The Story of Ashwin and Sina

Nerd marries model

6th grade.jpgSinaAswhin001Here I am sometime back in middle school.  I had a mustache, played the flute, and was terrible at sports.  You can see my totally fake smile trying to hide the depression because girls had zero interest in me.  If I only knew back then that this amazingly beautiful woman would one day be my wife, man things would have gone a LOT differently.  Here’s how it happened.

In June 2003, I was graduated from the Cornell University MMH program (Masters of Management in Hospitality).  I had landed a job as the Director of E-commerce with Meliá Hotels & Resorts (Click here for that story).  At Meliá, I had the greatest boss ever.  Mr. Ron Roy, an extremely friendly and jolly guy from Scotland with the greatest sense of humor and a deeper wealth of knowledge on history and random facts than anyone I’ve ever met.  One of the first things he told me to do was to get on a plane and visit the company’s portfolio of resorts in Mexico (twist my arm…).  So off I went, starting with Los Cabos, then Cancun, Cozumel, and before heading to Ixtapa I visited Meliá Puerto Vallarta.  Yes, it was the job that everyone dreams of.

I was greeted by the General Manager, the late Mr. Tom Tollius, another great figure from the good old days at Meliá.  We chatted in his office for a while and he offered to introduce me to his Director of Sales.  A few minutes later, in walked the most stunningly beautiful woman I had ever seen.  Sina Schreiber was from Austria, had big blue eyes and blond hair.  I felt like the personification of all of my boyhood and teenage dreams had just walked through the door.  Even now at the age of 42, the presence of a beautiful woman makes me nervous.  Back then when I was 27 years old, it was much worse.  My level of confidence has increased significantly since then, when I used to look like this…  thanks to Sina’s guidance on fashion, but I still feel like I’m acting like a complete nerd when a beautiful woman is talking to me.

Tom suggested that we go get lunch at the restaurant by the pool and off we went.  Have you ever had a conversation with someone and you just completely click?  We just seemed to think completely alike and now looking back on it, there was clearly a mutual interest.  Back then I would have refused to believe that she was actually interested in me.  In my mind though, I was already planning the wedding.  My nerdy overzealousness was very quickly crushed though when Sina mentioned that she has a very serious boyfriend and that she was planning on marrying him.  The adrenaline rushing through my veins quickly changed to cold ice.  You know, if you pay attention, you can almost feel your brain injecting different chemicals into your body depending on what’s going on.

Anyway, I went back to our offices in Miami and couldn’t stop talking about (or thinking about) Sina.  Now, my assistant in Miami happened to be a very attractive, voluptuous Colombian girl named Katherine.  My boss, Ron, often commented that she was the prettiest girl in the whole company.  Katherine had apparently taken an interest in me, even though I had absolutely no idea.  A few months later, Katherine and I became a couple.  That was the start of a four year, very turbulent relationship (for that story, click here).  At some point during these four years, Sina’s boyfriend somehow decided to break up with her.  This had to be one of the most difficult years of my life.  My heart wasn’t in my relationship with Katherine and I knew it.  So did she, but she didn’t want to let me go and I couldn’t bring myself to break up with her simply because the woman that I really wanted to be with was suddenly available.  That just didn’t seem right.  Katherine was a beautiful, loving, and caring woman, and I thought that breaking up with her to be with Sina would just be a typical jerk ‘guy’ move.  Growing up with mostly female friends, I had promised myself I wouldn’t be one of those.  Looking back, staying with Katherine under those circumstances was even worse.

I saw Sina maybe twice per year through various industry events or company meetings, and every single time that spark was still there.  We would normally end up talking for hours.  Nothing ever happened between us, but my God I wanted it to.  I’ll never forget there was one night when we were at Meliá’s party at Tianguis (a large travel industry tradeshow that happens every April in Mexico).  Years ago it was in Acapulco every year, but now they change the location each year due to safety issues in Acapulco.  Meliá used to rent out a big house with a pool where they held an extravagant party every year.  Sina and I were talking with a group of people while we scarfed down hors d’oeuvres and a few drinks under the starry night sky and Sina said that she wanted to go dancing.  My instincts kicked in and I immediately said “I’ll go!”.  So we made our way to the entrance of the house and started walking toward her rented iconic pink jeep from Las Brisas, the hotel where we were staying.  With each step we took toward the car, my heart began to sink and a feeling of guilt came over me.  I knew that if we went dancing by ourselves there was no way I was not going to kiss her that night.  My pace started to slow as Sina walked on and I stopped and said, “Sina…”.  She turned around to look at me and I said “I’m so sorry but I can’t go.  I think I’m going to go back to the house.”  I’m not sure if she knew what was going through my head but she said ok, and we went back.

Eventually, in the fall of 2008, Katherine and I broke up.  It was like a giant weight was lifted off of my shoulders.  By now I hadn’t been working with Melia for a year and I hadn’t been in touch with Sina since.  But I reached out to her right away to find out where she was and what she was up to, and she answered right away.  After leaving Meliá, she went to Rome for a few months to learn Italian.  She sold tours at The Vatican, and was a live-in babysitter.  After that, she went to Ghana to teach underprivileged children at a school about 3 hours away from the main city of Accra, in a village where there was no running water.  If I wasn’t already in love with her before, that kind of sealed it for me.  So I asked if she was seeing anyone, and she said no.  I asked if I could come visit her, and she said yes!  “But… aren’t you married by now?” she asked.  I explained that Katherine and I had broken up and that I would explain everything when I saw her.  I immediately bought a plane ticket, got my vaccines and three weeks later I was off to Ghana.

How was I going to explain to my family that I was running off to Africa during Thanksgiving?  I had just gotten out of a roller-coaster 4 year relationship.  I certainly was not going to tell them that I was flying half way across the world to see if Sina was still interested in me, especially because I knew there was a chance I would come back disappointed.  So I made up the most logical lie I could think of.  I had decided to go to Africa to ‘volunteer’ at a school.  This became a big joke when they learned the truth.

I arrived in Accra, made my way through immigration and just outside the airport, there she was dressed in fabric with local colors and patterns.  She hadn’t changed a bit.  But she wasn’t alone.  With her was a really cute four year old boy named Emmanuel, from Aflao, the village where Sina was teaching.  The three of us got into a car with a driver and began our three hour journey back to Aflao, avoiding giant gaping potholes almost the entire way.  Sina was living with a local woman named Alice.  Before I had arrived Sina said “I hope you don’t mind, but I had to tell Alice that we were married, otherwise she won’t let you stay in the house.”  I can’t explain the feeling of excitement when she said that.

We spent about a week in Aflao, bathing in the outdoor ‘shower’ with buckets of cold water that we had to fetch each day from the well.  I tend to take a long time to shower and get ready as it is… now if I have to do it with 2 buckets of cold water, it’s going to take even longer.  Sina jokes from time to time that she should have known right away what she was dealing with.  There was a small kitchen in this house, sort of like an outhouse, and I had brought stuff from the USA to cook dinner for Sina and her roommate.  They hadn’t eaten a familiar home cooked meal in months so I won some major points there.  I also brought a bottle of Sarah Jessica Parker’s perfume at Sina’s request, and I also brought a brand new Ipod with all my favorite music loaded onto it with the inscription “Para mi querida Sina” on the back.

We had a great week.  I visited the school with Sina and helped teach some classes.  It was truly an amazing experience.  These kids have nothing more than a chalk board and chalk to learn with.  I decided to teach them how to play Pictionary, but even this was a challenge because their span of knowledge was so limited.  I would whisper in a child’s ear to draw an elephant, and they would look at me completely confused.  They didn’t know what an elephant was or what it looked like.  That might surprise you since we were in Africa, but there is really no wildlife to speak of in Ghana.  That’s on the other side of Africa in Kenya, Botswana, etc.  I met the other volunteers and we all went to visit a waterfall.  The other volunteers wanted to hike up to the top of the waterfall and I thought “Hey I can do that since I did it in Australia (you can read about that here).  Except back then I was 25 and in much better shape than at 32.  I was never really an athletic person but I thought I could handle this.  Sina didn’t want to go but I remember thinking “Let me show her that I don’t want to crowd her.  I don’t always need to be by her side and I can go do this with the others.”  After about 15 minutes, I was so out of breath that I told the others to just go on without me.  Now I would have to go back down to Sina with my tail between my legs and admit that I just couldn’t keep up.  She just laughed.  We spent the rest of the time taking pictures by the waterfall with Emannuel.

Throughout this entire week, neither of us brought up anything about us getting together.  I wanted to so badly but the timing had to be right.  After the first week we only had a few days left and we decided to go travel a bit through the south of Ghana, just the two of us.  We headed west in a ‘tro tro’ which is basically a small bus full of people.  As we drove along the road and the sun began to set, Sina was sitting next to me at the window.  I gathered up as much courage as I could and took her hand in mine.  She grasped my hand back and smiled at me.  That was when I knew for sure that those feelings that had grown between us for the last 5 years were still there.  The first stop was a place I had read about where you could see giant leatherback turtles laying their eggs on the beach.  We were in the middle of nowhere but I remember we had CNN International, and we watched as the terrorist attack unfolded at the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai.  I immediately checked with my oldest brother Sanjay to make sure they were all ok, since they were living there at the time.  Later that night we went out with a guide and saw these magnificent animals coming up onto the beach and laying their eggs.  We continued west through Accra and onward to Cape Coast.  We checked into the Mighty Victory Hotel and next day we visited the famous fort where slaves had been shipped off to the Americas.  We also visited the Kakum National Park, and then headed back to Accra for the last night where I figured I would splurge for the ‘nicest’ place in town.

That evening at the beach, Sina asked me what happened with Katherine and I told her the whole story.  It was a bit uncomfortable but she needed to know everything.  That night at dinner, I asked Sina “So what do I have to do for us to be together?”   Sina had about a month left in Ghana and then her plan was to go back to Austria to be with her family for Christmas.  We planned for her to come to Miami after Christmas and just before New Year’s so we could spend a few weeks together.  In my mind, this was it.  We were getting married and that was all there was to it.

Just before New Year’s Eve, Sina arrived and came to stay at my house in Miami.  Everything felt so normal and natural that to me, it was just obvious that she was staying.  Sina bought a ticket to Rome so that she could go pick up some stuff that she had left with the family she was living with, so after a few weeks she left for Rome for 2 weeks.  I was going completely out of my mind without her.  So in my typical impulsive romantic fashion, I went online and bought a plane ticket to Rome for the weekend.  I asked Sina for the address where she was staying so I could ‘send her a card’.  I remember my friends in my office telling me that this was a really bad idea.  “Give her some time and some space to think!”  Nope, I’m going to Rome.

I left on Thursday evening and arrived by Friday morning.  I checked into my hotel and waited until it was about 1pm so that it would be 7am EST which is when Sina and I would normally skype each other before I headed to work.  In order to surprise her I skyped her as if everything was normal and I was back home.  Then I made my way over to the apartment.  Luckily the husband of the family happened to be leaving just at the moment I arrived and he knew right away who I was.  He snuck me into the apartment and I just appeared in Sina’s doorway.  She looked up and she was completely shocked.  For a moment she was really confused and couldn’t figure out where she was, or why I was there.  We spent an amazing weekend together in Rome and thankfully, she was thrilled that I had come.  I knew this was the woman for me.  It’s a good thing I went too because she sent me back with several really really heavy bags, and there is no way she could have brought all that back by herself!

When she got back we started the adoption process to bring Emannuel to live with us.  Sadly, that never worked out.  You can read that story here.  We had our wedding at the Acqualina Resort & Spa, right on the beach in Sunny Isles, Florida and it was beautiful.  We invited a small group of our closest friends, co-workers and family, and just after the ceremony a giant rainbow appeared just beyond us out in the ocean.  I’m not kidding!  You can’t make this stuff up.

So here we are, nine years later.  Of course it hasn’t all been perfect.  Every marriage has its challenges and I might discuss some of that here in my blog as long as it won’t cause my wife to divorce me.  But we are happy and we have two incredible girls.  Hope you’ve enjoyed our story.

Sevilla 1997

During sophomore year at the University of Rochester, it was time to decide what study abroad program to choose.  After the exchange program experience I had in Tenerife, I knew I was going.  It was just a question of where.  I had heard about the Semester at Sea, where students live on a ship for a semester visiting ports all over the world.  Also nicknamed “The Fuck Boat” among college students everywhere, which certainly sounded appealing, I was in a serious relationship with Chloe until the summer after sophomore year.  I also decided that it would be a better fit for me to strengthen my Spanish skills and get deep into one culture rather than just get a taste of several different cultures.  I considered Mexico, but finally decided on Sevilla, Spain.

I ended my relationship with Chloe just before junior year began after I suggested that while she studied in Paris and I studied in Spain, we could meet up once in a while.  She suggested that if she were to meet a guy in Paris she would not want to miss out on that aspect of her study abroad experience.  She had this idea of having a romantic affair with a French man (which never happened of course).

My parents flew over to Sevilla with me to help me get settled.  We checked into a hotel and they stayed for a few days and then headed back home.  It was really my first time on my own.  I mean, I was ‘on my own’ in Tenerife but I was under the care of a family there.  Even going to college was different, as I was living in a dorm and on campus with other students.  It was still a bubble.  This was the first time I was out in the real world, alone.  Looking back, these few days before the study abroad program actually started probably played a major role in shaping my view of traveling and being alone.  Luckily, the very first night I met a British woman and French man at a tapas bar.  They were just traveling and had met each other that evening as well.  The experience of getting to know strangers, from two different countries, clearly a few years older than I was, and sharing some drinks and good food and good conversation, was nothing short of amazing.  They didn’t see me as Ashwin the non-Jew, the guy who’s not good at sports, or the nerdy serial monogamist who doesn’t have casual sex with multiple women.  It reminded me of Tenerife.  They liked me because I was nice and because I was from somewhere else.

I realized that this was my chance to completely let go of my inhibitions and become someone else entirely.  Nobody in Spain knew who I was.  I had already grown out of my shell in the first 2 years of college but this was the time to find out who I really was and what I was capable of.  I was tired of being ‘the good guy’ and finishing last.  Shortly after my parents left, I remember pushing myself to walk into a strip club with bright neon lights outside.  Except I soon learned that it wasn’t a strip club at all.  Apparently things that are illegal in the United States aren’t quite as illegal in other countries.

Once the study abroad program started, we had the option of choosing to live with either a group of students, a family, or a widow.  I choose a group of students, but somehow was placed with a widow.  I went to visit and there was another Spanish student living there.  The rules were that I had to be in the apartment by 10pm, and I would not be given a key.  I was out of there faster than a lightning bolt.  That was just NOT going to work for my personal development strategy.  I remember dumping several hundred pesetas into a payphone to discuss this with my mom, who said I should stay put because I was in Spain to study and not to socialize.  Yet another cultural challenge of having Indian parents.  But at this stage in life I had learned to ignore her and follow my instincts, and I requested a change of housing.  I was assigned to an apartment with other Spanish students in a small plaza in the old part of the city, and best of all it was owned by a family who lived just a few doors away.  YES!  This was perfect!  Freedom to do whatever I wanted, to come and go as I please, but still have home-cooked meals whenever I wanted.  Perfect.

There was an orientation for the program and the entire group went on a ferry ride along the river in Sevilla.  I remember that most of the students were female.  I’m not sure why but I decided to get a picture with every single one that I thought was half-way pretty.  Maybe I was just pushing myself to not be afraid.  But they were all really nice and obliged me.  I kept a journal of this entire experience so I really should pull that out one of these days and add more detail to this story!

Sometime before classes started I met my best friend Bill, and we paired up with 3 girls, Kathryn, Carrie and Amy.  Bill started to date Kathryn (Kati), and I started to date Carrie.  Amy was a lesbian, and somehow it just worked.  The five of us became really close friends and chose our classes purposely to be on Mondays, Tuesdays on Wednesdays.  So every Wednesday night we would gather, pull out a map, and plan our weekend getaway.  Almost every single weekend, we would jump on a train or bus and go explore another area of Andalucia.  Marbella, Malaga, Cadiz, Nerja, Granada, you name it.  We also went to Barcelona and Madrid of course.  We were all over the place and we had a blast together wherever we went.  There was also Christian, who was extremely nice but was a bit dramatic at times.  Christian was also openly gay and maybe he was also using this experience to find out who he was and explore his sexuality.  Conversation with Christian was almost always about the gay nightlife in Sevilla.  Although, he seemed to really take a liking to Carrie which pissed me off.  I don’t know why I wasn’t capable of taking my relationships more casually and felt this need to fall in love with every girl that looked my way.  Let’s save that one for another post.  I remember telling Carrie that I thought Christian had a thing for her, to which she of course responded by telling me that I was crazy and that Christian was gay.  Sure enough, they ended up hooking up at a bar one night.  Heartbreak seemed to be in the cards for me during college.

Sevilla 1997

Bill and I took one or two trips alone after that but we all ended up being friends again.  After the program ended in Sevilla the 6 of us hopped a plane to Berlin where we would start our 4 week train tour of Europe.  I remember going through immigration in Berlin and laughing with Bill about how it still looked like the Gestapo.  In Berlin, we split into two groups because some of us wanted to go to Poland since it was so close, and others wanted to go to Dresden.  The plan was to meet up in Prague in a few days.  I wanted to go to Warsaw and I’m glad I went.  Although when we got off the train we really had no idea where to go and communication was a real challenge.  It seemed like back in 1997, everyone spoke either Polish or German.  English was not easy to come by.  We saw a streetcar but couldn’t find a place to buy tickets for it.  People seemed to be getting on and off so we figured that we could buy tickets on the streetcar itself.  We were wrong, and of course, we were immediately approached by two men who pulled out a badge which may have just as well been from a toy store for all we knew.  They asked us to get off the street car and showed us the fine that we would have to pay.  There was literally zero communication but we somehow conveyed that we had no idea and did not intentionally ride without paying.  One of the men flipped the page where the fine was listed and showed us a lower amount.  So we agreed to pay it.  We joked that they gave us the “stupid American” discount.  We later learned that one has to buy tickets for the street car at the local magazine shops.

We took a train to see the concentration camp at Dachau which was important to Bill given his Jewish heritage, and then made our way to Prague to meet up with the others.  Prague was beautiful and we saw this bizarre puppet show with Beatles music.  While in Prague we saw all of these posters for a music festival where Sheryl Crow, Midnight Oil, Ziggy Marley and INXS were playing (all big names back then)… but the dates were at the tail end of our trip and we had just started!  Tickets were only $20 though, so Amy and I decided to buy tickets and said that depending on where we were at the end of the trip, maybe we would come back.  We went on to Vienna, then Budapest.  Vienna didn’t impress me much back then but little did I know what an important role it would play in my life later on.  Budapest was more interesting and I remember visiting some caves just outside the city.  It was the 6 of us and two school buses full of elementary school kids from a town called Eger.  They were so nice, and invited us all to go with them on the school buses back to Eger, and even offered to put us up in the houses of the kids!  We all talked about what a great experience that would be, but we already had train tickets to Italy from Budapest and we knew our time was limited.  We spent quite a bit of time traveling through Italy walking through the five towns of Cinqueterre and headed down to Rome.

We skipped France altogether and headed to Geneva, where Carrie and Kathryn left the group to head back home.  The rest of us ventured onward to Amsterdam, Copenhagen and we headed up to a small town in Sweden called Varberg, just to get the Swedish stamp in our passports!  We literally just picked it off a map and decided to go there.  Unfortunately (or fortunately as it would turn out), we missed the last train out of Varberg back to Copenhagen.  But there were no hotels in Varberg… so we asked a guy at the train station where we should stay, and he told us about an old fort that overlooks the sea, where if you pay the woman $20 you can rent an old prison cell (no longer in use of course).  That turned out to be one of the coolest experiences of the trip.

Bill left us after that, and Amy and I headed back to Prague to see the concert.  Also amazing….  But then we had a very long train ride all the way across Europe from Prague to Madrid where I then flew back home.

I keep in touch with all 5 of my friends from Sevilla.  Sadly, Bill passed away in 2002, about 5 years after our European adventure.  While we were in Nerja, he told us about a brain tumor that had appeared, but that after an operation they thought it was gone.  But it wasn’t, and it came back with a vengeance.  I flew to L.A. to participate in the funeral.  Bill was one of the very few guy friends that I have had in my life and it was really hard to lose him.  I still keep in touch with his parents as well and I’ll never forget him.

The Global Dilution of Cultural Identity

I don’t think that our family was like other Indian families.  My parents didn’t constantly drag us around to the houses of other Indian families, nor did we constantly have to attend Indian social functions.  I really admire my parents for assimilating so well to American society.  For the most part, we grew up like other American kids that we went to school with.  We went to the movies, played board games, and growing up in Miami, we would drive out to The Keys and go fishing and snorkeling.

While my parents knew each other as acquaintances, they certainly did not know each other well when their parents agreed to have them married.  From what I understand either of my parents could have refused the arrangement, but they didn’t.  They moved to Hong Kong for a year so that my dad could work with an uncle on his side that had his own business.  That apparently didn’t work out, so they moved to Miami so that he could work with a friend of my grandfather on my mom’s side.

My parents were definitely “foodies”.  My dad grew up in a home in Mumbai where good food was important.  After they arrived in Miami my mom took it upon herself to learn how to cook extremely well.  So every night in our house there was a fully prepared 2 or 3 course meal the quality of which could match any restaurant out there.  They were quite social and would frequently entertain friends at the house and everyone would rave about the food every single time.  Their friends were of various cultural backgrounds which gave my brothers and I a very well-rounded view of the world, and made us all very confident conversing with a heterogeneous group adults from a very young age.

We weren’t a religious family either.  I knew that my parents called themselves “Hindus” but I really had no idea what that meant.  Every 2 years we would travel to India for the wedding of a cousin and inevitably that involved visiting a Hindu temple adorned with an abundance of flowers and paintings of Hindu Gods on the walls.  A man would read from a gigantic book while another would swing what appeared to be a wand with fluffy long hair at the end of it, which I later learned was to keep the flies away from the book.  At some point each of my brothers and I had a ‘thread ceremony’ which is something that we all have to do before we get married, but all of these rituals were more cultural than religious.

We were brought up to be good people.  Lying, stealing and cheating were all punishable offenses.  My parents were responsible members of society, donating money to feed the homeless and other noble causes.  We never went to feed people at a homeless shelter or anything like that, but nevertheless they were able to instill a sense of right and wrong, and giving back.  My parents lead by example, and my two older brothers and I all learned that life was a balance of hard work and play.

Just like any family though, we had our challenges.  There was a constant focus on academics which, now having a 6 and 7 year old of my own, I can totally understand.  But academics never came easy to me.  If I put in the time and effort into learning something, I would know it backwards and forwards, but it was a struggle for me to concentrate on learning math, history, or anything in a text book frankly.  When we had to read books for school, I would read as little as possible just so I could speak about the book without actually having to read the whole thing.  This inability to focus on one task with intensity carried over into many areas including music.  I really enjoyed played the piano for example, but it was a struggle to sit at the piano and practice the same piece of music until I knew it perfectly.  This would mean though that I would be just ok, or good at many different things, but not excellent in any one area.

This became a point of conflict with my parents.  They were of the belief that you should pick one thing and be excellent at it.  Now, at the age of 42, I can understand where they were coming from.  But I don’t believe that you can, or should, just pick something.  I believe you have to identify what you have a passion for.  I have a passion for listening to music, but am I passionate about learning how to play it?  No.  I enjoy it, but I don’t have a self-motivated drive to sit down and learn a piece of music for hours.  But I digress.

This point of friction with my parents, combined with the difficulties of growing up in Great Neck, pushed me into a state of depression for years.  It was the experience of living with a Spanish family in Tenerife during the summer of 1993 that blew my world open and where I would say I first felt a passion emerging.  The ability to converse in another language, to understand another way of thinking, and the exploration of another way of life lit a fire in me that I had never felt before.  Within the four weeks that I lived in Tenerife I absorbed a much of the language and culture as I possibly could, and was left with a hunger for more that I wouldn’t be able to feed until almost 4 years later during my junior year of college when I studied abroad in Sevilla.

The experience in Tenerife was a turning point in my life and set me down a path of no return.  After studying at the University of Rochester I worked for Accenture and PricewaterhouseCoopers for 3 years and was constantly looking for a way to use my Spanish skills, without success.  Finally in 2001 after traveling through Asia for the summer, I went to the Cornell University Hotel School to do my Masters, and immediately started interning with Sol Melia Hotels & Resorts, the largest Spanish Hotel chain.  For the first time in my life, I felt passionate about work.  These internships (and eventual job) included everything that I loved about life.  I was able to use my Spanish, work with beautiful hotels and resorts, and with a group of international people that felt like family.  I’ll never forget those 7 professional years of my career as they continued to define who I was as a person.

Interestingly though, having a mixed cultural identity can be quite lonely.  I certainly do not identify as being Indian, and while I can hang out with a group of Indian people for an evening and enjoy myself, I certainly don’t want to do that every night.  I grew up in the United States and had the most exposure to American culture throughout my childhood, but there is a limit to how much I identify myself as American.  The same goes for Spanish and Latin cultures.  It is nice to be able to mix with a variety of people and groups and feel comfortable, but it means that one doesn’t build deep friendships.

This, I believe, is what binds Sina and me.  Sina grew up in Austria but does not identify herself as Austrian.  She has lived in Spain, Mexico, The Dominican Republic, Brazil, Puerto Rico and many other places, but does not identify with any one group.  We find comfort in each other’s agnosticism.  Our closest friends are people that are in similar situations, with mixed marriages and an appreciation for different cultures and languages.  There are others like us and with time it is becoming more common as the world’s culture blend together more each year.  I look at Luka and Taj and hope they do not grow up feeling like they do not identify with anyone.

It becomes a challenge to decide where to live and raise them.  Charlottesville, Virginia is a beautiful town.  We decided to move there when we started to have kids because we decided that Miami was not the environment we wanted our kids to grow up around.  It was the right decision.  Charlottesville is safe, beautiful, surrounded by mountains, lakes and vineyards.  It has four seasons without 6 months of frigid temperatures, a decent airport, and nice people.  But while there is a concentration of well educated people, Christianity is quite pervasive in the community.

I can see why many people find comfort in religion.  The world becomes scarier and more complex each day.  Religion provides people with a sense of safety that everything is going to be ok because there is a force that is bigger and more powerful than all of us.  It provides people with a guide to be good people and to teach their kids to be good people.  I believe we can raise our kids to be good people without religion.  Both Sina’s and my parents raised us to be good people without religion, and too often we see those who claim to be religious because they attend church every Sunday living their lives in ways that do not follow the principles of the religion they pretend to identify with.  It becomes easier to fear religion when political and religious figures use it to justify their own agendas, from abortion to gun control.

Our plan is to teach our kids about the world through real life experiences.  They have seen the slums of Dharavi in Mumbai, and have visited the village of Aflao where Sina met Emmanuel.  They have never been to a zoo, but have fed elephants, swam with wild dolphins and whale sharks.  It’s still early, but they don’t appear to be inclined toward academics either.  But they speak Spanish, English and German, in that order, and by the time they are applying to college will have experienced more of the world than most people do in a lifetime.  Ultimately we hope that they will find happiness and will contribute something good to the world.

Summer 2001

In May 2001, I was in a dark place.  My fiancée Sagit who had come to New York from Israel to be with me had left me.  I was working for PricewaterhouseCoopers at the time, and really was not enjoying my job at all.  A week after Sagit left me, I was fired.  I had applied a few months earlier to the Cornell Hotel School to do my Masters degree in Hospitality, and I stupidly confided in one of the managers at PwC that I had applied.  This message went straight to the Partner in charge of our group who then called me into his office.  He explained that he had received instructions to downsize the group, and while he encourages people to pursue their Masters degrees, I had applied to a program that had absolutely nothing to do with my job.  I was in an e-commerce and technology consulting role, and I was applying to learn about the hotel business.  I smiled, shook his hand, and said he was absolutely right.  “Wow, you’re making this so easy for me!” he said.

Luckily, a week later I received my acceptance letter to Cornell.  But the program didn’t start until September.  What was I going to do for 3 months?  My friend Dan was working for Northwest Airlines, and he was kind enough to give me one of his employee tickets.  This allowed me to walk into the airport, write in my desired destination, and pay 1/10 of the full price.  So I packed a large backpack and headed to the airport.  My plan was to disappear for 3 months.  I would start my journey in Mumbai so I could visit my family and then use it as a launchpad for my journey.

NEPAL

The ticket cost me about $300, and… I got upgraded!  I spent the first week or two visiting my family and seeing my grandmother.  From there I planned my next stop… Kathmandu, Nepal.  On the plane I decided it was a good idea to learn a little bit about the destination so I pulled out my Let’s Go Nepal book and chose a place to stay.  Kathmandu Guesthouse sounded great.

As I left the airport, I was swarmed by aggressive local men all offering a taxi service.  I had read about this in the book so I was prepared… or so I thought.  I pushed my way through the mob and there were even more people offering me a place to stay.  “I already have a reservation,” I replied, hoping that they would just leave me alone.  “Where?” one asked.  So I replied “Kathmandu Guesthouse” with confidence, to show that I indeed had a reservation already.

A man approached me and said that he was from Kathmandu Guesthouse and would give me a ride.  “How do I know you are from Kathmandu Guesthouse?” I asked.  He immediately whipped out his wallet and produced an ID with his photo and name from Kathmandu Guesthouse.  Looked pretty official to me.  Clearly I underestimated the lengths at which these people would go to in order to fool naïve tourists like me.

Before I knew it, the man’s partner took my backpack and both men were leading me to the parking lot.  The mob of other men were right behind us hoping I would change my mind and give them another chance.  The men opened the trunk and put my backpack inside.  They opened the back door of the car and summoned me to get in.  I had a sinking feeling that I was getting myself into a dangerous situation.  Only a few moments in the first destination on my own, and I found myself trying to figure out how I was going to get out of this bind.  I stood there for a few moments staring at the car and deciding what to do… weighing my options.  Do NOT get into that car, I was thinking.  But… my backpack is already in the trunk with all my stuff and this is the first day of my journey!  Plus, if I decide not to go I will be handed back to the mob standing behind me.  This man had an official ID… maybe I should take the risk?

I got into the car.  The man with the ID got behind the wheel of the car and his partner in the other front seat.  Suddenly both back doors opened, and two more men sat on either side of me.  I was now trapped.  But I had made my decision and now I had to see it through.

We drove for about ten minutes and then we started to go through some abandoned streets.  What should I do?  Ask them to stop the car?  Get out here in the middle of nowhere, without my stuff?  That might be worse than just sticking it out and finding out where these guys are taking me.  After a good half hour, we finally stopped in front of a house.  “Is this the Kathmandu Guesthouse?” I asked.  “yes yes, Kathmandu Guesthouse.” They replied.  One man grabbed my backpack from the trunk and started walking up some stairs to the entrance of the house.  I followed with the other men behind me.  I was feeling a little bit better since along the way I was waiting for them to stop the car, fob me, and leave me in the middle of nowhere.  There was nobody else in this house.  As they showed me a room with a bathroom in the hallway, I knew it was not the Kathmandu Guesthouse.  There was no sign anywhere, and this place was not nearly as nice as what I had read about in the Let’s Go guide.  “I want you to take me to Kathmandu Guesthouse,” I said.  The man who had showed me the ID said “This is my uncle’s guesthouse.  Let me show you another room, and if you still want to go to Kathmandu Guesthouse I will take you.”  I was annoyed…  feeling less in danger though because by now I realized that these guys just wanted me to stay at their dumpy guesthouse instead of the Kathmandu Guesthouse.  I politely followed the man to see the other room, and quickly said, “Ok, I’m sorry, but I want you to take me to Kathmandu Guesthouse.”

Off we went.  I really did not have a reservation there, and I had read that if someone else takes you to the hotel, the hotel may charge you much more so that they can pay that person a commission.  When we finally arrived at Kathmandu Guesthouse, I was feeling much more confident, and less terrified.  I paid the men what we had agreed, and I walked into the Kathmandu Guesthouse, but I noticed that the men were staying outside, parked in their car and not driving away.  I walked up to a couch in the check-in area and sat down.  I was going to wait there until the men left.  But they wouldn’t leave.  Finally one of the men came in and asked why I wasn’t checking in.  “I am meeting a friend here and I am not sure when he is arriving.  After he arrives I will check in.”  The man went back outside and waited for quite a bit longer.  They finally left… and I got myself a room.  If this first experience was an indication of what the next 3 months would be like, it was going to be a very interesting summer.

The guesthouse was charmingly decorated with a local flavor and there were plenty of other backpackers there.  I forced myself to walk up to people who seemed nice and introduced myself, a valuable skill that any backpacker must learn unless they want to spend months completely alone.  I met a nice couple from Canada and a few others.  We went out exploring Kathmandu.  One day we were all supposed to meet somewhere, and I tried to get there a few minutes early, but when I got there they were all waiting.  “Wow you guys are always so early!” I said.  They replied, “and you are always late!”  What??  I thought I was early!  Well it turns out that Kathmandu is 15 minutes ahead of Mumbai.  Yes… 15 minutes.  So each time I was meeting my new friends thinking I was on time, or even a few minutes early, they had been waiting for me for at least 10 to 15 minutes!  We explored the city and some temples around Kathmandu.  I noticed that in every single store, restaurant hotel, there was a photo of the Royal Family.  The King and Queen were very much loved by all in Nepal and one day we had the privilege of witnessing as the King and Queen drove by in their caravan.  Everyone stopped and cheered.

When backpacking, you start asking people what cool things they have seen and done and you start planning everything you have to do before you leave.  I had planned on spending about 3 weeks in Nepal.  After 3 weeks my plan was to head to Thailand with a stop over in Calcutta where I would visit my grandmother’s sister for a day or two.  But I had heard people talking about getting a visa and taking a trip to Tibet which sounded amazing, so I thought about extending my stay for a few more weeks.

There were these little local travel agencies everywhere where one could go and make arrangements for trips and tours.  I walked into one and planned my first adventure.  It was to go up into the mountains and stay overnight in a small hotel, just to see the Himalayas up close and of course, Everest.  It was really beautiful, but… a bit boring.  Nobody else came on this trip with me and the hotel was empty aside from the spiders in my room.  But the views were stunning.  I enjoyed them and went back to Kathmandu the next day.  Next, I decided to do a multi-day trip to XXX national park in the south of Kathmandu.  The bus ride was crazy.  One false move and we would be off the edge of a very steep cliff.  There were areas of traffic and these little buses were not shy about heading into oncoming traffic to get around other cars and trucks.  I arrived at the hotel which was very disappointing.  There was nobody else there except a young Deutsche couple.  We went into the restaurant where we were served spaghetti with tomato sauce, which literally had ants in it.  Guess I wouldn’t be eating much on this trip.  We were then informed that the park was closed.  Something about the Maoists threatening everyone not to work in protest of the government.  I wanted to do a safari of the jungle where supposedly you could see tigers, rhinos and more.  I went out exploring and found some other people.  They told me about a much nicer hotel that had air conditioning and was an actual building, unlike the huts where I was staying, but I decided to stay where I was.

That night, I got into my bed which had a mosquito net around it, and woke up in the middle of the night because there was a strange noise in my room and something kept hitting the mosquito net.  I turned on the lights and my hut was filled with giant flying insects.  These things were 2 or 3 inches long and fat.  They kept flying into the mosquito net.  I got up the courage to make a run for the door and ran outside.  I found some men who worked for the hotel and asked them what the hell was going on.  They seemed completely unfazed.  Apparently this was completely normal and these giant flying insects were harmless.  I don’t know how I did it, but I got back into bed and tucked the mosquito net under the mattress so that these bastards couldn’t get in and eat me, and I went back to sleep.

I woke up first thing in the morning and there wasn’t a trace of any flying insects.  I packed my stuff and left immediately to find the other hotel that I had heard about.  I don’t remember anything about it except that it was definitely better than where I was staying.  A little later that day I saw the Deutsche couple walking down the street in front of me so I called out to them.  I wanted to tell them about this other hotel so they could move as well.  But they kept walking.  Thinking they just didn’t hear me I ran closer and called out to them again.  The woman turned with tears in her eyes and yelled “Just leave us alone!”  I guess they were having an even more miserable time than I was, and had woken up to learn that I had left to find something better.  Who knows…

After 2 or 3 days of my unsuccessful safari adventure, I got on a long, overnight, mosquito-ridden bus ride back to Kathmandu and checked back into the Kathmandu Guesthouse.  I met more nice people at the Guesthouse and decided that my next adventure would be with someone I knew.  They told me about a rafting trip that they were going to do through the Himalayas.  It was a 5 day trip, and since it was June and monsoon season, the rapids were level 5+.  I was up for anything on this trip so I signed up.

We took a bus to Pokhara and stayed in a decent guesthouse there.  First thing the next morning we would be off.  The rafting trip was spectacular.  The surroundings were beautiful and finally I had found a decent group of people to hang out with.  The guides were amazing and at each stop they would cook full meals for us and they all tasted delicious!  I don’t know how they did it.  There were 14 people on this trip and these guys cooked 3 meals a day for us for 5 days on the side of a river!  They would set up our tents, dig a hole and make a bathroom tent… they did everything.  All we had to do was row.  The rivers were quite high though and there was one moment where I fell out of the raft and got caught in a strong whirlpool just after a large rock.  Luckily, even though I am anything but athletic, I am a strong swimmer and was able to swim out of it.

After the 5 days, exhausted and in desperate need of a shower, we reached the end of our rafting trip.  A bus came to get us and we all loaded up onto the bus.  A gentleman who was the organizer we had met prior to going on the river boarded the bus and addressed us.  “Something has happened while you all were on the river over the last few days.”  This didn’t sound good.  “The entire royal family of Nepal has been killed.  The media has mixed reports of what really happened and this is creating instability.  A civil war is breaking out and your embassies have been contacting us.  You should all try to leave the country as soon as possible.”  It was a strange feeling to hear all of this.  They had no way to reach us while we were rafting on the river and so we had no idea.

That night we all went out for pizza in Pokhara.  I don’t know what possessed me to order a pepperoni pizza, but I would spend the entire night throwing up in my bathroom.  I woke up tired and weak, but we all boarded a bus back to Kathmandu with no idea of what awaited us.  I wasn’t worried for some reason.  I just assumed everything would be fine.  What could possibly happen?

I was miserable on the bus.  Luckily I no longer needed to vomit but I still felt terrible.  Suddenly the bus stopped.  I looked outside and we were surrounded by fields and nowhere near Kathmandu.  A policeman boarded the bus and said “City closed, you walk.”  Walk?  Where the hell are we?  How far?  We got off the bus and gathered our backpacks.  Today mine felt like it was 100 pounds.  “How far?” I asked the policeman.  “1 hour” he said.  An hour?  Walking with this freaking backpack?  I had no choice, and started walking.  At least I had the comfort of being with 13 others that I had just spent 5 days with on the Kalikandaki River.  But I was slowing them down.  “You guys go ahead…” I said, “I just can’t walk that fast.  You guys go I’ll be fine.”  “No way,” they replied, “we are not leaving you alone.”

As we finally got closer to the city (which took at least 3 hours), the scene did not look good.  It was about 3pm and we could see crowds of people throwing rocks and yelling.  One of the guys in our group was Nepali and he went and spoke to some people on the street.  “What’s going on?” we asked after he returned. “The government has imposed a curfew,” he explained, “anyone on the streets after 4pm will be shot.”  We all looked at each other in shock and suddenly an argument broke out.  Half of us wanted to speed ahead and look for the Kathmandu Guesthouse where we had a reservation, and half of us wanted to just find the closest guesthouse and check in there.  My vote was to find the Kathmandu Guesthouse.  “I am not going to waste half an hour trying to find a guesthouse around here and maybe finding out that they are full.” I said.  Finally we all agreed and started running through the streets.  We saw soldiers lining up in the streets with riot gear and tear gas.  There were large groups of people running through the streets.  At one point, the Nepali guy that was with us grabbed us all and pulled us into a little alley while one of the groups ran toward us and passed by.  Now I started to feel really scared.  If the guy from Nepal is worried for his safety, then I should be too.

Around 3:45pm, we found the Kathmandu Guesthouse.  We were all exhausted.  We plopped ourselves down on the couch and watched CNN International as they offered live coverage of what was happening just one or two blocks away from us.  Some of the backpackers were venturing out into the streets with their cameras, only to come back within 15 minutes with minor injuries and difficulty breathing.  There was one computer with internet in the Guesthouse and a long line of people waiting to communicate with their families back home.  I waited and responded to my family who had written to ensure I was ok after watching the riots unfold on CNN International.

I had a ticket to Bangkok on Indian Airlines with a stopover in Calcutta leaving in the evening on the next day, but I had no idea if I would be able to get out.  That night we all stayed in the guesthouse.  I woke up early the next morning and peered out the window.  It was eerily quiet in the streets.  I decided to make a run for the airport immediately.  I hoped that I would make it there while the streets were still calm, and that way if the unrest continued later that day I would already be at the airport.  I checked out of the guest house and made my way out to the street.  I waited for a few minutes and a car passed by which turned out to be a taxi.  I made it to the airport without any problem.

Walking into the airport though, I saw a sea of people who had been stranded there from the day before.  My plan was to wait until the Indian Airlines counter opened, but it never did.  I found someone with an Indian Airlines nametag and asked what was going on.  Apparently, since nobody wanted to come to Nepal, Indian Airlines decided to cancel all of their flights to Kathmandu.  Of course that meant that they weren’t sending any planes to get people out either.  Not really sure what to do, I just sat down for a while.  Suddenly there was a commotion and a crowd of people started to leave the airport, while the police appeared to be trying to keep them inside.  “What’s going on?” I asked someone.  “The government has issued a new curfew for 12pm and all of the airport workers want to go home to be with their families, but the police are telling them they have to stay since there are so many people here at the airport.”

This is insane!  People were lined up at the check in counters but they were all closed!  Or were they?  I thought I noticed one of the lines starting to move.  I immediately got in line.  I didn’t care what airline it was or where the plane was going, I was determined to get on it.  As I got closer to the counter, I saw it was a Thai Airways flight direct to Bangkok.  When it was my turn, I told the man that I had a ticket on Indian Airlines to Bangkok and that he should let me go.  He said that he would only be able to do that if someone from the airline signed the ticket over to Thai Airways.  “But nobody from Indian Airlines came to work today because they’ve cancelled all their flights!” I exclaimed.  He shrugged his shoulders.  I ran over the Indian Airlines counters carrying my heavy backpack.  Nobody…  In my desperation, I just approached an airport worker and did my best to explain the situation.  He pulled out a pen and scribbled something on my ticket.  I ran back to the Thai Airways counter and jumped in front of everyone.  The main handed me a boarding pass!

As the plane revved up its engines and sped down the runway, I remember looking around me as people were crying with joy and relief that they were able to get out.  It was the only commercial plane to leave Nepal that day.  I caught up with some of my friends from the rafting trip later in Bangkok and they told me that they got stuck there for days.  It was certainly an experience that I will never forget.

THAILAND

By the time we landed in Bangkok it was evening.  There was a lot of traffic on the way to Kho San Road, a bustling street where many backpackers can find cheap places to eat and stay.  My room had some spiders and the water was cold, not to mention the sign at the front desk that said “Thai men not allowed go upstairs.  Thai women leave ID at front desk.”

I made some friends and went to see one or temples, as well as a Thai kick-boxing match.  Then I took an overnight train and made my way up to Chiang Mai.  It was nicer than Bangkok.  I also made friends at the train station after arriving and they invited me to check out the youth hostel that they were going go.  I had a good time in Chiang Mai exploring local restaurants with my new friends and street markets.  I also signed up for a Thai cooking class (I still have the recipe book!).  I remember learning how to make these great triangle samosa shaped spring rolls, sticky rice, and sweet chicken baked in banana leaves.  One of these days I need to break out that book…

I had planned to spend 6 weeks in Thailand.  After visiting Chiang Mai I made my way back down to Bangkok about half-way through the trip.  I walked into a travel agency to book a bus down to Kho Phi Phi and other islands, but after sitting in the chair at the travel agents’ desk, I was distracted by a sign up on the wall that said “Bangkok to Australia Roundtrip $300.”  “Put me on that plane,” I said.  It turned out to be a Royal Brunei Airways flight to Darwin.

On the plane, instead of the map on the screen that shows you where the plane is, they had a diagram showing in which direction Mecca was located so that if anyone wanted to pray they knew where it was.  We stopped briefly in Brunei, (I don’t think we even got off the plane), and headed on to Darwin.  I didn’t know back then that any Australian that I would meet in the future would look at me like I was nuts after telling them that the only place I had been to in Australia was Darwin.  There is really nothing to speak of about Darwin (besides being the center of an infamous scandalous trial that accused an innocent woman of killing her baby, when in fact it was a dingo that took the baby).  It is, however, the gateway to the outback.  So after landing and checking into a youth hostel (or ‘backpackers’ as they call them in Australia), I asked the other backpackers what there was to do in Darwin.  Skydiving was one of the suggestions.  I was feeling rather adventurous on this entire trip and willing to try anything, so I took note of that.

First, I spent 3 weeks exploring the outback through Kakadu National Park and others nearby.  We hiked up mountains and waterfalls, swam in natural mountain lakes and saw some of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen in my life.  There was one waterfall where for some reason I decided to climb down the rocks to get close to the water.  Suddenly, I wasn’t sure how I was going to get back up.  Nobody could see me and there wasn’t really enough room to easily turn around and make my way back up.  I wasn’t sure why I did that, other than just testing my limits I suppose.  But one slip of the foot and I would have fallen into the water and over the edge of a very very tall waterfall.  I felt myself starting to panic but was able to calm myself down and take everything one step at a time.  I knew I would die otherwise.  I decided not to mention to anyone what I had done.  There was also a part of the hike where we had to climb up a narrow crevice by putting our back up against one wall, and our hands and feet against the other side, and moving our way up.  I don’t know how, but I made it up.  It was a great experience and really showed me that I was physically capable of much more than I had thought.  On the last night, we all sat around a big campfire and cooked Kangaroo steaks.  Tasted like regular steak to me.  Good though!

I made my way back home stopping in Mumbai again to visit my family once more before heading back home.  It was August, 2001 and little did I know that even after three months of incredible life-changing adventure, the most life-changing event was about to happen just a few weeks later on September 11th, just a few weeks into my Masters program at Cornell.

Kara & Katy

In middle school and high school, I had a friend named Dana.  She came to the University of Rochester along with me and my best friend, Uval.  But somehow Dana and my friendship fell apart during our Freshman year.  She had a room mate though, named Kara, who was freaking hot, and on top of that was an incredibly nice person.  I got to know her and amazingly, she seemed to like who I was too.  We became friends, and eventually, really close friends.  Kara’s best friend, Katy was also ridiculously attractive.  “Kara and Katy” were known around campus as the two attractive blonde girls that were best friends.  They were inseparable, and I had the fortune of becoming the third wheel sometimes.  Sometimes I couldn’t believe that these 2 beautiful girls were MY friends!  Whenever the 3 of us would go out, I felt like a million dollars, and it was such a huge boost of confidence to be with them.  They actually really liked me because I was NICE.  What a concept!!  Now… they were constantly dating football players, race car drivers and other types of guys that were pretty much the opposite of me, but just the fact that they were friends with me was a big deal.  I wasn’t stupid enough to think that they would ever be attracted to me.  They were my best friends in college.

We remained close friends through all 4 years of college, and as graduation crept up on us we had a pre-graduation gala.  At one point a group of people were standing with Kara and I joined.  I hear Kara saying “Ok, if you could sleep with one person on the entire campus, who would it be.”  I turned bright red and just walked away.  Later that night we all went out for wings at The Distillery and then Kara said she felt like going home so I drove her back to her dorm room.  As we were walking back to her building she asked “So, when I asked that question at the gala, why did you walk away?”  I avoided the question somehow.  But she continued “because when it was my turn, my answer was you.”  I will never forget that moment.  This cannot be happening.  Come on this is just ridiculous!  These things just don’t happen to me.  But it did… and we spent a beautiful night together.

The problem was that things got weird the next day.  As we were all mingling on one of the lawns, Kara noticed that two or three guys that she had hooked up with during college were around her, including me, and she made a comment to Katy about how weird it was.  I felt crushed.  Suddenly I had gone from a privileged trusted friend, to ‘one of the guys she hooked up with’.  I was really hurt.  Things stayed weird for several months since we all graduated and departed the University of Rochester.

Kara and Katy moved to Boston together.  Kara would do a Masters at Harvard and Katy would get an amazing job with Merrill Lynch.  I started my job at Accenture in New York City.  They would post me at various assignments over the next 2 years and I would be traveling back to New York each weekend.  The company policy was that you could travel somewhere else as long as the ticket was the same price or cheaper, and I took full advantage of this little perk.  One weekend I even took Friday off, and flew to Spain Thursday evening.  Spent the weekend in Sevilla, and was back by Sunday evening!  Another weekend I flew down to Key West, and had no idea that it was Fantasy Fest.  That was a great one.

I think at least 6 months went by before I wrote an email to Kara saying that we should not let what happened between us get in the way of our friendship.  Both Kara and Katy had such a strong influence on who I was and I did not want to lose their friendship.  Kara agreed, and I went up to Boston to visit them (and their 2 cats James and Ethan).  Things seemed to be back to normal.  We were hanging out, going out to eat, playing scrabble and talking.

One night, Kara went to bed and Katy and I stayed up in the living room talking.  Several hours later… we were still there, talking.  We talked about our families, our challenges, life in general, and something strange happened.  A spark.  What’s going on here?  How did I spend so much time with this beautiful woman over the last 4 ½ years and never really get to know her?  We seemed to have a lot in common about our parents and how we felt about things, and an attraction began to grow between us.  I was worried about how Kara would feel about all this, but she was thrilled!  She knew that there wouldn’t be anything more between us and she was really excited that something seemed to be growing between Katy and me.

During my first year at Accenture, I lived at home in Long Island in order to save money.  I felt rich!  For the first time in my life I was making a good salary and had very little expenses.  One weekend I offered to fly Kara and Katy down to Miami.  I honestly had no ulterior motives.  But a guy like me does not get to hang out in Miami for the weekend with two beautiful women very often.  We had a great time, and nothing happened between any of us.  I got to feel like the cool guy who knew my way around and could show them the city.  I knew though that every time people saw us they were wondering why the hell these two beautiful women were hanging around with this nerdy Indian guy.  One day, I would lose this insecurity to some degree, but not yet.

Later that year, I invited Katy down to Great Neck to attend a gala with me in New York.  I asked her if she would consider going away with me somewhere for a weekend and she agreed.  I brought on my A game to see if I could take this relationship to another level.  I didn’t tell her where we were going.  I just told her that she would need her passport, and to pack for warm, sunny weather, as well as some nice evening clothes.  I asked her to call me from the airport and I would tell her what gate she had to go to.

We met down at the Atlantis in the Bahamas, and had an amazing weekend by the pool, at the beach, going out to dinner, playing in the casino… and for the first time, we had a romantic and intimate night together.  It was beautiful, but it would be the first, and last.

Katy went back to Boston and while we talked about what might happen between us, there was never really any conviction on her side.  I guess there was something that was holding her back from pursuing a relationship with me any further.  Maybe she didn’t want to ruin our friendship, or maybe there was just something that didn’t feel right.

Later that year, fate would have me run into Sagit, a girl I had met in Israel 2 years earlier after studying abroad in Seville, Spain.  If I remember correctly I called Katy to talk to her about it, and she agreed that she didn’t see our relationship going further so I should do whatever I wanted.  Soon after Katy started dating Lou.  I met him on one of my following visits to Boston, and I really liked him.  Of course I was disappointed that things weren’t working out with Katy, but she had dated all of these jerks before and finally here was a guy that actually deserved to be with her.  He was nice… funny, just a cool guy.  I was truly happy for her.  Years later when I was dating Katherine, Katy and Lou got married.  It was a beautiful wedding somewhere outside of Boston in a beach town and the reception was at a restaurant right on the water.  I was out on the dock talking with Kara and she asked me “So is Katy always going to be ‘the one that got away’?”  I just nodded.  I was truly happy for her though.  The fact that I was in a 4 year roller coaster relationship with Katherine didn’t make it any easier to see Katy get married, but I was really happy that she found Lou.

Last year Kara and Katy came to Charlottesville with their families and stayed with Sina and me in our house.  It was a good time, and we all rented a house near Shenandoah National Park.  The house was a bit disappointing, but it was good to see each other and spend time together.  It had really been way too long.  We hadn’t seen each other since Sina and I got married, and during the wedding there really wasn’t any time to hang out with each other.

We all call each other once in a while, but one of the challenges of having mostly female friends is that life happens, people get married, have kids, and it’s harder to keep in touch as life gets more complex.  I still get to talk to them once a year, but I am so grateful for the time I had with Kara and Katy and will always remember the impact they had on making me realize my self-worth.  It makes me happy that they are both married, happy, and doing well.

The Unfraternity

After everything I had experience growing up in Great Neck, Long Island, I was thrilled to finally arrive onto the campus of the University of Rochester with 5,000 other kids of various ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds.  There was a Greek life on the U of R campus, but I wanted absolutely nothing to do with it.  From what I had heard and seen in the movies, it was everything I hated about Great Neck.  A group of males sitting around drinking beer and watching football, figuring out how to get as far as they can with every hot girl on campus… no thank you.  I stayed away from Greek life and didn’t even want to go the parties.

At the beginning of my Sophomore year, however, I was hanging out with Kara and Katy in their dorm room, and they were talking about a fraternity on campus called Delta Upsilon.  They suggested that I might like it and that I should really go check it out.  At first I flat out refused, and explained that I wanted nothing to do with Greek life.  They said that they understood, but that I should at least just go see it because this one was different.  Aside from the fact that I had a major crush on both Kara and Katy and would have done pretty much anything they said I should do, they knew me and they were friends.  If they were saying that I would like it maybe it was worth checking out.

I attended a DU rush party, and as I walked through the door I started to recognize a few guys that I had met during my Freshman year of college, and that I thought highly of.  “What are you doing here?” I kept asking each one.  “I’m a brother here…” was the answer I got.  I quickly realized why Kara and Katy had suggested that I check it out.  I continued to attend the rush parties and loved it.  It was a non-hazing fraternity, and there was no pressure to drink.  It was just a group of 50 to 60 cool guys that made up this fraternity.  It seemed too good to be true!

It took some convincing to get my parents to agree, and they had to come up to Rochester to see it for themselves.  Thankfully, they agreed to let me join.  You had to maintain a certain GPA to be in good standing, and this was finally my chance to have a large group of guy friends… something I had really never had in my life.  So at the beginning of my second semester, sophomore year, I was initiated into the NU Class of Delta Upsilon fraternity at the University of Rochester and was elected President of my class.  Most of the other brothers in NU class were freshman, but it really didn’t matter.

DU BrothersNU Class Trip

 

 

 

 

 

I absolutely loved being part of DU and I learned a lot from my brothers.  It felt so great to be accepted… by these cool guys.  It was a real validation of who I was and further built up my confidence that I could achieve whatever I wanted given the right set of circumstances.  It was also amazing to know that there were so many other guys that weren’t that different than I was.  Not in all cases of course, but these guys had emotions and weren’t afraid to talk about them.  Of course we had parties, and there was a lot of drinking, but I never once felt pressured to drink, or that I was any less of a man for any reason at all.  In fact, I felt respected, and appreciated for who I was and for what I brought to the table.  It was great to be around guy humor, to have a group of guys to travel with, to Niagara Falls, Toronto, Montreal… and to have a sounding board for whatever I wanted.  When my relationship with Claire went south, being part of DU was a major source of confidence and allowed me to make the right decision without any fear of being alone.

Still, for some reason, there was a limit to how integrated I would become.  I’m not sure if that was me keeping a certain safe distance, or if it was them, but for some reason, there would always be a limit to my friendships with the brothers at DU.  There were a couple of guys that I really got along with and considered good friends, but after school I really didn’t keep in close contact with anyone.  I wasn’t invited to anyone’s wedding, and I didn’t invite any of them to mine.  Why? I really don’t know the answer.  Maybe to a certain degree, I would always be a little different, and therefore an outsider.  But joining DU was one of the best decisions I made.

The Making of a Hopeless Romantic

I’m not really sure when it started.  I remember that the movies I watched as a child had a significant impact on my emotions.  I didn’t just watch for entertainment.  I became a part of the film.  I was the main character and I felt what they felt.  When a man fell in love with a woman, I fell in love with her too, and over time I developed an endless yearning for wanting that feeling to be permanent.

I can remember as far back as 1st grade, 6 years old (my daughter Luka’s age)… having a crush on Katy, a cute blonde girl in my class.  She’s the first girl that I can remember that caught my attention.  In 2nd grade, 7 years old, Melanie was the first girl that ever showed interest in me.  I remember feeling on top of the world.  We would literally sit up in a tree and kiss on the lips.  It’s amazing to see my 6 and 7 year old girls start to express their curiosity about penises and vaginas.  Just yesterday Luka said to me, “Papa I’m really weird, because every time I meet someone I wonder what their butt, penis, or vagina looks like.”  “It’s not weird Luka,” I responded.  Poor Melanie had to resist my many attempts to see her naked.  I remember saying “I’ll take my clothes off if you take off yours…”  She always refused.  Biology is truly amazing.  7 years old…

Was it just biology though?  In Miami we had a next door neighbor, Mrs. Hardwick.  She was an elderly lady and I really enjoyed spending time with her.  She was a classy, southern widow and I know this is going to sound terrible but she helped me discover my sexuality.  She never ever touched me, but she would let me sleep naked in silk sheets, and it felt great.  She had a book about human anatomy and would teach me about the sexual organs.  This awoke in me urges that I had never felt before.  I used to sleep in a long t-shirt, and I asked if I could take it off during the lesson.  She sat in a chair and I stood next to her, naked, while she read the book to me and explained.  I remember her saying out loud as she pointed to my body parts “I’m not going to touch you.”  I remember feeling disappointed.  I wanted her to.  It was a very erotic experience and I still remember it to this day.  When she started to explain the female anatomy to me, I remember purposely pretending that I just didn’t understand.  I had already seen a vagina by that age.  Our neighbor Becky and I had played doctor in my closet.  But I pretended that I didn’t understand what Mrs. Hardwick was trying to tell me and asked her to show me.  This must have made her quite uncomfortable in hindsight and I remember her saying “Now, I can’t show you…” and of course I just asked “But why?  Why not?”  Shower time was fun as well.  She never showered in front of me but I always showered with her in the bathroom and I loved it.  I loved being naked in front of her…  Our relationship was much more than just an awakening of my sexuality.  We would play imaginary role playing games where I was the captain of an airplane and I would use these tiny little plastic models to simulate the flight.  Somehow, Katy from my first and second grade class became a part of this game and was in the plane with me.  I don’t know if I brought her into it or Mrs. Hardwick provoked that.  We would go out and eat at Wendy’s, get Slurpees at 7-11, and she would often take me to the toy store and buy me something reasonable.  She was amazing…  The closest thing I ever had to a grandmother, given that my real grandmothers lived in India, I saw them once every 2 years, and I really had no cultural or emotional connection to them.  I wonder if my parents had any idea what was going on when I would sleep over at Mrs. Hardwick’s next door.  But even now at the age of 42 I look back on the time I spent with her extremely fondly.  I think she had a lot to do with who I am as a husband and father today.  Thank God I never said anything to my parents about it.  I’m not really sure what would have happened but I’m pretty sure that today if any child were to sleep over an elderly neighbor’s house and mention these types of experiences to their parents, that neighbor would wind up behind bars pretty fast.

The summer after 3rd grade, I had my first heartbreak.  My parents sent Kunal (my older brother) and I to Camp Mishemokwa just outside of Asheville, North Carolina for 3 weeks.  It was my first sleep away camp and I was extremely homesick.  But there was a girl there named Christina Berry and she was SO cute.  She would wear those black parachute pants.  Nevermind that she had no idea who I was… Kunal knew I liked her and one day, there was a dance.  Heaven by Bryan Adams came on and I worked up the courage to walk over to Christina to ask her to dance.  I found her, dancing on the dance floor, with Kunal.  I ran out crying.  I felt so heartbroken and betrayed.  He knew I liked her.  Was he just trying to prove to me that he was better than me?  Did he really like her or did he do it just to make me feel bad?  Who knows.

For 5th grade we had moved up to Great Neck, NY.  You can read about that here.  Kunal was going into 9th grade and Sanjay, my oldest brother, stayed in Miami for his final year of high school.  Rajesh, my first cousin from India lived in our house for one year and he was in 10th grade.  Rajesh and Kunal discovered hardcore porn and showed me the magazines and video tapes they were trading with their friends at school.  This of course opened up a whole new world for me and the timing couldn’t have been better.  One day though in 5th grade, Macha Blechner asked me in the hallway if I masturbate.  I innocently responded yes, and before I knew it she was running through the halls yelling “Ew! Ashwin said he masturbates!”  “Everyone does!” I yelled back at her, in my defense.  It was the first time I can remember feeling ashamed of my sexual desires and behavior.  As I describe in my post about moving to Great Neck, 5th grade was a very emotionally destructive year for me for many reasons.

The summer after 5th grade, my mom signed me up for swimming.  There were kids there from both Great Neck North, and Great Neck South, and that’s where I met Gwen.  I was under the water kicking off of the wall and practicing my dolphin kick, and Gwen said “He has a cute butt.”  When I found out that this cute, blonde girl and said I had a cute butt, my heart melted.  After a really difficult year, this attractive girl showed an interest in me and that’s all it took.  I was in love.  Her parents took us to the beach for fireworks, and it was my first really romantic experience.  I remember everything so clearly.  Her parents, were so nice to me, and embarrassed Gwen as they would dance to 50’s music on the beach.  Gwen and I went for a walk in the sand, and laid together on the blanket as the fireworks illuminated our faces.  What was this amazing feeling??  It wasn’t just sexual, it was much more than that.  It felt like love.  That night, I took a pocket knife and carved the date into the palm of my hand.  I wanted that night never to end and I suppose that was a way of memorializing it.  I wrote a poem about it, and I remember telling Gwen about it.  It’s probably a good thing that we were in different schools.  Gwen and I would talk literally for hours on the phone, all the time.  We would fall asleep listening to each other breathing on the phone, and watch TV together, listening to each other laugh and commenting on what we were watching.  It was really beautiful, and in many ways Gwen was my best friend.  In 6th grade were both invited to Danny Wiener’s birthday party which was at a night club.  There was a Latin boy named Oliver who was an amazing dancer, and Gwen fawned over him.  I remember feeling betrayed but somehow, I got over it.  Over the years Gwen would tell me about all of the different boys she was dating.  Kunal would be mean to Gwen over the phone when I was talking to her, and guess what?  She liked it!  When she would come over she would flirt with him.  WTF??  I didn’t know back then that some girls like the bad boys.  Nothing sexual ever happened between us until 11th or 12th grade, and I think it was disappointing for both of us.  It didn’t go very far but I remember that I regretted the way I behaved when it did happen.  I think it was so surreal for me that something was finally happening with this girl that I had been so close to for 6 or 7 years that my emotions and feelings for her weren’t present.  It didn’t feel right for either of us and it was the first time that I learned that sex and friendship don’t mix well.

Most of my friends in Middle and High School were female.  I was never good at sports, wasn’t really all that interested in violet video games either.  But I just loved being around girls.  I had one close male friend throughout middle and high school, Uval.  Uval was a computer whiz and got me interested in computers as well.  Yeah, were not the cool kids.  But hey we had some great times.  We would always talk about which girls we liked, and really grew up together.  Uval also taught me how to use my IBM 386 compatible and a phone line to dial into other people’s computers and access BBSs so we could wait 1 hour to download one picture of a naked woman.

My mom would give me a hard time about why most of my friends were female.  She would encourage me to find more male friends.  “How do I explain that you are walking around with all these girls like some kind of Casanova…?” she would ask.  I just ignored her.  I didn’t know why I preferred being with girls, and frankly I still don’t.  But who cares really?  Spending so much time with girls made me the husband and father I am today.  From all of the movies I watched and conversations I had with my female friends, I learned that generally men are pigs and do not treat women the way they should be treated, and that clearly if men were just always nice and romantic, the girl would always fall for them.  WRONG.

In 7th grade, Susan and I seemed to like each other.  One day in the hallway, she came up to me and said “My mom thinks that you like me and that I like you and I think it’s true.  What do you think?”  I don’t really remember what I said but I’m pretty sure I confirmed her mother’s theory.  I was excited.  I had liked Susan since 5th grade when she sat in front of me on the bus on our class trip to Philadelphia and her hair smelled amazing.  “What shampoo do you use?” I asked.  “Aussie Moist,” was the reply.  From then on I begged my mom to buy me Aussie Moist and then I smelled Susan in the shower every day.  When Valentine’s Day came around, I was convinced I would win Susan’s heart.  I had my mom take me to the florist that morning to buy a single red rose.  I took it to the nurse’s office and asked her to keep it in the fridge until I could meet Susan coming out of one of her classrooms.  For some reason, this all seemed totally normal to me.  Nobody else was doing this… and my mom tried to talk me out of it.  I think I believed what I saw in the movies, and thought that this would be the beginning of a beautiful romance.  It wasn’t.  I’m pretty sure the entire school knew about my master plan and so did Susan.  As she came out of her classroom with a red rose in my hand, she took one look at me, rolled her eyes and walked right past me.  Tears started to stream down my face and another boy quickly seized the opportunity to ask me if he could have the rose so he could give it to another girl.  I just handed the rose to him and don’t remember what happened next.  But it was a hard lesson to learn.  I could have let these experiences change me, and decide to become more of a jerk so that girls would like me, but that just wasn’t who I was.  I couldn’t have done that even if I tried.

Years went by and though I had an interest in many girls in school and summer camps, nobody was ever really interested in me.  It was a difficult and depressing time.  I wanted to fall in love so badly.  It would have saved me a lot of heartache I could have gone back in time and told myself, “Ashwin, just you wait…  one day the girls will realize that you are the real deal.”

In 10th and 11th grades, I had my first real girlfriend, Sara.  I loved her at first and we spent all of our time together.  My parents gave me a hard time because they didn’t like her or her family.  They tried to restrict that amount of time I could spend with her and made me come home early, and I hated them for that.  After years of rejection and depression I finally had a real girlfriend and they were trying to ruin it for me.  But over time, my feelings for Sara changed.  She would say things like “I love acting so much, that if a boy asked me to have sex with him on stage, I would do it.”  She would also tell me about her male friends that wanted her to act in a movie where she would be tied up and stripped to her underwear, and she was ok with all this.  Well I wasn’t… and the jealousy just killed my feelings for her.

College.  Wow.  Just wow.  Beautiful girls everywhere, living away from home.  Uval came to the University of Rochester with me for the first year and lived in the same dorm room, just 2 floors above me.  My roommate was… let’s just say… a less cultured guy from small-town America.  He and his buddies spent their time drinking beer, playing cards, and probably talking about guns and hunting.  I was ready to transfer out of Rochester until I spoke to Uval and he said, “You can’t transfer just because you don’t like to 10 people that live in your hallway. There are 5,000 people in this school.  Why don’t you come upstairs and hang out on our floor?  There are some cool people there.”  He was right.  He told me about a girl named Chloe that he had his eye on, and I was determined to help him win her love.

One night after we had all gone out to a James Taylor concert, we were all hanging out in Chloe’s room and I stayed back after everyone left so I could tell her that Uval liked her and she should date him.  But something very strange happened.  Chloe said, “But I don’t like Uval… I like you.”  In the span of the next 2 seconds, 1 million thoughts ran through my head.  Just get out of here, I thought. I told her I had to go and walked out.  The door shut behind me as I started walking down the hall and she let out this loud grunt of frustration.  I walked back into her room, she threw her arms around me and we had the most epic first kiss ever.  I mean… I will never forget that kiss.  It was unbelievable.  So now what???  “Ok, you go home over Thanksgiving break, and break up with your high school boyfriend, and I will talk to Uval and break the news to him.”  I was dreading this moment.  You’re just not supposed to do this.  But there was something powerful happening between Chloe and me and it wasn’t just a slight attraction.  I couldn’t ignore it and neither could she.  That weekend, in Uval’s room back in Great Neck, I told him the truth.  He was extremely mature and nice about it, and told me to go for it.  Chloe was the first girl I fell in love with.  Deeply in love.  Her dad was French and her mom, American Jewish.  I couldn’t really explain why after finally escaping from Great Neck where everyone was Jewish, the first girl I fell in love with was Jewish.  I think I actually wrote a paper about this in college, explaining how the Hindu and Jewish cultures have many similarities.  I would have done anything for Chloe.  I was so thankful that she loved me that I showered her with constant attention… letters, gifts, dinners, you name it.  But this time, she loved it.  Finally, someone appreciated who I was as a man.

Chloe and I started dating in November 1994.  In December, before going home for winter break, she said to me “I don’t want to make you nervous, but I really can’t wait to be physically close to you.”  I was a virgin at the time, but Chloe wasn’t.  It felt like there were fireworks going off inside me.  This experienced, beautiful, half-French woman was seducing me and I loved every second of it.  We planned it all out.  Valentine’s Day, the night before my birthday, February 14th, 1995, the date was set.  We went out for a romantic dinner and went back to her room.  Many people think back to their first time and don’t look very fondly on it.  Mine was beautiful, romantic, and I wouldn’t have changed a thing.  Chloe and I dated for 2 years, and aside from my jealousy when she joined a sorority, we had an amazing deep love for each other.  But in our sophomore year, we both knew that we would study abroad during Junior Year.  Chloe was going to Paris and I was going to Sevilla, Spain.  That summer during one of our many phone conversations, Chloe said that if she met someone in Paris, she wouldn’t want to pass up that experience.  And just like that, in the span of 10 seconds, our love came crashing down.  What was wrong with these women??  After growing up hearing about how men are pigs and can’t commit, here was my first real serious girlfriend, who I was convinced I would marry, telling me that she didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to have a fling in Paris.  I couldn’t even possibly think about being with someone other than Chloe, despite being very attracted to two of my female friends in college, Kara and Katy (more on them later).  I immediately told Chloe that she could go to Paris and do whatever she wanted, but I wouldn’t be her boyfriend anymore.  It was a sad time…  But I had many friends in college and had even joined a fraternity (you can read about that here), and that gave me the strength to get over Chloe.

I wouldn’t have another serious girlfriend until after college, and even though there were hook ups, I wanted love.  I wanted to find the love of my life and I was willing to do whatever it took to find her.  After studying in Sevilla for one semester (you can read about that here), I went to visit Uval in Israel.  He had moved there after his first year of college, so I hadn’t seen him in 2 years.  Uval’s sister was getting married and he invited me to come to Israel to attend the wedding.  There was a girl there named Sagit.  Uval had mentioned her to me over the years.  She was amazing.  Beautiful, sexy, and a very outspoken, lively personality (not unusual in Israel), but I fell for her… hard.  I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me that once again, I was screwing over my best friend.  Could this really happen twice??  Why the hell did I keep falling for girls that Uval liked?  I really don’t know the answer to this but it’s not something I’m proud of.  Nothing happened between Sagit and I on this trip, but there was clearly a spark between us.

2 years later, I had graduated from college and was working at Andersen Consulting (now Accenture).  I was back in Great Neck visiting my parents and for some reason, I decided to stop by Uval’s parents’ house to say hello.  “Guess who’s coming to visit us tomorrow?” they asked.  Sagit was arriving the next day and staying in New York for 2 weeks.  My heart exploded with emotion.  The next day, I was there to receive her, and we planned out the next 2 weeks.  I took her to Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey, and all over NYC.  We fell in love and there was nothing we could do about it.  We agreed that I would go back to Israel to visit her in a few months.  Those were a couple of long, painful months.  After countless letters, emails, and extremely high phone bills, I went to visit her in Israel.  She was living at home at the time but somehow had organized for us to stay in a friend’s apartment.  Our 2 weeks in Israel confirmed what we were feeling, and we decided that we would do whatever we needed to so we could be together.  I would have gone to Israel at the time if she had asked me to, but she said she would come to New York.  She was finishing college because of the 2 years she had spent in the Israeli army and it was easier for her to take a year off than for me to quit my job.  I rented a one-bedroom in a brownstone on the upper-west side and furnished it thanks to Ikea.  I went to my Indian parents and explained that I would be moving in with this Isreali-Jewish girl that I hardly knew, and Sagit went to her Israeli parents and explained that she was taking a year off from school to move in with this non-Jewish Indian guy in NYC.  Needless to say, neither set of parents was very happy about this.  Sagit and I loved each other very much, and she was probably the sweetest, most loving person I’ve ever met.  After one year, I got a ring and asked her to marry me.   From that point on, things fell apart.  I don’t know if I can explain exactly what happened.  When I called Sagit’s parents to ask for their permission to marry her, her mom was thrilled, but her dad said “Ashwin, if I were to choose a boy for Sagit, he would be just like you… but Jewish.  So if you want to marry my daughter, you will have to convert.”  I told him that, with all due respect, I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that.  While my parents are technically Hindus, they never taught us to be religious.  I was exposed to Judaism throughout middle and high school, but felt no religious affiliation at all.  You can read about that here.  “David,” I said, “if I were to convert and tell people that I was Jewish, it would be a lie because I really don’t believe it.  Is that what you want?”  He replied, “Ashwin I am just telling you, if you don’t convert, you won’t marry my daughter, and I always get what I want.”  He was right.  I can’t say it was entirely his fault.  My parents didn’t help the situation either, and wouldn’t allow me to invite her to my brother Kunal’s engagement party at Tavern on the Green in Central Park.  The pressure from both sides was very difficult and at the age of 25, I wasn’t mature enough to handle it.  Also, if I’m honest, I didn’t feel comfortable with the Israeli and Jewish cultures becoming a permanent part of my life.  I was extremely familiar with the culture, but I always felt like an outsider when we were with her friends or family.  I didn’t know if I wanted that for myself, or for my kids, for the rest of my life.  Eventually Sagit felt my hesitation, and she left me.  A week later, I was fired from my job at PricewaterhouseCoopers (you can read about that here), and so I packed a bag and disappeared for 3 months traveling through Asia (you can read about that here).

After completing my Masters at Cornell, I started my job at Sol Melia Hotels & Resorts in June 2003.  In August 2003, I met my future wife, Sina.  But I would have to wait at least 5 years to be with her.  In the meantime I found myself trapped in a 4 year turbulent relationship with my assistant that you can read about here.  The moral of the story is, don’t do it unless you are really sure he/she is the one.

Today I am married to an extremely beautiful, intelligent woman.  You can read that story here.  I’m only 42 and probably still have a lot to learn, but I grew up thinking that women were these perfect beings and that men were broken.  On one hand that drove me to be the best possible man I could be, to be a good boyfriend, loving husband and father.  But I have learned along the way that everyone is broken, not just men.  We all have our own selfishness, insecurities, and need for self-fulfillment.  I found someone who I loved enough to accept everything about them, the good and the bad.  There is no perfect couple, husband or wife, but with love, trust and commitment to a true partnership people can have many years of happiness together.

The Complexities of International Adoptions

When Sina and I decided to try and adopt Emmanuel, a four year old boy from Ghana, we had no idea the years of paperwork and frustration that lay ahead of us.  In 2008, within a year after we had both left our jobs at the same hotel company, Sina decided to volunteer in Aflao, a small village about 3 hours outside of Ghana.  At the school where Sina was teaching, there was one boy that stood out from the rest.  He was cute, very attentive, and funny.  Since he didn’t have parents in Aflao, Sina inquired at the school about teaching him after school.  “Sure!” they responded, “Go ahead, you can take him.  He can stay with you!”  While this may come as a shock to us here in the United States, this was not at all strange behavior in Ghana.

For the next few months, Sina and Emmanuel were inseparable.  Sina and I weren’t a couple yet but we had been friends for five years and there was always a mutual attraction between us.  For more on that story, click here.  I went to visit Sina in Ghana and met Emmanuel.  Our plan was for Sina to come to the USA after Ghana, and we would then start the process for adopting Emmanuel.

The first step was to get married.  While in the United States it is not a requirement to be a married couple to adopt a child, in Ghana (and in many other countries), it is.  Sina arrived just before the first of the year, and 5 months later we got legally married so that we could start the adoption proceedings.  In case you don’t have time to read our story, I should mention that Sina and I felt like we should have become a couple years ago and so getting married felt completely natural.  We had our wedding in October of that same year and have been married ever since.

Many couples who adopt overseas work with an agency, which is quite typical.  These agencies work with local orphanages and will match a couple seeking to adopt with a child in need of adoption.  The problem is that if you already know the child you want to adopt, none of the agencies will help you, as their objective is to get their children adopted.  We had found a lawyer in Ghana who was recommended by Sina’s volunteer program, and hired him to help us.  Unfortunately, he was very unresponsive and it was very difficult to get reliable information.  We were sending money via Western Union which may sound sketchy, but we just assumed that was the way people did business in Ghana.

Meanwhile, we started the adoption process here in the United States as well, through USCIS, or the Department of Homeland Security.  We figured that the process in Ghana would be extremely difficult, but that here in the US everything would be straight forward and organized.  We were wrong.

After appointments to be fingerprinted and submitting several documents, getting interviewed by a case worker to complete an extensive home study, furnishing everything about our finances, and I don’t even remember what else…  we were finally approved to be adoptive parents by the United States.  This document was needed to proceed with the adoption in Ghana.  The problem is, as soon as you are approved to be adoptive parents by the United States, the clock starts ticking… and you have a set period of time to complete the adoption that you are pursuing.  In Ghana, it is extremely difficult to keep to any timelines.

After submitting the documentation provided by our lawyer in Ghana, we were told that the documentation we provided was not an official adoption order.  This prompted us to do some research on the lawyer that had been recommended to us and we discovered that he worked at a bank, and was not really a ‘lawyer’ at all.  So we had now wasted a lot of time and money.  We were finally put in touch with a real lawyer through a family member, who agreed to take on our case.  The only problem is… our approval to be adoptive parents from the United States had now expired!  Now we had to start all over again.

When Luka, our first daughter was about 6 months old, we took her to Ghana to meet Emmanuel.  We also got to meet the lawyer in person and make sure this time that the process was in good hands.  We had started this process in 2009, and by now it was 2012.  Emmanuel was now 7 years old instead of 4 and this started to cause concerns.  We had no idea this process was going to take this long, and we thought that even if it takes a year, or even two, he would be able to start school at a young enough age where he would not fall behind.  But the schools in Aflao were meager at best.  It is not uncommon for the teachers to take naps during class, or for the kids to have their hands hit with a ruler or piece of bamboo if they are not behaving.  It was basically a mass baby-sitting operation.  But we thought, ok now that we have a real lawyer maybe this is one more year, it’s not so bad.

Meanwhile, we wanted to send money to help Emannuel, but we were advised against this.  Emmanuel did in fact have a father who lived 3 hours away in the main city of Accra, and we thought if we send the father some money every month, then he could at least pay for a decent school so that by the time Emmanuel is with us, he will not be so far behind.  But we were advised against this.  We were told that if we send money to the boy’s father, it could be construed as ‘trafficking’ and we could be accused of buying the child.  “This is unbelievable!” I remember Sina and I exclaiming to each other in frustration with the system.

Finally, our lawyer in Ghana got everything in order.  I flew to Ghana, attended court with the laywer… and I have to tell you this was an unforgettable experience.  They were literally hand writing everything that was said into a book.  When it was our turn, they could not proceed because they could not find the book where our previous case work had been written!  I wish I was, but I’m really not joking.  Keep in mind that I started my own company in 2010, right about the time that we started to pursue this adoption.  By now it was 2012 and it was not easy to just fly to Ghana for a court date!  The cool thing was that I got to spend some time on my own with Emmanuel and we went to the movies, to some swimming pools, and had a great time.  Luckily the judge took note that I had appeared for the court date and did not require me to appear again for the next one which would be more than a month later.

We received all of the documentation from Ghana, submitted it to USCIS here in the United States and waited patiently.  When we got the letter back from USCIS we tore it open.  The letter indicated that there was some missing documentation from our case!  How could this be??  I had spoken directly to the case worker and was sure I had furnished everything they had asked for.  I called again, only our case had now been transferred to someone else… and therein, my friends, lies the problem.  USCIS is another large bureaucratic organization, and just because one person tells you one thing, it does not mean that the same rules will apply when you speak with the next person.

I finally got our new caseworker on the line.  He explained to me that under US law, an adoption cannot be ‘nationalized’ or recognized by the United States if only the father has agreed to the adoption.  I explained that nobody had seen the mother since child birth, but according to our caseworker, we had to prove it.  We had to provide documentation that Emmanuel’s mother could either not be found, or was deceased.  Our lawyer in Ghana explained to us that this would be extremely difficult.  But we begged him to try, and sent extra money to fund an investigation.

After months of waiting, we received the news…  Our lawyer had tracked down Emmanuel’s mother in another village.  He had to bring her to the main city of Accra to be somehow formally documented, as people in the villages have no government issued form of identification.  She signed all of the paperwork we needed and we sent it all into the USCIS.  We were sure that finally, after waiting now for at least 4 or 5 years, all of this heartache, time, and money would be worth it.  We finally got the letter from USCIS, indicating that our request for having our adoption recognized by the US was declined.  The letter went on to indicate that according to US law, since we had now proven that Emmanuel had a living father and a living mother, he was not legally considered to be an orphan and therefore, no longer adoptable.

While were extremely saddened by this news, it was a relief at the same time.  We could finally have some closure on this never-ending hope that would never be fulfilled.  Most importantly, we could start sending money to Emmanuel’s father to pay for school and have Emmanuel live with him in Accra.  We will never know what all of our lives would have been like if Emmanuel could have joined us, but life goes on, and we look forward to seeing him again on our next visit.

High School Summer Abroad in Tenerife

I grew up in Miami, Florida until the age of 10.  I loved it there.  Then we moved to Great Neck, New York.  I hated it there.  You can read about that here.  After suffering from depression, being ostracized by the kids in school, and contemplating suicide, one month in the summer of 1993 would drastically alter my life and set me on a path to love, happiness and success.

As President of the Interact Club (the High School Division of Rotary International), it was suggested that I should take advantage of their exchange program.  I applied to go to Spain and received the notice in the mail that I had been placed with a Rotarian family in Tenerife, Canary Islands.  I remember looking at the globe in my room and finding the Canary Islands well south of Spain and off the coast of Morocco.  I called the number on the acceptance letter and said that I thought they had made a mistake.  “I had applied to go to Spain…” I said.  “The Canary Islands are part of Spain,” they replied.  I felt pretty stupid.

I remember the day that my parents dropped me off at JFK airport.  I was 17 years old, and it must have been quite difficult for them.  I remember vividly as the plane was making turns in the air as we landed into Tenerife.  I had “The Power of One” soundtrack playing on my Walkman, written by the great Hans Zimmer.  His music has often been my soundtrack and this was the perfect fit.

The Rodriguez family met me in the airport, and during the 1 hour drive from the Tenerife-Sur airport up to La Laguna, we had quite a bit of difficulty communicating with each other.  The truth is, I really didn’t like Spanish very much in school and my grades weren’t great.  I’m actually surprised that I was so interested in going on this trip.  Maybe it was just the fact that I was getting away from Great Neck that was the draw for me.

The family I was staying with had 4 kids.  It wasn’t more than 24 hours before Guillermo, the son that was around my age, took me out with his friends.  I think we went to the beach in a “Furgoneta”… which is like a car with half of a moving van attached to the back.  Guillermo wasn’t old enough to drive a car yet.  He had a ‘moto’ or motorcycle, but not a car. One of his friends was older though and he came to pick us up and take us out.  At the beach, this beautiful blonde girl joined the group and I asked Guillermo “who is that??”  “That’s my girlfriend…” he said with a look that implied “Don’t even think about it.”

There were probably 10 people in that group of friends and for the first time, I felt what it was like to have a real group of friends.  Not only that but… I was the cool one!  I was from New York (ok, Great Neck Long Island) but they didn’t care.  These people had never left Tenerife.  I was different, and that was a GOOD thing.  I remember that afternoon going to a restaurant which became our regular spot, and we ordered sandwiches and milkshakes.  I sat in amazement as all of these kids within a few years of my own age sat around and just… had fun.  There was no judgement about what clothes anyone was wearing, no competition over who was better than the other.  I was in heaven, and as I watched them all talking and laughing, I felt a burning desire to learn Spanish as quickly as possible.  This was the greatest experience I had ever had and I was not going to miss out.  I pushed myself to participate in the conversations, the jokes, asking how to say things that I didn’t know.  Luckily nobody spoke a word of English so I really had no choice.

Everyday, we would wake up whenever we wanted, gather with our group of friends and spend the day at the beach.  We would typically come home for a late lunch or dinner, relax, and then go out at night partying.  Here I was, this 17 year old, after feeling like I hated life and had little self worth, being lifted up by this amazing group of people and having experiences that any American high school kid can only dream of having.

This changed everything.  EVERYTHING.  All of those people back in Great Neck that had made my life so miserable for the last 7 years… THEY were clueless!  The rest of the world was not like Great Neck, and I couldn’t wait to get the Hell out of there and start exploring it.  As soon as I got back I started looking into study abroad programs that were available.  I debated between Semester at Sea and going to Seville for a semester.  I decided to go to Seville (you can read about that here).  Another unbelievable experience that I will never forget.

Unfortunately, I have pretty much lost touch with Guillermo and his crew.  I am in touch with him and his then girlfriend, Isabel, thanks to Facebook.  I once wrote him a long note thanking him for everything and explained to him what a profound effect that summer had on my life.  He never responded though.  I hope that are all doing extremely well and are living happily in Tenerife.  Maybe one day I will get to see some of them again.

Growing up in Great Neck

Living in Miami until the age of 10 was wonderful.  From 1976 to 1986, Miami was not back then what it is today.  We lived in a large, beautiful Spanish-style house in a quiet neighborhood near Miami Lakes, and we would go fishing in The Keys every other weekend.  I have really happy memories of my first 10 years while in Miami.  As far as I can remember, I didn’t have a problem making friends in school and never felt like an outsider for any reason.

In 1986, we moved to Great Neck, New York, and everything changed.  My dad was in the real estate business and I guess things had taken a downturn.  We moved up north in search of new opportunities.  My parents chose to live in Great Neck based on the quality of the schools.  The only problem was that the population of Great Neck was made up predominantly of wealthy, white, Jewish families.  From the day I walked through the doors of the John F. Kennedy Elementary School, I felt ostracized.  The social competition was a stark contrast from the inclusive experiences I had in Miami.  The wealth among the kids in Great Neck bred a classist system even among 10 year olds in which the brand of pants or shoes that you wore, or the type of car your parents drive, defined where you fit in the hierarchical social pecking order.  If I had arrived to school in a Ferrari every day, the fact that I was brown and not-Jewish would probably have been overlooked.

With each year this feeling of being an outsider grew stronger.  In Middle School I became good friends with a girl named Judy whose family was quite conservative.  We spent a lot of time together and spoke on the phone often, but her parents questioned her friendship with me because I wasn’t Jewish.  In fact, I think Judy herself had a difficult time sometimes with it.  I would often question her beliefs and some of the things they would teach her in Hebrew school and I made her think about what she believed and why rather than just absorbing whatever she was told.  I remember that she was constantly surprised that I was so nice, even though I wasn’t Jewish.  Clearly she had been told that anyone who wasn’t Jewish was dangerous.

In school, the topic of the holocaust was ever-present.  The kids would always talk about famous people or leaders and were sure to highlight that they were Jewish.  When I started dating Sara in 10th grade, I remember the first time I met her grandmother.  She turned to Sara’s mom right in front of me and said “Keep her away from him.”  I had never in my life experienced such an obvious level of elitism and racism.

Don’t get me wrong, the friends that I did have in school were also Jewish and my best friend Uval’s family, for example, or Gwen’s family, never once made me feel like I wasn’t accepted into their home and family.  But they were the exception and not the rule.

Feeling so isolated and excluded can do serious damage to one’s sense of security and self-confidence, particularly between the age of 10 and 18.  My academic performance started to suffer in 7th grade.  Growing up in an Indian home where grades determine your privileges and standing in the family, I began to feel the same isolation at home.  I was trapped in a vicious cycle for many years, unhappy at school and unhappy at home.  Suicide seemed like a great idea and I thought about it often.  I remember one day sitting at my desk in my room (I think I was in 9th grade).  In the main drawer where I sat was a pair of scissors and I pressed the sharp edge onto my wrists.  I started to move them along my wrists until it broke my skin and I had formed 2 lines of blood across my wrists.  It’s hard to say what my intentions were at the time.  I don’t think I really wanted to die, but I definitely wanted to escape my life somehow.  I think part of me just wanted to see how hard it would be if things got worse and I really wanted to go through with it.  I only told my friends Uval and Dana.

I started to involve myself in an insane amount of extra-curricular activities to keep me occupied and away from academics and my home.  It was a survival tactic and had found things that I actually enjoyed.  I was an editor of the high school yearbook, played the flute in the All-District Orchestra, Captain of the Swim Team, went to County Championships for springboard diving, President of Model Congress, President of Interact (High school division of Rotary International), High School Treasurer, and participated in high school musicals.  I’m sure there was more but that’s all I can remember.  My mom used to tell me that I should just focus on one thing… that I was a “Jack of all Trades and Master of None”.  It really wasn’t her fault, and I have spent a lot of time reflecting on the harsh feelings I used to have for my parents.  They were doing what they thought was best for me, and giving me advice on how to be successful.  But they had no idea of the emotional and social difficulty that I was having for 8 years.

Actually, I should really say 7 years.  During the summer between my junior and senior years, I went to Tenerife in the Canary Islands, Spain on an exchange program through Rotary International, and that changed everything.  That summer marked the first step of a long journey to happiness and success (you can read about that here).  Regardless of my parents’ ignorance about what I went through in Middle and High School, I cannot dispute that my experience in Spain in the Summer of 1993 was made possible by them.  I have them to thank for allowing me to go, paying for it, and everything that came in the next 4 years as I went to the University of Rochester and studied abroad in Spain.  That summer in Tenerife literally saved my life.  It opened my eyes and made me realize that Great Neck was a little toxic bubble in an entire universe of wonderful and amazing people and experiences.  Senior year was a breeze knowing that I had made it through what was by far the worst 7 years of my life.  It could only go up from there.