Japanese Encephalitis and “Discriminating Against Meat-Eaters…”

After pulling out my dusty India journal for the last post, I couldn’t help but skim through a lot of other entries, and I found another story that might be amusing…

By now most of you know that I am a vegetarian. I eat eggs and dairy, but no fish or other meats, and I’ve been consistent with this for nearly fifteen years.

When I traveled to India, we had 20 people on our program, with more than half (perhaps more like 3/4) of us vegetarian. It was the first time in my life I was in a group where the veggies were in the majority. It was also the first time I was in a place where I could walk into any restaurant and be guaranteed several vegetarian meal choices, or could have my choice of several completely vegetarian restaurants all within walking distance. It was both liberating and overwhelming.

Making the food transition was one of the hardest parts of returning to the US at the completion of the program. I really missed the South Asian ease of finding vegetarian food (looking for grocery products with a green dot on the packaging to ensure it was animal product free), and was sad to see my restaurant choices relatively limited once again.

Since our student group had a veggie majority, the few meat eaters were suddenly finding themselves in the uncharted territory of feeling similar to how vegetarians sometimes feel in the not-always-vegetarian-friendly US. When our program cohort went out to dinner we would order more vegetarian dishes to share than meat dishes, and the meat eaters had fewer options. Sometimes only vegetarian food was ordered, since the meat eaters liked the veggie dishes too.

Yet transitioning from eating meat every day to once in a while was too much for one student.

I’m going to call him “Bob.”

One night at dinner, about 2-3 weeks into our program, Bob started grumbling loudly. He claimed that he was being discriminated against by the group, that “it wasn’t fair,” and that his “meat-eating rights shouldn’t be trodden upon.”

Now, I get that. I don’t think anyone should be forced to do something that they don’t feel comfortable with, but no one was forcing him to give up meat. It was just on occasions when the whole group had dinner together that it was easier to order more/all vegetarian meals. Plus Bob liked the vegetarian dishes too, so it wasn’t like we were forcing him to eat something he didn’t like.

But the student continued to insist that he was being discriminated against, and that eating all these vegetables was actually making him sick.

So let me back up more, and tell you a little something extra about Bob.

Before departing for India the members of our student group were given a list of recommended shots for the program– stuff like Hepatitis, Polio, Typhoid, and Japanese Encephalitis. I had received Hep, Polio, Typhoid and Yellow Fever immunizations for my Africa trips, and not wanting extra needle jabs if I didn’t absolutely need them, I figured I’d be okay without the Japanese Encephalitis. I think it was optional for where we were going anyway.

Bob intended to get the Japanese Encephalitis shot, but I think he ran out of time before the program was supposed to begin, so he purchased the vaccine from a pharmacy in the US and brought it on the plane with him from New York to Delhi. His thinking was that once he got to Delhi he would find a nurse, or some other qualified medical technician, who could administer the shot.

However the vaccine for Japanese Encephalitis, like I think most vaccines, needs to be kept refrigerated so that the contents of the vaccine don’t spoil (or whatever it is that happens to pharmaceuticals when they are no longer in their proper state).

So here Bob is, on a plane, with a white paper pharmacy bag, containing a vial of Japanese Encephalitis vaccine, for about 30 hours. That vial had warmed to room temperature long before we reached the hot and humid streets of mid-August Delhi.

After a day or two of orientation, Bob went in search of a medical professional, and carted that same white pharmacy bag around steamy Delhi for another 2 days before he found someone to stick the warm Japanese Encephalitis vaccine in his arm.

And surprise, surprise… by evening Bob was laid up in bed sicker than a dog. Pasty and pale, diarrhea and sweating. He was in bed for three or four straight days.

Now most of us assumed that Bob was probably suffering from a combination of Delhi Belly and a reaction to the stale Japanese Encephalitis shot that he had been carrying around, un-refrigerated, for days.

But not Bob. He was pretty sure his sickness stemmed from eating vegetarian. What could be worse than eating lots of vegetables?

Right when Bob started feeling better, his first destination out of his room was to a Subway sandwich shop (yes, they have the American chain Subway in urban India) not too far from our hostel. He ate a sandwich stacked with three different kinds of meat. He felt better later in the evening, and much better the following day.

Bob attributed his miraculous recovery to the amazing power of meat. This only reinforced his original idea that he had gotten sick because for a week he was “forced” to eat so many vegetarian dishes.

Even as an undergraduate I had my international educator’s hat on. This was the excerpt from my journal:

After several vocal comments at dinner last night I pulled [Bob] aside and said that study abroad is about pushing your boundaries and being outside your comfort zone. I told him that he should take this as a learning opportunity about how other people may feel in the United States when roles are reversed. Often times, as a vegetarian, you have fewer meal options, you have to eat something you might not necessarily want, or you might have to do without. It can be very frustrating. I told him that for the first time, many students are able to go to a restaurant here and pick anything they want off of a menu without being worried about what could be in the dish, and that feeling is new and liberating for us. I told him that we don’t want him to “convert” but that we ask that he be more flexible and understand that it might be harder, because it is often harder for us in the US, and it is good to see the reverse side of an issue.

Sadly, Bob didn’t take my heart-to-heart truly to heart, and spent a majority of his remaining time in India hunting down US fast food chains like Subway, Pizza Hut, Domino’s, and McDonald’s. When we were stationed in Jaipur for six weeks he would have Domino’s Pizzas delivered to his host family’s house each night–I worry what that family’s impression of American students was after his stay!

So the moral of the story is… refrigerate Japanese Encephalitis vaccines and eat more vegetables!

To Feel Something, Deeply…

A few weeks ago I was interviewed by a young woman who was doing research on Hindu/Christian couples for a paper she was working on at the Harvard Divinity School. She had found me through some of my blog postings on negotiating different religious territory for our wedding.

I admit that I am probably not the best “Christian” to interview for such a paper, for even though I was raised in a Catholic home, I don’t really consider myself very Christian. I was upfront about this in the interview, but the interviewer said that it was okay, that it was good to hear a diversity of opinions.

I always mean to write a more in-depth post about my own feelings on religion. I have touched on some here and there, but sometimes I’m afraid of offending more religious readers of this blog. I wouldn’t mean to as I actually find religion a fascinating topic, but sometimes I worry that professing no faith can seem insulting or sad to those that have deep faith.

Yet personally, I’ve never really felt any religious or spiritual stirrings. Perhaps not everyone is struck with a deep religious calling, but I haven’t even felt minor religious or spiritual murmurs. It’s not for a lack of wanting to, or having tried to seek such feelings out. There was a time when I really just wanted to “get” what other people seemed to, without having to try so hard. However it hasn’t happened, and on an intellectual level, at least with the Catholicism that I was raised with, Christianity just never made much sense to me.

So it felt kind of cathartic to talk to this woman about my religious feelings (or lack there of), and how it shaped our multicultural household. As we neared the end of our hour long conversation she asked me if I ever had something close to a spiritual feeling even if I wouldn’t necessarily label it such, and I had to admit there was at least one time.

It sounds like the biggest cliche in the book, but when I signed up to study in India I had been grappling with my complex religious feelings for years. Although the main purpose of my trip was to learn more about South Asia in general, I was hoping that perhaps something in this “spiritual land” (sorry, even I’m cringing as I write that) would speak to me, and that perhaps I’d finally find that missing religious link I’d been searching for.

I didn’t, I came back just as atheist as I was when I departed, but there was one experience that felt inspiring, that did churn something up in my chest.

I pulled out my India journal to see what I had written.

As our program director was a Tibetan monk, our India semester had a special focus on Buddhism, and in addition to learning about Hindu culture and traveling to places like Varanasi, we also traveled to Dharmsala (where the Tibetan government-in-exile and the Dalai Lama reside) and Bodhgaya, the place where Buddha supposedly sat underneath the bodhi tree and meditated until he gained enlightenment.

The town of Bodhgaya is off the regular tourist track, and although you do bump into western tourists, a lot of the visitors are Buddhist pilgrims from around the world, and particularly from Tibet. It wasn’t uncommon to see nomadic Tibetan pilgrims walking down the street looking like they had just stepped out of a National Geographic documentary on life in a yak caravan.

Bodhgaya itself is a bit of a dusty backwater with frequent power cuts, and not much traffic. Around the outskirts of town are various temples from different Buddhist nations, built to reflect each culture’s style and architecture: Vietnam, Burma, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Laos, Thailand, Nepal, Bhutan, etc.

At the center of town is the Mahabodhi Temple, which sits beside the spot where Buddha meditated. A bodhi tree is still in the spot, supposedly the sapling of a sapling of a sapling of the original tree. Around the temple and the tree is a path that pilgrims circumambulate night and day.

Mahabodhi Temple– “front”

Mahabodhi Temple and Bodi tree at night– “back” of temple

This is the passage from my journal:

Tenzin-ji [our program director] says, “You can sleep when you get back to the US” and I have tried to adopt this as my new motto…

For instance… our last morning in Bodhgaya a group of six of us woke up at five in the morning and walked to the Mahabodhi temple to circumambulate for two hours before our thirty minute meditation. We left in the darkness, as the town slept, yet found the temple bustling with activity as we walked around it with many Tibetan pilgrims. A chant was playing over the temple loud speakers, and we walked until the power went off… and then we walked in darkness, feeling our way along the path… until the power kicked back on and the sun slowly rose. The devotion of the pilgrims is awe inspiring… old and young alike were making slow prostrations around the temple… hours of bending up and down in prayer…

After being here and watching activites such as this, I feel like I could do something crazy and seemingly impossible. Like walk across the US, or do anything I set my mind to do. It would almost be a test of wills, just to see if I could do it. Nothing seems impossible anymore.

Your mind does funny things when you test it… like walking around a temple in a continuous circle at 5 in the morning for two hours. It starts to wander… and you think about life… I meditated on my feelings about religion, I thought about my family, and life after college. I tried to release some of the anger that I have kept bottled inside and tried to breath out my frustrations.

This has been good for me, healthy.

It’s easy to let life and routine get in the way of seeking out these really inspirational moments. I don’t know if I really felt something spiritual while walking around the temple, but I definitely felt something deeply that day, and it will be a moment I’ll never forget.

Things that Go Bump in the Night

It has been really busy at work lately, and I have found myself staying at the office until 8, 9, sometimes even 11 o’clock at night. Maybe if I worked in a big office building, that wouldn’t seem so freaky, but my office is basically inside a 100-plus-year-old house, with all the creeks and cracks that come with it.

A few weeks ago, after my 15 hour work marathon my boss was telling me a story about how there used to be a custodian who was in charge of cleaning our office/house, who refused to come and clean unless a member of the office staff was present because he was convinced the house was haunted. Then my boss chuckled. Thanks… I’m happy to hear that story after being alone in the big creaky house at 11 o’clock at night.

Then this morning, in one of the “gori wives” facebook groups, a conversation started about being nervous when home alone at night. I admit I am fully in this camp. I was actually quite relieved to hear that many of the other women were also nervous when home alone at night, because for years I thought I was just overly anxious, that maybe I was a bit neurotic for feeling scared. I’m fine when P is home, or if I have guests staying over, but on the rare occasion I find myself completely alone at night I sleep with all the lights on. It’s like every single scary thing I ever thought about comes crawling back. It’s not that I’m afraid of or necessarily believe in ghosts, but it’s just everything—real and imaginary, that starts to flood my mind. Perhaps I just have an overly active imagination. I don’t know.

So that reminded me of another story.

When I was nearing my undergraduate commencement, I was applying to every international education job posting I could find, regardless of where it was located. My very first professional interview was for a study abroad position at Gettysburg College, in historic Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. For readers who might not be as familiar with Gettysburg, it is famous for being the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the American Civil War with between 46,000-51,000 casualties during the 3 day fight.

Today people can go to the town and walk the battlefields, and read different historical markers about different important moments in the fight. The town has kept up a Civil War era (1860s) feel, with a lot of older architecture, antique shops, and people who dress in Civil War era clothing in highly touristic areas—like hotel clerks, waiters, tour guides, etc.

The town is also supposedly haunted by all the “lost souls” who died in the battle. There are all sorts of “ghost tours” and “haunted battlefield walks” tourists can do. Even one of the Gettysburg College buildings had a bloody role in the battle, and has it’s own supposed ghosts: during the 1860s Pennsylvania Hall was a dorm, but during the battle it was used as an impromptu field hospital and surgical unit. According to Wikipedia:

Battle casualties were treated in Pennsylvania Hall through about July 29 and totaled nearly 700–many who died in the building and on surrounding property.

Soldiers of both armies were treated in Pennsylvania Hall, as control of the College shifted from Union to Confederate forces on the evening of July 1.

Pennsylvania College resumed classes on September 24, 1863. Bullets, bones, human remains and bloody books were found in and around the building for many years after the end of the battle.

So here I am, already a scaredy-cat, and I was on my way to interview for a job in one of the most haunted towns in America! What was I thinking?

I arrived the night before the interview to meet with the director of the office. She had offered to take me out for dinner as an informal “pre-interview,” and we had a nice time. She picked me up at the Gettysburg Best Western Hotel downtown, which, like much of the town, was decorated in a Civil War theme, including hotel clerks who were dressed in bonnets, hoopskirts, and union and confederate uniforms.

We went for some Chinese, discussed the job, and how the interview process would go the following day, including a presentation I had to do for several faculty and administrators on an international education topic. At the end of the evening she drove me back to the hotel (it was now well after dark), and as I unbuckled my seat belt and opened the passenger door she smiled and said, “I’ll see you tomorrow morning. Have a good night. Enjoy the hotel… you know, the locals say it’s haunted. Ha ha.”

Who says that?? Really?? Who?

I went back up to my room, took out my notes for my presentation the following day, and turned on the tv. This was before I had a cell phone of my own, so I had borrowed P’s, and I took it out and placed it on the table next to the chair I had settled into. For the next two hours I half-watched tv and shuffled through my notes, trying to forget what the director had said.

As the tv show I was watching geared up to its conclusion, I started to feel warmth in my chest, like I had just downed a shot of whiskey and a few moments later I thought I saw something moving towards me. You know when you rub your eyes really hard and for the first few seconds afterward everything looks a little fuzzy? Or when you are at a BBQ and you are standing near a hot grill and the air above looks kind of wavy and disturbed. Basically it looked like a wavy disturbed patch of air was moving towards me pretty fast. Between the fuzzy air, my sudden feeling of warmth, and the cheerful reminder of the hotel’s notoriety earlier in the evening, I freaked out. All I grabbed was P’s cell phone and I charged out the door, leaving my key and my shoes, essentially locking myself out in the hallway.

I didn’t even wait for the elevator, I ran down the stairs to the lobby, where the hotel clerk in the hoop skirt and bonnet failed to put me at ease. I paced the hallway in my bare feet trying to figure out what to do. I had P’s phone, so I couldn’t call him for comfort. If I called my family, they probably would think I was over reacting, or crazy. So I called my friend Eliza. We had recently returned from studying in India together—I’ve mentioned her before when discussing her art—and I figured after the craziness of India, telling her I was scared of a haunted hotel was probably not that surprising.

It was tough to hear her on the other end of the phone. It was senior week back on campus, and students were out enjoying their last few moments of college life. She had met her now-husband a few months before, and I could tell they were out together. But like a true friend, she listened to my fearful babble and helped to calm me down, then reassured me all would be alright. I told her I was ready to spend the night sleeping in the lobby if necessary, but she talked me into going back up stairs and trying to stay in my room a while more.

I worked up the courage to ask the front desk attendant for a new key—she probably thought I was crazy anyway—then reluctantly headed back up stairs.

As soon as I got up there I turned on all the lights, then I turned the tv volume up, and I got in bed, burying myself under all the blankets so that the only thing visible was the tip of my nose. I spent the rest of the night like that. I didn’t sleep, I just listened to the tv and stayed perfectly still, sweating under the blankets until the sun rose.

The next morning I got ready, happily checked out of the hotel and went to the interview. One of the administrators took me on a tour off the campus, explaining the buildings and their history. I tried to play it cool and casual, “So, do some people consider the campus haunted?”

“A lot of people say it is, if you believe in that sort of thing.” The administrator responded, and launched into several stories about Pennsylvania Hall being the surgical unit during the battle and how some students swear they have seen things around campus.

I couldn’t help but wonder if I was offered the job, could I really live there in an apartment, on my own? I had visions of a string of panic and heart attacks.

The rest of the interview went well, despite the sleepless night, and later that evening I flew back to upstate New York.

A few days later the universe made a decision for me. I wasn’t offered the job.

I think it was a good thing.

Delicate Mzungu–revisited

**UPDATE** It has now been chopped to 1,998 words! Changes below.

Readers of my blog will be familiar with this story, however I spent a lot of time this month retooling and polishing it into a traditional short story for consideration in an upcoming anthology of “interesting stories of travel abroad” by international educators.

It is only 2,183 words long, so if you have time, I’d love to have my readers give some feedback. Even if I’ve asked you to read this in the past few days, this latest edition has gone through a lot of editing (particularly in the middle and end), so it might be worth a re-read. I think it is nearly ready for submission and I am eager to share:

Mzungu is a Kiswahili word that originally translated as “aimless wanderer.” Yet it has evolved colloquially in East Africa to refer to people of European ancestry—like an 18th century inside joke about imperialists spinning in circles, lost on the Maasai Mara. As an Irish-American with pinky-white skin, my mzungu-ness was as obvious as the strong Kenyan sun.

I felt no offense by this newly christened identity. Neighborhood children would sing, “Hey mzungu! Where are you going mzungu?”  Minibus conductors leaned out their doors to solicit us: “You there! Mzungu! Come!” Kitschy t-shirts in the Nairobi tourist markets quipped: “My name is not Mzungu!”

Instead, it was the adjective “delicate” harnessed to mzungu that stung, like a sharp accusation of weakness.

*

I was in Kenya for five months, studying abroad at one of the oldest undergraduate programs in East Africa. Students spent two weeks in Nairobi taking language and culture courses, alternating between two weeks of field experience in communities around the country. We lived with local Kenyan families and tasted many different recipes of life.

My first wrangle with the “delicate” modifier occurred in agricultural western Kenya. Fresh from orientation in the capital, my group of twelve plunged into our next sojourn, living with rural Kenyan families. I communicated with my hosts in my simple Kiswahili, insisting to work shoulder-to-shoulder with them. “Tafadhali”—please—“let me carry that bucket of water on my head, like you, back from the well…let me hoe the potatoes, let me feed the chickens…” I wanted to hunch over the large aluminum basin in the back yard and learn how to scrub the laundry by hand. I wanted to sit with my host sister and slice the leafy green sukuma wiki in preparation for dinner.

But I was told again and again, “It is okay, please rest. Wazungu# are delicate; we don’t want you to tire. Tafadhali, have some biscuits.”

I respectfully protested, “I’m not delicate. Please, let me help. I’m here to learn!”

The few times I was given a chance, I would either mess up—I stumbled while balancing a bucket of water atop my head, drenching myself—or something odd would happen, like a sudden nosebleed while I bent over the laundry basin. Each unfortunate incident reinforced their theory of the delicate mzungu.

*

Three months later, it was time for my group to travel to the savanna of southern Kenya, within sight of the Tanzanian border. It was the height of the dry season, and the landscape was barren but for occasional acacia trees. We were in Maasai-land, the ethnic group known by their iconic red clothing—women’s sarongs and men’s wraps called kanga and kikoi—and the wide, flat, beaded necklaces worn like starched Elizabethan collars around the women’s necks. Both genders kept their heads cleanly shaved and sported pierced earlobes that hung in stretched loops.

We camped along the edge of several Maasai family settlements. Called boma, they dotted the plains like sparse oases. The first week we walked through the countryside with the moran, the young male warriors of the tribe, who taught us how to identify different plants, herd goats, and survive a pastoralist lifestyle. Yet out in the relentless sun, the days were long, tolerable only by hiding under hats and loose long-sleeved clothing that kept us ventilated like desert Bedouin.

We burned through the clean bottled water brought from Nairobi, and the group had to share the ground water. We attempted to purify it by boiling it over the campfire, but bits of sediment still floated in the sulphurous liquid. Although it was another lesson in the reality of life shared by much of the world, my stubbornness resurfaced.

I was convinced that I didn’t need as much water as the rest of my classmates. I believed my body had better adapted to the dry climate, and I could, like a camel, sustain myself on just a few sips of water a day. I thought this could prove that being an mzungu didn’t automatically mean I was “delicate.”

My body dehydrated, but I was too naïve to pick up on the signs. My skin became dry and tight, and I had less use for the makeshift outhouse dug from the ground. Young people feel invincible, as though surrounded by an invisible bubble. Eventually everyone has an experience which pierces that bubble.  Mine was coming soon.

*

 During our second week in southern Kenya the group was divided into pairs and sent to different Maasai family boma. The settlements were enclosed in a circular acacia thorn fence.   This kept out roaming predators and protected the large herds of livestock which constituted the principal wealth of the family. Within this fence were several huts made of sticks, mud, and cow dung, built small so that an adult must stoop when standing inside. My hut was empty except for a piece of cowhide pulled tight across an elevated stick frame, used for sleeping.

I was paired with Nicole, a petite spiky-haired student from New York City. We spent the evening sitting outside our hut with our host mother, who was likely younger than either of us. We spoke no Kimaa, the mother tongue of the Maasai, so our communications were mimed. After sharing a dinner of boiled cornmeal and milk tea, the three of us sat under the heavy blanket of stars, which shimmered like millions of shards of glass.

*

The next morning Nicole and I arose from our shared cowhide cot and exited the hut into a cooler, overcast day. A moran named Joel Twiga—twiga being the Kiswahili word for giraffe, and a play on Joel’s lanky physique—had been summoned to help translate. He spoke of a large festival happening a few miles away at the “Big Boma”: every few years, families gathered to celebrate their men as they graduated from one phase of life to the next—childhood to warrior-hood, to junior elder, to elder. Our family wanted to take us.

They dressed Nicole and me in full Maasai regalia; a piece of fabric was tied around our hips like an underskirt, two red kangas were tied like toga across each shoulder, held tight by a belt, and we were adorned with white beaded necklaces. The clothing felt comfortable in the cool morning air—but they left large patches of neck, shoulders, and arms exposed.

Joel led us to the festival, and we joined the thronging mass as the sun broke through the clouds. Nicole and I were the only wazungu faces in the sea of red-clad ebony. Some children cried, scared of the mzungu-Maasai imposters, while other people wanted to greet us—“Soppa!” in Kimaa, answered by, “Ebba!” Two thousand people treated us like celebrities.

At first we were ushered from hut to hut, like high level ambassadors, as we greeted the elders. Then we were stationed in the sun to watch a medley of dance; the women vigorously shook their shoulders, causing their necklaces to bob as if floating on stormy ocean waves. The men responded by pogoing ever higher into the sky. The air was thick with ululations, and with the metallic smell of blood from goats butchered for meals not far outside of the boma fence.

By mid-day, Joel, Nicole and I were summoned to honor the regional chief. He welcomed us to his hut with a chummy slap on the back and handed each of us a warm bottle of Tusker, a popular Kenyan beer. I nursed mine while Joel translated the chief’s sermon. I was having trouble focusing on Joel’s words, as the beer and the heat soaked through my skull. My face had a fever-flush, but my skin remained dry of sweat.

After the chief’s hut, the sun became blinding and severe; I could feel every patch of exposed skin broiling in the afternoon heat. I grew agitated and disoriented by the constant attention of the revelers. Joel offered a placating umbrella, and I found a place to sit in the dust, hiding myself like an ant under a colorful mushroom. When evening shadows pulled long across the boma, Joel agreed to take Nicole and me back. I nearly passed out on the return walk.

*

That night my skin was on fire. My face, arms, and a patch of my neck and upper back were the color of cooked lobster shells. Lying on the cowhide cot was like rolling on a bed of freshly sharpened nails.  I could barely tolerate the weight of my loose fitting clothes.

The following day our professor, a tall sable Sudanese man, returned in the program Land Rover to take us back to our original campsite. I felt sore and periodically lightheaded, but remembered the milder sunburns of my childhood, which subsided in a day or two. I failed to realize anything was seriously wrong, and joined the other students in a night drive through the grasslands in search of zebra, antelope and lion.

We had been driving for nearly three hours, spying on a family of zebra in the Land Rover’s headlights, when my world spiraled.  I was instantly sick. A few moments earlier the bouncing car had been fun; now it was torture. My abrupt shift in demeanor alarmed our professor, who signaled our caravan to turn back. I had to sit very still, and breathe very deeply, to keep from vomiting on the return trek. By the time we reached our camp, I could barely walk under my own power. I retched up the contents of my stomach before I was dragged to my tent.

It was the start of one of the longest nights of my life. I vomited until I could not, then vomited some more. I shook and muttered, delirious. I was certain that the daytime heat would kill me. Nicole and the professor sat by my side all night, forcing me to sip water laced with rehydration salts. Finally, at dawn, I fell into a fitful sleep.

Our professor drove half an hour to find cell reception and made arrangements for my transport to Nairobi Hospital. Before his return, I had awoken, more coherent than the night before, but my back and neck had exploded in a mosaic of sunburned blisters. He loaded me into the Land Rover, and the other students waved goodbye.

*

The Nairobi Hospital, called the “European Hospital” during colonial rule, is a state-of-the-art facility and by far the fanciest in the country. Amongst locals, even the arriving patients dressed in beautiful outfits for their visit, while I arrived straight from the bush; filthy, dusty, and limping.

The intake doctor noted in my chart that the “mzungu dressed like a Maasai and was badly burned,” so each time a new nurse came on duty she had to meet that unusual mzungu. I was admitted for four days due to dehydration, sun poisoning and heatstroke. My treatment was a rehydrating intravenous drip and burn cream for the blisters on my back.

On my second day, the hospital director visited my room. He was a bulky, dark-skinned Ugandan doctor; a personal friend of our program director and one of the urban homestay fathers. He looked at my chart and examined my back.

After making his assessments, he held out his fist and asked, “See this hand?”

I nodded.

“It is a strong African hand. I can put it near fire and it will not burn. But you…you are an mzungu, and you are delicate. You must be more careful.”

*

In Kiswahili there is a saying, heri kufa macho kuliko kufa moyo—it is better to lose your eyes than to lose your heart. I may have bruised my pride on that burnt African savanna, but I found my taste for all the extraordinary experiences life has to offer. I hope never to be far from that next adventure, but I promise there will be a lot of sunscreen and water.


#Wazungu—the plural form of mzungu.


Author bio:
C is Assistant Director at the International Students Office at xxx University. In addition to traveling in various regions of Africa, she enjoys South Asia, especially Nepal. C lives in New England with her  husband and dog.

Bringing Shoe Stealing to a Whole New Level…

In some sectors of Nepali and Indian culture there is a wedding tradition where the sisters of the bride–and this could be immediate biological sisters, or cousin-sisters, or female friends, etc–steal the shoes of the groom.

The set up for this works well because during the ceremony the bride and groom have to remove their shoes since the mandap becomes a small Hindu temple, and in all Hindu temples one must remove their shoes. I believe it is the same with mosques, so I wouldn’t be surprised if shoe stealing happens at South Asian Muslim weddings as well–readers can weigh in.

The groom’s friends or male cousins/brothers are supposed to guard the shoes, and I’ve even heard about “decoy” shoes to throw the sisters off.

Once the sisters steal the shoes the groom has to pay a bribe to get them back at the end of the ceremony. Depending on the parties involved, negotiations can be pretty tough.

When my sister heard about this, she loved the idea, and stole P’s shoes at our wedding, but I gave her a limit on how much she could reasonably ask for. When she asked for $50, S said, “that’s too little!” and gave her a handful of money from his wallet. I think she made off with $100 and was pretty satisfied.

Over the weekend we went to an Indian/Nepali wedding in the DC area. It was the biggest wedding I had ever been too– about 600 people. The bride was a childhood/neighborhood friend of P and his brother, and she was marrying a Punjabi man. Both the bride and groom had 13 or 14 members in their wedding party–“bridesmaids” and “groomsmen,” so when the “bridesmaids” (sisters) demanded payment for the groom’s shoes, they meant business and had the numbers to back it up.

They started chanting, “$3,000! $3,000!”

The groom countered with, “It’s a recession! That’s too much for a pair of shoes!”

Sisters: “We want $3,000!”

Groom: “I’ll give you two-fifty each…”

Sister: “Two hundred and fifty dollars each?”

Groom: “No! Two dollars and fifty cents!”

Sisters: “Noooooooo! Boooo!”

Groom: “Be reasonable girls!”

Groom’s brother: “No more than $50 per sister, otherwise they are being greedy!”

Sisters (urged on by the bride): “No, we want $3,000!”

…Haggling back and forth for quite a while…

Groom: “Okay, how about I give you all the money in my wallet right now? Trust me, it’s a lot, you will be happy… and I’ll throw an awesome party!”

Sisters: “How much is in your wallet?”

Groom: “$800 and a gift card for $25, you can have that too!”

Sisters: “Noooooo!”

…Haggling some more…

Some of the brothers reluctantly open their wallets and sweeten the pot to make an even $1,000 plus the $25 gift card.

The sisters finally accept.

P’s cousin’s American husband leaned in and whispered to me, “Um, is this for real?”

Sisters enjoy their shoe money...

Apparently!

My New Anthem?

I had to share this… since my pitfalls in learning Nepali sometimes make me think, “I can only imagine… if I’ll ever learn!”

My personal favorite lyrics– “I can only imagine/when the day comes/when I find myself/with a loosened tongue,” “When they ask if I have eaten, will I say uh-huh or khae?” and “Surrounded by Nepalis, what will my mouth say?”

So enjoy this Friday fun video:

Gori Watching Part I

During the Bratabandha weekend P and I spent two full days hanging out at his relative’s house. The first day was more of a “prep” day. Nepali friends and family members were frantically cooking; there was a group of women monopolizing the kitchen—cutting cauliflower and onion, tossing fried noodles, and peeling potatoes—while a second group was stationed in the garage making stacks of beautiful sel roti. I was the sole Caucasian guest mingling in the crowd, and although I offered to help cook, or even just chop vegetables, there were too many seasoned experts and eventually P and I found ourselves on kid duty, playing tag, “duck, duck, goose!” and “Go Fish!” (which we Nepali-fied into “Macha!”)

Confession time: I have to admit that I have grown very comfortable being the only Caucasian around. Being the resident “American” has kind of become my niche to the point where sometimes, while in a group of other Caucasian-Americans, I feel a little lost, like I’ve lost my “specialness,” my major point of identity. Perhaps that’s why I feel myself playing up the Nepali side of me in an American crowd, so I can feel different and comfortable again. Does that sound weird? Do others sometimes feel the same way?

The following day, I figured that I might meet some non-Nepali friends of the family at the Bratabandha/after party, but I was a little surprised to see other Nepali-American couplings. By day’s end there was a total of four.

Other South Asian-Western couples I’ve met online have discussed “the Gori Gaze” before. Perhaps you find yourself at a restaurant, and a few tables away you spy a South Asian-Western couple, or maybe you bump into one on an airplane or at a shopping mall. You imagine what their story is—perhaps projecting on the westerner parts of your own experience. You can’t help but size the other couple up—does she look more “into the culture” than you? Can she speak the language? Part of you wants to walk up and introduce yourself, swap phone numbers, facebook names, or give them a high five. Maybe another part of you just wants to keep to yourself.

The morning of the Bratabandha was chilly—only about 40 degrees (F), and I had packed a thin sari expecting better weather. Groups of people stood together in the garage where the head shaving was due to take place. We watched as P’s cousin razored the two Bratabandha boys down to a clean, close shave. A few moments later I noticed a white woman dressed in a warm coat and a pair of slacks—smarter than me, since I was shivering in my sari—walk up the drive way holding the hand of what I presumed to be her eight year old daughter and ten year old son. They mingled in the crowd as well, checking out the puja staging area and chatting with the women who were putting the finishing touches on the cauliflower curry dish for lunch. The woman looked about ten or fifteen years older than me, light brown hair, and fair complexion, while her kids had brown hair had a tanner skin tone. The little girl was dressed in a salwaar kameez. I couldn’t help but wonder if they were Nepali-American.

The woman moved around like she was familiar with the house and the cooking women who were local Nepali, so I was hoping she might approach me as the out-of-towner, but instead she moved into the house. A few minutes later I went inside to grab a cup of steaming chia to thaw and saw her sitting on the couch with her daughter, looking through a coffee table book about Nepal, and talking about the pictures with some authority. I lingered on the edge of the living room, hoping to catch her attention, but she didn’t acknowledge me, so at first I thought that maybe she wasn’t interested. I couldn’t help but wonder if she was put off by me being trussed up in a sari, tilari, and bindi?

I moved outside and wandered to the second puja staging area under a tent in the back yard. The pandit was preparing the wood for the small fire under the mandap, and another Nepali man was helping him make the arrangements. The white woman’s son was hanging around too, asking questions to the man, before scampering off. After a few minutes the Nepali man looked up and smiled, “You look very nice in sari. Is your husband Nepali?”

He had picked up on my wedding tilari, a clear signal that I wasn’t just a friend dressed up in a sari to watch the event. I nodded yes.

“Have you been to Nepal?” he asked.

“Yes, three times.”

“Nice.” He said, “My wife has been too. She lived there for four years.”

“Is that your wife inside?” I asked, and he indicated yes. “I wanted to talk to her, but she looked busy.”

“You should go talk to her, her name is Jenny*.”

*name changed, for privacy.