India Travelogue, Ep. 8:


Of all the experiences in India that moved me, this one is at the top of my list. While visiting a scenic lake in Munnar one morning, I  noticed a group of teenagers singing near a rock formation known as Echo Point. Attracted to their jubilence, I walked closer to observe. The boy in the red hat noticed me and smiled. “Where from?” he asked. “U.S.” I replied. “Ah U.S.,” he repeated. “Oklahoma?”

I nearly fell over. For a girl who was born and raised in Oklahoma, who for a good bit of her youth thought the only “Indians” were the kind that looked like her Cherokee relatives, who never imagined she’d one day travel 10,000 miles to meet an actual Indian . . . well it was a moment like no other.

“Yes! Yes!” I shouted. I’m pretty sure I jumped up and down and I know my face lit up. “I am from Oklahoma!” I don’t know how to say this without sounding like a total kook, but I could not have been happier (and more touched) if Ghandi himself would have appeared from the clouds and said “Welcome, Joan.”

The boy in the red hat knew he had struck a chord with me. He shot me a wide grin, pumped his fist, and began chanting “Oklahoma! Oklahoma!” His friends joined in, as did I. And that’s how a group of Indian teenagers and one American middle-aged lady came to find themselves shouting and jumping and laughing like fools while high-fiving each other and paying tribute to America’s 46th state in a remote spot in southern India.

“How in the world do you know Oklahoma?” I finally asked the boy. “I watch movie,” he said. In a split second I realized I’d just met a soul halfway around the world who knew a little something about my homeland and the people who love it so. And I was so overtaken by the realization of the power of human connection that I still can’t talk about the experience without getting choked up.

Except to say “Oh what a beautiful morning. Oh what a beautiful day.”

India Travelogue, Ep. 7:

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Most experts will tell you never to eat “street food” when traveling. And it’s good advice, I suppose, but it also limits your culinary adventures considerably.  For health reasons, I went to India believing I would only drink bottled water (and, in fact, I’d only brush my teeth with bottled water) and I would not eat any food that wasn’t prepared in a reputable  and hygienic restaurant.

Turns out, I broke rank. When I passed this street vendor in Munnar, I couldn’t resist. After more than a week of eating traditional Indian dishes for breakfast, lunch and dinner, I was stopped in my tracks by the sight and smell of two American favorites — sweet corn and boiled peanuts. I hollered at my friends and insisted they backtrack and consider this opportunity. Most of them looked at me like I’d lost my mind, but my friend Vandana, an Indian native who organized our trip and served as the arbiter of all things “advisable” (or not), inspected the cart and declared this vendor was probably safe.

And, so, I got my corn and peanuts, sprinkled of course with cayenne pepper because it’s India and cayenne is de rigueur.

Standing by the side of a busy road near a congested tourist attraction (Eravikulam Lake), I savored every bite of my corn and peanuts — served in a Dixie cup with a plastic spoon the size of a paper clip.

The verdict? Praise the lord.

Epilogue: Look, I’m no Anthony Bourdain and I’m not suggesting you take unnecessary risks with your GI tract while 10,000 miles from home. But in hindsight, I’m convinced I passed up a lot of tasty and perfectly safe treats by being overly cautious. In fact, I traveled to India with an armory of pills and elixirs for every stomach ailment known to mankind. In the end, all I experienced was a little “sluggishness” of the digestive tract, which happens every time I leave home, no matter the distance.

India Travelogue, Ep. 6:

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Everywhere we went in India, whether urban or rural, we encountered folks trying to earn a few rupees. I’ve already written about the multitude of souls, mostly children, seeking money by begging. In addition, there are legions of folks, young and old, standing by to serve tourists in exchange for what amounts to a dollar or two. (During our time there, the exchange rate was 65 rupees to one US dollar.)

I paid both male and female attendants outside restrooms who did nothing more than hand me a napkin. (Most public restrooms in India don’t have toilet paper, soap or paper towels. I carried supplies in my purse everywhere I went but it’s hard to ignore an earnest attendant.) I paid porters to tote my luggage. I paid staff I never laid eyes on to launder and iron my clothes. The list can be endless and, although when traveling in America I’m pretty much a self-serve gal, I relaxed and gave into those who were waiting (and sometimes begging) to help.

The fellow in this photo shined shoes. I was wearing sneakers so I couldn’t patronize him, but our tour guide stopped long enough to get his black leather loafers spiffed up. He paid the boy 10 rupees (about 15 cents). I tried to imagine how many shoes the boy had to shine to eat a meal (much less pay rent or buy new clothes or other necessities), but my mind got lost in translation from third-world to first-world economics and things simply didn’t compute for me.

In the quiet moments of my trip I spent a good bit of time pondering the relativity of wealth. There’s no more relation to my standard of living from this boy’s, than there is to Donald Trump’s from mine. I decided that in the face of such disparity the most important currency is kindness. And in India, I learned the exchange rate is always favorable.

 

India Travelogue, Ep. 5:

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I’ve never been a fan of tourist attractions. Case in point: my family has never been to Disney World, a sacrilege for many American parents.

So although I found the Amber Fort and Palace in Jaipur beautiful, there was a bit of a carnival atmosphere surrounding it. (There was an abundance of aggressive hawkers selling trinkets, photographs and elephant rides.) It made me wonder why citizens the world over seem to prefer their historical and architectural medicine to go down with a spoonful of sugar.

Our group opted in for the elephant rides, though I and one other friend were reluctant members of our clan. Truth be told, among other neuroses, we’re both afraid of heights. Yes, we realize elephants aren’t that tall but there’s no reasoning with the anxieties of middle-aged American women.

Our ride up the mountain took longer than we’d prefer — although mid-way, our elephant seemed to be as antsy as his unsure riders and he eventually broke line to gallop past the dutiful animals in single-file ahead of him. “Gallop” may be an imprecise verb for what hurried elephants do, but suffice to say he was moving fast enough to scare us and he passed quite a few of the slower animals.

At one point, my friend turned to me and said “I feel sorry for all these elephants. They’re like slaves.”

“Me too,” I said. “You know, elephants are highly intelligent beings that form lifelong relationships.”

My friend sighed and after a moment said sadly, “They’re probably all on Zantac.”

***

Epilogue: In case you haven’t connected all the dots and laughed as hard as I did, my friend meant “Xanax,” an anti-anxiety pill, not to be confused with “Zantac,” a heartburn medicine. As a women who packed both in her travel kit, I found my friend’s gaffe a perfect pun to describe the combination of apprehension and indigestion (real and existential) shared among human and other beings trudging up the mountain that day.

 

 

India Travelogue, Ep. 4:

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Before I left for India, I confided my anxieties about the trip to my friend and meditation teacher. She has been to India many times (to serve the poor rather than vacation like me) and she told me the trip would be “the edge of (my meditation) practice.”

I knew she was right but I didn’t know how right until we traveled by train. Two trips on the train (one 12 hours and one 18 hours) will remain my least favorite travel experiences.

I feel silly talking about it but I will say this: I’m so white and so American I had envisioned a very “Sex in the City” kind of adventure. (Remember the episode when Carrie and Samantha took the train to LA?) I thought we’d have cocktails. Instead, if you’ve ever seen the movie “Reds,” and you remember the scene where Diane Keaton meets Warren Beaty at the crowded and chaotic train station in pre-revolution Russia, it was like that, only depressingly un-cinematic.

Rather than recall the specific conditions (which were crowded and dirty beyond anything I’d ever experienced), I’ve reflected on why I was so outside my comfort zone, why I felt so unmoored, why I was convinced I might just perish right then and there.

Truth is, other than length, the second train ride was easier and more enjoyable than the first. Probably because I knew what to expect. We played cards, we laughed, we ate snacks, we had quite a scare when our friend left the train at a stop to buy food and we thought she’d been left behind. (Turned out, the train didn’t leave the station; it merely switched tracks and our friend made it back on just fine.) I even slept a little on the second trip, unlike the first.

Looking back in my photos, there’s nothing that’s shocking so I’m still not sure why I felt the way I did. But maybe it has to do with that old saying “The train has left the station.” For a girl who’s spent a lifetime planning contingencies and exit strategies (and polishing her bubble), once you’re on the train, you’re on it. And you are most definitely not in control.

And maybe the universe knew a train ride was the perfect antidote for my shiny bubble and accelerator for my meditation practice.

 

India Travelogue, Ep. 3:

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I am not a well traveled individual. Although I have seen all but seven of the US states, prior to going to India, I could name the foreign countries I’ve visited on three fingers (Mexico, Brazil and Canada).

Since I had never left the American continent, I was sensitive about being perceived as a stereotypical US resident (ignorant, rude, entitled) by the locals. I tried so hard to be warm and friendly and polite and respectful in every situation.

Well, you can take the girl out of her bubble but . . .

Case in point: one day we were driving through a number of smaller towns. Many of my friends were dozing but I became fascinated with the array of merchants flanking the main roads through these towns. Most were in makeshift stalls, many no bigger than maybe 8’X8′. I saw a couple of what could be termed “variety” stores (to use a nostalgic American term from my youth), but many were single-item affairs (brooms in one, chairs in another, snacks in another). I began calling them out. “Oh look, there’s an auto mechanic’s shop! There’s a broom store! There’s a store selling pots and pans!” I even saw a man ironing in one stall. (An ironing store? I chuckled at my inability to name it quickly.)

When we drove past the one pictured above, I said “Oh look! It’s a second-hand clothing store.” My two Indian friends burst out laughing. Between their guffaws, one said “Oh Joan, it’s first-hand. It’s just dirty.” I was so embarrassed and realized immediately how privileged my world view had become. 

So yeah. I got that going for me.

Epilogue: I think the Indians got it going on. In many ways, these small merchants made me nostalgic for my “Mayberry” upbringing, where my neighbors’ businesses thrived before the big-box, Wal-Mart, soul-sucking economy choked them out.

India Travelogue, Ep. 2:

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One of the most difficult aspects of traveling in India is the emotional toll on tourists of those who seek money. (I’ve always hated the term beggars.) I’m not trying to make a political or moral argument about society, I’m just saying the experience was hard.

Mostly those who sought money were children, but there were also many women and the occasional disabled man. Their numbers were far too many to ignore and their persistence is remarkable. I had carried a large number of $1 bills for this purpose. I most often gave singles but I sometimes gave as many as five as at a time.

One time, I was approached by a group of boys as I waited for my friends to return to our tour bus. After I gave them each a bill, our tour bus driver chided me. I smiled at his admonition. I have no answer except I dare you to look into the face of need and not respond. I told him there are individuals in America who do the same. Mostly, in my area, they are older men who stand by the interstate exits. And I told him I give them money too, far more than I was sharing with these children.

He asked me to follow him a short distance, where he pointed over a low wall and I saw a group of boys, perhaps 10 or 12 years old, sitting cross-legged on the ground and playing cards. “That’s what they do with your money!” he exclaimed. I smiled again. “They look hungry,” I said.

Of all the experiences I had in India, these momentary interactions where we met eyes and I acknowledged our shared humanity and offered what I liked to think of as a traveler’s gratuity will stay with me most poignantly.

 

India Travelogue, Ep. 1:

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Everywhere I went in India, several times a day, I was asked to take photos with locals. At first I didn’t understand and thought the individuals and/or groups were asking me to photograph them. I finally realized they wanted to pose with me.
I was clearly a giant among them and I assumed my stature was such an oddity it merited photographing. But my friend Rama said “They don’t see many white faces and I think it is the combination of your very light skin, red hair and light eyes.”
This particular group of schoolgirls were touring a palace (somewhere in Karala — I’m still struggling with all the unfamiliar names because we visited sooooo many locations) when I heard them giggling behind me and the girl in blue shyly asked for my photo. Their English was broken so we struggled a bit to communicate, but after I thanked them and offered the traditional well wish of “namaste,” the girl in blue exclaimed “You so cute!”
I realized on this trip I’m not really a trouper when it comes to sightseeing. I kind of had the attitude “You’ve seen one palace, you’ve seen them all.” But the magical — no other word explains it — connections with the people, even in halting, imperfect language, is what made the trip for me. I will never forget these beautiful, warm, curious girls. And it tickles me to death to think that all over India, I’m on somebody’s social media feed just as they are on mine.

The long goodbye.

Dear friends,

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Six years ago this week, my mother died after a brief illness. A couple of weeks later, Mr. Mom and I went to Colorado for a trial involving our mountain dispute. Both experiences were traumatic in their own way.

And while experts advise you never to make a major life decision in the wake of trauma, I did just that. Shortly after returning from Colorado, I announced to Mr. Mom that I wanted to re-make my life. A month later, with my family’s support, I put our dream home in “Mayberry, OK” on the market and began searching for job opportunities in other states.

A lot has happened since then . . . much of it chronicled on this blog. One thing that didn’t happen, however, was the sale of our home in Mayberry (which I dubbed “Magpie Manor” in a nod to my nickname and the home’s grand style).

I could go on and on about why our home didn’t sell, but it probably suffices to say our handicap as remote landlords combined with irresponsible renters who kicked in doors and broke windows and (yes, this part is true, brandished firearms when we sent repairmen to deal with problems they initiated) set up some pretty difficult conditions. It probably suffices to say that those conditions were compounded by the fact that we purchased the home at the peak of the housing bubble and were forced to sell, post-crash,  in an economically depressed county.  A little over a year ago, while visiting my father before his death, I dropped in on our renters and found a barnyard animal in my living room. To say I was distressed about the condition of our home is an understatement. I remember calling Mr. Mom after I drove away and wailing through my tears “Our home will never sell with a pig in it!”

For the longest time I have felt like the poster child for the fall-out of the housing crisis, with one important exception: we have managed to hang on financially.  There are so many times I wanted to simply walk away and let the bank foreclose, but I didn’t for a variety of reasons, some noble, some practical.

But last spring I had a mini-meltdown and declared to Mr. Mom that we would sell by the end of August or walk away. I drew a line in the sand, as unwise as that tactic usually is. I called the realtor and told her to slash the price to whatever would sell.

The good news is, we sold. We are finally, mercifully, released from the burden of a second mortgage on a home far away.

The bad news is we sold at a substantial loss. And I’m not just talking about an equity loss. I’m talking about writing a big, fat check at closing just for the privilege of saying goodbye (where big and fat equals a shocking percentage of my annual salary).

But as much as this sale represents a major financial set-back and heartbreak I won’t soon forget, I can’t help but remember everything wonderful and good and magical about the big white house on the brick-paved street that my family called home for five years. I can’t help but think about the new owners and hope they will love and care for Magpie Manor as much as I did.

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Will they love its broad porch and view of a main thoroughfare through “Mayberry?”

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Will they love the original oak floors and trim, and stately french doors with beveled glass?

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Will they love the grand living room with its gigantic front windows and 12-foot ceilings?

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Will they love its cozy kitchen with more outrageously sized windows and an abundance of natural light?

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Will they love the original chandelier that I carefully relocated from the dining room to the downstairs bathroom and fastidiously polished during the time we lived there?

Will they love the sun room with its Southern exposure, and the mudroom with its charming brick floor, and the basement with its rustic “coal room” tucked in the corner, and the study with its built-in desk, and the four spacious bedrooms, one in each corner of the house with incredible views? Will they scrub the home’s porch and polish its floors and tend to its yard? Will they care for its carriage house and bask in the charm of its historic style? Will they host big parties and give everyone a tour because the home deserves adoring eyes? Will they breathe easier when they walk in the door because there is no better place to be than the big white house on the brick paved street?

My heart can’t imagine any answer but yes. To the new owners: we loved the big white house with all our hearts and souls. We wish it — and you — good fortune and Godspeed.

With gratitude {for a path through . . . long and trying though it was},

Joan-Marie, granddaughter of Cren and Marie, friends to the big white house’s original owner, Billie B., a dapper man who must’ve loved the home’s style as much as he loved the crisp, seersucker suit and straw boater he wore when he posed for a photo on the front porch, circa 1925.

Two Years.

Dear friends,

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Two years ago this month, Mr. Mom and I had just returned from a week in Colorado for a second District Court trial in our decade-long mountain saga. Mr. Mom was optimistic about our chances. I was not.

Some three months later, my pessimism confirmed reality when the court ruling arrived via email and we learned we had lost. I gathered up all my brave and wrote this post.

We were immediately advised by our attorney to appeal the ruling. The appeal has been almost two years in the making. A multitude of documents and briefs and motions have been prepared and edited and filed on our behalf. A mountain of legal bills have been paid. Mr. Mom has spent countless hours and untold sleepless nights helping our attorneys build and refine our argument. Last month, the Appellate Court held oral arguments in our case. We watched a live stream of the proceeding as our attorney answered questions posed by the three-judge panel.  Then we closed our browser and began yet another waiting game.

Mr. Mom was again hopeful. The only way I know how to describe my feelings is lost and afraid. So much of the saga is over my head, as we long ago descended into the depths of arcane boundary law. Mr. Mom has dug in with a ferocity that is unmatched among laymen. He has read and researched and learned nearly every aspect of case law that applies to us. He has always possessed a nearly photographic memory and he can recall the tiniest details related to our case with ease and accuracy. He watched the oral arguments attuned to every nuance. For me, it was a lot of words I couldn’t follow. I found myself reacting like a child with thoughts such as “She seems like a nice judge. Maybe she’ll rule in our favor.”

For the last month we’ve been on pins and needles, wondering when a ruling would arrive. Our attorney said his instinct told him we’d hear in 30-45 days. He was correct. The ruling arrived this week.

I can’t say we won. I can’t say we lost.

The final verdict hinges on one tiny fact that — based on the evidence in the trial record — couldn’t be proven or denied by the Appellate Court. It all depends on whether a particular road near our property is private or public.

If private, we win.

If public, the Unfriendlys win.

Thus, our case has been remanded — once again — to District Court for determination.

During our second District Court trial, a witness for our side (a landowner) testified the road is private. A witness for their side (Junior Unfriendly himself) testified it’s public. The Appellate Court ruled there was insufficient evidence for them to make a determination. Obviously, whether a road is public or private should be a matter of public record and we believe we can prove it’s private. But I’ve also learned over 10 years that even simple facts can be distorted and challenged in ways that are highly effective in litigation, so I fully expect the Unfriendlys to unveil a convoluted (and fallacious) argument for why the road is public.

Our fate is once again in the hands of a District Judge. We’re 0-2 on that front, by the way. (Interestingly, we are 3-0 in the Appellate Court. I learned not long ago that only 15% of all appeals are successful in getting a verdict overturned. That we’re batting 1.000 with the Appellate court tells you a lot about the District Court in Pueblo.)

The whole public-private thing may seem confusing but it’s really quite simple. For the Unfriendlys to prove we have access via another route, the route has to originate with a public road. We’ve known for 40 years the road in dispute isn’t public (the locked gate that controls access to the road is just one sign) but, once again, we expect the Unfriendlys to dispute our claim.

We don’t know how long it will take to get a date in District Court. We might be looking at 2016 and we might not.

Several weeks ago I lamented to Mr. Mom how difficult a year 2015 was. Between the court case, difficulties with our house in Oklahoma that still hasn’t sold, my father’s death, and my illness and surgery, I wished out loud that 2016 would be the year we got rid of the house and the mountain saga ended in our favor. It’s only April, but I can’t help but speculate that the wish gods aren’t on my side.

Still, as our attorney said after the ruling “We’re still swinging!”

With gratitude {for another chance to not only claim our stake but actually be able to drive to it},

Joan, who watched The Revenent recently and really related to the scene where the nearly dead Hugh Glass clawed his way out of a grave to continue the fight

PS: I’ve condensed this post down to a tiny fraction of what’s been happening legally. The Appellate Court ruling is 48 pages, for Pete’s sake. As the Dude says “There’s, uh, a lot of ins and outs, man.” Mr. Mom could explain it to you but, trust me, you wouldn’t enjoy it.