"Keep working on a plan. Make no little plans. Make the biggest you can think of, and spend the rest of your life carrying it out." Harry S. Truman

Friday, May 29, 2009

Tai Chi

Years ago, during my 6-months-long backpacking trip throughout South East Asia, I arrived one morning at the train station in Hanoi, after an overnight journey from the northern hilly region of Pho-Lu, and Sapa. It was to be my last day in Vietnam, after almost two glorious months, and I was flying back to Bangkok, on the tail end of a trip that would still take me to the Philippines, Hong Kong, and then back home to France just on time to celebrate my 30th birthday AND my sister's wedding.

I remember vividly walking the streets of Hanoi in the first light of the day, taking in the sights and smells of the city, and feeling so sad that I had to leave. I LOVED Vietnam. Anyway, I had a few hours to kill before I could retrieve my backpack from the guest house where I'd left it in order to travel lighter for a few days, and I went to sit by the Hoan Kiem lake in the center of Hanoi, and wrote in my journal. 

All around me, Vietnamese people walked or ran, did Tai Chi or played badminton, and some came up to me to exchange a few words in French (I don't mean to diminish any of the evils of our colonialist past, there or elsewhere in the world, but neither can I lie and pretend that I was not immensely touched by the kindness and enthusiasm of people, especially old ones, whenever they found out that I came from France. The country was just opening itself to tourism, since the war, and Americans were still to lift their embargo, so it was all very new and exciting for them, I think - and even more for those traveling there at the time, as we were always welcomed with great warmth and joy, wherever we went.) 

I just found my travel journal in the pile of old diaries that I carry around, looked for the entry of that morning, and found this anecdote that I had totally forgotten. 

I was sitting by the lake, on a bench, pealing an orange, when this man with hair sticking all over his head walked by, pushing his bicycle. "You are going to eat an orange," he cried out to me, in French. "Oui," said I. "Bonne journée, chère camarade," he added, then corrected himself. "Bonne journée, chère amie. ("Have a good day, dear camarade... Have a good day, dear friend.") How could I forget? 

Anyway, I do remember looking at all the men and women in that misty morning, alone or in groups, facing the lake with its lovely Tortoise Tower, and thinking I'd love to try Tai Chi, some day. It's taken 16 years, almost to the day (this was May 1993, and I took my first Tai Chi class on May 25 !) for me to act on that wish. It's early to say, but I'm really enjoying it, so far.

I've always had some difficulty with yoga. I've tried, and tried, and felt pretty silly to be living here, in the land of yoga, and to not use that opportunity. I have taken classes. Quite a number of them, with different teachers. But more than anything else, it always felt like a chore. Once I was doing it, it was OK. And I could definitely feel the benefits. But it was never something I looked forward to.

Tai Chi, on the other hand, has a flowing, dancing quality that appeals to me. So, I'm giving it a try. And I know : who else would come to India, and end up saying : "this is where I started Tai Chi." Oh well, the people in my class seem very passionate about it, and they are all Indian, so why not?

And as writing this post has made me jump back in time, I'm going to post a few pictures I took in Hanoi. Just because. 

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Life's Journey or Serendipitous Timing

Beware : introspective new-agey post :)

In November, I decided to register for a 5 months certificate course with the following promising title of "The Integrated Counselor. Self-Discovery, Life-Skills, People Empowerment and Social Impact."

Quite a mouthful, I know, but then, it turned out to deliver pretty much all that it promised.

Sujata Potay, the course director and creator, (for those living in Hyderabad and reading this, the course happens about twice a year and you can find information at this link), and her facilitator, Sudha V. Krishnan, have put together a brilliant combination to help us, wandering souls, try to make more sense of ourselves as we journey through life. It includes meditation, yoga, role plays, biographical learning, group activities, homework tailored to our issues as they manifest themselves in class, a lot of brainstorming and work around empathy (and believe me, the word may be overused, but the concept is not something easily understood and internalized), concept topics like "Character and Identity," or "Self Motivation", seminars, etc.

It was a truly fantastic experience. I met great people, and feel I learned so much about myself. But of course, the journey continues, and as serendipity would have it, I decided to take another online course (this one for my writing) about the Enneagram (I had started the course a couple of years ago, and even mentioned it here, but I was doing too much at once at the time, and was forced to withdraw. I've wanted to complete it ever since, but my schedule never allowed it until a month ago.)

And here I reach the reason for this post. Had I completed the writing course using the Enneagram a couple of years ago, I would most likely have missed out on the depth and beauty of this system and how incredibly powerful and useful it can be, when applied to our own selves. 

Being rather slow to understand the really important things in life (as in, I hear it, I even memorize it, but I don't really GET it ; or, I understand it in my mind, but why is it that I don't seem to be able to implement it in my every day life?) I guess it was written somewhere that I should fall into studying the Enneagram (and sticking to it, this time) just now, right after this course, rather than two years ago, because all we learned and talked about during the 5 months course gets repeated, re-explained, and/or illustrated in a very personal way, especially in the book, The Wisdom of the Enneagram, by Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson. 

So, now that I've gone all new-agey on you, I can also share that I'm a definitely a type 4, and that's the Individualist, also called the Artist (can you see me smiling?) with a wing 5, which is the Investigator or Thinker or Observer. 

Look at this pretty image. Isn't it perfect?

Enneagramfree enneagram test

Anyway, if you are into inner work, and therefore curious to understand more about yourself, I strongly recommend the Enneagram. It is really helping me cement all I've learned with the above-mentioned course, so that I can try and apply it to my every day life and maybe, maybe... in the long run... become a better person, for myself, and for those around me (but then, it all goes together, doesn't it?)

And since I'm discussing my spiritual and introspective life, I can also share that I started taking Tai Chi classes - but this will be the subject of my next post.

Monday, May 18, 2009

My Global Bookshelf : "Tone Deaf in Bangkok" by Janet Brown

Tone Deaf in Bangkok (And Other Places), published by ThingsAsian Press, is Janet Brown’s travel memoir of how and why she, a middle aged American woman who’d lived in Alaska and Seattle, fell in love with the city of Bangkok, spent several years there, and after returning to Seattle for a while, finally decided to go back for good.

The book itself is beautiful, with photographs from Nana Chen that give a real feel for the day to day life in the city. This is not your usual glossy touristy book about Bangkok. By the time I had followed the author through her journey, and spent time contemplating Nana Chen’s pictures, I felt I knew the place (and the author) a little better.

I spent some time in Bangkok, in 1993, as one of those backpackers that Janet mentions none too affectionately in her pages. It was the perfect base to explore neighboring countries, collect mail at the central Post Office, and get a taste for “civilization” as we Westerners like to call it (that entails air conditioned malls, movie theaters, shopping, and a facial thrown in to try and get some of the dust accumulated during endless bus, motorcycle or train journeys out of my skin). I walked those narrow lanes, visited the city’s many splendors, bargained at the markets, and careened through the streets aboard three-wheeled death defying tuk-tuks. I could have entertained the erroneous notion that I knew Bangkok, except that I always instinctively sensed that you don’t know a place unless you live there - and even then, you have to make the effort to really get to know it.  Janet Brown definitely made that effort.

With beautiful, fluid prose, unwavering honesty, and an elegant sense of humor, the author shares intimate snapshots of her life as a farang, or a guava, from her attempts to speak the tonal language, to her discovery that in order to be truly accepted and welcomed in a foreign country, you must first observe the ways of its people with humility and grace. 

I was moved to tears by her discreet and intensely felt account of her love affair with a young Thai who could have been her son. I laughed, while trying to imagine her seating side-saddled on a motorcycle, wearing a skirt and high-heeled sandals to go and visit Khmer ruins on the Cambodian border.

But my favorite moments in the book are those where Janet Brown tries to make sense of her identity - whether defining how she will experience entertainment in a way that suits her tastes and needs, as opposed to just going along with any group, or struggling to understand what it is exactly that makes her feel so vibrant and alive in Bangkok. Reading her, I felt I had found a soul mate - only much braver, and stronger.

During our years in Nigeria, there was an opening for a position in Geneva, Switzerland. My husband mentioned it to me, and my reaction stunned him, and everyone who knew me, and knew of the hardship we’d been experiencing. “No, thank you very much, but I’d rather stay in Nigeria.” Even as I sometimes cried on the plane that took me back from Lagos to Enugu after a vacation abroad, I stubbornly sustained that if I had to choose again between living in Switzerland or living in Nigeria, I would still choose Nigeria. I think Janet would understand me well. Here is what she writes, at the beginning of the book: “I live, at this point in my life, in the ideal American city. Seattle is small enough to be friendly, large enough to be urban, and is surrounded by enough natural beauty to launch a million calendars... Tourists come to the bookstore where I work, raving about this place, and it takes everything I have to keep from saying, “Thanks. Glad you like it. It bores me silly.”

There is not one boring moment, in "Tone Deaf in Bangkok," whether you're eating durians with Janet, celebrating Songkran (the traditional Thai New Year) on Khao San Road, pondering the advantages and benefits of separate toilets fitted in the floor, or weighing the pros and cons of the Bangkok Skytrain (ah, the eternal conflict between efficiency and dullness)... 

Read “Tone Deaf in Bangkok (And Other Place).” It will take you on an intimate journey with a funny, generous, independent woman while showing you the heart and many hidden corners of a city (and a few other neighboring places) just as fascinating as your tour guide.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Reading Like a Writer

That one still doesn't come as naturally to me as I would like to. I know about it, even begin doing it, and then, usually find myself swept away by story. I loose myself in it, and I LIKE that.

Thing is, once I close the book, I haven't learned as much about writing as I would have, if I'd had my writer's hat on. Jacqueline Woodson once said, at a SCBWI conference, that we should read the books we like at least twice, once to know the story, and then, to study the way it was written. But with the pile of books that never goes down (how could it, new ones keep replacing the ones I just finished reading) it's hard to read a book again !

As serendipity would have it, I've been thinking along these lines for a few days, and today, I read this post on Teaching Authors and here is someone reminding me, yet again, to do precisely what I know I need to do...

Plot is one area of weakness for me. I tend to loose myself in the characters. All of them. I write, and write, and write journals, thoughts, I over-analyze them and their reactions, where they come from, where they go, and why, and how, and all the while, I seem to run around in circles, rather than moving forward with the story. 

The last two books I read were North of Beautiful, by Justina Chen Headley, and Many Stones, by Carolyn Coman. 

So, now that I've read the stories, I'll go back, read them again with notepad and highlighting markers, and try and see how they move their plot forward, then write a small essay, maybe here, discussing what I learned, and including examples I highlighted and noted in the text.

Now where did I put my writer's hat?

Monday, May 4, 2009

It is Hot !

Let me start by saying that I'm definitely a hot weather person. If there is one thing I've never, ever missed since I left New York, it is the cold and winter. Winter makes me depressed. It took me years to realize that I suffered from what is now recognized as seasonal affective disorder. But the Hyderabadi summer is something else.

The weather in Hyderabad is usually very pleasant from September until February. Then, temperatures start rising until they reach their peak in the last weeks preceding the Monsoon, which begins usually around the first or second week of June. Believe me, by that time, we're all desperately waiting for it. Uma Krishnaswami's picture book, Monsoon, describes it beautifully

Soooo, we've now entered the hottest month of the year. I just checked, and at 7.10 am, this morning, it was already 28 degrees Celsius, which is 82.4 degrees Fahrenheit. This past week, we've had temperatures reaching 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees F.)

What this means, practically... When I open the door of my air-conditioned bedroom in the morning (I know, I'm lucky that we have A/C in some rooms, in our house. I can't even begin to imagine how people living without it manage to survive) I'm met with a rush of oven hot air. The floors are hot under our bare feet. The water that comes from the cold water faucet is hot ! Not quite burning hot, but close. I'm not kidding. It's the only time of the year when we can wash our dishes with hot water - which is fine. But here you are, dreaming of a cool shower, only, there is no cool water to come out, unless you let it run for quite a while, and even then, it will still be tepid to warm. The moisturizing cream that comes out of the tube is warm. Even the doorknobs are warm! 

No wonder schools in India close for the year between mid-April and early June, and people who can escape to the hills (the British used to do that, too, of course). For those, like us, who follow the Western school calendar, there is no choice but to grin and bear it as graciously as we possibly can.

Thank goodness for air coolers. I'd never seen or heard of them before,
even though they're apparently used in dry places in the US. It's really a - beware, pun coming - cool machine. Not the pretties thing around, as you can see. 

And really very noisy, too.  But as the volumes in our house make it impossible to air condition it totally (electricity bills already triple during the summer months), we're happy to put up with the noise. 

So, you now know where to find us, at this time of year. Sprawled in front of the air cooler...