Oprah comes to town

Waiting for Qs.

“Oprah is the special guest this evening!” enthused Linda as we huffed from the Telluride’s Palm Theater to toward town after our morning movie.

I mentally started to rejigger my schedule.

In addition to moving films like Tigerland, about saving tigers in India and Russia, and Gay Chorus: Deep South, Mountainfilm has lots of extras. There are early morning coffee-talks with authors and film makers, often with the subjects of films in attendance. Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, is the guest director and she was on the schedule as doing a special interview tonight. I was already planning to go. I’ve admired her writing and did a class with her last fall. But now getting a seat would require strategy, and missing an afternoon movie slot.

“They didn’t announce it,” said Linda, “because they were afraid people would come to the festival just to see her.” Linda had just been to a coffee talk with Cheryl so she was a good source.

Typically one hour before a movie starts a staff member with a red umbrella passes out numbered Q cards. You line up, in order, half an hour before show time. That half an hour will let you grab a bite to eat. If you aren’t in order they send you to the back of the line. I asked the fellow at the front desk if there are special procedures for Oprah.

“We’ll pass out Qs at five. You can get one extra Q if you have the person’s pass.”

“How many patrons are there?” I asked, referring to high-rent passes that allow folks to jump to the front of the line.

“There are 200 patrons,” he said. “They won’t all come of course, but we will start Qs with

The folks in front of me for Oprah.

200 since we need to accommodate all of the patrons. There are already about 10 people in line.” It was 1:30. She was supposed to be on at 6.

Figured it was safe to go grab some lunch and when I came back in about 40 minutes I was about 20 yards back. It was a festive atmosphere. People had lawn chairs. One group had a big cooler and a picnic. I’m sure they’d share if I asked. Some folks had bouquets of passes they were holding for others. This one’s husband was off playing soccer. (“He’s 80 years old,” said a friend.) The line grew by the moment. I was happy to be in the shade of a sign since I’d left my sunglasses at home. In a little bit the person with the red umbrella came to explain a change in program. “We are going to pass out Qs at 3:15.”

Some people–me, for example–were happy about this and others furiously started texting or calling loved ones to get their butts over to the Palm. I got number 389. From which you subtract 200 for the patrons and I was probably more like 250. For a 650 seat theater that was very comfortable. I’d even get a good seat downstairs.

So many people. There was a sea of people in front of me and an ocean of people behind me. And across the parking lot there was a lake of people waiting without Qs and with fingers firmly crossed. We were 8,750 feet closer to the sun and it felt like it. I put the hood of my coat on my head to protect part in my scalp.

Even though we were tired, everyone was good-natured, as usual at Mountainfilm only more so. Oprah is building a home here and there’s a lot of self-congratulatory talk about how Telluride is the best place in the world. I do love it here, but I’ve also been to other nice places.

Why did I think it was a good idea to wear my thick hiking socks?

And when are they going to open the doors?

The line behind me for Oprah. Seems like more than 650 people here to me.

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It’s been a year since I was last here, 35 years since I was first here, nearly five years ago that we sold our house.

I wasn’t thinking about that, though, as I did the drive from Grand Junction to Telluride. I was mostly thinking about the weather. Totally unfair to have snow coming on Memorial Day weekend. “Linda, that popcorn better stay in the back seat….after I have another handful.”

Snow started in earnest at Dallas Divide, the pass outside of Montrose. We were going up and up some more. Telluride, where we’re going for Mountainfilm, sits at 8750 feet elevation. My home, and the home of the friend I’m staying with, is a thousand feet above that. I had an oxygen concentrator that I always used the first day. Two days until I was good for hiking.

“Look at the elk,” I say, three of them skitter from the left across the road, scrambling up the near-cliff on the right. I still know the best place to stop for groceries–City Market in Montrose, which gives free dry ice–and the best places to spot beaver dens. I know when the cell signal will give out and that as beautiful as the scenery is right now it might be even nicer in a few minutes.

Kept my eyes on the road in the snow. “Why don’t those people have their lights on?” I ask.

“Drive as slow as you need to,” calls Jerry from the back seat.

A couple minutes later a motorcyclist in a rain suit waves frantically. “Darn! I don’t have my lights on!” I always drive with them on at home and so flipped the dial on the steering column. The temperature on the dashboard kept going down.

After two hours and thirty-seven minutes of driving I dropped off my friends at their condo in town. And then I started to cry.

“The kids will come here to see us,” my ex-husband had said, “the grandchildren will come. It will be our family retreat.” I bought the fantasy along with the home, not knowing that the marriage was already crumbling beneath me. We came to Telluride the first time when Jessamyn was just five months old. “It’s worth the trip,” was the town motto at the time, a strong hint at how difficult it is to get here. Babies had to be a year old to go to the nursery at the ski mountain, so I taught Jessamyn to hold up one finger when I asked her how old she was. We laughed when she did it. I hired a baby sitter for one day of skiing and then had a dental emergency, so found a dentist, and got worked on with Jessamyn in a front pack.

The house here was our last joint asset, the divorce was final a few months when it ultimately sold. It had been on the market for two years. The realtor told us we’d make a killing, but of course we didn’t. Sold the lovely place for what we paid for it.

I didn’t cry last year. Or the year before that.

That’s the thing about grief, it waits, lurking and shows up when you least expect it. I try to respect it, like at unseasonable snowstorm, and know that, like the snowstorm, it will be over soon.

“My” house. Looking very lonely.




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Nary a drop to drink

I stand in front of my bathroom sink, toothbrush in hand, confused.

Yes, I’m whacked out on jet lag. I slept for the first ten and a half hours of the sixteen hour flight from Delhi to San Francisco. The flight attendants were actually worried and I only woke up when I got leg cramps from not drinking enough. Hard to take in water while you are sleeping.

Although it’s time for bed in San Francisco, I’m both exhausted and awake at the same time.

Just being in an international airport is exciting for me, hearing different languages, seeing different cultures on display. Somehow all the possibilities of life are open when you are headed on an international trip. I love to leave. And I love to come home.

I’ve spent three weeks in India, and not in luxury hotels. While I have been an honored guest at every turn, sitting at the head of the table, in the front seat of the car, never allowed to get close to a restaurant bill, the realities of daily life in India are different than here.  I drink bottled water there. Every time. Every drop. If the woman-of-the-house is going to make chutney she uses bottled water so I can eat it.

“Is is true that everyone in America his a pipe into their house with water?” a cousin asks me.

An Indian in-home water purification system. Families like to transfer water for drinking to the ceramic jug as it will stay cooler. Refrigerated water is deemed too cold.

I always invite questions, and learn more from the questions I’m asked than from those I ask.

“How many hours a day does that water come?” is his follow-up question.

“And you can drink this water?”

I told him that if you can’t drink the water it will be in the newspaper. “And we get hot water from the pipe also.”

In the village of Kanai one morning we ran out of water. The family house is one of the most modern in the village. It has two bathrooms with western-style toilets, swamp coolers, and a reverse osmosis water purifier. But that only helps if you have water. The tank was empty. The well water was too bad. I went on the search for water. The first home didn’t have any to spare. We got two jugs from a house-under-construction down the street. I’ve supported Charity Water, which brings clean water to third world villages, for 15 years now and been lucky to see their work in the field in both Ethiopia–where we dig wells–and in India where we build taankas, a modern version of ancient rainwater collection tanks.

I stare at my toothbrush again, put toothpaste on it and run it under the faucet.

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Apple: Sardarapura Road vs. Chestnut Street

Face recognition on my iPhone wasn’t working. It just wasn’t.

I made sure everything was perfect with my phone before leaving home. My Indian friends didn’t like my old phone case–too obvious it held money and credit cards–so I got a new case with a secret compartment.

Plug adapter. Check. Extra charging cables. Check. Two external batteries. Check. Check. Everything backed up and up-to-date? Check. I tell myself the $10/day AT&T charges for international service is simply the cost of doing business. I tell my family and friends I will be as phone-available as always, just opposite side of the clock.

Ariel started to call me once and her phone warned her about the inconvenient time where I was.

They don’t call them smart phones for nothing.

But my face recognition didn’t work. It just quit. I could still use the password of course, but what if something really was amiss? I picked up the phone every other minute, showing pictures, taking pictures, sharing pictures, looking up exchange rates, and punching in the numeric password was inconvenient. And we’d be going off-the-grid to the village soon.

So I trotted off to the Apple Store in Jodhpur.

In some ways it’s just like my Apple store at home. There’s a genius bar. The latest and greatest in computers and phones are displayed on white dust-free counters. There’s whiz-bang wi-fi. The helpers are great. Prices are the same. And there’s an assortment of cases and other accessories.

End of similarities.

In Northern California where I live, if I don’t make an appointment ahead of time I practically have to put my elbow pads to get into the store. There are two greeters up front–iPads in hand–who do triage. If I want actual help I’m put in a queue and given an approximate wait time, 90 minutes or so usually. I’ll get texts to update me on my place in line. If I am five minutes late, the process starts again. It’s organized and friendly, but the store is so crowded that’s how it goes.

In Jodhpur, which has about the same population as San Francisco, there are no appointments, no greeters, and no need for triage. I got right in to see the genius, whose English was just fine. He looked up my phone up on the computer, purchased March a year ago. Quickly figured out there was a new software update. I didn’t have wifi access so hadn’t been able to do it yet. We plugged my phone in and started the update on their wifi.

“How many phones do you sell in a day?” I asked.

“Ten to 15.”

Remember I said prices are the same here. Quoted in rupees, of course, but divide by 69 rupees to the dollar and it’s the same. The average iPhone purchased today is brushing up to $800. The median family income in San Francisco is $96,265.

In Jodhpur the average annual income is the equivalent of $4,261.

An iPhone is an absolute luxury item here.

After the update finished we reset my facial recognition and it worked just fine.

While I was waiting for the update someone brought out a tray of waters, served in shiny copper cups. Indians take their hospitality seriously and one is always offered water or tea in every home or business.

No drink service at the Apple Store on Chestnut Street in San Francisco.

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The Butterfly Effect

When we met Givraj Sen last fall he was a 19 year-old chef/barber hoping for a new ear.

Givraj and me just recently.

Givraj was three years old when when an accident in his home village of Kanai in Rajasthan, India, left him severely burned, his left ear entirely consumed and left side of his face and neck, and left arm burned. The fire killed one small child and injured several others. Young Givraj spent over a month in the hospital.

An industrious and cheerful young man, Givraj isn’t embarrassed about his scars but he would love to have ear. Although he has insurance, the rough equivalent of Medicaid, he had no idea where to begin. His father, a barber/servant, asked around but people in these villages are unsophisticated–the female literacy rate is only 20%–and no one knew where to begin.

At our medical clinic, in the fall, for which Givraj, prepared the food, I organized a meeting with Givraj, the physical therapist who runs the NGO we partner with, and Lokendra and Goldie Rathore.

I don’t speak Hindi. The physical therapist explained that Givraj would need to go to Jaipur, the largest city in Rajasthan–two to three hours away depending on how many cows are meandering on the road–and have a consultation with a plastic surgeon. The physical therapist wrote a name on a referral slip. The surgeon would advise on next steps.

This discussion happened in English. “Please translate this for Givraj,” I say.

“After we’re done I will,” says Goldie.

“No, now. This is important for his life and he needs to understand every step.”

The elder Mr. Rathore offered to take Givraj when they returned to their home in the city and to accompany him on medical appointments. Insurance would pay the cost of any surgery.

“Do you have any questions?” I asked Givraj.

Recovering from surgery last October.

Only how fast this could all happen. Today? Tomorrow? Next week?

It turned out there was too little flesh remaining to build Givraj and ear, but the surgeon could help him. They would take a skin graft from his right thigh and improve both the appearance and function of his neck. The contraction of the scars had given him restricted movement.

Less than three weeks later Givraj had the surgery, a family member stayed to help care for him in the hospital, which is expected. Afterwards he had to be careful for a good while to protect the graft, no cooking in heat for two months….

And now, Givraj has a whole new life.  He moved to the neighboring state of Gujrat, and works for a catering company. While I was in Kanai he drove ten hours–by motorbike!–to come and thank me. He showed me dozens of photos of elaborate dishes he’d prepared for his work, tiny desserts with silver foil on top. Platters and platters in which the sweets are organized to make pictures.

You ask why I didn’t get any of those pictures? I ask myself the same thing.

He was going to cook us a celebration dinner, but traffic slowed him up. It was 10 pm when he arrived. I was a uncomfortable with all the focus on his scar. Grandma kept exclaiming and brushing her fingers. All and sundry exclaimed and inspected, but I chalked up my discomfort to cultural differences.

Before I was awake the next morning he was off to Mumbai–a 17 hour drive–where he would be working on a wedding for 1,000 people.

My discomfort over the focus on his scar was surpassed by my discomfort at the level of appreciation. I wanted to say I didn’t really DO anything. I didn’t perform surgery. I didn’t pay for surgery. I didn’t even drive him, by car or camel or motorbike, to the surgery. What I did was set up a meeting and get him on the right path.

And at first I attributed my discomfort to those pesky cultural differences. Whenever anyone tries to touch my feet I go into freak-out mode. But then I realized that for him getting put on the path was huge. Small for me; momentous for him.




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