Lighting the Spark

A day of temple hopping. As was common at the beginning of our adventure, we had gotten off to a late start. Chalk it up to jet lag, to the still unfamiliar pace of life on the road, to the need to decompress after two years of cultural assimilation, to being thrust once again into a foreign environment and the thrills and anxieties that come with it. Whatever the case, I felt a little disappointed that we would have less time than I would have liked to explore these cultural fixtures I still deemed mystical and mysterious. We planned to start the day visiting Pashupatinath, a large and famous Hindu temple to Shiva.The fee to enter the complex was steep for our modest budget, and Robin assured us it wasn’t worth the cost of admission. Apparently, we wouldn’t be able to see anything of interest anyway – non-Hindus were not allowed in the actual temple.In the interest of time, we decided to go instead to Bauddhanah, the temple that is considered the holiest site in Tibetan Buddhism. Again, I was disappointed at the setback. I smile thinking back at this now, of my idealism slowly transforming into anxiety, of my inability to just relax and be. In this journey, I learned so much about kicking back and letting yourself get swept up in the flow of events, but at this point I was still at the beginning of that personal transformation. I hadn’t yet learned to reside in that quiet center while the world around you is in utter chaos, so as we piled into a tiny minibus to make our way to Bauddhanah, I let the sounds and smells of the Kathmandu streets seep into my pores and feed my anxiety. Though I was smashed between staring and curious locals in the minibus (seriously, it was like a clown car), I felt as if I could burst apart. How did anyone survive the chaos? The only things keeping me together were Robin’s guidance and my long held western notions of what the focal point of Buddhism might look like. Of course, this temple would be beautiful. I had seen pictures of it before and was elated thinking I would be able to stand there, to physically experience it, to drink in its cosmic energy. The picture in my head was of a miraculously tranquil spot in the midst of a city, surrounded by knobby, curved trees and peaceful monks on promenade between hours of prayer and meditation. I imagined I would hear bells and singing bowls and chanting. Basically, I imagined a movie set. What we were faced with when we arrived was quite different. In my optimism, I found myself with tunnel vision, staring up at the gold point of the stupa, noticing the young monks in their blood red robes walking through the complex, drinking in the sound of chanting and drums from a nearby third story window.

Monks on promenade.  How very lovely.

Monks on promenade. How very lovely.

I saw what I wanted to see, what I expected to see, and edited out the rest. Mercedes, as more of a realist than myself, had a keener eye for detail. While I allowed myself to marvel in dreams and visions, I heard her quiet voice behind me. “It’s kind of sad,” she said. A jolt back to reality. “What do you mean?” I asked. “Well, this is supposed to be the pinnacle point of Buddhism, right? But even it has been overrun by consumerism. Look. There’s a pizza place right there.” I turned and looked then, with new eyes, at my surroundings. She was right. Across from this place, the supposed pinnacle point of a religion we all too often view with clouded judgements of mysticism, stood a pizza joint – a glaring reminder of the ever imposing west on eastern lands. To my right, a coffee shop, one of many. And all around us, gift shops. Suddenly, things looked different. The scrim dropped. What moments before had looked like a spiritual oasis was now an amusement park. My rose colored glasses had been smashed on the ground, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t still going to jump right in and be a part of the world around me. I made my way around the outside of the temple, making sure to ring every single bell there before climbing the short steps up to the stupa. Yes, I felt a little strange seeing small groups of foreign tourists observing as other foreign tourists dropped mats and began praying. The whole place was a bit of a contradiction. East and west, material and immaterial, humility and greed all met in this one place. But at the time, I didn’t process all of that. (And now, looking back, I don’t really mind it.) At the time, I was focused only on my inability to look away from the intimidating eyes that stared down at me from the stupa and my aching need to take a picture of myself next to them for posterity. As I walked toward those eyes, I found myself enraptured by the beauty of seemingly hundreds of strings of multi-colored prayer flags flapping in the wind. The pizza joint and other reminders of real life stood behind me, but pausing there for a moment to contemplate the incomprehensible worlds above me as reverent strains filled the air, I found that quiet peace that had alluded me, just for a second. I breathed in the moment to luxuriate in it just a bit longer before I turned and demanded Robin take my picture by the multitude of prayer flags.


Beautiful prayer flags flap in the wind.

Beautiful prayer flags flap in the wind.

The sun is filtered through prayers.

The sun is filtered through prayers.

All for the sake of social networking.

All for the sake of social networking.

Once we felt we’d gotten our fill of pictures, we made to leave the complex and head to the next temple, but not before stopping at that little coffee stand and getting a nice caffeine fix. Yes, it had been a little disappointing to see a coffee kiosk within the temple complex. Yes, at the time, something about it felt so wrong. But if you can’t fight it, you might as well join it, right? Now, a year later, my views on this have evolved to be slightly more complex. No longer does it only seem like a disheartening reminder of globalization. If the temple and coffee are both fixtures in the community, does it really matter that they are in close proximity to one another? Do we not also have holy sites in close proximity to restaurants and other establishments seemingly frivolous in the face of the divine? Maybe this wasn’t so strange. At the same time, shouldn’t we be able to designate a place as truly sacred, with nothing present that could distract from its reverence? Shouldn’t we be able to step outside of our busy city lives into an oasis of quiet meditation? And most importantly, if monks have an affinity for a particular coffee, does that coffee become sacred by association? But I digress. The last temple we’d planned to visit that day was Swayambhunath, also known as the Monkey Temple, a source of initial confusion on my part. Before reading much about the temple, I assumed it had acquired this nickname because it was dedicated to the Hindu monkey god, Hanuman. Imagine my surprise when I realized it was a Buddhist temple – one of the holiest temples in Tibetan Buddhism, in fact. I was soon to discover the source of the nickname. After a seemingly endless bus ride to the jungle outskirts of Kathmandu, we arrived at the base of the hill on which the temple was built. Due to our late start, we arrived with a little less than an hour left of sunlight, and as we hurried toward the excruciating set of 365 steep stairs that would lead us to the temple, we heard the screams of monkeys from the tops of trees on the jungle hillside. This nickname was becoming clearer. I had not yet learned what terrifying menaces monkeys actually are and was still operating on a Disney fed illusion of the creatures and thought, “Wonderful! We’re venturing into a jungle filled with hundreds of variations of Abu! Surely, they will be companionable creatures with reasonable teeth who would never dream of ripping my face off just because I looked at them the wrong way!” Silly me. Panting and exhausted, we reached the last of what felt like a thousand steps just as the sun was making its way below the horizon. The view over the jungle from the hilltop was achingly beautiful and, once again, I cursed our late arrival. This was clearly the most beautiful temple, and I could have happily spent an entire day there.

The only decent picture I was able to capture before light ran out.

The only decent picture I was able to capture before light ran out.

I decided to count my blessings as dusk painted the temple a muted and mysterious hue we could not have seen in sunlight. Of course, the lack of light didn’t allow us to take any decent pictures while there, but in some ways this is a blessing. The all knowing internet possesses pictures of this temple should I ever want to take a look, but the memory of golds and pinks of sunset falling on the stupa is more beautiful than any picture I have the ability to capture. As dusk turned to darkness, we wandered to an area where locals were lighting candles and praying. The tiny flames in the darkness of the jungle coupled with warm, inviting light of lanterns from nearby homes created the tranquil temple atmosphere I had hoped for. This time, no pizza joints or coffee shops infringed on our experience and I felt some mixture of awe, wonder and gratitude as I looked over the valley. Moments of quiet were punctuated by bits of laughter and unintelligible gossip of the locals as they sat outside to enjoy the cool evening air. Moments later, that tranquility would be replaced with a newfound fear of monkeys. It turns out that monkeys are not the cartoon character we’ve all come to love, but are instead malevolent and mischievous creatures with sharp teeth and a fierce look in their eyes. As darkness fell on the complex, the screams of the monkeys grew louder as they emerged from the jungle to take over the temple. In reality, there probably were no more than approximately 60-70 monkeys in the clan, but I will forever remember the view in the gray scales of film noir and exaggerate their population to number in the thousands. I started to get scared that I would do something to offend one of these creatures and it would bare its fangs, leaving my last memories on this earth of a terrifying Abu making to rip off my face. Unfortunately, the sudden presence of the monkey brigade blocked our exit from the less steep and easier back stairway, so we climbed back down the 365 steep steps we had ascended in the first place, giving thanks to any gods we could think of that we hadn’t been the victims of some sort of murder ritual in the primate clan. The counterintuitive lesson I learned? Coming back down is always more difficult than going up, especially when you have trails of fear at your feet.

Feeling content with the day of sightseeing and sprinklings of spiritual contemplation, we ended the evening back in Kathmandu, enjoying hours of conversation and laughter over momos and drinks. I reveled in the sweet realization that I was here, enjoying the backpacker life, experiencing new places and making new lifelong friends. And though I didn’t yet realize it, a spark in me had been ignited, a spark that had begged to be lit for years in journal laments of allusive adventure, a spark that would be fed by my curiosity and wonderment, a spark that would illuminate my truest self.

Nepal: The Living Goddess

Our initial crisis had been faced and solved.  It was time for our first (half) day of exploration in Kathmandu.  Per my request, Robin agreed to take us to Durbar Square in downtown Kathmandu, where I hoped to see countless temples, historical buildings and Nepali culture oozing from every corner. So far, everything around us was so very different.  Coming from post-soviet Azerbaijan, where the masses most often donned black (with the occasional deviation of a navy blue or dark brown), it was exciting to see the bright reds, yellows and oranges of Nepal.  In the spirit of the colorful culture, we decided to wear our recently purchased “crazy Turkish leggings” for our first outing.

It's almost like camouflage.

It’s almost like camouflage.

The buses were a confusing mess to us.  Characters we had never encountered heralded destinations we didn’t know were possible.  I felt a newfound respect for Robin that he would be able to navigate such a system and offered a silent prayer of thanks that he would be our guide. Luckily, Azerbaijan had groomed us for an overly crowded bus with 80% of the passengers gawking at our foreign appearance.  Even so, it was a little unsettling to be thrown back into the chaos of being the center of attention with no idea of what was going on around us.  Arriving at our destination in downtown Kathmandu, the mix of excitement and apprehension I felt was suddenly drowned out by a sensory explosion – the aromas of incense and fried treats lingered in the air while crowded streets boasted reams of people, each with his or her own story and destination. The high-pitched voices of Bollywood hits rang out, rivaled only by chanting monks and feverish chatter as residents went about their daily lives.  Knowing I would already stick out like a sore thumb with my white skin and blondish hair (not to mention the loud leggings), I wore my excitement proudly and allowed myself to soak in everything with giddy enthusiasm. Old buildings inspired flights of imagination while carefully painted signs non-verbally made their message clear.







Ohhhh myyyy!

Ohhhh myyyy!

Rough translation: "Peeing on temple walls is strictly prohibited, and if we catch you or your little dog doing it, we'll be super pissed. " (Pun intended.)

Rough translation: “Peeing on temple walls is strictly prohibited, and if we catch you or your little dog doing it, we’ll be super pissed. ” (Pun intended.)

High on anthropological curiosity, I couldn’t believe our luck when I realized we would be there in time to see Kumari, the living goddess. I had very briefly heard about this practice before, albeit usually with very negative and unapproving overtones. I guess that, in a sense, I stepped outside of the human experience for a few minutes and started to view everything happening around me as a spectacle, something so foreign to me that it would be mind boggling to contemplate it as reality. I insisted that we be present for the Kumari’s afternoon appearance.  Mercedes was apprehensive, but agreed.


Time for an educational break. The tradition of the Kumari (according the the all knowing Wikipedia) dates back to roughly the 17th century CE.  Kumari Devi is “the tradition of worshipping young pre-pubescent girls as manifestations of the divine female energy in Hindu religious traditions.” While there are many Kumaris throughout Nepal, the best known and most revered is the Royal Kumari in Kathmandu. According to popular legend, the goddess Taleju would visit King Jayaprakash Malla every night in his chambers to play dice and discuss the welfare of the country under the condition he tell no one of her appearances.  But one night, the king’s curious wife followed him to his chambers to see who he was meeting so often. The king’s wife saw Taleju, which angered the goddess. She told the king that if he wanted to see her again, or if he wished for her to protect his country, he would have to search for her among the Newari people, as she would be incarnated as a little girl among them. To this day, the Kumari is chosen from the Newari community through a rigorous selection process based on a number of requirements having to do with her purity and beauty.  For example, the Kumari must never have shed blood in her life, and as such, it is said that the goddess will vacate the body of the young girl should she shed blood during her appointment or when she has her first menstrual period.

The Kumari leads a vastly different life from that of her peers.  Because she is the incarnate of the goddess, she is required to live in the Kumari Ghar, a palace in the center of the city. Her feet may no longer touch the ground as they, along with the rest of her, are now sacred, so when she ventures outside of the palace she must be carried or taken in a golden palanquin.  Traditionally, the Kumari was not granted an education as she was believed to be omniscient, but in modern day, she is provided with private tutors and a limited number of playmates.

The practice of Kumari Devi is particularly fascinating to us in the west.  A number of organizations and individuals disapprove of the practice, claiming it is in violation of basic human rights. If you would like to read more about the Kumari, check out this wikipedia entry.  Educational break over.


We stepped into the courtyard of the Kumari Ghar, looking up at the balcony from which Kumari would grace us with her presence. An air of reverence mingled with curiosity filled the space.  After a short time, a man came out to tell us that all photographs and videos were prohibited at this time, as the Kumari was about to appear. Honestly, I don’t know what I expected.  I think I had this fantastical idea that a figure wreathed in divine light would glide onto the balcony and start making sweeping predictions about the fates of those who had come to revere her. But what I saw that day was a little girl.  A little girl dressed in the most luxe clothing and jewels.  A little girl who wanted for nothing, but whose sad and drooping eyes betrayed her. A little girl bound by duty. A little girl with a dying spark.  A little girl burdened with the weight of being a goddess.

Suddenly, the spectacle shattered. Reality returned to smash me in the face as a rush of confusing emotions began to radiate from my chest.  What had I just seen? Was that little girl happy?  Was the fate bestowed upon her one of honor, or was it a prison?  Was I looking at this with the misunderstanding that often arises in intercultural exchanges? Was this really as heart-wrenching as my gut led me to believe? What was in store for this little girl?  How would she continue her life when she was no longer the goddess? Try though I might, confusion did not make way for understanding, nor could anthropological curiosity quell the sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach.

“I didn’t like that,” Mercedes said.  “I didn’t like that at all.”

I guess I didn’t, either.

Quiet moments passed.

Then a question. And another.  And another.  Robin began to fill us in on the legends surrounding the tradition, which left me feeling even more confused than before.  I wondered what the Nepali people thought of this tradition.  I wondered if many of them even thought much about it at all. Mostly, I wondered how the Kumari herself felt about her fate.

I still think of her sometimes, the culture shock of that day forever fresh in my mind. I still imagine what her mysterious life must be like.  I still wonder how she feels about it. And I still ask myself if I’m being culturally insensitive in my feelings of disgust toward the practice.  But mostly, I just hope and pray that she is happy.  Though to me, she is in a gilded cage, I hope she feels free to fly.  Though I see her position as oppression, I hope she sees it as a divine honor.

To close out this sobering post, I’ve decided to share a little ray of sunshine. For some reason, I found myself infatuated with the  adorable goats that seemed to be lurking around every corner and took an unreasonable amount of pictures of them throughout our time in Nepal and India. It’s possible I have a real problem. (In my defense, some of them were inexplicably wearing shirts!  What?!  This will be addressed in a future post.)

So. I present the first in a very long series of stupid pictures of goats.  Until next time, dear readers…

This one is a bonus because it also has a baby. Yeah, I know. You can thank me when you're done squeeling.

This one is a bonus because it also has a baby. Yeah, I know. You can thank me when you’re done squeeling.

Nepal: Running Scared

After a few weeks of gluttony and unexpected snowstorms in Georgia, disheartening and enlightening realizations in Armenia, and abundant markets and unsettlingly accurate tarot readings in Turkey, Mercedes and I hopped a few flights to Nepal for the beginning of our Asian adventures. We were beyond excited to finally have reached Nepal, and we felt particularly lucky that we would have a local family to stay with for our first few days in the country. A good friend of my father’s from Nepal has a sister, brother-in-law and nephew that live just outside of Kathmandu, so he had arranged for them to host us and show us around the city for a few days. To us, this meant a great glimpse into the lives of locals, home cooked meals, and new friends. Both being fairly food motivated, we had made a goal for ourselves to have at least one home cooked meal in every country we visited, so we were particularly excited to start off our journey with some homemade Nepali food.

We arrived in Kathmandu in the evening and found our way to a makeshift, airport waiting area where we could meet our host, Robin. The nephew of my father’s friend, Robin is cheerful and full of life, and has a penchant for unusual and hilarious American slang. Of course, we were fast friends. He and his family welcomed us with hot, Nepali milk tea and hours of good conversation. We all felt so fortunate that we had connected so quickly and easily and went to bed looking forward to the Kathmandu adventures that awaited us the following day.

Taking selfies on the first day of knowing each other = Instant BFFs

Taking selfies on the second day of
knowing each other = Instant BFFs

The next morning, Mercedes wanted to go for a run. She invited me along, but I refused. Mercedes was in much better shape than I was, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep up with her. Besides, even though I like running, it took me a full year to feel comfortable enough to deal with the uncomfortable stares and judgemental looks that were part and parcel of a morning run in Shirvan, so I wasn’t particularly eager to battle those on my first day in an unfamiliar place. Mercedes didn’t share my hang ups, and she practically oozes confidence and sass, so while she went out to conquer the Nepali ‘burbs, I opted to remain inside and do a yoga routine instead. Now, Mercedes can easily destroy a 4 mile run. She will crush it without breaking a sweat while most of us are left in the dust. However, she doesn’t always have the greatest sense of direction, and getting lost while exercising in unfamiliar territory was sort of to be expected. (It had already happened in Georgia AND Armenia.) This didn’t seem to be a concern, though, because she’d just be running in a straight line on the one road that went right by the house. No big deal, right?

Wrong. In her defense, we had arrived after dark and hadn’t gotten a good look at the house. It wasn’t necessarily easy to distinguish, considering the Nepali aesthetic was completely new to us and the front door was hidden behind a gate. Still. Somehow, Mercedes managed to get lost shortly into her run. On our end, a minor worry eventually developed into panic. Here’s what happened, to the best of my memory…



TEN MINUTES IN: Robin is enjoying a great source of entertainment watching me attempt a yoga routine on the mattress rather than the cold, December floor. I’ve stumbled and fallen no less than five times already. (Believe me, yoga on a cushiony, soft, sinking surface is NOT easy.) Robin’s mother is making us breakfast while feeling concerned that something will happen to Mercedes.

TWENTY MINUTES IN: I’ve fallen off the bed at least ten times. Robin is asking me if this is my first time doing yoga. I resent the question and start to make a snide remark back but fall off the bed again instead.

THIRTY MINUTES IN: Robin’s mom comes downstairs to say she is concerned about Mercedes. I assure her that Mercedes usually runs for nearly an hour and that I’m sure everything is fine. She returns upstairs to continue cooking and wringing her hands with worry. Robin follows her.

FORTY MINUTES IN: Robin comes back downstairs to tell me his mom is very concerned about Mercedes. She keeps asking, “What if some boys got her and took her into the jungle?” Once again, I assure them that she usually runs for an hour or so and is probably fine.

FIFTY MINUTES IN: After falling out of a simple downward dog for the 500th time, I give up on yoga. Robin goes to his own room to take a phone call from a friend.

SIXTY MINUTES IN: Now I am starting to worry that we haven’t seen any sign of Mercedes.

SIXTY FIVE MINUTES IN: I burst in to Robin’s room and tell him we have to go look for Mercedes, asking, “What if some BOYS got her and TOOK her into the JUNGLE?!”

SIXTY SIX MINUTES IN: Robin explains what is happening to his friend on the phone, who responds with, “You have to go look for her! What if some boys got her and TOOK HER INTO THE JUNGLE?!”

SIXTY SEVEN MINUTES IN: Robin concedes that it is possible some boys got her and took her into the jungle.

SIXTY EIGHT MINUTES IN: It is decided that we need to change out of pajamas and go look for her.

SEVENTY MINUTES IN: I am frantically changing into jeans when my phone buzzes. I look down to see a facebook message from Mercedes explaining that she got lost and is now at an internet cafe. Robin calls the owner and figures out where she is. We set off to go get her.

NINETY MINUTES: We are all safely home. Robin’s mother shows her relief by serving us a heaping, delicious breakfast and continually sighing audibly.


Ten minutes into her run, Mercedes realizes two things. First, she isn’t going to run the full hour because she wants to get started exploring Kathmandu. Second, she has been so engaged in her beautiful surroundings that she has forgotten to take note of what the house looked like when she left. She figures it won’t be too difficult to find the house, as she was only running on one straight road, but when she turns around to go home, she discovers she has no idea where the house is. She is lost without a phone or any contact information. Not knowing what to do, she heads over to the neighborhood school Robin had pointed out to us from his rooftop. Imagine what it must look like when a sweaty foreigner in running clothes nonchalantly strolls into the school asking to see the English teacher. He, confused and apprehensive, asks what she needs. She explains to him that she’s gotten lost while running and needs help getting back home. “Who are you staying with?” he asks.

“Robin,” she replies.

“Uh huh. Robin. Well, do you know his last name?”

“Um, no.”

“OK. Do you know his address?”

“No. Sorry.”

Sigh. “Do you have his phone number?”

“No, I don’t know that either.”

“Well, what do you want me to DO?” He’s pretty exasperated at this point.

“ me?”

He asks her to wait while he makes a phone call. A few minutes later, a man arrives on a motorbike. The teacher explains that this is his friend, and he will take her where she needs to go. The problem with this, of course, is that she doesn’t really KNOW where she needs to go and only knows that the house is probably very near. The driver tells her to get on the back of his motorbike while she says she thinks the house is somewhere between their current location and the airport. (It’s actually only about two hundred feet away and nowhere near the airport.) She hopes she will recognize the house when they drive past it.

Fifteen minutes later, they have reached the airport. When they got on the highway, Mercedes had protested, saying they were going too far, but the annoyed driver didn’t listen and just told her not to worry. At this point, she is incredibly frustrated. She asks him to just take her back to the school, thinking maybe she can try again to find the house herself. When he takes her back to Robin’s neighborhood, she sees an internet cafe and asks him to drop her off there. She pleads with the owner to let her use a computer for free, hoping he will understand that she is lost and help her rather than giving her to some boys to take into the jungle. He agrees, and she sends us a message, praying that we’ll see it.



It was lucky that we got her message. Had we left merely 2 minutes earlier, we wouldn’t have seen it until much later and she may have ended up spending the day at the internet cafe while we frantically searched for her.

OK, so I know none of this was my fault, but my initial reaction was guilt. I thought to myself, “If I would have just gone on the run with her, she wouldn’t have gotten lost and this whole ordeal wouldn’t have happened,” or, “I should have known to write down Robin’s phone number for her!” But as her story unfolded, my feelings quickly progressed from guilt to incredulity (“WHY did you get on the back of a stranger’s motorbike?! He could have taken you into the jungle!”) to biting jealousy. Having been in Nepal less than 12 hours, Mercedes had already managed to have an exciting adventure while I had just accrued yoga bruises.

So what lessons did I learn from this ordeal? For one, it’s probably always a good idea to at least know the last name of the person with whom you’re staying. And if you’re planning to go out on your own in a place where you don’t speak the local language and most people don’t speak yours, either, perhaps you should have your host write his address on a piece of paper and keep it with you in case you get lost. Second, it’s probably a good idea to stick with a friend on the first day in an unfamiliar land if possible. There’s safety in numbers. And third, it’s apparently really easy to jump to the conclusion that your friend has been kidnapped by jungle boys.

But the most important lesson I learned?

When you confidently throw all caution to the wind and jump into life, you get to have crazy adventures where you meet random and interesting people and zip around the streets of an exciting foreign city on a motorbike while your boring friend stays home and, yet again, tumbles out of a half-assed yoga pose.

The Forbidden Land

I’ve debated whether or not to write this post for much of the past week. I almost decided to skip it, to tell a light-hearted and safe story instead and sleep soundly knowing I’d alienated and offended no one. But hey, what is writing if not risky? So I continue as planned with a disclaimer. Please keep in mind that I am offering observations and experiences from as objective a point of view as possible. I try not to choose a “side” in any conflict, and I absolutely abhor any perpetuation of hatred and prejudice. I will do my best here to give enough background information so that the average reader might get a clearer picture of context, but I do so understanding that I am not a scholar in this, and that international conflicts are far more complex than can be summed up in a paragraph. Please read this with an open mind and an open heart. And please, please do not make any assumptions as to what side of the conflict I identify with. I don’t identify with any side. Remember that though Azerbaijan is a second home for me and I will always and forever carry it in my heart, I am still an outsider, trying to process my own thoughts and feelings on the political issues at hand. By no means am I belittling any of the tragic stories of death and lives gravely affected by this conflict, only trying to sort through and express my own feelings. That said: The Forbidden Land.

Armenia. There it is, a word I avoided saying out loud for two years at the risk of offending others by its mere mention or starting a discussion I’m not really a part of. Modern disputes between Azerbaijan and Armenia date back as early as the early 20th century with confusion and fighting over the drawing of borders, but today, the major conflict is centered around a small region called Nagorno-Karabakh. Though NK is governed by the de facto independent state, the Nagorno-Karabagh Republic, the territory is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan. However, no Azerbaijanis currently live there, with those who formerly inhabited the area now living as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in other regions of Azerbaijan. This, coupled with some very violent episodes in which many lost their lives, is the main source of conflict and hostility between the two countries today. Because this topic is so deeply personal, it is a touchy subject at best and a forbidden topic at worst. You can learn more about these complex conflicts and the NK region here, here, here and here.

As you can imagine, I encountered many differing points of view in my time in Azerbaijan about this conflict whenever it would come up – which seemed to be very, very often. Some were filled with rage, hatred and a sense of duty to claim vengeance while others would look at me with sad eyes and lament that such a large conflict stood between two neighbors. Either way, everyone was ready for the conflict to be over, whether that meant reclaiming the land and remaining hostile toward one another or coming to some kind of agreement and becoming amicable and friendly. I can’t say which point of view is ‘right,’ as I’m not really involved in the conflict and my friends and loved ones haven’t been directly impacted by it. Being a traveler and considering myself a citizen of the world, I really wanted to go to Armenia. I truly believe that the bigger conflicts of governments do not change the average person – that in all actuality, our similarities vastly outweigh our differences, that my enemy wants the exact same things I do – to laugh, to eat, to fall in love, to share blissful moments, to create, to smell sweet flowers, to be near family, to sing, to dance, to run free. Maybe it is because of this that I felt some kind of obligation to go to Armenia and see even just the smallest taste of it for myself. Maybe it is because of this that Mercedes and I decided to start our journey with a few days in Armenia.

It was December, which meant the weather could be cold and unpredictable. This, coupled with a strong desire to get to Asia as soon as possible, ruled our decision to spend only a few days in Yerevan without venturing into other regions. Mostly, we just wanted to be able to say we had been to Armenia and could confirm that everyone was an appropriate hue, was without devil horns and was not sacrificing hordes of babies in the streets. Our time there was short but entertaining. We surfed someone’s couch (officially) for the first time. We walked the streets of the city in the brisk weather. We enjoyed looking at art and cultural artifacts. We sipped on Brandy and saw the inner workings of how it’s made. We gazed upon Mount Ararat from the site where St. Gregory The Illuminated was imprisoned in a pit for 13 years. (And we went into that pit and marveled at anyone living there for 13 days, let alone years.) We sipped white wine while listening to excellent live jazz. Most exciting, we met our first traveling friend, Stefano, an adorably hilarious and goofy guy who inexplicably sent shivers down our spines when his sweet tenor voice changed to a rough baritone as he answered the question of nationality with, “BRASILIA.” No, nothing we saw in Yerevan was particularly amazing or exciting. (With the exception of Ararat. That was pretty cool.) Honestly, it looked a lot like our surroundings for the past couple of years and didn’t feel new enough to really impress us. But we did manage to learn a few things and we had a great time running around town with Stefano and teaching him stupid and mildly inappropriate slang, like “pork sword” and “whitey tighties” as we shared travel stories.

Huggin' trees around the world. That's how I roll.

Huggin’ trees around the world. That’s how I roll.

OMFG really super delicious burgers.

OMFG really super delicious burgers.

The adorable Stefano, eating burgers and stealing our hearts.

The adorable Stefano, eating burgers and stealing our hearts.

In front of Mount Ararat.  It's, like, famous and stuff.

In front of Mount Ararat. It’s, like, famous and stuff.

Something cool about Yerevan is that they have this big statue of a cat.

Something cool about Yerevan is that they have this big statue of a cat.










Mmm. Brandy tasting...

Mmm. Brandy tasting…




Here’s the kicker. What struck me the most about Armenia (or at least Yerevan) was how similar it was to Azerbaijan. In fact, the apartment we stayed in was fully equipped with the same couch covers and sparkly wallpaper I’ve seen in numerous Azeri homes. The foods were undeniably similar. And though the music had some differences, to the undiscerning ear it would be difficult to tell them apart. I found myself wondering if this is what it would look like should Wyoming and Nebraska engage in a brutal conflict with one another. A friend recently said to me that he believes most prejudice and hatred comes from our closest neighbors. I guess this is just another example in a long list that maybe he’s on to something.

For me, the highlight of our time in Armenia came on our last night there when we had the opportunity to go to a couchsurfing meeting and talk to a diverse and interesting group of expats, travelers and Armenian couchsurfers. The Armenians in attendance were very interested and curious to hear about our time in Azerbaijan and about the Azeri people, much as my Azeri friends would undoubtedly be curious to know about my very, very short time in Armenia. Somewhere in the midst of the conversation, I had the privilege to hear one young man’s story of how his family was affected by the conflict. They had been ethnic Armenians living in Baku when all hell broke loose and had to leave behind all they knew to go back to Armenia and start from scratch. It was a sobering story, one similar to those I had heard for two years, but with a different cast of characters. As I sat there talking over pints with new friends from around the globe, I wondered what the world would look like if people were forced to blindly communicate with one another – with no knowledge of heritage or ethnicity – and only told about common interests. Would the world look different? Would we all be more loving and open? I wondered why we commit such crimes toward one another. I wondered why on earth we haven’t yet evolved as a species when it no longer serves us to judge based on outward appearance and ethnic divisions. I wondered how we could be so focused on conflicts and hatred with the knowledge that we are but a miniscule and lowly speck in the grand scheme of existence. I wondered how it is so difficult for us to see each other by the ball of light that shimmers and trembles inside of each of us with all the intensity and terror of the universe. And then my head and heart started to hurt, so I stopped wondering and ordered another pint.

I don’t have an end to this story. I don’t have a resolution to offer. I’m tempted to ask why we can’t all just get along already, but I know it would be met with hundreds of answers of complications and ways I “just don’t understand.” I guess they’re right. I guess I don’t. I realize that I am the young idealist who entertains wishful thinking that things can and will get better, who holds out that maybe there’s still hope for us to not completely screw everything up, whose line of thinking is deemed unrealistic and childish. Honestly, I don’t care. Though my few days in Armenia were punctuated with laughter and warm moments between new friends, what it really left me with was a heaviness in my heart at the inadequacies of humanity. And that childish idealist in me is struggling daily to make sure that heaviness doesn’t take over the hope I still carry — a hope that we may all find love, peace and friendship, a hope that wishes freedom for the Azerbaijanis and Armenians I hold dear in my heart.

My Exit Music, Please

My departure from Azerbaijan was less than graceful. Rather than the bittersweet goodbye that I expected, Azerbaijan decided it would be more fun to make our final moments together a giant shit show. Let me back up.

Mercedes and I were incredibly excited to start our travels. We’d been calling each other every few days for the past month or so, partly to once again go over what we were packing but mostly just so we could squeal at each other about how AWESOME this journey was going to be and how COOL it was going to make us. We didn’t want to waste any time getting started, so we decided we’d take a night bus to Tbilisi, something we hadn’t been allowed to do before due to the “no travel after dark” rule, as soon as we were allowed to leave. No hanging around Baku for a few extra days for us. In the weeks leading up to our departure, my anticipation was growing rapidly, even through the seemingly hundreds of teary goodbyes. Anticipation and excitement aside, leaving Shirvan was difficult. At best, I was a little emotional. At worst (and probably more accurately), I was a complete wreck. I sobbed as my sitemate and I hit the road to Baku for the last time, much to the confusion and dismay of our taxi driver.

My last few days in Baku were filled with paperwork, more goodbyes, the tying of loose ends and the final paring down of belongings to what would fit in my pack. Finally, it was time to leave. I had managed to fit everything into my pack but a big ziplock baggie of the medicines from my Peace Corps issued medical kit and some peanut butter breakfast bars my expat friend had made for us. (As a side note, peanut butter is difficult to obtain in Azerbaijan and even the smallest jar will set you back $6-7. A gift of peanut butter is not to be taken lightly.) We crashed onto our bus in a fit of giggles, nearly hysterical in our realization that the long-awaited journey was starting. NOW.

As you can see, we are ecstatic to be leaving and were probably also a source of entertainment for other passengers.

As you can see, we are hyper and ecstatic and probably also a source of entertainment for other passengers.

As visions of peanut butter breakfast bars danced in my head with the many imaginings of what was to come, we finally settled down and drifted off to sleep. We were awoken by the bus driver when we reached the Georgian border. Now, I had crossed this border twice before, and with the exception of the straight-faced and angry soviet looking Azerbaijani passport officers, it wasn’t an entirely unpleasant experience. And sadly, what was about to occur wasn’t even close to the most unpleasant border crossing into or out of Azerbaijan, but that’s a story for another day. In the past, I’d disembarked, walked through each border and the bandit ridden no man’s land in between, and then hopped back onto my bus for the short ride into Tbilisi. Naturally, I assumed that is what would happen this time, too. Somehow in the confusion of false assumptions and early morning crankiness, Mercedes left her brand new travel pillow on the bus and I left my bag of medicines and the majestic peanut butter breakfast bars, thinking that in 20 minutes we would be back on our bus and munching on a delicious breakfast on our way to Georgian adventures. (Spoiler alert: The above picture is the first and last we have of the infamous travel pillow, may it rest in peace.)

We started to realize that something was different from anything either of us had heretofore experienced at a border as we tossed our packs onto our backs and approached the angrily bland border crossing station. Apparently, everyone else and their mother had also wanted to leave Azerbaijan at the crack of dawn on that day. In reality, there were probably 100 people crammed into this small room. But since we often remember an exaggerated version of our actual experiences, I’m going to go ahead and say there were 2,347 people all waiting to go through the 2 open lanes. And because making an actual LINE would be unheard of and preposterous, everyone had instead situated themselves into a giant clusterfuck, replete with pointy black shoes and babushkas galore, their scarves and wool socks the only spots of color in a sea of black.

I totally stole this from a google search and will probably get in trouble for it, but I think it is a fairly accurate representation of the little old ladies filling the room.

We took a minute to scan the situation in front of us, realized we may be there longer than 20 minutes, and settled in for the long wait. As we slowly inched forward, somehow more and more people managed to pour into the already crowded room, leaving us crushed and trampled. Everyone seemed to be in a giant hurry, and rather than approaching the border in an orderly fashion that would allow everyone to get through quickly, the young men instead resorted to pushing each other (and us) and throwin ‘bows. I’m NOT exaggerating, friends, when I say that we were being trampled. Somehow, the old women were immune to this, marching directly to the front of the line as if they owned the place, and no one questioned it. Oh, the power. Anyway. Somewhere between hour 1 and 72 of waiting (I lost track), we had somehow managed to inch our way almost to the front of the masses. If you’ve ever experienced a mosh pit at a concert, that’s kind of what it felt like at the front of the line. No one actually enjoys it, but somehow everyone allows it to keep happening. Why is beyond me. Finally, we had been pushed to our limits. I was sick of being pushed. I was sick of being harassed. I was sick of hearing the things the group of young Azeri men next to us were saying about us, not knowing we could understand them. At that point, I completely lost it. Luckily, this was one of those times when I suddenly become startlingly fluent in Azeri in my frustration rather than losing any and all ability to communicate whatsoever. To be able to finally pass through the gate and leave Azerbaijan, I ended up having to shame that group of young men beside us. Imagine their shock when they realized we spoke Azeri. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it was something along the lines of, “Look at how you are showing your country to foreigners. Shame on you! People will think that Azerbaijanis are inconsiderate and rude. Is that what you want the world to think of Azerbaijan?”

Surprisingly, it worked. We got through. My last impression of Azerbaijan was the angry-looking, post soviet faces looking up at me as they stamped my passport. Whoopee. As the smiling, friendly border guards on the Georgian side stamped our passports and welcomed us to Georgia, we felt relieved to be done with the ordeal and went outside only to find that our bus had left without us. This wouldn’t have been an issue, since the driver of another bus had been told to take us in to Tbilisi, except that we left those few things on our bus. I panicked a little. My anti-malaria pills for India had been in that bag, which is what I outwardly said I was most concerned about. In actuality, I was incredibly upset that the peanut butter bars were gone. Peanut butter bars. PEANUT. BUTTER. BARS. (I know that all you PCVs out there will totally get this.) All through the ordeal of crossing the border, I had told myself, “Well, at least there’s peanut butter at the other end of this…”

At this point in my life, having finished the months of travel, I’ve had enough real life lessons in non-attachment to probably not care if my peanut butter bars were lost. (Though it’s hard to say, because…peanut butter.) But at the start of this journey, it was oddly devastating. We managed to find a couple of Azeri guys on our bus who spoke Georgian, explain the situation to them, and thought we had worked out a plan that we would wait at the bus station in Tbilisi and the driver would pass off our stuff from the other bus to someone else who would then bring it to us. Sounds complicated. Wasn’t, really.

We ended up in a little city bus stop near the main station, where we had been told to meet the driver, and plopped down on a bench to wait for our delivery. Thirty minutes passed. Then forty-five. Then ninety. I have to say, if there’s anything that PCVs learn to do really well, it’s to wait patiently. After 3 hours of waiting, we finally got in touch with the guy that was supposed to be helping us. He said he’d investigate and see if he could figure out what had happened and shortly afterwards, he called us back to tell us the driver had gone to the bus station and didn’t see us. I told him we’d been sitting right where he told us to wait the entire time and were pretty hard to miss. Not a lot of American girls sitting in Georgian bus stations with giant packs next to them. The story then changed and he told us the driver saw all the medicines in the bag, was frightened of them, and threw everything away. “I guess it’s not your lucky day,” he said. No, sir. No, it was not. I’m skeptical that our things were thrown away, unless thrown away meant ‘taken home.’ I was near tears, hoping that at least whoever ended up with the peanut butter bars would appreciate how wonderful they were and rueing that I hadn’t eaten one before our departure.

Dejected and exhausted, we left the bus station and finally made our way to our hostel. Our journey had started off with a frustrating situation, but after settling in at our hostel we were finally able to get out and enjoy a little of Tbilisi. As we sat with our feast of badimjani, lobiani and khinkali and a very large carafe of Georgian wine in front of us, life seemed a little sweeter, and we once again felt optimistic about the adventures that awaited us.

The misadventures of the morning were over. The reality of now being RPCVs (returned Peace Corps volunteers) and a huge sense of accomplishment set in. We had made it out of Azerbaijan alive, and we were finally starting on a grand adventure that would offer fits of giggles, frustrated tears, awe inspiring sights, incredibly rich experiences and a heaping dose of unintended self enlightenment and growth.

The journey had begun.

Taking an Azeri style photo with the unusually tall and redheaded Azeri dude who owned our hostel.  He had a penchant for singing and dancing in the streets while walking on his way to pay bills, much to the amusement of us and everyone else on the street.

Taking an Azeri style photo with the unusually tall, redheaded Azeri dude who owned our hostel. He had a penchant for singing and dancing in the streets on his way to pay bills, much to the amusement of us and everyone else on the street.

Mercedes discovers that the Georgian "Snickers" bars are NOTHING like the real thing.

Mercedes discovers that Georgian “Snickers” bars are NOTHING like the real thing.

I'm pointing to some random ruins. Cool.

I’m pointing to some random ruins. Cool stuff probably happened there.

The beautiful fall colors of Tbilisi.

The beautiful fall colors of Tbilisi.

The Dreaded Readjustment: Or…why I’m not good at air conditioning

The blog is dead, long live the blog. Or…something like that. Yes, just as some other famous figures in history have returned from the other side, so too shall this blog be resurrected. Thus sayeth the internet. Well, OK. Perhaps it was never really dead. Perhaps it was only abandoned, whimpering and waiting for someone to just come POST something on it already. Poor forgotten blog. He’s been whining and crying for me to pay attention to him every time I open a browser, saying all he really wants is to be cared for and loved while I blatantly disregard him and look at pictures of cats. “Shut up, blog. Can’t you see this kitten is riding on a vacuum?!” I say. “But..but…I’m LONELY! And unfulfilled!” he’ll respond.As far as blog feelings go, I hear lonely and unfulfilled are particularly strong and incapacitating.

But I digress. Yes, the blog will return and take a new shape. Of course, I’ll write some more about Peace Corps and the misadventures I face in America as a somewhat recently returned volunteer, but I also plan to finally share some of the crazy stories I collected while traveling post service. Check back to read about a chakra cleansing in Nepal, getting stuck on a mountain in Sri Lanka, cycling through ruins in Cambodia, acquiring my first life regret in Hawaii and much, much more.

Wow. I can feel the future excitement and anticipation from readers positively humming around me like a fallen power line.

So much ground to cover, so many stories to tell. But today, it’s time for me to finally address that dreaded time period in the life of any Peace Corps volunteer – readjustment. Oh yes, readjustment. A quick google search will tell you that the actual definition of readjustment is “the act of adjusting again (to changed circumstances).” However, Peace Corps roughly defines readjustment as, “Ha ha, good luck in America, you’re super weird now and you should probably just accept that you’re going to cry in every grocery store you go into. Also, everyone’s going to ask you weird questions and not be able to relate to you and let’s all talk about our feelings now.” Or at least that’s about how it was defined for my group in our “Close of Service” conference.

You know, they weren’t exactly far from the truth. I do freak out in grocery stores. Often. I mean, all of the produce LOOKS the same and is super shiny and waxy, 80% of the products in the store are pre-packaged, and probably 50% of what you can buy is just unhealthy crap that we throw into our mouths as fast as humanly possible while watching horrible reality TV. OK, I may be exaggerating a little, but that is certainly how it feels to go to the grocery store. And as far as being super weird is concerned? Not only do I find myself slipping up and using Azerish slang with people who have no idea what I’m saying, I also can’t stand air conditioning anymore and have some strange aversion to many modern conveniences. Great. The most surprising thing, though? I was expecting a LOT of questions. A lot of stupid questions.

“Are there cars in Azerbaijan?”

“Was it scary being surrounded by Muslims?”

“Don’t they sacrifice babies there? I swear I read on the internet/saw on TV/heard from that homeless man on the corner that they definitely sacrifice babies there.”

And while I DO see a lot of ignorant crap on social media or elsewhere about Islam, here’s the kicker. I really prepared myself for the many weird questions people would ask. I made a conscious effort to equip myself with some good answers that would both interest people and teach them something new about Azerbaijan and the post soviet block. What I didn’t prepare myself for, though, was NO questions. Sure, there have been a few here and there, but for the most part, people don’t really seem to care that much. I find myself screaming in my head, “Wait a minute! I just had this amazing and life changing experience that shaped and molded who I am at this moment in unfathomable ways! Don’t you want to hear every detail?!” Well…no. The barista making my latte doesn’t want to hear every detail. Unlike the old women on marshrutkas who insisted on asking any personal question about me they could dream up (How much money do you make? Are you married? Where do you live? Are you a virgin?), the barista has her own things to worry about. I’m not unusual or unique or special to her. I’m just another person in line, waiting for her to make my coffee. In some ways, it’s disappointing to not be a superstar anymore. I find myself missing the stares of disbelief when I go running. I miss being told I’m pretty all the time. I even kind of miss people laughing at me when I commit some faux pas. At least they were paying attention. And though friends are well intentioned, most of them aren’t really interested beyond the 5 minute elevator speech and formalities, nor can they quite understand the things I’d want to talk about should we have an in depth discussion without having experienced it themselves.

So what do we RPCVs do to cope? We just keep our mouths shut. We stay quiet and bitterly realize that as much as people try and as much as they want, they just aren’t going to get it. Not 100%, anyway. We wait until those wonderful moments when we can connect with other RPCV friends, let loose and be the weirdos we’ve become. No need to explain why I’m suddenly sobbing inconsolably into my guacamole, saying how wonderful and terrible it is and blathering on in some peculiar foreign language – they just get it and are probably sobbing and blathering right along with me. They, too, feel like foreigners in their homeland. They, too, are trying to navigate the long, monotonous process of adjusting to life in America.

None of this is to say that I, personally, haven’t been blessed with an amazing family and group of friends who, even when they don’t quite get it, are sensitive and supportive and do their best to make me feel comfortable and at home. They have put up with my impetuous outbursts. They have hugged me when I’ve felt overwhelmed. They have smiled and laughed with me as I’ve marveled at the brilliance of washers and driers.

So where is this going? What’s the point of this? Honestly, I’m not sure. Maybe there is no point. Maybe I’m just always going to be that weird girl who has to put on a sweatshirt whenever the air conditioning is turned on. Maybe I’ll never quite get used to life in America again, and maybe there are parts of my Azerbaijani identity that will stubbornly refuse to change and will stay with me for the rest of my life.

What I can say is that I’ve managed to come up with my own definition of readjustment:

Readjustment is a wild, relentless, head-spinning, mischievous, dirty little bitch who, whether through tears or laughter, will take you on the ride of your life and open your eyes to new perspectives on boring and formerly familiar situations. And when you look at it that way, I guess I should just enjoy the ride, shouldn’t I?

What was your scariest moment in Peace Corps?

Even though I have finished my time in PC, I am going to try to finish writing about all of the blog seeds that Dad sent me.

This is something I have avoided writing about for a while, and I warn readers that the story is a bit graphic at times. I’d also like to add the disclaimer that every country has its problems, and the things I will mention here are not a complete picture of Azerbaijan.

My scariest moment in Peace Corps came after a relaxing and enjoyable weekend in the village. A group of us had gathered to celebrate the birthdays of two volunteers and spent the weekend cooking, making music, playing games, and singing around the bonfire in the village home of one of the volunteers. This particular volunteer is quite possibly the most isolated of our entire group, as she has to walk upwards of an hour to reach the road out of her village and then hitchhike to get in to the city/region center. No buses or taxis here. This level of isolation was a cause of great respite for those of us visiting, and we were all disappointed to leave. When it came time for all of us to return to our own sites, we decided to walk out of the village together and see what marshrutkas we could catch. The fall weather was pleasant and we looked forward to the leisurely walk, stopping along the way to pick pomegranates from renegade braches and slowly eat their seeds as we went. As we came near the halfway point of our walk, one of the men from the village began to follow us. It appeared that this man had down syndrome, was incredibly strong, and quite possibly drunk. He began to talk to the one male in our group in Russian and ask about the women. We wondered if he thought that we, as foreigners, were ‘ladies of the night’ and wanted to inquire about our cost. We were careful to keep a watchful eye on him because of his brute strength and drunkenness and tried to hurry our walk out of the village and get to the road as quickly as we could. As we continued, a car came up on the horizon, presumably someone returning home to the village after a morning in town. As the car approached, the man seemed to be angry about something. He froze in the road and slammed his hand down on the hood of the car to stop it from driving by.

At this point, everything seemed to go in slow motion for a minute. I turned to see what had happened and saw him looking at his arm in shock, the blood spurting from major veins and his hand hanging limp along his arm, broken at the wrist. His hand had nearly been severed, and as he stared in disbelief at blood and bone, I’m not sure the pain even registered until his mind could comprehend what had just happened. There is a kind of macabre humor in a traumatic experience, and my first thought was, “how strange. That looks exactly like a tacky Halloween decoration from Target.” I’m sure I only stood there frozen for a second or two, but it felt like an hour as a strange kind of laughter bubbled up from deep inside of me at the absurdity of life. Before this laughter had a chance to surface, however, time no longer stood still as the man collapsed to the ground and I heard my friend scream behind me. Suddenly, everything sprang into motion. One of the girls was impressively calm under pressure and rushed to this man’s aid. We happened to have an extra t-shirt along and tossed it to her as she made a makeshift bandage and tourniquet on the fly, meanwhile calling our security officer and trying to find someone to call a doctor. After a few minutes, the car turned around and came back to the scene of the injury. A woman stepped out, told the man to get up, and tried to lift him by his arms into the car. We argued, saying they needed to call a doctor, that he had lost a lot of blood, and that they shouldn’t move him until help arrived. But rather than agree with us or listen to what we had to say, she laughed. She laughed at us for caring, laughed at us for being scared for this man, laughed at us for wanting to call a doctor. I understand that everyone reacts to a traumatic experience differently, and I imagine it must have been just as devastating for her, if not more, due to the fact that she was in the car when the accident occurred. Because of this, I can forgive her for the way she reacted to us. What I can never forgive this woman for, however, is the way she reacted to the man who was hurt. As I mentioned before, this man had downs syndrome. As he lay there, losing blood and whispering for his mother, this woman laughed at us and wondered why we were so concerned, saying, “nevermind, he’s sick,” and pointing to her head. Another volunteer asked, “Is he not a person?” She flippantly responded, “Oh, yes, he is…but he’ssick. He’s sick.” And again, she dramatically pointed to her head for emphasis.

I was completely appalled. All I could think was, “I am going to watch a man die in front of me today.” And amidst the fear of this happening, I felt a rage and hatred toward this woman. How could she not even think of this man as human? To this day, I have to tell myself that maybe she didn’t understand the gravity of the situation. Maybe she didn’t see the amount of blood lost or the bone protruding from the man’s wrist. Maybe she didn’t hear him asking for his mother. I can only hope this is true, because if she knew all of these things and still acted so shockingly cavalier, my faith in the innate goodness of humanity would undoubtedly be shaken.

I am pleased to say that shortly thereafter, the brother of the village doctor arrived and they moved the man into the back seat of their car to take him to medical help. I am even more pleased to say that he made a full recovery. However, the whole experience left me emotionally bruised in a number of ways. For one, it was terrifying to have mortality so blatantly waved in my face. I am young and don’t wish to think of the fragility of life just yet. For another, it was incredibly disappointing to see the lack of basic first aid knowledge as well as the indifference to those with mental handicaps. I would never claim that there is a complete sensitivity, understanding and acceptance of these people in the United States, as I know they still struggle daily to be accepted as a valuable part of society. However, I feel confident enough to say that at least we have come to a place where these people are no longer seen as anything less than human. It was shocking and heart wrenching to hear this woman speak about this man as if in her opinion he was on the same level as a street dog and served to strengthen my conviction that education is the most important thing needed to make this world a better place.

I thank god every day that I didn’t watch a man die that day. I thank god that I was born into a place privileged with a wealth of knowledge and education, and I pray that one day, even the smallest village might be blessed with the basic education I have so apathetically accepted.