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...