Poop Strong, my friends

No, this blog isn’t about Delhi Belly. It isn’t even about India. This entry is about my friend Arijit, a PhD student at Arizona State University, who is battling Stage IV colon cancer. He had just turned 30 when he was diagnosed a year ago.

Colon cancer is a disease that I have an unfortunate knowledge about. When I was 17, my mother was diagnosed with this cancer. I came home after work and found my sister and father crying. I immediately noticed my mother was not there. I freaked out. “Was Mom in a car accident?,” I asked. No. But she was in the hospital because she had cancer. My heart dropped, and I called my best friend. Her mom died of ovarian cancer four years earlier. I told her I didn’t know how to handle it. She rightly told me I didn’t have a choice.

My mom had 15-17 inches of her colon removed. (The reason for the range is the number seems to be getting bigger over the years!) But she was lucky. It had not spread outside the colon. Her doctors also made a very important decision during her surgery — they determined that despite the size of the cancer, her age (49) meant they could still reconnect the plumbing so that she didn’t need a colostomy bag. She never needed chemo and has now been cancer free for almost 11 and a half years.

My friend Arijit wasn’t so lucky. Doctors first thought it was a small tumor that could be removed laparoscopically but discovered during surgery that the cancer had spread throughout the abdominal cavity. Unfortunately, none of this was showing up in scans. The diagnosis was Stage IV. It would be weird to say Arijit is lucky in absolutely any way, but in a very small way he is, because despite the extreme diagnosis the cancer has not spread to vital organs. He’s also lucky because he has an awesome wife, Heather.

Arijit’s case is highly unusual. For one, he’s incredibly young. Colon cancer is often thought of as an older person’s disease. There is no traceable family history that suggests this is genetic. He’s also been tested for gene mutation. Nothing. Diet can be a huge contributor to chances of developing colon cancer, especially red meat, but Arijit is a vegetarian and has been the majority of his life. And he grew up in an Indian household. I can tell you from personal experience that red meat is not part of most Indians’ diets.

When Arijit was diagnosed with cancer, I did the same thing I did when I found out that my mom had cancer: Research. I am a far better researcher now than I was in high school. I learned then that colon cancer is generally a slow growing disease. I also learned that caught in early stages, it is very treatable. These things are still true. But I learned something rather frightening about colon cancer during this round of research: Among young adults, the incidence of colon cancer is increasing and so is the fatality rate. The rise in incidence can likely be attributed to diet, although not in Arijit’s case. But why are more young people dying of this disease than before? Because young adults are generally diagnosed at later stages of the disease than older adults, according to research by the National Cancer Institute and the Lance Armstrong Foundation.

Evidence of this alarming trend has been around for a decade but hasn’t necessarily reached the check-up room. So I urge you that if you have symptoms of colon cancer, including lethargy or rectal bleeding, push your doctor to consider that the cause could be more than anal fissures. It could just be the fissures, so don’t get too scared, but don’t let the doc make the most obvious diagnosis without checking. There are other methods of checking than a full colonoscopy.

You can also help my friend Arijit by visiting poopstrong.org. His treatment has exceeded his Arizona State University insurance plan cap, so he is raising money to pay for chemo and doctor bills. He’s selling “Poop Strong” t-shirts and wrist bands. The wristbands are brown, a color choice that my mother supports. (Why is the color for colon cancer blue, she always asks.) I designed a couple of the t-shirts. Arijit has received top-notch care from his doctors at the University of Arizona Cancer Center. My doctor dad says the treatments that Arijit has been receiving are highly innovative. Perhaps these treatments will become more mainstream in the future and save lives.

Poop strong.

Heather and Arijit before his Hyperthermic Intraperitoneal Chemotherapy last August. Only look up that term if you have a strong stomach. It is one of those innovative procedures being used by the University of Arizona Cancer Center. I guess Arijit's parents didn't approve of the sign Heather made, but I think it is quite appropriate.

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Impressions of Mumbai and Madurai

Our vacation with Judy and Dennis wasn’t all about monkeys. Actually, the monkeys happened at the end of the trip. Before that we got to experience two very different cities, Mumbai and Madurai.

I was not excited about visiting Mumbai. It is only 3-4 hours from Pune, and we didn’t get there until four months after our arrival in India. Pune is an easy pace; it is very livable. Mumbai, I thought, was the opposite. Fast-paced and overcrowded, full of Bollywood stars, gangsters, and some of the country’s poorest people. All that is true, of course, but there is more to it than that.

We stayed in south Mumbai, which is the nicest and least dense place in the city. It is a monument to the city’s colonial heritage, from the Victoria Terminus Station (now Chawrapatti Shivaji Terminus) to the very British buildings down Mahatma Gandhi Road. I love ancient temples and mosques, but I am a sucker for a good colonial-era building, too. It’s clear that the city works to keep this area nice, and they appear way more efficient in this endeavor than the Pune government seems with any of its projects. The sidewalks are palatial, sometimes 10 or 12 feet wide, and there are no hawkers or trash. Cars expect pedestrians and actually slow down for them. In Pune, many sidewalks are only three or four feet wide, and because of tree preservation laws, there are points on these sidewalks where tree trunks take up the entire space. (I am actually in favor of the law, just noting the inconvenience.) Hawkers cover Pune’s larger sidewalks, making it hard to walk on them, especially on evenings and weekends. In comparison, South Mumbai was a welcome surprise.

We only had a day and a half in Mumbai, so our sightseeing was pretty limited. We made the rounds in south Mumbai, including the Taj Hotel and Café Leopold, two of the sites attacked during the terrorist siege in 2008. As we were sitting in the Taj for a drink, Dennis wondered – out loud – about what the people sitting in those exact seats did when the gunmen entered. This is not something I wanted to think about. At Café Leopold, as we were exiting, I noticed a bullet hole in the door to the upstairs bar. A reminder.

We also visited Khotachiwadi, a group of old bungalows under threat from the surrounding development. Nestled just north of the south Mumbai district, these two-story bungalows look like something out of Portugal or Latin America. They are beautifully out of place in the high-rise megapolis with 21 million people. Sadly, they are disappearing. Only about half of the original bungalows remain.

From Mumbai to Madurai. In Madurai, I found a city that was more how I pictured Indian cities prior to living here. It had narrow streets filled with cows, rickshaws, and electrical wires and it is possible to walk almost everywhere. It wasn’t as dirty as parts of Pune can be, but it did smell worse, probably from antiquated sewage systems. Still the people were nice and the sites proved to be worth the plane ride.

We went to Madurai for one purpose – to visit the Meenakshi temple. The temple was started in the 13th century and added to for five centuries, but the location has been a holy sanctuary for Hindus since before Christ. The temple consists of four ornate towers, each intricately decorated with depictions of Shiva, Meenakshi, and other figures. Between the four towers, there are more than 1,000 scene carvings. Our guide told us local, government-approved artisans repaint the towers ever dozen years, which explains why they look so well maintained. And every night before the temple closes, priests move the idol of Shiva to the chamber of the idol of Meenakshi, so he stays with his wife every night.

The Meenakshi temple is Madurai’s most significant tourist draw — every hotel boasts a “temple view” rooftop restaurant — but I was more intrigued by the nearby Thiramulai Nayak Palace. The palace, built in 1636, was the home of King Thiramulai Nayak. What remains of the palace is a wonderful blend of South Indian and Islamic architecture, a fusion that came well before the British popularized Indo-Saracenic architecture in the 19th century. We caught the sound and light show at the Nayak Palace, which told us about the great king and his passion for music, poetry, and other arts from people of all different backgrounds. If you make it to Madurai, don’t skip the show. It is performed in both English and Tamil.

When monkeys attack

David’s parents, Judy and Dennis, arrived in India on Dec. 9. It was one of two visits we’d been looking forward to since we arrived in India. (The other was Jeff, who arrived on Dec. 23.) Since our trip with Jeff would take us to the north, we opted to head south with Judy and Dennis. For me, the trip was dominated by three M’s: Mumbai, Madurai, and monkeys. To not bury the lead, this blog is going to be about monkeys.

I wrote the following account the day after my all-too-close monkey encounter:

I got attacked by monkeys. Twice.

To be more specific, macaques, which are not as cute as they seem on the National Geographic show “Rebel Monkeys.” They can be very aggressive and are used to dealing with people. Now, please do not worry. I was not actually injured during the macaque attack, not even a scratch, but it did forever shatter my childhood image of monkeys as cute and cuddly. I spent the better part of my childhood sleeping with a stuffed animal of Aladdin’s Abu, but now I fear monkeys will be prominent in my nightmares.

The macaques picked out one mark. It was me.

Let me set the scene. On our third day in Madurai, we hired a taxi to take us to the rock-cut temple Thirupparankundram. We inadvertently hired a guide, who basically forced himself on us at the front of the temple. Our spritely guide rushed us through the 8th century rock-cut temple so he could drag us to his 400-year-old temple on top of the mountain, a 623-step climb.

It was at the top of the mountain where we first encountered the macaques. Sitting off to one side of the path were two monkeys. Suddenly, one of them charged at our party. However, it become immediately clear that I was the target. The monkey reached up and grabbed my camera bag, a grey sling bag that wasn’t coming off easily. He quickly climbed me as if I were some sort of tree. Both its hands were on top of the bag and one foot was clinging to the bottom of the bag.

I spun in a circle, screaming, afraid that this damn monkey was preparing to claw my face and bite off my nose. David started to scream, too, and the monkey jumped from my bag. David positioned his body between the monkey and me, continuing to scold the monkey and clap in its direction. The macaque, up on all fours, was just a few feet from David when it leaned forward and bared its fangs.

‘Oh my God, this monkey is going to bite us and we’re going to have to get $700 rabies shots and be in extreme pain from a vicious monkey bite.’

Quickly we moved toward the small temple, monkeys following at a close distance. We entered the temple, and of course when we exited on the other side to see the 400-year-old murals of Shiva carved into the mountainside, there were more monkeys. At first, the monkeys on this side stayed a reasonably safe distance from us, but once we made for the temple again they closed in. Again, I was the target. However, David prevented the monkey from accosting me and I made it safely into the temple.

Let’s be honest – by this point I am freaking out. I was nearly in tears from fear of these evil little creatures. And, AND, we still had to walk through the area where the monkey first jumped me.

Exit temple. Put on sandals. Move swiftly to shade structure at top of 600 steps.

I was out in front, walking as fast as possible to the point on the walk before the monkey confrontations. Dennis and David were talking about my swift pace, but I didn’t care. I saw safety in that shade structure and I was going for it.

Stop. More monkeys near the path. Get back in the group slowly, slowly …

Too late. Spotted. Here, at almost the same point as the first attack, I had my second encounter of the monkey kind. Again, the macaque was on the camera bag, scaling me. David came running, as did an Indian man who was sitting in the shade structure. He was wielding a big stick, which clearly frightened the vicious furball.

In retrospect, I wish I’d carried a stick. But I’ll give myself some credit. I was far more composed post-second monkey attack. I greeted the other guys sitting in the shade structure, friends of the smart guy with the stick. I smiled the ‘Oh my God that was terrifying’ smile and proceeded down the staircase.

On the way down, we stopped to chat and take photos with a group of local girls on the stairs. (It is very common for locals to ask to take pictures with foreigners.) We told them of the battle at the top.

“Oh yes, they are very naughty monkeys,” one said.

Naughty, indeed.

I knew then that the monkey that jumped on me probably thought that I had food or water in my bag, even though I didn’t. I am also pretty sure it was the same monkey that jumped on me both times because it was at the same point on the path. But even more than a month after the incident, it still freaks me out. That was a big monkey and he had some big teeth, which he had no problem showing us. I have seen many monkeys since the event and none have come anywhere near me. I am starting to think I could at least like langurs, which seem a little less aggressive.

You know what is so funny? I came to India loving monkeys and terrified of elephants because of some nightmares I had as a kid. Now, I am terrified of monkeys and decorate with elephants. Not a change I would have predicted.

A monkey outside the rock-cut temple. It wasn't him, but probably one of his buddies, that targeted me. He isn

The scenery as we climbed up the Staircase of Doom. Actually, it looks like parts of Northern Arizona.

A 400-year-old carving at the top of the climb near the temple.

A very Maharashtrian wedding

At the end of November, we were lucky enough to attend the wedding of our friend Shruti. Shruti was David’s classmate at Arizona State from 2008 to 2010, so being in India at the same time as her wedding was something David and I had looked forward to since learning in April that he received the Fulbright.

If you are imagining some overly lavish event that last two weeks and involves a groom riding in on a steed or a bedazzled elephant, think again. Indian weddings shown in Western media tend to be the north Indian tradition and probably a bit fictionalized. Maharashtrians are more humble, at least from what I can tell. There were events on three consecutive days, starting with the mehndi party on Sunday, some rituals and a rehearsal-dinner like event on Monday, and the actual ceremony on Tuesday morning.

I learned a couple things about henna at the mehndi party. Did you know that mehndi smells like pine? Mine did. Throughout the party the girls were all smelling their hands and saying how much they loved the smell of the henna. I also learned a little legend about the color of your henna. They say that if the henna color becomes very dark, then your husband must love you a lot. My henna was very dark. So was Shruti’s.

The wedding was two months ago now, so my memory of the different rituals is pretty hazy. Both Shruti and Anil had to wear many flower adornments, which clearly did not excite Anil. Shruti had multiple costume changes throughout the event, as well. Throughout the festivities she wore no less than five different saris.

I do, however, remember the marriage ceremony. In India, astrologers play a large role in people’s lives, and one of those roles is to determine the auspicious hour and minute for the marriage to be complete. Shruti and Anil’s auspicious moment was 11:23 a.m. Some time prior to the moment, a white sheet is raised in front of the groom. The bride stands on the other side. The cloth is held between them, blocking the view of the other, while a chant is sung. Then, at the auspicious time, the cloth is lowered and the bride and groom are officially husband and wife. Kind of like the veil in our weddings.

Another tradition deals with the taking of names. The bride doesn’t say the new last name outright, but instead comes up with a little riddle to say instead. Shruti’s riddle was in Marathi, but translated to something about how she kept waiting for Anil to learn Marathi, but then she realized that love has no language. (Background: Anil’s family is from Kerala, and despite living in Pune a good chunk of his life, Anil has never really learned Marathi and gets by on Hindi, English and his native tongue.) Awwww.

Attending Shruti’s wedding made me think about how I would explain U.S. wedding traditions to a foreigner. Why the father walks the daughter down the aisle and gives her away, the lifting of the veil, the lighting of the unity candle, etc. While these are traditions I know, I don’t often think about them and don’t always know how they started. Living abroad is not only a great opportunity to discover a new culture, but it can also make us more aware of our own.

And, yes, I did wear a sari to the wedding, which is a pretty tricky venture. David’s mom Judy gave me a sari to wear in India, which she received from her friend Shanta. I’ve been shown a couple times how to put it on, first by Judy and then by Shruti, but a couple days prior to the wedding I was freaking out, so we Googled it. We came across a website called goodindiangirl.com. Fantastic videos. I felt so confident that I could do it. I prepped the length of the pallu (the decorative end of the cloth), wrapped it, folded it, tucked it. But … I forgot the safety pin. By the time we reached the wedding hall my sari was a complete disaster. Thankfully, Shruti’s cousins redressed me and added the safety pin. Lesson: Never forget your safety pin.

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The clock keeps ticking

Last weekend, we spent our fifth month-a-versary in India on a bus ride back to Pune from Ahmedabad. A long bus ride. Sixteen hours to be exact. We had visited our pal Pushkar, who shifted there in December to take a new job. Amusingly, the bus ride was actually longer than the flight we took from Newark to Delhi on August 15.

Our stay in India is only for 11 months, maybe minus a week, meaning we have now reached the halfway mark. We’re in the home stretch, and I’d be lying to you if I didn’t admit to some severe homesickness as of late. Ever since David’s parents left on Dec. 20, the adventure hasn’t felt as exciting. (And mind you since that time we’ve visited Delhi and lovely Udaipur and completed a childhood dream to see the Taj Mahal.) The biggest blow to my morale was Christmas. I actually had a fantastic time on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and even got to video Skype my family after they had all opened presents, but Christmas just never felt like Christmas.

David noticed last night that the frequency that I say things like “when we go home” or “when we get to Utah” or “at our next place” has increased dramatically during this time. It has. My brain is working in overdrive, thinking about all the things we have to do when we get home, mainly moving to Salt Lake City and finalizing all our wedding celebration plans. I’ve lived in Phoenix for six years and India for a year – I’ve spent three-quarters of a decade in warm to hot climates. I don’t have the appropriate shoes for Salt Lake! And such are the wandering thoughts that go through my brain, probably manifested by some desire to think about being on the same continent as family and friends.

But by living in the future, I forget to think about what is so great around me. David and I have friends on this continent, lots of them, and they are wonderful people. I mentioned Pushkar above, and of course there is Shruti and her husband Anil, as well as all her family. We have our Pune Fulbright Gang and my co-workers. Saroj, who is basically my boss, keeps inviting me to meet her family in north Maharashtra near the Ajanta and Ellora caves. I can’t wait.

When I first arrived in Pune, I was feeling both sick and overwhelmed, which is a dreadful combination. To stop myself from hating India, I made a list titled “Things I Like.” Here is the list as written in my notebook:

1) The food! In particular, the dosas with spicy potatoes won me over.

2) If you have access to a TV, you can watch almost all the English Premier League games. In the hotel I discovered a love for watching David Silva play.

3) David is here.

4) Indian pop videos are hilarious, even when I can’t understand the language.

5) I caused order envy our first night in Pune by ordering something way more tasty than David’s choice.

6) Shruti, Aditya and Anil are incredible and have helped so much already.

7) The Indian head bobble.

8) Women, lots of them, drive motorcycles and scooters here.

All of that is still true, although I rarely eat dosas now because I got sick of them from eating too many. I don’t get to watch too much EPL since we don’t have a TV, but the Times of India gives me some pretty nice recaps. I continue to adore the Indian head bobble and find it a very useful communication tool. I also think it sends a sign to rickshaw drivers that I am not a complete outsider so don’t mess with me.

And of course, I can never say enough about the people we spend time with and the effect they and this country will have on me for the rest of my life.

Namaskaar.

Many updates to come

Dear family (and friends), I apologize for the lack of blog posts lately. After traveling most of December and suffering from Delhi Belly the first couple weeks of January, I just haven’t found the time. But I have no less than 10 blogs in my head, three of which are already written. So hopefully I am turning over a new leaf that inspires a more regular devotion to updating this blog.