“SAVE ME, OH LORD” are the words that are boldly painted on the back of the bouncing van in front of us. That’s not far from what I’m thinking. Dearest God, it’s not enough that you brought the Jews out of Egypt for passover. Please bring Lian safely out of Ghana too. I think this passover, I may have exhausted my lifetime quota of personal passover miracles.

I hadn’t realized just how important having somewhere to celebrate passover was until a few days before the first seder night. I was sitting on the floor of my room, watching the sweat make perfect little droplets as it dripped from my face to the ground, when a little pouty mental voice crept into my mind and said “but I don’t WANNA celebrate passover alone!” This genuinely surprised me, as I’ve been extremely satisfied with and purposefully making room for alone time this year, be it a solo hike or an evening where I take myself out on a dinner date.  But it turns out that one of the most important parts of Judaism for me is the community, having shared rather than personal traditions. So I did some research. I’m open to contrary evidence, but I’m pretty sure that I am currently the only Jew in Togo. In other words, no Israeli embassy, no sign of Jews: expats or Togolese, anywhere on the internet. No Jews. So I contacted the Israeli embassy in Accra, Ghana and procured the information for the seders (two!) in Accra. I’d heard that it was tricky to get a visa upon arrival for Ghana, but I figured I’d give it a shot.

 Monday morning my friend picked me up on his motorcycle and we sped an hour and a half through the forest to the nearest Ghanian border, dreadlocks (his) and semi dreads (mine) flying behind us in the wind. At the border, security guard number two said there was no way without a visa and that I’d have to go to Lome. Security number one was playing a virtual soccer game on his computer with his feet on the table. My friend joined him. Back through the potholes we sped, to where I joined a shared taxi to Lome, the capital of Togo (a two hour drive away). At the border, the bulky security guard explained that unless I wanted to pay quite a few hundred dollars, I would have to go to the embassy and get a visa. No problem. Motorcycle taxi to the embassy, which was, of course, closed. So there I was, sitting in front of Palm Hotel (the only landmark I know in the city), crying to mom and dad on the phone. First they gave sensible advice “maybe it’s just meant to be. Go treat yourself to a nice dinner and hotel, shower with running water, think about passover in a quiet, personal way.” Then they gave the advice I wanted: “just go to the border and see what you can do again, and worst case, budget some of the grant towards Passover”.

Back at the border, I was approached by a man wearing a Stalin style mustache and a sneaky glean in his eyes. I followed him to a back office where he explained: if I wanted to slip money into 4 or 5 big men’s pockets, then I could pass. It was as easy as that. He would give me his number and upon my return, make sure that my passport was stamped back into Togo.

Three hours later, I barged into a well lit room in the middle of Accra, Ghana with a long white table and 40 smiling people singing tunes of my childhood. I took 2 minutes to take a few deep breaths in the bathroom, change my clothes, marvel at the running water and mirror, and emerged. I don’t think I stopped grinning the whole seder. I’ve never felt so thankful to be surrounded by familiar songs, books, stories, and to be eating matzo ball soup! That night I slept on the couch of one of the lovely seder-goers, whom I joined for the second seder the next night.

I’d been feeling a little bit guilty about my recent cravings for familiarity. Why couldn’t I share passover with my Togolese friends? Explain what passover and Judaism was to them? I could have, it’s true. And it may have been the more righteous thing to do. But the truth is, that every day is an experience of trying to explain myself, my weird culture, habits, and language. This passover was about allowing myself to want familiarity, about not judging, and criticizing myself for wanting some of my own culture.

I pretended to sleep in the shared car the whole way back to the border so that no police officer would do a random passport check. At the border, mustache man stamped my passport, asked for “something to chop” (some money) and then for my hand in marriage. I agreed to his first request.

Now I’m back in Kpalime, Togo, the small town that I’ve been living in for the past month. Togo has been a personal music therapy break for me, as I’ve felt a surprising lack of personal musical development this year. My schedule here is a bit ridiculous, but it does reflect my goal, which is to soak up as much West African music as possible. It’s nice when days and weeks are actually centered around my goals. For as sensible a lifestyle as that is, I feel like it rarely happens.

My days look like this:

8AM roll out of bed, walk outside to the toilet, remove the wooden lid, try to ignore the hundreds of scurrying cockroaches. Pull a bucket from the well and wash up. Eat 2 mangos, bananas, some apples with freshly ground peanut butter.

930-11:30 AM Dance class: One of the best dancers in Kpalime (which a central music hub in Togo) spends 2 hours teaching me West African dance. We jump and spin and create rivers of sweat.

12PM Pull a bucket from the well and take a delightful cold bucket shower.

1PM Walk to my favorite beans lady. Eat a bowl of beans mixed with manioc powder and a whole, beautiful avocado.

2-4PM Djembe lesson. Hands down, the best djembe player in Kpalime and I sit under the mango tree in his backyard and play for 2 hours. He speaks no English, so we really do just play for 2 hours. He produces music, I repeat with garbled noise. But I assure you, it’s sounding more like music every day.

4:30-7PM Zota practice. I’ve become a member of Zota, the oldest drum/dance troupe in Kpalime. Ten stunning, dreadlocked men, 2 incredible women dancers and I spend a few hours drumming and dancing outside until it’s too dark to play. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8wo7ItjEXwo)

7:30 PM Eat something on the street….maybe a mushy starch (fufu-yam mush, akume-corn mush, amakume-cassava/corn mush) with a tasty, oily sauce (peanut, greens, meat, fish)

9 PM Play with the 2 year old and her mama, with whom I live

10 PM Crash, exhausted and with bruised hands and feet.

 

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Zota practice

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The market in Kpalime

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Yams of all sizes and shapes…used to make fufu (yam mush). 

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Women pound fufu

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Mama cooking

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Mama grinding ginger and garlic

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My dance teacher

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PASSOVER in Accra!

 

“People won’t take the meeting seriously unless there is soda, meat, and rice.” I hold my breath, stifling my desire to laugh as my playful eyes meet Vincent’s serious ones. He isn’t kidding, I guess. I swallow my embarrassment when I remember that most kids and women will only eat meat a few times a year. For them it is a total treat, and absolutely necessary for bribing the 30 deaf children, their parents, and teachers into sitting for a half day meeting. But having an extravagant lunch without the normal food items isn’t enough, you must have both the mundane and significant foods to truly qualify as a meal.

Now, you must understand that providing lunch is not only a way of bribing parents to make the two hour walk to their children’s school for a meeting. If you don’t provide lunch, nobody will come because they will not have time to commit to the meeting and ALSO to cook lunch for themselves and their children. Mind you, it takes two hours for a pot of beans to cook over an open fire. And thus begins the day of collecting beans, the hunks of meat that hang in the market, 20 pounds of rice, crates of glass soda bottles, cabbage, and posho (the staple of meals here: a sticky white starch made of corn or cassava flour).

The next day, we set out chairs in the decrepit, stained room framed by huge, cut-out holes in the walls, holes with no thought of curtains, glass, nets or any closing mechanism. Four women crouch outside over the huge, smoking fires covered with vats of food, completely unaware of the toxic fumes that they are inhaling.  

Three hours after the established meeting time, we are finally gathered. We begin the meeting with a prayer, as is always done. Then we launch into introductions. This word, introduction, used to make me think of short, excited exclamations; names and titles, a welcome. Maybe even a  first, small paragraph of an essay. Needless to say, Uganda has completely changed my perception of introductions. Here, they are absolutely the most important part of a meeting. And so they take up the most important chunk of time (almost all of it). I’ve come to learn just how imperative such formalities are here. The first hour or so is spent going around the room and allowing every shoe-wearing adult to take up as much space and time in the room as they please. Not only is everyone allowed to toot their own horn for a laughable amount of time, the tooting, if you will, is promptly translated into 3 languages: sign language, Swahili and English. Even with this valiant stab at including everyone, still there will be people who will not understand. Hence the muffled whispering of mamas voices that seem to fill in the tiny gaps in the walls of the room.

On the one hand, I find it rather sweet and family like that everyone receives a fair chance to talk about themselves and represent themselves in whichever way they see fit. That being said, the fact that formalities all but override the reason for which the meeting was called seems blasphemous to me. Spending more time listening to some teacher’s credentials and achievements (in 3 languages) than we do a deaf child’s mom with pressing issues, seems absurd to me.

“Do you remember how your ancestors sometimes used drums and beats to communicate?” asks Vince, a music/art therapist from Northern Uganda. A solitary “hmmm” and a room of nodding heads answers his question. I love that in this place, people could care less about the hundreds of scientific studies done on music and its positive influence on the brain, or the use of jargon that clutters our true beliefs and observations. Here we don’t have to explain WHY music therapy works. We don’t have to explain that deaf children still have a sense of rhythm and can experience the vibrations and resonance that music produces. These parents already believe in the ability of music to help. One deaf 30 year old representative from the community signs “they feel the beats from the hearts. They cannot hear, but they are dancing, singing to the beat.”

Granted, there are drawbacks to this approach. We can’t just accept everything that is presented to us without thinking about it or being convinced by sound evidence. But honestly, sometimes it’s just plain refreshing not to have to explain to every single person why music can help in therapy. Yes, music is linked to memory and the inner ear (related to balance etc.) and it accesses different parts of the brain that can help people concentrate, communicate, and experience emotions in different ways. But there are also so many places where music is powerful and helpful in therapy with a whole range of people (autism, , cerebral palsy etc) that I just can’t explain. But I see it. And more importantly I feel it.

But I’ve also seen the education system in Uganda take this doctrine of automatic acceptance  to an extreme. And it’s frustrating. I admit this is a broad overgeneralization, but in many similar meetings and classrooms that I’ve sat in on, I’ve observed adults and children alike, follow without embarrassment (even with silly songs or dances) when they are explicitly given directions, but struggle to do anything that has not been directly assigned or called for. The educational philosophy here, for the most part, is one of “I say, you repeat” and “I write on the blackboard, you write in your notebook”. Things are memorized and spat back out. I have seen little, if any emphasis on creativity, critical thinking or individual voice. Granted, when there are thousands of children that are not receiving any sort of education, and nowhere near enough qualified teachers, I feel guilty criticizing the education system. It means, however, that people will not often come up with new innovative ideas or say things when they are not prompted.

This meeting is different though. If there aren’t enough resources for “normal” children in Uganda, then it follows that those with disabilities or special needs (including deaf children) receive almost no resources and attention. This means though, that families affected are often marginalized by society, and end up not buying into the ridiculous social value that is lack of individual thinking. These students and parents just don’t have the time or emotional space for that. Hence, the second part of the afternoon is filled with thoughtful and heart wrenching stories, questions, and calls for help or advice. Mommas asking how they should create communities for their kids when their siblings can’t communicate with each other.

One momma shared that when her kid started going to this deaf school and learning sign language, the parents could no longer communicate with the child. Furthermore, the kid adopted new philosophies and ideas and ended up only listening to their teachers, and not their parents. All the while, another momma sat sobbing silently, torn hanky in hand. She told her story later: her little girl, sitting beside her is not really her daughter. Her mother in Sudan abandoned her because of the child’s disability. This poor woman is now raising this deaf daughter along with her 8 other children. Her husband refuses to help. He says the girl is a waste, and that they should just wait to send her off for marriage. This story, which leaves me nearly in tears, is followed by a teacher complaining that there is a theft problem on the school campus. But mostly just mangoes during the mango season.

There are obviously no answers to the questions posed by these mommas. But there still seems to be a sense of hanging expectation for answers in the air. And yet, even more prominent, is the amount of head nodding, empathetic glances, and surprisingly comforted expressions that seem to indicate the creation of a mutual identity. In the US we have a plethora of support groups, parent groups and meetings. Here this is a rarity. Which is dangerous because camaraderie and community are so incredibly important, especially for minority populations, especially when centralized access to information (about raising a deaf child, for example) is nearly impossible.

As I sit here, I’m reminded of how such a meeting might go in the US. Even though we are soaking in resources and privilege, all one would likely hear would be complaints about how warm the room is, how simple the speaker is, and how soggy the salad might be.

We should be thankful for ALL of the resources that we have in the US. We should take full advantage of them and be constantly conscious of all those who don’t have such opportunities. Let’s get up and share our true fears without stressing about seeming vulnerable or weak. Let’s let go of our ridiculous standards and judgments that stand in the way of truly listening to what others have to say. If we keep complaining about how long the meeting is and how hot the room is, we won’t ever hear the speaker or make the transformation from a group of individuals to a true community.

 

Some pictures from Uganda:

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A parent listening intently at the meeting

 

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 My friend’s father building a food storage compartment

 

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A good friend’s momma cooks some lunch

 

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A little music!

 

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Oh these lovely mommas….

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Laundry time!

 

 

 

Do you think I’d get some terrible, irreversible skin disease if I followed the lead of the thousands of people who are taking a dip in the Ganges today? I think I probably would. So instead I’m sitting here on a boat watching them.There are literally a million pilgrims who have come to bathe in the sacred waters of the Ganges River on this auspicious day because, as filthy as it may look, it is said that a nice dip in that water can send you straight to heaven. I guess I’m out of luck.

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Although I had to wake up at 4AM and sprint down through a community of ogling morning walkers, cows, vegetable wallas and rickshaw drivers to the Gats (the banks of the Ganges), seeing the start of a new day, was well worth it. Post sunrise, we mosied over to a little shop for some fried kachoris, chickpea curry and a golf ball size cup of tea. My belly full of fried goods, I started home.

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Although I just did a double take when I wrote it, Vasant Vihar, Banares (Varanasi) really is home right now. I’ve always known that I am a person who needs a place to call home. And so, in this year of extreme instability and mobility, home has become something fluid and ever changing but simultaneously something that I embrace fully moment to moment. This year and maybe for the rest of my life (because of this year), home is wherever I feel at home. Home is where I am allowed, simultaneously by myself and by those around me to feel comfortable and accepted. It is that simple.

How did I find this home,you ask? Well, some lovely friends from Seattle, (Indu and Jayan, you’re the best) connected me with some phenomenal people in India, one of whom is a intimidatingly tall but truly warm hearted individual who lives in Delhi. When we met during my first week in Delhi he exclaimed: “Oh Varanasi! My wife’s cousin’s sister’s wife’s sister’s family lives there!” (Who??) In 2 seconds he had whipped out his phone “mmm American……friend!…..Seattle….thik hai thik hai….chalo…bye!” He turned to me. “Ok, now you have place to stay in Varanasi.” And so it was that I found my Varanasi home and family: two delightful teenage kids, a 4 foot momma with huge amounts of sass, a poppa and 3 helpers who run around calling me “didi” (sister) and giggling.

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After I came back from the magical boat ride, this morning, like all mornings, Anju masi (literally means “like mom” but also aunty) and I did our daily yoga practice together. Following the morning’s second breakfast, I start the 37 minute walk to my vocal guru-jee’s house. Every morning at 10 AM in Varanasi, I have made this walk to Sangeeta-jee’s house, entering the door, bending down to touch her feet, and asking for her prayer. Then we settle into cross legged position on the floor, about a foot across from each other, and we begin opening up our lower registers…sa re ga ma pa dha ni sa (the Hindi solfege)…..all the way down to a croak. She sings something that sounds doable. I try to mimic. Definitely, doesn’t sound the same. And we repeat.

Indian singing has asked me to put my voice through a straw, to concentrate and straighten it. But my voice wants to shake its little hips: it wants to come out of the tips of my hair, extending into long, bumpin’ waves. This challenge is worth the while though, not only for the prospect of learning a bit about Indian ragas and music, but also because it has created a space in which I have experienced a new type of intimacy with music. I have never before had a voice lesson that involves sitting so close to each other and to the ground, blowing notes across a foot of space, watching the music move through the other person’s eyes. I have never before had such an intimate musical learning experience. Every morning, this beautiful woman has agreed to spend two hours with me, sharing music, time and tea. Do I pay her? No. That would not be the practice of a real guru, a real teacher who wants to impart knowledge onto a student. This amazing oral tradition of teaching, however, is changing. It seems that many gurus now want to market their skills and charge for their knowledge. Although this is a sensible and normal idea to those of us in the West, it seems clear that this particular diffusion of Western culture is slowly destroying one of the most beautiful and genuine relationships that I have ever experienced.

Aside from our singing lessons, Sangeeta-jee has already planned out my life. She says that if I come back after my Watson, I can study with her at the University and by the time I’m 32, I’ll have a PHD and we can work together. Tempting.

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I run home for lunch with Vatsila, my lovely 15 year old sister: chapatis, curry, salad, rice, pickle, lentils and an Indian sweet. Then the rest of my day consists of a meeting with a professor who had done a PHD in music therapy and one with an organizer at the BHU hospital who is trying to start a music therapy program there. Then a Hindi lesson, home to do some cartwheels on the front patch of grass, and a delicious dinner that involves a lot of me asking “what are they saying about me??”. Hindi lessons aren’t working quite as fast as I’d like.

Back to the Gats for a quick jaunt with Anju masi. We are a silly looking pair.  A short, bouncy woman in Sari in her 40’s and a tall girl in her 20’s with curly hair wearing an outfit that doesn’t look quite right on her. Maybe it’s the tennis shoes paired with Indian dress. Nevertheless the two ladies fit perfectly together. We fit perfectly. We are family. The moon, extending its light onto the ripples of the river, the sound of a tabala and sarangi playing, the smell of incense and fried food, and Anju-masi’s chatty voice filling my ears and pulling the corners of my mouth into a smile. This is how I end my day.

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Why are the neighbors cooking already? I smell the burning of plastic and clanking of pots outside my window and know it is 5AM. I roll over, re-tuck the loose mosquito net around my mattress and fall asleep for another 2 hours. My alarm rings at 7AM. I flick the grasshopper-like creature off of my leg, wondering briefly how it made it in through the net that even mosquitos shouldn’t be able to penetrate.

I start my routine. Breathe in, hands in prayer position, forward fold, plank, up dog, down dog, right leg forward, warrior one, crawl out of my hips. Repeat. Cold 35 second shower. Dominik, the German volunteer, and I sit on the porch eating oats with bananas and Aurovillian cashews and figs. It takes only 3 tries for me to start the motorcycle this morning. At Svaram, (http://www.svaram.org/) 40 workers gather: 35 of them Tamil and 5 foreign. They stare at me wide eyed, they giggle and clap as I lead a workshop about opera. We sing scales, puff our diaphragms out, I explain what opera is. My words are doubled, once in English (useless), once in Tamil (translated), but my singing comes only once, in Italian.

Motor bike, move faster, I’m late. Across town at the Auroville Language Lab (http://listenwell.com/English/index.htm) I sit across from a lovely, dynamic individual. She teaches me about the science of listening and comprehension. Verbal and auditory information is processed in the left brain, but only right ear dominant listeners get to send new data directly there. For those who are left ear dominant, information goes to their right brains and has to be transferred to the left brain, creating a small time lag in information processing. In class, at work, with friends…..always a frustrating second behind. The Tomatis method (Audio Psycho Phenology) that she works with, a musical listening therapy program, helps address this problem and others, and is actually supported by Before/After Auditory and Brain scans. This grounding in Western science is comforting – nice to tuck away for the inevitable doubtful people and moments.

Faster, motor bike; I’m late again. We sit on the floor in a circle: 7 thamel women and I. I’m leading these women, who have all lived 30-50 years, in a women’s workshop. They giggle and won’t sing for me. I yell at them to stand up! We throw our “serious hats” in the middle, pulling our “silly hats” over our ears; an old camp trick. We jiggle. I tell them they can sing as loud as they want, take up as much space as they please. Again my words are doubled. I have no idea if they are lost in translation but something seems to work. We start singing in rounds and create imaginary tubes linking our ears. We listen to each other. A little bit of hip shaking and wailing. I worry over whether they enjoyed the class, but they rave about it.

In a cozy hut surrounded by trees, I teach a beautiful flautist how to breathe for Western classical singing. We strut around, little penguins, our bodies exploding with air. She shares her music and I share mine: French, Indian, Ragas, flute, voice, violin, there is no genre.

Twenty three minutes of running. I get chased by a growling dog. The village boys giggle, and I blush. Motor bike, I’m late again. Fifty people gather in a circle to sing “OM” for an hour. Literally the one syllable, but so many notes. I listen for the harmonies that appear out of nowhere. I try to snatch them. Maybe Whitman should have an “OM” choir. But wait, where is Whitman?

Dinner with a friend. We talk about mental disorders, about accepting them, about the pain they cause families. Porch again and the power is out. The candles smell like a yoga studio. My writing dribbles out of the pen in crooked lines. Hot water with ginger, lemon and honey. The cow moos. Goodnight cow, goodnight moon.

I’m sitting on a 35 hour train ride from Chennai to Agra, on my way to an international music therapy conference that just happened to land during my visit to India. Oh, the irony…

I feel my pants pressed against my belly as I settle into criss-cross apple sauce. Definitely tighter than how they felt in Nepal, thanks to the rich paneer curries and flat breads glistening with ghee that are constantly piled onto my plates by friends’ mothers and grandmothers.

Instead of feeling upset at having to sit for 2 days straight, I’m surprisingly thankful for the opportunity to sleep past 6, to not have to overeat for fear of upsetting or insulting someone’s mom, and to read my new book: The White Tiger.

As I sit here reflecting on the past month and a half, I am starting to realize how ridiculous my days have been here. So full. So overwhelming. But, for better or for worse, I’ve gotten used to simply accepting my days for what they are. Essentially: this is normal, because this is real. But as I sit back watching the little naked boys running around the arid landscape, the women in saris washing clothes in the filthy river and the cows roaming around the train station, I realize: this is not normal. And so I remember…. it is time to share some more of my experiences again.

Of course I’ve seen the Taj Mahal, eaten the famous street food in Delhi, taken 3 day train rides, seen Indian dance and music concerts, done a bit of yoga, seen people bathing in the Ganges and many of the other things that India is known for. But I think it would be more interesting to give an insight into my life here by describing 4 unique, but not unusual, days here – one day in each place I’ve spent time in.

I’ll post them one day at a time.

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As my time in Nepal comes to a finish, I would like to share 3 distinct project-related experiences that will hopefully give a little taste of my interactions with music as a form of healing in Nepal. These experiences represent a mere fraction of the musical adventures that I’ve found myself having here, but they will serve as a bit of a window:

Cerebral Palsy center with the Music Therapy Trust:

While in Kathmandu, I volunteered with and observed therapists working for The Music Therapy Trust (TMTT) in an autism center, a cerebral palsy center and a general disabilities home. TMTT has very developed programs and music therapy schools in both England and India, but it plays a very different role in Nepal. It is a pioneering program here, bringing the first psychologically based music therapists to Nepal. Being a part of the establishment of a Western (and what some may call), “alternative” therapy in a developing country is one of the main reasons why I wanted start my journey in Nepal.

During my second week at the cerebral palsy clinic, a Nepali music therapist and I were leading a group session, using music to stimulate physical responses and movements. In a transition between two exercises, we began to sing the famous Nepali folk tune “Resham Firiri” (which if you’ve been to Nepal, you have absolutely heard from the bothersome music instrument salesmen who line the streets). The kids perked up, excited by the familiar and beloved song. I crawled over to the side of the room where the severe kids were laying in a motionless state. As I got closer I realized that one of the girl’s lips were moving. I put my ear closer to her wiggling mouth. She was singing. She was absolutely singing the words to the song that I was struggling to remember. I looked at her and her face erupted into a huge, uncontrollable grin. I looked around. Was everyone seeing this? This girl had gone from a completely still, unemotive state to the most joyous expression of music I had seen in a long, long time.

Although witnessing and working with incapacitating disabilities has been trying and painful, working with clients who are conscious yet completely unable to express themselves vocally or physically has been the most dumbfounding experience. And even though music may not immediately “fix” any of their problems, it can certainly help them access expression and life in a unique and uplifting way.

Chakra Music Therapy

A ring on each finger, draped in a colorful matching kurti and genie pants, long nails breathing life into the collection of strings tightly wound around the suitar. This is how Ashmita heals people. Chakra healing with a suitar. She says that she can heal anything from eye infections to paralysis to money problems. It may take a few sessions, she explains, but her 15 year practice has not only grown exponentially in popularity but has helped hundreds of patients through problems: physical and emotional alike.

There are seven chakras (if you don’t know what a chakra is, I encourage you to read more about it: http://goo.gl/hEFi) stretching from the root chakra (at the base of the spine) which grounds our bodies to the earth, to the crown chakra, which connects us to higher consciousness and spirituality. These 7 chakras line up with the 7 notes of the musical scale (do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do). It is believed that each spiritual energy center that originates in a specific part of our body corresponds with one of these notes and their respective frequencies.

It is hard to say whether it is people’s belief in the music’s energy to heal or a real connection between chakra, therapist and music that transforms people’s lives. But how can I argue with someone who learned to walk after an accident with the help of this woman’s knowledge and music?

Drum Healing with Shamans

I think my drumming is off. Also, I doubt I’m supposed to be having any conscious thoughts right now. It’s like shavasana in yoga. You’re just supposed to be, to concentrate on your breath or in this case, on the beat of the drum. But that was only 2 minutes into the drum session. By minute 7, I was absolutely immersed. The 3 Shamans and I drum in complete synchrony, a wild, banging energy spreads through my inner ear canals and overflows into the room. Cross-legged, closed eyes, hands moving, hitting the drum without my conscious direction. There is literally no opportunity for the mind to wander. The overwhelming thumping of the drum knocks any conscious flow of thoughts right out of my nostrils.

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Surrounded by these Shamans at a plastic picnic table just 30 minutes beforehand, I had skeptically listened to their explanations of drum healing. Drumming as a way of reaching a mental space where healing can happen? Coming from a man who said he saw a woman turn into a snake and then into algae, I wasn’t exactly sure what to believe.

But then I started recognizing many of his terms from past biology and anatomy classes and realized that much of their work is rooted in what the West accepts as science. Names of real anatomical processes and physics terms challenged Shamanistic principles to an intense game of tug-of-war in my brain. Their appearance didn’t help. Sports shorts, worn t-shirts and flip flops didn’t exactly fit my conception of what a Shaman would be.

The experience made me really start to reflect on why I was initially suspicious of these types of non-Western therapeutic practices. And more than that, if I, an avid believer in the powers of meditation and yoga, furrow my brow at this kind of alternative healing, how does the broader Western community perceive people like Shaman Mohan? From what I’ve seen, even relatively open people are rather judgmental and often laugh at this kind of “medicine”. But why? What makes Western medicine and therapy inherently superior to the practices of Eastern traditions? It seems that we put our faith in FDA approval over the experiences of the thousands of years that these traditions have serving their communities. Scientists openly admit that we have yet to truly understand the majority of the brain’s workings yet we accept disease diagnoses and drug prescriptions with unquestioning faith. Why we live by these relatively new Western scientific philosophies but immediately discount different healing traditions continues to bother me. This is a tension that I hope to explore throughout the experiences that this year will bring.

 

Now off to India…

Durgesh Maharjan (18 of 19)

I open my eyes to Aama’s half open mouth about 3 inches from my face. Her sleeping face bouncing up and down, mirroring the local bus’s movements, skidding over muddy ditches and boulders on the dirt path. Outside, a blur of dust and hanging corn, drying on the balconies of the little clay houses of passing villages. The bus stops and a man enters holding two chickens. He places them on the luggage shelf above the seats. The chicken’s wide eyes stay open for an inordinate amount of time, pupils threatening to take over the irises. I wonder if it’s possible that they are more carsick than I am.

I close my eyes starting to drift away from this sweaty, bumpy bus ride, but am awakened almost immediately by a soft caress on my head. Instinctively, I turn around. The woman standing in the aisle gives me a guilty look as if to say “I just wanted to touch your hair…”. This isn’t a new experience for me. I smile at her. We’ve not yet finished our sweet exchange, when the bus gives an enormous jolt and without warning, the woman’s hands are in mine, grasping for stability. We remain like this, 4 henna covered hands interlaced, braced for the next bump in the road. The women around me start to talk to Aama in record speed Nepali. I catch a few words: “America…. sari ….. henna ….dancing”. Yes, I danced in sari all weekend, decorated in traditional henna with the Nepali women. And yes, I am from America.

My eyes trace the lines on the woman’s hands, half henna half wrinkles, from our intertwined fingers, past her pregnant belly, all the way up to her eyes. Shocked, I utter “ramro akka”, for she is the first Nepali woman I’ve seen with green eyes. She smiles and says “same, same”, pointing back and forth between our eyes.

We are traveling back from a weekend at my friend, Bikram’s, village which lies only about 145 km from Kathmandu but takes more than 8 hours to get to. Bikram’s mom, Aama (simply mom in Nepali), generously hosted us for the celebration of Teej, the women’s festival. Although the festival, filled with women in their elegant red saris dancing for 24 hours straight, may seem like a true celebration of womanhood, it is actually observed by woman with the intent of praying for the health and well-being of their husbands.

To give you some context, a few months ago Bikram brought a French friend to his village. After a day of graciously hosting this new guest, Bikram’s aunt came up to her nephew and worriedly asked what was wrong with his friend, for he wasn’t reciprocating the enthusiastic banter that is so commonplacein the village. Bikram explained to her that his friend was from France and therefore did not speak Nepali. Her face filled with confusion. The idea that there were people in the world who did not speak Nepali had simply never occurred to her.

When we arrived in the village, we were greeted by a herd of small children and excited members of Bikram’s family. The crowd drove us into a small grove of banana and mango trees to feed us a festive meal: rice pudding with coconut, spicy potatoes, pickled radish, and a sweet fried bread. An hourlater, Aama beckoned us to her home for dinner, a surprise meal of…..rice pudding with coconut, spicy potatoes, pickled radish, and a sweet fried bread. Then we were ushered to a muddy backyard to commence the dancing. I twirled barefoot with the beautiful Nepali women until midnight. At 12 AM, dripping with sweat and newly decorated with henna, we were served a final meal. I’ll let you guess what it consisted of. I have never been so full in my life. That night I slept on a tiny wooden plank of a bed squeezed next to another girl, in the corner of a cockroach filled room. The traditional celebration of Teej began the next morning.

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(Henna time!)

I was brought into a small dark room filled with excitement and woman. So many woman. Within 30 seconds, all of my clothes were off and 4 different women were trying to shove my arms into a tiny top. It took them a couple of minutes of tugging and pulling to realize that I am not “normal Nepali” size. However, after the better part of an hour, the blouse was finally buttoned, petticoat skirt was on, a long, red sari enveloped me, and makeup covered my face for the first time in years. I was ready to go.

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We walked arm in arm down a dirt road in 95 degree weather, making the yearly pilgrimage to a small Hindu temple. During the 45 minute walk, we passed several packs of women from all around the valley making the same pilgrimage. I greeted them with the expected “namaste” and allowed them to giggle at me and touch my hair. I won’t bore you with the details, but the day was filled with throwing red rice at small deities, making circles around the little yellow temple, and dancing, dancing, dancing.

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(Dancing at the temple)

The weekend made me think about how much power there is in generosity and in people’s willingness to accept and include outsiders. Under normal circumstances, the conditions would surely have impeded on a good time: excessive amounts of rice, a dirty squat toilet, uncomfortable sleeping accommodations, no shower and water that I knew was not fit to drink (thank god for the steripen). However, these details went completely unnoticed because of the palpable kindness of the people in the village. Constant offers of chai tea, hands holding mine at all times, laughs and smiling eyes, sharing in dance and music, these things can override any amount of dirt and poverty. It has been kind of a shock to realize the true potential of human connection. It has also left me with the question: how will I pay it forward after a year of accepting such selfless generosity from strangers?

Good thing I have a year to think about it.

I know it may not be my best look, but in Kathmandu you do all you can to protect yourself from the elements. At least I do. Sunglasses to shield the eyes from the fleeting but surprisingly intense sunshine, face mask to avoid a mouthful of dust and lessen the unbearable smell of car and motorcycle fumes, and a helmet which serves as a mind trick – a facade of safety on the battlefields that are the Kathmandu roads.

Just so you know, I am not just an oversensitive American. This is a completely normal look, for a motorcycle driver, that is. To this day, I still haven’t seen a passenger wearing a helmet (and almost every motorcycle has at least two people on it). I, however, have no shame in being the first.

You may be asking “Lian! Where are you living? (And why?) It sounds like a dusty, polluted, crowded, crazy, monsoon filled, electricity void crap hole!” (Ok, so I may have extrapolated that a bit.) And I might respond, “you’re simply not wrong.” But as a psychology student, I was well trained to know that first impressions are only meant to take up space until true opinions can be formulated.

I’ve had a rough start here in Kathmandu, Nepal, no doubt. It was more than a small shock to be welcomed into the poverty, electricity cuts, cockroaches, monsoon floods, and trash filled streets that make up this city. Luckily beneath the dust (literally) I’ve started to discover a spiritual, welcoming, musical, lively and beautiful Kathmandu.

Let me show you…..

My host here in Nepal, Salve, found out that I was an “exercise freak” (meaning that I trail run frequently….) and so, a few days after landing I received an invitation from her brother in law, Suman, to accompany him on his morning exercise walk to one of the major Buddhist temples, Swayambounath. At 5:45 sharp the next morning clad in my white tennis shoes and turquoise REI wick-away shirt, we started our search for some morning spirituality. After making a clockwise circle around the base of the temple (spinning prayer wheels along the way) and climbing 365 steep, ancient stairs leading up to the temple, we finally reached Swaymbounath, the beloved Monkey Temple, in all of its glory. Buddhist legend recounts that back when the Kathmandu Valley was a lake, a  single lotus grew in the middle of the lake. When one of the gods came and drained the lake, the lotus flower sat itself on top of a large hill and magically transformed into the stupa, or holy Buddhist mound, that sits in the middle of Swayambounath today. This legend explains the name of the sacred stupa: Swayambu or self-created.

After a brief history/mythology lesson (sometimes it’s quite hard to distinguish between the two), I let Suman go hang out with his walking crew for some morning gossip and pushups while I wandered around. Within 5 minutes, I was wearing a huge, silly grin on my face. How could I not be? Several hundred monkeys running around the huge overhanging trees, Tibetan monks in long red robes humming old mantras, four squinty eyed Buddas staring out in each of the 4 cardinal directions, and incense smoke (not completely different from Nag Champa) twirling in the air. In my euphoric exploration, I stumbled on to this:

A Bhajan singing group in devotional song.

The 6 am Swayambu procession is becoming a multi week occurrence for me here in Kathmandu. It is both a peaceful escape from the bustling and crowded streets of the city and an increasingly fascinating place where both the spiritual and the active Nepalis meet for a shared morning ritual.