Sunday, December 28, 2008

Just another regular old Sunday

Truly, there is never a dull moment in our neighborhood.  We were enjoying a leisurely Sunday morning, complete with a homemade Scrambler and two visits by the inverter repair man.  I was just about to take a shower (for the 3rd time) when Caitlin started hollering about a kid in the street with a snake on his neck.  So much for the shower.
We discovered that a snake charmer had plopped himself down in the middle of the street and started plying his trade.  He had 3 cobra, a boa constrictor, a generic snake, and 2 scorpions.  He happily let anyone and everyone put the generic snake and the boa around their necks, including one of my former English students, the 4 year old Ishu.  2 cobras stayed in the pots, but one was let loose to strike and wander at will.  The cobras all had their teeth removed, reportedly just by pulling them right out, so they posed no great risk.  We watched until the snakes got too cold to be entertaining and then I finally got to hit the showers.  And to think I miss lounging around reading the NYT and drinking lattes!  

Expat Kids Xmas Party

I'm a bit out of order here, but I wanted to share some pictures from the Christmas cookie party that one of our playgroup friends threw for the kids.  After the shorts decorated and ate their cookies the moms shooed them all outside and took over on the decorating and eating for ourselves.  Understandably, there are no pictures, but I trust you can imagine what 7 homesick expats would look like when presented with a mountain of sugar cookies and honest-t0-goodness icing and sprinkles.  Our hostess had just received a big box from home, and others had been hoarding goodies for a long time.  

Best Waiter in India

A few India trips ago, Chris and one of my illustrious predecessors (Hi Carla!) bestowed the title of Best Waiter in India on a waiter in Manali.  Last night, that many years-long streak was broken by the gentleman pictured above, Senapati.  

Yes, that enormous thing he is holding is food, and yes, we ate it.  Almost all of it, anyhow.  But Senapati's talents go far beyond toting large food items.  Where most Indian waiters here seem loathe to actually interact with customers, Senapati was very attentive, and even friendly.  There was no delay in receiving menus once we sat down.  Drinks were brought within minutes of being ordered and the food in record time as well.  (For point of comparison, we often have to wait, and then ask for menus, and it is not uncommon for dinner to take upwards of 45minutes to arrive.)  Senapati even offered helpful advice about portion sizes and looked out for Chris's health by refusing to serve him cold coffee.  (For those of you unfamiliar with Indian folk wisdom about weather and illness, drinking anything at all cold when the temperature is below 75 is tantamount to licking the sidewalk, or worse.  But that's another blog post...)

And now to close with a challenge for all our future visitors to Varanasi:  We will take you to Senapati's place of employment during your visit.  Your task is to, 1. Identify the restaurant before Senapati or the huge dosa appear, and 2. Eat the huge dosa with only one helper.  Who's in? 

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Happy Late December Holidays!

In keeping with the fervently ecumenical theme of our family/marriage/year in India/life in general, I am happy to report that this week has included both a raucous Hanukkah party at our house and a lovely Christmas celebration with our friends at the (Jesus) Ashram. Members of at least 4 faiths were included in all celebrations, maybe more...

First, on the 22nd we hosted a huge Hanukkah blowout. Some of our Christian friends expressed an interest in learning about Hanukkah so we pulled out all the stops and tried to give them a taste of what Hanukkah is to us. Namely, LATKES. Major credit to Chris and Samser for traversing Varanasi in search of sufficient quantities of "old" potatoes, apples, peanuts and photocopiers. With Manju and Sunita's help we made a six-tuple (what is the word for six-times?) recipe of Mee-ma's famous latkes and ate them with homemade applesauce and sour cream. Thanks to Chris's encouragement and my very patient friend Amy we also had jelly doughnuts. But the highlight of the evening was the first (and likely last) staging of the Hanukkah story by the Varanasi Puppet Theater, led by yours truly and staffed by Caitlin, Ben, and 3 of our kid-friends, Nora-Grace, Taran and Miriam. Taran introduced us to Judah Maccabees's long lost brother, Sword Maccabees, and Nora-Grace imbued good old Mattathias with such vigorous faith in the One God as Varanasi has never seen and will likely never see again. Best of all I think was Ben's portrayal of Judah Maccabees, in the form of a puppet made out of a hammer. Nora-Grace's dad has pictures which hopefully will be up here soon. After the puppet show there was a brutal dreidel match (with homemade dreidels) which culminated in Miriam, 4 years old and sweet as the day is long, routing 5 monks from Sarnath. Being Ladahki's they laughed like crazy the whole time.

Then today we joined our friends Leaf and Brendan (Taran's parents) at their annual Christmas feast. They provide a huge (and free!) vegetarian feast for anyone who wants to come. There was lots of singing, including a German rendition of Silent Night and a round of "Gloria in excelcis Deo" (what is that song?) that raised the rafters. I met a handful of interesting and articulate travellers and had good conversations while Chris led all the kids on a major tree-climbing expedition. It seems like Christians often get a bum-rap back home - written off as hypocrites or worse thanks to the behavior of some rather rotten public figures. Its been refreshing to get to know Christian people here who are humbly trying to live as their faith teaches them, following the example that they believe Jesus has set for them. Almost all of our ex-pat friends are here because of some sort of spiritual calling to come and be of service to people who so badly need their help. No preaching or missionary work, just huge and largely anonymous efforts to make at least a small difference in people's lives. Inspiring, and humbling to see in action.

So my "Happy Big Day" as many Varanasi-ites call it, is coming to an end with a marathon internet session and the promise of tons of Toblerone chocolate at home later. ( Thanks Hanukkah Harry!)

Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas and best wishes for every other holiday you may be celebrating. You all are in my thoughts as we celebrate so far away! Find a fellow S.L.N.C blog reader and give them a big holiday hug from the Haskett clan for us.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Bakreed with the Ahmeds

Last Tuesday was the Muslim holiday of Bakreed, a goat sacrifice festival. (No easy link, I'm useless too at explaining at beyond just the above...) We were invited out to the Ahmed family homestead to celebrate. Aijaz has 7 brothers and 5 of them live with him in the same compound with their families. Including everyone from a one month old baby to Aijaz's mother (Dadi) there are over 50 people living all together, and over 40 of them kids. The family lives north of Varanasi, on the banks of the Varuna River (extra credit if you can find it on a map!). As we bounced through a tiny village with streets only just wider than the car Ben triumphally yelled, "This is the life!" And indeed it is.

We were welcomed by Aijaz and then the people just started pouring out of the gate. He led us up to the roof where a small table was set. And then the food started to come. We began with sweets, followed by more sweets, and then more sweets. Most involoved dried fruit, coconut or sweetened milk, or a combination of the above. All were delicious. The main course was chicken and allo paratha, a mashed potato stuffed flat bread which is probably the closest thing to manna or ambrosia that mere mortals will ever eat. After the main course, more sweets. And then more. The kids kept flocking and soon swept Caitlin and Ben off to play games and explore. We also drew pictures, including a stunning masterpiece by your's truly as I attempted to show the elder Ahmeds where exactly we are from. (RandMcNally has nothing to worry about!)

Eventually Chris and I were able to waddle away from the table and out to "Aijaz's Temple" - a lovely Hindu temple complex centered on a naturally occuring shiva linga. The resident sadhu gave us a long explanation and patiently endured excessive bell ringing by the youngest of the group - our two and about 4 small Ahmeds. We explored the river bank, watched a train rattle by on the bridge over head and marvelled at the buffalo herd grazing nearby. Then we rallied all the kids (yes all of them!) and played probably the biggest game of Sharks and Minnows ever. (Chota Muchli, Barra Muchli for the Hindi wallahs out there.)

After the sunset we headed in for chai and photos. Chris made friends with the other Ahmed men and I was bundled off to visit Aijaz's wife's room and well as Dadi's where I was asked to show off my pathetic Hindi and asked to stay forever.

We did eventually depart, with promises to try to return for the next round of weddings, and with hearts just overflowing with happiness. Of all the adventures we've had here, this is undoubtedly the highlight for me. To be welcomed so warmly by strangers, and to be feted so generously by people who have so very little was moving and touching beyond words. Chris kept telling me that this was the India that he loved, and finally I can see why he's always wanted to come back here.

So, the pictures! It was very dark and very dusty, so please forgive the quality. First are the Ahmed adults, with Dadi in the middle and Aijaz to the immediate right, with a pink shirt and brown bag. His wife is right beside him, in the peach colored sari.

Now a shot of the kids playing carrom,

and finally the whole entire crew!

Friday, December 5, 2008

Ahmed Travels, Inc

In Which We Say Goodbye to Aijaz, and Meet Samser
Some time ago when I first came to Varanasi, I was walkin home with a moufful of paan, and one of the pesky drivers outside my hotel asked me, ‘you eat paan?’ and then we had the same conversation I have with everyone—You speak Hindi? Yes. Which country? America. How long India? Etc…sometimes in English, in Hindi when I can get it. In this case I could. The next day I contracted him for a day of scurrying around, talked to him all day, and knew that I wanted to have this guy on staff. He’s been driving in Varanasi for 28 years, knows every inch of the city (Bob’s Gym? Bike store? Yarn store? Atm? Another one when this one isn’t working? Check, check, check, etc.) He’s Muslim, very loosely observant, but I have very few interactions with non-Hindus, so I liked that. And most importantly, he did two things I’d never seen in India before: used a turn signal, and yielded to other drivers. We don’t have any pictures of Aijaz himself, but you’ll remember his left hand from this SLNC favorite.
We subsequently found out (well, Maggie did) that Aijaz has 10 children and lives in his ancestral home with 14 other people. His brothers all drive or clean hotel rooms [which is where, he says, he got his otherwise completely inexplicable Jim Morrison t-shirt]. He jumped to open the door every time we stopped, and would lead Maggie and the kids into the gullies, often beating them on foot when they were in a rickshaw. The man can walk about a 11 minute mile without appearing to do anything more than casual stroll. And he cheerfully took me into the Muslim quarter to eat at a hole in the wall curry store that I never, ever would have found on my own. Lunch for two (bread, rice, dal, and curried goat) was Rs. 75, = $1.50. I love my India!
About 6 weeks ago Aijaz had a proposition. The Tata Indica we were tooling around in was small, old, slow, and not airconditioned—that covers the big problems. Sir, [always, always sir, at least once every 7 words] there is a car we can buy. I have 35k, sir, my friend has 50k, we only need 20k more. Sir, the car is much nicer, and it will have airconditioning. Sir, if you could give us the rest, sir, we’ll cut your daily rate by 200, sir, for the rest of your time here. Sir.  [We’d been paying rs600 = $12-14 a day, which I wanted to make sure would include an extra Rs 100 on the top for him in addition to his daily pittance from his boss who owns the Indica.] I did the math, and we would come out Rs 2k down…plus this sounded shady. But I trusted this guy, and I wanted to see him get ahead—drivers work like 16 hours a day, no exaggeration 365 days a year. And they get paid squat. Aijaz told me, around this time,
Sir, I like being a private driver. Sir, I am now sleeping 6-7 hours a night, sir, it is very good sir, too much work is not good for your body.
Our daily custom was enough that he had stopped hassling the Germans and French outside the schmancy hotel in the Cantt.
So, let’s get this guy a car and move the business ahead, I thought. Maggie was iffy on it, but I asked—what kind of car? Mouthful of paan, he said, “afwafafa.”
“Ambassador, sir, Hindustan Ambassador.”
Instadecision: “Buy it.”
The Ambassador is an icon of the Indian road, the preferred car of government types and shi-shi traditionalists. When we were first in Delhi M had asked if we would ever get to ride in one. Now we were going to get an Ambassador for every day. Hoo-freekin-rah. And airconditioned too, not that its that hot, but with the windows up its quieter and much less smoggy.
I turned over the 20k a few days later, and we were told it would be about a week. Right on time, the kids started asking, “Will Aijaz bring the Ambassador today?” “Maybe.” And I’d ask him, and he said something about paperwork, and there was a holiday, and then the lawyer, and we have to get the car fixed, etc.
Oh, no. I’ve been scammed, I thought. This went on for 4 more weeks, until one day he said ‘Tomorrow, we will bring the car.” Four days later, still no car, but he takes me to a tourist trap art showroom, where some unknown makes a phone call and tells me “100% Guaranteed, you will receive the car tonight.”
Two days later, we’re on our way somewhere through a back alley and we pull up, and there, hood open and a wheel missing, is our Ambassador.
There’s much more to the saga then that, but this is already going to 1k words. To the chase. Here’s the Ambassador with Grampy and the kids:
After a few false starts with the battery and starter, its now running fine. We even ran the A/c yesterday.
The other thing is that on day 3 AA (after Ambassador) Aijaz said, “Sir: my son will do your driving service, sir. He knows fluent hindi sir, also some English, sir. And we will take care of diesel, sir, no more rs 150 a day, sir, we will fill the tank completely, sir. Also, sir, I will make your daily rate Rs150, sir, everything included.”
So now we are driving with Samser. He’s 18, and doesn’t drive with the same aged caution his father did, but he also lets me open my own door, and we get places faster. ‘Some English’ means he knows words, but not enough to form a sentence yet, and so M has to talk pretty slow.
He’s studying, and its fun to have a new English student again, plus he doesn’t eat paan so he’s more comprehensible to me in Hindi and English. He doesn’t know the city quite as well as his dad, either, but we’ve gotten everywhere we’ve needed to go so far. He even got me out of a Rs 2k fine for not wearing my seatbelt a few days ago. And after a month training with us [Hell, son, if you can drive those people you can drive anyone!] we’ll get Aijaz back. Til then, good to have a new member of Team H-V.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Pretty much the best blog post ever

In Which We Say Goodbye to a Monkey, and...well, 
that's it
We have monkeys. They're everywhere, and cute, but pesky. They 'enjoy one another' or 'enjoy themselves' when they think anyone's looking, they bite and remember their antagonists, and without the dogs they would swarm the house. One ate the buttons off my favorite buttondown this
 week, but I bought it from Penney's for $10 in 1996, so it had a good and long life, and can probably be repaired for a quarter at the local tailors.
Anyway, off we were yesterday, and we reached the corner and were about to go past the tea stalls at the end of the road and out to the main world. A word on those: these are three tiny little shops frequented by lots of men who pee all over the place and generally lurk around being inactive. They stare at us as we drive past. There's an overflowing dumpster. The stalls themselves are, um, sub-sanitary. They all sell paan and cigarettes too. We call them 'the sketchy chai shops,' and until we got the new wider car, were consciously avoiding them--but the Ambassador [see above!] is too big to go through the back alley, so we are SOL.
Anyway, on our way past, a bigger than usual crowd was fruitlessly milling about, and looking up, and so I did too. A small monkey--big enough to be independent, but very much still adolescent--had jumped from a roof onto the power wires, and there he stayed. Birds can stand on power wires, but when you grab two of them with hands and feet I think it does more than just complete a circuit. Our laundry-ist later said, 'Oh yeah, he just fell right down dead,' and I said, 'heck no, he was hanging there.' This was sad, except that the monkeys are pesty, and in prolific abundance. Probably from all that PDA in paragraph 1. They really are dangerous, too.
No matter, I went and did my biz, and went home. Then, a bit later some guy was walking around the neighborhood banging a drum. I've seen this kind of thing before. There was a guy with a tamborine and a whip who used to come stand outside our gate in S India making noise until we gave him money to go away. Job Title: Professional Annoyance? How does that go over at parties? "So, Jim, what's your line of work?' "Aggravating the public for pocket change, pretty much. How about you, Fred?' We paid this man no mind. But then M and co went out for some groceries or something, and one of the locals said that the man was collecting money for the dead monkey. Oh, well, I thought, maybe he's a monkey disposer, and his services are paid for like 4th of July fireworks, and we're all supposed to pitch in. But on my way back in from my next errand [yesterday was a great day to dispose of an ungoshly glob of administrivia] the passel of ne'er-do-wells down at the sketchies was even bigger, and when I looked, they had all gathered round and they had sprinkled the monkey with sindura, an auspicious red powder, and garlanded him with a string of marigolds. There he was on a cloth and the collection was growing.
It was a Gol-Danged Monkey Funeral!
I went home and told everybody, and we asked uncle-ji who was as jovially dismissive of this sort of activity as he is of everything, but said sure, go take pictures, no one will care. The explanation advanced by him was that monkeys, being connected to Hanuman, get a full funeral at the banks of the Ganges just like everyone else. Y'day was Tuesday, too, and that's Hanuman day. I had noticed a buildup in activity outside the Hanuman temple down the road when I ran past it in the morning. [Yes, exercise resumes. As does increased smog inhalation, but I think the cardiac benefit balances that out.] Maggie said that at one of their ghat stops they had seen a deceased monkey getting the Fahrenheit 451 treatment.
I put B on my shoulders [no one else in India does this ever--??] and took C in hand and we went on down. The monkey had been properly wrapped and placed on a pire and they were just carrying him out.
As a bonus, the sketchy tea stalls are just barely visible in the background. One more reason to visit us, those.
We followed.
Note the monkey's head,

perhaps more visible in the enlarged and zoomed photo--there you should be able to deduce the monkey's last thoughts thanks to 8.2 megapixel resolution.
Also, here is his balloon animal totem, a critical item of a traditional monkey funeral...
The rather raucous procession stopped at all the local businesses [see "professional annoyance above']
to solicit donations, and then eventually stormed away. Subsequent discussion by those in the know concluded that much of the collection would eventually go towards liquor for the bereaved.
What, then, makes this the best blog post ever?* You ingrates, it was a Gol-Danged Monkey Funeral! What other blog had a monkey funeral today? You want more? Ok, you got it. Live footage, taken by me, with a point and shoot digital and a kid on my shoulders, uploaded at 26k/sec from an Internet hovel in Mahmoorganj. As my teacher says they town crier used to announce, 'Don't say "I didn't hear,' don't say "I didn't see!' And let no one say that SLNC is anything other than cutting edge.
This will be a little shaky, of course, but you should get the general impression. 10 seconds, 7.9 mb, is about all I can hope to muster.

In other news, we have a couple interesting leads on cracking the "three repetitions day and night' angle of papadesana. I know, you're all dying to know, but I can't let the cat out of the bag just yet. Wait for it, wait for it...

*Initial posting efforts were beyond my technical capacity, or perhaps that of my new favorite $.20/hr internet closet, which employs only the most knowledgeable, qualified, and legally eligible 12 year olds in the neighborhood. I told M about it, though, and she had a dream that I won "Best Blog Post" for the day on which it was posted. Prophetic or pathetic, you decide...

Friday, November 28, 2008

For our Mothers and other concerned parties

We're all still doing just fine! Really, even if we don't blog, email or call, it is all going more or less smoothly.

The recent blog silence has been more a symptom of my busier life than of any sort of malaise or disaster. And the sober/controversial posts before the break - well, I don't know. Felt like I had to say what I did - keeping it to myself would've been toxic. The problems here are so big and unavoidable. To omit them from the blog was begining to feel a bit too polyanna. But don't worry, this blog hasn't been advertised to friends and aquaintances here. I am quite cognizant of our 'guest' status, and the burden of representing not only the US but also the UW and the Fulbright project and am loathe to do anything to sully those images. (Seeing plenty of "Ugly Americans" everyday...)

We're very vigilant about our safety, probably well in excess of what is warranted so I'm reasonably confident that we'll make it back home all in one piece. I now take just about nothing for granted when I'm out in public and while that makes me nuts at times, it also keeps us safe. (and really, isn't nuts better than assaulted?)

It is stressful. For each of us, and in different ways. But we're tough and we're here for a reason and we all have our own reserves and resources to draw on. And all of the ugliness aside, its worth it. We'll come out the end of this year so much better off than we started.

So please don't worry too much! And we'll promise to be more punctual with the posts, emails and phone calls.

Gratuitous Kid Pictures

I know I'm supposed to be appreciating all of the wonders of India, but you know, my kids are worth photographing sometimes too...

Seattle Shout Out

Even here in the Holiest City in India, peeps are representin' for the Emerald City...

Street Scenes

I'm not anywhere near eloquent enough to describe the streets and galis in Varanasi, but know what they're like is vital to begining to understand what life is like here. Toward that end, three shots to give you all a taste.

First, one of the main galis, just outside of the restaurant affiliated with the school we volunteered in. Some are narrowerer and darker, fewer are much bigger or brighter.

Next two are taken from the second floor over looking one of the main streets right down near the Ganga. It is almost entirely closed to all but foot traffic (save for the rickshaw willing to bribe a cop). The night the picture was taken was just and ordinary night, the days leading up to Diwali and Chhat Puja were MUCH more crowded.

Streets open to vehicular traffic carry about the same density as you see above, plus cows, dogs and pigs. And no traffic laws to speak of. Awesome.

LYS, Varanasi Style

I promised I would never have a knitting blog, but this is too good to pass up.
Knitting is big business here in Varanasi. Nearly every Indian woman I've met knows how to knit, and on the whole they seem to crank out a LOT of sweaters and hats. And a good thing too - now that it only gets up in to the upper 70s or lower 80s during the day you surely need a sweater! In most parts of town you can see yarn shops, pack nearly floor to ceiling with yarn in eye-popping colors. And for some strange reason you never just see one of any sort of store here - there are usually 3 or 4 of the exact same sort right next to each other.

Only downside is that all of the yarn is synthetic and not very good quality. Happily, Thy and Kris gave me 2 hanks of beautiful wonderful luxurious merino as a going away present so I've been blissfully knitting a hat and mittens for the past 2 weeks. (Once I'm done I may rip them back and reknit the yarn into something else... certainly no need to actually wear the woolens here.)

Thanksgiving 2008

Terrorism, wild pig captures, and Stove Top Stuffing with Evangelical Christians... welcome to our Thanksgiving in Varanasi.
Our day started with news of the Mumbai attack from Uncle Dan, and Chris spent much of the morning scrambling around trying to learn what was going on and what, if any, effect it was likely to have on us. I made mashed potatoes, seeking refuge in cooking as much as preparing for the feast we were invited to later in the day. I'm just now begining to read all the details of the attacks in Mumbai, and am still so shocked, so you'll have to forgive my silence on the subject for now...

Once everything was settled and done we struck out for "The Ashram" and a Thanksgiving feast with the Western ex-pat community in Varanasi. Unfortunately 4 men had cornered a wild pig in front of our house and were in the process of capturing it when we wanted to leave. The pig's screams were enough to send us back inside, not to mention the possibility of the (huge) pig getting lose and trampling someone. It was really an awful thing to wait out and did much to reaffirm my commitment to vegetarianism. Once the pig was finally tied up and carried off we ventured beyond the gate and off to the ashram. (I swear, I am not making this up. Only in India could a wild pig capture make you late for Thanksgiving dinner.)

(Perhaps a brief digression to explain The Ashram is in order here. Through one of the owners of one of our favorite haunts I was connected with Amy, our doctor's wife and a big part of the ex-pat community in Varanasi. She invited me to join a playgroup made up of families who all know each other from attending church together at The Ashram. The Ashram is actually a collection of buildings which originally belonged to the Panchkote Raj (somebody want to google that?) and which are now rented by Americans and used partly as their home and partly as a space for church services. Play group meets there once a month and moms get to meditate for 90 minutes while various nannies mind the kids - hooray!) The Ashram overlooks the Ganga and is a lovely oasis, complete with grass and a very friendly black lab. We aren't joining in for the church services, but all the people we've met from that community have been just wonderful to us, and me in particular. One of my favorite things about Varanasi, for sure.)

Every year the feast includes a talent show along with all of the traditional American Thanksgiving foods. There were no less than 3 vats of mashed potatoes, 4 pumpkin pies and even two bowls of honest-to-goodness Stove Top Stuffing. Brownies and chocolate pudding and crescent rolls too! I cannot begin to describe to you how wonderful it was to see and smell and EAT all of that fabulous food. The talent show was just as heart warming as the food. It ranged from our doctor reciting "Lamentations of the Father" (you may have seen it going around in an email - hilarious) to little kids singing, doing magic tricks and our favorite actress reciting the "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" speech from Macbeth. Afterwards everyone hung around chatting on the roof, running wild in the yard, and driving the family auto-rickshaw.

From start to finish Thanksgiving 2008 was unlike anything I've ever experienced - good, bad and ugly. All of our family and friends were in my thoughts through out the day and beyond anything else, I am thankful for all the wonderful people in our lives. Your love and support mean so much, especially now when we are so far away.
And now, the pictures...
Nora Grace drives the auto-rickshaw. (That's her dad, Dr. Lowell looking so pleased and proud in the foreground.)
Ben and Nora Grace taking a break in the yard.
Chris and Brendon discussing religion on the roof, Ganga beyond.
Looking south from the roof of The Ashram, up the Ganga, toward Assi Ghat and the pontoon bridge.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

All Safe In Varanasi

Hi everyone-This is perhaps the easiest and quickest way of letting you know that we are very, very far away from the violence in Mumbai and that while it is confirmed by several sources that Westerners, specifically Brits and Americans are being targeted, please don't worry about us:
1. Varanasi is not a financial capital like Mumbai.
2. We don't live in a tourist area or a hotel.
3. Varanasi is 1600km, = 1000 miles, from Mumbai.
4. The US Embassy says that the problem is exclusive to Mumbai, and that North India remains safe.
This is, of course, unfathomably horrible for everyone in Mumbai, and altogether regrettable. Particularly, it's sad for Americans away from their families on Thanksgiving. I'm grateful we'll be able to spend time with some other American families today. In the meantime, you can pray for us if you like, but Mumbaikars probably need the prayers more than we.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Access to Health Care?

Between our house and our swimming/internet haven there is a clinic which prominently advertises, in English, "Abortion 200 Rupees ". 200 rupess = $4-5.00

What is your reaction to that? And what do you think it says about this culture?

My first take was, "My. Well, at least women have access to cheap abortions and the opportunity to control their own fertility. And isn't it a good thing that abortion is accepted enough to be advertised to boldly, out there in the public space and discourse?" Chris pointed out that instead of my pro-woman pollyanna take, the reality may be something closer to "You can terminate your pregnancy if it is not the desired gender (male), if you have enough disposable income and time away from work/family." (200 rupees is a lot of momeny for many people here, remember.)

I can't seperate abortion from the population crisis happening here, or from issues of women's empowerment. But is "choice" really an appropriate word to use in this context?

I'd love to hear from you all out in blog-land on this one - questions and comments, whatever you have to say...

The problem is the critical mass

The root of the severity and entrenchedness of poverty in India is just how incredibly many people there are with so incredibly few resources. The problem plays out sort of like this:
1. Poor means really, really poor. Our cook tells us she pays about $15/month rent for a single room that she shares with her husband and two children. He makes RS 2k/month, or about $45. That's actually pretty good at Rs60/ day. There are plenty of people who make less.
2. That many people who are so desperately poor means an immense pool of labor and a lot of competition which drives down labor. Those poor people also have had lifetime malnutrition and poor education, meaning they are small, not so strong (though phenomenally tough), and largely lacking in marketable skills.
3. These people are also a massive market for lowcost goods. Poor people can't buy expensive, so manufacturers can't make expensive, so labor can't be paid much. See #2. For an instantiation of this et omni passim, see the latest election stunt by the Hindu right.
Since everyone can buy food at the same price, the rich get to buy bananas for $.20/lb, too.
4. The depth of the deprivation is such that any chance to get out of it is cherished and tightly guarded. This works out in two ways:
a. the middle class, newly escaped from poverty, do everything they can to distance themselves from the poor, including talking to the help like they're inherently less-than. Hindi has a whole structure of pronouns and imperative forms that signal the esteem in which the speaker holds the addressed. I think this becomes, psychologically, true for those who are continually spoken to in this way. Both white tiger and last year's booker awardee Inheritance of Loss deal extensively with the constant state of humiliation vis a vis the wealthier people both in India and abroad, and the fawning sycophancy demanded by the wealthy which inculcates the sense of less than in the poor. Our own cook talks about 'little people' and means herself.
b. the government, in which people can insulate themselves from poverty through power, and which can sometimes help the very desperate, is incredibly corrupt. Bribes abound, and in their absence, nothing gets done.
So--the poor will do anything for money, the rich know this and fear a return to that state themselves, and without a massive surge in economic activity without a concomitant inflation (both the indian economy and inflation should grow at about 10% this year) there's little way out.
5. No unions. The Communist parties (i for international or m for marxist) are actually in power, and thus are corrupt and have sold themselves to the highest bidder and forgotten about the workers they're supposed to serve. Votes are bought on the cheap through outright purchase or by coercion and plying the poor with liquor and food, and the cycle then perpetuates.

When I was trying to think through all this it made a great deal more sense, and was also more concise. I feel that way about a lot of things these days--we're all good til we try to write it down.

In other news, the shoe beating that took place in front of the house over a kid's ear being pulled made the front page of my driver's tabloid yesterday morning.

I apologize that this post includes no pictures. And that this blog is now starting to sound like the soundtrack to my childhood: one long conversation about what can be done for the poor.


or, Sunday Bloody Sunday
or There's so much drama in the Mamour-G, Its hard bein' Mag, M-A-Double G
(Chris and Uncle Dan, that was just for you)
or, Whiteys move in and there goes the neighborhood
According to our driver's local sensationalist rag, there was an ancient Chinese curse jeapordizing everyone's happiness this past Sunday, and our little corner of Mamourgang was not spared. (For the linguistically persnickety, the last 4 letters of our neighborhood are pronounced "gahhhng" with a soft g at the end.)
The day started happily enough with a game of cricket in the street. Chris and the kids were whooping it up with the usual suspects, unaware of the turmoil that lay ahead. The boys were happily playing when the driver from the (awful, noise-making, dog-sic-ing) temple across the street backed out and parked his car right in the middle of the field of play. One of the older kids then leaned on it and the driver freaked out and yanked the kid around by the ear. Many many neighbors witnessed the ear pulling and charged out to reprimand the driver. Then someone alerted the kid's father who stormed in to defend his son. There was yelling, slapping, and then the father took off his shoe and beat the driver with it. Yes folks, an actual shoe-beating happened right outside of my house. Much chagrined the driver retreated, but apparently vowed to seek his revenge later.
After all that excitement we decided we needed a break. We visited a temple with a huge marble bas relief map of all of the Indian sub-continent and returned a few hours later. Shortly there after all of the former English Class kids were delivered, unannounced and uninvited, to my doorstep. I turned them around and took them all out to the street to play. (Should I have seen trouble on the horizon? If only I read trashy Hindi rags!) The sun set, the mosquitoes swarmed and I brought my 2 in for malaria meds and bug spray. While we were inside all the kids scattered leaving only Gun-Gun (5, REALLY high strung, and petrified of dogs). Following logic only comprehensible to her, she decided she should climb our gate, open it herself and come into the yard, where the ferocious German Shepard that terrifies her was lose, instead of going to her own house, or one of her grandparents' houses. (Obvious, huh?) The dog chased her all the way up the stairs and tackled her on our landing. Chris rushed out and snatched her up. She was understanably shaken but didn't seem hurt - no torn clothes or visible blood. We calmed her down, checked her out a bit and then I took her home, where the real fireworks began. I had just started explaining the episode to Nisha when she began screaming (at me?) in Hindi and her husband jumped up and burst into his parents' house, hollering at the top of his lungs in Hindi too. Nisha stripped Gun-Gun down and discovered a spot I hadn't seen where the skin was broken - I'll let you use your imagination for the results of that happy occurance. After a while the screaming subsided and Nisha explained to me that they were both now unemployed (see my last post for a fuller understanding of what that means), that her in-laws had been praying for Gun-Gun's demise, and that they were nearly broke. I felt horrible. But what to do? We offered to pay for Gun-Gun's medical bills, but were refused... As Nisha and Gun-Gun calmed down Manoj only seemed to build up steam and was last seen screaming his head off while speeding away on his motorcycle to the peditrician's.
But that's not all! Later that night Nisha came back to our house (why? we don't know) . She rattled the gate (Indian Doorbell) and it wasn't opened quickly enough for her, she opened it herself. Nisha is as terrified of dogs as Gun-Gun is (maybe more), and the dog was lose, barking at her from the other side of the gate, but she opened it anyhow. Predictably, the dog jumped up and tried to scare her away. The dog succeeded and Nisha ran screaming across the street. The dog followed, but soon gave up and came home. Nisha swears never to set foot in our house again and has rallied the other parents to ban their children from coming over. But she says she doesn't blame us - just "that ferocious dog" and Uncle. Uncle is in Delhi for a week so it remains to be seen if there will be further repurcussions. I take my share of the responsibility for leaving the kids outside, but really, why on earth would anyone open the gate to the yard where an aggressive dog lives, when you're scared of dogs? Ack.
Icing on the cake: The Shoe Beating was on the front page of our driver's newspaper Monday morning.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Poverty: Take 1

There has been much discussion of poverty in India at our house lately, thanks to George's insightful comment and our recent reading of The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. (If you haven't already, please read that book! Adiga is incredible and elegant as he describes, in no uncertain terms, just exactly how horrific life is for the poor in India. The implications for those of us lucky enough to have been born the color we are, in the places we were, and into the relative wealth almost all Americans enjoy are quite serious because ultimately I believe it is our insatiable materialistic culture that is responsible for the poverty of the developing world.)

Chris and I have both been doing our own writing and thinking on the topic and I imagine he'll hold forth here soon. I've started and failed at so many attempts that I'm just going to dive in here and start with George's first question - how do the middle and upper classes deal with poverty in India?

From what I've seen, they don't. Granted, my white skin and the wealth everyone assumes accompanies it skews every interaction I witness, but I have seen just about zero charity-giving interactions between wealthier Indians and the poor. The beggars we see are only in tourist areas and they exclusively approach foreigners. (Japanese and Korean tourists seem to get an especially high amount of attention.) On occasion a sadhu will walk through our neighborhood and that is the only occasion on which I've ever seen an Indian person give another person charity. Today two Muslim men walked down our solidly Hindu street asking for donations and were ignored by everyone, except my husband (we are nothing if not ecumenical). I've been told that people give alms to beggars at temples but beyond that I don't know of anything approaching institutionalized charitable giving the way we know it in the west. George's assumption that poor Indians get more social services for their rupee is somewhat true, but its all dependent on a very corrupt government and its taxation scheme. What exactly those social services are comprised of is important to look at, but that's a discussion that will have to wait for another post.

My supposition is that poverty is much closer for the average middle class Indian than it is for middle class people in the US and as a result there is a deep unwillingness to really confront it. Fear? Denial? Who knows... Full time employment is very hard to find and the better jobs often require the new hires to pay huge fees in order to take the position. Our friend Nisha has been offered some sort of lecturer post at a university here but must first pay 5 Lahks - 500,000 rupees. Some job! She and her husband both have PhDs from one of the most prestigious universities in India, but neither has a full time position. They are only able to afford a 2 room apartment - one room is the (small) kitchen and the other is just marginally bigger than a king size bed and serves every other purpose. They share a bathroom with at least 3 other households.

For people farther down the socio-economic ladder things are much more dire and the grip on a comfortable life is even more tenuous than it is for our friends. The sorts of jobs that the working poor have are almost universally without a contract and any sort of benefits or protections for the worker. With a huge labor pool that keeps on growing employers can and do pay tiny wages and push their workers as far as possible. It was not unusual for our driver to work 7 days a week, 14 or more hours a day as a taxi driver before we hired him. If something should happen to his ability to drive the distance between his life as it is now and total destitution is frighteningly small.

So there seems to be an unwavering focus on the next step up, to the exclusion of those below. To divert any energy or money would potentially endanger one's own well-being and there is simply very little margin for error here.

Overlaying the bare economic facts is the residue of the caste system. (I should note here that my knowledge of caste in India is woefully inadequate. The subject is quite complex and contentious, but worth delving into. Even the Wikipedia page is a miasma, but I encourage you to look all the same.) Too many times I have heard wealthier Indians refer to their employees as "low people" or to beggars, street people, or other very poor people as "dirty". This is offered as some sort of explanation of why those people are as poor as they are, do the work that they have to do, or live the way that they have to live. For example, I have been told that the woman who cleans toilets on the street (but not ours! My one small corner of domestic maintenance is ironically least suitable for a woman of my social standing.) is "contaminated" by the work that she does and there for must not be allowed into any one's home. (The homes all have seem to have a door right near the bathroom so that the "sweeper" (the polite way to say poop-touch-er)will not walk through any other part of the house on her way to the toilet.) Circularly, then, it was explained to me that she must be a sweeper because that is what her family does and therefore she is from a "contaminated" family. So there's a sense of inevitability about it all. The sweepers give birth to sweepers and because the babies are born to sweepers they are destined to be nothing else. Even amongst our employees there is a hierarchy and the women who wash our clothes and clean the house are at the bottom. Again, at each step on the social ladder there is disdain for those below and a dogged determination to look only upward.

Reading this over I see my cynicism and have to admit that the grinding poverty that I see everyday is taking a toll. I don't mean to say that all Indians are selfish and self-promoting to the exclusion of all others, but honestly I see and hear so little to the contrary when it comes to the problem of poverty. It is maddening to try to really grasp the magnitude of the problem and then puzzle out even one small fragment of the solution, and that frustration is amplified in the face of so many people's indifference, if not outright disdain.

The ugly truth is that the middle and upper classes here live parasitically off of the poor. It is very comfortable and pleasant to be taken care of in the way that the upper classes are cared for in this country. But it is only because there are people who must do things like pull a rickshaw for a few dollars a day or clean a toilet for $.20 that the middle and upper classes can live as they do. And it is extremely unpleasant to actually have to admit that you live like royalty at the expense of many many other people. In the US we are shielded from this - we don't see the children making our clothes in sweatshops, we don't see the factory farms or the chemical plants that are responsible for the bounty in our supermarkets, or the ruined people and landscapes that produce all that we consume. Here, those people and places are everywhere. You can't avoid seeing them and passing them every single day. But in India, just as in the US I see exactly the same denial and excuse-making. Somehow it is more repulsive to me when it happens here, in such close proximity to the people the wealthy prey upon, but it is exactly the same phenomena when we buy conventionally farmed produce or sweatshop goods and tell ourselves that its really alright. We just have the luxury of distance to make our denial and excuse so much more convincing.

So, rant over, I guess the short answer is this: The upper and middle classes in India don't seem all that different from those in the US when it comes to dealing with poverty on an immediate, acute level - denial and excuse-making is the norm. The only real difference I see is the social custom of giving to charitable causes and the necessary infrastructure to support that impulse in the US.

I don't mean to condem my neighbors and friends here, nor do I at all mean to say that my dear readers, my family and friends are a pack of do-nothings gleefully living off of the poor - I know you're not. But I've had the blinders ripped off rather painfully here and I have a very difficult time keeping up the act any more. My only hope is that everyone who has read this far (all 2 of you!) will give at least a passing thought to some of the consumption choices you make today and evaluate the real costs of how we're living.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


...I guess we do have a bathtub.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Things that keep my children awake

There's only one entry because nothing else comes close:
Two nights ago the neighbors tore out bricks in the street, set up poles and a banquet tent for 100-200 people, and had a party / rock concert that went till about 10pm. On a weeknight. With a band that, um, wasn't good. Of course, they checked with
a. the local municipal authorities
b. all the neighbors
c. not a g-ddamn soul
before putting out five hours of 120+ decibels. Post your answers in the comments. Bonus--how thoroughly have the holes left by the torn up bricks been patched, as of this morning?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Things that keep me awake at night

1. The dogs barking
2. The train station 1km away which, I think, only lets engines use their horns between 2-4am
3. The temple next door chanting Sanskrit into a microphone for an audience of none at 4:30 am
4. The MARCHING BAND that the people down the street have hired to being awake? 2, 4, and 6 am, I mean c'mon what the heck now people?
5. The power going out and the inverter failing, = no fan and hothothot--this is actually getting better
6. Ben falling out of bed for the first time ever, actually I was already awake, so I got the full start to finish experience of being the worst parent in the world

Why can't all these things happen at once?



We are so pleased that Barak Obama won! It was positively awful going to sleep last night knowing it was all going to go down and we would miss it. It was with dread we called Aunt Shu, only to have our minds put at ease.

HOORAY!!! Guess we'll come home after all.

Another Ghat Another Friend

On Monday we set out to find the Learn for Life School in hopes of volunteering there. It is connected with one of our favorite haunts in the galis so we stopped there first for lunch. Being the slovenly Americans that we are we arrived after school had dismissed for the day, so we wandered down to the ghats instead. We hit Mir Ghat (4 down, 76 to go!) and met Kusbu (left) and Sunita (right). The girls said they both 12, but who knows... We talked for a good long while and Sunita tried to trade me her Canadian dollar for rupees. (As an aside, I think it is hugely awful for tourists to give beggar kids foreign currency. The kids are WORKING, and often for not very nice adults, and they NEED the money. Western pocket change is insulting.) Unfortunately I didn't have the roughly 50 rupees to trade her. We walked a bit together, admired 3 huge buffalo with shiny horns and then said our goodbyes.
We got our act together on Tuesday and turn up at the school around 10, only to discover Sunita! She was all smiles and right away took Caitlin under her wing, sat her down on her bench and introduced her to her friends. The attitude in the picture was nowhere to be seen. Ben was also swept up with the crowd, surrounded by a pack of bigger boys almost always. He and I eventually settled in next to a really little guy named Vishal who was struggling through copying out numbers and fending off pencil thieves. Ben and I defended him from the pencil-nabbers, helped with the writing and then read Cat in the Hat to him and few others.
The school is turning out to be its own adventure. Run by a German fellow it takes in the poor children from the area and teaches them for free, as well as providing 2 meals a day and medical and dental care for the kids and their families. Sounds like a great project and I'm eager to learn and see more of what they do. We were there only for snack and Hindi class so we didn't get a complete picture. As we were leaving elderly women downstairs were cooking lunch for the kids and the music teacher was supervising the delivery of tablas for music class. School begins at 7 with a yoga lesson and then runs from 8-2, covering English, Math, Social Studies, Music and Hindi. The kids want to be there for yoga so we'll get up early tomorrow and head down.
The school encourages tourists to show up and pitch in, but they really prefer folks who will be around longer. We met a German woman who has been there since Sept and will stay through Dec. The kids want to go 3 days a week and that feels about right to me. We have play group on a 4th day and given the trials of going anywhere and doing anything here that seems like plenty for now. If yoga and music at the school don't turn out to be worth much we may seek out our own lessons, but I'm hopeful that 3 days a week with a whole ton of kids will really help my own learn Hindi.

Sunday, November 2, 2008


Diwali, the Festival of Lights, was Tuesday. Hindus celebrate the return of Rama from exile and the triumph of good over evil on Diwali, as well as something about Lakshmi that I'm still not sure about. On Diwali most families make puja (an offering) at a temple, or if you're our landlord, the priest comes to your store and you do puja there. People exchange gifts of mostly sweets and decorate houses with lights. Many people also make rangolis, elaborate designs of colored powder, outside their homes. The one above was done by one of the Bucky Badger Gupta Aunties. The lights look like Chrismas times 1000, minus any goofy inflatable Santas or hanging globes of light (G'Boro, you know what I mean!). But the really big thing to do on Diwali is light firecrackers.

India being India you can buy everything from sparklers to the humongous things the fire fighters use in the shows for July 4 back at home. And all within a 3 minute walk from home! The days leading up to Diwali were pretty noisy, but Diwali itself was insane. Starting around dusk there were constant blasts from every direction. I can't say for sure, but maybe it was pretty close to being in a war zone with bombs exploding and guns firing all around.
We were invited to have dinner with our landlord and then watch and light firecrackers on the roof. But his puja went very late so we bounce between neighbors for a few hours before hand. The kids lit sparklers, roman candles, bottle rockets and spark-shooting-spinning things in various courtyards and in the street. We were invited in everywhere for snacks which was a great opportunity to finally sit down and get to know our neighbors, whom up until now we've only exchanged pleasantries with in the street.
Finally, back home our own show began. Uncleji had a comparatively small stash (Both Gupta families had large cardboard boxes FULL of firecrakers.) or maybe 2 dozen bottle rockets, 500 snappers and about a dozen of the huge real-deal fireworks. Chris was recruited to do the honors and seemed to enjoy his turn as fire-fighter. I'm sorry I don't have pictures, but even if I had brought the camera up I would've been too nervous to take a steady shot! It really was amazing though, to be up on the roof for over an hour and the whole time, in every direction see huge fireworks going off constantly.
The kids had been a bit morose about Halloween in India, but the Diwali afterglow more than carried them through the big day....

Get the Red Out!

The neighbors across the street decided to repaint their house for Diwali...

...and I couldn't approve of their color choice more!

They are now referred to as The Bucky Badger Guptas, as opposed to The Pharmacy Guptas, who live two houses down in a much more sedately painted house. There are 2 little Bucky Badger Guptas, Manu (9) and Pranav (6), who Ben loves to play with in the street. They have a lot of older friends who all play tag together and M and P have been Ben's entrance into a really fun group of boys. You'd think there'd be friction a big group of boys ranging from 4 to 17 but I've never seen or heard any. The older ones really look out for the little guys and keep things fun for everyone.


Varanasi is home to 80 ghats - literally "steps" - leading down to the Ganges. I hesitate to attempt any comparison to any sort of public space at home... the ghats accomodate anything and everything that happens in the street in the US, plus a whole lot more. We had lunch today at a great resturant overlooking Manasarowar Ghat and just a quick glance at the scene below included a temple with saddhus (holy men), men gambling, kids swimming in the Ganges, cows, cow pats drying in the sun in perfectly straight rows, water buffalo taking a dip (very near the swimming kids), boat wallahs waiting for customers, women selling various things, a public works project (no idea the goal - some guy was spraying the mud with a fire hose...), tourists, and families out for a walk.
We're trying to visit all of the ghats while we're here, on as many seperate occasions as possible. One could of course just start at one end of the city and walk all the way to the other, but that's no fun. In order to get to the ghats you have to wind your way through galis (pronounced "gullies", which is an apt image) and that's the most wonderful adventure.
So far we've racked up 3 ghats. At each ghat our goal is to befriend a local kid and take a picture with him or her. Our kids are a bit skittish around unfamiliar kids here, especially those who might be beggars or street kids or whatever, and I'm not saying that's a bad thing, but making friends at the ghats feels like a good way to balance the pretty big defence shield we have to have up at other times. We've had a lot of fun with it so far, as you can see....

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Central Institute for Higher Tibetan Studies

or, Where Does Chris Go All Day?
The front gate. (A word about the swastikas. In Sanskrit Swasti means luck, so the swastika is a lucky symbol. The observant will notice that these swastikas are 'backwards' versions of those used by the Nazis, but in reality, it was Hitler who co-opted the image and reversed it. The swastika is also a symbol of settled-ness and permanance so it is quite common to see them on houses and other buildings. I'm not quite to the point where I don't notice them anymore, but it is not nearly so jarring as it was at first.)

A couple of shots on the grounds.

Like the Deer Park, the Tibetan Institute is a bit of an oasis from the rest of India. Peaceful, quiet, not smelly and usually sparsely populated, all of which we like.

Two weeks back they had a sort of school talent show which we visited with Nisha's family. Each of the classes did a traditional Tibetan performance. Neat, but a bit baffling for the non-Tibet-ophiles among us.


Chris's Ladahki friends, from South India, Yeshe (left) and Chos Dak (right).

Gun-Gun's 5th birthday party.
[l-r: Caitlin, Gun-Gun, Vaishnavi, Shambavi, Ben, Ishu, Ishu's little brother, Shilpi (Manju's daughter), Bunti (Manju's son) and Gun-Gun's grandmother.]

And Gun-Gun and Ben...

HGTV in Varanasi, pt 2

I think we've gone a full week now without any sort of major home renovations, so it must be time to show pictures of the inside of the house. Keep in mind that just getting things like a kitchen counter and western toilet have been major undertakings so we haven't gotten around to interior decorating yet... And since these pictures were taken a while ago they don't all represent the current situation.

The Kitchen. The picture was taken before the counter top was installed. It is dark green marble with bright flourescent sky blue grout about an inch thick. Sweet! The stove works beautifully now that I know how not to blow it up, but no oven. Our doctor has invited me up to his house for baking though!
Bedroom 1. Right now we all sleep in here together. We use the A.C. at night not so much to keep cool anymore but rather to drown out the fireworks everyone is lighting in anticipation of Diwali. After Diwali the kids will move into the other bedroom, and Chris's office will merge with our room.
Bedroom 2. For now it is just Chris's office and a sort of storage room. The kids keep their stuff in the big cupboard and have a clothing shelf in there. Today we bought Ganesh statues to match the elephant tapestry the kids bought in Delhi, so they're eagerly anticipating moving in there and decorating.

Living Room/Dining Room. This is all looking a bit more pulled together now, but you get the idea. Just over Chris's left shoulder in the top picture is the door to our balcony which runs along the front of the house, overlooking the street. A nice place to sit, especially in the early morning or evening. The dining table is much more presentable and functional when pulled out from the wall and spruced up with a cloth (which is usually is!).

Entryway/Bathroom complex. Yes, we have too many shoes and no, we don't keep them all there anymore! The door in the foreground opens onto the shower room which now has hot water and no dirt (yay Chris!). The farther door is for the toilet, and I do mean the sort you all are thinking of. Can't tell you how happy this makes me! The front door then leads to another little balcony which overlooks the yard.

Stay tuned for interior decorating posts... there is much to be done and much already in place that deserves its own post.

, no


Food = Love
Where to start? Cooking is just the beginning. Manju comes everyday to make us lunch and dinner. (No, I have no idea how we got so lucky!) Every meal includes 3 or 4 dishes, one of which is always fresh homemade rotis or puris. Always delicious, never spicy, Manju's food dominates. The woman even learned how to make mac and cheese for the kids and held back her opinions of such a bizarre food.
I was really pretty homesick the first week or so we were here and there was no fooling Manju about it. She, through Chris, spent a long time talking to me about how my new Indian 'family' was here to take care of me, and how, if I was sad and cried, my 'sisters' (Manju, Sunita and our friend Nisha) would cry too. She sat and looked at our book of Madison pictures and my huge collection of pictures of friends and family back home, ooh-ing and ahh-ing in all the right places. Then, after extracting a promise that I wouldn't cry anymore, Manju intuited that the best way to comfort a Wisconsin girl was with fried cheese, so she whipped me up a batch of fresh deep-fried paneer. A few days later she rightly suspected that the malaise wasn't quite banished so she plied me again with fried food - eggplant this time. (Mom, I really did like it!)

Likewise when the kids are crabby she cuts up papaya or apples for them and teaches them Hindi tickling games. She also very patiently teaches me the Hindi names for all sorts of food and quizes me daily on time-telling in Hindi and counting. And if Caitlin's hair isn't braided by the time Manju arrives, she braids it for us.
She has 3 kids - a 4 yr old son and 2 daughters - 10 and 13. The eldest lives with her grandmother in Allahabad, but we got to meet the younger ones the other night at a party (more on that in another post). She's just a bit older than I am, but light years tougher. It really does feel like I've got a big sister on the scene now that we've gotten to know each other a bit better, which is such a wonderful thing.