SCENE 1 (Alex trying to show me and Andrea some asanas in yoga)
Alex: Tita Eva, this is the ‘tree pose’ in yoga. This is a very dangerous pose because some people might cut me and turn me into paper.
Andrea: Yeah, they’re gonna turn you into toilet paper!
SCENE 2 (Alex and Andrea trying to get to know me better)
Andrea: How old are you Tita Eva?
Tita Eva: How old do you think I am?
Andrea: Would you be 54?
Tita Eva: I don’t like your answer. No beach treat for you.
Andrea: Oh no! But I thought I saw some white hair!
Alex: Yeah, the white hair that the hair color failed to cover.
Tita Eva: Aaaargh! Take these kids back to Canada!
My friend, just back from a Hindu spiritual journey in Mount Abu in Rajashtan visited with me in the office one afternoon. She knew about my fascination about Indian culture. She did not comprehend the extent of my entanglement until I showed her how, with the help of a photographer friend Ricky, I tried to create and fashion myself into an Indian woman complete with the saree, pallu and accessories including the tikka. The make-up however was incomplete because at the time of the shoot, I did not know where to buy the kajal, the black eyeliner used mostly by Indian women.
In a recent travel, I found myself in the elevator with a young Hispanic couple and an octogenarian American couple. The two Hispanics were arguing where to have dinner that night in very animated Spanish. They could not seem to agree as the woman wanted to go out, but the man apparently wanted to dine in one of the restaurants in the hotel so they would finish early and he could watch Euro 2012 on TV. The guy was leaning against the open elevator door so that all five of us were stuck there and the elevator was not moving at all. When finally the couple reached an agreement (hotel restaurant it was), the woman pressed the 21st floor and we all heaved a sigh of relief.
When there were just the three of us, the old lady gave me a look an asked, ‘Do you young lady always travel alone?”
‘Well, not all the time, Ma’am but almost always I do’
‘Oh that’s why! That’s why you’re wearing that kind of ring. For self-defense!’
Now, many of those who know me and those who have followed my posts may have already known about my quirky sense of fashion. That night I was wearing a short little black dress. And because it was too plain, I accessorized with this eye catching cocktail ring, I wore this cocktail ring in my middle finger. And because it really was big, it covered partly my point and ring fingers.
I laughed at her observation and said ‘Yeah, this could really give a mean black eye’
‘You bet it can. You never know what goes on in the world these days!’, she said rolling her eyes and then giving me a wink.
Just then, her husband chimed in and said ‘Look honey, even her shoes are for self defense too!’ as they both looked at my black strapped stilettos.
Now, this really sent me laughing out loud. I don’t know if what they said about my fashion sense was good or bad but I countered, ‘Yes, I could really give a mean roundhouse kick with this one!’ and went on laughing.
They smiled and waved back at me and were still talking about my self defense ring and my self defense shoes when they reached their stop on the 35th, one of the executive floors, as the elevator doors closed to take me to my room to the top floor.
When I was in Denmark, I spent each free lunch time hour lounging on the new couch the landlord asked me to help him choose from IKEA, watching TV in the apartment. I was the only Asian in the group and the Italians I was with were a big and closely knit group, and delightfully loud, the kind that was infectious and youthful and fun. Being proficient in the German, French and a smattering of Danish languages , in addition to their native Italian, the girls were always surrounded by a bunch of other Europeans with whom they hung out in the library and under the trees in the expansive campus, or the cafeteria. Back then, I had very awkward social skills (even until now I guess) so I often kept to myself rather than be in a big group. We would just usually meet up at night for dinner out if we were feeling too lazy to cook and to wash the dishes, or if we were in the mood for an evening drive and a stroll round the docks and watch ships pass us by, dunking our fingers into a huge bag of chips, if there wasn’t any interesting movie to watch at the Palisades.
Because I had no cable connection, I had to be content with local programming.
That particular afternoon and many times thereafter in the evening and succeeding days, the news that hogged prime air time was the presence of a high school student with pulmonary tuberculosis (TB), diagnosed in one of the local high schools in Copenhagen. As a result of this, the school was closed down for two weeks and sanitized. I remember, the student was white, which probably became an even bigger deal. You see, most cases of tuberculosis are found in less developed countries in Asia, South America and Africa. TB in squeaky clean Copenhagen was supposedly unheard of.
I did not stay in Denmark long enough to find out the conclusion of what looked like a TV series. But last I heard was that, each and every contact of the student was investigated. They were able to trace about 700 contacts in six months and three of them also turned out to be positive for TB through skin testing. If my recollection is right, all three were also Danish.
Many first world countries attribute the resurgence of TB to increasing immigration and Denmark was one of those countries, back then, with the most lenient policies on asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants.
This story made me remember the time (and it was very long ago) when I was a medical student.
The time I met Tom for the first time.
I was a third year medical student when Tom’s group of volunteer doctors went to the health center of my village. He was with Rene, a French doctor who spoke very little English. Rene was married to Kim, a French-Vietnamese nurse who, like him, was also a volunteer. Tom was Belgian, the Flemish kind. He, of course, in the impressionable eyes of a medical student with a small town, small time background, was drop dead gorgeous, not too tall but just-right-enough for me tall, with long curly blonde hair which he loved to flip sideways with his strong, hairy, thickly veined hand. He smelled good (Not that I smelled him on purpose. I knew because I’d ride on his motorcycle when we toured the other villages and I had to circle my arms around his waist as it was one of those small Japanese motor bikes.) He was also mild mannered and spoke often about his Mom and Dad and little sister. He had been to my house on a somewhat on again, off again basis for visits to get to know local traditions and to request my Mama for tutorials of the dialect so he could have better interaction with the locals in the community.
Because it was summer and I did not have classes, I worked as a volunteer in the government health center like I did summers the last two years. This time however, instead of weighing babies and counting fetal heart rates of pregnant mothers and keeping records, Tom requested that I worked with his team. I really did not know what help I could extend but things unfolded as the days wore on.
They asked me to introduce them to the locals, to explain that they were volunteer doctors working on screening for tuberculosis in the hope of being able to discover a vaccine which was, to my understanding, a multi center study being conducted by the research unit of his medical school. In other words, I was their unofficial translator and interpreter both on field work and in clinic consults.
Although they were able to screen and treat many patients with TB, and refer them accordingly to the local registry, their stint was short lived. They came at a time when banditry and abduction threats were big issues in the island. Two of the seven other doctors from their agency, assigned in the neighboring province were kidnapped. Eventually, their lead agency pulled out their presence from my country.
Of course it was with a sense of regret and sadness that I confronted Tom and his group’s departure. But I was thankful that our friendship happened because it was because of him that I found respect for and held in high esteem his unrelenting dedication in voluntarism. It was through Tom that I came face to face with a sheltered only son, who somehow, was selflessness and sacrifice personified.
He wrote me (snail mail) a few times during his short stints in Chad, Sudan and Nigeria after he left my city. In one of those very short almost cryptic letters, he shared that his allowance was enough to make him live like a king but then there was nothing to buy or eat but beans.
Just recently I learned that he had been spending over a decade of his time in Karnataka in India among other Indian states after stints in Peru, Lebanon, Algeria, Bolivia, Zimbabwe, Dominican Republic, Congo, Honduras, Burundi, Liberia and Turkey. He never went back home to Belgium where his family, especially his Dad, were constantly worried about his safety. But Tom, barely thirty years old at the time, loved adventure and embraced everything in life, including all the threats and dangers that were thrown his way. He embraced the children, the painfully malnourished kind, the lepers, the tuberculous patients, the orphans in refugee centers, the pregnant young mothers barely out of their teens, without regard for their class, color or creed.
I do think fondly, randomly of him. He was funny, still is irreverently funny although he now looks older than his years. Even his French beard that covers a quarter of his face are all white. He always looked better clean and shaved. We often got into pesky little spats before about his hair, about how he loved to grow it long until he looked like a lion but he was never one so keen for the aesthetics.
His Facebook profile pic shows him wearing a party hat with curlicues that could be mistaken for his hair. Maybe he has a family, but I did not probe. What I know now is that he has been living his life with consistency of purpose since the day I met him – churning out scientific papers after another, outlining public health policies and formulating guidelines to uplift the health care services in each God-forsaken, village of a corruption ridden country he found himself thrust into: mostly as program coordinator or implementer or both. It would seem that having a family was not the vocation he chose, just a hunch. But I hope that, by now, he will have found whatever it is he has been going around the world looking for and for which he has chosen many things to give up and to endure. But maybe not because his eyes still looked sad.
While the years may not have been kind to him physically, I do not doubt the beauty of his spirit. He must have subscribed to Erich Fromm’s humanistic philosophy about a person choosing a path of ‘being’ and ‘having’. Tom left a very comfortable life back home but he wanted none of those. Instead he chose to ‘be’.
I am writing about Tom because despite our unbridgeable distance (he’s so all over the place it’s difficult to keep track of him) and prolonged absence from each other’s radar, we seem to have lived, presumptuous as it might sound, with a little tweak here and there, parallel lives. Something that I will be able to explain further as I write the conclusion of my three part post ‘Mary, Quite Contrary.‘
After my holidays. Perhaps.
Whether it is the sari clad women gardeners at an ancient garden
Or the sari of local women devotees at Lakshmi Narayan Temple
to my heavy ethnic Rajashtani dress by the entrance of Birla ( I wore this for much longer than intended! And I never removed the bindi on my forehead)
Jaipur is a city splashed with a myriad of colors. And it wasn’t even Holi!
This is the view of the city far south as seen from a low flying R44 Raven 2. The VIP (who doesn’t happen to be me as I will never be) in the front seat randomly checks the coastal waters for debris and flotsam as this area is largely a fishing village and houses the fish port.
Plotting the flight map
Fishing boats docked on the black sand beach of this fishing village
The fish port complex. Fresh fish catch are processed here for export and some for the city’s consumption hence the need to keep the coastal waters clean. This particular random aerial check did not disappoint.
When the children heard the drone of the helicopter, they ran after us and waved. The VIP waved back. This was the scene, even with older adults swimming on the beach, waving and smiling. They knew who was in the front seat.
Rooftop of crowded homes in the village
As the helicopter inched into the city, the rows of roof top were arranged in better, rather than random order
Here the Raven2 was closing in towards the city proper, but not quite the city center. This showed a more affluent neighborhood.
From a distance this helicopter, dwarfed by tall trees in this 18-hole golf course, looked like a remote control toy for the big boy.
As the public utility jeep where Mary and I found ourselves squeezed into was winding its way in the bumpy asphalt road, I asked her to crane her neck out the window to check out the mountain range of Montalban that overlook Payatas.
(Fast forward: When the government decided to relocate some residents from Payatas because the mountain of trash caved in a day after heavy rains one July morning, where many scavengers were buried alive among the trash, Rizal and Montalban were considered as relocation sites. Many residents objected despite the catastrophe because this is where their daily bread is coming from and Montalban is quite a distance and had nothing to offer, revenue wise)
Mary said retorted ‘You call these mountains? These are hills. You have to remember Eva, I come from the Himalayas’.
Back then, Everest was such an enigma to me and I inquired if she had scaled the Everest summit.
The mountains of Montalban
‘Everest base. I went as far as the Everest base.’
At this point, she narrated how she found her way to Nepal.
‘I used to work with the UNICEF, bringing iodine supplements to children in the mountains. You’re a doctor, you know iodine deficiency causes goiter in adults and cretinism in children. The problem was, I was not prepared to encounter cultural barriers.’
I interjected ‘How come. Any well-intentioned mother sure would want the best for her child’
‘That was not the case. You see, in certain cultures in Nepal, the bigger the goiter is, the more beautiful she is in the community. So they would refuse.
A Nepalese woman with goiter
What would have been a two week stint would take three months each time. So you could imagine my life in the mountains, sleeping in tents with my team, the locals and the sherpa for three months. We had no source of water for bathing. After three months, I had lice’
“Not just head lice. Body lice. the kind that stuck to our thermals, our blankets, our clothes. The funny thing was the UN and my agency needed an inventory of all the equipment and gadget they made us use. They had to have everything back, including the lice’
I stifled a laugh because I thought it was impolite. There was a tinge of desperation in Mary’s voice when she told this bit about lice infested things.
‘Not all the time. I was a volunteer. You know what, when I finally got down to Kathmandu and found myself a hotel, I must have been in the bathroom for half a day because I did not want to stop bathing until the brown water that dripped did not become clear.’
At this point, the jeep dropped us off in Payatas B, the community where, about a hundred meters away awaits our makeshift health center, with about thirty older persons from Payatas ready to greet us with warm smiles and eager albeit queasy anticipation.
To be concluded
(Nepal photos sourced from the internet from the guy with Olympus Camera)