Welcome to my blog! I am so excited to have this back up and running so I can keep all of you up to date on my experiences in Ghana. I will be embarking on a 3 month internship in Accra with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) developing anti-child trafficking initiatives in schools around the city.

I hope you enjoy the blog! I will do my best to post regularly!

25 February, 2011

Holidays 2010: Surprise!

Unbeknownst to my parents and my girlfriend Katherine, I decided way back in September to fly home for Christmas. I bid Aja, Ellen, and Marie goodbye in Delhi and as they made their way to the train station; I headed to the airport.

Still not feeling well, I was ready for some good food in Amsterdam, where I was scheduled to layover for no less than 12 hours. When I first saw this itinerary, I was thrilled. I would get a full day in an amazing city and then proceed to New York from there! Unfortunately, the weather had other plans and the city of Amsterdam, along with a good deal of Western Europe, was effectively shut down. All flights out of Delhi to Europe were either delayed indefinitely or cancelled, so finding another way home wasn’t going to easy. There were just about 1,000 people in the Delhi airport in the same predicament as me, which didn’t improve my odds of escaping India. A family behind me wasn’t going to be able to get out for another 3 days and the airline was refusing to put them up anywhere…Inside I began to have a bit of a melt down, but then, salvation! Or so I thought…

I had pushed my way up to the front of the crowd and literally threw my passport on the counter because I had just discovered an Air India direct flight from Delhi to Chicago leaving in just over an hour. I was given a seat and even a ticket. I was ecstatic…I would still get home on schedule. When I got to the gate, however, I was flatly told that my ticket wasn’t good and that my initial carrier had assumed there would be enough room on the plane. I think I stood and stared at the woman behind the desk for a full minute without speaking. I was angry…to put it mildly.

I had now been in the airport for about 9 hours and I knew that the chances of me finding a second flight were slim to none, but I went back to the main ticketing area and began to attempt to negotiate my way onto a flight. After about another 2 hours of haggling and arguing, I was able to get a seat (business class no less) on Royal Jordanian Airways to JFK with a stopover in Amman, Jordan. At this point, I was in no position to be picky, so I jumped at the opportunity. I rushed through security and didn’t relax until I was sitting on the plane bound for Jordan.

Amman and then another 13 to JFK and by the time I landed in an absolutely frigid New York City, I was feeling worse and very ready to stop traveling. Seeing my brother at the airport was an amazing feeling. He was in on the plan and had graciously agreed to drive me home from the airport.Once home I collapsed on my bed, which seemed so much softer than I remembered it. My parents were at the McCoy’s annual Christmas party so I had a few hours before they would be home. My sister Julie arrived home first and we had a wonderful reunion. When I heard my parents walk through the door downstairs, my heart began racing. As we rehearsed, Julie called down, “The package Ben sent from India came!” At that point I walked down the stairs and literally shocked my parents. My father took it in stride but was extremely happy and mymother just kind of stared at me as if I wasn’t real. It was good to be home.

The next day I was able to see most of my family at my Aunt Helen’s birthday party and they were all so surprised. Now I just had to make it 6 days before seeing Katherine. It felt strange to have been home for so long without being able to contact her. Those 6 days flew by thanks to fun times at home, sharing stories, listening to Christmas music, and just being with my family. I also spent quite a bit of time at my doctor’s office.

Christmas Eve arrived and I was so happy to be home. My family went to midnight mass at Saint Thomas in Thomaston and sat through a wonderful service. The church looked so beautiful; particularly because I had not seen the new carpeting, paint job, and kneelers. After mass, we went back to the house and waited for our guests to arrive for our annual Christmas Eve party. It was amazing to have everyone over the house and to see all of the smiling faces. My cousin Becky resurrected the tradition of having a piƱata at the party, which made for even more memories. At the end of the night, my family and I cleaned the house and then exchanged gifts, as I would be leaving very early the next morning to drive up to Albany to surprise Katherine on Christmas!

I felt like a little kid waiting for Santa to arrive that night. I couldn’t sleep. I had been planning Christmas morning for four months and I was too excited to shut my eyes. Finally, after some of the longest hours of my life, my alarm sounded. I had already packed my car so I got dressed and hopped right in. I didn’t see another car on the road until I hit I-90, so I made great time and arrived at the McCoy’s around 8:15am.

When I arrived, I found the garage door unlocked like Katherine’s mom had promised. I put on the Santa hat that was waiting for me and quietly went into the house. Mr. and Mrs. McCoy (who I have to thank for helping me plan everything!) were already awake and waiting for me. I snuck upstairs and slowly opened Katherine’s door. She immediately lifted her head and what happened next was like a scene out of a movie. I barely got, “Merry Christmas!” out before she shot out of bed and jumped into my arms. It was one of the best moments of my life and I immediately knew my trip home had been worth it. We were both smiling ear to ear all day.

Katherine’s family came over for a Christmas feast, which was a lot of fun and the next day we headed into New York City to see Billy Elliot on Broadway! It was a phenomenal show and the dancing was particularly impressive. The trip to the city was made far more interesting by the blizzard that awaited us. I certainly didn’t envy Mr. McCoy as he was charged with driving back to Albany from Poughkeepsie. We arrived back far later than expected and the snow was still coming down fast. Katherine and I had to be up in just a few hours to make our way to the airport for our flight to Chicago, but the weather being what is was, we were certain that we would be getting a text alert that we were delayed or cancelled.

To our surprise our flight read “On schedule” on the Albany airport’s website. We were one of only three flights that went out! Thank you Southwest Airlines! We were both very excited to be going to Chicago to visit Uncle Paul and Aunt Robin, Diana, and Claire who Katherine hadn’t seen in years and I had never met.

From the moment we were met at the airport to the moment we were dropped back off, we had a great time in Chicago! Our stay included some amazing food, sledding, a neighborhood new years party, a trip into the city, and even meeting Mike Ditka! I am looking forward to seeing them all again this summer when they visit us. I was so happy to get to meet more of Katherine’s family. What a great group of people!

After returning to Albany, I drove back home where my family and I had a nice week of visiting, food, and games. Before I knew it, it was time to get back on a plane and return to India. I knew my time at home was going to go by quickly, but I was still a little taken aback at just how fast it had passed. Saying goodbye to everyone for a second time was slightly more difficult, but it was comforting to know that I would be home in another 4 months or so.

The NFL playoffs were on the night I was leaving, so I made sure to find a seat in front of the Packers VS Eagles game in my terminal. I was actually the absolute last person to board my Air France flight to Paris to the obvious annoyance of the flight crew/airport staff. I kept stalling and stalling until the 3rd quarter came to a close. I looked at the exasperated AF employee standing over my shoulder and joked, “Do you think I have time to watch the 4th?” Apparently she didn’t appreciate my humor. They like cheese in France, but I guess not on their heads!

During my short layover in Paris, I got some great coffee and enjoyed eavesdropping on people’s conversations in French. Then it was off to Bangalore where the girls would meet me later that night. Little did I know that my baggage would decide to stay in Paris for an extra day! I can’t say I blame it, but as for me, I was back in India!

29 January, 2011

Traveling India: Delhi

Being in Delhi was like being on another planet at times, and then, there were glimpses of the India we’ve come to know, or try to know. On our first day, we visited the Red Fort, which was similar to Agra Fort but had restaurants, shops, photo exhibitions, and museums inside.

I enjoyed being there and taking photos, having tea with the girls and taking in the beautiful Moughal architecture. We spent a good deal of time there and then went to the Jama Mosque (the biggest in the city), which was beautiful. I love Islamic architecture and the “feel” of them when inside. Perhaps the most poignant moment of my day was after we finished view the mosque and were walking back to the car and we had an encounter with two street girls about 4-6 years old. Two little girls, beautiful, their faces and hands were

crusted with mud and sand, their smile yellowed, their hair matted, but their eyes shone with a childlike glow that made them so amazing. They laughed when I showed them pictures of them on my camera. When we left we gave them a few Rupees and waved goodbye. I couldn’t get their little faces out of my head as we drove to the hotel in a nice car towards a warm Indian dinner. I can still picture them, perfectly, without consulting my photos. Two people dealt remarkably different hands in life.

The rest of our stay in Delhi was a time to forget, at least for me. I had come down with a stomach bug (I later found out that I had e-coli poisoning) that had me running to the bathroom every 5 to 10 minutes, but the girls were able to go out and see the city, and from what I heard, had a great time.

Regardless of my stomach’s woes, I was very excited to leave Delhi and make my way back home for Christmas. I said goodbye to the girls who were heading to the deserts of Rajasthan, and waited a few more hours before heading to the Delhi airport…Next stop Amsterdam then off to New York! Or so I thought…

Traveling India: Agra

Agra is…different. According to all of the guidebooks and general consensus of other travelers, the city itself isn’t worth a second glance. In fact, its only redeeming quality is the fact that it is home to the Taj Mahal. If it weren’t there, no one would visit, willingly at least. In fact, aside from the Taj Mahal, Agra is best known for filthy streets, crime, and rampant corruption.

Our hotel was within a 2-3 minute walk of the Taj, which was great and its rooftop restaurant offered great views. Our only night in Agra was a terrible and sleepless one for all of us. We happened to be so lucky as to arrive in Agra in the midst of a big Muslim holiday that apparently requires obscenely loud music to be played from speakers around the city that would put the Tweeter Center’s to shame. Parts of our rooms were literally vibrating. When I asked the man at the front desk of the hotel if the music would stop, he flatly said, “It goes all night.” Wonderful. When he said all night, he wasn’t kidding. Our walls shook from about 8pm to 5:30am we were all a bit grumpy when our alarms went off at 5:45…We later found out that the holiday is actually a sad day meant to lament the deaths of important Muslims long ago. Upon learning this, I felt bad for wishing the music would stop so fervently.

We left the hotel around 6:15 and headed to the Taj where we purchased tickets and collected our complementary water bottle and shoe covers. As we proceeded through the West Gate, it was apparent that the Taj Mahal was one of those things that lives up to its billing. It is absolutely massive and perfectly symmetrical from all 4 sides. The closer I got (snapping pictures all the way), the more impressive the monument became. Intricate carvings of floral scenes graced the sides and more than 30 types of semi-precious stones are inlaid in elaborate designs and floral motifs. Before climbing up the stairs to the main platform, all visitors need to either remove their footwear or slip on the bright red shoe covers provided with your ticket…we all went with the latter.

Inside, the tombs chamber surrounded is by a solid marble screen. The twin red sandstone mosques flanking the Taj were perhaps even more beautiful with equally impressive floors and archways. With the rising sun giving the white marble a golden glow, I got some great photographs.

After taking some traditional tourist pictures at the Taj we went for lunch and coffee before moving on to the Agra Fort, an amazing architectural feat in its own right. Located just on the opposite bank from the Taj, the fort’s red walls and opulent features were breathtaking. The king at the time of its construction even had his own private fishing pond (at which he used a bow and arrows to fish) and 365 girlfriends…needless to say, the man had it good. After a late lunch we grabbed our train from Agra to Delhi.

22 January, 2011

Traveling India: Varanasi

Hello! Now begins my somewhat futile attempt at telling you all about our amazing travels around India as well as my surprise trip home to see my family and Katherine for the holidays.
We left Agartala on a rainy December 9th and hopped a quick flight to Kolkata. The next step was an overnight train ride to Varanasi, the first stop on our adventure.
Varanasi is touted as one of the oldest "living cities" in India, so I was very excited to explore some of the local culture and history. We decided to change our accommodations relatively last minute because of a terrorist bombing that had occurred near the site of our hotel just a few days prior. While we felt perfectly safe throughout our time in Varanasi, our stay at Nav Sadhana (a college/cultural center run by nuns) was wonderful. The sisters treated us like special guests and made sure we wanted for nothing. Our first day was full of touring. We visited several Hindu temples as well as the city's largest institution of higher learning. The most impressive temple, in my opinion was called the New Vishwanatha Temple. It was beautiful inside and out with a soaring white tower and red main structure. The inside was marble with intricate paintings on the walls and ceilings.

Our second day in Varanasi was on of those days when you feel like you've seen and done too much to ever fit into a mere 24 hours. We woke up at 5am and left for the ancient banks of the Ganga (Ganges) River. We arrived and promptly hired a small boat with one rower. The Ganges is just like the guide books described it, but to actually be there to experience it was incredible. A thick mist enveloped us as the boat glided along the water. Every minute the sun
gets higher and your visibility begins to improve. Slowly you are able to discern more and more of what is happening all around you. The thousands of faithful crowding the banks to take a dip in the sacred river so as to purify themselves, the ghats, where hundreds of bodies are cremated each day, the boaters, the bird, the smells...all made this an amazing experience that I will not soon forget. We passed the site of that week's terrorist attack and, apart from the ghat being vacant, not much looked out of sorts. The world moves on.

The boat ride was one of the most interesting and spiritual experiences of my life. Though not a Hindu, my appreciation for spirituality and respect for custom and religious practice. Perhaps most fascinating was the clash of modernity with ancient ritual. All around us were people submerging themselves in the river, an age-old practice, but behind them camera flashes blinked, cell phones rang, and the noise of traffic from nearby roadways could be heard. Despite the influx of reminders of today's world, I still felt transported back to a simpler place. That's the power of the Ganges.
After our spiritually charged morning, we were off to the Nav Vani School for the Hearing Impaired. The school was beautiful, but per usual is a schools inhabitants that make it extraordinary. The school runs from kindergarten to 12th grade and caters specifically to children with hearing disabilities, though I wouldn't gather that those students feel disabled when within its comforting walls. I am so very happy that I took elementary American Sign Language (ASL) at Stonehill because although Indian signs are different, I was still able to
communicate basic words an ideas to the students. This took them by surprise and made them extremely happy. The children even said that many Indian teachers and officials have visited them, but they just look and smile and and not communicate so they were very impressed.
My experience at the Nav Vani School was a heartwarming one to be sure, but more than that it made me wish that I could do more for them than just smile and fumble over some American signs. We left our new friends with wide smiles and wonderful memories and made our way to the city for some marketing. What an experience! Marie encapsulated our thoughts best when she said, "Just walking around in the city is physically and mentally exhausting." Physically because you're constantly jumping and darting between cars, autos, buses, cows, bikes, scooters, goats, and of course throngs of people...mentally because your brain is trying its very best to keep up while processing the incessant noise and sometimes noxious scents that fill the air. We visited a silk factory and several shops. I purchased some Christmas gifts for family and ever broke down and got a pijama for myself! With marketing finished we headed to our final stop of the day, the largest Catholic church in the city. It was a beautiful building, very modern in its design, and we spent a few reflective moments inside before making our way to the cathedral's basement where the most elaborate Bible "display" I have ever seen was located. It was quite well done, but with all of the poverty in Varanasi just outside its doors, I couldn't help but wonder if that was the best way to spend their money. Completely spent, we went back to Nav Sadhana retired to our rooms.
The next day, our last in Varanasi, was also quite exciting. We went on an excursion to Sarnath, one of Buddhism's holiest sites. It is comprised of ruins and several temples as well as a well maintained park where many people were picnicking and enjoying the wonderful weather. One of the temples actually house some relics of Buddha himself. Also on the grounds was the Dhamekh Stupa, an impressive sight rising 33.5 meters in a huge cylinder of brick.
Also at Sarnath is the tree under which Buddha gave his first sermon after achieving enlightenment. We were quite lucky to see the holy places of 3 major religions while in Varanasi and I was looking forward to visiting some mosques in Delhi.
We proceeded to the train station and as we pulled out of Varanasi on our way to Agra and the Taj Mahal, I couldn't help but smile...