The People We Meet

Driving through Tsaghkadzor was an unforgettable experience.

We are in a white Honda Civic, driving through a snow covered stretch of what seems to be no man’s land. Daylight has dawned and the signs of devastations that followed the end of the soviet era are scattered all over the place. I stare out of the window, beyond brown rooftops, at a white wilderness. Mt. Ararat looms over the horizon – the only sign of our location – we are traveling somewhere along the Turkish border.

Amidst the rhythmic tremble of the Honda, is the clicking noises from my phone’s camera. The subject it would like to capture is the natural beauty that runs through the Turkish-Armenian frontier but instead, the photos reveal hazy silhouettes of giant Oaks and Pines; reminding me that the real is always best remembered in my mind’s eye.

Autumn and winter are colliding during my trip to Armenia. New Cherry blossoms are budding in the capital city Yerevan; while the mountains still look like a winter wonderland. Suddenly, the car jerks to a halt and I am stirred from my morning reverie. We have reached our destination – the beautiful Tsaghkadzor woodlands along the slopes of the Tegenis.

I step out and take in the breathtaking vistas of the majestic Caucasus Mountains. I can stare for hours but my guide Shushan motions for me to catch up with her. I slip my phone into my jeans and count the number of crunches my Nike’s make in the snow before I reach where she is. Back when Armenia was part of the USSR, Soviet athletes came to Tsaghkadzor (Gorge of flowers) to train for the Winter Olympics. In-between her narrations Shushan ensures that I begin to understand the intricate historical and cultural fabric of the country and the values of the Armenian people. It is clear that she does not want me to leave without understanding those whom she represents and so a common theme runs through her narratives – resilience. Resilience in the face of changing ideologies, resilience in the face of a macabre genocide and resilience as the country walks a tightrope between tradition and modernity.

Odds are, if you are a traveler, you have met some pretty interesting people over the years. Some memories of them are fleeting while others recur. Many times, when reminiscing, the memory of the people that I have met along the way will outweigh the memories of the destination itself.

My travel personality is a polar opposite to my regular one. When I am traveling I find myself to be outgoing, lively and social; when I am confined by routine, I am reserved, quiet, and introverted. Isn’t that strange? That said, I love to engage with people during my travels, meeting new people and traveling go hand in hand and any interaction, good or unpleasant, adds depth to my experience.

My first impression of travel in the Caucasus region was a lovely one, arriving in sunny Tbilisi in 2016, to an enthusiastic welcome from the immigration officers. A couple of nights later, I was on a coach to Batumi, drinking wine from a Styrofoam cup with three new friends who were part of my tour group. That experience still stands out for me but was only a little taste of what was to come as the people of Georgia, Azerbaijan (2016) and Armenia (2019) are some of the most warm and welcoming I have met anywhere in the world.

I quickly scribble some of these thoughts in my diary (so that I remember them when I am staring at my computer screen later), pull my gloves back on and look around for my guide. Shushan has already reached the top of the slope and is and is signaling me towards a narrow uphill path shaped in the shrubbery by the footsteps of previous climbers. I sigh dramatically and prepare myself for my second hike in 34 years. ‘Resilience’ I remind myself and make my way up the slope. It will be a while before I reach the top.

Some people have a way of making a permanent space for themselves in our memories, don’t they?

I will never forget the people I have met during my visit, Narine, Marina, Hovo, Amir, Narkek, Shelby, Shushan’s mother’s freshly baked Gata or my time in Armenia, even if I try.

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I did it! Dead Sea-rious!

47376641_10161171579730252_2573991943650410496_nFor someone who doesn’t know how to swim, I hobble bravely; barefoot across salt-encrusted rocks and slither into the cool waters of the sea. It feels so slippery on my skin, like oil – but it looks as clear as daylight. There is literally only one family around and the only sounds are the ripples I make and the laughter from the children. I can’t believe I have this magical place to myself and in under thirty seconds I am on my back, floating involuntarily along the shoreline. Excitement mingles with fear as I gaze up at the sun, in disbelief, I am floating in the Dead Sea.
Around me, the water glimmers in all shades of aqua and the mountains of Israel glow pink in the distance. A lone green sprite can, floats lazily by, the only other sign of humanity in this place and I find myself jealous that the can will end up in Israel, before I ever do.
I haven’t always wanted to visit the Dead Sea and float in its salty water. It’s not something that consumes one’s thoughts or plans. It just sort of, sits there in your subconscious memory box, piled up on all the wonderful things you hear and read about in life but may never get to experience firsthand. So, being here, experiencing the wonder of nature and the glory of Christ’s creation is a surreal experience for me. Words don’t seem adequate, but I will try anyway.

I began travelling in 2008 and have been to twenty countries since. Each one has been an experience like no other. Every time I see a mountain range, or walk through an ancient cathedral or marvel at a natural wonder I am humbled. It’s as if they’re looking down at me, staring me in the eye and saying ‘we’ve been around for thousands of years, we’re still here, and we’re still beautiful, who in the world are you?’
Travel has become my way of life. It’s how I originally discovered who I was, and is how I continue to discover who I am. While I have spent five years completing three college degrees, I believe I am truly educated because of travel.

I can see why the Dead Sea claims such healing properties, my skin already feels baby-smooth. Plus, floating is fun and my buoyancy makes me feel like a graceful swimmer even tough I’m pretty sure the laughter from the children was really their reaction to me trying to gain my composure in a very persistent sea. I chuckle giddily too, after all who would have ever thought I’d ever be here, doing this? Surreal, I tell you!

Dear Teacher

Yesterday, Indian educators everywhere celebrated ‘Teacher’s Day’ and as always, I began my morning by typing out WhatsApp messages to my own teachers – from high school, university and even to some who hold no educational qualifications and yet have taught me valuable lessons for life. Halfway through my fourth WhatsApp message I decided to write an open letter instead and dedicate it to the wonderful people who I have been privileged to call ‘My Teacher’s’.

Dear Teacher,

There are so many things I wish I would have said to you while I occupied a desk in your classroom, once I graduated, or anytime that I was a part of your life. You deserve to know how I felt every single day, but I didn’t always say it, not because I didn’t care but because I thought you already knew. But today, let me tell you exactly how I feel.

To me, you were everything rolled into one: teacher, parent, friend, and a kick in the pants when needed. I asked you to check my homework, wipe my tears, keep my secrets, and motivate me on my worst days, and you never failed to do all of that and more.

To the chubby kid who sat by the window, you were that kind voice when someone made fun or cracked a harsh joke, to the kid who struggled through high-school math, you were the gentleman with so much patience, to the reluctant back-bencher, you were the coach, pushing me forward till I found a microphone and then my voice. I can’t begin to thank you for playing all those roles because it has helped shape me into the person I am today. You will never know how much it means to me that you still take the time, even years after I have been out of your class, to check in or to celebrate my successes with me. Your impact on me certainly didn’t end when I left your class.

I will forever admire how you chose a profession that put countless others before yourself, and even with that, you always made me feel like I was the most important one. Truth be told, all your students felt that way. I will forever admire your spirit and your love of life. I also admire your integrity; you didn’t tell me how to have character; you showed me. I watched you do right even if it was hard. I watched you choose kindness when most others would have turned to anger, and I watched you work as hard as you could every day no matter how exhausted you were.

You, my teacher, will always be with me. I think of you when I am reminded of a lesson you taught me. I think of you when I make a decision in my own classroom and find myself wondering what you would have done had you been in my place,  I promise you – your legacy lives on in me.

Thank you for every hug, lesson, smile, piece of advice, and vote of encouragement. You were never “just a teacher.” In fact, most days you were my favorite part about school. You’ve cemented a place in my heart that can never be replaced. I should have told you all of this every day, but I just assumed you knew.

“Nothing is original” they say, and everyone has learnt from someone. How I deal with children today, is a combination of the methods and approaches I have experienced myself, with you. What came from whom almost becomes indistinguishable….but it is very important to me to acknowledge and pay tribute to your role in my development as a persona and as a teacher too.

Today, I think of myself as a effective teacher but I am fully aware that I am confident of this only because I stand on the shoulders of giants, giants like you.

Sydney

Sondering

There is a strange kind of calmness amidst a coffee shop’s chaos. The jukebox spins 90s pop songs as baristas brew and serve coffee blends in a perfect synchronization, as if it were a dance routine practiced to perfection. Around me, china cups rest dangerously close to the edges of plastic trays and silver spoons clink lazily against the edges of porcelain. The hubbub from humanity huddled in animated conversation fills the air as words mingle with aromas of coffee and grilled cheese and smoke swirls rise seductively from mugs of every shape and size.

For some, a busy coffee shop might seem like the worst place to try and get work done. Not for me though. When time allows, simply sitting at coffee shops is one of my favorite things to do – here the world slows down, personalities emerge and stories come alive. The books being read, the drinks being ordered, the conversations being had. People meet at a coffee shop for every situation imaginable: to interview for new jobs, to plan exits from old ones, to date and break up, to complain with disgust and to brainstorm with giddy whispers. Every visible detail serves as a spotlight of someone’s personality and sometimes character too. But, as if to tease, these things are never enough to tell their whole story.

Sometimes, you get a little more of a glimpse–while standing in line, waiting for a drink, sharing a table. Here, collisions are made and more details from stories unfold. This is also one reason I am addicted to travel – these collisions: chance encounters with interesting people enrich your life in subtle and sometimes unimaginable ways. Without these, the people you meet, the days you live, can get a bit circular, routine even. For me, anyway.

I’ve learned there is a word for this feeling – to sonder. Apparently, “sonder” is a fake word, and in fact more of an expression, or a realization. To sonder is to realize that everyone around you is living those same complex, dynamic lives that we sometimes tend to think is specific only to ourselves. How will tackle that specific problem? ………How do we handle work stress? ……I can’t wait for the weekend… What’s meeting tomorrow night going to be like? Is my promotion coming, or is it not? All these seemingly-personal musings and questions are going on around us, at all times. And we can’t see them.

Except at coffee shops, where if you close your eyes an imagine it, you can almost visualize the stories, you will see words drifting lazily, skimming the tops of heads and mixing with the lyrics of that Bon Jovi number that’s playing for the second time.

Sometimes, these intersections change your own orbit, providing new ideas, longer conversations, even friendships. If you’re like me and get lost in your people-watching, a coffee shop may not be the best place for professional output. But, with practice, I have found you can have both: a lazy bout of sondering while getting work done as well.

 

 

Blaming Starbucks Won’t Change Anything

I drink a lot of Starbucks coffee…a lot, and this past week I have been glued to my iPad reading all about the company’s recent PR nightmare.

Yes the story affects me, a terrible thing was done and yes, this an important conversation to have.  I could even boycott the brand like all of social media is urging customers to. But I won’t. While I understand and share the global anger over last week’s arrest of two African-American men at their local Starbucks; saying no to my Americano and mermaid cup is not going to resolve this deep rooted problem.

Sadly, the company currently faces its worst PR nightmare as people swear off its lattes and macchiatos. Protesters have appeared in public, on TV, inside stores, around street corners and on every nook of the internet. ‘Starbucks is Anti-Black’ and ‘Shame on Starbs’ tweets fill my feed. ‘Boycott Starbucks’ they all demand.

But here’s how I see it, Starbucks most certainly isn’t the problem. Deep rooted implicit racism is. It cannot be argued, that every day countless African-Americans are at the receiving end of implicit racial bias. Sadly their stories never get told, their experiences don’t make it to CNN and most certainly don’t take up space on your social media feed. These people probably deal with everyday racism routinely. If you notice the body language of the two men in the Starbucks video, you cannot help the feeling that this has probably happened to them before, it isn’t as big a deal to them as it was to the upper-middle class, white soccer mum who shot and tweeted the video. To them, racism is probably routine, and what happened, could have happened to them at any other location, restaurant, grocery store, school or medical facility in America. The circumstances change,  but the story never does. It’s merely coincidental that this time it unfolded at a Starbucks.

Months later when the public outcry has moved to the next big story,  America will still be a nation infected with the same idiocy with its elected President – a racist who continues to judge people’s intentions and worth from the color of their skin.

In all these years, it has never come to light that the company has a corporate culture of being condescending to its Black customers. If that is ever revealed to be true then Starbucks deserves what’s coming to it. Until then, what happened in Philadelphia, is the same as what happened to Trayvon Martin, it is also the reason why black actors rarely receive nominations at the Oscars and it is for this same reason countless other African Americans  fight everyday injustices. The only difference is their stories remain untold, perhaps snuffed out by sighs or tears into a pillow or over gloomy dinner-table conversations.

Yes this is an embarrassing moment for Starbucks, but the company will come out ok. On the other hand this is a decisive moment for America, an important conversation is taking place but I am not sure things will change any time soon.

So like many loyal customers across the world, I will wait and watch as the company initiates damage control, trains its staff and reviews its policies. But sitting here in the tanned leather recliner of my local Starbucks at Al Ain Mall, I am certain of this – racism is America’s problem to fix, and blaming Starbucks is not going to change anything.

Darkness Brings The Light Too

I, like many, got lost within the darkness of this past week. Watching news unfold of unimaginable horrors and horrific violence against a little girl – so tragic, the unnecessary loss of human life and the shattered worlds of all those who loved her. I sat in my room, shades drawn to block out the sun, and watched TV newscasters speaking to women and activists – the faces and stories of all the beautiful souls fighting for justice.
Lost within news like this, the world seems to grow darker somehow, doesn’t it? I know evil exists. I am not naïve. I’ve seen it firsthand. I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the depths of deplorableness humans can sink to, and the absolute devastation humans can do to one another. We have all seen it. Sadly, many of us have experienced it. Over the course of our lives, we will, at some point, be touched by it. Evil lurks next door to us; down the street, around the corner, one city over, or sometimes, under our own roof. It’s not just in other countries, other states or places we will never step foot in. It’s everywhere and strikes without warning. Evil changes humanity.

But I have come to see how evil also brings out the most amazing good this world has ever seen. Good this world desperately needs. Evil unintentionally brings Good to the forefront so that its light can scatter the darkness of all. Not in any grand, sweeping gesture. Oh, no. But the quiet, suddenly present good that shows because it’s the right thing to do. Light born from a darkness that threatens to overtake us, the good shows up in force to help, to heal and to love.

Yes, there is evil in this world. Yes, it demands and takes headlines, it overtakes our airwaves and generates millions of sound bites. News stories, photos all in real time make it feel like we are in the middle of a war of good vs. evil, and the evil is winning. And the truth of the matter is – we are. Sad fact, evil wins a lot. It does. Just watch the news, read stories online; you see it right in front of you every single moment of every single day. It draws you in, breaks your heart and if you are completely honest with yourself makes you feel some small token of relief that it wasn’t you. Then, the guilt overtakes you, and you are spinning down a road of an uncertain life now. Scared to do things you’ve always done because next time, it could be you. It could be someone you love. It could happen anywhere, at any time.

It’s true. It could.

There is so much good in this world, yet it is so easy to lose sight of. Until moments in time like what we have been living lately – when darkness shows the light of humans reaching out to other humans. Start where you are, with what you have inside of you, right now. Start with your neighbors, strangers at the grocery store or wherever in the world you find yourself. Stop judging people who are different than you. Stop letting your fear control your actions. Stand firm in your beliefs and live your life by them but, for all that is good in this world, give that same right to others.

Sometimes the darkness shows you the light. Sometimes within the darkness, you are the light. Love will always heal. Love will always be a way out. United we are a force to be reckoned with. But, we must first be open and willing to unite with others who live and believe and love differently than we may. Because if we don’t, if we fail to come together and listen and appreciate where others are coming from –evil will always win and all those lives lost will have been in vain.

We live in a world where we will always need to remain vigilant, aware of our surroundings and willing and able to defend not only ourselves but those around us as well. A sad but true fact. However, that being said, we also live in a world that is filled with amazing souls who do good  and who put as much love and light out as humanly possible.

Be a light.

The Eighties’ Child – Guest Blog by Melissa Payne

We, the eighties’ children, are a strange bunch. We long for the simplicity of the past and the technology of tomorrow. Born at a time when every house didn’t have a television and landlines were a mark of social status, we have seen cable television, the mobile phone and credit cards sweep the nation.
Born in pre-liberalisation India, foreign goods were scarce, and the thus the arrival of foreign relatives was a much waited for event. We know what it is, not to have, and what it means to own. For most of us born into the middle class at this time, we were taught early that life was hard. Caned and punished at school, we were taught not to fuss, but to overcome. When I look around at the millennials I know, I am struck by the quality of endurance I see. I am amazed at those who have struggled out of poverty and dysfunctional homes, to be stable individuals with careers and families. I am aware too, of the tremendous need that millennials carry for things to ‘be real’. We are unfazed by the spit and polish, by the ‘show’ that enthralled previous generations or the superficiality that stupefies the next. We long for that which is ‘real’. That which fulfills.
The millennial is tired today. Tired of strategy, tired of the constant packaging of hard truth to tickle one’s ears. Tired of empty schemes that don’t fulfill. Disillusioned by authority figures of the previous generation. When we see corruption, we will not have it explained away. We will not put our heads in the sand, we cannot close our eyes to the evil that stares us in the face. We cannot ‘unsee’ what we have seen. We cannot pretend it doesn’t concern us. We, cannot separate the message and the messenger. Instead, we must react, we must have an opinion. We must make change. We will have justice. This generation has ground in its heels and refuses to go quietly into the night. Don’t shut us down or count us out. Call on us that we may build with you. We have seen the promises and the pitfalls of the transitioning era. How good ideas and intentions ran aground, causing more damage than they did good. We have learned the bitter lesson that everything new is not good. We started out naive, but have seen much; much that has turned us away from the decision makers of the previous generation. We are aware that heroes have feet of clay and that the strongest have weak moments. Our champions have fallen off their pedestals and lie in the dust beneath… Yet, in the midst of all this, we hope. We hope that change is possible, that the tide will turn, that sleeping consciences will awaken and be appalled by bad things happening in good places. We hope that justice will be done. We hope for tomorrow.