine-disrupting Michael-Jackson-style skin whitening cream here is booming.

They can’t see their unique beauty.

Once a palace guard in the glowing city of Jaisalmer told me he would gun George Bush down if he could find him.  Aside from that exception, Indian people are thrilled by the fact that I am American.  Many have not heard of Germany, France or New Zealand, but they know America.  Television provides dreams to the impoverished, and an American seems like a possible ticket out of their nightmare.

Media is infecting the minds of more than American women, dreaming of emaciation and unattainable perfection.  It’s angering to see American’s adolescent girls striving for sexiness over everything else, but it’s almost worse to watch people who have so little wasting their money and time trying to be light-skinned and Western.

It’s not surprising to me that we equate goodness with beauty.  I do it all the time.  (Here’s a study if you doubt.)

What has struck me on this trip, is how loosely beauty is defined.  I inherited light skin from the Hungarian side of my family, and I spend lots of time outside making sure I am always brown.  Here, my natural pale state is beautiful.  (Blows my mind, actually.)

Also (and this is a big one), being curvy is the standard of perfection here.  Hollywood hasn’t yet infiltrated that national beauty standard.

Not skeletons, but round.  Are you kidding me?  This is absolutely paradigm-shifting.

I must bow here to the hero of women’s bodies everywhere – Eve Ensler, the guru of channeling our collective body-hating thoughts into a river of eventual self-love.  She chooses the stomach as the example of her own body self-hate in The Good Body.

When a group of ethnically diverse, economicallydisadvantaged women in the United States wasrecently asked about the one thing they would change in their lives if they could, the majority of these women said they would lose weight.  Maybe I identify with these women because I have bought into the idea that if my stomach were flat, then I would be good, and I would be safe. I would be protected.  I would be accepted, admired, important, loved.

Here’s the week’s new mantra, also from Sainted Eve:

I am stepping off the capitalist treadmill. I am going to take a deep breath and find a way to survive not being flat or perfect.  I am inviting you to join me, to stop trying to be anything, anyone other than who you are.  I was moved by women in Africa who lived close to the earth and didn’t understand what it meant to not love their body.  I was lifted by older women in India who celebrated their roundness.  I was inspired by Marion Woodman, a great Jungian analyst, who gave me confidence to trust what I know.  She has said that “instead of transcending ourselves, we must move into ourselves.”   Tell the image makers and magazine sellers and the plastic surgeons that you are not afraid.  That what you fear the most is the death of imagination and originality and metaphor and passion.

Then be bold and LOVE YOUR BODY. STOP FIXING IT.

IT WAS NEVER BROKEN.

don’t be afraid, don’t resist, don’t delay. be what you are.

I would like to talk about being a woman in India.  I would also like to point out that I recognize I have been a woman in India for two weeks, and my mother and grandmothers have never been women in India.  Having just had a series of 8 poems about the Ute people accepted to an online journal, I feel especially sensitive to the need to explain that I am very clear where I come from, and who I am.  I cannot begin to know what it is like to have been born an Indian woman, born to other Indian women, just like I cannot know what it is to be a Ute living on a reservation in Colorado or Utah.

OK; I feel better.  But, like a good Presbyterian Church-raised girl, I feel bad about feeling good.  I feel bad because I am a tourist looking in on a life that I’m relieved I can escape in a few weeks.  I feel bad that I don’t appreciate the wonderful opportunities in my regular life.  Here are some:

  • I breathe clean air.  In India, the air feels like poison.  It smells like incense, burning rubber, black smoke and rot.  I cough and hack my way through this country.
  • I do yoga.  In India, the land I thought was full of wandering holy men and reverent contortionists, yoga is only for the very rich.  Almost every Indian I have met works to survive, with little time for the study and practice of their country’s ancient teachings.
  • I drink clear water.  I work for an environmental film that comprehensively explains the evils of single-use plastics.  But I would rather deny my principles and drink bottled water than try water-purification tablets in local water filled with brown sludge-like particles, as my travel-acquaintance Emily did.  Either option is certainly not ideal.
  • I have opportunities.  As an American woman, I can work my way up the corporate ladder.  I can be an artist or a teacher or throw together an assortment of jobs that inspire me.  I don’t have to stay at home and obey my parents and then a husband.  (I am also not trapped by the caste I was born into.)
  • I can wear tank tops.  Enough said – it is hot sometimes and a salwar kameez is not cool.
  • I can be single.  Even though everyone I know from college in the South is married, I still don’t feel stigmatized for being single in the way an Indian woman in her 30’s would.  I thought I could be truthful in India.  I have learned I cannot, several times now, with various Indian men who assumed all kinds of awful things about me.  I am married, I tell everyone, even the Swiss couple staying at my guesthouse.

On this day in particular, with thousands of brave women marching through the streets of Cairo, I would like to take this opportunity to celebrate being a free woman!  And using another powerful mantra originated by my friend Mandie, I say to you – use your freedoms.  don’t be afraid, don’t resist, don’t delay. be what you are.