civilized.

I’ve seen a lot of steps over the past two weeks. Steps in front of me, steps behind me. Steps that made my quads and my ass feel like jelly, steps so steep I felt like I was jumping down them, a human slinky of sorts.

Yesterday, a set of steps were the last little bit of our trek that I had to hold on to. My mind was simultaneously back in the mountains, in the lush green and the striking snowy white, and right there in front of me, my next step over brown and red and golden leaves that reminded me of boarding school in the fall. It’s funny, all the places that the mountains remind me of.

And then I saw the road, and I heard my first car horn. The first signs of civilization. I resented them and greeted them with a sort of foreign apprehension. I wasn’t ready to leave quite yet; I hadn’t seen everything I wanted to see; couldn’t I just stay in the mountains a few weeks longer? Weren’t there some baby goats somewhere that needed to be cuddled, or some extra potatoes that needed to be eaten?

We got back to our hotel later on in the day and went through the necessary motions: send every single possession to laundry service. reacquaint self with razor. organize all possessions. sit and decompress. close the shades to hide from the weird city world of Pokhara (which, in its cityness, is neither very bustling nor very overwhelming). my little computer sat on my bed and I looked at it like I had looked at the road below me as I stood on a hillside full of uneven stone steps. It’s normally something I gravitate towards, but I didn’t want to open it. As much as I had missed my family, missed seeing their blurry faces via skype, I wanted to put off contact with the world for a little longer. Like the parent that wakes you up for school and you beg for five more minutes of sleep. I wished I could steal one more morning of trekking, one more evening spent around the beautiful families running each little mountain lodge, one more freezing night huddled in a sleeping bag and layers upon layers of clothing. One more breath of mountain air, one more glimpse of forest.

I don’t know if I’ll write anymore about our trek. I don’t know if I can. But I know for sure that I’ll be back for more.

if i could

I got to skype with my friend Emily today. I saw her face and heard her voice and we got to be all weird and make strange noises and catch up in the most comforting, girlfriendy way. It was the first time on this trip that I’ve really talked to someone at home other than my family, and it made me so happy. While I still have no desire to head back stateside anytime soon (still haven’t bought that return ticket), I’ve recently been feeling very nostalgic for my people.*

I miss my friends. All of you. And you know what else? I miss my kitchen.

If I could, right now, I’d cook you all dinner. I’d spend days browsing my brain and my favorite blogs for recipe ideas. I’d spend a morning and a handful of cash at the farmers’ market on fresh, organic fruits and vegetables and herbs and maybe a fancy bouquet of flowers. I’d spend hours in my kitchen, and I’d love every second of it, from the smell of onions and garlic cooking to the (delicious) mess I tend to make while baking. I’d try not to ruin my appetite by stealing nibbles here and there, basking in the glory of my frilly apron and the weight of my cast-iron skillet and the irrelevant details that I like to fret over.

I’d make a big, huge, green salad full of things that crunch and pop and grow from the earth. I’d fill a mason jar with homemade dressing, adjusting the ratios and pinches and dashes of ingredients like a science experiment. I’d make a big batch of grains – oh, what I would do for some quinoa right now! – and throw it together with more vegetables and maybe some slowly simmered chickpeas (a few of which would disappear into my mouth fresh from the pot) and simple flavors. The finished product would generously fill our bowls and our bellies and I’d selfishly be able to eat the leftovers for days.

I’d probably try my hand at fresh bread, which in this fantasy land would come out rustic and earthy and tasty, crisp on the outside and soft and fluffy within (unlike the weirdly shaped rocks that I’ve come up with in the past). We’d dip it in olive oil as we sat around with glasses of wine and I laughed at an inappropriate volume.

And of course there would be something sweet with which to end the night, maybe a cake or a pie laced with fresh fruit. Have I ever told you about the time I accidentally baked a raw dessert? This would go a little more smoothly than that. I’d force seconds on you (there’s a pushy Jewish Irish Catholic mother living inside of me, you know): partially to get you to stay a bit longer, but mostly because feeding people is one of the most authentic ways I know to show them how much I love them and how much I just want to smother them with joy.

Someday I’d like to have a big long table in my backyard. Close to the vegetable garden for easy access, of course. Long and wooden and homey, always with room for another friend or relative or visitor or new acquaintance. Punctuated with fresh flowers in mason jars. I’d like to be the type of cook host friend who can throw impromptu dinner parties, cook for a group with ease out of love and joy rather than stress or obligation. You’ll simply need to bring along a hearty appetite and a bit of conversation; maybe a story or two. You’re all welcome any time.

Until then, I’ll just travel my poor little self through Asia (boo hoo), missing my own pots and pans and chewy cookies and vegetables that are safe to eat raw, as my eyes and my taste buds and my heart get a chance to see what the world has to offer. Hopefully, once I finally sit down to the table, I’ll have some stories of my own to share.

(Inspiration and images via Kinfolk; and, yes, I’d like a subscription for my birthday.)

*Aside from Mariel, of course, who is currently with me and is my ultimate people, but that goes without saying, I think.

clear your noodle.

Skype is a beautiful thing. It’s kept me so close to my family despite the miles and time zones that separate us.

Thanks to Skype, I’ve gotten some really great parental advice over the past few days (have I ever mentioned how amazing my parents are?) Some of it is too precious to broadcast to the rest of the world. And some of it is too great not to share.

Today, Mariel and I leave for eleven days of trekking in the Himalaya. We’ll (hopefully) make it to Annapurna Base Camp (13,000 ft) and back. Our guide is an 18 year old Nepali kid named Tony. I kid you not.

I love the mountains. They make my heart happy. I can’t wait to get out there; I think it’s exactly what my body and my heart and my mind need at this precise moment in my life. I need some quiet. I need some time. I need some mountain air.

My mom agrees.

“Clear your noodle”, she said.

So I’m off to clear my noodle. Mother knows best, after all.

See you all on the flip side. And happy early St. Patrick’s day! Remember to wear green so the leprechauns don’t play tricks on you. And if anyone could fedex some Irish soda bread to Annapurna Base Camp (I assume this is fairly easy), that would be great. I like mine with raisins and caraway. Thanks.

Final Exam, Part Two

Upon meeting Rahul, I told him to take me around to see the best of what Old Delhi had to offer. Sweet or savory, whatever he thought was best. I put my full trust in him. He gave a sly smile and gestured for me to climb up into his rickshaw. (And no, that’s not a pickup line. Yet.)

Bike rickshaws are rickety but charming. A small hood covers your head but the rest of the vehicle is open, which makes it the best way to see a place like the streets of Old Delhi. Walking around can be arduous and confusing, and often the best views are from right in the middle of the road. Stepping up into my seat, I felt like Cinderella climbing into her carriage, excited and apprehensive and lucky.

Our first stop was Ashok Chats corner where, Rahul said, I had to sample two different snacks. I handed him my fifty rupees and did what I was told. First up was papri chaat, AKA the best thing I’ve ever eaten. I’m embarrassed by my efforts to describe this: the base consisted fluffy, cake-like (moist?) little rolls and crispy, crunchy fried discs. Topped with a tangy yogurt sauce, chickpeas, spicy chutneys and some sort of mango concoction. Soft and crunchy and sweet and spicy and tangy and light. I KNOW that description makes no sense and the picture included below isn’t doing much to help my case, but trust me. I’d buy another plane ticket to India just to taste this again.

MAGIC

Next up was Golgappe, tiny crispy hollow puffs filled with a tamarind and mango flavored liquid. It was totally different from anything I have ever eaten. But refreshing and delicious and light. Then across the street for dessert number one (fluffy white stuff? that’s what she said?), and back into the rickshaw. We arrived at an unassuming storefront — no sign, nothing flashy, just an old man sitting in front of a huge vat of kheer: delicious, thick Indian rice pudding (but more pudding-y than what we’re used to at home). It was a generations-old operation, and his son looked on from the background, learning the trade to one day take things over after his father finds his home in the great Kheer shop in the sky. Kheer Daddy served me up a bowl and Rahul and I sat in back, at an old, time-worn wooden table. The walls were a sweet Carolina blue that hadn’t been touched up in maybe a hundred years. Decor clearly wasn’t a priority here, and it shouldn’t be: the kheer was so delicious that it warranted a complete absence of distraction or competition from outside forces. I just sat and spooned it into my mouth, eyes closed. It was that good.

As we we wrapped up our afternoon — including deliciously fluffy mango-flavored kulfi ice cream down an alley so rickety we had to ditch the rickshaw and walk — I realized this was the perfect way to say goodbye to India. The food, of course, was amazing. The streets were loud, the traffic dense, the pollution hard on my lungs but easy on my eyes: with the setting sun it gave the streets the glow of a perfectly instagrammed photograph, nostalgic and ethereal and hazy.

Thankfully, the point at which we had to leave the rickshaw behind (streets were closed off due to the Imam’s visit) coincided with the point at which my stomach raised its white flag. I can eat – a lot – but I knew I was done for the day. So we got a bit of walking in, and Rahul pointed me back to the metro.

I walked slowly, both because all I could think about was changing into something with an elasticized waistband and because I didn’t want to say goodbye to the old city, didn’t want the day to end, didn’t know what it would be like to leave this insane and vibrant country after a two-month courtship: sometimes tumultuous, a bit love-hate, but passionate and caring nonetheless. I stumbled back into our hotel room, plopping onto my fluffy bead and rubbing my distended yet victorious stomach.

India was good for me. For so many reasons. The culture is so vibrant and at times overpowering, but I liked it. And the food — the food was amazing. After years of disordered eating and gradual recovery, I was able to wholeheartedly embrace my love of food. I realized that I just really like food. I like eating it and learning how it’s made and discovering new things and hearing stories about where they come from. I had fun trying new foods on the street, in restaurants, having a second helping if I wanted it, giggling through piles of chapatis and endless boxes of delicious Indian sweets (which I WILL learn to make someday). And the subsequent squeeze in my jeans just reminds me of all the beautiful things I’ve experienced and the way I’ve been able to savor my trip so far. Somehow, with a few more pounds on my frame, I feel lighter.

Final Exam, Part One

My last afternoon in India was spent zipping through crowded streets of Old Delhi in the back of a bike rickshaw, ducking into tiny alleyways and making new friends with old men to sample some of the best street food the city has to offer.

It was delicious. It was insane. It was exciting and beautiful. And it was so India.

I knew I wanted to wander around Old Delhi before we left the country, soak up the old city and its vibrance. And, of course, eat some of its food. Via this blog, I found a wealth of information about street food in Old Delhi, its hidden secrets, its bustling wealth of deliciousness. I had to investigate on my own.

Once I stepped off the (shockingly clean and orderly) metro, however, I knew I was in over my head. Everything was loud and busy and I had no idea how to find what I was looking for. I needed help.

So I called a guy. I found Rahul’s number during my search for the ultimate street food treasure hunts, and I had scratched it down in the back of my Moleskine. Thank God. I dialed the number and explained I was looking to find some good street food spots.

“Meet me at the Jama masjid”, he said. “I’ll call you when I get there.”

Somehow I was already walking in the right direction. Magically I passed Old and Famous, arguably the best Jalebi joint in town. Jalebis are essentially squiggles of fried dough drenched in sticky syrup; certainly not for the faint of heart. I had tried them before in bakeries and they always seemed weird, stale, and greasy. But these ones….oh my God. They were freshly made, hot and doughy but crispy and sweet. Worth it.

With one little success under my belt I walked toward Jama Masjid…whatever that was. Down a long and narrow road I found the backside of what looked like some sort of fort or monument. “It’s closed,” an old man told me as I stopped to stare. “The Imam is here”.

Confused, I called Rahul back. “I’m at gate seven!” I proclaimed, expecting him to roll up immediately. “Meet me at gate one,” he responded. “I’ll call you when I get there. I’m at the spice market.”

(source)

Walking around the perimeter, I soon learned that the Imam of Saudi Arabia was in Delhi to appear at the Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque. Which explained the fact that when I reached the appropriate gate — gate one, the main entrance — I found swarms of Muslim men, milling around, entering the mosque, filling the streets. I wanted to stand still on a corner and wait, but the ebb and flow of the crowd made it nearly impossible. So I resigned to floating around with the swell of people, grabbing a few snacks on my way: toffee-like halva and sweet fried dough balls covered in sticky sesame seeds. After an hour of waiting (this is India, after all) and feeling conspicuous, I saw Rahul walking up to me.

“So how did you find me?”

I instantly knew I had the right guy.

29.02.2012

“I guess Mecca is that way,” I joked to Mariel as we watched the sunset to the west of our train. We’d been sitting by a group (family?) of Muslim men — including a young teenager and an old man with an awesomely long white beard. Despite language barriers, we had shared smiles and hand gestures (advanced communication such as “what time is it” and “can I place my oversized backpack on this train berth above your head”) since we boarded in Agra. From their various states of undress and wide range of blankets and pillows, it seems like they have been on the train for a while. Knowing the Indian railway system, it could be days.

Now they are fully clothed. As the sun sets, they are taking turns praying, each washing his hands at the nearby sink before laying down on a blanket, facing the western setting sun, standing and subsequently kneeling. In front of a train full of people, the sunshine on their faces making their devotion even more beautiful. I sit here, directly in between them and the window, Mariel’s and my game of gin rummy temporarily paused. Respectfully trying not to stare but at the same time intrigued by the openness of their worship, the ease with which they recite their prayers. Bending their torsos forward, kneeling, standing back up.

It’s another example of what I love so much about India. People here are so comfortable with, and expressive of, their faith. It’s a beautiful, collective expression. Restaurants and shops that house small shrines to Krishna or Ganesh, marked by constantly and reverently burning incense. Red paint dotted in between the eyebrows of Hindus. A restaurant in Agra turning the TV off for a few minutes because they know that people will be praying inside a nearby mosque. Hundreds of Sikh men in beautifully wrapped turbans stripping down to their skivvies to bathe in the holy waters of Amritsar’s golden temple. What if people in the US were all this open with their faiths? All this devout? Would we get down on our knees on a Greyhound bus? Would we pray to God through the bars of a train? Is it a lack of commitment, or a fear of religion, or an assumption that we can do it on our own, that keeps us from surrendering so wholly to our faith?

And an even scarier question: what’s holding me back?

***

postscript: three days later, I realized why there were so many devout Muslims on their way to Delhi. (Our friends weren’t the only ones; men were taking turns to pray throughout the train.) As I stood on a street corner in Old Delhi, across from Gate #1 of India’s largest mosque, waiting for a rickshaw driver to take me on a tour of the neighborhood’s greatest foodie secrets, Muslim men flooded the streets. (I stuck out like a really pale thumb.) My rickshaw friend later told me that the Imam of Saudi Arabia was visiting that day, which explained the thousands and thousands of visitors. They were mostly men, all milling about before entering the mosque or setting blankets on the ground in anticipation of prayer. It was beautiful and fascinating; and always comforting to be able to connect the dots like that while traveling.

my damn bliss

After quitting my job in December and before hopping a plane to India, my future felt promising but unstable, exciting but vague. I had left corporate America (thank God) and had at least a few months of traveling ahead of me. I had the world at my feet! I had a chunk of change with which to travel after saving for months. I felt like the luckiest girl in the world. I was excited. And I was scared to death.

The catch is this: with no responsibilities, no job, nothing holding me back (other than my own fear), I could do whatever I wanted. But that meant that I had to figure out what I wanted to do. And when there’s a world of possibilities out there for you, finding the right one can feel like searching for a needle in a haystack. A lovely problem to have, for sure, but daunting nonetheless.

We’ve all been urged by various people (and greeting cards) to “follow our bliss”. But what’s a girl to do if she doesn’t know what her bliss is? Without an answer to this question, it’s easy to fall back on opportunities that are safe. Fool-proof. Easily accessible.

The idea of searching the world to find that thing that makes you come alive is scary. Because what if you don’t find it? That question alone is enough to keep someone in their comfort zone for the rest of time. Fear of failure and fear of the unknown are paralyzing.

The act of traveling has already taught me so much over the past eight weeks. And the most reassuring lesson has been that I needed this. I needed to see the world, to explore and question and prove myself wrong and experience new places and cultures and tastes and ideas and dreams. I needed the time to think.

On this trip, I get to be a kid again. In part because I can have as much candy as I want and I get to stay up past my bedtime watching TV, but most importantly because I get to play the “what do I want to be when I grow up?” game on a daily basis. The answers change weekly – sometimes daily – and it’s been a great exercise to observe these ideas, embrace them, let them pass and let new ones appear without feeling guilty for not having all the answers just yet.

It seems like a lot of other twentysomethings find themselves restless and searching for similar answers. We’ve been told our whole lives that we should get the best education possible and that our education should result in the best job possible. When we end up in an office and we’re miserable and we’re not sure why because we’ve been told that this is what we should want, it’s a bit discouraging. And confusing. And finding a different solution, or sacrificing a nice big paycheck for more freedom and happiness, is difficult. But if we don’t find a way to explore our world – be it through travel or reading or pursuing new hobbies or self-examination – we’ll never find the bliss that we want to call our own. And we certainly can’t follow it.

I still don’t have the answers to all of my questions. I never will. But I’ve learned to pay attention to certain things: to pay attention to the things that make me excited and the experiences that peak my curiosity. The days where I get wild ideas about the future and the random occurrences that make me giggle uncontrollably. The questions I want to ask locals over and over again, and the types of people I’m drawn to. Those new friends I meet whose jobs make me painfully, sinfully jealous. I like to think of them all as pieces to the puzzle or clues on a scavenger hunt, each one valuable and meaningful in finding my way.

With each new city I visit and each new experience that I can tuck into my little pocket of memories, I feel myself moving closer to whatever it is I’m searching for: meaningful work, a place to settle, a comprehensive outlook on life. Whatever. But I’m also loving the journey. And it’s not just because I get to see the world; it’s because I get to see myself with new eyes. The view is always changing, and I can only have faith that someday things will suddenly become very clear. Until then, all I can do is stay alert and enjoy the ride.