Bula! From Fiji

I met T. Jay and Crystal, also students from K-State when we entered the study abroad program and all chose to attend James Cook University in Townsville, Australia. Despite being nearly strangers, we figured it would be fun to travel together to get there and make our journey there an adventure. In order to get from Kansas City to Townsville, this required six flights, so we decided to take a break for a few days to explore Fiji and then another quick sight seeing tour of Sydney.

8 February 2003:
We have finally arrived in Fiji after 18 hours of traveling. The flight to Fiji was the most uncomfortable ride I have ever been on where I was sandwiched between two guys for eleven hours straight. The plane was huge and completely jam packed. Every seat was taken and mostly by college students on their way to study abroad in Australia. Our flight arrived in Fiji at 5:30am and we finally left the airport a little after 7:00.

-cabinA short drive took us to turn at the McDonalds, down a long eroded street and then dirt road to the Club Fiji Resort. We checked in and were lead to one of the furthest cabins on the land (room 24). It’s small, no air conditioning, no phone and no TV – it’s the most rustic we’ve ever been and it’s perfect.

Crystal and I showered the plane off and sat down near the beach to write in our journals. A guy raking the sand stopped to talk to us, his name is Neeko and it turned out he is the activities everything person. He talked us into snorkeling today after breakfast (which really didn’t seem like breakfast since we have been awake for so long).

We met up with Neeko at 10 and he took us on a boat straight from the bay our cabin is on out to a reef. The boat had water in the bottom and a fish swam around inside of the boat, Neeko said he caught it yesterday. The reef, coral and fish were all beautiful, it makes me look forward to learning to scuba dive when we get to Australia. The schools of teal and silver fish that shimmer in the light were my favorite.

After snorkling we showered, yet again, and headed to the center of Nadi for some shopping. The stores are pretty much the same as many islands I have been to, and sellers follow shoppers harassing for a sale. One guy stopped me on the sidewalk and started a conversation. Initially I believed him to be another shopper until he insisted we go with him to a particular store. I dunno if T. Jay wanted to or if he didn’t know any better because he followed him, and we followed T. Jay.

kavaThe guy lead us straight to the end of the store and instructed us to take off our shoes and sit on the mat. We then participated in a kava ceremony in preparation for trying the drink. Kava is made from dried and ground kava root, then mixed with water in a ritual fashion. Everyone in the circle took turns sipping the drink, it really didn’t taste like much – water with a powdered substance in it. It made my tongue numb for a minute and I supposed if you drink more it causes a high effect.

From where I am sitting, looking out across the bay I can see the sleeping giant. Another traveler, Canadian named Murry, pointed it out to us. It really appears like the ridges of the hills are an outline of a man from head to toe. So far, I love Fiji. The people are friendly and the environment is beautiful. It is fun observing the birds, their calls and the unique vegitation. I don’t know what’s planned for tomorrow, I do know as long as we are in Fiji it will be wonderful.


One Weekend Not Long Enough – Darjeeling.

Darjeeling was our first escape from the madness of Kolkata.  It was a much-needed break from the heat to be up in the Himalayan Mountains, to hear nature instead of honking and to be away from the congested population of the city.  We had only been in India for about a week and I already needed a vacation from my travels.  

This was to be our first of many train rides in India, we left on a Thursday evening for an overnight train.  A group of caucasian women stood out no matter where we went, however, the trains always seemed to bring out the most obvious and uncomfortable gawking.  For example, waiting for the train we entertained ourselves with a simple game of UNO, which drew a crowd of men hovering to watch.

On the train our group shared two sleeper cabins, these were not private cabins, rather to the isle.  The cabins contained two blue, school bus style bench seats facing each other.  Above each bench two additional bunks would fold from the wall and attach to each other with chains, creating a total of six beds.  We knew to be aware of theft on such public trains and for this reason used our backpacks as pillows and kept all valuables in a tight grip for any measly slumber we might have gotten.  Somehow my travel mates were always accommodating as I snagged the top bunks – climbing three beds high – on each sleeper train we rode.  In the morning there would always be one or two travel-mates who wouldn’t have slept at all and observed the creepers who came by to gawk at us, strolling back and forth through the open isle.

Following our first train adventure it was a three-hour drive up the mountains to get to Darjeeling.  Though it was overcast for much of the weekend the scenery was beautiful, already it was evident how much friendlier the people seemed by smiling and waving.  On some mountainsides you could see tea plants covering acreage and I wondered how dangerous it must be to work those fields.  

After an overnight train and 3 hour drive we arrived in Darjeeling.

After checking into our accommodations we explored the town, shopped and relaxed.  Most of us purchased scarves and wore them frequently the remainder of the trip, as well as saving some for souvenirs for family members.  Some bought jewelry, books, and tea to bring home, we visited an internet cafe and enjoyed macaroni and cheese for dinner with beer.  Some of the girls were thrilled to order mac and cheese and devour something similar we could find back at home, it was a let down since India doesn’t really have our American taste for cheese.

One early morning we woke up to journey to a location called Tiger Hill, it is a spiritual sight to witness the sun rise.  Only 11 km from Darjeeling, I read there are over 400 taxis used on busy days to drive tourists to the sight.  We had to park far from the viewing location and hike up the remainder to join the crowd of spectators.  From this high point in the Himalayas, Mount Everest is visible, although on our morning it was too cloudy yet still crowded with spectators.

When the sun was well risen, our group of light-skinned women once again became the attraction.  Tourists to Tiger Hill were requesting us to pose in their vacation pictures.  Of course with a language barrier there was no way for them to explain to us what the relevance was in having pictures with us.  I wondered whether they were hoping we would be of some celebrity status back home or if we were really that much of a novelty to be seeing in person.  Whatever it was, I declined posing in pictures.  My travel mates who accepted ended up getting lines of people waiting for the next shot.

Posing for Indian tourists’ pictures.

Our whole class on Tiger Hill

After the shopping, relaxing, admiring the animals and visiting Buddhist temples in Darjeeling it was difficult to leave.  I regained my ability to take a deep breath and then it seemed we were headed back to Kolkata again.

On our way back down the mountain to get to the train we were invited to visit a tea plantation for lunch and a tour.  We met the manager and his wife who lived on the property, they showed us their factory and around the crops.  I was lost in the process of how tea is made and instead focused my thoughts on the workers who take care of the field.  On our tour we stopped at one location in the crops where hundreds of women were picking leaves.  They strap a bag to their head which rests on their backs and fill the bag 20 to 26 times per day, six days per week.  The workers make very little in take home pay, though the company provides housing, health care and schooling for the children of the workers.  Consider how far your tea traveled next time you brew and who may have contributed to your cup?

 When I returned home from India I was asked many times whether I would want to take another trip back.  Without hesitation I’d answer “I’ll go back to Darjeeling.”

Step one: Assimilation to traffic.

Our flight arrived in Kolkata just after 5AM.

Prior to departing the United States we had learned about the extreme weather conditions we would be dealing with traveling to India in May.  Tripadvisor.com had this to say: “April to June, Kolkata is at its hottest. Its humid, the sun is blazing, and it’s almost impossible to sightsee during the daytime. After June the rains set in, and more often than not the heavy monsoon rain floods the streets and throws traffic out of gear. However, if you can brave the rains and the humidity, Kolkata during the monsoons is a unique experience. But be prepared to wade your way through water back to your hotel.”  Careful consideration went into packing to determine what clothes would feel light for the weather, yet cover enough skin to be mindful to respect Indian culture.  (Following our study abroad program the school recognized the timing and flipped the program to traveling in December instead.)

I also personally prepared for the overcrowded city I would encounter once I learned Kolkata’s population reaches just over five million people.  I have had several occurrences of mild panic attacks in areas that have been dense with people.  It is especially bothersome when people are moving in various directions as opposed to one or two directions like a New York City sidewalk.  In the past my method of dealing with this anxiety has been to either freeze or flee.  I froze in the middle of LAX customs baggage claim in a rush to get to a connecting flight.  I stood still holding my breath waiting for the crowd to clear before gathering my belonging to move along.  My backpacking buddies hung onto my clothes as I fled through the pack of Tour De France observers after watching Lance Armstrong finish his seventh win on the Champs-Elysees.   I think they appreciated my panic in the moment to be some of the first to get back to the subway after the race.  Needless to say, I knew fleeing nor freezing would be helpful on this trip and I mentally prepared myself to cope with the densely populated city.

The thing I hadn’t given much thought to and quickly realized my American ideals needed to adjust, was the traffic.  Since we arrived so early in the morning neither the heat nor crowds were out in full effect yet, however, straight from the airport I began learning how different the streets would be in India.  Here is my list of the top six items required for assimilating to Kolkata traffic.   

1.)  Any and all modes of transportation are acceptable on the road.  Cars, cabs, trucks, buses, rickshaws, motorcycles, scooters, bicycles and people all share the streets.  Some vehicles are very nice, while most appear to be on the verge of breaking down.  The rickshaws can be motorized with a driver in the front and row of seats in the back, they also can be the seats pulled by a man on foot or on a bike.  As if the types of vehicles to look out for on the roads weren’t enough there is also the occasional cow meandering through the streets.  The cows are sacred, they do not belong to anyone and are not to be disturbed.  Crossing the street was like watching a reality game of Pacman.  People would jump out in front of an aged bus and yellow cab, then have to weave through a scooter and a bike in the next step.  The chaos took some getting used to.

2.) There are no apparent traffic guidelines.  While lanes are drawn in some places they are typically not used, especially when it came to high traffic areas.  Imagine your five o’clock rush hour commute with three lanes of traffic and cars inching their way bumper to bumper.  In Kolkata drivers would pile in six vehicles across in a quilted pattern, cutting each other off in an emergent push to get to the front.  Scooters, bikes and rickshaws squeezing through the gaps of the larger vehicles to create an illogical network of haphazardly moving parts.  Only this wasn’t rush hour – this was everyday, all day.

3.) American ideals of standards for vehicle safety needed to be dismissed.  The taxi cab speedometer appeared to be out of service for the last decade as they jumped around relating to the bumps in the road rather than an accurate reading of speed.  In America we caravan groups of people traveling from one location to the next, in India everyone piles in together.  It wouldn’t be rare to see a group of eight riding in one cab, all on top of one another in the front and back seat.  I’d even seen whole families riding on a scooter together, mom carrying baby on the back and dad with tot on his lap.  No car seats, no helmets, and no seat belts.

4.) The honking.  Every driver honks about everything, it seemed like  honking was the secondary language next to Bengali in Kolkata.  I found myself video taping rides through the streets because I never felt I could describe the chaos and the noise to my friends and family when I got home.  I wanted to make them suffer through the recordings so that they could minutely relate to the annoyance I had suffered during the trip.  Saving my sanity was the fact that the mission where we stayed drown out most of the sounds from the streets and the evening meditation chants gave me an alternate focus for my battered ears.

5.)  The need to be aware of the mad cab drivers.  Our group of students frequently chartered vehicles for planned excursions and day trips.  These were set up by our instructor who grew up in Kolkata and was able to make arrangements speaking Bengali.  There were also opportunities when we had to utilize cabs to ride from the airport, train stations or to more spur of the moment outings.  Our instructor was able to communicate locations to cab drivers even when we all didn’t ride together, other times it was up to us to find ways to get to where we wanted to go without any language assistance.  Some drivers couldn’t understand our requests and were illiterate as well, resourcefully driving us around until he was able to coax a pedestrian who could read to help tell the driver where we wanted to go.  Very few drivers could speak English, and one who did I will never forget.  I got into his taxi with three of my peers from a train station returning to the mission late into the evening.  We probably should have jumped out of his car after he struck another car with his hand yelling at the other driver in a jam leaving the parking area.  Based on his questions, it felt as though the hate he had towards Americans he would be taking out on us.  The car we were supposed to be following with our teacher and peers was no where in sight, in fact the usually crowded streets were empty and it was frighteningly quiet with this mad driver.  

6.) No women allowed.  Women do not drive and they do not help.  In India a car is really a luxury and most people who can afford luxuries can also afford drivers.  There are always exceptions, this is not a rule, it just is very unique to eight female students who together drive eight cars.  I noted how women do not help because there was one small bus we rode in as we visited sites in a rural area of West Bengal.  The bus was in rough shape and needed to be pushed in order to get it running.  By the end of the day our driver left the headlight out in the dark just to prevent it from completely breaking down.  Although us tough girls offered to help with pushing we were always denied, even if it took several minutes to recruit enough men to get the job done.

The Master of Disaster

My husband affectionately coined the name Master of Disaster for my daughter.  She, as toddlers typically are, has an extremely healthy level of curiosity and a seemly endless amount of energy to explore.  We did the usual child-proofing measures of putting locks on drawers, the gate at the top of the stairs and plugs in sockets.  While she continued to grow in bravery and independence we quickly learned to clear clutter in her path and try to keep her confined when possible.  Since I have not discovered how to be a hovering mom AND accomplish household tasks this has led to the nickname Master of Disaster.

For example, this morning she sat in her booster chair eating her breakfast while I was in the kitchen.  I take advantage of the moments when she is strapped in and with food to occupy her so that I can clean the kitchen and complete tasks like emptying the dishwasher without an assistance climbing in.       She sat eating in a cheerful mood, talking throughout her meal in her indistinguishable baby garble.  My overly productive morning quickly turned to the realization that my back was turned to her too much when she indicated “All done,” and I saw how she had used most of her yogurt as lotion for her pants.  

Her favorite disaster creating media is water.  She could spend hours in the bathtub, sprinkler, or faucet just playing.  The unfortunate part is that we don’t have all the time int he world to be playing with those things and she sometimes tries to make do with the dog bowl.  I have found her with a measuring cup from the drawer scooping water from the bowl to the floor.  I have scolded her for using her play kitchen set spoons to stir the dog’s water bowl.  And I have noticed a pattern in her intentionally dipping her hands in the dog dish in order to get to play with the water in the faucet since the only rational step after putting hands in the water dish would be to wash hands.

By far the most comical, yet disgusting, Master of Disaster move I have seen yet with the dog’s water bowl happened as most of these incidences started.  I am busy trying to keep up with my household mess and trust she is innocently playing with her things until I realize she has been quiet and independent for too long.

“Parker” I call from the kitchen.  Within seconds she steps into the doorway from the dining room to the kitchen, facing me, hands to her side, silent with a pacifier plugged in and avoiding eye contact.  “Have you been in the water dish Parker?”  I ask.

She loosens from her frozen position and moves past me in the kitchen to the refrigerator magnets.  I can almost see the thought bubble in her head trying to distract me from questioning if she takes position with an approved activity.  I continue to look down at her and recognize her hand is wet, of course she has been entertained by the water bowl.  Crouching down on her level I show her that I noticed.  She finally looks up at me with her big brown I’m sorry don’t I look too sweet to punish eyes.  She resumes use of the pacifier in her mouth and I can tell from the wet escaping with every suck that it too has been submerged in the dog’s water dish.