independence

I was born with a fierce independent streak. Every summer growing up, my family would take vacations to New Hampshire. These trips were a kid’s dream, filled with picnics and swimming holes and cliff jumping and days ending with simple meals while our hair dried in the fresh air. My dad likes to tell a story that happened on one of the first of these trips, when I was about four. Over the years, my dad had mastered the art of making friends with locals and finding out about all of the best natural swimming spots. We were at one of these spots, getting ready to swim across a river. My dad strapped me into my tiny Disney-themed life jacket, and he turned to strap my two-year-old sister into her Snoopy jacket. After he got her all ready to go, he turned back to me. But I was gone. He realized that I was halfway across the river already, tiny little four-year-old in the middle of this river, dog-paddling my little heart out, oblivious to the idea that maybe I would have ever needed help or that it would have made any sense to wait for an adult to go with me.

Fast forward to about twenty years later, when I had lost the life jacket, but not one bit of the independence. I was setting out by myself on a trip to India, Thailand, and China for about three months. I would be staying with friends at various points throughout the trip, but I would spend much of it traveling alone. For the most part, I didn’t book rooms ahead of time, because unless you were staying in luxury hotels (which I definitely wasn’t), it was difficult to find hostel rooms in advance. So, I would arrive in each new city, and I would put on my brave, independent-woman face and would wander around until I found a place to stay. Somehow, true to form, it hadn’t really crossed my mind that maybe I would have ever needed help or maybe wouldn’t want to do parts of this trip alone.

One city I visited was Rishikesh, a city famous for yoga and the Ganges River and because the Beatles went there once. I arrived in Rishikesh and got off the train…in the middle of nowhere. Literally, it was a dirt road. So I looked at the signs I could barely read, made my best guess as to the direction to go, and started walking. Two miles later, I was exhausted and hot, not sure if I was even going in the right direction, when I saw the city open up ahead of me. I had made it- I would not be wandering in the middle-of-nowhere, India forever.

So then I started looking for a hostel where I could stay. And the first one was full. Then the next one was full. And then I had spent over an hour going from place to place to place, and they were all full. I started to panic. I had one last place to try, and thankfully, they had a room. I didn’t even bother checking the room before I paid, because anything was better than sleeping on the street. Well, almost anything. As I started down the hallway to my room, I heard a scraping sound behind me, and I turned just in time to see them closing a giant gate behind me. And locking it. Locking me into the building. I told myself I was overreacting, and that I didn’t have exactly have my pick of lodging options, and I kept on going toward my room. When I got to my room, I set my stuff down, and I started noticing other things that struck me as odd. Like the bars on the windows. And the locks on the outside of the doors. The previous month of stressful, solo travel caught up to me, and I finally snapped. I said out loud, in my room, to nobody in particular, “Oh hell no. I am not getting trafficked today.” I picked up my backpack, ran down the hallway, and started banging on the gate. As soon as someone who worked there came out, I shouted, “ I am not staying here. You lock me in here? Do you think I’m crazy?” To which the answer was most definitely yes. Because to be honest, I was probably completely misinterpreting the situation and overreacting. But in that moment, all I could think of was getting the hell out. So they unlocked the gate (but not before letting me know that there were no refunds, but small price to pay for my freedom, right?), and I ran back outside, narrowly escaping the disaster that was most likely completely in my head.

Except that I still had nowhere to stay. And I had no more places to try. So I walked back into the first hostel that I had tried, and I asked again. Still, no room. And finally, I completely lost it. Total breakdown, right in the middle of their hostel lobby. I could just get out the words, “But I’m going to be homeless!” And at that moment, I would have given anything to have someone there with me, someone else to help solve this problem, someone who would stick with me so that I didn’t have to be in a place I didn’t know, with nowhere to go, completely alone. It was at that embarrassing moment that one of the hotel staff miraculously remembered that there was a room that might be opening a day early. They went to check, and when they came back, I had a room. Which was great. But also, for the first time in my life, I had terrible homesickness.

Independence is good. My independent streak has carried me all over the country and the world, seeing new places, experiencing new things, and collecting fantastic stories. But that experience was one of many during that trip to India that taught me the importance of interdependence. It’s good to not always go it alone. Whether it’s someone to be by your side and pick up the slack when you’re losing it in a hostel lobby, or whether it’s having a wonderful little community that makes you equally excited to come home as you were to set out, living life with other people is good. Because sometimes, a tiny Disney life jacket and your own strength might not be quite enough to get you across that river. Sometimes, good company and an extra set of hands can help an awful lot along the way.

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to breathe water

She sits in the room, surrounded by people who are friends. They laugh, they plan, they share, they cry.

They are honest.

                                     They are safe.

                                                                              They are.

   

I take a deep breath of the air that I know and I plunge my face into the water. I hold my breath. Perhaps. Perhaps it’s safe to breathe.

I panic, and I jerk back. My body seizes control from my mind, and my deepest being rejects my efforts. 

If I do this, I know that I will die. Survival of the fittest leaves no room for breathing water. 

If I do this, I will die. 

My whole life, I thought that everyone was holding their breath. Like I was. Like anyone would. But some. Some breathe.

Is it effort for all, or does it come easy for some? Do they even know the miracle of the feat that they have accomplished? The miracle, the possibility of which my own mind steals from me like a bitter thief time after time after time after time…Were they born able? Or did they, like me, have to learn? Did they, like me, have to die? 

Are they breathing at all? Or is it all a sick game in which the sirens beckon me to the water’s edge, the water’s great, breathe in, just breathe, just breathe, just breathe, as they laugh while I stand there willfully drowning, as they laugh at the failure, the humiliation, the rejection that is surely to come, the fear of which collapses my lungs, as they laugh at the notion that perhaps, perhaps, perhaps it’s safe for me to breathe? 

And yet I know. Survival of the fittest leaves no room for breathing water. If I survive, I will never live. Some breathe.

                          

She sits in the room, surrounded by people who are friends. They laugh, they plan, they share, they cry.

They are honest.

                                     They are safe.

                                                                              They are.

  

 But I cannot make myself take this breath. The spirit is willing to consider being willing but the flesh is weak, weak, weak. The flesh knows the pain of water filling my lungs slowly, slowly, leaving no room for the air that I know, for the air that I depend on to keep myself surviving. 

The flesh knows too much about pain.

And yet I know. Survival of the fittest leaves no room for breathing water. I take a deep breath of the air that I know and I plunge my face into the water. You, who insist that I need only be still, you, who insist that I fill my lungs with water that lives, you must do it. You will make me breathe.

  

She sits in the room, surrounded by people who are friends. They laugh, they plan, they share, they cry.

We are honest.

                                     Sometimes.

                                                                              We are safe.

                                                                                                                     Sometimes.  

 

We are learning to breathe water.

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no matter, the road is life.

I started this blog in 2008 to keep friends and family updated as I traveled throughout Asia. I revived it this past year, as I worked as a consultant in India for 3 months. It’s been a good travel blog, and it’s motivating to write when so many people I love are so far away.

Now I’m back at home in North Carolina, working full-time, and just living life. Nothing too fancy, no one thousands of miles away to keep informed about my whereabouts and my goings-on. No parents to give heart attacks to as they read about my near miss with homelessness in Rishikesh or my close encounters with poisonous snakes in Jamkhed. Compared to that, what’s a day of getting up, blending up a strawberry smoothie, and heading off to work? Bo-ring.

But here’s the thing. As I’ve mentioned before, I named this blog after a quote from Jack Kerouac- “Our battered suitcases were piled high on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.” Honestly, when I chose this, I was about to jet off to another continent, and “battered suitcases” just had a nice ring to it. But upon taking another look, there’s truth to that quote. The road is life. The story is life. Poisonous snakes or not. There’s beauty and excitement and inspiration and adventure. And there are always stories worth being told.

My relationship with writing…well, it’s complicated. When I was younger, my dad, sister, cousin, and I used to take annual trips to New Hampshire. Being the idiots that we were…er, are…we had a knack for finding really high places to jump from into various bodies of water- cliffs, railroad trestles, and the dreaded “high diving board” at the Sky Valley Motel. Unlike my truly insane family members who just leapt off like maniacs to their quite possible deaths, I would always stand at the edge for a long time, convincing myself that it was worth it to take the leap. And usually, I would. And it was awful every time- the feeling of falling, my stomach dropping, dropping, dropping- until I hit the water. And then-it was totally worth it! Who’s up for going again? (In case you’re wondering, I’m pretty sure that the insanity is hereditary.)

Writing is like that for me. It doesn’t come easily. It requires a lot of attention and a lot of work, focused concentration, and sometimes, a lot of frustration and time. But when I finish something, it always feels worth it. Until I’m at the edge of the high diving board again, looking at yet another blank page. Creating is hard. But it is good. We are meant to create, sometimes to share ideas, sometimes to persuade, sometimes to challenge, and sometimes just to add more beauty to a world that can appear a little grim sometimes.

So this blog is going to take a bit of a turn. The next time I run off to a foreign country, I’ll still use it to share stories and experiences. But in the meantime, I’m just going to write. Because for me, creating is a discipline that’s important, but too often neglected. And hopefully, it will reflect in some small way the beauty and adventure that is always surrounding us, regardless of what soil we’re standing on.

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home again, home again…

It’s official…I am standing on US soil.  Well, technically, I’m sitting on my friend’s couch.  But in Washington DC!  I’m hanging out with my friends Eric and Dawn today, and my friend Amy tonight, and then I’ll be on a bus back to NC, arriving tomorrow night!  It was bittersweet to leave, and I really miss people in Jamkhed.  But I’m also very excited to be back with everyone here in the States.

I left Jamkhed a week ago, and I spent a week traveling in Kolkata and in the Indian state of Assam.  I have some more stories to share- from the end of my time in Jamkhed and from my time traveling- but I didn’t have internet access most of the time over the past week.  So I’ll be posting a few more things over the next couple of days!

Some funny “reverse culture shock” moments so far…

1. Small talk.  I am so used to being somewhere where I can’t communicate very smoothly, that I completely forgot how to banter back and forth with people in public places.  Which led to a very awkward encounter, during which I blank-stared at the guy in the immigration line in DC who was asking simple niceties about living in Chapel Hill.

2. Turning on faucets.  I announced to my friends Eric and Dawn that their faucets turn the wrong way…just to realize that faucets in India are the opposite of here.

3. Saying yes.  In India, they shake their head side-to-side to say yes.  When you do that here, people look at you like you’re crazy and repeat their question, speaking very slowly, because clearly you’re an idiot.

4. Washing machines.  I’ve never been more thankful.

NC folks, I’ll see you soon!

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let me see your elephant!

If you’re looking for a cure to a bad mood at CRHP, a visit to the preschool is a pretty safe bet.  Every day, Monday through Saturday, Meena, the preschool teacher, takes the CRHP bus to the nearby slum to pick up her students.

Indira Nagar slum

Indira Nagar slum

CRHP school bus

They intentionally enroll children into the preschool who are the poorest of the poor and provide them with a safe place to be, healthy meals, and preparation for school.  Meena is a really gifted teacher and she is such a kind, calming presence- the kids love her.  I have really come to love her as well.

The kids are unbelievably adorable.  Every time I walk by the preschool, a cluster of them press their faces to the gate, yelling “Hi! Hi! Bye!”  After just a couple of visits, I mastered the art of balancing one kid on each hip with multiple others jumping to grab onto my hands or legs.  How could you not have fun here?

There are a couple of little ones who are admittedly my favorites.  Chiu is a little girl who is new to the preschool.  Every time you look at her, she breaks into the most giant, adorable smile.  Chiu is her nickname- it means “sparrow” in Marathi.  Durga is a little boy whose mother works here at CRHP.  He lost the sight in one eye when he was very young, I think due to an advanced case of TB.  He is always quick to jump on you as soon as he sees you.  Piggy has a bit of a reputation for being mischevious…a trouble-maker after my own heart.  The story is that they call her Piggy because she got snatched by one of the pigs in the slum when she was a baby, and they had to chase it to get her back.

My favorite part of visiting the preschool has got to be the singing.  My favorite song is the animal song.  Meena will call out, “Let me see your elephant!”  Or lion or frog or sparrow. And all the kids will put their hands to their ears and yell, “What’s that you say?” And then they all act out the animal.  It’s kind of amazing.  The banana song is pretty spectacular, too.

When I think about the things I will miss at Jamkhed, seeing these little contagious smiles definitely makes the list.

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long walks on the beach

One of the things that I really enjoy here- when it’s not rainy and muddy, or when work actually gets finished by 5 or 6pm- is to go for walks.  The fields are greener now than when I arrived, and it’s such a beautiful view to look out across the sugarcane fields dotted with people and farms and cows here and there.

Although let’s be honest.  It’s not all nice.  For example, on one of our routes, these pigs are also a common sight along the side of the road.  I think they’re the grossest.

Also, I found out the hard way about another hazard of walking around these areas: the treacherous “toothpicky plant”.  Stepping on one of these is not pleasant.  The thorns easily pierce right through the bottom of sandals…and I unfortunately now have holes in the bottoms of both my flip flops and my feet to prove it.  After one unfortunate run-in, I am far more careful about where I’m stepping.

But in spite of these hazards, walking around here is wonderful.  One of my favorite walks is down to a lake about a half hour away.  There is a cluster of little farms on the way, and we sometimes will meet one of the farmers and stop and chat for a few minutes (by which I mean Smisha will chat, and I will understand a tiny, tiny fraction of it).  The first time we stumbled upon these farms, one of the farmers rode up on his tractor, calling out to his family, “We have visitors!”  His wife and daughter came out of the house, bringing us fruit and directing us to the lake nearby.  There’s another farmer we’ve met farther along the path- these are his goats, and a calf that had just been born that morning!

A few minutes past the farms, the path opens up to this lake.  I love walking along the edge of the water and watching people herding their cows and goats alongside (and through!) the lake.

After walking or sitting by the water for a bit, sometimes we walk through the fields, eventually finding our way back toward CRHP.  This usually ends with us rushing to beat the sunset so as not to be stuck in the fields in the dark.  So far, we’ve made it before dark every time.  We’ve not been so lucky with the rain though…we’ve definitely had to run through the rain on the way back more than once.

I love the work here, but it’s always nice to step away from it and to remember how fortunate I am to be in a place this open and green and beautiful.  It’s definitely been one of the most peaceful and restful aspects of my time here.

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speaking of hands…

A couple of weeks ago, I was in Mumbai with Smisha, and I stayed with her family over Teej- a Hindu festival where women celebrate the coming of the monsoon.  One part of Teej is that everyone gets Mehndi- or henna. All of the design is freehand- it was pretty amazing to watch.  I was enthralled for the entire hour and a half that it took for her to put the Mehndi on, and then I had to sit still for another couple of hours until it dried.  (Those of us who are impatient might have used a blow-dryer to speed up the process…)

Then they had a party with friends and women from their family (and me!), and we all wore green and had bangles made and played games and ate delicious food.  What a good time- it was so nice to be so welcomed by her family and to have such a nice relaxing break from work!  Happy Teej!

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getting your hands dirty

So, I’m just coming to understand that I will be leaving here in 3 weeks.  3 weeks!  The time has gone by so fast.  And I’ve just scratched the surface in sharing about it!  Worst.  Blogging.  Ever.  So, in addition to wrapping up the various projects I’ve been working on, I will be making an attempt to think back through the different things I’ve seen and experienced and loved while here.  And while I do that, I will do my best to try to share them.

Last month, I visited the CRHP farm.  I saw the fields, did a bit of harvesting/ weeding, rode a bullock cart, and met a python.  Yeah…we found this 5 foot python stuck in the well.  Here’s to meeting deadly snakes stuck in wells rather than sharing a footpath with one.  This guy was not small.

This area is especially drought-prone, and it’s hard to imagine how anything can grow in the dry, rocky soil.  Especially during a relatively dry rainy season like the one we’re having now.  The farm specializes in agriculture for drought-prone areas- techniques that can be taught to other area farms.  For example, this is a picture of the vermiculture that they use to make the soil richer.  Yep.  That’s Ratna, the farm manager, holding a gigantic handful of worms.  I considered jumping into the mud pit with them, but ultimately, I decided against it.

The farm supplies a whole lot of the organically grown food that we eat here.  There are spices and chilis and all kinds of vegetables.  When I visited, we picked chilis and weeded turmeric fields.  While weeding, Ratna burst into song.  There’s nothing quite like singing while working and getting your hands dirty in a beautiful, wide open field of sweet-smelling spices.

I like the food for sure, and the work is a fun change of pace, but what I love the most about the farm is the people who run it.  The farm is a rehabilitation program of sorts- a place where HIV, TB, and leprosy patients who have been abandoned or abused due to their illnesses receive a place to live and job training, and most importantly, are treated with equality.  Many of the people here have heart-breaking stories of abuse and loss.

One woman’s story in particular sticks with me.  She contracted HIV from her husband.  He and his family knew that he was HIV+ when they were married, but they did not tell her.  Shortly after they were married, he died of AIDS.  After that, when she grew sick from the disease, her in-laws rejected her.  Despite being extremely sick due to lack of treatment, she tried to work to support her infant.  When her baby died, she almost gave up.  Then one of the CRHP Village Health Workers met her.  They brought her to the CRHP farm, where she received treatment, rehabilitation, and respect.  She thrived in this environment, working so hard and picking up skills so well that she has become an integral part of the farm management.  Now, she always has a smile on her face and sings beautifully and just exudes joy, confidence, and strength.  I can’t really explain it- every time she walks into the room, I just start smiling, before she even says a word.

Stigma and discrimination, in any part of the world, often rob people of their basic humanity.  They become nothing but their disease- or their gender or their caste or their race or their class.  The farm is an inspiring, healing place where the power of those stigmas has begun to be broken down.  The people who work here are known for their smiles, their voices, their hard work, and their competence.  For that reason, these 80 acres of land are brimming with joy, and it will be one of the many places I will remember fondly.

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Schadenfreude: Liddy comes to India

So as many of you know, I turned 30 last week!  As the best birthday gift of all time, my sister Lauren came to visit me here and we did some traveling. I picked her up at the Mumbai airport, and we stayed in the city for a few days. Then we flew down to Goa (a state in South India famous for its beaches) for the rest of the week.  It was such a fun time. We did some sight-seeing, ate some unbelievably good food, and were asked to have our picture taken a lot.  What attracts more attention than a red-head in Asia?  Two redheads.

Here are some of the things we saw:

The India Gate- where the British both entered and exited India

Elephanta Caves- ancient Hindu cave carvings

A baby monkey at Elephanta Caves...perhaps even more exciting than the Caves themselves

Haji Ali Mosque- at high tide, the walkway is completely covered in water, so the mosque appears to be floating!

Dhobi Ghats- where most of the laundry in Mumbai is washed

Lauren enjoying a cup of tea at a spice plantation

Feeding an elephant at the spice plantation. His name is Babu. And we loved him.

What we saw more than anything else.

All looks pretty great, right?  Here’s the thing.  You know when you’re a kid (or an adult…) sitting in church, and something funny happens, but then your mom glares at you, and you know you can’t laugh, but trying to stop makes everything even funnier?  Lauren and I did and saw a lot of amazing things, but the abundance of laughing-til-you-can’t-speak moments was by far the highlight of the trip.

For example…

One of the first times that I completely lost control was our first night in Goa.  As I’ve mentioned before, it’s the rainy season here in India, which decreases the number of beach tourists.  When we went out to get dinner that first night, we quickly realized that due to it being the off-season, many restaurants in the immediate area were closed.  Our cab driver suggested a place he knew to be open, saying, “Eh. It’s okay.”  With this glowing review, we decided to check it out.  It turned out to be a pretty cute open-air place right on the ocean.  And our driver was right, the food…eh.  It was okay.  However, after we had been sitting there for a few minutes, we heard the opening notes of one of the most moving songs of our time- “I Believe” by Blessid Union of Souls.  Yeah, 90s kids, you know what I’m talking about.  But when the vocals began, we quickly realized that this was no ordinary background music.  We had stumbled upon a truly exceptional karaoke experience.  There were a lot of spectacular performances to follow, but the most noteworthy was the most amazing rendition of Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares to You” that has ever occurred.  I mean, this lady went for it.  At this point in the night, I was laughing so hard that I could no longer make a sound and had tears streaming from my eyes.  As if that wasn’t enough for one night, Lauren literally almost wet her pants when we were rushing to get out of the rain into our hotel room, and I slipped and almost fell into a full split in the mud.  For the entire rest of the week, we repeatedly would spontaneously burst into laughter just picturing it.

The rain was actually the source of quite a few of these “precious moments”.  You know when there are puddles on the side of the road, and cars hit them just at the right time to soak nearby pedestrians?  Always funny, right?  Well, that didn’t happen.  What did happen is that as we were riding in a cab one day, I was sitting behind the driver, who had his window open.  Somehow, a passing car hit a puddle in the middle of the road so perfectly that the resulting wave of water shot into our car through the driver’s window and hit me directly in the face.  How is that even possible?  I seriously was unable to get myself together from laughing for about 20 minutes.

There were so many other moments like this…deciding to pamper ourselves with pedicures and then walking out of the spa to realize that the entire parking lot and sidewalk had become an enormous muddy puddle that we were forced to wade through.  Getting soaked repeatedly by enormous waves on the boat ride from the Elephanta Caves in Mumbai.  Tripping over my own bag and almost falling in front of the very refined concierge in the fanciest hotel I’ve ever been in.  (He didn’t even crack a smile, by the way. Impressive.)

So yeah.  There’s no better way to celebrate the beginning of a new decade of life than laughing through the week with the only person who laughs harder than you when you trip, fall, or have any other number of misfortunes occur.  Thanks, Liddy- I’m glad you were here!

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hospitals and snake charmers

Many thanks to those of you who have sent kind thoughts about the bombings in Mumbai.  Nobody we know was harmed, but there were 17 deaths and over 100 injuries.  Please keep those families and the country in your thoughts and prayers as the next few weeks unfold.  As I said in my last post, we’re too far away to be affected at all, other than having heavy hearts when we turn on the news.

So I’ve shared a bit about the CRHP work that is done in the villages, but we also have a CRHP hospital here on site. They provide all kinds of inexpensive care, using treatments that are appropriate to the village context.

This is a bus that’s used for patient transport.

Some of the major services provided here are care for snake bites (yep.), eye surgeries to prevent avoidable blindness, and tubal ligation (women getting their tubes tied).  They actually hold eye and tubal ligation “camps” once every 1-2 weeks- designated days when those specific kinds of surgeries will be performed.  I observed cataract removal surgeries a few weeks ago.  The surgeon does each surgery in about 15 minutes, while the next patient is getting prepped on the next table over.  (By “prep”, I mean a giant needle in your eye.)  The day that I observed, the surgeon completed 20 surgeries, with one quick break in the middle.  I stood right next to him, watching him perform such intricate procedures, so quickly, while he was chatting with me about my home and my background.  I wanted to yell, “Why are you talking to me??? Do you realize that you’re cutting an eye right now???”

However, I’ve been even more amazed by the tubal ligation camps.  In one day, they perform around 100 tubal ligation surgeries, each surgery taking less than 10 minutes.  I’ve been told that one of the founders of CRHP, Dr. Mabelle Arole, used to be able to do one in less than 3 minutes. What???  Family planning is a huge issue here, so this is a phenomenal service, especially because it’s offered as a free service.  We had one of these camps earlier this week, and the hospital was insane.  The women came and stayed for a total of about 2 days, and because many of them have to bring their children, they also had family members here to help.  Here are some of the patients and their family members waiting in the lobby of the hospital (also where they slept) on the day of the surgeries.

Here are some of the people who were waiting outside.  In case you’re wondering what is in those tiny hammocks, they are BABIES.  That’s what babies sleep in here in the villages.  It’s pretty amazing.  I would definitely be skeptical of my knot-tying ability, but apparently these people are pretty experienced when it comes to the baby hammock.

So weaving through the crowds on my way in and out of the office in the hospital is how I spent my morning that day.  I left the hospital to head off to what I assumed would be your typical, uneventful, run-of-the-mill lunchtime…and then the snake charmer arrived.  (Wasn’t I mentioning snake bites earlier? Yeah, yeah I sure was.)

Nothing ends a good lunch like a visit from your friendly neighborhood snake charmer and his trusty cobra.  Who wasn’t very trusty.  The snake repeatedly tried to bite him.  He was really funny and even did some magic tricks.  But the snake-charming definitely stole the show.

So yeah.  No lack of excitement here!  I’m still enjoying my time and my work, haven’t been sick, am not the least bit tired of Indian food, and don’t even mind that it’s monsooning.  What’s a little rain when there are babies in hammocks and cobras around?  Right?

Dwayne, this one’s for you, buddy.

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