Sunday, October 30, 2011

Desert Camp"ish"

Diwali break started with our flight to Jodhpur.  After arriving, Tiffany, Gretchen and I were picked up by a driver who'd take us out to Manwar Resort where we stayed for three days.

Along the way to the resort, we saw a huge herd of camels.  Our driver asked if we wanted him to pull over.  There was no need to even ask the question.

I'm sure to the shepherds and locals, we looked crazy.  Kinda like it would look as if somebody stopped to take photos of a herd of cows or sheep but to us, it was just beautiful.

Then we drove onto our resort.  We stayed the first night at the resort where we enjoyed some drinks and entertainment.  The entertainment consisted of several musicians and singers and dancers.  At one point we were asked to dance.  Tiffany and I reluctantly joined them.  We danced 'round and joined in until I was told not to spin or jump because I was too big.  That was my cue to go back to finish my drink.  Gotta love honesty.

The next morning we got up early to go on a jeep safari with our guide for the week named Jagswant.  He was really happy we were teachers and we talked a lot about the opportunities education provides for people.  He's a strong believer in education being the means to changing lives and prioritizes school for his children.  This connection actually helped us out throughout our stay.

After our jeep safari, we went back to the resort and enjoyed the pool.  It was nice to lay in the sun, work on a little tan and then cool off in the chilly pool.  Truly luxury.  Late that afternoon, we packed up all of our things and rode our in another larger jeep into the Thar Desert.

We spent the second night in our luxury tent.  Actually not just one tent, two.  Jagswant had arranged for us to have two tents.  Lucky girls!

The tent reminded me of what it might have been like to been in a caravan traveling 'cross desert.  The quiet.  The white.  The edges cut like like jack-o-lantern teeth.   But then there were obvious differences like the flush toilet, that quickly reminded me that I was in a different time and place and just happy to be where I was.

We watched the sunset, enjoyed some music and ate dinner under the stars. We sipped gin and tonics and margaritas.  We snacked on paneer and peanuts and chicken tikka.  The entertainment was the same as the previous night.  Same group, same songs but this time since there was a larger group of mostly French tourists who were part of a larger tour group, we weren't obligated to dance and could just enjoy the night's beauty and each other's company.  Whew.  I didn't have to be a careful dancer two nights in a row.

After dinner, we walked back from to tent #2.  I had slid off my Havianas and was in my bare feet.  The cool sand felt wonderful.  The cool air temperature, the peace and quick, the darkness.   Maybe it was the drinks but it seemed that there were so many stars that you could see galaxies.  Seeing the night sky period is a luxury when you live in Mumbai.

Luxury camping.  Hotel in the desert.  Desert camp"ish."  Whatever you wanna call it, it was perfect.  

Gift Giving at Diwali

This may be a somewhat controversial post.  It's not that I'm trying to cause any trouble here, it's trying to understand Indian culture more and in particular giving gifts at Diwali.  

I'd heard on the bus and at school that during Diwali it's common to give the people who help you:  apartment building guards, garbage men and women, drivers, etc a Diwali gift.  There are about eight girls, some of whom ride my bus, who all live in the same building.  One morning ride, they chatted about how much they should give for their Diwali gifts so that each tenant would give the same amount from their building.  I get that.

I do live in a building with other ASB employees but the amount I heard they were giving, was I felt too much.  I've visited my friends' apartment buildings where guards open doors, carry items, sign you in and are awake at all times.  My building doesn't have or do those things.  It's not the cleanest.  My guards, if they are in the front of the building are usually asleep; be it 10 a.m., 2 p.m. or 10 p.m. and don't help me when I return from shopping with my arms full.

I believe that if people are helpful, then I'm more than happy to give extra.  Whether they be a rickshaw driver, delivery guy, guard, whomever, it's appreciated and I'll tip them for that extra service.

With the lack of service in my building, I decided to talk with my housekeeper Espe to get her advice as she's worked in the building a while and has worked for expats.  We started at one amount and then decided on another due to the performance.  She's honest and I asked her, "Am I being fair?"  She said I was so I felt confident with my decision.

Before I left for Diwali, I didn't connect with the building employees.  They weren't around for whatever reason.  So I anticipated having to connect with them when I returned after my trip. Yesterday they stopped by.

First the building cleaner stopped by.  She smiled and said, "Happy Diwali."  I knew this was my cue to give her my Diwali gift.  I gave the amount that we'd decided on.  She smiled and then gestured upstairs, toward my ASB colleagues apartments, opened and closed her hand to demonstrate she wanted more and that they had given her more.  I smiled and said, "Happy Diwali" again and waited.  She smiled and then walked away.

About two hours later, my building guard stopped by.  At this time I didn't have change so I told him I'd give him his gift later.  Again, I wanted to be fair.

Now here's where my background kicks in.  Being American, unless you're a child under the age of five, you just don't ask flat out for gifts.  I don't show up on my birthday to my family or friends and say, "It's my birthday," and expect gifts.  I've also lived in two other countries where I did give gifts at Christmas but again, they weren't asked for at all. So people showing up to my door at all is just different for me but I understand it's part of the culture so I wasn't put out by it.

I also haven't celebrated Diwali before.  I haven't lived in India, so I knew it'd be different here.  I wonder now if the building employees think that I'm a cheapskate.  Really it's not about that. I talked with ALOT of colleagues about how  much they were giving and it varies a lot depending on service and the number of employees in the building.  I want to be fair and give what I think it right.

I'm not sure what others have experienced in India or elsewhere but this is all new and I'm trying to take the new culture I'm living in, mix it with what I grew up learning and toss in my other experiences.  The blend isn't quite right but it's one I thought others, whether you live in Mumbai or across the globe, might learn a little from too.

Happy New Year!

Diwali Post #2.  Again, sorry about the timing being off.  This post is why I need to find a blogging host who plays nicely with my Ipad because I bring that when I travel.  Open to suggestions...

Pop.  Bang.  Honk.  Woosh.  

Honk.  Pop.  Bang.

Warmth.  Flames.  Darkness. Voices.  Light.

Pop. Honk.  Peace.  

Happy Diwali!

In the front garden of my hotel in Jodhpur, I'm celebrating Diwali. The Festival of Lights, the Hindu, Sikh and Jain New Year. A celebration of good over evil. A time for new beginnings and starting fresh. Gifts are exchanged. New saris are worn. Blessings are given.

The smell of the green grass is at my feet.  The bubbling fountain just steps away.  The creak of the swing is soothing.  

Three quick pops catch my attention.  

Despite all of the noise, this festival really has brought peace back into my life and reminded me of new beginnings.  I'm feeling renewed and centered and calm.  It feels quieter all around me or maybe it just seems that way being away from daily life.  
View photo.JPG in slide show
There are diyas round my door and at the top of the hotel.  On the floors are rangoli.  The marigold garlands hang between the hotel pillars.  The prayers are starting.  I hear them.  Peace seems to be holding us all tightly in her arms.  

Sparkle.  Glow.  Light.  The youngest guests and owners are twirling sparklers.  

The family that owns the hotel has invited all of the guests to join in their Diwali celebration.  

Sparklers.  Crackers.  Small fireworks.  Sweets and other treats.

Wishing you all a very Happy Diwali.  Whether it's something you celebrate or not, wishing you lots of peace and light and happiness in the new year or just to you right now.  

Saturday, October 29, 2011

New Year's with a Bang

This post is the first of two Diwali posts.  I just returned from a week long Diwali break, Internet was down and I'm catching up.  The timing's not quite right but I still wanted to share so please excuse the verb tenses and timings.  

The past couple of weeks have been leading up to Diwali.  The Festival of Lights.  New Years.   Diwali officially begins on October 24th.

We are actually beginning a week long holiday to celebrate Diwali.  I've started packing and while I wait for a final load of laundry to finish and listen to bangs and pops of fireworks; it's a great time to share some of the things I've learned and ways I've celebrated already.

One bang...decorations.
Decorating with garlands.
Close-up of the garlands, photo courtesy of Kelli Thexton

Rangoli artist, photo courtesy of Aimee Martins

Kelli, Andrea, Nancy and our first Diwali at ASB
Ganesha, rangoli and diyas.

Elementary girls with bindis before they dance, photo courtesy of Aimee Martins

Demons and Kings, photo courtesy of Aimee Martins

Two assembly.
Faculty and parent dancers, photo courtesy of Aimee Martins
The story of Ram and how he saved his wife Sita, photo courtesy of Kelli Thexton
Ram fighting the demons, photo courtesy of Aimee Martins
Good conquers evil, photo courtesy of Kelli Thexton
Three bangs...learning about lanterns.

Before I moved to India, I'd heard of Diwali but didn't know much about it at all.  Luckily, I've got my guides who've taught me lots along the way.

Last night I went with Heeru, Barbara, Andrea and Debbie to Mahim.  Another suburb of Mumbai.  Barbara and Heeru organized our visit to see lovely lanterns.
The characters reminded me of Korea.
Both sides of the street were lined with stalls.

Colorful rangoli flour
Heeru and Debbie
Heeru and Barbara with lanterns for the library

Lots of purchases.

Happy Diwali India!
I didn't wind up buying any lanterns this time round.  I did buy a rangoli template for next year though.

Outside my apartment window, it looks to me more like Christmas does outside Chicago.  There are strings of colored lights on balconies.  Lanterns also shine outside windows.

Four bangs...presents!
Diwali is also a gift giving holiday.  I didn't quite have my act together but my colleagues did.

Heeru's Diwali gifts.
I received chocolates and candles.

Diyas and sweets.  There were lots of commercials on t.v., ads on billboards and stores all showing everything you could buy your loved ones for Diwali.  From clothes to jewelry to cars.  It reminded me a lot of the ads on t.v. in the U.S. before X-mas.

Thanks to my teachers and friends who've made my first Diwali here very special.  Happy New Year!

One final bang.
Lately I've been reading a lot about reading and 21st century schools.  And I've learned a few things.

I realize that if people really want to know specifics about things, we can just Google them so I haven't given a lot of background in this post.  I'm leaving up to the interested parties to gather the info as I think there are lots of great sources who share it much more accurately and just plain better than I can.  You'll see there are hyperlinks throughout so learn as much or as little as you like.

Also, that this post is really long.  In a world where we point and click so quickly, posting something like this isn't kosher.  So, I'm working on shorter posts and working on changing up my blog a bit to reflect that.  Please bear with me as I make those changes as I think we'll all like this a lot more.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Watching the Paint Dry

Actually, the paint's dried.

The curtains are ordered.

The dishes are microwave and dishwasher proof.  Hope that means if I drop one that counts since I'm the dishwasher...

My apartment's feeling homier and homier every day.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

I Can't Stop Staring at my Hands

That probably sounds strange but it's true.  When I'm writing, typing, washing them or dishes, I keep catching myself looking at my hands.  Here's why:

Mehndi is a henna tattoo.   It's a traditional kind of art. Many times brides and their female family members and friends have applied to their hands and feet a few days before their wedding.  The tradition among the artists is passed down through families.  I

On Wednesday evening, also my dad's birthday, a small group of girls got together for a mehndi party.  Tiffany and Maribel shared amazing food and organized for the artists who'd visited their Kindergarten class during the day to treat us to have our own turn.

Delicious samosas and sweets and chutney.

Tiffany, our hostess taking advantage of her one dry hand.  
You  have to wait for it to dry so the henna becomes darker.
It can take an hour or so to dry.
Maribel, aka Miss India
The start of my mehndi
One palm done.  Two sisters shared the work on my hands.
One did the palms and larger flowers while the other did the details and shading.
Palms are done!  

They used small plastic bags to squeeze out the henna.

Many of us had two people painting our hands at the same time.
Heeru's attempt at me showing off my mehndi.
She gave me a bridal photo shoot.  I need to work on my dancin' finger positions.

Heeru told me a few things about mehndi when I came to school on Thursday.   She told me that the stronger the color is of your henna, the more your husband loves you.  Or for us single girls, the more passionate you are.   I've heard that the henna can last from one to three weeks.  We'll see on my pale skin what happens.

Okay, the end of this post has come.  One final glance down at the flowers on my fingers and peacock feathers on my palms before I need to start my day.

Spelunking Holiday

Two weekends ago we had a three-day weekend.  I went to Aurangabad, India which is in the same state as Mumbai.

Outside of Aurangabad are some amazing caves.  The Ellora and Ajanta caves.   This is the draw to the area.  Aurangabad also has the Bibi Ka Maqbara which was created by a prince in honor of his mother.  His father built the Taj Mahal for the same woman.  She was definitely loved.

My first Indian holiday was definitely just what I needed.  The weekend shared:
  • great people (my traveling companions Bobbi Jo and Andrea along with 7 other wonderful ASB faculty members who we bumped into and hung out with throughout the weekend).

  • unbelievable Buddhist, Jain and Hindu temples.  Seriously, how did they make these so long ago?

Elephants and pillars, Ellora
Bobbi Jo's favorite animal and becoming one of mine as well.

I loved everyone's clothing colors against the colors of the rocks.

The caves were so incredibly dark.

Amazing paintings.  No flash photos allowed so not so easy to capture.

photo by Andrea Johnston
  • scenery.  There is an incredible India outside of Mumbai that reminds me so much of the Cerrado in Brazil.

Boys doing some crab fishing.
  • a real break from everything.   The challenges, the noises, the chaos, the intensity.
 Here are a few highlights from our trip:
  • having a bad case of the church giggles when the doorbell rang for 10 minutes while Bobbi Jo tried to sleep and two hotel employees tried to save her ("No problem madam.",
  • laughing and chatting with 10 ASB friends in one hotel room while enjoying "grape juice" on a dry day, 
  • sipping on a delicious Fosters on a dry day at the Ajanta Caves,
Andrea and I and some nice cold Fosters, photo by Bobbi Jo using Andrea's camera
  • eating delicious tandori (aka "The Sizzer") and fresh lime sodas with friends,
  • feeling like celebrities as everyone wanted their photo taken with us and some even had us hold their babies,

They wondered why we wanted a photo with someone with such dark skin.
Photo by Andrea Johnston
Photo by one a local using Andrea's camera
Meet my new family, photo by Andrea
  • feeling peace inside the caves.  The type I haven't had in a long, long time.

  • seeing India's wildlife:  spider-like chipmunks with accompanying theme songs, camels, cows and crabs.

Spider chipmunk is in the center of the photo.  Can you find him?
  • sunning and splurging as friends treated us to a poolside afternoon at their hotel,
  • playing charades to entertain ourselves and other travelers both at the Aurangabad airport and on the airplane back to Mumbai.
I gave this weekend...
And for those of you Eat, Pray, Love fans, yes that is what you think it is.  photo by Andrea Johnston