Level 10: Going Home

It’s 9:45am in Kasauli on 24 Nov 2010.
I’m leaving today. Only a couple of people know I’m coming home for Thanksgiving. I’ll arrive in the US at 4:35am on Thanksgiving day. I’ll have a limo service take me to my mothers house where I will wait on the front porch until she comes out to take the dogs to the park. I love surprises. I’m so ready to go home. My arrival on American soil will be accompanied by a new perspective on myself, my relationships, my career, and my place in this vast dark universe. My perspective is one that does not depend on the stars, ancient scripture, current politics, or future prophecy. My perspective is going to be built strongly on the pillars of smiles. Yes smiles. The smiles I so look forward to seeing on the face of my mother, my brothers, my girlfriend. The smiles on the faces of my father, my grandmothers, and my sister Octavia once they know I am safely back in the US. The smiles on my aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends when they can again rest easy knowing that I’m safe and back to the simple opinionated daily nuggets of wisdom on my facebook posts (lol yeah I know I love me some me). The smiles on the faces of my co-workers when they tell Liza and I that we did a great job brokering the pathway for a very needed vaccine in a place that needs it. The smiles (or wagging tales) on my dogs when they realize that thier dad didn’t abandon them and we are set for a holiday season of playing fetch in the snow, snuggling on the couch watching Christmas movies, and getting first hand helpings from my thanksgiving plate 🙂 Oh how these smiles are the currency of my heart.

6:33am Upper Darby,PA
Here I stand on my mothers porch. Watching the sky light up with sunshine. It’s good to be home. I will wait here to surprise her when she brings the dogs out to go to the park. Happy Thanksgiving to you all. I love you.
Jason.

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Level 9: Wedding Celebration

Monday started out like any other Monday. Even though it was our last Monday here we were still dragging a bit. We came into work and began our tasks for the day. At about mid-day our friend Devender came in and invited us to a wedding celebration taking place in the village. A couple of employees at the CDL were having their children get married. I thought it an odd day for a wedding…a Monday…in November…but it was explained to me on the ride over. In the Hindi culture there is a strong astrological influence. If you’ve ever had your birthchart read you are starting to get the idea of how these things go. They determine which days are meant for the two to wed. Based on the influence of the starts the professionals that handle this matter (and they are seriously professionals) decided on Monday, November 22. It was a 30 minute drive along one of the roughest roads we had driven on in our visit. Unpaved, rocky, slow. We arrived and my nerves were in complete control. I didn’t know how we would be received. I didn’t know if I was going to offend anyone by just showing up at their wedding. Such a thing is unheard of in America, which I now realize is a sad state of affairs. We traveled up a rocky path by foot past a barn where the bride’s father keeps his cows. I love the smell of livestock. It’s genuine smell that tells your senses that you are outside with nature. Some people see it as just disgusting but to me it smells like life. As we reached the top we walked into a tent filled with beautifully dressed men and women. In the center of the crowd was the bride and groom. Sitting still and taking pictures with the many people who had come to wish them well. There was a small burning fire and a few offerings that others had brought as gifts. Before we knew it there was our driver Pradeep. It was his nephew who was getting married. He was so excited to see us that he made us come over and take a picture with the bride and groom. I am not a fan of taking pictures of myself but I jumped in and immediately felt like I was part of a very important day. This is where things started to get a little crazy…

So after that all of our work colleagues, who were also at the wedding, invited us to have some “indian wine”. I thought sure. I thought maybe it was the wine fermented with goat droppings but I was in for a more potent surprise. We enter a porch at the front of the house. The floor was made of mud and cow droppings. surprisingly it was sturdy, soft, and very good at insulating heat. This was fascinating to me. Again…these people do so much with so little. As we sit they open a bag and out comes three bottles of single-malt whiskey brewed right here in India. This was no wine.

So.. here I am… 1pm in the afternoon drinking straight whiskey on an empty stomach with 12 other colleagues. It was amazing. Before I knew it I was laughing hysterically at the jokes and I couldn’t feel my face. Lol. But I felt safe, comfortable, these gentlemen were treating me as an honored guest at such a special occasion. Then when I ask them about the Indian tobacco, the provided me with a try of some tobacco grown in Kasauli, wrapped in banyen leaves. They were a bouquet I had never smelled with tobacco before. Before I knew it I was in the old boys club. I was laughing, drinking, and finally letting go of some of the anxieties I had about being in India. These people were great people. They were so gracious with their time and energy. And they genuinely wanted to bring me into their circle rather than push me out. This is a lesson I hope I keep forever with it comes to others who are different from me. I struggle every day to not judge those who I disagree with. Most of the time the religious and Republicans. I’m not always successful but I try every day and I am making progress. So once the drinks were complete I was invited to the dance floor. If you know me… you know I had to show em’ how to get down on the good foot (see photos on photobucket). I had such a great time. Before I knew it the entire wedding group, including bride and groom were staring at me and the others on the dance floor. They had these huge smiles on their faces…and so did I. After breaking it down we ate. We sat on burlap mats on a rooftop and servers came around and plopped food on our plates with their bare hands. The food was contained in old plastic paint buckets. And I can honestly say… if paint makes that food taste that good…then damn it… I want all of my food from this point forward served in paint buckets. The food was amazing. It was home cooked, given from the heart, warm, spicy, sweet, and just plain delicious. We laughed and ate and just had a great time not as colleagues but as a collective group of humans enjoying our social capabilities. What a day.

Once we left the wedding Devender explained to me that in the Hindu culture it is custom to treat your guests like a god. Not because they really think we are gods but because they believe that the gods in their culture can come into their lives in any form. And they never want to treat anyone so bad because they may be a god, and they may be mistreating their divine leaders. This to me was touching. This idea to me eludes most monotheistic religions. I never have seen a Christian, Jew, or Muslim say that God or Allah may be present in a guest…a very different guest…that comes to embrace their culture. We should learn from this. I should learn from this. I do not believe in a deity but damn it I do believe in the end result of what I experienced. Love, compassion, joy, excitement, comfort ,and respect. These things I will never forget and I hope I get the opportunity to greet some of these scientists on American borders and offer them the same experience. I have confidence that with my family and friends we will be able to provide that same feeling. Take this with you to your thanksgiving tables when you look at maybe a few new faces whether they be new children, old relatives, old friends, or maybe just someone you know who needs a hot meal and a hug. Take this with you and remember that you too can have them walk out that door with the same feeling I had on just another extraordinary Monday 🙂

Level 8: Chandigarh…City Beauty

Wow… just when I start to wallow in boredom or homesickness India throws something new at me. Today it was Chandigarh. A bustling city at the bottom of the Himalayan foothills. This is also where the children’s hospital was located. Unfortunately we did not get to visit the hospital on this trip. However, I remained wide-eyed and sponge-like in order to do my best to soak up the sunshine in such a beautiful place.
It was a two-hour trip to get down there, key word being “down”, which meant I didn’t have to endure too much winding about the mountain side. Once we arrived we were greeted with some pretty serious traffic. Then all of a sudden, Pradeep made a quick right and there was nothing. And when I say nothing I mean everything. The lack of cars or people gave us the chance to see the amazing landscaping and colors that line this cities gaze. We first passed a military base with two big tanks out front. Not very subtle message I guess lol. Then we arrived at Chandigarh lake. It was amazing. I felt like I was going to the LA Zoo. Everyone was parking and excited. There was a camel out front offering rides…well his owner was offering rides at least 🙂 We went lakeside to see a beautiful lake, with the backdrop of the Himalayan foothills. Pradeep pointed out the exact place we had come from and even Manki point. It was crazy to see things from both perspectives. I mean once from Manki point looking miles down to Chandigarh lake, and then to be at the lake looking back up… truly special. So we rented a paddle boat. Liza and I decided to let Pradeep relax as we paddled out. He basked in the glorious sun as we paddled away. There were families and friend out on these boats. You could tell that this was a special place where people came to enjoy not only the scenery but each other. If you know me, you also know that I get tired of physical activity in the sun rather quickly. So after floating around and taking photos for about 30 minutes we headed back. Our next stop was the rock garden.
They were immense in number and after a while I soon realized that I’d seen this before. The cell phone cameras, the boys flirting with girls, the insecurity in their eyes, the wonder in their young lives. I had seen all of this before…in America. Every time I make the mistake of going into the mall on a friday or saturday night. Every time I drive home when school is letting out. It was all the same. A comforting fact to say the least. As I walked through the garden (see pictures on photobucket) I was more impressed by the people than I was the rocks. By the way the sculptures were all made out of recycled materials. The waterfalls were cast down over jagged edges of burnt coal. The walkways were lined with used porcelain from bathrooms and kitchens. Everyone was just enjoying a nice walk and a good time with great friends. Perhaps the most telling moment of humanity, was when two school girls had gotten lost. They were quickly running around crying trying to find their group. The older people, none of which had children with them, jumped right in to comfort the girls and direct them to where they had last seen their group. They physically escorted the girls back to safety. Just a small token of compassion but huge when you’ve never seen anything other than the American side of things. It was just one of those moments that made me realize that we are not so different. We are not so far apart. We are not enemies. We are brothers and sisters who all share a beating heart, a bipedal stance, a large brain (some larger than others lol), and an evolved awareness of our existence. That truly is the beauty of this place.

Level 7: Finally…a day with no work.

Saturday morning in India…in Himachal Pradesh…in Kasauli…no cartoons…no Sportscenter…no Great American Diner with my love. No…just me and the sun again. However, the day had a different tint to it. There was no work to be done. No emails to write to supervisors or VPs. No lab training to do. No. Today was a day for sightseeing and hitting the open road to see some of India’s back country.

Our driver, Pradeep, picked us up promptly at 9:30 am and we set out to see Manki Point. Now unfortunately I do not have pictures to post of this event because it is located on an air force base. We were not allowed cell phones, camera’s, or anything that could compromise the security of the base. Since I cannot post pictures please wikipedia Manki Point on your own time and you will be able to see some more information. On to the experience.

So the drive to Manki point is only about 3 kilometers. We were there in a snap. As you arrive there are a few gate checkpoints. Once at the gate the guards frisk your entire body…and I mean your entire body for any illegal devices and/or weapons. Once that is complete they confiscate your passport and only return it upon you leaving the area. Once I was done with my full body search…Liza, Pradeep and I headed out to the point. The first stretch is actually down a driveway that overlooks the valley. Beautiful scenery in its own right. Littered with large conifers and patrolled by large hawks. As you reach the bottom of the hill to climb you soon realize that this wont be as a relaxing visit as you thought. Ahead of you is a sheer mountain face scarred with the a zig zag stairway…nothing but air and 600ft worth of stairs to climb. Given those of you who know me and how much I hate taking the stairs…you can imagine my thought process. None-the-less…I began my journey up. As I was huffing and puffing away, three young Indian boys passed me going up the steps. My manhood would have still been in tact had they all not been carrying 70lb sacks of potatoes on their backs. This was their job to supply the temple atop the point with food and supplies. I then realized that I’m fat…I’m American…and I should be ashamed of myself 🙂 Once you reach the top you soon realize that you are at the highest point in all of Himachal Pradesh (northern state of India….means Himalayan State). At the top there is a large flat concrete slab. Looks to be a helicopter landing site but it isn’t. On its left is a temple to the Hindu god Hanuman. Please wikipedia him as well. It is legend that this point is where he rested his left foot after a glorious battle for the “good guys” in Hindu folklore. As you stand atop this point you wish you were the kind of creature that has 360 degree vision. Unfortunately you can only capture a direction at a time with your brains digital camera and store if for your own use. When you look to the north you see the Himalayas…and at that height there is nothing in between you and their snowy peaks. When you look to the south you see almost no mountains and the small city of Chandigarh, which is where we are to visit the children’s hospital. It is truly a sight to behold. I wish I could have taken pictures but then again… maybe you all will have to just come to see it. The temple atop the mount was inhabited by a large Hanuman sculpture and shrine. There was a lone worshiper circling it and praying quietly under his breath. When our driver, Pradeep, entered the temple he was greeted by this man. They shared a prayer and then he took his pinky and added a small red-painted tear-drop shaped sign to his forehead between his eyes. He then knelt and prayed. As this was happening I was on the other side of the temple looking at the pictures and artwork. Only a robot couldn’t feel some sort of spiritual exuberance while being in this place. I have no direction for my spirituality but when inside this temple I could feel something tugging at my lesser known existence. Truly a must see, must experience, for any of you who come to India. However, the most interesting part of my trip to Manki point was the trip down the mountain face. What I hadn’t noticed on my way up were the small paintings and quotes on the rocks as you are descending. One said “God loves you” and other had Hindu scriptures. However, one in particular caught my eyes and my heart. About half way down…buried in the shade, was a smooth rock painted with blue that said, “A man becomes what he loves.” To this point I had never heard that before. I thought about everything and everyone that I miss on a daily basis. I thought of my profession, why I was in India and what my goals were. I thought of my future in life, my love Marji, and hopefully what our family will be like some day. All of this fell on me like an avalanche. My heart was full. My life was meaningful and I knew that I was becoming what I love. I think for me it means that I fully recognize the combined effect of all those who sacrificed and love me through the years. It is on the shoulders of those giants that I have built my happiness in life. As you can see I was a bit overcome with sincere appreciation and admiration for everyone I love. Ok enough with the mushy stuff…on to Shimla

Shimla is the capital of the northern state Himachal Pradesh. It was originally the place of summer retreat for British dignitaries during the time of the British hold on India. Once India gained it’s independence it became a favorite vacation spot for the Indian culture. Although I must admit, I saw very many English people there during my visit. The drive to Shimla from Kasauli is ~2hrs. And I might add that it is all above 5000 ft. So we were winding around on mountainside roads a few feet from going over the edge. There are no major rules with driving. You may pass on a blind curve, you may pass directly on the other side of oncoming traffic…but…I must say…haven’t seen many accidents.
The arrival at Shimla is a beautiful one. As you are winding through the mountain sides you soon lose track of what direction you are going and how far away from your destination you are. Then it happens. You wind through some shade soaked roads and then you emerge on the Eastern face of the mountain. Across the 7000 ft ravine you see Shimla. A bustling city nestled literally in the hillside. It seems as if they are defying physics by building so many homes and businesses along the steep face. However, you soon realize that this was not going to be a cozy, comfy, mountain town…instead it was a bustling metropolis. Imagine Old city Pasadena as it exists now… boutiques, stores, apartments, and lots and lots of people and tourists….except 7000 ft above sea level. When we arrived we took two elevators to get up to “mall road” where all the shops and sights were. Each elevator ride was 7 rubees…~20 cents or so. We ate first and I made the mistake of thinking I could get the vegetarian burrito on the menu…lots of vegetables…lots of spicy…but the tortilla was virtually non-existent. Well…a man can dream. Once we ate we set out to shop for our loved ones and see the historical place. My pictures on photobucket tell the tale. We saw municipal buildings, hindu temples, christian churches, and a beautiful monument to Gandhi. On the top of Shimla is the spot where Hanuman supposedly rested his right foot. So as you can see his left foot was two hours away atop of Manki Point. To commemorate this right foot rest there was a 128ft orange statue of the Monkey god. It is the highest statue on the planet in terms of elevation according to our driver and later confirmed by wikipedia :). We wanted to go up but we were told the hike was going to take too long and we needed to leave before dark. None-the-less you can see him in my pictures. We then did some damage shopping for our people. There was a small section where everything was hand-made. Peddlers of every type trying to sell you what they made on their own. It was amazing to see so many people doing it old school. Made and manufactured at the place of purchase. There was something beautiful about it. Made me feel like I was buying something real…something unique. Well I shopped and took my chances using the public restroom…which is a story I must tell in person because it’s a bit too disturbing for the blog.

We arrived back home around 6:15pm. I went and ate and then passed out. You would be amazed how a simple day of shopping at 7000ft pulls all of the energy out of the body. There are virtually no chubby people up here. Everyone is skinny because that’s how their bodies have adapted. They all walk to work, and they only drive if they are going somewhere significant. As much as I admire that…I miss my American gluttony. Until next time folks.

Level 6: Monkey see…

The beauty of this place is only matched by its obscurity among the mountainous landscape. Every day I wake up and instantly I am riddled with a bit of homesickness. I miss the comfort of my apartment, the quick access to those people I love, and the simple ignorance to the rest of the world. But eventually I get out of bed and watch the sun rise. It is at that point that I get the strength to move forward. I’ve never been this far away from my family before. I realize day after day that I can’t just drive down to my mom’s house or call my girlfriend up and tell her that I am coming to see her. I can’t just grab my dogs and go for a walk in the Autumn air. All of this makes me long for home, but when I see the sunrise all is in perspective. I see it’s rays kiss the mountainside. It illuminates every little crevasse of the valley below. It reminds me that the world is bigger then my wants or desires. It reminds me that I’m here for a reason, and that I am adding a chapter to the book I’ve been writing since birth. These things I can grasp and churn into success. And soon I find myself showered, eating on the patio, and listening to the school children sing their daily Hindu prayer. Hopefully you all can see the video I pasted on facebook.

Now on to the good stuff…two things…my new roommate “Charlie” and the monkeys…the damn monkeys 🙂

“Charlie”, bless his little arachnid soul, is a camel spider I think. I discovered him two nights ago as I was watching the history channel (one of the 4 english stations here). He climbed out from behind the television and scurried halfway across the wall. I woke up and decided that I would try to put him outside. I grabbed a glass from the bathroom. As I came near he spread out his legs and I realized that he was too big in diameter to fit in the glass…yes…huge spider. So instead I tapped the glass on the wall and he ran back behind the television. I went to bed and hoped that he wasn’t poisonous and that he wouldn’t jump on my face at night.

To my delight I woke up the next morning to see him checking his webs in each corner of my room. I have 12ft ceilings and my walls are white so he is very easy to see. He meticulously checked his webs and then went back into the vent above my door. For some reason I felt extremely comfortable with him. It was at this point that I named him Charlie.

The next morning I again caught him in the top corner of my room waiting behind his web. As soon as the sun rose he scurried away and I got up to get ready for work. When I came out of the shower he was sitting directly on top of the door knob that I needed to use to leave my room. I kindly and comically told him that he would need to move because I had to go to work. By the time I was dressed he was gone. Back into his vent I suppose.

As a disclaimer please don’t judge me. I love nature and I’d rather befriend the arachnid soul rather than kill one.

On to the monkeys…

So monkeys here are everywhere. They are like squirrels in the northeast during Autumn. Except they are larger and louder. When discussing the monkeys with our lab working Davedran he told us that the monkeys were fine, “as long as you don’t look them in the eye.” To this fact I lost it in deep laughter. I got the best mental image of me looking at the monkey and the monkey replying in his best Robert Deniro, “you talkin to me?” This was funny until today. As Liza and I were leaving work we were discussing the angry monkey that lives in the closet of Chris from Family Guy. As we were laughing and walking down the steps I noticed a monkey peering over the ledge in front of us. As I pointed, Liza turned and looked the monkey directly in the eye. As soon as this happened he rose up over ledge and made a terrifying growl and looked at both of us. We both quickly looked away from the monkeys terrifying gaze (lol) and went about our business down to our car. Once we got to the car, we had to wait for our driver. As this happened almost 15 monkeys came out of the woodwork. They were all migrating across our parking lot. As Liza and I were taking video, the monkeys tried to steal our bags. (See latest facebook video). At this point I realized that the monkeys were smart, tactical, and not scared of us at all. They are still cute, still awesome monkeys, and we still share a common ancestor 🙂

So the science is going well, and I’ve made a new friend in Charlie, and if you are keeping score, Monkeys -1; Jason-0…stay tuned 🙂

Levels 4-5: The Drive to Kasauli and the first day at work

So…where did I leave you last?

Well we took off from Delhi after some amazing times touring the city and experiencing some of what India had to offer. The buzz for Obama was growing before my eyes and everyone that found out that I was an American had to give me their opinion on his arrival. Most Americans should know that 99% percent of the feedback I got about him was positive. Us Americans and our stupid approval ratings.

So the drive to Kasauli was a 7 hour trek in its totality and included a climb during the last two hours on a windy dark roads in the southern Himalayas. Have you ever seen that show called Ice Road Truckers, when they go to south America and India?? I promptly changed my underpants upon arrival 🙂 However the rest of the drive was very enjoyable. I had the pleasure of riding with our contact in MSD India. His name is Jacob. And oddly enough he just happens to be one of the 4 percent of the 1 Billion Indians who practice Christianity. I hate to take this to a religious peak but I found it very odd that I was accompanied by a Christian. And when I say odd I must admit it made me feel very safe…for the drive…not my eternal salvation 🙂 Jacob and I discussed his current readings, which included C.S. Lewis Screw Tape Letter and Mere Christianity. Jacob found it as a sign from God that I was reading C.S. Lewis the same time he was. I was flattered. We discussed religion and it’s place in India culture versus American culture. The Hindu religion is much more tolerant of others…and it is actually written that way in most of the Vedas. However, the Muslims, at least from what I gather, are very combative in this country. We discussed the sad state of religion around the world and how something meant to create so much good has instead collectively been used to spread so much hate. This conversation happened after he asked me about the crazy Christian pastor who wanted to burn Korans. I apologized for all Americans at this moment and immediately went into a kind of Christian defense mode. I didnt’ want him to think all Bible Belt Bible Thumpers acted this way, although in my mind they do. Ironic I know. It was a very enlightening conversation but I will spare you the details…after all it was a 7 hour drive 🙂 We did stop to eat at a “rest stop”. I was immediately drawn to the camel giving rides for 20 rupees. I engaged in a deep belly laugh as I watched a young boy beg to ride then camel then proceed to scream in fear once he had mounted the camel and the camel stood up. I wasn’t the only one. His father and brother were laughing as well. Life is simple…and sweet. Also with myself, Jacob, and Liza was Bhavna, another contact from MSD India. I posted pictures of some of them on my photobucket site. She is quiet and observant, but when she talks she is potent. Both of our colleagues from India have made this trip so enjoyable with thier presence..

Today was our first day at work. We promptly started at 11 am (the customary start to a workday). On our ride up to the government lab we saw two types of monkeys. One of which I was told is violently carnivorous. I was then enlightened as to how I will need to be airlifted to Singapore if I am bitten because there is a good chance that the monkeys have rabies. So…my dream of bonding with the roadside monkeys was unapologetically crushed 🙂 My spirits were revived once we reached the lab and the scientists at the government lab were so welcoming and eager to learn. The lab is located 6000 miles above sea level. From the windows you can see the peaks of the northern Himalayas. I imagine that every one of the snow cap peaks could be Everest. As I do not enjoy driving at these heights, I am happy to enjoy the beauty of the northern Himalayas from a distance 🙂 I hope you all can see my pictures of the sunrise as well as the video I put on Facebook of what I woke up to. We had a very successful first day and I look forward to getting back in the lab tomorrow to spread my greatest asset…knowledge.

Levels 2-3: Newark to Delhi

Wow…

…what a trip so far. Now that I’m in India, safely in my hotel room, let me try to take you back to catch you up on the journey thus far.

Once I reached the Newark Int’l Airport, I stood in line to check in my luggage. Waiting in the international line was an experience itself. The people in front of me were French, or at least they spoke it, and the only word I recognized was “merde” …odd 🙂 . However, the guy behind me was Brett Favre until I turned around. His southern drawl spoke of the business deals he was trying to work though in Korea. It was funny to hear a southern man try to say korean words, and then break out the oh so American term, “britches” when referring to a very explicit place he would like to put his competitor.   Once checked in, I went to stuff my face with as much beef as possible at Gallaghers Steakhouse. Knowing that I was going to the country where cows are sacred, I didn’t want to leave America without some of it’s most prized food source in my belly. I felt like Fat Bastard in Austin Powers. “Get in my bellaaaey!!” Once Liza arrived at the airport we grabbed a quick beverage and then hopped on the plane. Just as we were getting comfortable with the amenities waiting for us at our first class seats, the stewardess told us we needed to de-board the plane because there was an electrical problem.  So they shuffled us down to the Presidents Club where we relaxed in soft leather chairs and partook in some delicious beverages…compliments of Continental Airlines…however, it was our journey to the Prez Club that molded the first great moment of our trip.

As we were walking to the club, an Indian gentleman approached us to talk about the plane, of which he was also a passenger. We quickly moved to each of our reasons for venturing to India. Surprisingly and ironically, he turned out to be a pediatric gastroenterologist and he was building a children’s hospital in Chandigarh, India. He was very familiar with the vaccine we were working with and since his hospital is close to our work, he invited us to tour his new facility. He showed us pictures of the facility and explained its benefit to the children of the region. As he went on, I couldn’t help but feel that this was one of those moments we had been waiting for. He suggested that our company work with his hospital to forge clinical trials and potentially some private funding. Considering our interests were the same, both Liza and I are excited to take this news back to our site and discuss with our emerging markets officials. We plan on touring the hospital one Saturday during our stay in Kasauli.

Once back on the plane, we quickly taxied out and took off. The plane pilots were quick to come out of their cabin and socialize with some of the first class patrons, as well as a few flirtatious glances at the flight attendants. Dirty old men lol. We each had our own personal flat screen tv that elevated from the side of our seats, of which reclined into beds. Before I could get comfortable I was being offered hot towels, wine, a fancy menu, and many other amenities. Needless to say…I will never fly coach again. Ever…:) After stuffing my face with food, I quickly got “the itis” and reclined my seat down, took a benadryl, and fell asleep. I gauge my falling asleep somewhere over the Labrador Sea between Newfoundland and Greenland…and I woke up somewhere over Russia. How did I know this? Right in front of our first row seats there was an LCD screen with the planes satellite tracking. I was not impressed with Russia and fell right back asleep. I woke up about two hours before we were scheduled to land. The LCD showed that we had just crossed over Afghanistan and Pakistan and were well into Northern India. And just when my stomach growled, the procession of food from the flight attendants began again. So as I stuffed my face and prepared for landing, I had the sudden realization that I wasn’t in America. The map on the wall, and the comfort on the plane had totally stifled my anxiety over leaving the USA. Needless to say I became very nervous and continued to pound one cup of coffee after the other. Then…the next great moment.

As we were descending, we could see the landscape below us flashing in the night sky. What looked like camera flashes from 20K feet were actually fireworks. As far as we could see there was flash after flash as if we were flying into a dark football stadium full of photographers. As we descended the flashes then became a myriad of colors. Mostly green, red, and yellow. The festival of lights, Diwali, the Indian version of Christmas, was well underway. The celebration was beautiful. It was at that moment that my anxiety turned into pure excitement. I was about to see how others celebrate life, family, their country, and their heritage. This to me was an experience that I will always have a snap shot of in my head. As we exited the plane we were shuffled to baggage claim where we got our bags quickly, we were not checked at customs, and we then reluctantly walked by the duty free shop on our way to the foreign exchange. We set up a pre-paid taxi and were on our way.

As we were getting into our taxi, the guy behind the counter ran out to see if we minded him riding in our taxi, so the driver could drop him at home. Both Liza and I were very much ok with this as he spoke good English and made us feel more comfortable with a driver that definitely did not. He explained that he was trying to get off work early for the holiday and go home to see his sister who was all alone. This touched my heart as I then thought of my family, and how much I would not want them to be by themselves on such a joyous holiday. He seemed so thankful for us allowing him to ride, and take us a bit out of our way. He gave me his phone number and a pen and said we could call him if we needed anything. He quickly grabbed the gift he had brought home for his sister and hustled out of the car. As we drove off there was a small herd of cows wallowing in the mud on the roadside…and then I realized…I’m in freaking India 🙂

Liza and I are now safe in the Hyatt Regency, stuffed from our visit to the cafe downstairs. It is 2:11 am here and I’m going to hop in this king size bed and rest up for what is assured to be a life changing experience.  The entire country is buzzing with Diwali and the fact that the leader of the free world, Barack Obama is here to visit to share in their celebration. I for one am honored to be associated with such respect for a leader. If only the Republicans in our country really knew what this man means to the world. I expected American resentment, but at least so far, I’ve gotten nothing but respect and curiosity. Stay tuned folks. I love you all!! I’ll soon try to put some pictures on Facebook.

…Level 1: 30th Street

So I’ve made it to 30th street station in Philadelphia to take my train to Newark. I’m ridiculously early for my train but as some great instructors once told me, “if you’re early, you’re on time. If you’re on time, you’re late.” So here I sit. Watching the masses shuffle back and forth like a colony of ants meticulously going about their business. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard at least 4 different languages so far, and seen some pretty obscene outfits. When you watch you can’t help but wonder what the end point is for each individual. Who is going home? Who is going to work? Who else had the crazy idea of going to India? Hah. You get the sense that your personal journey is either part of a much bigger picture, or…it is uniquely unimportant in its own right, and will never have a lasting effect on the others I see in this station. However, the fact that I am traveling to a country where this scene is virtually non-existent causes me to take inventory of the luxuries we see here today.

To my left there are gentlemen getting their shoes shines. I doubt shiny shoes will do me any good in the himalayas…and I doubt shiny shoes do anyone much quantifiable good. Sure job interviews, dates, armed forces inspections… but I’ve never heard of anyone getting turned down for a job because their shoes weren’t shined. I’ve never heard of a soldier not getting the medal of honor for bravery because the day he saved his mates…his boots were muddy.

I also just spent 7 bucks on a pretzel and a Gatorade. Both of which I wont finish; and will probably throw away before I board my train. I will probably not think twice about where the trash will go, or if recycling this one bottle makes a difference. Collectively I just really wont care…oh wait…I see a recycle bin…there is hope at last to not feel like a rich and unappreciative American 🙂

Perhaps the most striking thing in this station the statue dedicated to the lives of the workers killed while constructing the Pennsylvania railroads between 1941 and 1945. There is a 20 foot angel clutching the soul of a brave hard-working American ( i assume, could’ve been a migrant worker from almost anywhere). The man is lifeless as he slumps in the angels arms. Perhaps the most touching part of the statue is the angel whose face is not delighted, nor scared, nor reverent, but instead, a stern sorrow braces his expression. He seems to feel the loss of this soul, as much as the fatherless children at home, and the widow who now has to face the world alone. His wings stretch above another 10 feet as if to point his navigational beacons to “home”. A place that I do not fancy as reality, but none-the-less a place that inspires hope and purpose for many of my loved one. I imagine many people pass by the statue every day not looking up to take inventory, public or personal. everyone’s eyes are ground level in here. Only focused on what is directly ahead of them. No time to slow and think, or feel for that matter. No thought of how many lives were lost just so we could take the 186 regional to Newark International Airport. Well as for this anxious traveler…consider my inventory checked. Stay tuned.