This is a preview of my book that is currently in editing with Simon & Schuster’s Scribner. Thank you Margaret for your support, guidance and helping me find my “voice” in this amazing story that has been my life.
Ole Jørgen walked out of customs in the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport in Kolkata on the afternoon of October 2nd, carrying the same red backpack he’d had in London. He hadn’t changed a whole lot. Same bright eyes, same enthusiastic attitude, same boyish dimples in his cheeks.
“Cast, get your ass over here,” he said, holding out his arms. “Cast” was a nickname I’d had amongst some friends years ago, a play on my last name and a recognition that I’d always seemed to be casting a “peace-line” to people….some chose to bite, other chose to keep swimming.  Jørgen had appropriated it in London during a Upasanti Village Board meeting in 2014.
We hugged. I said, “It’s so good to see you.” I meant it. Jørgen has been a most important part of Upasanti Village since almost it’s creation, so it was a homecoming to see his shining smile.  I’d been alone so much in the last year….alone physically, mentally and emotionally…..on edge with just about everyone I’d known.  Before leaving the US in July, I’d had several life-changing experiences. I lost my father. And I lost a close friendship that, because I was the only one willing to feed it and so it meant more to me, had been unravelling for some time.
I’d often compared my close friendship to a finely woven tapestry. Seems this dear friend and I ‘d been pulling threads for years, one here, one there. For so long, the tapestry could be mended, and each time it was mended it became stronger. But I supposed and asked myself…..what if the wrong thread had been pulled? Would the whole piece unravel?  This time, I’m afraid the answer was yes.
The familiarity I felt with Jørgen was instantly calming. He threw an arm over my shoulders as we walked outside into the warm Indian air. I let myself be flattered by his presence, by the fact that he had gotten on a plane from Vietnam, interrupted his UN work,  and flown all the way to India to accompany me to Myanmar….I was nervous, I was fearful and I was acutely aware that the destruction of me, my work with Upasanti Village and the children we have saved could yield a hefty price in Myanmar. Jørgen flew all this way to guide me, help me work and show me the progress he’d made in Upasanti Village’s medical unit.
We took an auto rickshaw to the Salvation Army Guesthouse, in the heart of the backpacker ghetto, so he could drop his bags in a locker, and then we went out to walk the streets of Kolkata and talk.
The streets of Kolkata were crowded. Children trailed us down the street, calling, “Aunty, Aunty!!”, their palms held open for change. Men brushed up close to Jørgen, muttering, “Ganja? Ganja?”. We spent about two weeks there volunteering at one of Mother Teresa’s charities, working the morning shift in the women’s wing of the Kalighat Home of the Pure Heart; Jørgen working the infirmary requiring his medical knowledge; me delivering tea and giving sponge baths to patients with tuberculosis, malaria, dysentery, AIDS, and cancer, sometimes in combination.  The frankness of it was galling, even nauseating at first, but slowly I relaxed. Jørgen felt this to be an important precursor to what I’d likely see in Upasanti Village and in Myanmar all at once. I could never be saintly like the nurses and doctors like Jørgen who staffed the place, but I tried to at least be helpful.
I had just spent 3 months in private study with His Holiness, of which I also spent time with my Guru in Mysore and Chennai; a visit to the Southern beaches of Kerala, where the lip of the Indian Ocean foamed over long stretches of white sand. Finally visiting Varanasi, a holy city for Hindus, thought to be a direct portal to heaven. There, pilgrims sat half sunk in the grey-green water of the Ganges, washing their bodies, washing laundry and dishes, washing cows, while dead bodies burned on the ghats above.  From Varanasi, I went to Mysore and Pushkar. I learned to sleep on trains, to not think twice while using the toilet holes that emptied directly onto the tracks rushing below. Nothing was going to slow me down.
A few days later, Jørgen and I crossed the tarmac at the International Airport in Kolkata, headed toward a decrepit-looking “Mandalay Airlines” plane. We were both tense, lugging a couple of carry on bags, a few thousand dollars in American money, the currency of choice in Myanmar, and some medical equipment and vaccines. We’d each checked a bag.
In exacting detail, I would recall the rub of my backpack on my shoulders, the petrol blur of the airplane fueling trucks in the hot Indian air, the train stations, the chaat delicacy street vendors. I took myself back through the past four months. I recalled what it was like to scoop handfuls of sugared pistachios in Varanasi, devour momos served by Tibetan refugees in McLeod Ganj and dip chappathi bread in luscious sauces on the beach in Kerala. Kitchari with my Guru to warm my heart.
The airplane was packed with about a hundred Rohingya Muslim men and women, plus a few kids who clambered over ripped canvas seats. The walk across the hot tarmac coupled with a sense of foreboding I couldn’t shake, had combined to make me feel lightheaded and a little bit sick. I noticed many of the women wore a conservative form of hijab, heavy dresses with long veils. A number of them were wearing nijabs, their faces fully covered except for their eyes. A few had stuffed their feet into white plastic bags before putting on their sandals, an effort to cover every last millimeter of skin out in public.
Everyone seemed to be chattering loudly while loading what seemed to be an insane amount of carry-on luggage….plastic bags of every color, packed with clothes and books and food, knotted tightly to stay closed. The walls of the plane were streaked with dirt. The door to the bathroom hung partially off its hinges. In the waiting area, I’d exchanged a few words with what appeared to be the only other non-India, non-Muslim, on the flight, an older Italian man who spoke English. He said he worked for a Christian NGO and was headed to the city of Shwebo, the capital of the Sagaing Division, which would be the plane’s second stop after Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, Myanmar.
Hearing that we would be disembarking in Sittwe, he raised his eyebrows and made a dramatic poof with his lips, a gesture of disbelief. “Be very careful in Sittwe.” he said. “Your head…”  – he tapped his own head – “…it’s worth half a million dollars there. And that’s just your head.”
I knew what he was saying. Westerners were a useful commodity in Western Myanmar,, especially in Rhakhine State, even dead ones….and especially if they were a problem for human traffickers.  A body was a trophy; living hostages could be sold back to their home countries. I knew exactly what the Italian NGO worker was trying to tell me, but I didn’t appreciate hearing it.
Jørgen and I were sitting in the back of the plane. Around us, people talked on cell phones, appearing agitated, standing up to shout out what sounded like news to other neighboring rows. A Burmese woman who’d been raised in America and now worked in Delhi translated for us. “They’re saying there is violent protesting due to the Rohingya Muslim crisis at the airport in Sittwe.” she said. “There is fighting and deaths on the road with militants and there are threats to Western civilians. Maybe the airport will be closed. Maybe we can’t fly.”
I wasn’t sure what that meant exactly – “there is fighting on the road with Rohingya and the military”, especially against the backdrop of the war that had been going on for almost two decades and was the cause of Aung San Suu Kyi’s incarceration, but in the plane, among the Muslims, it appeared to be causing a stir.  We waited for some sort of announcement. The blood seemed to be pumping with extra force through my veins – a possible panic attack….I had gotten better at controlling them. For a second, I allowed myself to feel relieved by the prospect of being ordered off then plane and back into the Kolkota airport, to have the matter taken entirely out of our hands.
But after a few minutes, the plane’s engines kicked on. A flight attendant pulled the door shut, vacuum-sealing us from the morning heat of Kolkota before taking to the loudspeaker to order people off their cell phones.
Protests at the airport, protests on the road, be damned…..we were flying.