The colors of an Indian government hospital

Around me, rows of white-railed beds fight each other for space. Colorful, thin blankets drape the beds’ inhabitants, children and women and men curled up in balls, lungs rasping as they attempt to suck in air without oxygen masks. Their wrists and elbows reveal brown, unbroken skin, conspicuously missing the needles and wires that would indicate infusions of IV fluids. There is no money for those here.

This hospital’s director is Charles Darwin, his disciples ladies driving mops and brooms across the floor with admirable devotion to their chief. In the absence of much else, sanitation is the best form of medicine. As I move to step across a threshold into another room, one of these ladies rushes up to me, jabbing the broom into my feet. She motions at my shoes: “Not allowed,” she says. I apologize and bend down to relocate the dangerous items from my feet to the stack outside the door.

As I enter the oncology ward, the nun-nurse whom I am shadowing motions me toward a doctor consulting with a patient’s family. After an intense conversation, he turns to me and smiles a haggard, genuine smile. Like everyone else in this hospital, his initial reaction is confusion. Who is this blonde, white girl wandering through a below-poverty-line, government run hospital by choice? Unlike most they see, I am not here to ‘help’. I am here to learn from them, I explain. Before long, he is ushered off to another patient’s bedside. Noticing the worried kindness etched into the nurse’s face as she watches him leave, I ask her about him.

He is one of three surgeons in this hospital, she tells me, a hospital ostensibly open to the approximately 102 million people living below the poverty line in India. His words drift across the room in a local Indian dialect I do not know, but the concern in his voice does not need translation. The nurse helps me anyway: he is inquiring about the lives of the other family members, the education of the young boys whose father lies dying on the bed, pulling in great swathes of useless air. The mother requests a priest: it is time. She need not explain any further, because the surgeon knows exactly who they see and what they pray for every day. 15 minutes goes by and still, the surgeon remains by their bedside, the newly-arrived priest murmuring words into the man’s pained chest as his wife cries silent tears into his hair, which she strokes with frail fingers.

We leave them in the privacy of the other 50 patients jammed into the same large room, exiting the oncology ward and entering a recovery ward for patients who have just undergone chemotherapy. I feel as if I have stepped into a kaleidoscope: bright colors jump from the walls, patterns of butterflies and trees prance across the beds, and fake flowers in pastel pots grow from every bedpost. Gentle, joyful Indian tunes dance from speakers in the ceiling. This is unlike any hospital I have seen. The melange of pinks and oranges and yellows all but hide the lack of silvers, whites, and blues: the colors of the machines that could help the patients survive.

The nurse explains the resort-like scenery to me. They have little else: but they can keep the patients positive, remind them why they want to live, invigorate them with music that makes them want to dance and placate their stinging eyes with flowers reminiscent of their homes. Willpower is more important here than anywhere.

We continue to the pediatrics ward, this one emptier than most – thankfully or deceptively? Perhaps both. The children stare at me with curious eyes, but respond quickly with laughter and emulated games as I motion to them with giggles and peekaboo and compliments about princess dresses. Among cases of measles and gangrene and lymphedema, their smiles are medicine for me, a reminder of shocking resilience and unprejudiced innocence in Darwin’s biting kingdom.

My assigned nun leads me outside this time, to a central area between wards. Instantly a wall of giant, pencilled faces jumps out at me. She notices my gaze and tells me about an Australian artist who began coming to the hospital and sketching pictures of the patients, who clammer for a moment in the spotlight and an eternity of their likeness plastered on the brick wall. Survive a treatment, get a portrait: it is a form of art therapy, the nurse explains, unsolicited but so popular that the artist keeps coming back by patient request. The grey, pencilled lines are tiny miracles.

As we continue through this outdoor garden, we pass a long line of people bending around a corner, patiently sweating. These patients are not sick, but hungry, and this line will give them food. One room later and the sharp smell of urine streams into my nostrils. We are entering the destitute ward, the refuge wards for those picked up off the streets and brought in for months of recovery time. The gender-segregated rooms are full. The nun briefly speaks with each person before pausing by a 100-year old woman shrunken to half her original size. I catch her eyes, which flicker to follow us, fighting the rest of her near-paralyzed body with astounding alertness. I smile at her and her eyes widen, her mouth turning up, too, in suspicious surprise.

My American senses are in overload. There is no smell of formaldehyde or betadine, no flash of gleaming needles or sanguine bags of dripping blood, no beeping of digitized monitors or sterilized overhead announcements. The hospital is a modern architect’s dream, boasting an open floor plan and few rooms, no privacy and no confidentiality, everyone’s illnesses and family problems and jaded poverty there to see and share.

Instead, there are doctors and nurses and cleaners and artists and social workers speaking not just to patients, but to families, too, praising the grades of children and asking after father’s crop harvests. There are surgeons praying with priests and nurses caring for doctors and five-year old children playing with stethoscopes, learning from the physician desperately trying to cure the child’s parent. There is music soothing pain and color splashed like bandages across wounds and oral histories and traditions in place of piles of paperwork and computer documentation.

Machines and medicines and technologies are badly needed. But I did not come here to notice what I always knew was missing: I came to learn what was present. And what I observed was a network of healthcare workers all supporting and praising one another, a community of families and priests and neighbors invested in the lives of those with nothing, a hospital full of people, not diseases, of family stories and reasons to keep living, not prognoses for how best to die. I observed a world full of optimism, a world, because looking up from the bottom of the rock, focused on climbing toward the sky.


On Being Lost

A proverbial phrase says, “Not all who those who wander are lost.”

I am somewhat suspicious that the person who first devised this phrase was a brilliant, albeit directionally-challenged soul, who, in an interview for some important ancient Roman military position, was asked to explain his weaknesses. Being no doubt well-versed in “Interviewing for Dummies edition. 1 BC,” he knew to paint his weaknesses as strengths. I can imagine it now:

“Greetings, young Caecilius. What dost thou proclaim thy greatest weakness?”
“Well good Sir, when navigating the unknown plains and forests I must conquer, I sometimes find myself wandering a path I did not plan to take. But Sir, I truly believe that not all those who wander are lost. Let me explain…”

And so was born the phrase. In a conversation that sounds less like an anachronistic translocation of E.T. into a Shakespeare play, that is.

C-3PO in Singapore

Speaking of science fiction, C-3PO lives in Singaporean shopping centers, if you were wondering.

Such a tasty phrase could not so easily be lost. As all Roman leaders boasted of their accomplishments, he surely bequeathed the mantra to a directionally-challenged apprentice, who then passed it on to another, and so began the propagation of the phrase through a multigenerational chain of directionally-challenged people looking to justify their sudden appearances at unexpected locations.

I could be biased, of course. When I wander, it’s almost certainly because I am lost. (I do a lot of wandering.)

When we generally speak of wandering, we have at least an idea of where we are: we wander around a park, for instance, or through the grounds of a university, or around the city on a lunch break, or down a clearly marked trail on a hiking path. “Wander” disguises itself as an adverb, more descriptive of our style of walking than an insight into our mind. “To wander” occurs within an unknown sub-realm contained by the comforts of a larger known, a stress relief, not stressor.

In foreign travel, this phrase adopts a more complicated meaning. Wandering no longer means “walking desultorily so as to enjoy some peace” but rather “trying to figure out where you’re going before you’re so lost you end up in the dodgy side of town at risk of being mugged.” Travel, already an exhausting, though exhilarating, process, becomes that much more intimidating when you lack a sense of direction. Add on to that a city whose street signs are written in another alphabet, whose citizens speak very little, if any, of your language, and a budget disallowing the luxury of taxis, and suddenly the prospect of people-watching from your hotel window seems a lot more appealing.

French Casablanca

At least I speak French?

When you are someone who constantly worries about getting lost, it can be hard to enjoy the process of wandering. When you find yourself dropped alone in the middle of the zigzagging, ebullient array of alleys that allegedly contain the most authentic, and therefore most delicious, local restaurants in a small city in China, for instance, you may, if you’re like me, find yourself suppressing the urge to panic. The sheer size of the area alone means, as you take turn after turn, your surroundings begin to transform into the labyrinthine forest of Alice’s Wonderland, every corner identical in its appearance.

As I munched a delicious pork dumpling I had bought from a street vendor and wandered past many others attempting to sell me a cornucopia of treats, the Cheshire cat’s advice flitted through my mind. When Alice inquires with trepidation, “Which way should I go?”, the Cheshire cat responds, “Well, that depends very much on where you want to get to.” “I don’t know,” says Alice. “Then it doesn’t really matter which way you go,” rationalizes the cat.

The Cheshire cat’s logic offers a mantra of relief for the directionally-challenged traveler: that Type A personality whose want of spatial reasoning skills makes travel a prescription for Xanax. The cat points out a new doorway, a conversion route in which, if only you let yourself, “wandering” can exist as the verb it is: a word that, by definition, means “without destination.”

Japan China Square

Contrary to the sign, this place was far from a square. Alice’s labrynthine forest is in Japan (yes, this is in Japan).

If you, like me, bemoan your terrible a.k.a. nonexistent sense of direction, listen to the Cheshire cat. Thank that Roman soul (who, it turns out, was actually J.R.R. Tolkien, so the E.T. route wasn’t too far from the truth after all). Take inspiration from the field of science: some of the world’s greatest discoveries were serendipitous, “wandered” into after a wrong turn toward a different destination. Penicillin came from an invasive fungus in an investigative experiment; the idea for velcro sparked from a dog emerging with burr-ridden fur from the woods; Coca Cola was the billion-dollar side effect of a search to cure headaches.

Perhaps you’ll learn to weave your way through a mass of Vietnamese motorbikes toward a restaurant whose name you can’t pronounce, and discover they sell home-brewed beer for 50 cents (sorry, America). Climb that hidden set of stairs in Japan and end up eating the freshest sushi you’ve ever had in a cafe that overlooks the city. Amble through a pagoda in Myanmar and learn through experience the taboo of walking anti-clockwise.

“Not all those who wander are lost,” they say. Under the Cheshire cat’s mantra, that proverbial phrase transforms from a cliched justification into a gateway for adventure. Wandering becomes not a feat of feet, but a feat of mind. This is when you know you’ve become a traveler: you begin to wander, to travel not within the limited confines of your own comforts, but to let yourself be swept into the vast forest of unknowns, ready to discover something you never would have known to look for.

Myanmar pagoda

Schwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar. Wander the city of gold: but only in a clockwise direction.

“Take Nothing But [Fill in the Blank]”

How would you fill in the blank? Could you? Catchphrases are intriguing intuitive devices, ingrained within our brains at some indeterminate point in our past. They are not necessarily straight-forward pieces of knowledge: it may take a discord between what we read and what we expect to read to illuminate those intuitions in the first place.

take nothing but photographs kakum ghanaAt the entrance to a perilous canopy walkway in Kakum National Park, a rainforest situated in Ghana, we came across this sign. While the gesture is important from an ecological standpoint, it invoked in me a sense of nostalgic frustration linguistically. Because, a few years ago, the maker of this sign would have chosen a different final word. And in that choice lies a time lapse: a picture of an obsession into which many of us have slid, almost unbeknownst to us. Where the painter has inked, “Take Nothing But Photographs,” my mind supplies a more sensory culminating noun: “Take Nothing But Memories.”

The invention of the digital camera has freed all restrictions; no longer must we conserve our choices to those 30 photographs that will not embarrass us as we hand our recorded lives to some stranger in a blue department store vest and await their development. Nor do we feel the same urge to sculpt our observations into permanent memories, knowing we can downgrade from pure recall to what cognitive scientists would term “cue-based recognition,” a form of memory in which seeing the photograph would “cue” the moment in which we took it. Our bifocal eyes have refocused onto a screen, absorbing the landscapes and scenes before us through carbon copies instead of the original. And, as our reliance shifts onto the visual and auditory senses, we have lost our concentration on the others: where is the camera, after all, that records smell, taste, touch?

Anyone with a digital camera is now an amateur photographer: the aim of travel becomes not to experience a scene viscerally, but to take from it the best artwork to show to friends and family back home. We have externalized the canvas in our minds, transposing it onto the digital screen in front of us and expecting it to do the work instead. And so, in the middle of a rainforest, we come across a sign that asks us, “Take Nothing But Photographs.” And we listen. We listen, and ignore the absurdity of snapping a hundred photographs of barely discernible greens and browns, when really the rainforest experience pays very little respect to the visual sense at all.

canopy walkway kakum ghana

Balancing on a board high in the treetops on the Canopy Walkway in Kakum National Park, Ghana.

Sure, I can show you the photo above.

But the camera does not record the revitalizing energy the equatorial air spreads through your body, the warm, but cleansing humidity that exfoliates your skin, breathing moisture into pores subjected to years of over-airconditioning. The camera shuns the fresh smell of the rainwater mixing with damp soil and new fruits bursting into life. The screen fails to capture the tangy taste of the bug-repellant and sunscreen-infused sweat dripping down your face after that hike to the canopy top. No video can recreate the adrenaline-rush of looking down suspended on a narrow board in the peaks of the treetops, the feeling of the broken wood shifting under your fragile feet, the shrieks of confused fear and delight echoing from other travelers around you, sound localization lost in the labyrinth of leaves.

And yet, we persist in taking photographs. Because as travelers in the digital age, that is what we’ve been taught to do. Against all science that tells us smell is the sense most intensely connected to memory, our eyes are the most easily satisfied.

In most of Ghana, however, we had our screens shut down on us: the people have placed an unwritten restriction on photographs there. Many students were visibly frustrated when told they had to ask permission from Ghanaians to take pictures, that even snapping a quick shot of a building or monument could result in local police confiscating their cameras.

But I was secretly glad.

I wandered through the market-place completely alert. I inhaled the melange of fish, nuts, spices, plantains, yams, crabs, snails, and a healthy dose of body odor and sewage. I teetered across gutters doubling as radioactive danger zones, ducked under baskets of moving chickens floating on people’s heads, scraped against sweaty arms and waved at children staring curiously at the white skin they rarely see.

I, too, harbor an obsession with my camera: I am patient, persistent, creative. I love the challenge of capturing the perfect shot, one that encapsulates as closely as possible those unrecordable senses through the medium of the visual. But, at the same time, my camera is my worst enemy. As I travel through each port, the intuitive muscle reflex that fishes my camera from my bag produces, in concert, a stab of annoyance. Because in transferring our memories to the screen, we all too often forget to transfer the screen to our memories.

spices and nuts ghana

The only photo I have of a local food market in Ghana as a result of all this.

There is an accepted rule in the blogging world: no more than three to four paragraphs without a photo. Our attention spans will revolt, they say, our multimodal expectations disabling the power of the written word. And in the digital age of which I am, like it or not, a part, I will continue to adhere. Photography, after all, is an incredible invention and often an unparalleled communicative device.

But it should not be a replacement for the camera already within our brain: that rich piece of unrivaled technology that can take not only light, but also sound, smell, taste, touch, and intuition and sculpt those sensations into a complex and intensely vibrant experience that stays with us for life. Memories do not depend on the compatibility of upgraded software, the presence of a computer, access to an internet connection. Who captivates your attention quicker: the person who shuffles you through a photo album with little explanation – or the person whose stories illuminate the room, whose every sense seems invested in recreating that memory in your mind?

Use your camera well, but, like everything, in moderation. I challenge you, wherever you may go: try, every once in a while, to divest yourself of the digital obsession: snap a couple of shots, sure, but afterward, “Take Nothing But Memories.” It might surprise you.

Cliffside Cleansing in France and Ireland

You know that feeling when you’re standing on the edge of a cliff and get this inexplicable, and totally Darwin-Award-worthy, impulse to jump?

It turns out there’s an actual name for that in the science world: the “high-place phenomenon” (sounds fancy, right?). You can understand how something as messed up as that would garner the attention of scientists eager for a new study. To their surprise (and our relief!), they found this sensation isn’t at all associated with depression or suicidal thoughts; if anything, it’s experienced more often among those without any depressive tendencies whatsoever. In fact, it might be just the opposite. A recent study done suggests we are actually misinterpreting a safety signal in our brain, one that actually reaffirms our will to live. Essentially, that “urge to leap” triggers a survival instinct to back away – and it’s the resistance, that sudden adrenaline kick that forces us to keep ourselves alive, that we perceive as a bizarre death wish. What we’re actually feeling is how amazingly fragile we are, and the overpowering impulse to live.

I had the fortune to experience this high-place phenomenon at two beautiful cliff formations: the Cliffs d’Etretat in the Normandy region of France and the Cliffs of Moher in the west of Ireland. Of course, I took the more sensible Titanic pose at their peaks, throwing open my arms and letting the wind blast my hair. While my visits to each occurred in vastly different contexts, the emotional experience of the climb is just the same: up on top, you are peering over the edge of the world, apprehending the true vastness of an ocean that pours teasingly over an invisible horizon. Just a few seconds up there, teetering on air, produces an ineffable sense of freedom that can’t help but make you gasp in awe.

cliffs d'etretat normandy

The Cliffs d’Etretat loom tall ahead.

The Cliffs d’Etretat bask in their unique shapes, giant arches carved out of the rock as if a sculptor had taken his artful knife to them. These we climbed against an onslaught of pelting rain and wind, but this only added to their drama: the waves pounded against the rocks, foaming like the mouths of rabid dogs as they revealed the real sculptor at work here. In the modern day, this beauty brings with it a photographic obsession: all around me, fellow tourists were snapping pictures, trying fruitlessly to capture the sensations of spaciousness bred in the interaction of cliff, wind, and sea. In the past, this obsession has proved deadly: our guide informed us people have died in one wrong step behind the camera.

These incredible formations have a biologically eloquent past. Chalk white in color, they are the natural twin of the Cliffs of Dover, the accumulation over millions of years of tiny, dead marine organisms whose calcium carbonate shells have offered themselves as natural white-tie attire. It is a powerful lesson: that such microscopic creatures can, together, create such immense and ominous beauty.

Combined with the reminder of Normandy’s past – the five beaches that served as the D-Day landing sites – visiting the Cliffs d’Etretat is a complicated emotional experience. We traced our fingers along the interiors of bunkers now lying soberly in the walls, concrete impregnated with sanguine memories. To imagine the forces with which the soldiers had to contend as they fought their way through stormy waves to beaches booby-trapped with perilous uncertainties, is to appreciate the might of nature, the serendipity – or lack thereof – that ultimately trumps even the most conscientious planning. Months of calculations went into estimating the tides, figuring out exactly the right place to land, and, even then, the Allies had to delay a day thanks to a mighty storm that would have been deadlier than any German forces awaiting them.

d-day bunker normandy

German D-Day bunker at the Cliffs.

The Irish Cliffs of Moher offered more pleasing connotations. (Okay, that’s an understatement: they feature as the “Cliffs of Insanity” in The Princess Bride and a Horcrux hiding place in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Seriously, you can’t get much cooler than that!) Situated in County Clare, these undulating cliffs are the definition of picture-perfect. We arrived in the late afternoon, which offered us a breath-taking panorama as the setting sun bounced its rays across the water. The effect was such that some of my pictures even transform the landscape into a surreal painting coated with a silver fog, as if produced by an early 20th-century black-and-white camera. I only wish we could have stayed longer: a day exploring the hills of Galway did not leave much time for wandering.

Where mountains meet sea, where marine fossils decorate peaks thousands of feet in the air, where the tectonic might of the earth has left its mark – that’s where I get my rush.

cliffs of moher

The Cliffs of Moher (better known as the Cliffs of Insanity!)

Reflections on a Seastruck October

There are moments in life when an emotion hits you so intensely that the external world seems to fade, quelled by the thundering buzz that fills your mind and body. The present becomes all that exists and past and future slide into Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty. For me, it often happens in the middle of a conversation, a crowded room, a meal with friends, where sounds and scenes blend together like a movie preparing for a philosophical voiceover.  The camera zooms out and the details shrink into the insignificant pixels of a greater picture of total awareness.

These revelations may descend upon you with an unexpected overheard line, a display of remarkably human kindness from someone you revere, a split second in which a new friend innocently reveals a brief, but beautiful moment of pure and genuine vulnerability. It can occur in the switch from one extreme to another: an instant sobering from the midst of riotous laughter, a veil of marvel springing from something perceived as ordinary, a poignant joy built from tears.  It occurs as simply as the leaves changing from green to gold and falling faithfully away, promised new beginnings, the beauty of a cleansing October day.

Octobers are replete with these moments for me. For the last five years, October has stopped me in my tracks along the walk between classes, pouring red maples into my soul; it has sloughed away the stress of exams with pumpkin hues of Virginian mountainsides glistening in newly crisp air; it has treated me with whinnies of equine delight and children trotting in costumes down a UNESCO world heritage site.

October is a midpoint, a month to land on the line between past and future and float in the knowledge of your existence.

Fall colors at U.Va.

Fall colors at U.Va.

The first of October, the bells ring today. A clinging to hold fast to the familiarity of the old, a raring for something new and chilling, a nostalgic acknowledgement of change.

As September bows its head, October has triggered in me an unusual amount of reflection. My red and golden leaves are gone this year, replaced with white-crested waves of sparkling blue peaks. The horsey nickers have ceded to the cries of gulls and the gentle, breathy sounds that arise from a whale’s blow. And I am still searching for a costume.

Put simply, I cannot believe it is October. Seven weeks into our voyage, my mind is a tangle of anticipated nostalgia and presaged reflections. The ship is my home now, eliciting that upwelling of content each time I wander back from a port and see the string of lights illuminated into its horizontally elongated “M.” I am struck with a familial care for the people I have met; I already feel how deeply I will miss them when we are gone. I continue each day to be inspired by the life stories I hear, to marvel at the generosity of those I have met, to feel humbled by my fortune to be here at all.

In many ways, this October feels just right: I still stop and stare at the landscape around me, stilled by its beauty. My feet will cross multiple world heritage sites, if not my Jeffersonian home. And not even an oceanic dearth of party shops can take away the necessity of a mischievous and costumed Halloween.

In another sense, though, October has blossomed into one cognitively more powerful than ever before. Those moments of overwhelming conscious presence hit more intensely, more frequently, more frighteningly.  There is a terror that comes with the inspiring stories, the growing realization that a thirst to go abroad means a future filled with hard choices for family and friends. Situations can change instantly, at any time, as people’s experiences in port differ in the plethora of novelties. In the discomfiting transition from the midst of bonding laughter to compassion for someone hurt by racism, there arises a sobering new perspective charged with guilt and a need to help.

There are few stronger and more challenging sensations than those of unbridled admiration and shackled empathy. They lie at the heart of love, compassion, fear, obsession, self-sacrifice, trust. The first can lead you into reckless obsession, tempting you to throw away your originality and confidence under a new perceived standard of conformity as you long to be liked. With a lack of the right support, the second can lead you down a dangerous path of nihilism, unsure where to turn.

To resist the tendency to judge yourself by the shadow of an idol or to comport yourself within the parameters of that shadow…to accept powerlessness in the face of painful compassion and see the potential for change hiding behind a decoy of fatalism – these take true strength. “It takes great courage to stand up to one’s enemies, but even more to stand up to one’s friends,” claims J.K. Rowling’s ever-wise Albus Dumbledore. “Dark times lie ahead of us and there will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right” (a call to Congress, perhaps?).

SAS is filled with such challenges.  On and off the ship, the boundaries into which we are normally socialized become like faults between tectonic plates: the lines between age, race, culture, generations are smashed, slid through friction past one another, forced to succumb, occasionally thrust up in an unexpected direction all together. Accordingly, August and September have poured and shaken me between states of contradiction: young and old, naïve & worldly, astoundingly bold and terrifyingly timid, longing to fit in and trying to stand out.

In the wake of these reflections, where better to learn and grow than in the gap between those contradictions – in the Octobers of my world? This is the present and, as the adage goes, there is, after all, nothing else like it.

In one of those beautiful moments where a simple theme transcends life itself, the first of October saw me floating on a small boat in between two continents, with Europe at the stern and Africa in the fore, only 14 km away across the Strait of Gilbraltar. In these geographical crossroads, a modern past slides into a colonized future: a European September will, tomorrow, give rise to an African October, the first critical change in our journey. In accordance, our itinerary will change from one dominated by ports and short bursts of class days at sea to one marked by long stretches of ocean and spattered periods at ports large distances apart. And that means more time for reflection.

I welcome what October holds.