I haven’t written in a few weeks. After the parasites episode (writeup in process), and then Trekker coming down with 105F fever, vomiting and diarrhea I decided that it was a good time to travel to a place a little quieter and less polluted for a week or two to rest. Also, the weather was warming up in Varanasi to the point where I couldn’t wear my winter “robes” to the chai shop anymore. One of my secret favorite charms about living in Varanasi is the strange expat fashion – Westerners from all over tend to dress like Urban Moses and meet each other throughout the day for tea. The look is only slightly Indian and definitely not Western so I’m not sure where it originates but my mom happened to give me these 2 cozy alpaca robe things the last 2 christmases in a row and I’ve very much enjoyed donning them at the chai shops and visually fitting in with the other urban Moseses who sit there discussing their Sanskrit theses or whatever. Anyway, the weather was becoming too hot for my robes but not yet hot enough to enjoy a cold shower, Trekker was getting over the flu, and the warm bucket shower was starting to feel like a pain in the arse so I figured it was a good time to get out.
The plan was to check out Pondicherry, a French colony on the coast that has a beach and surely some decent hotels, baguettes, cafes and good cheese. Then we would go visit a friend who had recently built a house in 7 days inside this strange hippy place south of Pondicherry called Auroville where supposedly a bunch of 60’s hippies set up some sort of commune led by a guru called “the mother”. The place is known to house both the largest crystal in the world and the largest solar oven. Then we would go to Trekker’s birthplace Kochi to check on a garden I helped set up there and see the 2nd Indian biennialle (I saw the 1st one when Trekker was still in the womb and it was very cool.) But due to some setbacks and the fact that my friend in Auroville only had a couple of days before he was to leave for 6 weeks we ended up going straight to the site of the 7 day house. My friend did leave after 2 days, over 2 weeks ago, but Trekker and I still haven’t left.
In the taxi on the way to Auroville I spoke with my 7-day-house friend, Chris, through a scratchy cell phone connection. He informed me that a basic hut had opened up and would be made available to Trekker and I for a couple of nights. I asked if it had running water and there was a pause so I quickly jumped in to explain that Trekker had a little diarrhea so running water would really be a plus. “No,” he said, but “we could supply you a pot with water in it”. “Great!” I answered in my automatic southern USA politeness while of course reconsidering my plan. “Do u need anything from the outside world ?” I asked before we hung up. Then there was another pause followed by a joyously sardonic “what could I possibly need from the outside world?”
After reaching the turn to Auroville the taxi driver then made our way through dusty dirt roads that winding endlessly through a giant forest to finally arrive at the small entrance to the community called Johnny’s Place in the section of Auroville called Fertile where Chris had built his home. I mounted Trekker to my back in the carrier and loaded my bags on the stroller then pushed our way down smaller dirt paths through the woods till I came to a structure were a woman was cooking. “Chris’ house?” I asked. She pointed to the middle of 3 dirt paths so we pushed on. When we came to a clearing I immediately recognized Chris’ 7 day house from his Facebook photos and then saw a barefoot, bearded Chris in a lungi, looking quite a bit more outdoorsified than when I’d last seen him 2 years back in Varanasi. He was standing in a garden talking to a couple of older eccentric looking gentlemen, one of whom he introduced as Johnny. “Oh are you Johnny of Johnny’s Place?” I asked. The man responded with a quick-wit Austrailian accent “yes, welcome, the Bar and Grill is just down the way.” Everyone chuckled, including me though I really wasn’t sure if he was kidding. I really had no idea what I had gotten into here.
Very soon I realized that the community of Johnnys place was made up of multi internationals of all ages (including a Dutch 2 year old for Trekker to play with) inhabiting tiny eco-houses powered by solar, scattered about the woods and accessed by small dirt paths. We were a ways away from central Auroville, about 10 minutes down some windy dirt roads by scooter (which we soon acquired for less than $2 per day.) The core of the tiny eco-houses were all designed by Johnny who rumor has it used to hang out with Buckminister Fuller back in the day, and the forest here was planted from scratch by Johnny and the other early settlers some 40 years ago. Apparently all of Auroville used to be scrub brush before the “hippies” came in.
Johnny can be found most mornings drinking chai in the community kitchen and reading a recent and real (as in NOT digital) copy of the New Yorker. I can only imagine that Johnny’s hard copies of the New Yorker magazine are the only ones in all of India. In the afternoons he always seems to be around building and/or designing something and/or assisting someone else to build or design something. There seems to be a solid ethic of creativity going on here. There is definitely no bar and grill here but the community, which reminds me a lot of Burning Man in the principles of self-reliance, self expression and gifting, does seem to make meals together and for each other every few nights and the meals usually represent the many cooks’ countries of origins. So far we have been lucky to indulge in fantastic home-cooked French, Italian, and Indian food. I’ve of course offered to wash dishes since I don’t have much confidence in cooking for other people though I have shared a few peanut butter and jelly sandwiches here and there. If I can find mac-and-cheese-in-a-box I will continue my representation of USA cuisine.
(the first cabin we stayed in with the pot of water that Chris supplied, front center)
Trekker continued to have diarrhea for the first week here and after a few days of attempting to manage his cloth diapers from the no-running-water cabin I asked Johnny if it would be ok if we camped in his field for a week or two. The situation really called for sunshine to disinfect the diapers and a hose to clean everything off. Johnny said sure so we promptly set up Fort Trekker Baby (Trekker named it) between two dead trees conveniently bent over in the field, and have been living here for over 2 weeks. After the 1st week we stopped using diapers completely and Trekker seems to be potty-training really fast. The “potty” is actually a shared composting squatter toilet which believe it or not doesn’t smell in the slightest. Unlike a latrine which basically just collects sh*t and urine, the composting toilet is ‘dry’ meaning we are supposed to just pee in the woods and do the other business in the toilet so that it doesn’t get too wet and smelly. Then you throw a handful of sawdust down the hole when you finish and you can feel confident that what you have produced will be a gift back to the land some day. I feel a sense of pride when I use a composting toilet.
We are camped near a French guy’s house and a giant windmill. Our water is supplied from a deep well pumped by the windmill and we charge my computer at the french guy’s house. Trekker can already narrate the windmill scene “it goes round and round and pumps the water up then the water comes down and people wash their diapers” he says (even though we are done with diapers now YAY!)
I am happy to share the outdoor living experience with Trekker at his young age. When the outside doesn’t disappear in your 24 hour cycle your awareness begins to change. Besides feeling the elements like wind and sun, seeing the sun rise and set daily, and star-gazing nightly, the sounds become an ever-present part of life in a way that they simply aren’t when you live indoors. Your life is lived to a changing soundtrack of other living creatures. Peacock screams in the evening yield to a chorus of crickets then late night jackals, howling dogs, then the early rooster crow, followed by a plethora of other morning birds. One bird in particular repeats itself with a louder and faster tempo each time creating a crescendo that seems to say “ WAKE the F up!” and though that one seems to have been designed to agitate all other living creatures, for the most part the medley of sounds feels like a big warm hug from nature. The irregular revolutions of the windmill in the background is also comforting as it constantly reminds you how you are reciprocating the hug nature just gave you, or at least not slapping her in the face with pollution. It feels very nice to live in harmony with nature. I remember having a hard time gong back into “inside life” after living outdoors for a year and 1/2 many years ago (1st in a treehouse then a tent on a beach.) This time it was a little process to reacclimatize to the outdoors though it really only took one day of waking up to bird calls as opposed to honking horns to feel like this is how I want to live. For Trekker it is something new as he has spent most of his short life in cities and apartments. But so far so good. He has been really enjoying hiking the little paths through the woods and refers to it as “exploring the garden” which is a habit he got into with his Grandio in his Grandies’ garden. And he likes to imitate the bird calls and look at the stars at night. There is also a healthy, happy, well-cared-for dog which comes to see us at sunrise and it is so refreshing that I don’t have to tell Trekker not to touch it as I did with all the poor mangy dogs in Varanasi. It would be a shame if he grew up thinking that all dogs were dangerous to touch.
Each morning our french neighbor Francois cooks a ragi and fruit porridge which he shares with us. I do the dishes afterwards. Francois, who apparently used to be a juggling unicyclist and who once unicycled from the dead sea to the red sea, is a multitalented musician and woodworker who is currently constructing a climate-controlled instrument-making studio on the premises. Since I’ve had a long-time dream of growing hard-shelled gourds to make my own musical instruments, yet I don’t really have the instrument-making skills, we have discussed a partnership and I am currently searching for the right gourd seeds.
We still have yet to explore all of Auroville, but have visited a few amazing organic restaurants where the food is grown on site and we stopped by an event at the Youth Center Community where the children of Auroville were making suggestions on what they would like the future of Auroville to be as well as hosting a trash art competition.
here’s Trekker on a piece of wood imitating the girl who is riding the gigantic seesaw behind him. also notice large blue orb things in the far background- they spin in every which way and the big kids can get inside them.
Apparently the Youth Center also boasts a few tree houses though we missed them on our first visit. I’ve heard that the school system here is also very cool- one school in particular is parent led so the kids get to engage in whatever fields the parents are in whether it be yoga, music, pottery, gymnastics, computers, woodworking… Its called TLC (The Learning Community). I love the idea. Academically I still plan for Trekker to attend Khan academy online or something like it but anyway we have YEARS till Trekker is old enough for real school. For now I don’t even know how long we will stay- this was supposed to be a few-days trip and it wasn’t even on my list of cities to live in… But I like it here A LOT. I guess we will see what happens if I find some gourd seeds…
Since the initial acclimation period, Trekker and I have had a nice time nesting in our old home base. We live in a tiny, cozy apartment inside a fairly private compound and hidden behind a large Mango tree and 2 Neem trees. The apartment boasts a squatter toilet and no hot water and is attached to a very large shared porch.
I have come to prefer the squatter toilet over the standard western toilet for basic comfort and cleanliness reasons. But even better than the fact that decades old research has also proved it the healthier option, Trekker has now used it a few times on his own to pee! (dear older Trekker reading this blog some day: good job honey! love you! 😉 ) No more need for uncomfortable baby “potties”, toilet steps, or those add-on-toddler-sized toilet seats.
The initial cold during our arrival has since made way for perfect 70 F days and 55 F nights so while I’m still boiling water for our hot bucket showers, the heat is just an added luxury and not a necessity. We share the large porch with a lively and funny Irishman who Trekker enjoys a lot, (and who kindly brought me Gatorade yesterday when I was sick.) It is probably 90 ft long and 20 ft wide, leaving plenty of room for our hammock, a hanging chair, and for Trekker to ride his new tricycle.
For 6500 rupees/month (roughly equivalent to $105 USD) this is a great base.
So we have a great apartment BUT is the city of Varanasi perfect for single moms with toddlers?
In regards to my initial requirements in a perfect city , here is the run-down-
Affordability: this is probably the cheapest place I could live. For roughly $600/ month we have the apartment, a lady who cooks lunch and sweeps the floors, optional daily restaurant visits, transportation to anywhere in the city, gas for the stove, and tri-weekly in-home Indian classical singing lessons. Not bad. The lady who cooks lunch is called Geeta. She has a big personality and speaks no english so Trekker and I are learning hindi faster with her around.
Music scene: this city is the capital of Indian classical music and it attracts musicians from all over the world who come here for study/practice. In truth I will probably always have more of an American 80’s pop music/ classic blues soul but I do feel that my own music potential could be much enhanced by the regular, inexpensive classical lessons. And more importantly: exposing Trekker to this kind of nuanced tuning of the ear at age 2 could only have magical outcomes in the future.
Plenty of weirdos: indeed! This place is packed with weirdos. My original vision for plenty of weirdos mostly encompassed creative types (which Varanasi does house plenty of, often attracted by the music scene and scenery), but this place also attracts a national and international set of yogis, gurus, seekers, jugglers, astrologers, world-changer types, and weirdo PhD candidates (BHU, the oldest/largest University in India, is just around the corner.) I’ve found most of these weirdos to be fairly easy to strike up conversations with in the casual outdoor chai shop settings and family style seating at restaurants.
Active street life: probably doesn’t get more active than this one! There is LOADS of entertainment steps from our home, experienced just going to the store and back. Besides all the weirdos and the tiny ma and pa (mostly pa) shops lining the roads, we see litters of puppies and many other animals every 10 ft. I couldn’t think of a more entertaining place to spend the “what’s that?” phase- “what’s that mama?” that’s a bicycle rickshaw, baby “what’s that mama?” thats a baby cow drinking his mama’s milk like you do “what’s that?” that’s a herd of water buffalos “What’s that?” a painted sheep “what’s that?” a baby monkey on a leash, “what’s that?” a naked sadhu covered in ashes. “what’s that?” a parade of people with lightbulbs on their heads “what’s that?” a family of langurs. “what’s that?” an excavator digging up more river mud and placing it into the long line of dump trucks waiting to carry it away (watching the excavator has become a daily activity, boy toddler’s dream!), “whats that?” more fireworks. “what’s that?” a goddess. a god. another festival. a temple. a holy river. a monkey on a bicycle, etc, etc… Also, any evening of the week Trekker will say “let’s go find a parade!” and we will probably be able to find one (usually, but not limited to, the form of a wedding procession.) The wedding hall next door also provides us with a nightly fireworks display. And where else do you get to live in the heart of a city yet feed the cows with your food scraps each day?
Trekker greeting “baby Ferdinand”
Walking city: yes, but, forget the stroller. a stroller would be impossible here due to lack of sidewalks and animal sh*t every 5 feet. But unlike Lisbon, Varanasi is not very spread out and while it is possible to take long walks along the riverside ghats, boat rides are also available which can sort of compensate for that “stroller zen state” I was seeking. A nice long rowboat ride on the Ganges allows both mama and baby to zen out substantially.
Strong culture of dancing: yes and no. There is a strong culture of a formal, traditional dance here, known as Kartic, but you don’t see much free-dancing in the streets. Actually that’s not true – the men are dancing in the streets all the time behind their wedding and festival processions, but the women are mostly dancing at home or in private spaces, and dancing is segregated by sex. That said, Trekker and I have started a habit of evening rooftop dancing to the loud music coming from the wedding hall next door which is fun. And at a the outdoor music concert around the corner the other day Trekker really got down to some lively kirtan with a group of local kids (too bad my camera was dead at the time.) Fingers crossed for more of those scenes.
Lots of playgrounds: Nil. There IS one small “playground” thing in a park nearby, but the slide is like a hot frying pan leading to a hole with metal bar that could break a leg. And the park, which doubles as a sleeping grounds for sadhus, is used as a toilet. I didn’t notice this at first but after Trekker’s key-ring toy rolled off the perimeter walkway into a bush and his little hand promptly reached down to grab it but returned holding what looked like a dried human dookey, I understood. I quickly knocked the thing out of his hand but just as soon as it dropped to the floor Trekker stuck his 4 fingers straight into his mouth. In the past when Trekker would touch something seemingly questionable and then go for the mouth I made it a practice to also touch the questionable object with my own fingers and then put them in my mouth under the premiss that i have a stronger immune system and any antibodies I build up against the shared germs would be passed along to Trekker through nursing. But in this case, although we do continue to nurse, I declined. The incident was days ago and he hasn’t shown any signs of sickness so I feel ok about it but a fellow neighborhood mother suggested we take the deworming medicine that her family takes a regular dose of. The same mother and I also discussed the idea of gathering some people (school groups, local politicians) to clean up the park. Lets see what develops..
Kid-friendly restaurants and culture: yes indeed. Indian people LOVE babies. Trekker is welcome everywhere and we find ourselves surrounded by people who are excited about his existence. Restaurant dining is particularly enjoyable because restaurant staff are usually proactively engaging baby, leaving me more leeway to enjoy my meal. Strangers come up all the time excited to see him and talk to him and he gets loads of attention. This has a slight challenge to it in that people are always wanting to take their picture with him, and grab his cheeks, I guess because he is a foreign baby, and a very cute one, so I do wonder what kind of impression that will leave on him. Will he grow up expecting the paparazzi to follow him? Is that a bad thing? For now he seems to handle the attention well – he gives deadpan face and ignores who he wants and otherwise smiles when he feels like it.
Trekker and I arrived back to our old base in Varanasi, India on the eve of the celebration of Saraswati, a festival where hordes of young men and boys take to the streets in small brigades hoisting large statues of the goddess Saraswati en route to the wooden boats waiting at the edge of the Ganges to deliver the goddess figures to their final resting places in the depths of the river.
Varanasi is India’s oldest living city, and sometimes considered the holiest. It also may also be the strangest and possibly one of the dirtiest. Each time one returns to Varanasi there is a period of adjustment. Other than the logistical hurdles like having to use your terrible Hindi and modified english to negotiate a new SIM card with data plan to get basic internet, or just taking the gas tank to be filled so you can cook and have hot water at home, there are physical, mental, and spiritual adjustments that also need to be made. Physically, your eyes must adjust to the sepia tone of this dust-covered world, and your ears must adjust to the constant honking, inanely loud (and pretty terrible) music of the wedding hall next door, the almost nightly fireworks, the distant call to prayer, and to the early morning temple bell ringing (which sounds more like a school alarm bell or sleigh bells than the western genre of bells typical to our ‘holy’ places); Your nose must adjust to the must now found in your clothes, blankets, sheets and towels – which doesn’t make the fist night of sleep very pleasant but quickly passes as an unnoticeable part of life in a couple of days. And your lungs must adjust to the pollution of a country whose capital has normalized the forecasting of daily air quality as most other countries would the weather. You will need to adjust to life with no indoor heat or cooling and you must adjust your habits to start hand-washing your laundry in a bucket and boiling water for your hot water bucket-shower. You must adjust to a lot of boiling – you will boil water for drinking, cleaning, and brushing teeth, (if u have previously found reason to not fully trust the semi-expensive water filter u bought last year) and you must adjust to hanging your hand-washed cloth diapers on the line fast enough to dry in time for their use again tomorrow. Your general sensibility must adjust from seeing starving sick dogs and cold puppies everywhere to instead seeing the wondrous beauty of the cycles of old and new life before you. And you must readjust your eyes to look beyond the trash piles you see every 10 feet to see…everything else. Culturally, you will adjust your wardrobe for reasons of showing respect but also out of self-preservation. Wearing loose-fitting baggy clothes is not only culturally appropriate but it will save you the hassle of ass-pats on the streets, I’ve found. You will need to adjust your awareness to become almost spherical in order to navigate the cow manure on the street before you, the bicycle rickshaw an inch to your left, the car honking 2 feet behind you and the water buffalo to your right. You may also need to adjust to being seen as the foreigner, and to feeling that you must come off as a freely accessible, walking ATM machine. And you must not take it personally, how you are being seen, for this is just a byproduct of an existing system that is beyond your control; and because you are here visiting, in their country. You must stop feeling guilty for the insane economic disparity between countries that is suddenly allowing you to afford to pay someone else very little money to sweep your floors and to cook your lunch and start to feel good about providing that someone a job. And you must be weary of a few of these adjustments all the while.
You will go from feeling overwhelmed by the loudness, pollution, and general madness of the streets to feeling an elated calm by your new ability to rise above it all. You will go from feeling a general sense of control over your life in the western world and a feeling that you may matter to accepting that you are merely a speck in the masses of people and, like everyone else, you have no choice but to trust that the guy who just handed you a straw for your drink, by the tip of the straw, had washed his hands, or at least that any bacteria you just swallowed with your fresh coconut water will serve to strengthen your immunity for your continued journey.
There will be all sorts of adjustments. And you will go from your mind-on-the-go, never-having-time-to-meditate western world busyness to the much, much crazier India where you somehow do find the time to sit, close your eyes, and instantly transcend into a depth in meditation that you had not experienced in ages, or rather since you were last here. And in that moment when you open your eyes again you will notice that a warm feeling of peace has sprung up within you and is now lighting up your heart from inside, and you will smile in gratitude, feeling that you are home.
But then, even in your relaxed meditative state, while this certain oneness has overcome you and everything seems just about right, you will inevitably, and daily, experience severe cognitive dissonance when a small dusty child in tattered clothes tugs at your sleeve and begs you for money.
Welcome to Varanasi.
Last week we spent 5 days in gorgeous Lisbon at the home of my friends Alex and Ellis. Lisbon is ridiculously beautiful. Every inch of the city was laid by hand with cobblestone and ornate tile. Street artists have also taken advantage of the peeling layers of history to add even more beauty to the mix. Wine, which is something I had not tasted in the nearly 3 years since I became pregnant, was so prevalent and inexpensive that I could not resist a glass, and of course had to pair it with some fancy nutty cheese for the total European experience. The sidewalks and squares in Lisbon fully boast cafe tables for outdoor fresh fish feasting, afternoon wine, or hot chocolate pit-stops. The colors of the buildings and the light (when the sun is out) provide a lift similar to that of southern Spain where everything feels a bit more lofty and weightless.
Unfortunately it was 90% grey and rainy for the duration of our trip. And we were ill prepared for the chilly winter since we packed for a perpetual spring. But our hosts suited us up sufficiently and we took to the streets (and streetcars) regardless. Public transport is prevalent between the metro, trolleys and buses, and it is necessary because Lisbon feels fairly spread out. Trekker loved riding on trolleys. But as someone who loves (and almost needs) a regular dose of walking, I am seeking to find a cheaper place to replicate last summer’s Brooklyn experience where I would cruise on my feet for hours while Trekker drifted in and out of sleep in his stroller, entertained by urban surroundings. Cobblestone does not allow for cruising. Neither do steep hills.
While I could potentially consider getting in tiptop shape via Lisbon’s hills- there are additional issues with the stroll there- the stroller wheels are constantly getting stuck in places like this:
and cars are commonly parked across the already narrow sidewalks like this and this:
These, and the fact that everybody smokes in Lisbon and my toddler stands/strolls at the exact height as a dangling cigarette, bearing the full brunt of smoke, are impediments to my “ stroller zen zone”. We did take a long stroll on the lovely, hill-less and spacious riverside walkway but Trekker soon tired of the bumpiness. We also tried going out one day without the stroller but that wasn’t so smooth with a heavy toddler either- there was a lot of carrying Trekker up hills and also a few moments of sudden fear that Trekker might fall down a steep hill or plummet the down the long steps from the view perches we stopped at. Also, since so many streets are also cobblestone it was also a bit difficult for Trekker to tell the sidewalk from street in some areas.
The Lisbon people were wonderful though – super polite and kind, very forgiving of my embarrassing lack of Portuguese, and always offering to help lift the stroller on and off of the buses. Portuguese people seem very warm and accepting of children in general. It may or may not also be worthy to note that the men also happened to be quite attractive. Or maybe my libido is finally returning.
While the people in Lisbon were super kind to help me with our stroller, I realized while in Lisbon that I would rather not use public transport on a regular basis, I’d prefer to live, work and play in one walkable neighborhood like we did in Brooklyn. So why don’t I move to a cheap small town? Because I want to be surrounded by an active street life, variety, options. While Lisbon is known for its active nightlife, as a single mom my social life (other than on Facebook) sometimes exists solely in daytime chance encounters at playgrounds or other public spaces, and my entertainment (other than from children’s books) comes largely from street musicians and people-watching. It’s hard to know if the rain kept more people indoors than usual the week we were in Lisbon but we really just didn’t encounter nearly as many street musicians and weirdos as I would have hoped for. (other than the weirdo below, outside the oceanarium.)
As for playgrounds, which are another one of my criteria in the perfect city list, I only saw them when I went out searching for them on a map. They do seem to exist but don’t seem to be totally bountiful. Apparently there is a really great playground at Lisbon’s huge city park but its location isn’t very convenient from the center of town with a stroller- you have to take public transport. Aside from playgrounds there is a wonderful Oceanarium where Trekker and I spent a drizzly afternoon, but again this is far away from the center and so wouldn’t be on a lifestyle stroller route.
My Lisbon synopsis: I feel blessed that I was able to catch up with friends and view the beauty of this romantic city and its people firsthand, and I could certainly imagine living here in another lifetime with a different trajectory, but, due to my circumstances in the here and now, Lisbon does not make the final cut for the best city for single moms with toddlers.
As a newly blogging mother of a toddler, choosing the nomadic lifestyle, I’ll start this blog by clarifying what I want for my son.
Here’s what I want for my son, where ever we end up, along the way, and generally in life:
to play. to feel safe. to be healthy. to experience joy, love, empathy and gratitude on a regular basis. to feel confident to express and develop his true nature and find something in life that he truly loves. to learn to handle difficult emotions in a healthy way. to learn multiple languages. to enjoy people. to meet exciting new people. to develop an open respectful attitude towards other cultures and people who don’t look like him. to open his taste buds early to global flavors. to be exposed to MUSIC- dancing, clapping, singing, drumming, instruments from other cultures. learn how to work and take care of himself (not because I plan on ending my duties as a mother early but rather because I don’t want it to be difficult for him to support himself later on. and because I want him to feel like he has some worth.)
At this age, cleaning up and helping fold laundry is a fun thing to do. Even if my toddler isn’t capable of doing these things WELL yet, it is a good idea to take advantage of the fact that work at this age is fun (or at least it can be if presented in the right way). In her book the Continuum Concept , Jean Liedoff proposes the idea that toddlers will both feel safer and learn how to live by watching a caretaker that is actively engaged in her work: “because a toddler wants to learn what his people do, he expects to be able to center his attention on an adult who is centered on her own business.” This is actually an interesting factor when it comes to choosing the right place to live. As a long-term traveler I have come to understand some of the perks to expat life which are highly dependent on the inequities of world economies and societies. The most affordable places for us to live are also places that we could afford household help and where household help is a standard part of local culture. While this is terrific for a single mom trying to make it in this world, I also wonder: if my son is raised with someone else always cooking and cleaning for us will he ever learn to cook and clean for himself? I then wonder why is it so important to me that he learn to cook and clean for himself if he doesn’t have to?
My mother once told me something that her mother had told to her which is “never learn how to do something that you don’t want to get stuck doing for the rest of your life.” It was a wise piece of advice. However there is another side to that coin: if you don’t learn how to do it yourself you may end up dependent on someone else to get it done. While I don’t think its reasonable that EVERYONE needs to do EVERYTHING, since some people are just plain better at some things than others, and/or they need a job, I do believe that basic self-reliance is important. Since I will be modeling habits for my son during his early years while also attempting to also find enough time to play and work, maybe nice balance between self-reliance and healthy assistance would be a good idea.
OK Trekker is sitting in front of the TV. This is not something I planned for my almost 2 year old but he is watching a Dominican station called “Baby TV” which seems to have a never-ending stream of engaging animations with teletubby-esque feel mixed into scenes of real animals in the wild and butterflies emerging from cocoons and such. There are songs and dialogues in Spanish and it all seems fairly educational. He is sits there while I blog I allow this because my parents allowed it yesterday and it kept him busy. TV is not something I ever intended to sit my child in front of (except as a last resort on airplanes), nor was the giant basket full of toys we’ve acquired (mostly as a result of christmas with the grandparents) something I intended to posses or rely on. But somehow I’ve let these things creep into our lives and I suspect they are scheming to take over.
Many years ago, before I became a mother, I attended a concert in the Sahara desert in Mali, about 2 hours north of Timbiktu. The concert was hosted by the Tuaregs, a nomadic people who travel by camel across the desert and who for millennium have gathered annually at this same event to share news and music. One day I was standing in a tightly packed crowd watching a dance performance when I looked down and saw a baby attached to the back of the lady not one millimeter in front of me. I gasped. This was a very dangerous place for a baby to be, I thought. As the youngest of my siblings, I had had limited exposure to babies. The only ones I remember seeing were usually dressed in clean white nightgowns, sleeping peacefully in protected cribs with the lights turned down, soft music playing, and everyone around them was always being told to shush. My first thought at seeing this baby hanging off the back of this woman at this loud, crowded desert festival was that it was highly neglected. The mother looked at me strangely as did everyone else as I pushed against the crowd backwards to create a little space around the baby.
The image of that baby stuck with me for years but changed its meaning over time. I had become exposed to more women in Africa that carried babies on their backs everywhere and had begun to see the scenario as possibly more natural than the way we do it over here in the Western World.
Just a couple of years ago when I was pregnant, a friend lent me a book called The Continuum Concept written by a sociologist who lived with, and studied, the baby rearing techniques of the Yequana people in South America. The author concluded that optimum physical, emotional, and mental health results from babies who are in constant physical contact with a primary care-giver yet are NOT the center of that caregiver’s world. Basically her findings showed that the attach-the-baby-to-your-back-and-go-about-your-business approach yields much better results than the previous Western scenario I had envisioned as correct. Having become nomadic myself by the time I was pregnant it came as a relief to learn that I may not need to furnish my world with strollers, cribs and other cumbersome objects.
The Yaquana technique, also known by the wider western world as “attachment parenting”, seemed to have worked out well for us. I carried Trekker everywhere for the 1st 6 months, we co-slept and nursed, and I generally went about my business while he grew as a happy, healthy baby. By the time he was 6 months and already 28 pounds we took over an abandoned stroller we’d found on the street in Brooklyn, but I still carried him tons and continue to nurse and co-sleep even now. That said, now Trekker is nearly 2 and the “terrible twos” are possibly approaching. He has learned how to say “I want” and the toys have started to pile up and weigh us down. I have found myself relying on these toys and now even on a television. I have even used the toy bribery tactic.
A few years back I built a rooftop garden at a special little arts and music school for under-resourced kids near Varanasi India. Day in and day out I was struck by how simple and pure the children’s lives seemed to be. They had such limited resources but were so happy just playing and singing and seemed to really appreciate every meal and every opportunity to learn. They meditated daily and practiced yoga. They could sit in meditation for 20 minutes straight without even a blink- At 5,6,7,8,9, and 10 years old! They had almost zero toys, and certainly no video games, AND I NEVER ONCE HEARD A WHINE. I vowed that I would someday have a child and raise it at Wichi school or somewhere like it. While poverty does equate with a lack of representation and often a lack of access to basic resources, there is something positive to say for not being spoilt.
But the fact is- I am a freewheeling western woman and single mom. And while I AM comfortable using squatter toilets and/or composting toilets, and with hauling water, and/or with otherwise living completely outdoors, I DON’T want to live in a culture where women are continuously repressed (as they are in India) nor where pretending I have a husband might be necessary for the purpose of respect or safety. While traditional societies may have their merit, but they are not for me. I want to live somewhere where I can blast “dancing in heaven” out the window and dance my head off with my toddler then 5 minutes later sing Indian classical scales and meditate without stirring much interest. I want to live in a society where if my little boy wants to run around naked or wear a pink tutu everyday it just won’t be a problem for anyone.
So how do I reconcile this desire for my kid to be raised like the grateful children in the Indian village with my other desire to live in a liberal walking city surrounded by artists and progressives?
Maybe we will stumble upon a place that embodies all of these possibilities during our travels. The big adventure has already begun, we head to Lisbon tonight.
I am looking for a city to base out of, somewhere that Trekker and I would want to come back to each year and keep a relationship with. I thought it was Brooklyn but the cost of living in that city is impossible. Even if I were to take a full-time, well paying job (which I probably wouldn’t be qualified for anyway) I would then need to hire some sort of child care to take Trekker all day and with the cost of a studio apartment being upwards of $1800, and a full time nanny being around $2400, that’s $4200 already before factoring in food, transport and god forbid a little entertainment. Of course I could forgo the personal touch of a nanny and put Trekker in a random daycare to cut costs but F that, my career prospects in Brooklyn just aren’t alluring enough to warrant not being able to see my kid all day. I would MUCH rather live in a tent on the beach in Costa Rica for next to nothing (which I’ve done in the past) and do Astrology readings for tourists to support us (which I’ve also done before there was an “us”.) So, Brooklyn, I love you, and I’ll see you on Facebook.
I posted a query to my wide array of Facebook Friends asking which cities they would recommend for us. My requirements are that it be a walking city (as in you don’t need a car), with an active street life, plenty of weirdos, an art scene, a music scene, a strong culture of dancing, lots of playgrounds, kid-friendly restaurants and culture, and it is affordable. Size of the city doesn’t matter so long as it is easy to get around with no car and walking is a part of life. (Every time I spend time NOT in a walking city my energy seems to atrophy from sitting around too much. I realize that I could do something about that with a little self discipline but why not just build the exercise aspect into the lifestyle and save the discipline for something else?)
Some other qualities – which would probably be automatic if the first qualities were met- would be a) that the city is safe for a single mother to walk around alone and b) that I would never feel a need to lie about my marital status. Well I am not for lying anyway but there are times and places (like when you are 8 months pregnant searching for an apartment in conservative India) that a fake wedding ring and “traveling journalist husband” are to be relied upon.
These are some of the suggestions my FB friends made from the query I sent describing my perfect home base:
Montreal, Berlin, Buenos Ares, Lisbon, Austin, New Orleans, Rockaway Beach New York (its cheaper than my old neighborhood), Portland, Edinburgh, Vegas, Pai in Thailand, Reno, Copenhagen, Marseille, Baltimore, Barcelona, Amsterdam, and of course Montezuma Costa Rica.
I dig it. And I would also consider Auroville (near Pondicherry, India), Chiang Mai Thailand, and Fort Kochi, India. I will first be examining each of these cities through an Astro-locality filter (I’ve booked a session with a pro! For those of you who have no idea what Astro-locality is, I will write a separate post about it explaining more after I have that experience.) Once the not-astrologically-fitting locations have been filtered out, I will add the winners to Trekker and I’s next World Tour which is due to begin within the next couple of weeks dependent on what travel deals I find on kayak.com and the timing of my next period.
So it’s 2015 and I’ve just realized that although I may have stopped for a few months at a time in some places, I’ve not lived in one place for more than 6 months straight since 2006. That’s 9 years of travel.
Nearly 2 years ago, on the tip of southern India, my life changed in an extraordinary way. I spent 37 hours in what seemed like the worst excruciating hell imaginable, attempting to expel a very large being from my body, and finally, with the exhaustive help of some radical midwives, managed to surrender to ripping myself apart at the seems, literally, to birth the most beautiful creature I’ve ever encountered. A couple months later I was on the move with that baby. And now I am traveling with that toddler.
I write a lot and take photos everywhere we go so I figure its time to start a travel blog. As a single mom on a budget traveling the world with a toddler my findings may potentially be useful or interesting to somebody. In the very least this blog will serve to help me to order my life, hypotheses, and discoveries, and be documentation of my son’s early adventures for when he grows up~
Hi Trekker! Congratulations on learning to read! Btw, the title to this first blog is from a Metallica song called Wherever I May Roam. It was big when I was in high school and it’s one of my karaoke favorites.