Saturday, October 09, 2010

Meanwhile, back in the Valley

Harvest Home
Body in NYC, mind in Nepal

I'm sitting in an East Village cafe, watching the corner grocery try to array produce in an attempt at a "harvest season" display.  Somewhere, outside of Manhattan's concrete canyons, leaves are changing colour, chrysanthemums are blooming and roadside stands are setting out sheaves of Indian corn and piles of pumpkins.  And all over Nepal, it's Dasain time - the nine-day festival dedicated to goddess Durga, in her local Nepali incarnation as Taleju Bhavani.  
The narrow streets of Kathmandu's old town are crammed with shoppers buying holiday gifts, and all the accoutrement required for a Nepali Hindu holiday (special food, sweets, and lots and lots of marigolds).  All this under a blazingly blue sky - weatherwise, it's the perfect season to be in Nepal.

This nine-day goddess festival ("Navratri") is celebrated throughout the Hindu world, taking on local characteristics in each region.  In Maharashtra (India), the holiday is called Dussehra, marked by  glowing paper lanterns.  Mysore (in Karnataka, near Bangalore) has its famous Dasara procession complete with elephants, a palace glowing with oil lamps and fairy lights, and the descendant of the former Maharajahs presiding.  On most every street corner in Calcutta, you will find pandals (platforms with decorated deity statues) for Durga, with ceremonies and devotional music ongoing throughout the holiday, till the clay statues are submerged in the Hooghly river on the tenth and final day.  In the Kullu Valley of Himachal Pradesh, the local goddesses are brought down from their respective temples and paraded on palanquins through the town. 

Dasain is the uniquely Nepali form of Navratri. Nepali festivals are tied to the seasonal agricultural cycle, reflecting the centrality of farming in many Nepali communities.  Each of the nine days is full of significance and traditional observances.  On Ghatasthapana, sprouted wheat grains are planted in a pot, and kept in a dark place in the household.  On the tenth day of Dashami, the beautiful spring-green sprouts (called "jamara") are plucked and worn, as a sign of new growth and regeneration, along with "tikka" (the red kumkum powder) on the forehead.

Nepalis having a genius for time-warping, the nine days and nights of Dasain magically extend to two weeks, even a month in some cases. Workers who have migrated from their remote villages to larger towns to find employment are packed onto rickety buses, crossing dusty and bumpy roads to make the pilgrimage home for the festival.  For many, is their one chance in the year to see their family and the old home place.   When a Nepali waiter, for instance, takes leave from his job to go home for Dasain, he returns whenever he returns - between over-capacity buses, unreliable vehicles, transport strikes and poor road conditions, he can't guarantee a definite date of return.  Most Nepali businesses are bound (by tradition as well as the powerful Maoist-led labour unions) to give each employee a full month's salary as Dasain bonus.

Most Nepalis don't consider their Dasain complete without the sacrifice of a goat.  In a traditional Hindu town like Bhaktapur, every house will have blood on the doorstep from the sacrifice, usually done on the ninth day of Navami.

As a visitor to Nepal, Dasain can be frustrating - transportation is crammed full, shops open and close erratically, most government offices (including those for trekking permits) are closed, and tourist restaurants and many hotels are running on a skeleton crew.  The best way to spend Dasain is to relax, forget your goals and travel checklist, befriend some Nepalis and get invited to their home.  You will enjoy  the traditional foods, and receive the blessings of  tikka and jamara from the family elders. 

Don't forget to bring a present (almost anything is appreciated, but sweets are always appropriate), visibly relish the food that is served, and demonstrate real interest in the holiday and its traditions.  For all the breathtaking mountain vistas, everyday life in Nepal is marked by simple pleasures and of course, the ever-present Nepali smile.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Wo Is Me

In Patan's Durbar Square
Patan, Nepal 

Every time I visit Patan - usually to see my Charya dance master Raju Sakya, visit a tantric temple, or to check on some Charya ornaments hand-made by traditional artisans, I try to get in a trip to what I call the "House of Wo."

There's no signboard - in any language - over the tiny Newar food shop, which could serve as a textbook illustration of the phrase "hole in the wall," and if you don't know it you're unlikely to stumble upon the dimly-lit shop by chance.  The best way to find it is to go behind the famous Patan Durbar Square Krishna temple and look for Nepalis disappearing into the wooden-door storefront, between a jewelery shop and a bronze sculpture store.

The low ceilings and walls are blackened from decades of cooking smoke.  Strips of meat hang like party streamers, drying from the rafters. The tiny shop is invariably crowded; the few tables are usually filled, so I always sit on a wooden bench,  balancing my paper plate in my lap. 

The House of Wo is a family affair; on most days a voluminous matron sits on a low stool over the cooking stove, administering the sizzling griddle with grave authority and doling out Wo like a living Annapurna, the Hindu goddess of food.  On my most recent visit she was assisted by a younger woman kneading the rice dough. 

"Wo" is a Newar speciality, their version of south Indian Uttappam - a  thick rice-and-lentil pancake. The special Newar addition is pieces of fresh ginger.  Sometimes called "bara," Wo can be made with an egg cracked on top, or with meat, but I love the plain vegetarian version.  Also available are tikka aloo (spicy potatos, a Nepali staple), masala roasted soybeans with cilantro, chickpeas ("channa") and chiura (dry beaten rice, another Newar specialty which tastes like confetti to foreign tongues). 

Bottled soft drinks (like Coca-Cola from India, with the label in Hindi script) are available, but I recommend washing down Wo with Chang, or homemade rice beer. It's mild, smooth, never gives me a headache, and is very cheap.

The locals are invariably amused to see foreigners, and despite the crowded space, you'll be easily roped into a conversation with the characteristic Nepali smiles.  During my sisters' visit from America, we met a gaggle of college students from Koteshwor. They had come all the way from campus to visit the shop so they could pig out  and get a bit tipsy on chang within their student budgets while flirting with classmates. 

You can stuff your face silly at the Wo shoppe for 2 or 3 US dollars.  The crowded environment makes it difficult to enjoy the food with leisure, but the smiles and laughter - not to mention the food - more than make up for it.

I recommend combining a trip to the Patan Museum - which rightfully has a reputation as one of South Asia's finest museums - with a visit to the House of Wo.  Also on the same block of Patan Durbar Square, the Sundhara Hiti (sometimes called the Royal Bath) made famous by a scene in Bertolucci's Little Buddha - has just recently been reopened.

You can enjoy the Museum's luxurious gardens and umbrella'd outdoor cafe, peek at the psychedelic ornamentation of the Sundhara Hiti, then chow down with the locals round the Wo House cookstove.  At dusk the temple bells from Krishna Mandir will serenade you, and bhajans (devotional Hindu hymns)  will begin upstairs in the nearby Bhimsen Stan.  

All this writing about Patan, the City of Artists, reminds me that it's a nice place to spend more than one day. If you're moved to spend the night, try the ultra-cheap, friendly and clean Mahabauddha Peace Guest House in the neighborhood called Mahabauddha, which is walking distance from Patan Durbar Square.

Have an extra glass of chang for me!  After all, in Nepal, "Chang comes from within."

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

French twist

Rooms illai
Pondicherry (now Puduchery)

A month into following Mata Amritanandamayi's 2004 South Indian tour,  I landed in this former French colony for a week or so to recuperate from the extreme fatigue, sore joints, and pernicious headaches brought about by following a saint across India dawn to dusk.  But I almost never got a room.

After an unbelievable 4 hours of fruitless search for a room, any room where I won't get bedbugs (which BTW I have had twice, both times in Bangalore) - after 4 hours of "rooms illai, " ("there are no rooms"), the auto rickshaw driver was laughing and saying "you come my house? staying? no problem, wife is there!" with a genuine smile.

It was that bad. Pondicherry on a weekend in the high season is impossible (Pondy being a town of only 1/2 million, there are not so many options). Finally, I had him drive me out to the edge of town where lies a marble monstrosity masquerading as a 5-star hotel, the Hotel Mass (!?). Some kind of miracle got me the cheapest room in the house for 600Rs a night (some $15 USD). About 3 times what I usually pay, but I was in no position to argue. After a month of hostels and budget hotels, a hot shower is a nice change, and I have to admit, after months of the cultural "immersion" approach, I appreciated their greater fluency in English.

The winter tour was a lesson in why high season in India (December-January) is a hard time to wing it, in terms of traveling sans reservations.  A great number of tourists (Indian and otherwise) avail of the relatively cool weather.  Also, the south Indian harvest holiday Pongal (usually second week of January) guarantees trains and guest houses will be packed.  And the "Men In Black" - the pilgrims going to Sabarimala, Kerala for the god Ayyappan - fill the trains and buses in an impressive display of devotion, carrying their belongings for the entire six-week journey on their heads. 

The French quarter of Pondicherry manages to weave some famliar comforts - you can get a nice croissant and cafe au lait here, even a glass of wine - into the surrounding traditional Tamil town.  But it's still too damned hot.  From about 12 noon till 4pm, I'm useless.  A siesta culture is followed in which stores close between 12 and 3 generally.  And in classic French tradition, AC and fans are not too popular. (No wonder so many people died in the heat wave in France of 2003  - I bet no one would turn on the bloody fan.)

"Pondy" is a leisurely town, deriving much of its charm from its effortless integration of French and Tamil heritage. I had an entire conversation in French with 2 venerable old school Indian gentleman; it was disorienting to hear them say "oui, je sais, c'est quoi - sa?" while doing the Indian head-woggle.

It occurred to me that both the French and Tamils share a zeal for their respective mother tongues, and unshakeable faith in the supremacy of their mother cultures.  Perhaps in this they found a mutual respect that outlasted the relationship of colonizer and colonized.

And the Pondy weather is so hot, it would force even the French to shower daily.

This blog originally appeared in January 2004.
I spent my months in Pondicherry as an "inmate" at the Sri Aurbindo Ashram, which deserves a blog entry of its own.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Six degrees of segregation

Ladies First
All over India

Six months ago, I was unexpectedly re-immersed in American culture for the first time in seven years. After the initial shock wore off (for the first month everything sounded like I was underwater - I could tell people were speaking English, but it just didn't sound right - and my god, there's a lot of space here) I found myself trying to explain, to anyone who would listen (really. Anyone!) some of the distinct factors of life in India that aren't found in the west. One of the most prominent:  a degree of gender segregation.

Almost invariably, the American people I spoke to viewed this as a negative. Well, I loved it, and I suspect loads of other "foreign" women visiting India appreciated it too.

India is an extremely crowded place, and the way to accomodate local norms of personal modesty with the crowded reality is to separate men and women. If they were thrown together, in railway station queues, public buses, commuter trains and so on, there would be no avoiding shoving up against one another.  This would naturally lead to all sorts of problems.  "Naturally," I say, because India seems to take it for granted that men will not behave, which is refreshingly sensible. 

Without the Ladies' Compartment of the Mumbai commuter trains (photo above), how would women, who can't afford taxis and private autorickshaws, move back and forth to work, to relations' houses, and so on, unmolested and undisturbed? Ladies' Compartment gives them a great deal of dignity, and can even be, dare I say it, fun, as you can see in the photo. 

That is, it's as dignified as it can be, considering that you don't really get a seat. Overcrowding is the norm;  women, swathed in full six - and nine-yard saris, sitting in the floors or squatting on their heels. The younger ones (often wearing "Punjabi suits," which were once exclusive to Punjab and are now a national dress) climb to the upper berths, hunched against the ceilings.  The human density defies the laws of physics. Just when you think the doors must close, there is no more room, another person slides in somehow. It is an endearing trait of India that there's always room for one more.

"Ladies' Section" also applies to buses.  I understand this is changing somewhat in the more "modern" cities, but it's still the norm elsewhere.  Women get the front section of the bus; this is often not enforced until it gets very crowded, at which point the men must go to the back. I have seen men barked at, by passengers and conductors, and forced to move and make way for women. This is so that when a woman boards the crammed bus, she won't have to push her way through the men. Also, this accomodates women carrying babies or accompanied by children.

A sort of de facto women's and children's section seems to be the very front of the bus.  Here there is extra room for storing your bags, coming home from market.  On long distance bus trips you can even score a seat up front inside the driver's cabin (if you don't mind smelling the smoke of his bidis!). 
It did shock me that there seems to be no custom, among the women, of giving up one's seat to an elderly woman, or a woman with children. Some women looked surprised when I did this and their expression seemed to indicate that I was stupid for giving up the prized spot.

At least in South India, there is also a tradition of restaurants having a "Family Section." In practice, this mean's Ladies' Section. In these marked sections,  men do not sit unless accompanied by women (and usually children), the rare single woman can sit without inference or insult, and there is strictly no smoking.  The restaurant's other section often resembles a "gentlemen's club" (loud conversation, smoking).  

If you had told me ten years ago that I would willingly participate in, and even prefer, gender segregation, I would have called you crazy.  When I describe the system, Americans instantly assume the women are being separated because they are somehow inferior. I think the system honors the women; it actually protects them, and I personally benefited from this. 

"Separate but equal" may be impossible - the concept of "equality" being a strangely Western one.  While larger cities are adopting western standards, traditional India takes it as a given that men will be men, and women shouldn't have to put up with the ones they're not married to.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Are you experienced?

With the release of the Eat Pray Love (or is it Eat Love Pray?) major motion picture ("The amazing adventure of a middle-class white woman who talked her publisher into bankrolling a scripted adventure"), India-tripping is set to become a middle-class fad for the first time since the days of the 70s Overland Chapatti Express.  Except this time, instead of tie-dyed trippies, it will be mani-pedi suburban women seeking "adventure."  

It's always fun to watch the first-timers, fresh off the plane and perfectly accessorized, stumble over the inconvenient realities India inserts into their internal movies (Internal movie script: "Here I am, in front of the Taj Mahal. No, the Taj Mahal is for tourists; I'm not a tourist! Here I am in my spiritual clothes, being spiritual in an ashram.").   

But before they make the great voyage, clutching hand-bound blank books just brimming with the promise of fascinating journal entries,  there are questions. Lots of them.  After reading the India travel forums and Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree (India branch) for years, here are some of the best, along with some of the best responses. 

Top 5 Stupidest Questions Ever Asked on Lonely Planet's
Thorn Tree India forum or IndiaMike
(and I am not making any of these up)
5. "Can you get a Starbucks Chai Latte in India?"
-This one, actually, left even me speechless.

4. "Is is safe to be seen publicly reading a copy of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses"?
-This is India, not Saudi Arabia. 
-No. In fact, you will be publicly dragged into the maidan and flayed alive by the angry mobs.

3. "What is the language spoken by the Babas and Sadhus of India?"
-According to my inlaws, it's Rupees.

--Yes, that's the language and the new mantra too!
---I think you are underestimating the sadhus. I am sure they are multilingual, and their dialects includes GBP, USD, JPY, DM etc.

2. "Would it be socially acceptable for me to listen to a Walkman or I-Pod with headphones on a train in India? I know the people are talkative and they might consider it anti-social?"
-I'd like to see the Ipod that could stop an Indian from asking questions.

and Number One....
1. "Is it true that in the Madras Zoo, you can see a Tamil Tiger?"
-Yes, they are readily identifiable by the blood on their hands. 

So, there you have it.  With the imminent arrival of the ELPs (Eat Love Pray crowd), I look forward to a new and better crop of victims contenders. 

Friday, May 21, 2010

Goatshead Revisited

Summer re-runs
Originally filed from Kathmandu

Every other "show" gets to run summer re-runs, why not me?  I wrote this list in 2005, and was reminded of it by Lorraine of  It's interesting to re-read this after nearly five years, and see what has changed.

Oh yeah, if you are planning on reading about Nepal, Arresting God in Kathmandu is really mediocre. I recommend Culture Shock: Nepal or its equivalent in the CultureSmart series.  And if it's tales you want, the Traveler's Tales: Nepal is a great place to start.

Okay, let's go down my previous list.
Things you take for granted over here:

Bargaining and haggling for everything
Specifically asking for “English newspaper”

Having neighbors who look like stills from National Geographic

Dishonesty (about prices, availability, life stories, when the work will be finished, etc.) and corner-cutting

Wondering how you will pay the $65.00 rent  (Nowadays, it's more like $100)

Channel-flipping from Nepali to Hindi to English to Tibetan within a few minutes’ conversation

Monks with cell phones

Papayas, figs and pomegranates are not a luxury (At that time there was a pomegranate tree growing in my front yard.  Upon my return to US, I found that pomegranates have become the trendy fruit-of-the-moment.)

A dozen Tibetan high lamas live within walking distance

Nobody has a license (for anything)

Never being cold

Being called “Didi” (big sister) in Nepal, “Chechi” or “Madama” in Kerala, “Akka” in Tamil Nadu, “Memsahib” in Calcutta, and either “Auntie” or “Madame” everywhere else

Prescription medicine without a prescription, or a doctor’s visit

Prescription medicine that costs $50.00 in the US costing $2.00, over the counter.

Every commercial building has a full time watchman and doorman in uniform

Vegetarian food, everywhere.

Constantly carrying an umbrella (for sun most days, and rain during monsoon) - And, I could have added, to keep the occasional aggressive street dog away.

Sandals, 365 days a year

Routinely meeting people who’ve just returned from, or are headed, to places considered dangerous by most of the world (Afghanistan, Egypt, Jaffna/northern Sri Lanka, Burma, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, trekking in western Nepal, etc.)

No spring, no fall, no changing colours; just hot season, rainy season and dry season (winter)

English teachers: pathethic losers at home, prestigious over here!

Permanently “homeless” people *not* being removed by police or housing authorities 

Handmade custom-tailored clothes available on most every corner (now, you just have to be able to communicate what you want!)

Ayurvedic and homeopathic medicine in every shop; aspirin is “English medicine”

Child labour (exception: Kerala)

Beggars with stump limbs and grotesque deformities become routine

Every week is a different religious holiday for a different religion

Flowers grow all year round 

Keeping a bottle of mineral water in the bathroom just to brush your teeth

Hershey’s is an import; Cadbury is domestic

Hot water is a luxury

Being able to identify someone’s religion or region by their headgear or dress

Buying everything, from underwear to a sweater to popcorn to a mirror, on the street

Goats, cows and packs of dogs on the sidewalk

Your washing machine and bathtub both are a plastic bucket

Instead of tossing your old sandals or broken umbrella, getting them repaired by the shy "lower-caste" guy on the corner

Doctor’s visit: Three dollars (and worth every penny, ha ha)

Being treated like a rich person (ie, ability to stroll into five star lobbies and dawdle around without security being alerted) just by virtue of being a “foreigner”

BYOTP (bring your own toilet paper) - I recommend wet-wipes. At first I thought it was froo-froo, but when I finally gave in they just made life so much easier.

Taking a bus for ten cents, or a taxi across town for a dollar- The buses can still be as little as ten cents' equivalent; taxis have gone up - most radically in Kathmandu. 

Automatic VIP status for foreigners- This is changing, but still remains to some extent.

Stores close for afternoon siesta

Stray dogs aren’t rounded up and euthanized, but are alternately kicked, beaten, fed and played with- I did learn that stray dogs are occasionally victims of a poisoning campaign by various municipal governments.  This is really inhumane and torturous way to kill the animals, and since all dogs are allowed to wander here, often affects pets as well.

Saving water in a bucket in your bathroom; at least one day a week there is no water supply- Still a very good idea, particularly in Nepal.

Keeping a flashlight, candles and a lighter handy for power cuts  -This may never change.

Everyone on your block knows your schedule and your entire life story

The temple down the road is “only” 300 years old

Internet cafes and public phones that work on nearly every corner

Waiting for “the boy” to bring something (towel, bucket, water, napkin, tea)

Goat and other carcasses, eyes still open, for sale on the road

Having conversations with persons of a dozen nationalities in one day (German, Japanese, Israeli, Dutch, Danish, Australian, Filipino, Indian, Italian, British, Brazilian, French, Korean, Swedish, Swiss, Nepali, Bhutanese) and being able to identify them right away by accent-    and/or dress.  For example, no one but Koreans would wear those silly duck-billed sun hats, and Israelis are prone to wear bright, clashing colours together.

Not having a phone in the house (residential landlines are rare)

Parking anywhere (with a motorbike or moped), usually for free (exception: Pune)

Waking up at 4am to the shattering cymbals and braying horns of Tibetan morning ritual music--(The best place to do this is Boudha, Kathmandu)

Being nearly grazed by passing cars, motorcycles, cycle rickshaws and bicycles a dozen times a day

Every woman has a pierced nose, some more than one piercing

The Bunch of Keys (they are always old-fashioned, long handled keys and your house always has at least 3 different locks), also suitable for use as a weapon

Taking off your shoes before entering most rooms

Wearing sunblock every day, all day and still getting tanned

Tea is a staple

Wearing a face mask against air pollution-  More than ever in Kathmandu. Air pollution keeps getting worse.

Couples holding hands now appear shocking-  Tourist couples, take note and please heed. We don't like PDA and that includes holding hands. 

Seeing headlines like “500 teachers abducted; whereabouts unknown” or “Maoists slay 5 in Birgunj” on a daily basis

Seeing police with riot shields and barbed wire road blocks on every other corner

Cracked feet 

Compulsively dark shops and restaurants (electricity is very expensive, and people try to conserve to the point of living in darkness)

101 Uses for coconut hair oil (makeup remover, body lotion, moisturizer) and Tiger Balm (congestion relief, headache cure, wakey-uppy)

Stepping over human and other excrement on the road; ability to identiy excrement (human from dog, and cow from horse from elephant) at a distance

Paying $1.00 for a latte is a splurge- This has definitely changed. It's now at least $2.00, which is the average daily wage of many. 

Monday, March 29, 2010

Dakinis of peace

In the summer of 2008, I followed a group of Tibetan protestors in Kathmandu throughout their entire day - preparing banners, moving from their dwelling site to the protest site surreptitiously (Nepal police were expecting protests, so Tibetans in large groups were likely to be waylaid), and rehearsing nonviolent protest techniques.

Previous protests had involved struggle - the shouting demonstrators would approach the Chinese embassy or consulate and refuse to move. Most of the photos I (and so many other photographers) got were the same day after day - lots of pushing, pulling and gnashing of teeth.  Though I very much supported the demonstrators, I felt it was becoming predictable, and righteous anger is difficult to sustain day after day, for several hours, on an organized basis.

Protestors included Tibetan laypersons, always some monks, and usually a few nuns.

One day, there was an unusual number of nuns involved.  That day, the technique changed. The nuns just lay down on the pavement, shrouding themselves with Tibetan Snow Lion flags.  It was so unexpected, even the police started laughing.  Their gentle prostration turned everyone's expectations on their heads.

These nuns were so sweet, shy, and humble. I reflected on their daily lives in the Tibetan Buddhist world. They don't get many of the privileges afforded to the monks, and their education is often just learning to recite and memorize scripture without the higher teachings of philosophy.   Several projects (Kopan Monastery for Nuns in Nepal, and Tenzin Palmo's Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery in north India) have begun to redress this situation, all with the blessings of HH the Dalai Lama. 

In Tibetan tradition,  Dakini (Tibetan Khandro) is a female embodiment of enlightened energy. Some Dakinis are full-fledged deities, but others are semi-divine and wear human bodies."The outer-outer dakini is a dakini in human form. She is a yogini, or Tantric practitioner in her own right." With or without the 'higher' philosophical teachings, the nuns naturally embodied the Enlightened Female Energy - Dakinis of Peace.

Please copy this photo and share it anywhere you like (just don't charge money for it).  Because my computer crashed shortly thereafter, this is the largest file I have for it, and it's too small to sell commercially. But when you look at it, see the Dakinis flying.

Related reading: 

Between the babas

Backstage at Babastock
Kathmandu, Nepal

Ever wonder what those sadhus from Durbar Square - the ones who want money for photographs - do when they're not out begging for alms? They chillax backstage at Kathmandu's Pashupatinath Temple, in the babas' ashram.  These shots were taken just after Shivratri, 2009.
Backstage with Baba

Sadhus (male and female - females are called Sadhvis) come from India as well to be at Pashupati for Shivratri.
Tiffin Time for Baba
By tradition, the Nepal government was obliged to provide ganja, or at least subsidize its purchase, for the Hindu holiday Shivratri (which occurs annually in February). The new, non-Royal, non-Hindu government of Nepal may put a stop to that. Last year the newspaper featured reports of complaining Babas - they didn't receive the customary amount of rupees to subsidize the holiday smokfest.

I found the Pashupati Babas - while quite laid-back - to be also rather career-minded. Most of them make a few rupees as photographer's models. They all had the equivalent of press kits - a stash of carefully-preserved photos and even magazine clippings they had appeared in. The fellow below is showing off some of his portfolio.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Looking ahead

Kids from the Udana Tsunami camp (a special meditation program for kids from the tsunami-hit areas) visit Nilambe Buddhist meditation centre, near Galaha, Sri Lanka in 2005.

These kids were all from the most affected (east coastal) areas of Sri Lanka.

The camp was organized free of charge for them by Nilambe Centre, my favourite place in Sri Lanka. It's one of the best meditation retreats in South Asia and very reasonably priced. You spend some 8 hours a day in silence, which I loved.

In this photo, they seem to be looking forward with hope.

On the curve

Jantar Mantar
Originally uploaded by Sirensongs
My entry to the Lonely Planet Photo Challenges contest, "Curves."

These fellows were perched on one of the sundials at Jantar Mantar, built by Maharajah Jai Singh II in Delhi circa 1764.

You can view the other contest entries on at

Saturday, March 06, 2010

In my neighbourhood

Kumar Shubankar
Originally uploaded by Sirensongs
Shubankar lived downstairs from me in Koregaon Park, Pune - where the restaurant bombing just happened on Valentine's Day. He lived in a traditional "joint family," with a bit of a twist - the husband and wife (Shubankar's parents) had moved in with the *wife's* parents, rather than with the husband's as per tradition.

The family were my landlords, it was their building. They were entirely accustomed to having foreigners come and go, they just asked that I be in before 11 or so.

Shubankar was all dressed up for his school Fancy Dress Competition as Chhatrapati Shivaji, the Marathi leader and hero of not only the Marathi region but Hindus everywhere.

He won the contest, so I took these photos and not only printed them for the family, but took them to be laminated and mounted with a stand.

This type of remembrance will make you very popular with Indian friends and landlords. It really is all about the family.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

English lessons

The Aura of Auroville
Pillaichavady, Tamil Nadu

This is a journal entry from my time teaching English in a small town in Tamil Nadu, 2004.

Distances in and around Auroville are vast, and most local people do not have access to motorized transport. For me, a delightful highlight of life here are the local hitchikers on the verdant Auroville red-dirt roads. Usually women and small children, they stand on the roadside, armed with school bags, a bucket of fish, or a basket of vegetables, and flag down zooming scooters, mopeds and motorcycles.

Enge po kirrai? I ask in my limited Tamil. Kuilapalayam, Edaiyanchaady or Periyarrmudialarchavady , the polysyllabic village names come tumbling from their mouths. I scoot forward so they can hop onto the back (sometimes as many as 3 schoolgirls sitting behind on the pillion). Naturally, this slows down my own commute, but I don't mind....the village ladies with their crooked teeth, nose discs of gold and bright floral saris, the tiny school kids whose chubby little arms clutch round my tummy,
their squeals of fear or delight each time we hit a bump in the road - my being a few minutes late for class seems a small price.

Yesterday a tiny boy wearing a red puja mark on his forehead flagged me down on the Boommayapalayam back road at 7:15 AM. He was on his way to school, and took the opportunity to both practice his English (what is your name? My name is Danil. Where are you going? I go to New Creation School in Kuilapalaym) and instruct me in Tamil - as we passed things (tree, cow, dog) he yelled out the English and Tamil names.

Danil was not well-dressed and was very tiny. It brings a tear to a middle-aged eye to see such eagerness to learn and so much sweetness. It was easily an hour's walk to his school, but there he was trudging down the road bright and early.

My Language Lab English classes are a mixed bag. One class will be a runaway success with everyone yelling out answers and getting into it - the next will have a bunch of dud, dead spots where lose momentum and the kids begin to lose itnerest (begin to chat amongst themselves, etc). It's still very gratifying - but the new car smell (novelty of an American teacher) has worn off a bit, which means, I must figure out the challenge of actually teaching them, not just entertaining them.

Today some of the girls tried to stand up when I came into the room and I insisted they sit down (traditional respect for the teacher, but it was alarming to me).

I try to get them to talk about their lives and their world - instead of just repeating the lines about shoppes, prices and places in their textbooks. The last 2 assignments I gave: write a story about yourself and your day.

"My name is Vijayalakshmi, I live in Boomayapalayam. My house is behind the banana tree...
...I am eating rice every day. I am watching the television every day.
...Every day I go to work in Auroville at the Health centre, then I go home. "

They are too polite to tell me when they are bored or don't understand. Once I even asked them do you like this exercise, or do you want to do something else? and was met with blank stares - then I realized that, probably in their entire lives, no one had ever asked them what they WANTED to do. As they see it, a teacher, particularly, is supposed to be giving orders - not engaging in some kind of touchy-feely dialogue.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Palace intrigue

This is a blog entry was written in 2003 on my first of many visits to Kerala.

As a guest of the wife of Prince Thirunal of Travancore, the dynasty that ruled Kerala state for much of its history, I was invited for dinner and a stay at Kowdiar Palace. His wife, Gopika, is one of my dance teachers in Chennai; teaching the traditional feminine Kerala dance Mohini Attam.

Her mother in law, the Maharani, was a young princess when Independence broke up the royal lands and changed her world forever. Their culture has a matrilineal system and the women are very strong and relatively independent. They are direct descendants of Raja Ravi Varma, the famous indian painter (we sat in the dining room surrounded by some of his originals) and Swathi Thirunal, one of the 4 most famous south Indian (Carnatic)composers who wrote hundreds of compositions that are still popular.

This occasion necessitated my running out and buying a Kerala style sari (hand loom white cotton with gold border) and having the blouse made, in one hour - nearly impossible! - Total cost: about $14.00.

I stayed 3 nights in the guest house within the large palace grounds, where the servants instructed me not to leave my shoes outside the door,
as is the usual custom, because of the local wildlife. They are leather yes? The jackals surely will take them. You have jackals?, I asked, thinking he might just mean stray dogs. No, jackals. Cobra also. Careful Madam.

Jackals and cobras on the palace grounds; sleeping sweaty under a lace mosquito net; being served tea on the royal crest china, waking to the call of the whooping Koel bird, the snow shower of white blossoms beneath the plumeria tree heady with tropical perfume - I suddenly felt like a character in a Rudyard Kipling story. Some killjoy will probably have to write in accusing me of having "Orientalist fantasies."

The following day the Princess said, "Caroline, everyone is quite impressed with you" - because I had managed to get a blouse stitched in one hour. The ladies of the royal family all wanted to know what tailor I had found and how much I paid!

Strangest of all, the other Prince - the unmarried one - is a Carnatic classical singer who has performed in Nashville, and has sent me a flurry of emails since that evening. So maybe I will have royal email buddy.

more later, the nightly power cut is about to take place....

Related Reading: 
Drāvida and Kerala in the art of Travancore (Artibus Asiae)Political evolution in Kerala: Travancore, 1859-1938 

A Survey of Kerala History - 


Friday, February 05, 2010

Calcutta: the Great Unwashed

Hi, everyone. I'm too freaked out by all the blank space and white bread to write much now that I'm back in the States. So I am resorting to re-runs.

This blog originally appeared as a Lonely Planet "Don't Forget to Write" entry in December, 2003.
It was one of several entries I wrote about Calcutta, so don't flip on me if I left something out.

India has a genius for complicating things, and I'm not exactly straightforward and clutter-free myself to begin with.

Your faithful correspondent came North to Calcutta see the Kali Pujas (Oct 25-28, 2003), decided to stay a few days to volunteer at Mother Theresa's homes, and, as though in reward for this altruistic decision, promptly got deathly ill - a very nasty 6-day bout with diarrhea, cramps, indigestion, nausea, etc., and had to resort to a short round of antibiotics.

To further complicate things, when I became well enough to stagger past the ever-present gauntlet of Calcutta's professional beggars down to the local net joint, I found there was a SNAFU with my usually trusty email account.

Mother Teresa's home for mentally handicapped kids (Shishu Bhavan) was pretty amazing and unexpectedly fun, if you can ignore the smell of antiseptic floor wash (barely masking that of urine and feces). You should see the way these kids, many of whom are autistic or worse, light up when you just strum a few chords on a beat up old guitar and sing "Old MacDonald."

Calcutta - (India's second largest city, which in terms of sheer numbers, is quite a statement) is simultaneously the most medieval and most modern place I've yet visited here. Where else in the world can you take a foot rickshaw (yes, with huge wooden spoke wheels and a snowy-bearded barefoot man trundling you along the street) - a foot rickshaw, past limbless beggars and snarling street dogs, to the gleaming, punctual, immaculate, safe, uncrowded, *air-conditioned*(!) Metro station?!

In the Indian tradition of religious assimilation, Mother Teresa has been added to the local pantheon of saints and deities. The ferocious Kali Ma stares you down from nearly every street-corner shrine, alternating with Durga, who smiles benignly while spearing a demon. Amidst what must have seemed pagan idolatry to her, Therese's wrinkled walnut of a face has earned an enduring place of honour.

The city has been awash with activity honoring her recent beatification; everything from a Mother Teresa film festival (mostly documentaries and one docudrama starring Geraldine Chaplin), a ceremony for the first official veneration of her relics (including a few drops of blood - don't even want to know how they acquired that), and various cultural ceremonies, mostly featuring acoustic guitar renditions of "Amazing Grace" sung in Bengali.

Park Street - the hip, happening yuppie street with all the bars, trendy shops and nightclubs - has officially, and not quite appropriately, been dubbed Mother Therese Avenue. Calcutta municipal corporation seems to have a real sense of humour in this area; in the midst of a somewhat perverse PC renaming orgy, they also rechristened Calcutta's most commercial thoroughfare "Lenin Street." The US and British consulates both reside on what's now called "Ho Chi Minh Avenue." (I'm not sure what significance, if any, to read into the fact that these names appear only on maps and signs, but never in the local parlance.)

The post-colonial purport behind this nomme-nouveau frenzy (which seems to have primarily benefited the sign-painters and map printers) strangely didn't stop several streets from being renamed with, of all things, British names. Thus the former Theatre Road, rather than being named after a worthy Bengali playwright, of which there are many, became "Shakespeare Sarani." Another street, albeit a small one, swapped the decidedly British "Middleton Row" for the equally Limey "Sir William Jones Sarani." And one can only wonder what nationalist purpose was served by giving the name "James Hickey Sarani" to the former Dacres Lane.

I've found it surprisingly difficult to leave Calcutta, described by...well, some old writer whose name escapes me as being composed of "new mud, old mud and more mud." Repetitive, but accurate. Weather here, which was monsoon marsh and dripping humidity upon my arrival, has greatly improved, as has my health.

Give Calcutta a chance to first entrap you with its bewildering network of former cowpaths impersonating actual streets, or prevent your plane from departing due to poor visibility, and you'll find it eventually ensnares you with its unique charm - a sort of "creme de la grime." It ranks with Rome as an eternal, infernal city.

Recommended in Calcutta:
Kolkata Film Festival
Victoria Memorial including the Calcutta History Museum
Dakshineswar Kali Temple
Park Street British Cemetery
Howrah Bridge at dusk
Asiatic Society Museum
(no admission for foreigners without passport)
Indian Museum on Chowringhee (Nehru) Street

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


That's a word, in India. "Updations." They figure, if you can locate something in a location, why can't you update something with an updation? It is, in fact, grammatically correct.

It's the same logic that produced "pre-pone." If you can postpone something by moving it farther away in time, why not prepone something by making it more near? (That sentence, in fact, may not be grammatically correct.)

All of which raises the question: "What the hell is a 'Pone,' anyway?"

Anyway, this week's updation is of my Cool People Link Here links. I have dropped some that exist no more, and added a few new ones.

The photo has nothing to do with any of this. It's a man with his bicycle, crossing the vast dry Niranjana riverbed in Bihar, India.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Pongal O Pongal!

(The following column originally appeared January, 2008.)

Today is PONGAL, and I am not in Tamil Nadu! Not even close, not even in South India! Where can I possibly eat sweet pongal or ghee pongal? Guess I will have to experiment with recipes at home.

'Thai Pongal', as it is popularly called in Tamil Nadu, is a thanksgiving ceremony celebrated by Tamil farmers to thank the spirits of nature, the sun and farm animals for their assistance in providing a successful harvest all through the year.
The festival is spread over four days, from the last day of 'Margazhi' to the third day of following month 'Thai' as 'Bhogi', 'Thai Pongal', 'Mattu Pongal' and 'Kannum Pongal'.
"We may have settled here, but we haven't forgotten our traditions. Almost all Tamils in Delhi celebrate Pongal the same way it is celebrated in Tamil Nadu," Natesan, secretary of Tamil Youth Cultural Association, told.
It's also Makar Sankranti, which involves the movement of the sun through the Jyotish (Vedic) zodiac, and the approach of spring. I believe the sun is entering the sign of Capricorn (the Jyotish or Indian zodiac calculates differently from the Western one).

The best Makar Sankranti ever was at the Kalachakra initiation in 2006. The whole town of Amaravati, Andhra Pradesh was alive with Tibetan and Buddhist festivity anyway, and then added to
that was the Makar Sankranti observance (dressed-up cows and bullocks, street musicians, and special, extra- elaborate kollam designs in front of doorways). Here's the best picture I got that's one of my best "India" photos ever.

Pongal is not just one day, but several, including my favourite, Mattu Pongal or the day to honour
cows and bullocks. In the Madurai area of Tamil Nadu, this has traditionally included a kind of bullfight or bull-run called Jallikettu. In 2008 the whole area was up in arms (declaring a "black Pongal") because the Supreme Court has banned the practice, declaring it inhumane and cruel.

I have a suggestion - they should do what Nepalis do at Gai Jatra, and instead of using real cows, dress up humans as cows. Then they could see how much fun it is to be chased, poked , stabbed and have their tails pulled. It's quite amusing to see all the Madurai Hindus defend their "400 year old tradition" - what about the much older Hindu tradition (about 4000 years old) of honouring the cows?

Related reading: 

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

You must be in America when...

1. You have a table you can't set anything on, a floor that can't get dirty, a yard you can't sit in, and shoes you can't walk in.

2. You buy fake snow to spray on your windows, then complain when it actually snows a couple inches.

3. Even the yogurt is not vegetarian.

4. Your passport is useless, but your entire life hinges around your Driver's License.

5. People offer to "give you a ride to your car."

6. Small is Medium, Medium is Large, and Large is Jumbo.

...more to come....

Monday, January 11, 2010

Meanwhile, back in the Valley

Look what fun I'm missing back in Kathmandu!

This just came in email from the US Embassy of Nepal.

January 10, 2010

Important Security Announcement for American Citizens in Nepal

The Regional Security Office of the U.S. Embassy has informed that
National People's Front demonstrators have formed in key intersections
throughout Kathmandu valley. This morning in Kathmandu and Bhaktapur
cities, protesters set several vehicles on fire. American citizens are
advised against movement via any wheeled vehicles and to monitor the
situation closely on local media outlets. If you must walk somewhere,
please be cognizant of your surroundings and avoid large crowds.

"Wheeled vehicles" -- as opposed to those with four hooves, or something?

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Don't call it a comeback

Yes, I've been gone four months. Various family situations made it necessary for me to first leave Nepal and go to Delhi, then leave Delhi and go to Tennessee. It may not be a valid excuse, but it will just have to do for now.

It was my first Christmas and New Year in the United States in seven entire years.

In the meantime, I am trying to figure out how to encode my photos so no one can steal them right off the site anymore. Any clues from code-savvy friends are most appreciated.