Jordan in pictures and words (pt.2 aka Petra)

 I am going to start this by being totally candid. Everything I knew about Petra up to last month, I only knew because in high school I had a friend whose older sister's name was Petra and it intrigued me. I remember meeting her and scrambling home to look it up in an Encyclopedia because, yes, it was long enough ago that I didn't have home internet and Wikipedia. So that was my first introduction to this magnificent place... fast forward fourteen years and I found myself with an unexpected extra day off in Jordan. I originally didn't plan on going to Petra at all because I thought I should take two days there (which I didn't have) but then I found out it could be done in a day trip from Amman. Then I didn't plan on going because it seemed like it was really expensive and I wondered if I would feel like it was worth it. I was completely and utterly wrong and in retrospect would even pay more if it helps to conserve the site.

 Petra is an ancient city that was probably established around 6th century BC (!!) by nomadic Arabian tribes. Not only was it a place for trade, but it was also a Holy Site where sacrifices took place and over 500 tombs were carved directly into the beautiful sandstone. It was most populated around the time of Christ then slowly trade routes moved. It underwent a brief revival but eventually was essentially 'lost' to all outsiders. It remained a secret place until the early 1800s when a European explorer, disguised as a Muslim holy man, found it by saying he was vowed to make a sacrifice at the tomb of Aaron. He heard that to get to that tomb you had to pass through these ancient ruins hidden away in Wadi Musa.  He was allowed in and therefore essentially brought Petra back into the known world. I couldn't stop thinking about this piece of history as I entered into the ancient city. It is really easy to imagine how it must of felt to him, coming through this long beautiful gorge and laying eyes on The Treasury. Then after every turn there are more and more tombs carved high into stone, places of High Sacrifice, monasteries, an amphitheatre... it is indescribable so I will do my best by showing pictures but nothing can ever do it justice.

When you enter into Petra you start by walking through the gateway to the Siq, this is where you see the first tombs and carvings and it definitely gets you excited for what is coming.

Then you enter the Siq, it looks like a gorge but it wasn't created by flowing water, it was created by the walls getting pulled apart by tectonic forces and you can actually see that many of the walls match like puzzle pieces! The Siq itself is incredible. I felt so tiny in there and just envisioned all of the pilgrims who came through this canyon centuries ago. It is a pretty long walk but I savoured it because I knew I would be too exhausted at the end of the day to enjoy its beauty.

Then after about 1.2km, through the narrow cleft at the end of the Siq, you see Al-Khazneh known to us as The Treasury. It literally took my breath away. Al-Khazneh is not only a tomb but legend has it that a Pharoah hid treasure inside it in a rock urn. Another Al-Khazneh claim to fame: It was where Indiana Jones found the Holy Grail in The Last Crusade.

 (the first glimpse of Al-Khazneh 

(Al-Khazneh in its morning glory)

 After sitting and soaking in its magnificence for a while, I headed on past through the street of facades and went straight for the trail to the High Place of Sacrifice. One hour, 800 steps, one asthma attack (my allergies were horrible the whole time in Jordan) and one litre of water later, I beheld a panoramic view of the city. With a little imagination you can envision the holy sacrifices that took place here so long ago.

 (on the climb to the High Place of Sacrifice)

(the street of facades)

I went back down the way I came (amidst some really off-putting racist remarks by local Bedouins) and because at the end I had a serious case of jelly-legs, I stopped at a tea stall and prepped for more walking. I guess I thought I had seen the most beautiful or inspiring parts already so I was completely taken aback when I came upon the Royal Tombs. I actually welled over with tears at my first glimpse looking up into the rock faces in complete stunned silence. I climbed up and inside the tombs; they are really fancy outside but basically just big rooms inside.

 (the Royal Tombs)

 (my favorite of the royal tombs)

I actually didn't stay too long at the Royal Tombs because I wanted to keep going. I wandered through Colonnaded Street and then sat in The Great Temple and snacked on some nuts and fruits I brought. I really wanted to go to the monastery but it was another 800 stair journey. I didn't thing my lungs could handle it so I spent some time sitting in the shade then decided to go back to the Royal Tombs. There is a short hike near the Urn Tomb to another high place. Almost no one seemed to go up that way so I headed there and ended the day with a beautiful view of Petra in complete quiet. I could've stayed there for hours imagining the past, wondering if it is good or bad that hundreds of thousands of tourists tread through this delicate sandstone city every year. Eventually I had to leave to start the walk back. I stopped one last time at The Treasury to enjoy everyone capturing their last pictures of the day in front of the changing light.

The walk back seemed so much longer than the walk there! You definitely have to plan to take more time getting out, my legs were so tired and the sun was beating down in the late afternoon so you move pretty slowly. I kept turning around during the walk to take in The Siq one last time, I doubt that I will ever see Petra again and I hope that the images, sounds, feelings never ever fade from my memory.


We will be here

How fast things change without even a moment for me to try and comprehend it all. In January a photojournalist from Australia who volunteers for Operation Smile came to Guwahati. He had contacted me about working with Pratyasha as a part of his PhD work. I won't and probably shouldn't go into the details of his project but during his time here not only did we talk about everything under the sun but he took a whole lot of really amazing photos. We focused on the kids that were going to school and tried to get shots that could somehow convey in a sensitive way how they are kids like every other child in the world, they have the right to education and they have a whole lot stacked against them in achieving that. Part of his vision was to take a (seemingly) simple shot of the children with their mother standing outside their home.

On the photographer's last Sunday in town we handed out each participating family a copy of their photos for their approval, obtained their informed consent to use the photos and then let them keep the prints. We asked Khasitan's mother what she thought of the one of her and Khasitan standing at the door of their home. She looked at it sternly and at first I thought she was not going to give us permission to use it. When she spoke, the earth felt like it shifted under me. She said that this picture is really important to her because it proves that she has an established existence here. She said it gives her identity, that this is her home. She said she would show it to the police if they came, because the families there are often accused of being illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. In no way does the picture of her prove her nationality but to her it was of great importance. It gave her a face, a 'name,' a proof of her life there. She slipped it back in the envelope. Her piece of photographic history that meant more to her than I could have ever imagined. It was only then that I started to process and recall the other families, each photographed in front of their shanty homes now armed with a photo to say "I was, am and will be here..."

No more than three days later I met the photographer in the morning in Lakhtokia for one last time before he headed home. As I reached the tracks it was immediately clear that the police had come through and razed the slum. Things were in cinders everywhere, smoke hung in the air. All the homes had been taken down, kicked down, collapsed. A few days prior to that, the families must have known it was going to happen because Lismore had noticed them slowly taking things apart and they told her what was going to happen. I found him all the way down by the flyover. Where there had just days prior stood the homes of some of the families he had photographed, was nothing but the families themselves lost in a haze. It was all gone in a moments time. Some of the families had buried their few possessions in the ground for safe-keeping. The only thing left to show what was once their home, was a picture. A photo to say "We were, are and will be here..."

Khasitan's home was initially not affected by the razing but after a few weeks even hers was gone. Last night the photographer emailed me with some of his final photo selections and all of these memories and emotions just overwhelmed me. It is so different in Lakhtokia right now and it has been since that day. Every week kids come and go between the slum and their respective "villages." Some of the families take their homes down during the day and rebuild a flimsy cover at night to sleep under. So many have just gone to other places. It's not the same there but it still is. And so, we still are and will be here. 

(iphone photo, obviously not a professional. Maybe someday soon I'll be able to share the amazing images he took)

Jordan in pictures and words (part one)

When I got asked to go to Jordan for almost three weeks, of course I said yes, but I had no idea what to expect. I honestly did not know much about the country beyond what I had learned from two coworkers who had been there for surgical missions. I was headed there to teach at Operation Smile Jordan's AHA training center and to help them train some new instructors. Looking out the window as we descended into the airport I just saw vast desert, and I thought, yes, I must be in the Middle East!

The architecture of the city of Amman, where I stayed, was so unique to me. Most buildings are a shade of white and made of stone or marble. Amman is sprawled out over seven+ hilltops so it makes for breathtaking views at every turn. My very first afternoon there, I ate with the hostel manager and other guests then promptly went on an unsuccessful hunt for avocados (avos aren't available in Guwahati.) I walked all along the winding roads, in awe of how different Jordan felt from any other place I have ever been. I couldn't find the veg market that evening but when I did, I had a huge smile on my face! The way the sellers were calling out, singing, shouting, bargaining. There was so much life in that market, I didn't want to leave. My work week started the next day but in the evenings I managed to get out and explore as much as possible. My favorite afternoon was when I went to the Citadel which I had been eyeing from a distance every night. Up there are remains of Roman and Umayad days along with a panoramic view of the whole city. After the Citadel I walked down through neighbourhoods to reach an ancient Roman Amphitheatre that is carved into a hillside.

(Amman in all of its glory)

(temple of Hercules)

(ancient amphitheatre!)

My other evenings were spent wandering the market, wandering Rainbow street and eating really good food every single night. On my first Friday off I joined two other guests from the hostel to head to Madaba, Mt. Nebo and the Dead Sea. Madaba is a town best known for a wonderfully preserved mosaic map of the Holy Land and the surrounding area. Mt. Nebo is the mountain where it believed that Moses climbed and had his glimpse of the Holy Land ahead, which he wasn't allowed to enter. Archaeologists also think this is the mountain he is buried in. I was really excited to go up Mt. Nebo, it was a nice day so we could see the valley of Jordan, Jerusalem and Jericho from some points. There were a lot of tourists so it was hard to find quiet and peace to take in such a historical place but I managed a tiny bit.

(a cathedral in Madaba)

(do you think this is how Moses presented the Holy Land to the others?)

(camels everywhere)

Next we went to the Dead Sea, the most salinated body of water! I kept imagining what it must have been like for Bedouins or anyone wandering the desert and finding this beautiful body of water just to drink from it and find out how salty it is! What a huge disappointment it must have been. I have to be honest here, I was super worried about what to wear at the Dead Sea. I brought my bathing suit (a bikini), shorts, a t-shirt and even leggings because I had no idea how covered I should be (Jordan is a muslim majority country with a mixed Sharia law.) When we got there, we saw a lot of people in bathing suits so I covered up and right at the water I waded in in my suit. The Dead Sea is definitely not a body of water that you spend a lot of time in. It burns any small cut you have, and if you get it in your eyes or mouth... forget about it!! We floated around for awhile, marvelling at how little effort it took to just drift around on our backs versus the immense amount of effort it takes to be on your belly. Then we got out to cover ourselves in mud, eat ice cream and roast in the sun. It was beautiful!! The ice cream pictures still cracks me up every time! My skin felt so different after the salt and the mud. I brought some Dead Sea mud home with me and plan to give little jars of it out when I next go to the U.S!

(a gem in the desert)

(casually "reading" an arabic newspaper while floating)

It was a fantastic Friday indeed. Jordan is a fairly small country, I didn't know beforehand how easy it would be to get to see so many places on the few days I had off. Working there was great. We had basic and advanced life support provider classes as well as a few instructor courses. I have never taught AHA courses in America itself but I have to imagine that the training center in Jordan reflects exactly what the AHA would want for its centers around the world!

 (OS Jordan office and training  centre)

 (a perfect room!)

(after watching an Arabian band)

The highlight of the trip was Petra but that story will have to wait for another day... 


One thousand and ninety five (1,095) days

It has been three years (and two weeks) since I moved to Guwahati. This year has been completely unlike the first two. Every year had its own challenges and rewards, its own sacrifices and gains and this one was no different. I learned a lot this year. I was challenged like never before and I am still figuring out if I have come out on top, haha! I feel like a made a lot of big decisions but very little progress and that is incredibly frustrating/disappointing to me. I fell in love this year and realised after some time (not too much time ago) that it wasn't the right relationship for either of us. I traveled literally around the world to places I could never have dreamt of going without Operation Smile. I had my heart broken for the families in the slum. I made a commitment to my friend in California that we are going to make an impact on the education system in India and slowly we have been working towards that. Pratyasha Foundation became a registered California Public Benefit corporation but the road to making it a recognised 501(c)(3) corporation has been incredibly long. I have felt so full of happiness and joy that I thought I might explode. I started dancing Bollywood and Salsa and loved every minute of it. I left my job at the Guwahati Comprehensive Cleft Care Centre. I transitioned into a teaching role with Operation Smile Inc. that I am finding a balance with so that I can give more time to Pratyasha. I was with my family for six weeks. My mom and aunt came to visit. I had an awesome roomie, a student volunteer on her gap year, live with me and there is a lot I never could have done without her. Writing all of this, I sure do wish I had written as time went along. The fact is I didn't. I have thought about slowly sharing about a lot of the experiences. Lets see! As for now... here is a little bit in pictures to try and bridge the gap.

In June we had an awesome mission in Guwahati at the Comprehensive Cleft Care Center. At this point, I don't remember how many surgeries achieved but I do remember that during the mission we operated on the 9,000th patient in Assam!!! It was AMAZING! Look at what a great recovery room team we had!

In July we had nurse leadership training for our nurse leaders in Guwahati. It was held by an amazing woman/nurse from the states and I learned and grew so much from being a part of the training. 

In love with these best friends who live in Lakhtokia! 

In August my mom and Aunt braved the heat and humidity and came to visit me. It was something I had dreamed of the entire time I have lived here. My parents and my Aunt Sharon in particular are incredible supportive of me. To have the two of them here was absolutely some of the best days I have had. They helped me on Sundays and in between we took refuge in the calm, cool city of Shillong. I dream of the day they would come back.

In September Lismore moved here and took on A LOT of responsibility both with Operation Smile and with Pratyasha Foundation. She rallied and had a consistent group of girls going to day and afternoon school. 

In October I went to Vietnam to teach AHA Basic and Pediatric Advanced Life support for Operation Smile. We taught in Hanoi and in Ho Chi Minh City and I fell in love with this country!

This year I really did have two great roommates, and boy do we clean up well! 

The kids got in a real picture kick for a while. This is us looking at pictures of Hannah and Olivia and all of the kids over the years.

In November Operation Smile hosted a Comprehensive Cleft Care Conference in Guwahati. I had a tiny part in a beautiful dance done by these cleft patients. Practicing with them became my favorite evening passtime. The absolute look of pride on their faces after they finished the performance made me cry and it still does bring up tears to this day. Many of these kids were not allowed to go to school because of their clefts, let alone perform in front of an audience. This moment with them is the highlight of my time working with this organization. 

Fall ended with another incredibly proud moment. One of our girls from Lakhtokia got asked to perform in the afternoon school's fall showcase. It is basically a performance put on by each grade at the school. She was so proud up their, in front of a big audience! I had a proud "momma" moment watching her, knowing she had never gotten to do anything like it before. The below picture is of her fan section at the first night of the performance!

In December I went home to California! My mom had off work almost the entire time so we spent a lot of time together doing things like making paper Christmas villages!

My younger sister also came home from college for the winter, she got off the plane and we realized we matched a whole lot... as usual.

I became an auntie x5! My newest niece has to be the sweetest baby I ever did encounter. She was calm and laid back from the moment she was born and not a thing has changed!

As soon as I got back to India, I started my new job which focuses on teaching life support training. My first stop was in Chabua, upper Assam!

Next I headed for a whirlwind few days in Cambodia. That trip really was only a few days and they were incredibly busy. I hope to go back some day so I can see more of the country.
Part of the training there involved the Cambodian Anti-Terrorism Squad. I was intimidated at first but quickly I realized that these guys were so sweet and funny!

Right after Cambodia, things started changing in the slum. The homes are still knocked down and destroyed to this day. The families come and go frequently. It is so unpredictable week to week. We have had to get creative at some points. It is heartbreaking to hear the kids stories of the police coming through and kicking over their fires which had food cooking on them. The kids and families were and are still scared. The girls who live directly in the slum stopped going to school for the most part. We are trying not to get discouraged and just taking it a day at a time.

In March I went to Russia. It was mind blowing! I didn't know what to expect, and I was so warmly welcomed and taken care of. It was one of the best work trips as far as hospitality that I have ever had. 

I ended this third year back in Guwahati and then with a trip to Jordan (more on that later!)

One thousand and ninety five days. I never, ever in my wildest dreams would have thought I would still be here!