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Getting by in Tokyo

17 Oct

By Iris Finkelstein-Sagi

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I landed in Narita airport for the first time with about $300 in my money pouch, wearing a hideous hot pink Gucci knock-off skirt suit and carrying an immense backpack which I’d halfheartedly shaken before leaving my cozy Bangkok guesthouse in an effort to find any and all remnants of the trash that may have accumulated there during the six months of backpacking I’d done in Thailand, China and Vietnam.

The suit, I’d had tailor-made for maybe 200 baht at one of the Khao-san road shops, along with another white Dior knock-off and a black pantsuit made from real imitation Chinese silk. I’d heard that it was advisable to look respectable when entering Japan and that the suits would also come in handy at the hostess jobs I was aiming for. Yes.

As I smugly handed my American passport over to the immigration official, I looked over at Hila, my friend who regrettably had only an Israeli passport to show. We’d heard horror stories about Israelis being denied access to Japan and detained in holding cells at Narita, which is why we’d made the completely naïve effort to look like businesswomen. Israelis were notorious for working illegally in Japan, mostly selling pictures and jewelry on the streets. “Of course we have a place to stay in Tokyo” we told the immigration guy. No, we’re not planning on working, why would you think that!” we cried with mock horror. “We’re just so interested in Japanese culture”…

After politely Domo Arigato’ing the immigration guy (we’d cleverly memorized a few Japanese catch phrases in advance), we figured out the complicated trains map and ticket machines and dragged our backpacks onto the Tokyo bound train, clutching the card with the name and address of the Israeli guesthouse we’d been recommended. This guesthouse was our first encounter with Japanese living. It was crowded, sleazy, the futons were lumpy, the shower had a ten yen slot for hot water, the train station was a 30 minute walk, and the trains stopped at midnight which meant the threat of being stranded in central Tokyo was imminent.

But.

The people running the guesthouse had seen me and Hila a thousand times before. They knew exactly how to get us over our “Tokyo shock”, into our nice suits and out on the streets of Ginza and Roppongi as fast as possible, looking for a hostess gig. And yes, this was almost as sleazy as it sounds.

And so, before we knew it, we were ensconced in a respectable club, wearing our Gucci knock- offs every day and sipping Bacardi-colas while pretending to listen to Japanese salarymen in identical gray suits. By this time we’d moved out of the guest house and into a house in Harajuku that we shared with 5 other girls, we were exploring the city and learning the lingo.

This is how we learned that in Japan you can take any word in English, slap on a vowel at the end, put on an exaggerated Italian accent and the natives will magically understand you! After many attempts to guide our taxi driver with “Hidari!” and “Migi!” we resorted to “lefto” and “righto” which worked much better. My name was “Ailisu”, Hila was “Hila-chan” and we were “Genki” ALL the time.

On Sundays, our day off, we’d explore Tokyo, imitating Japanese girlie fashion on the streets of Harajuku, getting lost in the train station of Akihabara and gazing up in wonder at the giant billboards in Shinjuku. And still, to me, Tokyo always felt like an imitation of a “real” city. Partly because of the vaguely unreal life I was leading there, but also because I kept comparing it to New York, my hometown. New York always felt substantial, grounded. The buildings were made of stone and they were huge and tall. Tokyo by comparison seemed fragile, slippery, flashy and insubstantial. The buildings strove to fabricate Tokyo into a metropolis but to me it felt like a Playmobile city, as if it could all be wiped away by a good wind.

And when our three months visas were over, we took a weekend trip to Seoul (the usual and cheapest route for Israelis who wanted to renew their visas). And when we landed at Narita this time, I passed immigration and waited on the other side for five hours until I finally had to accept the fact that Hila had been detained and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. Hila spent a day in a holding cell and was unceremoniously placed on a plane back to Bangkok. This fact by the way, did absolutely nothing to stop both Hila and myself from returning to Japan several times afterwards to make some quick cash that got us across Nepal and all of India, with change to spare for (finally) university back in Israel.

And even though twenty years have passed, coming into Japan on a business trip, I still get a hint of nervousness when I hand over my passport at Narita Immigration (will they let me in?). And looking out from my hotel window at the (truly fantastic) Tokyo cityscape, I say “yep, still Playmobile city”.

Iris is a 41 year old mom of three (awesome) kids: The (Princess (12.5), the Tsunami (8+) and the Hurricane (2.5). She’s a design lover, cook, baker, eater, fashionista, bookworm, obsessor, rebel, kickboxer, ace Powerpointer, Photoshop expert, grammar freak, INSEAD MBA grad, writer and museum lover. Check out her latest book project here.  

The water goes on the outside of the boat

3 Oct

by Gabriel Palmer

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(This is the last part of the series Wandering Up the Ganges)

Rishikesh is an amazing place. It is one of the rare spots on earth where you can almost feel the spiritual energy vibrating around you. The sounds of chanting echo from the mountainsides, the smell of incense floats through the air, and sight of vibrant saffron robes is everywhere. All of India is filled with spiritual depth and intensity, but in Rishikesh it is so infinitely present that you cannot help but be affected by it. This is all to say that, arriving here, particularly after the journey that proceeded it (possible organ theft and all), was like a breath a fresh spiritual air.

I’m not quite sure what I thought that I would find, but whatever it was I didn’t find it. While the sadhus and holy men seemed to be everywhere, what I discovered in the ashrams themselves was a large number of hippies, girls in flowing yoga pants, guys with dreadlocks, stoners, and an assortment of other westerners who had temporarily (or permanently) checked out of life, or at least western consciousness. This fascinating array of spiritual seekers were certainly friendly, and ready to share their experiences, whether I wanted to hear them or not, but they were not really what I was hoping to find. It was like I had walked into a scene from Eat, Pray, Love, when what I really wanted was more of a Bollywood movie.

Somewhat disconsolate after my long journey to get here, I wandered down to the banks of the Ganges to sit on a rock, stare off into the water, and contemplate what to do next. As so often in life, the answer presented itself in the most unexpected fashion (like the time I got excellent career advice from a mall Santa Claus). While I sat there thinking about all of the great sages who had probably been in this very spot, a man approached me in a rather beat up row boat. What was remarkable about this man was exactly how unremarkable he was. Not a hippy or a swami, he was an average looking American guy who was wearing what appeared to be cargo shorts and a t-shirt from the Gap.

He looked at me for a minute with a curious expression on his face, and then as if struck by a moment of inspiration sat straight up, smiled, and said, with a touch of a southern drawl, “Want a lift?” I’m not really in the habit of taking rides from strange southerners in India piloting unsafe water crafts but I was intrigued enough to make an exception.

“Sure, thanks.”

“Where are you from my troubled friend?”

“How did you know I am troubled?”

“You are, aren’t you?”

“Sure, yeah, I mean I guess we all are no?”

“A philosopher I see.”

“Me? No, just a bit of lost soul.”

For some reason he found this last line particularly amusing and laughed for a good two or three minutes causing the boat to sway violently back and forth. I was at this point beginning to question the wisdom of my decision to get in the boat at all, but we were already in the middle of the river and trying to get out now would mean contracting any number of unidentifiable bacteria and parasites. When he finally calmed himself down he leaned in very close, and examined my face, but it was almost as though he was looking right through me. When he was done he leaned back very thoughtfully and took a deep breath and said. “I know you.”

“You know me?”

“Of course.”

“Have we met before?”

“In a manner of speaking.”

“In what manner would that be?”

“I am you. Or maybe its better to say I was you.”

“Huh, I didn’t realize that I had stopped being me and started being someone else.”

“You didn’t”

He proceeded to sit and stare at me for a solid 5 minutes as I awkwardly sat there and watched the shore line as the boat was rapidly carried down the river. The long (you don’t really know what long is until you have a stranger stare at you without speaking for 5 minutes) silence was finally broken by him saying “You know what, I am going to give you what you need.” Upon saying this he took a small bucket that he had lying at his feet and started filling the boat with the water from the river. As you might imagine I wasn’t amused.

“What are you doing!?”

“Filling the boat with water.”

“Yes, I see that. Why?”

“You seem to think it is a good idea.”

“What are you talking about? I never said that!”

“Said? No. But you have been living that way for too long.”

“Look, I really have no idea what you are talking about.”

Finally he stopped filling up the boat for a minute and took another look at me. Unfortunately, this caused him to return to his previous fits of laughter. After another two minutes he stopped again and this time leaned forward as if to tell me a secret.

“Soon, you will come to realize that you are the boat, and the water is the world. Your place is to be in the water, not to have the water be in you.”

I didn’t really know what to say. I just sat there looking off at the river. Before I knew it we were on the other side. He looked at me with a smile and leaned over one more time.

“Don’t worry you don’t have to say anything.”

“Thanks.”

“Take good care of yourself. You will be seeing yourself here again someday.”

As I stepped out of the boat and back on to land, I felt as though by crossing the river I had crossed a threshold of something profound. Then as I was starring off into the clouds I stepped directly in an enormous pile of cow dung. Deep reflection was going to have to wait till later, and anyway it has already been quite a journey.

English Tea

25 Sep

By Aryeh Myers

This post originally appeared here.  

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The first call of the shift was a transfer into town, to one of the big central London hospitals. Working out in the suburbs may not have held the same glamour as working in London’s West End or City district, but it brought its own challenges too. If the truth be told, I preferred it that way. The relatively infrequent jaunts into town, either through transfers such as this one, or just through the luck of the dice and the “You are the nearest” software, meant that I could still be a tourist in my own city. Travelling across Tower Bridge, driving along the Embankment, around Parliament Square and past the Palace of Westminster always held a sense of occasion if you didn’t do it all too often. It was also usually accompanied by a feeling of being a long, long way from home and the realisation that for the next few hours, the names of the streets we would be called to would be totally unfamiliar.

“You ready?” I asked Mike, my partner and chauffeur for the day.

“Ready. Let’s get lost.”

It was early evening in very early spring, when the mornings were frosty and the temperature gauge had a range of about two degrees over an entire twenty-four hour period and always struggled to head into positive figures. The streets were a mass of people, all huddled into their coats, hats and scarves, busily heading home, or to the theatre, or to continue their day-to-day lives. We were both in fleeces and I was wearing the green winter hat that made me look like a cross between a bin man and a garden gnome who had lost his fishing rod.

No more than three seconds passed between me pressing the green button and the next call appearing on the screen.

Exhibition Road, SW7. Main entrance, Science Museum.

I was like a kid in a sweet shop. The Science Museum is without doubt one of my favourite places in all of London. I used to skip school sometimes to visit it, hopping on the Underground and heading across town, only once being challenged at the entrance as to my reasons for being there rather than at my educational establishment.

“I’m doing research for a project,” was my instant answer.

“What project might that be?” asked the security guard, each word dripping with sarcasm and disbelief.

“A science project, obviously!”

With that, he gave up and let me in.

“The Science Museum!” I said to Mike. Brilliant. I hope it’s either a no-show or just another tourist wanting a check up. Then we can have a wander round!”

Mike looked less than impressed.

“I don’t DO museums. Boring places.”

“Boring mind, more like.”

“Whatever.”

A security guard met us at the entrance. I wanted to believe he was the same one who stopped me all those years ago, but somehow I doubted it and I certainly couldn’t remember for sure.

“How good’s your French?” he asked.

“Worse than my Cantonese. And Mike here can barely do English.”

It earned me a punch on the arm and a filthy look. It was worth it.

“Oh well, you’ll have to get by somehow. She tripped down a couple of steps and can’t move. Think she’s done her ankle.”

The two girls sat together, one of them, Deb, in obvious discomfort. They were heading out of the museum as closing time approached when the accident happened. Both were wrapped up in layers to defeat the English cold. Deb’s English was even worse than my French. I had to drag up memories of an unhappy term in the first year of high school just to remember how to ask for her name and age. When she told me, I still didn’t understand. I could never count past ten. She held both my hands, made me show all ten fingers, then added nine of her own. Her friend, Lara, was a little more communicative, but every English word was followed by a stream of a dozen more in French.

One look at her ankle told us all we needed to know at that point. Mike went back to the ambulance to bring some pain relief and a splint, whilst I continued to play charades in a failed attempt to explain what we needed to do. When the entonox arrived, just my demonstration of how to use it seemed to work better than the pain-killing, giggle-inducing gas itself, making both girls laugh at my acting skills.

Eventually, we removed her shoe, placed the splint and wheeled Deb into the ambulance on the trolley bed that Mike had brought back with him. The one-legged dance we did to get her from the floor to the bed was yet more cause for smiles, Mike humming some tune to help us along and despite the lack of verbal communication.

The heater in the ambulance worked for a change and we convinced Deb that she needed to take her two coats off so that we could get to her arm and check her blood pressure. Each coat was handed to Lara who was constantly talking to Deb at speed that seemed to exceed that of sound itself. Perhaps it was just the fact that I didn’t understand a word of it. Under the second coat was a fleece and as she unzipped it, a necklace appeared. A plain gold necklace with her name on it.

In Hebrew.

“You speak Hebrew?” I’m not sure who was more surprised. Mike, whose eyes were suddenly wide with a mix of shock and resignation, or Deb at the fact that I could read her necklace.

“Ken,” she replied, yes.

“And all this time I’ve been breaking my teeth trying to remember a single word of French?”

The conversation flowed from that point on. Lara and Deb and me talking about anything and everything, some of it even patient related. Mike was instantly lost, despite my attempts at translating the more relevant bits for him.

“I’ll go and drive, shall I?” his question amused and mocking in equal measure.

“Sounds like a plan. If you can ask Doris to navigate in Hebrew, that would be even better!”

I translated for the benefit of our passengers, who both laughed.

Arriving at the hospital, Deb’s luck was in, as there was a French-speaking nurse on duty. We moved her on to the hospital bed, said our goodbyes and taught Mike to do so in Hebrew.

“L’hitraot,” he said, the word tripping unnaturally off his tongue.

I met him outside after a few minutes of finishing the paperwork and him tidying the ambulance.

“Can’t speak English,” he muttered at me, handing me a steaming mug. “Here, have a cup of English tea.”

Then he said something in French. I think.

Things you can learn at an airport

12 Sep

By Gabriel Palmer

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Airports are fascinating places. I suppose it would probably be more accurate to say that airports are strange places, or maybe frustrating places, but I’m going to go with fascinating since with an open mind we can learn something from almost any situation, except maybe from watching Nascar. Perhaps it is a bit unfair to discuss airports as one large category – it would sort of be like comparing a carnival to Disney World. The former is a place where fun goes to die (literally) and the latter is the most wonderful place on Earth (no irony intended).

I have traveled through airports that range from the modern luxury and efficiency of Changi airport in Singapore to the Kafkaesque soul destroying gloom of terminal B at Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow. But in this instance I am not so much concerned with the structure and facilities, as varied as they may be (the squat toilets in the old Delhi airport were always particularly charming), as with the phenomenal encounter thereof. Or in actual English, what’s really fascinating about airports is the curious range of behaviors people tend to exhibit while they are there.

I’m not quite sure who in the film industry decided that they would create the cliché about airports being romantic or the trope about long separated couples running into each other’s arms, but whoever it was clearly never spent much time in real airports. For every tearful goodbye between lovers there are 97 families looking haggard and confused, with some kid who just wet his pants, and a teenage daughter yelling at her mom about how much she hates her and how she doesn’t understand her life, as they run to get to their gate.

Similarly, for every one joyful reunion, you have 57 disheveled half asleep limo drivers with upside down signs, 27 frustrated parents who are waiting for their kid to come home for college for a visit but missed her flight because she was hung over, 14 angry wives waiting desperately for their husbands to return from an all-expense paid business trip to the Bahamas so that maybe just maybe she can get five minutes of sleep, 6 pissed off teenagers whose parents told them to go pick up their grandparents even though they always smell like mothballs, and 1 partridge in a pear tree since someone probably left it once they realized they couldn’t bring it on the plane.

Hollywood images of airports aside, the truly intriguing thing about them, particularly large international airports, is that they are a kind of no-mans-land in which people from distinct cultures around the world are forced to interact under duress. This mix of frustration, dislocation, and cultural interaction in a small space, creates a range of unique interactions that in many ways demonstrate exactly how different cultures really are. Humans at their best have the capacity for self-transcendence, altruism, and love, but after a 2 hour check in line, 3 hour security line and 7 hour delay, we are seldom at our best. It is at these moments they we are most likely to revert to our most basic culturally ingrained behaviors.

Allow me to offer an example. Perhaps the single greatest exhibit of cultural conflict does not arise through the discussion of religion, politics, or economics, but from the need to stand on lines. I was recently in the Vienna airport flying on what I will leave as an unnamed low cost carrier. The line, as tends to be the case with discount airlines, was longer than that of Space Mountain in Disney World during Christmas vacation. After around an hour I finally reached the front of the line which split into one of three check in desks, and just as I did a man and his wife decide to skip the entire line and place themselves next. I being a self righteous American by birth could not tolerate this outrage.

“Sir, there is quite a long line that many of us have been very patiently waiting on. Could you please go to the back of the line.”

He, not being a native speaker of English, gave me a rather curt reply in an unrecognized language along with a hand gesture that I am quite sure was not meant to be polite.

“Excuse me, but you really just can’t cut in front of everyone like this.”

This time he looked over at me, lowered his sunglasses, made a sort of snorting sound  and then said something to his wife and laughed. I was not amused.

“You seem to have misunderstood me. I was trying to be polite. You, your over styled hair, bad attitude, and garish overpriced clothes will be moving to the back of the line now, or I will find the nearest security officer and inform them that I saw someone hand you what looked like a package filled with cocaine.”

The woman, who clearly had a bit more sense than her husband, quickly relocated, while the rest of the people in line applauded. Luckily, they weren’t on my flight.

What is the lesson here? Well other than the fact that threating people with fake charges at airports can get them to move to the back of the line it teaches us 3 important things: 1. What we see in movies is seldom real 2. We should always avoid airports whenever possible 3. Cultures may vary dramatically, but there is always a way to get people to understand.

Up Against the Nile

29 Aug

By Audrey Bellis

Growing up in an inner racial/inner faith household, I can honestly say that there aren’t many situations I feel uncomfortable in. In fact, I’m a little bit chameleon like. When I’m with my Mom’s side of the family (Mexican/Catholic), my Spanish is excellent, I keep up with telenovelas (soap operas in Spanish), and I can sing the latest music & all the classics too. I blend in, even if I have a non Mexican name like Audrey. I can go to mass with the family- I can pray in English & Spanish, and I completed my sacraments as a Catholic. I am even an advisory board member for Catholic Charities Los Angeles, the San Pedro region.

On my Dad’s side (Italian/Jewish) of the family, I still blend in. I have a Hebrew name from being named in the synagogue as a child (Peninah Shoshanah), my accent is spot on, I think lox on anything is God’s gift to breakfast, and my latkes (according to my Dad) are the best in this world (thanks to the fact that I add zucchini and jalapenos to them) and I can kvetch like no other. While I consider myself more Catholic than Jewish, I still keep a fusion household: i.e ChristmaKkuh or HannuMas, EastOver etc…

So clearly growing up this way, I can blend fairly easily into anything. I grew up with all kinds of different foods, accents and traditions. Then I met a boy (a man really) on a mellow weekend buying a car. He was a salesman and what can I say… he sold me. I loved his persistence and the impressive amount of chest hair.

He was Egyptian. This did not faze me in any way, nor did it bother him. I remember when he took me to meet his mom for the first time- it was an ambush. On our 3rd date (no joke- it was that early on) he told me he just wanted to run into the house and grab a jacket for the evening and wouldn’t I come in? I unsuspectingly walked into the living room and met his mom and sister (OMG!! Ambush: meet the mom?!?!). He then abandoned me with them for a while so I could be “examined on a closer basis”, and he could hide out looking for a “jacket”.)

His mother scoped me out and in her accented husky voice the following played out:

His mom: “You are very beautiful Ubrey (yes she always mispronounced my name and called me Ubrey), Your eyes are very pretty. With your eyebrows you could almost be Greek”

Me: “Thank you” (Heart swelling thinking I was being approved of)

His mom: “Plgh (spitting sound) we do not like Greek, we are Egyptian. Don’t vory, it is only your eyes, everything else looks diverrrent”

Me: “oh” (Awkward pause) “well…. I’m Mexican” His mom: “Even worse” Cr@p!

I couldn’t wait to get out of there. What was she saying? Slap on a burqa and only show my eyes so I could blend in? (Ok, so that wasn’t what she was saying, but I was so caught off guard by being told I was pretty when you covered half my face that she might as well have said that).

Oh well.

She didn’t have to like me, he liked me- that’s what mattered. Then it dawned on me that he lived with his mother, and my spunk kicked in. Was I going to encounter this every time I came over?? Turns out I really didn’t have to, she warmed to me fairly quickly, but while she warmed to me, it wasn’t like we were bff’s.

No, she still insisted on speaking in Arabic when I was around with no hope of an English translation by anyone (and often elevated tones with fleeting glances in my direction), and feeding me mystery foods that I would never learn to cook, and quietly gag and force down as if to show her: “bring it!”

So, I realized early on in the relationship that Arabic was going to be a tool for survival- it would tell me who was talking smack, and make fitting in happen a lot sooner. So I learned. And my boy friend taught me as we progressed in our state of lovey/dovey bickering.

He mostly taught me things I couldn’t use in front of his mom although I didn’t realize that and used several phrases inappropriately that raised some eyebrows. For example: I once tried to say “shwarma” (which is like the Middle Eastern version of a taco) in a restaurant while I was ordering and instead of lamb shwarma, I said “sharmuta” which is basically “whore or slut”. “Hi, I’d like my lamb whore  please? FML

Or the time I got ridiculously drunk and told him a whole series of (graphic) inappropriate things.  In Arabic. (And in a car full of his cousins- FML part 2).

Or how about the time meant to say “rest your head on my chest” and instead I used the word for breasts (awkward…) in front of his mom & aunt?

Yeah… I screwed up plenty of times. But I learned and when I messed up, my Habibi (my love) was always there to smile and whisper in my ear the correct word, phrase, or pronunciation.

After 3 years of dating, 2 of which we lived together and a broken engagement, we parted ways. I look back on those years together fondly and often smile when little things remind me of the early part of our relationship. He taught me Arabic, he took me to smoke hookah for the first time, he taught me how to smoke and select cigars, how to enjoy a good scotch, and he helped me blend in to a family, a language, and a culture that wasn’t initially very accepting.

In the years that have passed, I never would have imagined I’d use my Arabic as much as I do on a daily basis but I do. In fact I use it every day. As a children’s special occasion boutique owner and new designer, I use it to haggle with textile vendors (who ALL speak Arabic better than English). I use it every day when I walk to my showroom and pass the men’s suit row in Downtown Los Angeles (because all the owners seem to hang out in front of their shops sipping tiny cups of coffee and flirting shamelessly with me); I use it when I order lunch from my favorite kabob place.  And when I entertain or close a big account, I celebrate with hookah and belly dancers. In fact, I use my Arabic on a daily basis more often than my Spanish- to the point that even my mom has noticed my Spanish skills deteriorating.

And while I learn new words every day, it continues to be an asset to my daily life. So thanks to my habibi- wherever he is these days, for bringing such a rich language and culture to me and for how it helps me continue to grow.

How Athens became the Twilight Zone

21 Aug

By Yves Sztajnkrycer

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Yves Sztajnkrycer is too complex for a brief description. He is a citizen of the world who writes with humor, honesty, and a poignancy that will stop you in your tracks.

Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus was a Dutch priest who lived in the 15th century and who was in favor of religious tolerance. And during my junior year of college I left Paris to follow a student exchange program also known as Erasmus program.

So I moved to Piraeus, a city not far from Athens. With my Parisian eyes I found the port of Athens full of agitation. I fell in love immediately with the noise, the smell of spices, the contrast between the crowd moving in and out of the ferry boats, and the constant deliveries to the street market.

I enjoyed walking home after class in the tumult of people and fragrances, watching the old men playing backgammon and drinking ouzo, slamming between the mopeds and the pretty Greek girls.

One evening, we decided to meet up with some other students in the neighborhood of “Plaka” in downtown Athens near the acropolis for a few drinks. So some of us went to a tavern in a small street on top of a hill between ancient ruins and old houses.

Inside, the stained walls were covered with black and white pictures of fishermen, bouzouki players,and some painting of the white houses of Mykonos. we ordered a pitcher of “Rakomelo”. It is a delicious blend of warm brandy, honey, cinnamon, and cardamon. We ordered a few of those pitchers to drink while puffing on some apple flavored hooka.

The honey makes “Rakomelo” very sweet, but it still is a very intoxicating beverage. And at some point during the night everything became blurry, shapes of belly dancers slowly moving and mixing up with the kaleidoscopic visions of candlesticks through the pile of empty glasses.

That is when I told myself it was time to go home to recover. I got out of the tavern to look for a cab in the labyrinth of streets. I wandered around that maze for a long hour when I finally found a taxi to take me home.

When I arrived at my apartment, I crawled to my room, I turned on the TV, and passed out. The next day I woke up in my clothes, the TV was still on, and I felt awful. I reached for a mug of stale coffee and the clicker on the night stand. I went over all the TV channels. On every single one them there was a movie, all sorts of movies, black and white, colored, recent, old, but all relating to the life of Jesus. Something was odd.

I took a shower then I went to the kitchen to find an empty fridge. Since I was famished, I decided to go to the street market to find something tasty. I went down the stairs. I lit a cigarette. I opened the gate. There was no one in the streets. I was in a a ghost town. The shops were closed. The pretty girls, the old men playing backgammon, the dockers, everybody was gone. It felt like I was in the Twilight Zone. Like everyone had been abducted by aliens.

I started to cruise around the port in search of a store or even an open kiosk to get some food. I became restless. Everything was closed, the restaurants, the banks, there was practically no car in the streets. After a while I saw someone parking close to me. A middle aged woman came out of the driver’s seat. I started talking to her, asking her why everybody suddenly disappeared and why all the stores closed. She explained to me that it was Greek Orthodox Easter, and that everything would stay closed for a couple of days. I wished her a happy Easter and she left.

I started to panic.

I felt trapped and started to ask myself how I would manage to find some food during the next couple of days. I lit another cigarette, and kept walking. I was giving up, thinking that my next meals would most likely be bags of chips and candy bars from the university vending machines, when I saw in the distance the yellow “M” of McDonald. I am usually a picky vegetarian and burgers have never been on the top ten of my favorite meals.

When I arrived in front of the McDonald’s entrance I couldn’t believe it was open. Inside there was almost nobody. The radio was playing some Greek religious choir music. I ordered a veggie burger and felt relieved. The food there tasted terrible, however it was a Greek Orthodox Easter miracle to find it.

Photos Source: http://goo.gl/VX449T

Wandering Up the Ganges – Part 3: The Incident

15 Aug

rishikesh

By Gabriel Palmer

I have to take issue with the statement “When God closes a door he opens a window.” I assume that this adage is meant to mean that when one opportunity ends, another is presented. Fair enough I suppose, but not all opportunities are equal. A door is something that you simply walk out of, a window is something that you usually fall or get pushed out of. So perhaps a window is opened, but prudence says it would be better to not go through if it would involve a mutli-story fall. But I seldom follow the prudent path.

The taxi driver that had approached me was suspicious at best. The fact that he seemed anxious, kept furtively looking around, or that his car was incredibly nice even though his clothes were worn and tattered, should have alerted me to the fact that something here was clearly wrong, but after my experience in the train station my desire to find any mode of conveyance outweighed any measure of caution.

Something else that should have tipped me off is that the driver agreed to my price too quickly. You see, in India the act of negotiation is in itself probably more important than the outcome. I once argued 15 minutes with a rickshaw driver over the difference of 10 rupees (which admittedly did strike some pangs of conscience once I remembered that I was fighting with this man over the price of a gumball and I had paid $1,200 for a plane ticket – roughly 4,800 gumballs). This man, however, was more than happy to take my low ball offer – somewhere in the range of $2.50 to take me on an hour long drive.

While his driving skills were questionable and he seemed to think that he was in the US since he kept driving on the right side of the road (you are supposed to drive on the left like in England, one of the many holdouts from the British colonial period including, walking with umbrellas, the use of overly formal English, and enough mustaches to make the 1970’s jealous), I just chalked this up to it being India, the land of spiritual wealth and lax driving laws. Putting my safety and well being in the hands of Vishnu I sat back and watched the scenery roll by.

I was just trying to fall asleep, realizing that it was far better to be unconscious than to watch this man’s driving any longer, when a car sped up, pulled along side of us and started honking its horn. I was startled to be sure but it is India and the roads are not for the faint of heart; the driver, however, look terrified. One of the two men in the car next to us proceeded to roll down his window and, with a look on his face that was somewhere between intense anger and murderous rage, yelled with such intensity that I thought he would have an aneurism. At this point I was thoroughly confused, marginally concerned, and curious to see where this was going. The driver was almost frozen with fear. Realizing that yelling alone was not accomplishing the task the other car decided to force us off the road.

As the driver stopped the car my curiosity turned to fear, as I began to realize that my life was turning into a bad made for TV movie that would star Sally Field and involve involve a concerned mother arriving at the embassy to try to track down her lost son… Before I could finish playing out the entire plot in my mind and deciding who should play me (I was leaning towards either a younger George Clooney or maybe Christian Bale), one of the two men opened the front door of the car, sat down in the passenger seat and yelled at the driver to start driving – or so I assumed since Hindi is one of the many languages I never mastered. The car started rolling, and I started praying.

Naively, I thought that if I asked nicely they might just let me out of the car.

“Excuse me sir, clearly you and this man have some issues you need to work out. I won’t bother you any further, you can just let me out here.”

As if they had forgotten I was even in the car, they both turned around to look at me with confused stares. My presence did not seem to be of any interest to them, since the one man just went back to screaming, while the other went back to cowering like a puppy that just peed on the floor (which he may have considering how absolutely panic-stricken he was). Recognizing that I only had a few moments to decide what to do, I began to quickly run over the options in my mind.

  1. Wait and see. There is almost no chance that this was going to work out well for me – I would end up dead, robbed, missing a kidney, held for ransom or all of the above – so I scrapped it right away.
  2. Jump out of the moving car. While the car wasn’t really moving particularly fast I would have still have sustained significant injuries which would have in the end severely impeded my escape. I sadly had to recognize I am no James Bond or Jack Bauer, so I had to scrap this idea as well.
  3. Convince them I am dangerous. Both of these men were of relatively small build, neither seemed to be carrying a weapon of any sort, and I happened to have a bamboo walking stick with me. I figure rather than being nice I would just threaten them – I mean they had no idea that I am about as dangerous as box full of kittens. Since 1 and 2 weren’t going to work I went with this option.

“Stop this #$%@#$% Car right now! I don’t know who the %$^& you think you are dealing with, but you better stop this #$!@ right now and take me where I need to go or the wrath of Kali will be nothing compared to what I will have done to both of you !%$#@%!”

“Sir I…”

“No, I don’t want to hear a !@#$%^& word out of either of your mouths. You will shut the !@#$ up and just drive. Not another word!”

Silence.

For the next 30 minutes they drove on in absolute silence. As I sat with a look of fierce anger on my face making sure they knew exactly who the man in charge was (again, ironic considering I apologize even when I kill an insect). The only words spoken for the rest of the journey were when they needed to ask what hotel to drop me at.

“Please sir, I am very sorry sir, I beg your forgiveness for speaking, I just need to know what hotel to drop you at.”

When we reached the hotel I exited the car adding one final angry flourish.

“You don’t know how lucky you are. You picked the wrong man to !@#$ with.”

I never did actually find out what was going on, why the car was forced off the road, who the men were, or why either was dumb enough to believe that I am threating. But, none of that mattered because I finally made it. I was in Rishkiesh, and it was time to find my guru.

Photo Credit: http://goo.gl/9UCiIg

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