Sunday, December 22, 2013

The divine kiss

Amidst the crowd, noise and the chaos stands a shrine so tall, one that can only be best described as an epitome of love, faith and serenity. #shwedagon pagoda #yangon

Friday, December 20, 2013

Min. gla. lar. par Myanmar

By Aswathy Kumar

It had been four days since I landed in the city of Yangon, Myanmar. Well two if I leave out the number of days I lay passed out in my king sized bed in my hotel suite. And who could blame me? I had travelled over 8000 miles at a stretch for the very first time in my life. I was jet lagged and thoroughly exhausted. I knew that the travel enthusiast in me was more than eager to step out of the extravagant cocoon that I lay in; It's colorful decals, dark wooden paneled walls and printed silk upholstery hardly bearing any resemblance to the chaotic streets of Yangon that lay stretched out in front of me. Except for a brief rendezvous through the glass windows of my pretentious suite, she lay untouched, unexplored and mysterious.

But I knew it had to wait. I had no reason to worry. After all I was no tourist here and my visa wasn't going to expire after 28 days. This was to be home for the next three years and there was no rush. And if Yangon was anything like the grey tarnished buildings I saw through my bedroom window, menacingly symbolic of the turmoil in its past, I knew I needed all the energy I could muster. Understanding her wasn't going to be easy. I could tell.

So after 36 hours of sleep, I was ready to finally find out what the city of Yangon had to offer. I knew she wouldn't disappoint. I had already caught a glimpse of her warmth as I stepped out of the airport into our hotel taxi. There were seven sets of hands that had gathered around us to help load our luggage into the backseat. I had experienced the same eagerness to help, back home in India. But unlike in India, here even clad inappropriately in leopard printed tights and a laced top, I neither felt intruded, threatened nor violated. There was no expectation of a heavy tip, instead just a sheer joy in helping out a foreigner, entering into their undiscovered land.

My faith in the Myanmar people was further reiterated a few days later as I lay by the pool at The Traders Hotel. I was still jet lagged and my daughter insisted on spending the afternoon by the pool. She gleefully splashed around as I lay disinterested glancing through 'The lonely planet'. A few seconds later, I saw that one of the hotel staff had quickly gone to her side to make sure she wasn't alone. He sat beside the pool in his tangerine colored polo and rust-brown shorts. I could tell he couldn't be anything older than 22 and entertaining a six year old was far from his list of duties or priorities. But he was there, crouching right next to her, giving her free swim lessons, fetching the paddle board for the umpteenth number of time and tapping her back as she accidently gulped a handful of the chlorine water? If this was DC, it would have cost me a hefty $30 tip and if it was India, I would have worried if he was nothing less of a perve. But not here. Despite its turbulent history, a strange sense of positivity, faith and trust surrounded me. 

I knew nothing about this serene, raw and spectacular city. My knowledge of the Myanmar cuisine, limited to the salty monk fish balls or Khao swe, I had at a local restaurant; it's language to mere two words, Min ga lar par (hello) and  Kyeizu be (thank you) that I had picked up from a collegue; Of its people, to the smiling longyi (the traditional sarong worn by both men and women) clad, sparsely mustached cab driver at the airport, to the Burmese girl with the thanaka ( a paste made from ground bark to protect the skin from the heat) smeared face selling fried quail eggs outside the Bogyoke Market or the friendly pool assistant who cheered on my little one as she showed off a new dive she had mastered. 

My knowledge of Myanmar was limited, hardly any. But it was enough and I knew I was going to be fine. I was home...Well almost!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Stuck between a nightmare and a dream! Reliving the Nairobi terror

By Aswathy Kumar

I'm stuck in between a nightmare and a dream
I'm paralyzed, Lord, I can't get free
Asleep or awake I just can't walk away
From all of my favorite memories
I'm stuck in between a nightmare and a dream
- Kyle Park

It was like any other saturday morning. The elaborate breakfast on the dining table of bacon, eggs and pancakes proved so. We were rushing. There was a 12 'o clock movie we wanted to catch. And as usual we were running late. 

My husband was in the shower and I could hear my nanny fussing over my daughter as she tried to tame her curls with innumerable butterfly clips. I was busy stuffing my bag with all the baby essentials.

Juice in case she gets thirsty
Biscuits in case she gets hungry
A jacket in case she gets cold
And a colouring book in case she gets bored

The day was going to be the usual. I could tell. First a movie at our favourite cinema hall, an extensive South Indian meal at Haandi Udipi, our favorite restaurant at the food court, a few hours of callously lounging around at the book store, sipping Java coffee and a quick stop at Nakumatt, the supermarket before leaving, to stock up on our weekly groceries.

As always the mall was packed. 'Now this is why I hate coming to this place. Parking is such a nightmare,' my husband complained as he made way between jam packed cars. I could not understand what he was stressing about. We came here every saturday and it was the same old story and we loved it anyway, with all it's chaos and charm.


For a change, we parked across the street, instead of our usual parking spot on the top level. There was something going on. I could see white tents adorned with colourful balloons and massive crowds gathered around. 'Must be something for kids,' I thought. I better not let my daughter see it cos she would want to spend the whole day there and I wasn't going to miss my movie.

Though I managed to steer clear of the tents, it was impossible to keep her away from the mini musical carousels that aligned one end of the food court. She had been here way too many times and very well knew where her favourite spots were. My husband made a face. The noisy rides that ate away all his stocked up coins annoyed him. 'We are going to miss the movie,' he warned me.

I knew I had to let her on the carousel. It was her favourite and not doing so would be criminal. 'Fine, I said but just one okay, while I go get the tickets,' I kissed her and my husband.

As I slowly walked away, I could see how ecstatic she was. My husband was loving it too, enjoying their little alone time together. Amidst the loud Katy Perry song that resounded in the background, I could hear the little tune the carousel made as it began to move up and down.I could see she was laughing now. Her tummy must be feeling ticklish and my husband sure must be adding to the fun by tickling it a little more.

That was the last thing I saw. Because then came darkness, a loud noise followed by a deafening silence.

I woke up in the middle of the night covered in sweat. And for the first time in two years, I felt glad that I woke up in my cold apartment in DC, rather than my cosy house back in Nairobi that till date, I had called my home. Both my husband and my daughter lay peacefully right beside me. There was no noise except their silent breaths and the sound of the cicada coming from outside. 

It was three days since I had first read about the terror that broke out at Nairobi's Westgate mall. All our friends back in Nairobi were safe and I was miles and miles away from the horror. Yet I couldn't sleep and the nightmares wouldn't stop. I didn't know why? But I felt like a victim, felt I was right there in the midst of it all.

                    (The mini musical play area at Westgate)

When I had declared my feelings to a friend, she had rebuffed my fears, saying these things could happen anywhere and that the world had seen even bigger tragedies. And yes it sure has. But then what was it about this particular incident that traumatized me so much? I wondered. 

Was it the fact that I knew each and every corner of this particular mall? That each corner be it the movie theatre, home goods store or book shop, held a special place in my heart. Was it because it was at this mall, I first saw my daughter jump on a trampoline, the first time I ever gambled at a casino, the first time I entered a ball pit and the place where I bought my very first piece of kazuri jewelry. 

Westage was the first mall we visited after we moved to Nairobi and I still remember the strange sense of relief I felt as I walked into the upscale glittery complex. I still remember the joy I felt as I saw a couple of Gujarati women clad in saris pass by me, how I felt when I heard them whisper in Hindi. The happiness I felt when I saw an American at the next table in the food court being served a massive paper masala dosa or the poster of my favourite Bollywood actor plastered across the walls of the fancy cinema hall. I was miles away from my home in India and yet I felt as though I had a little piece of it, right there with me. 

    (The food court that housed one of our favourite eating joints in Nairobi)

Maybe it was all these memories. The number of gossips and laughs shared with my darling friends Lubna and Zara, innumerable casino nights with Santosh and Gayatri or movie sessions with Lini and Biju. Maybe it was because a little piece of me was still left behind, stuck somewhere in between.

Maybe it was just the fear of 'what if' or 'what could have been' that haunted me. Maybe it was the fact that every time I saw a photo of the ongoing terror, I searched for familiar faces. No one looked familiar, yet I felt like I knew them. The man in the light blue uniform could have been the one who billed me at Nakumatt; the little girl holding the shopping bag could have been the one who smiled at my daughter, the first time she nervously entered the ball pit; the lady in the red apron coud have been the one who served me my very first cappuccino when I first arrived in the city. 

This was my home, my people and always will be.  
I don't know why but I feel like I cannot breathe
I feel so paralyzed, 
As though I am stuck somewhere between a nightmare and a dream...

 (A stop at  Nakumatt, the supermarket and a cup of java coffee to go was always a must before exiting the mall)