Tag Archives: blogs

“It’s the most confusing, energetic, and hilarious place I’ve ever been”

Hilary and Indian child (image © Girish Menon)

Hilary FG is the author of hilary in mumbai, a blog about her life as an American expat in India’s so-called Maximum City. Her posts cover the gamut of Mumbai activities – from the perils of buying food, to coping with humidity, to the cast of characters at a regular expat party – and while her blogging is occasionally infrequent, this is largely in an effort to ensure quality.

I first discovered Hilary’s blog when she commented on one of my posts for The NRI about dealing with the dreaded local FRRO on the quest to obtain tiny-but-vital residency stamps. My immediate reaction upon looking through a couple of her posts was to laugh, loudly and repeatedly, but consistent reading showed that her humorous take was not merely frivolous. Many are lengthy and detailed, and the humour acts as a vehicle for quite genuine insight into what it’s like to be young, white and female in such a seething foreign metropolis.

Hilary has been known to undertake long flights somewhat regularly, and works full time for a living in a place where working full-time can easily occupy all of your surviving brain cells, but she was happy to answer my questions and let us a little further inside her world.

(NB: You will notice that Hilary is American and therefore spells ‘humour’ without a ‘u’. Please forgive her for this.)

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Why did you start blogging, and why do you keep blogging? (Is this your first blog?)

For about one week my sister and I had a blog called “Sisters Make the Best of Friends” on which we posted pictures of the cake we made on the 4th of July, items of clothing that prove that money can’t buy class, and video clips we think everyone should see. We didn’t really share it with anyone and took it down the next week.

I started blogging because my fellowship encouraged us to, and because I thought it would be a good way to keep my family informed without sending monster emails to everyone. My blog ended up not being about my day-to-day activities, so I still sent out those emails anyway, but the blog definitely helps me put events into context and reflect.

I keep blogging because it’s fun and other people seem to enjoy it. People tell me I say things they’ve wanted to talk about but couldn’t express. Expats here have sent my blog to their families and said, “Now they can picture just what I’ve been going through.” I love that. I also want a testament to all the things I go through here that I might forget later in life.

Have you ever kept a personal journal? If so, do you see ‘hilary in mumbai’ as an extension of that journal (or vice versa)?

I tried to keep a number of journals at a young age and failed pretty miserably. I usually liked journaling because I loved buying pretty notebooks, and physical paper is one thing ‘hilary in mumbai’ doesn’t have. I think there are a lot of “stream of consciousness” blogs out there, that are very journal-esque, and I’m usually not a very big fan. I like to give events the proper time to ruminate before I try to put words to them. If I had a journal it might have even more swears in it.

There are also a lot of things I go through that I will never put in the blog. Some things might be interesting, but violate some general privacy considerations, like my personal relationships or my job. Other things, like travel logistics, are just boring, and I don’t think anyone should put them anywhere.

What is your first memory of writing creatively?

My first experiment with writing creatively was a journal I kept of our family trip to Italy. I was around 5 years old and the whole thing is barely comprehensible and phonetic. I think it makes for a really wonderful read of life through the eyes of a weirdo 5-year-old.

"This is sugar packet from a very fancy restaurant."

I was told I was a horrible writer for 20 years of my life and it never came easily to me. I’m actually a published author now, and there’s the ole blog, so people have been eating their words.

Describe something that is beautiful to you.

I really like gradients in nature, like sunsets and horizons. I think the beach my family and I go to in Wellfleet, Cape Cod, is probably the thing that I dream about the most. Thinking about the transition of the dunes to the water to the sky makes me very homesick. There is something particularly magical about the light on Cape Cod.

Have you always been interested in India, or was there a moment in your life that pushed you to go there?

I have a pretty nerdy backstory. I took Latin and Greek in high school, and I started taking Sanskrit so I could get all three Indo-European root languages. I’ve forgotten almost every word I learned, but I loved the material I was reading. The difference in worldview and philosophies that I came upon studying Sanskrit spurred an interest in India, although I really knew nothing about it when I first started. I visited India for the first time in 2004. I was on a high school trip in which we visited the Mumbai slums. My world was definitely blown open by what I experienced. I had no idea how to categorize or contextualize everything that I saw, and I knew I was never going to stop studying India. I remember picking my major in college and knowing that if I picked South Asian Studies I would never get bored. Since then I’ve been back on a study abroad program and now “for good” in September 2010.

How would you describe Mumbai to someone who had never been there? What advice would you give someone visiting for the first time?

I have two pieces of advice, once of which you’ve probably read on my Twitter. “Take the shits with the giggles” and “It’s worth it” are my main words of wisdom, but I would also tell people to try to suspend judgment for as long as possible. It’s difficult to describe Mumbai to people, especially if they have never been to a developing country. It’s the most confusing, energetic, and hilarious place I’ve ever been. If you can take the shits, you get a lot of giggles. Literally. I think visiting India can be really fun and worthwhile, but moving here might not be right for everyone…

People who come with preconceived notions of spirituality and romanticism can be disappointed, and people who come expecting to see the functioning and developed financial hub of a major world power may also be disappointed. It’s better just to show up. Oh, and use a lot of talcum powder and unscented baby wipes. Eat the street food but don’t wear valuable shoes. And come say hi!

Pretty much every post of yours cracks me up one way or another. I sense such an appreciation of the absurd in the way you view the world around you and your own endeavours. Is this something you’ve had to work at? Who has influenced your sense of humour?

Thank you! Humor is a family specialty. I grew up surrounded by the funniest people I’ve ever met. We have a very verbal family and sitting around making fun of things is probably what we do best. When my last visit with my mom and sister ended we joked that we weren’t going to laugh again until we got to reunite. My father passed away from cancer a year and a half ago, and he kept his sense of humor until the very end. It was impressive.

When I started the blog, I wasn’t sure what audience I should try to write it for. My sister told me to write it like I’m talking to her, and that set the informal tone. What I have to work at is balancing how much to let events speak for themselves, or try to explain the humor in them. I find myself in a lot of situations here that are objectively funny, and I always have to remind myself not to add, “It was soooo funny,” at the end.

It might also be worth mentioning that I have a degree in South Asian Studies and I’ve been studying India for almost a decade now. I try not to make the blog too academic, but I know that my experience with the subject matter means I can spend less time trying to figure out what the hell’s going on, and more time laughing about it. I try to put in My Mind Numbing Fact of the Day to acknowledge that even though I’m laughing, there are a lot of fascinating and devastating things happening all around me.

Even before I moved here, people have complimented me on my ability to convey my worldview in an entertaining and interesting way. People generally like talking to me unless I’m making fun of them. I think if people aren’t naturally observant or critical, a blog by them won’t be fun no matter where they are.

How much of an effect has living abroad had on your belief system(s)?

I’ve changed a lot since moving here, but I’m not sure if it’s had an effect on my belief system. I was an atheist when I moved here and I’m definitely still one. My family has always been the most important thing in the world to me, and that’s still true, maybe more so. Living abroad has definitely made the world seem really small to me. If it’s near an airport it feels nearby to me now. I also think I have been more determined to convince everyone that all people deserve the same standards. The inequity here is really difficult for me to live with and I think that it does not get adequately portrayed in the media. You can’t help but see firsthand here how GDP can correspond so little to people’s lives. Don’t believe the hype.

Is there a post on your blog that you are most proud of?

I like ‘approowalls’. I think most foreigners have a lot more help with relocation than I did, and so not a lot of people have to deal with all the Indian approvals at the same time right when they land, with no maid, driver, phone, internet, etc. That whole experience made me feel invincible.

Has your blog made a difference in other areas of your life?

I’m a more confident writer, and I definitely have more pictures because I force myself to take them. People have recognized me at parties and introduced themselves. Professionally, I try to keep things pretty separate, at least for now, but I like knowing that if I ever need to produce conversational material at a later date for my job, it shouldn’t be a problem. I like to judge new friends by how they respond to the fact that I have a blog and then check in later to see if they’ve read it. I’ve come across some great people that I would probably never have encountered if I didn’t put myself out there, including my interviewer.

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This interview is part of Inside the Bloggers Studio, an ongoing project of short interviews with bloggers I read and admire. (Apologies to James Lipton.) To view the archive, click the category tag in the ‘By Category’ section at the top right of this page.

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“your senses become overwhelmed with the sheer brilliance of what you are watching”

'Forty Guns', directed by Samuel Fuller

Bill Georgaris is the webmaster of They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?, a regularly updated film site that aggregates film criticism and opinion for the benefit of curious cineastes – a ‘cinematic traffic cop’ to sort the wheat from the chaff – with a focus on directors.

TSPDT comprises sections such as comprehensive  director listings, the best films of the 21st Century, appreciation for unsung classics and a resource on film noir; there are lists, links and essays to provide a wide base of knowledge if you’re eager to learn which films, directors and actors are important and why they are revered. By far the most popular part of the site is the 1,000 Greatest Films, an annually updated resource that collates the ‘best of’ ballots of over 2000 filmmakers and respected critics into one mammoth list.

It would have been about 2004 that I first discovered TSPDT, though it had already been around for a couple of years. In those days the site was much smaller, but its director database and Recommended Reading links became the starting point for every time I wanted to feed my burgeoning film obsession. The first 1,000 Greatest Films list came out in 2006, and the site has grown a great deal since then but, thankfully, has kept the same straightforward and easy-to-use interface.

As always with these interviews, it was a wonderful surprise to get a response to my initial inquiry, and then another when I received Bill’s answers. There is a relatively comprehensive About page on the site, but I tried to ask questions that would offer a little extra insight into who he is. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank Bill & Vicki, his partner-in-crime, for the letter grades which I have co-opted from TSPDT’s rating system.

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Why did you start They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?

Looking back, I’m not sure if there was any one reason in particular. I think it was a combination of probably three factors. Firstly, I had time on my hands (not so much these days). Secondly, I thought building a website would be a good outlet for my okay PC skills. And thirdly, and most importantly, my deep affection for cinema. It must be said that two books in particular hugely influenced the way I approached the initial version of TSPDT. They were Geoff Andrew’s The Film Handbook and Andrew Sarris’ The American Cinema.

Have you always kept records of the films you watch and how you feel about them? If so, what form(s) have those records taken?

Absolutely. I’ve maintained a database since 1992 (currently in Microsoft Access format) of the films I have seen, and of the films I wish to see, and all else in between. I think it contains approximately 29,000 titles at the moment. I rate each film I see in the same manner we do on TSPDT (Highly Recommended/Recommended/Worth a Look/Approach with Caution/Dud).

What is your first memory of enjoying watching a film?

There isn’t one particular moment in time I could nominate, but I can say that my first fond film viewing moments were on Saturday and Sunday afternoons when I was aged probably between 6-10. These afternoons were spent watching matinee sessions on the local television channels. The films that left a mark on me were the Lewis/Martin films, the shockingly dubbed Italian sword-and-sandal films (who didn’t want to be Steve Reeves?) and – most memorably – the 1950s Westerns (particularly those with Randolph Scott). I only realised later that the Scott films I loved as a kid were in fact the very sparse and terse (and very adult, I might add) films he made with Budd Boetticher.

Randolph Scott in Shoot-out at Medicine Bend

Describe something that is beautiful to you.

In cinematic terms, that very moment in a film where your senses become overwhelmed with the sheer brilliance of what you are watching (tingling sensations normally ensue). An extraordinary film like Black Narcissus, for example, contains more than a handful of these moments. In non-cinematic terms, my partner Vicki, and my youngest cat Syd. Jean Seberg’s screen presence and Syd Barrett’s singing voice also come rapidly to mind. Stanley Baker in Hell Drivers is also a thing of beauty, as is Carrie Snodgress’s performance in Diary of a Mad Housewife.

What is your chief purpose in compiling ‘greatest’ film lists?

Mainly to keep a record of what films have received, and continue to receive, the most critical acclaim. I don’t know why exactly, but this is of constant fascination to me. These list compiling shenanigans assist me to plan my own film viewing experiences, and I hope that they also prove useful for those that visit TSPDT. As snore-inducing as it may seem for many, I genuinely enjoy playing around with formulas and collating data.

Jean Seberg in A bout de souffle

In the TSPDT 1,000 Greatest Films list, which film do you think should place much lower in the list (or be absent altogether), and which film do you think should place much higher?

There are countless films amongst the 1,000 that I feel should either rate higher or lower, so picking two is difficult. For me, Battleship Potemkin is perhaps the most over-acclaimed film on the TSPDT list. I can think of a hundred silent films that deserve to place higher. It’s an important film, that applied some groundbreaking techniques, but its 10th placing does irk me a little. Somewhere in the 500s would suit it better. In terms of deserving a higher placing, Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns, which is currently placed 985th, should be in the top 200 at least.

Have you ever made a film yourself?

No, absolutely not. I don’t consider myself to be a creative person. I try to keep within my limitations. I wouldn’t subject my lack of creative talent to anyone. That hasn’t stopped Michael Bay or Baz Luhrmann though, has it?

'Battleship Potemkin', directed by Sergei Eisenstein

 

Is there a section or page on your site that you are most proud of?

It’s hard to feel pride for the provision of an assortment of letters, numbers, images and hyperlinks. I don’t consider it that big a deal. I’m prouder of the fact that I’m still breathing after all these years! ‘Pleased to be of some use’ is perhaps a more accurate summation of the way I feel with regard to my TSPDT endeavours. In answer to your original question though, I’m pretty happy with the Film Noir pages at TSPDT. I think they are a decent resource. Additionally, I’m also pleased with the (mainly positive) reaction towards the 1,000 Greatest Films listing.

Name two countries: one you’d like to visit, and one you’d like to visit again.

I am not the best person to ask this, because I am not much of a traveller. I’m a homebody at heart, but I am heading to the UK and France next May.

Do you believe in God?

I do not believe in imaginary beings. Watching films is my preferred mode of escaping reality.

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This interview is part of Inside the Bloggers Studio, an ongoing project of short interviews with bloggers I read and admire.  (Apologies to James Lipton.)  To view the archive, click here.

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“Inaie the blogger is the one who cannot keep her mouth shut, and she tells on all other Inaies”

At Yosemite, California

Inaie Ramalho is the author of Inaie – out and about, a blog about her life and travels as a serial expat. Her homeland is Brazil but she has lived in Australia, New Zealand and the UAE, and is currently based in Bahrain with her husband and two daughters. She writes mostly about her and her family’s travels and lives, with plenty of accompanying photos, but also about all the people close to her in her life.

‘Out and about’ is certainly true, then, but one realises that she has her eyes wide open with curiosity as she goes from place to place, person to person, experience to experience. Her writing is typically open-hearted and direct – she has little use for self-censorship – but a sense of what really matters to her shines through, as well as a desire to learn and understand more about herself and the world around her.

I discovered her blog after she left a comment on mine, and was immediately intrigued by the fact that she double-blogs in English and in Portuguese (which she clarifies further below). Having looked into her archives and found them at times hilarious, at other times moving, I asked if she would answer a few questions, and she responded in record time. All photos used with permission.

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Why did you start blogging?

When I left Brazil I started writing  emails with “my stories” to friends back home. They were emails with my feelings, my discoveries and a bit about everything. A way to stay connected. 10 years later, I was still sending the same emails, but my “receivers” list was much larger and incorporated friends from all countries where I lived. I was writing my emails twice. In English and in Portuguese.
If I were tired, fed up, or just had nothing to say and did not write frequently enough, these friends would send me angry emails, complaining about my absence.
Because of it, I made a point of writing regularly, but Yahoo was blocking my account every other day, calling me a “spammer”. Every time I was blocked I felt so p’off, I would promise I would start blogging. But then Yahoo would unblock me, and I would forget all about it.
I also had several friends asking me to start blogging. BLOG! BLOG! BLOG! they would say…
Recently I met a FAB lady who is a professional blogger, she translates blogs from several languages, she does a pretty serious job with this blogging business. When she told me I should blog, I thought: Well, maybe I should. ‘A’ is someone who knows what she is doing… she has not been my friend for long and has no reason to say things just to please me.
I started the blog, thanked her for “making me do it” and received furious emails from all those friends who have been saying the same thing for ages, with no result.

Bridge near San Simeon, California

Do you keep a journal? If so, what relationship do your blog and your journal have with each other?

Nah. No journal. My mother used to break the lockers to read my teenager journals. Initially I would make up these horrible stories, about unthinkable things, just to terrify her. After a while I just lost interest. If I could not be true to my journal because my darling mother would read it, what was the point? I never went back to journal writing, unfortunately. Today, my revenge is to write things she would not want to know in an open forum – and I know she still reads it.

What is your first memory of writing creatively?

I always enjoyed writing, I remember being 8 or 9, and spending hours making up stories… As I grew up, I realized real stories are far more fun!

Describe something that is beautiful to you.

This is going to sound so tacky, but my girls’ smiles are the most amazing sight. When they look at me and smile, the whole world changes colors, all sounds seem far more clear and beautiful. It is just amazing!

I have pictures of them on my phone; when things get rough, I just look at them and smile too.

Ramalho girls in Santa Barbara

You blog in both English and Portuguese. Do you try to convey the same feeling in both languages, or do you attempt to express yourself with the difference nuances of meaning to which each language lends itself?

You are mistaken. My blog is both in BAD Portuguese and Pidgin English, as I explain in the first line of the blog, but your question has its merit. Initially, my idea was to write in one language and then translate to the other – but as I started doing it, I found it just impossible. I write one story, then when I tell the other one, I remember different facts, I use other visuals; I just write all over again instead of just translating it. Sometimes the texts are completely different, although they talk about the same thing and they are both true.

Have your experiences living and travelling in various different countries changed your belief system(s)?

They sure have. This lifestyle taught me to be more tolerant with the world and see people under a different light. I used to think WE were right (whoever we were) and THEY were wrong. Now I don’t believe in us and them. People are just submitted to different stimuli, grow up under different circumstances and form their values based on these experiences.
People behave different because they see things different. In most cases, there is no right or wrong, in my opinion.
All this traveling made me want to travel more, want to know more, to learn more… life is a fascinating journey!

On the road in California

In your Blogger profile, you mention ‘several Inaies living together under one identity’. Would you say the ‘blogger Inaie’ is distinct from the others, or more an attempt at representing all of them?

Inaie the blogger is the one who cannot keep her mouth shut, and she tells on all other Inaies. She is the gossiper. She would get in trouble, but would not lose the opportunity to tell her story. With my life story, I do live many different realities in one. I am an only child, but I live far, far away from my parents. I love my dad desperately, but I have not seen him in four years. If you ask how I would feel if I did not see my children for a year, I would say it would just not happen. I could not survive without them. Both of them. I am Brazilian, but I am not your “regular” Brazilian. I am a workaholic who is in a huge crisis because I just found out there is life beyond the office desk (but don’t give me an office desk, I will get stuck in it), I am all for equality and sometimes catch myself being so totalitarian. I am a walking contradiction. I have always been told I am different, but no one ever managed to explain “different” how – and it haunts me. I would really like to know who I am. Sometimes I have no idea what I want or how to get it…

Michael, a friend of mine, once gave this close definition about me:

‘I want it all – and I want it now…’

That sounds pretty real.

Is there a post on your blog that you are most proud of?

To be honest, my blog is a window into my soul. It is not supposed to be pretty, fun or anything specifically. It is just meant to be a piece of me, to tell my story, my thoughts, my feelings. And to register my journey… I am not afraid to show my ugly sides. I have plenty of them. I guess I am proud of having my blog, and I am sooo grateful (and surprised) people actually read it.

Sunset in San Simeon

Name two countries: one you’d like to visit, and one you’d like to visit again.

I would love to visit Iran. And Morocco. And India. I also would like to visit Oman and see sea turtles. Mexico too. I would like to go to Turkey and fly over Capadoccia. Ireland is in my list of countries to visit, so are Vietnam and Lebanon… oh, sorry – you said ONE! But there are so many other places I would like to experience…

A country I would revisit? To be honest, I am not ito revisiting places. Given the opportunity, I will always choose the one I have not been to. In saying that, I would like to take my teenage girls to Egypt and to Jordan, to share the beauty of these places with them, especially because we are so close and these destinations are so magic…
I would not consider going to these places again if it were not to show them to Anita and Lia.

Do you believe in God?

I sure do. I just feel very sad for all the atrocities men do in name of Him. I am sure it pisses him off too.

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This interview is part of Inside the Bloggers Studio, an ongoing project of short interviews with bloggers I read and admire.  (Apologies to James Lipton.)  To view the archive, click here.

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‘I felt that my life was going down an unusual path, and I wanted to share it’

Having sindoor put on forehead during wedding

Sharell Cook is the author of Diary of a White Indian Housewife, a blog about her life as a white (Australian) woman married to an Indian man in Mumbai. Her subjects can spring from anywhere in the maelstrom of activity that surrounds her – visits with her new family, learning Indian recipes, the ongoing frustrations one inevitably feels as an outsider in India, and many moments of introspection at the path she has followed in life, to name just a few regular sources of inspiration.

Though a good number of her posts are illustrated with photographs, particularly the often amusing Snapshots of India, the biggest draw is her focused, straightforward storytelling. She seems to understand (or perhaps not even consider) the strength of the tales she has to tell and just gets out of the way, letting the various characters, locations and feelings in her life shine. Not surprisingly, she has a book in the works, with release slated for mid-to-late 2011.

If you glance at the comments on Sharell’s blog you will notice that she has legions of adoring fans – including myself – with whom she cheerily interacts. As such, she was willing to answer a few questions. All photos used with permission.

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Why did you start blogging?

I started blogging for a number of reasons. One of them was because I felt that my life was going down an unusual path, and I wanted to share it with people so that they could benefit. I’d been trawling the blogs of people who were in a similar situation as me, but they didn’t always contain the information and detail I was looking for. So, I thought I’d write from the heart about my life and the kinds of things I would be interested in reading. Plus, I did have a notion in my head that I wanted to write a book some day. I thought having a blog would be a good platform with which to establish a presence and market myself to publishers. But still, I got a surprise when a publisher actually got in touch with me after reading my blog.

You mention a journal in your writing. Do you see ‘Diary of a White Indian Housewife’ as an extension of that journal?

I do, because primarily I write for myself, and my blog is where I record my experiences and thoughts. I’ve actually given up writing in my journal now. My blog is it!

Arabic mehendi

What is your first memory of writing creatively?

I think my first memory defines why I was always supposed to be a writer! It was in my first year of school. The teacher told the class to narrate (obviously we couldn’t write properly at that young age, so the teacher had to write down what we were saying for us) and illustrate a story about something of our choice. Apparently, I was the only child who actually came up with a proper story. The rest of them just described situations and things.

Describe something that is beautiful to you.

Oh, there are so many things — but they’re always the small things. Usually, something to do with nature.  A butterfly, a sunset or sunrise, the ocean, the smell of the mountains. An unexpected smile is always beautiful too.

With sunflowers in Mumbai

Are you equal parts white, Indian, and a housewife, or does one of these labels apply to you more than the others?

This is such an interesting question.  Funnily enough, being constantly surrounded by lovely brown skinned people, these days I often forget I’m white until someone treats me as such. I don’t feel like I’m a foreigner living in India anymore, and I find that I have trouble relating to many foreigners living in India. Often, I actually feel like I’m Indian, but sometimes I get reminded that I’ll “never be Indian” so I have a bit of an identity crisis. I do feel like I’m a housewife though, despite the fact that I work. I don’t keep staff (only a maid who comes every second day to wash the floors) and I’m always at home since I work from home.

You live in Mumbai, one of the world’s most populated and varied cities. What is the first piece of advice you would give to another outsider coming to live there?

Just let go of any expectations about how you think things should be, and be prepared to adjust.  You can live as grandly or as simply as you want in Mumbai, but you can never escape the day to day frustrations that come from living in India. In Mumbai, we have world class bars and shopping malls, but a severe traffic problem, water shortage, and lack of space.  The problems are different to the ones you might find elsewhere in India, but they’re still there. You just have to accept it for what it is. And don’t try and replicate the life you had elsewhere.

Homemade fish curry

The phrase ‘the real India’ is one that foreigners tend to use, usually to make a distinction between how they used to perceive India and how they perceive it, or something about it, after going and spending time there. Of all the experiences you’ve had in India, which one, by your estimation, felt most like that so-called ‘real India’?

I actually see the “real India” more as the “dual India”.  Everything about India is real, from a luxury hotel to a vendor selling vegetables from his wooden cart.  However, an experience that I had that felt most like the so called “real India” was having to deal with corrupt customs officials at the customs office, when trying to retrieve 2 boxes of personal items that I had sent over. I don’t want to focus on something obviously so negative, but I’ve chosen this example from the point that corruption is everywhere in India, at all levels, and it affects the rich as well as the poor. There’s no escaping from it.

Is there a post on your blog that you are most proud of?

Not really, but if I had to pick one, it would be the one about how India helped me find my purpose in life. I’m really interested in people’s transformational stories.

Name two countries: one you’d like to visit, and one you’d like to visit again.

A country I’d like to visit: Brazil.  A country I’d like to visit again: Spain.

Guests dancing at wedding

Do you believe in God?

I believe that God is a name for the universal energy and consciousness that is present everywhere. All religions have the same aim, that is bringing people closer to the one entity labeled as “God”.

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This interview is part of Inside the Bloggers Studio, an ongoing project of short interviews with bloggers I read and admire.  (Apologies to James Lipton.)  To view the archive, click the category tag in the ‘By Category’ section at the top right of this page.

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“Writing helps me clarify my thoughts and beliefs, because I have to finally put them into words”

Rock on beach in Abel Tasman National Park

David Cain is the author of Raptitude.com, a blog about ‘getting better at being human’. His posts are a combination of truths he feels he has discovered about the nature of humanity, and/or the world, and experiments he undertakes – and their outcomes – in trying to improve his skillset for life.

He also wrote a travel diary about his experiences travelling in New Zealand which is here. The photos in the post were taken by David in NZ.

I discovered Raptitude.com at a particularly low point in my life and while I wouldn’t give David all the credit for turning it around, his well-composed, clear and unpretentious words provided me with plenty of inspiration. He himself has experienced darkness and appears to write from a deep yet continually developing understanding gained through those dark times, and is dedicating his greatest efforts to something as simple and meaningful as sharing what he knows.

David’s following grows daily into the high tens of thousands, but he was kind enough to answer a few questions.

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Why did you start blogging, and why do you keep blogging?

I was a fan of Steve Pavlina’s blog for a long time, and one day I read a post in his archives about his favorite blogs. One of them was Problogger.net, which I hadn’t heard of at the time. I visited, read a few of the posts and a few of the comments, and realized there was a whole culture of blogging out there, with its own history and social structure. It wasn’t unlike the music scene; there were up-and-comers, has-beens, wannabes, hacks, big shots and legends. Everyone was doing their own thing, and talking about what others were doing. I wanted to be part of that. So I got started.

I keep blogging because I love doing it, and I feel like I have something to say that can help people create more ease in their lives. Another side-effect of writing is that it helps me clarify my thoughts and beliefs, because I have to finally put them into words. I am now too accustomed to this to stop.

Do you keep a personal journal/diary as well as your blog? If so, how much is one an extension of the other?

No I don’t keep a journal. I have tried, but every time I do I think, “Who’s going to read this? Not me.”

What is your first memory of writing creatively?

Every year we had to write short stories in grade school. It was one of the few parts of school I loved.

Tree and ocean at Napier

Describe something that is beautiful to you.

The surf at sunrise. I really need to move closer to the ocean.

What were the circumstances in which you first came to read Ralph Waldo Emerson?

Good question… I came across a quote of his, in the Crypto-Quote puzzle in the newspaper I think. I forgot about him but remember being amused that his middle name was “Waldo.” I pictured Waldo from “Where’s Waldo.” Later on I was reading a book by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who mentioned Henry David Thoreau. I read a bit of Thoreau and soon learned that Emerson had been his mentor. I finally looked up Emerson, found his essay, “Self-Reliance” online, and loved it.

How much of an effect has travelling had on your belief system(s)?

I think it has left me with fewer beliefs… fewer foregone conclusions about people. It’s left me more curious, more open, more forgiving and more grateful. It has also rearranged my priorities in life. I now feel it is very important for me to travel a lot, which means I can’t settle for a typical 9-5 lifestyle for long. I can’t be happy with two weeks’ vacation a year. Or even four or eight. I need to see the world in a big way, and I’m not waiting for another lifetime to do it in.

Sandstorm on Farewell Spit

You frequently discuss the effect of habit (and addiction) on today’s society. How large a role does habit-forming play in your life now?

Well I’m currently doing an experiment where I’m trying to install five little habits at once, and it’s going well so far. Habit change is hard and I’m not particularly good at it. I have never had terrible habits that I was desperate to change, which means I have never developed a lot of strong habit-changing skills. But I am always working on something, and when I look back I see I have made a lot of progress.

Habits and addictions are by far the greatest determinants of a person’s quality of life, so I will never stop working on them.

Is there a post on your blog that you are most proud of?

Not one above all others, but I’m particularly proud of Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed, Who You Really Are, and How to Be Right All the Time.

Name two countries: one you’d like to visit, and one you’d like to visit again.

I would like to visit France, and I’d like to visit Thailand again.

Sunset at Napier

Do you believe in God?

Tricky question. My answer is no, but that doesn’t mean I think God doesn’t exist. I just think the conventional concept of God — the God as characterized by churches — is way out to lunch, like not even close to meaningful, and I don’t think there’s any merit to it. The idea that God has emotions or desires, or resembles a person or a thinking mind in any way strikes me as completely asinine.

So when people ask me that question I say no. What the word God means to me is not something I can explain fully here, but let’s say it has something to do with a higher intelligence that human beings can have access to, yet are habitually oblivious to. Beliefs, more than anything, are what get in the way. So believing in God doesn’t make sense to me. Once it’s a belief — a mental image or a mental position — it’s not God.

Clearly there is some order behind the universe that we don’t yet fully understand. Even hard-minded empiricists must agree with that. God, to me, is that order, or is an aspect of that order. It seems to be intelligent. Einstein would agree.

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This interview is part of Inside the Bloggers Studio, an ongoing project of short interviews with bloggers I read and admire.  (Apologies to James Lipton.)  To view the archive, click the category tag in the ‘By Category’ section at the top right of this page.

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“feeling the power and force, yet utter lightness, of our deep interconnectedness”

Sign on the road to Mitzpeh Ramon, Israel (used with permission)

Katie Schuessler is the author of the road less traveled, a blog of her experiences travelling and volunteering in Palestine, Israel, India and Japan.  The majority of her posts are from her time spent in Palestine and give a sense of the culture, landscape and people of a place that most of us only know about from news reports, as well as giving an inside look at human rights issues.

She is also a photographer, and all of the images in this post (except the peace portrait) are taken from the vast archive posted on her site.  Click each one for larger size.

I discovered her blog in an odd way: looking at referrers to this site, I followed one and found it was a spam page with all Kerala-related links.  Her blog was listed directly below mine as she was writing about her travels in Kerala at the time, and after clicking on it I wound up spending an hour reading through the archives.  Perhaps this chance path speaks to the interconnectedness she mentions below.

Passionate and personal, her entries have a considered-yet-raw quality about them that implies an immediate clarity of her surroundings, and a well-honed belief system that nevertheless remains open to change.

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BHM: Why did you start blogging?

KS: i started my blog specifically because i wanted people to see what was happening in the west bank through personal stories and photos, and the whole thing kind of took off from there. it was great to publish my photos and writing while traveling, and nice to give my friends and family an easy way to see what i was up to.

BHM: You mention a journal in your writing. Do you see ‘the road less traveled’ as an extension of that journal?

KS: i’ve often contemplated blogging etiquette; what sorts of things are acceptable to a broad audience, and what sorts of things does one keep to oneself?  my paper journal holds much more personal information about my experiences, ideas, and even art that i may never post, whereas the blog is only peripherally personal.  i’d say the two complement each other quite nicely, but if anything, the paper journal is an extension of the blog.

BHM: Can you elaborate a little on that last sentence (‘if anything, the paper journal is an extension of the blog’)?

KS: i think there are some thoughts and perceptions of mine that don’t belong on the web. for instance, when i wrote about my roommate snoring like a tuba, it felt a bit too personal and i kind of regretted it. i do think there is a time and place for such intimate expressions, and for me they manifest in my paper journal. even though my posts get pretty personal — talking about breakups, life revelations and identity crises — i never get into the gritty day-to-day details like what i ate for breakfast or who i’m spending time with on a given day. i don’t really have stringent rules about what i can and can’t post, but i hope to maintain a certain professionalism and thoughtfulness on the road less traveled that is positively absent in my paper journal.

Woman forcibly evicted from her home in Sheikh Jarrah, Palestine (used with permission)

BHM: Describe something that is beautiful to you.

KS: there is something remarkable about laying in savasana (‘corpse pose,’ usually the last posture of any yoga asana practice) and feeling each cell of my body vibrating with the postures i’ve just done.  from there, i like to visualize how each cell makes up my body as a whole.  then i think about how more cells make up all the people and objects around me, and how we are all part of one larger cell.  then i think of how this larger cell is part of the whole community surrounding us, which is made of similar cells comprising yet another big cell.  this process continues to expand until i’m seeing the whole earth as one cell and feeling the power and force, yet utter lightness, of our deep interconnectedness.  it’s beautiful.

BHM: What is your first memory of taking photographs?

KS: my parents gave me my first ‘real’ camera for my sixteenth birthday.  it was a pentax k-1000.  i spent a long time photographing flowers around the front yard of their house.  focusing the manual lens was a magical experience. prior to that i had photographed with a point-and-shoot but there is absolutely no comparsion with using a manual camera.  it gave me a whole new way of experiencing the world visually.  later, when i went to pick up that first roll of film from the processor, i realized that i hadn’t loaded it properly and it was completely blank.

BHM: Did you display photographs publicly anywhere before you started your blog?

KS: yes, but not for quite some time.  most recently i had a solo exhibition at the public library in tucson, arizona, but that was in may of 2008.  it was a portrait project where i asked those who i photographed to write about peace between israel and palestine onto each of their respective photographs.

Moshe (used with permission)

BHM: I found your blog through an ad site about Kerala that also linked to mine, but I added it to my bookmarks largely because of the Palestine posts. Did your experience there have an effect on your belief system?

KS: before i left for palestine, i felt that i understood the situation.  because i grew up jewish, i had the israeli and zionist perspective pretty well-covered.  to learn more about palestine, i read books, magazines, and lots of online news.  but unfortunately nothing could have prepared me for the reality of being there.  there is no book that can describe what it’s like to live in a refugee camp under constant military surveillance.  there is no magazine article that can (or that is willing to, perhaps) describe what it’s like to pass through checkpoints on a daily basis and be subjected to regular interrogation. it seems to me that there is a slow, agonizing process of trying to break people down via constant degradation — whether it’s unfair distribution of water, a refusal to grant permits to travel, housing demolition, regular raids, arrests, and murders, or even just simple, constant military presence.  what’s remarkable is, the people living under that illegal occupation have such open hearts.  if any part of my belief system has changed as a result of this experience, it’s that i have more faith in the strength of the human spirit.  on the flip side of that, i am more puzzled than ever by the cruelty and out-of-handedness of humans making war.

BHM: Off the top of your head, which photo that you’ve posted on your blog holds most meaning for you?

KS: this is a tough question.  the first photo that springs to mind is of a boy in mysore, india.  he was part of a group of kids who i was visiting to drop off some photos.  the kids were going nuts for the gora and the camera.  somehow, amidst the chaos and silliness and posing, he gave me his full self, full of childlike innocence but also the maturity of someone who has seen a lot.  it’s meaningful to me to have been able to catch that moment.

Boy in Mysore (used with permission)

BHM: Is there a post on your blog that you are most proud of?

KS: i think it’s the two posts (here and here) about water rights in the west bank.  it’s a fascinating subject to me, and at the crux of the human rights deprivations happening there.  i learned so much when i researched for that post, and felt that it was very important for people to learn about.  there is no arguing about water — it’s vital for everyone.

BHM: Name two countries: one you’d love to visit, and one you’d love to visit again.

KS: i’m on an africa kick right now, but it’s hard to narrow it down to just one country.  i’d probably start in east africa: somalia, kenya, uganda, ethiopia…and i would like to do another trip to palestine and india (if they’re on the same ticket, does it count as one?).

Palestinian children in volunteer-run photography class (used with permission)

BHM: A simple question for last: do you believe in God?

KS: yes, i believe in god.  not in the sense of a man with a white beard and heaven and hell.  but in the sense of a guiding creative force of the universe.  and a trust in the earth.  and a belief in our innate interconnectedness as inhabitants of this planet.  and a sense of the power each of us holds to make a positive difference in our lives and the lives of others.  this is divinity.

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This is the inaugural post for Inside the Bloggers Studio, an ongoing project of short interviews with bloggers I read and admire.  (Apologies to James Lipton.)  To view the archive, click the category tag in the ‘By Category’ section at the top right of this page.

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