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Live an Extraordinary Life!

For purposes of this blog post I attempted to calculate the number of miles I traveled in the past thirteen months since I left home for New Delhi. I made a spreadsheet and did my best to remember each trip I took in the past year and a month. By the time I had documented each flight, each connection, each weekend bus trip, I had reached Row 86.

There is a cheesy quote that you can find in most travel books and even though it is a bit overused it still has an impact on me.

Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.

– Hilary Cooper

To me, the quote is a reminder to live an extraordinary life. Extraordinary means something different for each of us. I used to be confused by the word extraordinary. How could extra ordinary be synonymous with outstanding? It seemed like a contradiction. Then I looked it up and realized the extra does not mean “super” ordinary, but rather “out of” or “beyond”. Living an extraordinary life means living in a way that is remarkable (worth talking about) or surprising. It means living in a way that shakes things up once and awhile; keeps you on your toes and interested in staying present to the string of moments that is your life.

As the quote suggests, not every moment is extraordinary – we wouldn’t be able to breathe! But if ever so often you seek those moments of breathlessness, of awe, of spellbinding joy, you will find, at the end of your days, that you have lived an extraordinary life. Extraordinary also seems to me like a naturally balanced word. You must spend enough time cultivating your own unique version of ordinary in order to know what lies beyond. To live in a way that is extraordinary we must know our own comfort zone and explore our edges.

To me extraordinary means getting to know and understand the human family in as much of its diversity as I can experience in a lifetime.

Since I left home last July I have taken planes, trains, and automobiles. I have traveled by tuk tuk, rickshaw, camel cart, and my own two feet. I reconnected with dear friends I hadn’t seen in years and built new friendships with people I hope to know for the rest of my life. I visited eleven countries I had never seen before, drove through ten of the fifty states and the District of Columbia. I visited temples, mosques, churches, and gurdwaras. I tried new foods like South Indian dosas, authentic Turkish kebab, Tibetan momos, a full Irish breakfast, haggis in Scotland, and Bosnia’s traditional fast food chevapi.

On Monday I returned home to Minnesota and for the first time in thirteen months I do not have a trip planned in the near future. I don’t have a plane or bus ticket purchased and there are no road trips on my schedule. Traveling became my ordinary so now it is time to switch things up a bit and do something different – for me at least – which is to stay in one place for a while.

Fall is my favorite season and as summer fades into autumn here in Minnesota I am looking forward to pausing, grounding, and hibernating a bit – which is pretty much what I have been doing since I got home on Monday. The thing about extraordinary is that it is not always easy or comfortable. The moments that take your breath away sometimes knock the wind out of you.

Needless to say, I have not finished the mileage count, but I’ll leave that for another day when I make my own Mastercard commercial. For now I will focus on reconnecting with friends and family, drinking plenty of apple cider, and carving a pumpkin or two. I will also be documenting the second half of my time in India, the month I spent in Europe en route to the States, the travel I’ve done within the U.S. since I got home in June, as well as my current goings on. So the blogging continues!

Thank you all, dear readers, for your attention and interest as I have shared my adventure over the past year. I’m not going anywhere for a while…and I hope you’re not either 🙂

Yours,

Anna

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Chardi Kala – Sikhism Explained

Sunday’s shooting at a Sikh gurdwara in Wisconsin, which resulted in seven deaths and additional injuries, hit close to home for me as many of those who hosted me during my time in India are Sikhs. I also visited the Golden Temple, the Sikhs’ holiest shrine, with my dad when he visited me during my year abroad.

Ignorance and hate motivated Sunday’s killings. In an attempt to support the healing and possibility that stem from this tragedy I have written an article for PolicyMic, an online media forum, about the Sikh faith. Education is a powerful tool in overcoming ignorance and hatred but more important is ACTION. The Sikh community is one which gives generously without being asked. I invite you to think of one thing you can do today, this week, this month, to give to someone near you. If anything I ask you to please share my article with your friends, family, and social networks.

I hope you learn something from this piece and I look forward to your feedback. Act for peace. Be love.

Click this link or paste the following into your browser: http://www.policymic.com/articles/12442/sikhism-explained-what-wade-michael-page-never-understood

For My Mom

People often asked me this year, “what do your parents think of you living in India?” The concern in their voice makes me think they picture my departure as something like a late night escape – throwing my luggage out the window, shimmying down the rain pipe, and hailing a friend waiting in a car in the alley to take me to the airport, calling home on the layover in Amsterdam to let the folks know I’m moving to India for a year. Then in January when my dad visited, people saw his interest in Indian culture and Hinduism and the question turned to an even more concerned inquiry of how my mom felt about her daughter being so far away from home in such a foreign place. How did she let you go? Well, anyone who thought she tried to hold me back for a second doesn’t know my mom.

This is a picture of my mom and me on one of my first trips to a new place. It is late September 1989, I am 13 months old and we are on a trip to visit my aunt, uncle, and cousins in Maine. My mom hasn’t aged a day since this picture (really) but I on the other hand have grown up a bit, I am taller than her now, and I while I can walk on my own I still can’t make a major decision without discussing it first with her. She never tells me what I should do but listens deeply and asks incredibly insightful questions that always lead me to the answer which is right for me. The morning I left for India last summer I woke up before dawn, terrified, thinking I was about to make a huge and scary mistake: what was I doing leaving home for so long for a place as unfamiliar as India!? I went and woke her up and she came and sat in bed with me. I don’t remember what exactly she told me but I know that when it was time for me to leave I felt strong and confident and excited to take on a big adventure.

Mom, you have been an incredible supporter, friend, and mentor as long as I can remember. You have built a strong foundation from which I can fly. Thank you for encouraging me to pursue my dreams, travel to new places, and try new things. I am inspired by your strength, your intelligence, your class and your ability to have fun and bring people together as the unrivaled Hostess with the Mostest in my book.

I think one of the greatest gifts a parent can give a child is the support and encouragement to be who they are, not what anyone else expects them to be. My parents have always encouraged me to pursue my interests and dreams and have been unwavering supporters along the way. As my year in India comes to a close (I’ll be on a plane out of Delhi in less than 36 hours) I thank them for giving me the strength and support to pursue this adventure.

I found this video a few weeks ago and it made me think of my mom. These Olympic-athletes-to-be were training from childhood so I don’t know if they devoured as many delicious homemade chocolate chips, Rice Krispie bars, hot chocolate, or Kool-Aid as I did. But, like me, they had the support of an amazing mother who was with them every step of the way, cheering them on. I dedicate this video to my mom. You are an Olympic Gold Mother if there ever was one! I miss you, I love you, and I can’t wait to see you soon.

And Happy Mothers’ Day to all of you, my readers, who are also mothers. You are rock stars!

Love,

Anna

The Most Difficult Part of Packing – My Books

I knew this moment would come. As the collection of books on the small shelf at the foot of my bed grew throughout the year I had a gnawing sense knowing that one day I would have to part ways with many of them. I am a bookworm. I wore a uniform from first through twelfth grade so I’ve never had a problem with closet space, but if there is one thing I am good at collecting it is books. Even though I successfully downsized my library at home by half last summer I still have two almost entirely full bookcases in my bedroom at my parents’ house. Those books will soon be joined by twenty or more which I am sending home from India. I didn’t have this same problem when I studied abroad in Chile but India, with its very cheap books published in English, is a veritable trap for anyone with my book hoarding vice.

The number of books sent home to Minnesota would have been even greater if I had not sat down a few days ago to the most difficult task of deciding which books I would give away and which I would keep. There is no science to this method. It is an emotional process. I read a lot this year. Books got me through some of the darkest and loneliest moments in the months when I was still adjusting to my life in India. I have always felt like the world makes most sense when I am in a library or bookstore or settled in a comfy chair with a great paperback in my hands. Whenever I walk into my favorite Delhi bookstore – Fact & Fiction in Vasant Vihar – I still feel the same sense of overwhelming relief and at-home-ness that I felt the first time I discovered it one hot and humid August afternoon during my first month in Delhi.

I kept track of the books I read this year in the back of my journal. Between July and now I have read 20 books. Allow me to briefly reflect on my reading list. On the flight over I was reading Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, a fascinating look into how humans make snap judgments. I satisfied my inner econ junkie and continued the pattern of fun anecdotes with SuperFreakonomics and then took a hiatus from paperbacks to listen to the epic and engaging Fall of Giants audiobook by Ken Follet. I made the questionable choice of reading White Tiger by Aravind Adiga during the deepest throws of my homesickness and frustration with Delhi life. It is a twisted and disturbing picture of poverty and violence in India which didn’t do anything to improve my mood but provided a sort of catharsis.

My reading list brightened up with the arrival of some yummy books from home. I read Wade Davis’ One River on the beach in Goa. Following Davis, a cultural anthropologist, through an account of botanical adventures exploring medicinal plants in the Amazon is still one of the highlights of the year. I fully and unapolagetically acknowledge the extreme nerdiness of that last sentence. The Ice Storm was a fun read, a peek into the disintegration of the American family in the seventies in novel form. I devoured East of Eden in two weeks and from the first few chapters it took its place on my top five favorite books I’ve ever read. Jeffrey Eugenides’ modern multigenerational masterpiece Middlesex would join its ranks a few months later. I enjoyed The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera and was entertained by two lighter novels – The Hand that First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell and Lark & Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips. During my December travels I read Committed, Elizabeth Gilbert’s sequel to Eat, Pray, Love. It was a well researched internal narrative on the history, meaning, and challenges of marriage – not as light as Eat, Pray, Love but a great read nonetheless. I revisited a favorite author, Paolo Coehlo, through his mystical novel Aleph. My friend Nakita gave me White Woman on a Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey, a very interesting novel set amid Trinidad’s political upheaval in the 1950s. After Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (it is incredibly heady but there’s a reason it is a classic) I jumped into another motorcycle book I found at our homestay in Kerala, Dreaming of Jupiter by Ted Simon. A sequel to Jupiter’s Travels, it is the story of Simon’s second around the world motorcycle trip and a fascinating travel read.

Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals was my first read of the new year and made me a very strict vegetarian for two months. It is an amazing book that I recommend to omnivores and vegetarians alike. You already know I was greatly inspired by Jacqueline Novogratz’s memoir The Blue Sweater and recommend it to everyone.

I most recently finished The Anatomy of Peace, a book by the Arbinger Institute. I read this and another book from Arbinger, Leadership and Self-Deception, as part of the LeaderImpact program I completed in 2010, and recently assisted in Turkey in March. Both are quick reads chock full of incredible insights on our interaction with others, compassion, conflict, purpose, and peace. You guessed it, I strongly recommend these two as well.

In the end I gave away most of the books I read. There is a great warmth that comes with passing a book you’ve thoroughly enjoyed to someone else. The books I’m sending home are my favorites – East of Eden and Middlesex – as well as the many econ-related books I was overly ambitious in purchasing but didn’t find the energy or attention span to read here in India.

Maybe you’ll pick out a few gems from this post to add to your summer reading list. I’m currently savoring The Art of Possibility by Benjamin and Rosamund Zander, recommended by my boss Joe Sertich and my Uncle Mark (via my mom). It’s a winner.

So, Dad, be careful lifting those boxes of stuff I’ve sent home to Minnesota. And Mom, I think there is room in my closet to throw the boxes until I get home. I will do round two of book sorting and stuff-minimizing in June 🙂

I have ten days left in India! I leave on May 15th. I can’t believe it. I vacated my apartment earlier this week, a very emotional process. I am living on campus with my friend Libi. I’m really enjoying getting to experience campus life for the last two weeks of my time here.

Deep Breathing on the Backwaters – Kerala pt. 1

My last travel update ended with my awe at the view of the Himalayas from the air as I flew back to New Delhi from the Northeast. I touched down in Delhi and spent a little less than 24 hours repacking my bags for warm weather before my roommate Lesly and I hopped on a plane bound for Bangalore. We spent a couple days in Bangalore before we met up with my dear friend and fellow Bennie, Nakita, and the three of us headed south to Kerala. If God were to build the “model home” version of heaven on Earth, Kerala would be on the short list for its location. It is a paradise.

Kerala is best known for the network of meandering lakes and waterways, the backwaters, that run parallel to the Arabian Sea along the Malabar coast. Our first stop was Allepey, a small town and great place to access the backwaters. Our hotel was not far from the beach so the three of us rented bicycles and had a great time navigating the traffic on our way to the beach.

With Lesly…

…and Nakita

We enjoyed fresh coconut water, straw-in-the-coconut style of course, and watched the sun set over the Arabian Sea. The next day we woke up for a 7am canoe ride on the backwaters. As someone who grew up around lakes, rivers, and streams, I always feel more centered and in touch with what is right with the world when I am close to the water. Setting out in a large canoe that morning as mist rose off the smooth-as-glass water, not yet disturbed by the traffic of the day, I reminisced upon many similarly tranquil canoe rides with my family and friends. Though the scenery was a bit different, the bliss factor was one in the same.

As our boatman steered us through ever more breathtaking canals we saw families waking up and starting another day on the backwaters. Men and women dredged small black clam like creatures from the river bottom into long canoes. We learned that the shells are burned and used as fertilizer, a natural source of lime. Mothers and daughters rinsed dishes along the banks and washed laundry, slapping and scrubbing soapy cloth against flat smooth stones. Kids and grandparents still with the haze of sleep in their eyes brushed their teeth, standing outside the one story houses that spring up along the watery avenues.

The state of Kerala has the highest literacy rate in India at more than 90 percent and, due to sweeping and strategic economic planning by the state government, a broader than usual distribution of wealth than other Indian states. Keralans will tell you that the caste system, whose lasting legacy creates harsh disparities in other Indian states to this day, has all but disappeared from this southern paradise.

Kerala’s is heavily reliant upon tourism and local cultivation of rice and other products. Coir – the fibrous husk of the ever abundant coconut – is another important industry and I learned that all of the brown scratchy Welcome mats I’ve ever brushed my feet on probably originated in Kerala. So the next time you are brushing snow off your boots on a coconut coir mat, you can think of sunny Kerala.

After Allepey Nakita and I spent time at a homestay on the backwaters and then the three of us spent a couple days in Forth Cochin. I will dedicate a separate post to the second half of the trip. For now, I’ll leave you with this picture, one of my favorites of the trip. I brought along two of my Bennies shirts so Nakita and I could snap some pictures worthy of the alumnae magazine. Here we are in our canoe on the backwaters.

In the Clouds – Sikkim and Darjeeling

This post is the first in a series of long overdue updates documenting my travels between early December and now. At the end of my first semester in Delhi I crisscrossed the subcontinent, spent Christmas in Minnesota, and traveled with my dad for two weeks. Since January I had a visit from some colleagues/friends from MN which included three days spent in Nepal, went back to Ahmedabad and visited Udaipur, and most recently spent about a week in Istanbul, Turkey. This is an account of my first trip in the bunch.

After my first semester exams I traveled to Sikkim and Darjeeling with fellow Ambassadorial Scholar Emrys McMahon. Emrys met a Rotarian from Sikkim at a conference in Delhi and she invited us to visit and speak at their club, Rotary Club of Gangtok South. So we scheduled that and another visit to the Rotary Club of Darjeeling along with some sightseeing into a week long trip.

Sikkim is a state in the northeastern part of India. It did not become part of India until 1975, before which it was a sovereign kingdom. Wikipedia tells me it is India’s least populous state and the second-smallest next to Goa. It is bordered by Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan. It’s culture is distinctly influenced by its neighbors and one notes the Nepalese and Tibetan flavor especially in the food, architecture, and style of dress. Things move a lot slower and the people are known for their hospitality. At times in the capitol city of Gangtok I felt like I had meandered into a Christmas village.

From Delhi we flew into a  small town called Bagdogra and from there took a local bus to Kalimpong, a town in West Bengal just south of the border into Sikkim. The next morning I woke up feeling like I was in a cloud. The valley below and hillsides on either side of my hotel were shrouded in a thick mist. I sat out on the balcony for an hour or so writing in my journal and talking on the phone with my brother Jon.

Kalimpong is in the foothills and feels like a small town so I was shocked when I consulted Lonely Planet and found out the city’s population is more than 40,000. I kept thinking, where do they put everyone? Before heading into Sikkim we visited a Buddhist monastery. I snapped a picture of these monks outside the monastery. When I saw them I wondered what they were talking about: their studies? history? a recent argument between two monks? a surprise birthday party? the weather?

We hired a taxi from Kalimpong and crossed the border into Sikkim that afternoon. Because of unique political circumstances, Sikkim and the seven states in India’s northeast have specific visit restrictions. Visitors to Sikkim must acquire a 15 day permit to enter the state. This transaction can be done easily at the border with a copy of your passport, Indian visa, and a couple passport photos.

We spent the next few days in the charming city of Gangtok. The Rotary Club of Gangtok South is quite a young club with a large age range. The Rotarians were incredibly warm and welcoming. Some of the younger club members took us out for dinner and drinks afterwards and we had fun sharing stories and even singing a few karaoke songs.

We rented a car one day to see the sights around the city. At a hilltop temple we caught a view of Kachenjunga, the third highest peak in the world. We stopped by the Gangtok Zoo and got a special tour from the zookeeper thanks to a Rotary connection. We arrived just in time to see the adorable red pandas (unique to the region) get their lunch. Emrys was incredibly excited to see the zoo’s snow leopard and tried unsuccessfully to convince the guard to let him into the enclosure so he could get a better picture.

After that we ventured to another Tibetan Buddhist monastery. It was a beautiful and peaceful place with prayer wheels everywhere. Buddhists use prayer wheels (below) and prayer flags (pictured above) to send up constant prayers for peace and an end to suffering in the world. Anyone is invited to spin the prayer wheels – in a clockwise direction – and offer up a prayer as they pass. It is believed that the colorful prayer flags, which were hung all over Sikkim, send prayers to the Universe as they blow in the breeze.

From Gangtok we made our way to Darjeeling by jeep. It was a lovely early morning drive down the foothills made even better by the Frank Sinatra album playing on my iPod. In Darjeeling we met another Rotary Club and exchanged flags, a tradition between Rotary Clubs around the world. We spent a lot of time drinking Darjeeling tea – it truly is “the champagne of teas” – at Glenary’s, a well known English style bakery on Darjeeling’s main street.

We saw more red pandas at the Darjeeling Zoo and made a second failed attempt to snap a closeup with Emrys and a snow leopard. We visited a fascinating mountaineering museum which documents the history of climbers on Mount Everest and the other highest peaks. It was remarkable to see old climbing equipment and read the inspiring and harrowing stories of the men and women from around the world who have risked or lost their lives to stand on top of the world.

It was a whirlwind trip, a brief but nonetheless eye opening visit to a part of India, Sikkim, that few tourists visit. I would recommend the area as a must-see for anyone visiting India for an extended period of time. On the flight back to Delhi I sat next to an Austrian guy who has done a lot of hiking in the area. We were on the right side of the plane, the right side to catch this stunning view of the Himalayas from the air.

What’s Worth Holding onto When You’re Going Abroad

When I moved back home a month ago I dumped a mountain of boxes into my room and, due to the lack of surface area upon which to sleep, “sublet” my brother’s room for a month since he is working up on campus over the summer. I promised my parents that I would not leave said mountain of stuff at home when I left for India and I promised myself that I would do my very best to downsize my material possessions before my departure so as to minimize the amount of energy and culture shock involved in returning to a lot of stuff after spending a year in India.

Full disclosure, I used to be quite a pack rat. I say used to because I have divested of a great deal over the past 16 months. Last summer I completed a month long cleaning process which included sifting through an inordinate number of papers, notebooks, etc. from grade school and high school. I sold 2/3 of my book collection to Half Price – major accomplishment. I had a hilarious time discovering notes, journals, and other things that held a tie to great times had with friends. Thanks to that extensive disposal process, this my work this year has not been panic-inducing – what is left for the most part are boxes of uncategorized stuff that I was too frustrated to sort through last year, but not quite ready to let go of.

I hold onto things for two reasons:

1) Sentimental Value – If you ever wrote me a meaningful note or designed a really sweet folder with pictures of the cast of Pearl Harbor (Tori), chances are a) I still have it and probably will until I’m 75, or b) I spent a wistful moment smiling at it sometime in the last year before reluctantly letting it slip out of my hand and flutter (in slow motion) onto the recycling bin.

2) This book/article/magazine/paper/pamphlet contains a wealth of knowledge that I have not yet absorbed (I will no doubt make use of it someday in the near future)!

I have learned to let go of books and academic materials more easily after realizing that holding onto so much reading material makes me much less likely to actual read any of it due to the sense of sheer overwhelm. My collection of reading material may explain why I have successfully viewed complete seasons of questionable TV programming online in the past year (e.g. Mob Wives) but haven’t really done a great deal of reading. I have also realized that as cute as customized folders are, what is worth holding onto are the friends who make you those folders and the memories that go with them.

Here are some fun Before and After photos of my bedroom and suitcases. Oh look, a bed and a desk!  I hope you all had a fabulous Fourth of July weekend and may you be inspired by this post or an upcoming trip of your own to declare independence from one of those unsorted boxes of stuff that is taking up psychic space in your life.

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