KANDALAMA PART 1: Buddhism and Outdoor Paradise (Though not Necessarily in that Order)

Once again, here I am starting a blog entry from the bus! We’re currently en route through the beautiful, green, palm tree-studded Sri Lankan countryside from our day at Minhitale back to our amazing hotel in Kandalama, which was designed by renowned Asian architect Geoffrey Bawa. The place is absolutely gorgeous, built as it is into the side of a mountain slope, with sections of the building cut away to make room for gigantic naturally occurring boulders and rockfaces covered with foliage. There are lots of open air balconies and a few places where there are bird’s nests around light fixtures. The view from the place is breathtaking. This morning I looked out for the first time at the mountains and lake (“tank”) in the distance, and saw two people riding an elephant through the shallow shore-adjacent water. 
Morning in the hotel's cooridoors

Sunset in Kandalama

Anyway, yesterday we arrived in Sri Lanka after a very stressful stint in the Trivandrum airport and then a very relaxing, nearly empty flight across the water in a huge plane where Karinsa and I (the only two from our trip in our section of seats) sat reading about Sri Lankan food and about the country’s recommended must-see sights and not-to-be-missed activities. 
We were met at the airport by Ramya, who we were all very happy to see (she had been with us in Texas and has been in touch consistently as we’ve traveled through India. She took us to our bus, which delivered us to a nearby Taj hotel for lunch. My first taste of Sinhalese food was AMAZING! I had some delicious, coconutty fish curry alongside red rice (a welcome break from India’s white rice fetish), green beans sautéed with garlic and chili oil and maiok curry (sort of like sweet potatoes, only yellow in color, chewier, and apparently this is the plant that tapioca comes from). For dessert there was a light traditional brown caramel custard with nuts, which was excellent. 
From lunch we went to visit the Slimline garment factory. Ramya had been amazing in meeting our needs and making our requests possible, and we had asked to see a factory after a lecture in Texas about women and sweatshop labor. I figured before the visit that the place would be pretty nice, considering they were letting us visit (I’m assuming that the owners of a place that really abuses its workers wouldn’t necessarily let a bunch of foreigners in to poke around). I was right. My first impression of the facility was that it was extremely new and clean and corporate. We were taken to the board room, where managers in shirts and ties introduced us to their products. Hanging on the wall behind the conference table were rows and rows of Victoria’s Secret panties!

We learned that this particular company, which is Sri Lanka’s largest single employer, produces one third of Victoria’s Secret’s merchandise.  I was shocked and immediately wanted to start looking at the tags in my underwear to see if what I was wearing was made in Sri Lanka. After a brief presentation that included a lot of information about the business model the company uses and which (of course) highlighted the company’s many awards and many gifts to the surrounding community.
After the brief introduction, we were taken on a factory tour, where we were first told we couldn’t take pictures (due to confidentiality of design and process secrets, which is completely understandable), but the manager chimed in and told us that, for us, photography would be okay. For those who know Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, which I’m guessing is most of you, I imagined Slugworth coming up to me and proposing to pay me off for some of the everlasting gobstopper secrets (or, in this case, the wonderbra or the see-through panty). . . . It’s a funny image, right?!
The factory itself wasn’t a “sweatshop,” though the hours of repetitive activity are long and tough for the workers, I’m sure (especially the standing positions, considering nobody wears shoes inside the factory). The facilities were very modern, air conditioned, sterile buildings (the manager said the company has been criticized by other companies because they provide air conditioning). The girls (only about 10 percent of the workers in this industry are men) were sitting or standing at various machines, sewing away frantically at multicolored pairs of undies. The general expectation, we were told, was that the women would sew the part about 300 pairs of panties in an hour. Each style of underwear had its own teams, and among the members of the team the responsibilities were divided so that someone might be doing basic construction, someone might be on lace and another person on elastic, for example. There were inspection stations and women doing packaging, as well.







We noticed that all of the women were in matching uniforms except that some had different colored head scarves. We learned that trainees wear the orange scarves for about three months, until they can pass a test that requires them to sew well. Interviewees also take a sewing test (though they can be taught to sew if they don’t do well on that portion of the interview), and the interview also requires that they pass a “sweat test,” in which they are sequestered in a special separate room and are asked to stand doing a job like the one they’ll be doing for a certain number of hours at a time (five hours, the manager said). This is to see if they sweat profusely, because if they do, they can’t be hired because they might soil the garments.
There were also yellow head scarves to indicate women who are pregnant. The managers explained that this is so that, should an evacuation be necessary, the workers will know not to push these women in the midst of the rush for the doors. They also said that the yellow scarves will indicate that it is permissible for those individuals to have more bathroom breaks than usual. The usual shift is eight hours, with one half hour lunch break (and lunch is provided in their cafeteria free of charge) and two fifteen minute rest breaks. 
All in all, I was impressed by the facility and by what appeared to be very worker-friendly labor conditions. The managers consistently stressed that the women are important assets to their business, that they are very people-oriented as a company, and that they listen to their employees. Ramya, it turns out, actually worked at this very same factory in the past, as a manager right after she graduated from college. She confirmed that the working conditions were really as good for the women as they looked. She also said that this company is a really important part of the local economy, and is very important to the women who work there. In addition to their wages (about $25 USD per month, which is apparently very competitive here in Sri Lanka’s job market), women are given health care by a resident doctor. While this health care does cover both well visits for check-ups and visits for illness or injury, and while it does cover prenatal care, it doesn’t cover any other family members. The women also receive access to an on-site gym (which is also used by local schools and the surrounding community, as well as some national sports teams), and they also receive free transportation from their villages to and from work. 
I thought that after going into a garment factory I would feel guilty about purchasing foreign-made factory garments. However, the experience had quite the opposite affect on me. Instead of feeling like the low-wage workers were being exploited, I felt like these women were being given an opportunity to become breadwinners for their families if necessary, or an opportunity, more commonly, to work for a little while to save up money for college or for marriage. It seems, in many ways, that the garment industry is to young women in Sri Lanka (the average age of workers is 18 to 21, and the average worker stays only about a year) what the call center is to young adults in India. It’s not black and white, of course, and there are still elements of garment work or call center culture that give me pause, but all in all, I better understand how these types of jobs benefit local communities. It’s important to remember, though, that the less you pay for your garments, the less likely it is for the workers who made them to have been well paid or to have had safe working conditions. Victoria’s Secret contracts with this particular company because they have good labor practices. Wal-Mart, on the other hand, sells you things that are cheaper in large part because they don’t care what kind of working conditions their products are being made in (think back to the Kathie Lee Gifford clothing line scandal).
After leaving the garment factory (and we all agreed that the visit was well worthwhile), we piled back into the bus, which was stacked nearly to the roof with our ridiculous towers of luggage, and set off for the three and a half hour drive to our resort hotel. Along the way, we stopped at a local bar for a potty break, and I wandered across the street to take my very first snapshot of the lush green Sri Lankan countryside. 
It wasn’t much longer and we’d arrived at our hotel, the Heritance Kandalama, shrouded in jungle. Walking to my room (and it was a long walk), I was surprised to see bats swooping up and down the hallways, which are all open to the jungle air, and to see the ceiling studded with little scurrying lizards. Next to the reception desk is a sign cautioning adventurous guests that wild elephants troll the area around dawn and dusk. The only elephant I saw in the area, however, was the one Samantha and I stumbled upon while trying to take a walk around the tank one day. She was chained in a little clearing (not much bigger than she was) by two chains on one front and one back leg. We had been walking when we suddenly heard a noise in the brush and gasped when we turned and realized it was an elephant. She came over to us at first, curious, I think, about who we were and whether we might have snacks on us. Soon she realized that we were boring and turned back to munching on a palm leaf. Seeing her chained up like that, however, definitely killed any desire I had to indulge in an elephant ride (she was chained because the hotel used her to give tourists rides). The pictures I snapped also convinced a few other people that the elephant trek was NOT the way to go!

Speaking of hotel stories, I have to say that this is definitely a place with some serious monkey troubles! I knew there would be monkeys around, but was startled when I was in the bathroom with its huge half-wall windows (it’s like showering outside) and a monkey swung right past the window. Mary was still in bed (she’s my roomie for this stretch), but I gasped loudly at the sight! When I went downstairs for breakfast, I heard two stories of monkey encounters that has occurred in my colleagues’ rooms this morning. The first story involved Samantha’s wet clothes, which she’d hung out on the balcony the night before to dry. When she went to grab them off the balcony in the morning, she found herself unexpectedly playing tug-of-war with a monkey, who was yanking on the other side of the fabric and chewing on her outfit. The second story occurred in Karen and Julie’s room, where Julie was in the shower while Karen was taking care of some things in the room. She heard a rustling behind her, and turned to see that a mischievous monkey had broken into her room and sat munching on sugar packets and tea on the desk next to the sliding glass door. He jumped off the desk and sprinted for the balcony, where he met a buddy and shared his booty. 
I told Mary both stories after breakfast on our first morning at the hotel to cheer her up because she woke up feeling terrible. From our last day in Trivandrum through the first day of our time in Sri Lanka, the end of her nose had been getting increasingly red and swollen, and yesterday she wasn’t her usual cheery and hilarious self. We were all worried when she opted out of the first evening’s session on Buddhism to have a doctor come to see her (she said the pain and swelling started to spread into her gums and teeth and cheeks). The doctor told her it was a bacterial infection that started from a little sore she’d had inside her nostril a few days earlier. She asked if it could have been related to our crazy swim in the Arabian Sea, and he said it was possible but that it could just as easily be from the pollution in the air in India (shocking, right?!). He gave her antibiotics and told her she shouldn’t come on our site visit the next day. She was planning to stay at the hotel and relax and let the antibiotics do their thing, but when she woke up in the morning she was much MUCH worse. She didn’t even look like herself because the top half of her face was so red and swollen, and she had big inflated bulges under her eyes like those puffy Japanese goldfish. Needless to say, she was scared! Luckily, the Sri Lankan Fulbright folks are really attentive. They had a representative from the organization drive the four hours from Colombo to pick her up at the hotel and take her to the hospital in Colombo to a specific doctor they know and trust. Over breakfast they were even talking about calling to alert the embassy’s nurse practitioner (I had no idea there was such a thing, but it’s good to know!). She’s been overnight in Colombo for three nights, and will be there for one more before rejoining us in Kandy for the second leg of our journey. We’ve talked to her intermittently, and she’s said she’s finally doing better, though there was a moment when she said she woke up feeling worse in the middle of the night and started plotting about what it would take to get in touch with the embassy and orchestrate an emergency evacuation. The scary thing was that the infection was so close to her eyes and brain, and she said the people at the hospital were very nice but the facilities were very basic. They suggested doing a tissue culture but she decided that she wasn’t feeling too good about surgery in a foreign country. However, despite her low points, it seems she’s on the mend sufficiently enough that they’re agreeing to let her out of the hospital (she’s been begging every day to leave, of course, because she can’t stand missing the journey). It’s especially sad that this crazy chance infection happened when it did, when we’re finally in a place that provides so much time to be outdoors, which I know she loves as much as I do. I’m taking lots of pictures to share with her when she finally rejoins the group!
Back to our arrival. . . . When we arrived at our hotel we had a dinner that definitely ranks as my very favorite hotel buffet of the trip thus far. There were all kinds of local and Indian dishes, as well as stations outside on a patio under the stars offering fresh grilled chicken skewers, stir-fried prawns with an orange-garlic sauce and hoppers, which are a local specialty much like the Southern Indian dosa (a very thin rice flour pancake almost like a crepe), but made in a three dimensional rounded shape by being cooked in small, hot cast iron bowls. I had an egg hopper, which meant that they cracked an egg into the bottom and cooked it in the hopper. It was eggy in the bottom and crisp around the edges and delicious all over! 
After dinner, we had a lecture on Buddhism that gave us a little background for the sessions we’d be having over the next few days. The session was led by Dr. SinhaRaja Tammita-Delgoda, who, it turns out, is an absolutely brilliant teacher (he has taught at the University of Michigan as a Fulbright scholar in the past, and at other colleges in the U.S. as well). Almost all of our sessions up to this point have been lectures, meaning that a very intelligent and well-respected expert in his or her field talks at us, the vessels waiting to be filled, pouring knowledge into the receptacles of our empty minds. While I did learn from the lectures we had in India, I really prefer a much more active learning style, and our sessions with SinhaRaja have been true learning experiences with a man who is a teacher instead of a lecturer. The experience of going from a month of straight lecture to an interactive, experiential learning environment has really underscored for me the importance of active teaching strategies that involve students as much as possible as active learners. My school, for those who don’t know, is affiliated with Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound, an organization wholly devoted to experiential learning. Thus far, my experiences in Sri Lanka have embodied the expeditionary learning model. 
On our first night in he country, we met for an hour long discussion about the origins or Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Instead of just talking at us, SinhaRaja began that night to make us active participants with responsibility for our own ongoing learning processes. He asked us questions that related to what we’ve been learning about Indian Buddhism and asked us to compare and contrast elements of Buddhism with elements of Hinduism, and to compare elements of Buddhism in India with those of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Indian Buddhism, we came to recognize, is heavily influenced by Hinduism. The images we saw of the Buddha in India were extremely ornate and often surrounded by gods. In Sri Lankan Buddhism, on the other hand, the images SinhaRaja shared with us were sparsely decorated (if at all), and were usually solitary and depicted as being much less active than their Indian counterparts. 
The basic introduction that we were taken through on that first evening served as a backdrop for our ventures into the field. On Wednesday morning, we departed for our visit to Mihintale, where Sri Lankan Buddhism began. In stark contrast to the Kanheri Caves at Sanjay Gandhi National park, these caves embodied a philosophy of coexistence with nature in its truly natural state. At the Kanheri Caves, we had seen dwellings of multiple rooms carved into the hillsides with elaborately carved furniture cut from the rock, and even the path of the waterfall had been altered to create pools for bathing and gathering drinking water. Stairways had been carved from the hills, and the temples were adorned with ornate carvings, with the most ornate carvings being the depictions of the donor couples at the entrances to the temples. 
At Mihintale, the scene was strikingly different. The “caves” were completely natural spaces created by once tumbling boulders. The Buddhists who originally “built” the monastery only moved a few rocks that were in the way in order to create bigger spaces under the largest of the boulders and carved “drip ledges” into the boulders to help direct rainwater off of the rocks and out of their living spaces. 


On the left, you can see detail of a drip ledge.  Below the line, if you look carefully, you can see the name of the donor who sponsored the cave (in Sinhalese, of course).
We pulled out our readings about the place and about the origins of Buddhism, and we sat outside under shady trees with SinhaRaja discussing the philosophy behind the place and the tenets of Buddhism in general. At its most basic level, Buddhism is very much counter to the hedonistic consumer culture that rules Western values today, and is also very different from most organized religions. Whereas every other religion I can think of is governed by a clearly defined hierarchy and set of rules, Buddhism allows for a lot more self-determinism. The basic idea is to renounce attachments to this world in favor of the middle path. Before he became the Buddha, Siddhartha was a very sheltered prince. When he finally left the palace of his youth and encountered the pain and suffering that are inherent in human life, he went searching for a guru to help him understand and mitigate that suffering. Eventually, through meditation (forty days under the bodhi tree), Siddhartha became the Buddha and began teaching others what he had learned, that all suffering comes from desire and attachment. If you don’t desire anything, you can never be disappointed or dissatisfied, and if you are never too attached to things or people, you can never long for them or be hurt by them. The ultimate goal of the Buddhist, though it may take many lives, is to reach nirvana, which is not like heaven (which is how it is often portrayed), but rather an emptiness and nothingness, where the person who has achieved that state will cease to be reincarnated, having broken the chains of samsara (eternal suffering) and will instead become one with everything. If you’re interested in learning more about this stuff, The Dhammapada is a great resource. It’s basically a text from the third century B.C. that lays out the main components of Buddhist philosophy (I’d recommend the Penguin Classics translation by Juan Mascaro. . . . Carlin – you should seriously check this out because I think you’d love it).  
I will add, before I move on, that there’s a lot of wiggle room in Buddhist philosophy. Essentially, determining the middle path is an individual’s solitary challenge. Sri Lankans, it seems, love their alcohol, but they can decide on an individual basis what it means to drink in moderation (and Sri Lanka is the country with the highest per capita consumption of alcohol). That individual determination goes for all of Buddhism’s tenets. It is clearly stated in Buddhist texts that a Buddhist should not harm animals, for example. This doesn’t, however, mean that every Buddhist must be a vegetarian. It’s up to every individual how he or she interprets the middle path on that issue. 
After some discussion about the site and about Buddhism in general, we were asked to go out and find a spot in one of the caves and to attempt to clear our minds and meditate. This was the perfect model of expeditionary learning – to learn about a concept and then go out to practice it. As I walked through the caves, I was struck by both how different and how similar there spaces were to spaces I’ve visited in the United States.  The giant boulders were not unlike places I’ve been before, like a combination of the rocky boulders of the Appalachian Trail and Shenandoah National Park (think about the rock scramble- top of Old Rag if you’ve ever been there) mixed with the scale of the boulder fields in New Mexico and the proximity of the towers in Bryce Canyon or the slot canyon carved by the Virgin River in Zion National Park. Seeing similarities made me miss the woods at home and the friends I can coax into hikes (Katryna, Lisa, Mette, Amy, Lolo, Meica, Leah, M.M. in the past tense, and etc.). 

The view from my meditation spot (notice Karinsa meditating on the next boulder!)
I found a vacant boulder to perch upon and tried to clear my mind. What I ended up with was a sort of slide show montage of landscape images and memories of places I have been and loved (all of the above places plus the Kalaulau Trail in Hawaii, the arctic Canadian landscape and the rolling hills of central Mexico). It was extremely peaceful to sit there in the wind in easy pose on the top of a rock that’s been used for Buddhist meditation for over 2000 years while I let the images wash through my mind without dwelling too much on any one. I also tried using some of the meditation techniques I learned from Kim at Charm City Yoga during last year’s Deeping Your Practice workshop. The only thing that was tough was having a specifically delineated time limit on our meditation. It’s hard to really concentrate, not to mention that it’s completely counter to the point of meditation, when you know you need to be watching the clock!
After our little meditation session and debrief, we headed down from the hills the caves were set in and over to some of the other, more planned and more recent, structural ruins.   On the way, we ran into some giant squirrels, one of which was being fed by a young monk.


The refectory

One of the most interesting places there was the refectory, which was where the monks would eat. Among the ruins was a giant trough carved in stone, which would apparently be used as a sort of long dish for cooked rice. 

At each mealtime, it seems, the trough would be filled to the top with rice, and the monks would come to dinner and serve themselves from the cache.  There was also a slightly smaller trough that was, essentially, the world’s largest gravy boat, as it was used to hold whatever vegetables and/or sauce was being served as an accompaniment to the rice. 

We took a little tour of the site and talked a little about the massive stone tablets that stood upright amid the ruins proclaiming the very specific rules of the monastery and surrounding community. 


Detail from the tablets of monastic "rules"

Notice, in these pictures, the simplicity of the architecture compared to the Kanheri Caves.

Once we’d contemplated and discussed the site, we hopped back into the bus and hit the road for lunch at a local hotel’s restaurant. It seems, according to both my guidebook and to our Sri Lankan guides, that Sri Lankans generally don’t eat out much, if at all. There are few restaurants in the country for this reason, which means that tourists mostly eat at their hotels. After eating, we headed back to Mihintale, but this time to visit Kaludiya Pokuna (Black Water Pond), which I absolutely loved. The interesting thing about this particular site was the way that the Buddhists who built it allowed so much of the original organic shape of the land to remain intact, and at the same time how much symmetry and balance they were able to achieve in their landscape architecture without disturbing much of the natural environment. I took a series of pictures that I think give a unique perspective of symmetry at the site, some of which one can assume is intentional, and some of which is naturally occurring. This has been a point of fascination for me for the last few days now. 




After returning to the hotel and having a lovely dinner outside on a rooftop terrace under the stars, I headed back to my room and fell asleep in my giant king size bed (no Mary meant I had my double room transformed into an instant single) in no time. 
Because I’m so verbose (SORRY!), this is the end of Part I about our stay at Kandalama. Read on for the second half of the story!
Love and butterflies,
Callie/ Ms. Cook
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TRIVANDRUM: Swimming in the Arabian Sea

Thiruvananthapuram was a quick two day sprint, and now we’ve left India and I’m writing from the bus on the way to our hotel in Sri Lanka, which is verdant and mountainous, covered in green palm trees and resplendent with fresh air. I think all of us have been excited by our break from city life! 
Though it’s hard to remember what day of the week it is at this point in the trip (weekends don’t exist in Fulbright world because there’s way too much to see and do), Yael and I worked out that today is Tuesday, which means that we left Bengaluru for Trivandrum early Sunday morning. I woke up and turned on CNN IBN (the Indian version of CNN) to catch a little news, only to discover that the death and injury toll in Saturday’s bombings in Ahmadabad (which I’d heard about briefly from our host the night before) had gone up overnight, and that the Indian Mujahadeen had taken responsibility for both those 17 bombings and Friday’s multiple bombings in Bengaluru. It was clear from the locations of the blasts, the news reported, that the culprits intended to inflict as much of a human toll as possible. Some of Saturday night’s bombs had even been planted near hospitals, which are always busy places for vulnerable people. The email messages they had sent to the media called the Hindus “idol worshippers” and claimed that the slew of recent bombings were retaliation for the violent destruction by Hindus of a Muslim Guajarati mosque several years ago. 
It’s hard to fight biases against Muslim people when extremist groups like the Mujahadeen continue to engage in such destructive activities. As a teacher, I try to teach my very xenophobic students to be more open-minded. I fuss at them when they say negative things about people of other races and religions, and I try to make curricular decisions to include diverse opinions and viewpoints whenever I can. However, it’s tough to fight for a positive image for the peaceful Muslim majority when a minority of extremist Muslims, who are obviously not religious people in the way I define religion, continuously create violence in the name of progress for their people. With all of these thoughts rolling around in my mind, I went to breakfast and read the newspaper for a while in silent contemplation. There is more and more, I think, to be said for the benefits of Buddhism, which advocates that elusive middle ground, peacefulness and calm without extremes (Carlin, this approach makes me think of you, and yes, you can consider that a compliment!). 
I found myself reflecting on the many lectures we had heard during our time in India, and especially the religion panel we’d had all the way back in Delhi. Representatives of all of the religions we’ve been studying have told us again and again about how accepting they are, and how focused on non-violence. I considered that all religions and religious texts have as a basic tenet at the most elemental level (and correct me if I’m wrong), peacefulness and kindness and decency toward others. There is no religion that, at its most basic level, advocates the destruction of others; there are only people who have perverted religion to make it violent for selfish, destructive needs. This theory of mine goes for every faith that I can think of (except Buddhism – correct me if I’m wrong, but I can’t think of a single war started by Buddhists), and it made me angry thinking about what people do in the name of twisted supposed faith. I thought that morning of people like Gandhiji, Mother Teresa and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, and I realized that I consider them truly religious human beings. The struggle and the test behind any claim of faith, I think, is to truly live by the principals of nonviolence that embody the base of every one of the world’s major religions. 
It makes me angry that people can’t live the principles they claim to hold dear. Everyone we talked to about religion in India spoke of nonviolence and talked extensively of their openness and understanding of
We enjoyed a seamless check-in orchestrated beautifully by Gagan (who I’m already missing terribly, as braving the airport this morning for an international flight without him was mayhem and logistical torture). As we cruised into the small airport, our tiny airplane windows showcased deep green foliage that was completely different (and much more abundant) than what we’d seen before. The plethora of palm trees looked like an undulating sea of frilly green stars as we watched it come into focus and then grow up over our heads.
We boarded the bus in short order and then headed to our hotel, the Taj Green Cove Resort, which was a beautiful tropical paradise, albeit a paradise during a very tumultuous monsoon season, which meant that the beach was invisible because the water was too high and the seaful of roaring waves was largely unswimmable. We could see fat yellow coconuts on the trees around us, and the communities we had passed seemed small and calm. We learned later on that the state of Kerala (where Trivandrum is located) is the Indian state with the highest standard of living, so it follows that there were fewer beggars and fewer people who appeared to be living in impoverished conditions (the literacy rate there is 91%, which matches that of Sri Lanka). All in all, it was worlds apart from Delhi, and so different that the two cities seemed like they could be located in different countries altogether. I wonder, sometimes, if that’s how visitors to the U.S. feel. Hawaii is nothing at all like Kentucky, which is nothing at all like Maine, which I hear is very different from Colorado, and I’m quite sure that Alaska is a world unto itself! 
After a rushed lunch buffet, we headed back to the bus for a few cultural visits. Most notably, we visited the Kanakakunnu Palace, which was full of beautiful carved rosewood ceilings, pillars, imported wall-sized Italian mirrors (think of the mirror that shows what it is that you most want in the first Harry Potter book), courtyards and art from all over the world. 

Artsy photos of intriguing architecture


The sad thing about visiting places like this is that I see all of these amazing historical artifacts that tell important stories about the country’s past, and then I see that there aren’t resources available to keep them up the way they deserve to be kept if they’re really to be available for future generations. This particular palace, for example, was marked by the all-too familiar smell and twitter of bats (and, in case I haven’t described it, bats exude this pungent, slightly sweet, musky urine smell that seems to fill the corners of a smattering of rooms in most of the archeological and historical buildings we visit. Of the palace’s hundred and some rooms, only about thirty are open to the public, with the rest closed off and dilapidated and in complete disarray from what we could see through various open windows when we looked out from the side of the building that we were touring. The rooms of the palace were warm, humid and musty, too, which made me worry about the longevity of the priceless paintings adorning its walls. It’s also interesting to add that very few of the museums we’ve visited have catalogues of their holdings. This is extremely problematic for someone who wants to do research on Indian art, especially when coupled by the fact that we aren’t allowed to take photos in most of the museums, either. Some even outlaw drawing, which to me seems completely nonsensical, because what are museums for if not research? 

As we were leaving, I noticed this crazy chipmunk perched on a banana tree blossom having a snack. . . . I couldn't resist putting him up on the blog (this one goes out to my crazy, rodent-loving family!). . . . On the right is a jackfruit growing above our heads. . . . These things are HUGE and could probably knock you out if you happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time!
A side note here is that I’m thinking about a future potential Fulbright grant proposal that would allow me to study and catalogue the variety of ancient circular designs used in Indian art. I’m especially interested in these designs because they are strikingly similar to (and sometimes even exactly the same as) the pre-Columbian spindle designs I fell in love with during my visit to Chalula (the oldest site of North American civilization) during my 2004 Fulbright trip to Mexico and Canada. These commonalities among the art and symbolism of cultures on opposite sides of the globe remind me about who writes our history texts. The history I learned was clearly ridiculously biased toward the European conceptualization of civilization and world development. When the same design concepts appear in both ancient India and pre-Columbian Mexico, it becomes clear evidence for me that ancient people forged paths through our oceans and visited other continents. Meanwhile, my childhood textbooks told me that continents were first “discovered” by European explorers more than 1000 years A.D. I am ashamed to say that, while I consider myself to be a fairly educated person, and while I’ve known for years that Europeans didn’t so much “discover” continents so much as they happened to stumble and trespass onto them,
I have never extrapolated what I know to consider that advanced ancient civilizations in places we now call “third world countries” were probably capable of intercontinental travel. The whole thing blows apart my preconceived notions of history and makes me want to pursue opportunities to study more, though I have to admit that I often question whether I have the right to entrench myself deeply in studying another culture’s artistic history or to use their symbolism in my own art. What right do I have, as some white girl from the United States, where I have no connection whatsoever to my own supposed cultural heritage (I know nothing more than that my ancestors came from Germany, Czechoslovakia, Switzerland and Wales), to appropriate another culture’s ancient art and cultural heritage? The same types of questions arise for me when I wonder whether I should have been learning the Miami language from the Miami Tribe or whether I am really the person who should be teaching my African American students in Baltimore City. Would my black students be better off with black teachers? It’s hard to say. And, if I don’t teach them, who will? If I don’t borrow art from other world cultures, what do I have left to borrow that is my own - McDonalds’ arches and the Wal-Mart logo?
As usual, I digress. After leaving the palace, many of my colleagues were back to bugging Gagan and crazy Fayaz, who had rejoined our group as a USEFI representative, to teach them some cricket. We stopped the bus so Gagan and Fayaz could run off and buy a cricket bat and some tennis balls from a little shop, and then we headed for the putting greens on the hotel grounds, where all of the potential cricketers started their lessons and I took a little walk to an absolutely breathtaking nearby lagoon to take some photos. 
Calendar quality shots, right?!
Soon the monsoon sky overhead decided to crack open, and we were all drenched by huge, startlingly sudden raindrops. Most of the group jumped into the covered golf carts that the hotel’s staff drove down to the putting greens, while Karinsa and I stayed out a little while longer, walking together under her umbrella to catch a glimpse of the angry monsoon sea. 

Back at the hotel on Sunday night, after the rain had momentarily passed, most of us threw on our bathing suits and jumped into the hotel’s pool (one of those pools I think they call “infinity pools” or something, where it looks like it falls right out into the ocean view). Mary and I played several lively, loud and splashing rounds of chicken with Gagan and Fayaz, and then we started a strangely competitive and lively game of catch across the pool with one of the cricket tennis balls. Members of the “teams” jumped to catch the ball, and folks cycled in and out as they swam over to the poolside deck to have a sip of their beers (not everyone, though, because as a general rule I don’t drink). I left the pool eventually, intending to clean up and come back to the main building for dinner, but I ended up ordering up some room service instead because I was too lazy to get dressed and go back out.
On rainy monsoon Monday morning, we traveled to a local cultural institute for a visit and a couple of lectures, and then returned to the hotel for lunch and to prepare for our afternoon of backwater boat rides and beach time, which we were all looking forward to and hoping we wouldn’t have to cancel because of the rain. Fortunately for us, the weather cleared up just enough to allow for a dry boat adventure. During the ride, we saw village people along the shore fishing and bathing and walking and working. We saw coconut trees and trees of poison green fruit. 
Middle photo: Jill, Ally and Mary in the front with Fayaz and Gagan behind, and on the right Fayaz shows off the treasures he pulled from the riverside

Row, row, row the boat. . . . Yael at center and Karinsa (aided by Fayaz) on the right 


Watch carefully: on the left, Fayaz is throwing the group's cricket ball to a boy on the shore.  On the right, the boy catches the ball, and then he stands smirking on the shore while Fayaz begs him to throw it back and we float merrily along. . . . Bye, bye cricket ball!

Views from the boat: a "driveway" on the left, and families in the middle and at right

When we stepped from the boats back to the shore, we were greeted by a little boys’ swim team, running laps up and down the shore for practice and yelling out to us, “Auntie, auntie,” and “Hello ma’am,” and “I love you!” We left them behind as we headed back to the bus. The clouds cracked while we drove to Kovalam beach, but we begged the driver and our fearless leaders not to turn the bus around. We were all looking forward to visiting Trivandrum’s best beach for a look at the Arabian Sea! 
When we pulled up to the beachside, Gagan announced to us that the undercurrent was extremely dangerous at this time of year, and that therefore we would not be able to swim, or even walk on the actual beach. At first we were good little girls and boys. We stood up on the stone walls that surrounded the beach, looking and taking some pictures of the angry Arabian Sea.
After a few minutes, many of us decided that it couldn’t hurt to try to get away with a walk on the beach. We’d come all this way, after all, and what could it hurt? When I got my feet in the sand, I noticed some of my colleagues stripping off their clothes to reveal their bathing suits. Mary and Aimee were the first to jump into the sea, yelling and laughing and riding the waves. 

I hemmed and hawed in the falling rain and finally decided that I hadn’t come all this way NOT to swim in the Arabian Sea! I pulled off my own clothes and ran into the chilly ocean! It was chilly, but not freezing like the shocking pool of mountain spring under the waterfall at the end of Kauai’s Kalaulau trail (Katryna) or the breath-stopping pool at the bottom of the quick and slick, slippery rock waterfall-slide in the Shenandoah (Emily S.- I was inspired to dive in by your words on waterfall waterside day!). As with the icy waterfall pools, I was immediately glad I had taken the plunge. I’d hate to say I came to Arabian Sea to watch my friends swim without me.
We probably spent a good half hour swimming and laughing and being tossed by the swells of monstrous waves with the undertow sucking at our toes and the lifeguards on the beach directing us on where we could and could not swim as they watched the currents carefully from the rainy shore. Meanwhile, Fayaz had thrown caution to the wind and was right beside us in the water while, as could be expected, Gagan stood in his dress shirt and dress pants just off the beach, anxiously watching us and biting his nails, begging us to get out of the water as soon as possible. When someone brought word down from him that it was time to get out, Fayaz stood on the beach for a minute signaling and gesturing at him until he had successfully bought us an additional 20 minutes of ocean time.   It was no clear blue, warm Hawaii, but there’s nothing I love more than a good swim in the ocean!
Back at the Taj Green Cove, we jumped back in the pool for a few minutes before returning to our rooms to clean up and dress for a dance performance and our farewell dinner. I gave Angela saree-wrapping lessons and refolded my sorry attempt at pleats several times before I gave up and headed to the performance. Fayaz was impressed by my saree skills when he saw me, and we stood outside the banquet hall for a few minutes while he tried to fix my pleats one more time and snapped a few photos on the camera he’d been toting around constantly since we met him. 
The performance we saw was traditional Kathakali dance, with elaborate costumes and brightly painted faces to symbolize the good characters and separate them out from the evil. We were first treated to a brief demonstration of the nine different facial expressions that are used in Kathakali


Unlike the performance of Yakshagana we had seen several days earlier, there was no dialogue involved in Kathakali. Instead, the dancers used only dance postures and facial expressions to tell their stories. The story of the dance performance we watched was based around the green-faced Arjuna, who asked Shiva and his wife Parvati for divine weapons. They decided to test him, disguising themselves as common villagers and shooting a wild pig exactly at the same moment as Arjuna, who was hunting in the woods. This resulted in a fight between Shiva (disguised as the villager) and Arjuna. In the end, Arjuna was awarded the gifts of divine weaponry by Lord Shiva and Parvati.  The performance was good, though I have to say that after seeing several forms of Indian dance, Orissi and Yakshagana are probably my favorites. 
Interesting fact about the middle photo: The man playing this woman has turned the whites of his eyes red by putting a small seed under each lower eyelid. . . . That's what I'd call suffering for one's art!


After the performance, dinner was served and Indian dance music was pumped into the room at top volume. Gagan let loose with some serious dance moves, and the party went on for several hours (though not too late, because we were leaving for Sri Lanka extra bright and early). I snuck out on the early side to head back to the room and repack my suitcase yet again. 


I was so exhausted when I fell into bed after midnight that I gave up on the plan to work out before our 6:00 departure. I woke up a little nauseous from the most recent bout of sleep deprivation, but prepared to head out of India nonetheless. My time in India was amazing and enlightening and even sparked a few epiphanies for me, and I sincerely hope I’ll be back again someday soon, especially because I’m extremely sad that, the way things happened, I didn’t get to say my official goodbye to Gagan at the airport. 
I didn’t realize that there were completely different entrances for international and domestic flights, and went into the international terminal to deal with my (very stressful) baggage situation (they made me unpack and repack and go back through a long line to have everything re-scanned and then argued with me about my two carry-ons until I had to get adamant and very stern with them about not parting ways with my $4000 of computer and camera equipment). Regardless, the result of all of that turmoil was that I didn’t realize that I’d seen Gagan for the last time until after I was finished getting my boarding pass, and then he was gone. Now I HAVE to come back so that I can see him again! I’ve got a whole year to save for the wedding. . . . If only intercontinental travel weren’t so damned expensive! Curse the oil companies and their insistence that we NOT invest in alternative sources of fuel!  Oh, and while I’m thinking about it, can someone tell me about the use of compressed natural gas as a fuel alternative? The buses in Delhi use it instead of diesel, and it’s cheaper and doesn’t pollute the air. Why aren’t we using this technology in our own cities? Is it only because of the oil lobby, or is there a real reason not to use it? If you have any insight, please share!
Before I go, I’ll also share that I’ve finally solidified my project idea for the trip. Talking with some of those who have been reading my blog has made me realize the power of travel writing, especially when it’s immediate. When I traveled on my last Fulbright (in 2004 to Mexico and Canada) I wrote and sketched in my “journalbook” (journal/ sketchbook hybrid) and sent a few postcards, half of which never arrived at their destinations. When I came home with a couple thousand digital photos, my family’s collective eyes glazed over. They weren’t able to really appreciate the photos I’d taken because they couldn’t understand the experience I’d had over the course of the previous six weeks of intense travel and learning. This time around, keeping the blog has been challenging and tiring, but talking to my parents and grandparents has really helped me to understand the value of this kind of travel writing. As opposed to my last trip, they’re able to read snippets of my thoughts and experiences and to see bits and pieces of sites here and there over the course of time in installments. This way, the people I care about can be privy to my thoughts and experiences on a continuous basis, which means that everyone is learning along with me (not to mention that it will save me having to tell the same stories and show the same pictures over and over again when I get home!). 
With that in mind, I’ve decided to make good use of my hours of work. 
Mary shared with me a book she created through an online self-publishing resource based on her prior travels to Japan. I was inspired by her project to start to do some brainstorming of my own. What I decided is that I’ll edit these blog entries down and then create a travel memoir that I can use with my students in the context of a larger unit on memoir. Because many of my students have never traveled, and because few of them have any connections to India or Sri Lanka, I am hoping that a mini-unit on travel memoir, using some excerpts from my memoir alongside excerpts from other travelers about experiences in India and Sri Lanka, will help students learn about the larger global community while also showing them the benefits of travel and asking them to hone their writing skills through final assessments incorporating narrative memoir writing and explanatory persuasive essay writing. For my official project, the book will be accompanied by a few lesson plans suggest how it might be used. Wish me luck! The official due date isn’t until November, but I really need to be done before my MFA classes start during the first week of September, so I’ll need all the luck I can get! It’s tough to do the right thing and sequester myself away in the hotel rooms here and work on my project planning when there’s so much to see and do all around me! 
Much love and many butterflies!
Callie/ Ms. Cook
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BENGALURU: Bomb Blasts, Cozy Home Visits and I Make a Fool of Myself!

Hello all!
Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore) has spun past me as a whirlwind blur, and I can hardly believe that we’re leaving tomorrow morning bright and early for our very last stop on the Indian map! As compared to the other cities we’ve visited, our time in Bangalore has been simultaneously more and less eventful. We’ve had a lot less sightseeing and a lot more waiting around; sometimes museums and historical sights haven’t been open early enough for us, and once an art museum we attempted to visit was without electricity, which meant we ended up at the somewhat antiquated science museum instead. All in all, it’s been a brief visit full of contrasts to a city full of contradictions in a country that embodies both words.
We arrived from Mumbai on Thursday morning and knew we were somewhere new the second we stepped from the cabin of the plane. The air here is barely humid and not hot at all, in stark contrast to all of the other cities we have visited thus far! The first evening, we were treated to an amazing dance/ theater folk art performance called Yakshagana, and the combination of movement, elaborate costumes and Hindi dialogue was mesmerizing, even though I couldn’t understand what they were saying. . . . Apparently it had nothing to do with bad monkeys, since that’s the only Hindi I know!
Notice that the female character in the orange is played by a man. . . . it's interesting here that the culture is extremely homophobic, yet there is no stigma for men around playing the role of a woman in a performance, and young men (12 to 25, maybe) regularly hold hands on the street without being thought of as "gay."


Look at the face on the left. . . . doesn't he look like he's saying, "You wanna piece of this?!"

The photo on the right is a 12 year old boy who was an AMAZING dancer!  In the middle picture, look at the detail in the costume.  Each of the performers does his own makeup and costume. . . . It takes HOURS!

I was sitting on the floor in front of Mary’s first row seat (so that I could take better photographs of the dancers), and throughout the piece I kept looking back at Mary or elbowing her in the knee, both of us trying to contain our laughter because of the way the dialogue was peppered with the popular nasally exclamations, “huh,” and “huh-huh,” which she has been practicing so that she can say it with the proper Indian inflection. After the performance, she asked whether it was supposed to be funny and was told that the piece depicted a very serious story. “Oh no,” she said wide-eyed, with her hands on her cheeks, “I was giggling the whole time!” 
After the performance, a few of us went walking and did a little bit of shopping at a local Indian department store with a huge selection of salwar kameez, and when we returned we picked up a light dinner from the lobby café and retired to our rooms for the evening.

Upstairs in the Bengaluru department store
Friday was an eventful day for the city of Bengaluru due to the detonation of seven low-intensity bombs around 1:30 p.m. on the city’s west side. If you watch any news or listen to your NPR, you probably heard about the event (as well as the subsequent blasts in the state of Gujarat). Our morning schedule, which was a visit to a school for teacher training, was uninterrupted. After lunch at the hotel, however, as we gathered to depart for our afternoon museum visits, we were told about the bomb blasts and that our program was being delayed for at least an hour while they watched the news and made a decision about whether it would be a good idea to leave the hotel. 
It was sad to hear that the bombings had happened (this isn’t a regular occurrence in Bengaluru), but I wasn’t particularly worried about my own safety as I laid on my posh white five-star hotel bed among fluffy pillows watching CNN IBN (the Indian version of CNN) on a brand new, state-of-the-art, wall-mounted flat-screen TV, secure under the care of our cautious, astute USEFI guides (not to mention Gagan). The only thing I WAS concerned about was whether, back at home, my mom might wake up to see the news reports and get nervous about my whereabouts. I spent my hour online, working on my blog entries and double and triple and quadruple-checking the U.S. version of CNN’s website (I was guessing that, because they’re a reputable news source, they would also be a good measure of the media coverage the bombings were getting in the states). Once I saw the event show up in the list of top stories, I decided to call home. I felt guilty waking my mom up at 5:30 on a day when I knew my dad was off from work, but I kept imagining myself leaving the hotel for the afternoon, and then my mother waking up and turning on the news to be greeted by the sensationalized violence of terrorism abroad. I imagined her looking up my travel itinerary and panicking upon the realization that the location of the bombings and my current whereabouts were a match. 
With my mother’s fears assuaged (and she really wasn’t that worried, anyway, and assured me that she was smarter than to panic), I reported downstairs, where it was decided that we wouldn’t leave the hotel. It was too late to have any real time at the museums anymore, and the news was reporting that most of the city’s shops where closed too. Despite the day’s violence, however, Gagan told Mary, Joan, Karinsa, Diane and I that the dinner at Rachana’s house could still be arranged. I hit the gym briefly before preparing for the big event. I was late getting downstairs because I had decided to wear my new sari, and Gagan’s brief tutorial wasn’t enough for me to be able to organize six feet of silk without multiple tries and multiple problems. 
We headed out into the rain and waited for two auto-rickshaws to take us for the rain drenched forty minute ride out to Rachana’s house. On the way to her house, we stopped by the fabric shop that Rachana’s family owns (it’s run by her sister Devi and Devi’s fiancée Dei). Rachana had been concerned that we were being overcharged for the fabric and clothing we had been purchasing in cities during our trip, so we looked for a while at the shop, sat cross-legged on the white raised platform surrounded by pillows, chatted and had cups of chai. We picked out colors and patterns from the brightly colored shelves of fabrics, which were then whisked off the shelves and spread over the floor or draped around us in rapid succession.  I bought a few sets of fabric for some new salwaar kameez, though I’m not sure where I’ll end up getting them stitched! They’ll be beautiful, however, when I do! One is orange gauzy silk with paisleys and subtle sequins (can sequins be subtle?), the second is avocado green with embroidered earth-toned spirals, and the third is cream and green crepe silk (luxuriously soft fabric!) with a design that looks a little like hieroglyphics. 
Everyone in the shop on the left, and on the right Karinsa (in the foreground) and Diane (in the background) try to make decisions about fabrics

Karinsa is happy with her decision (and Joan looks on in the left photo)
While we were in the shop, Diane went into the shop next door to find herself a ready-made blouse to wear under the saree she had purchased. She came back into Devi’s shop wearing a blue blouse made of lightweight fabric and asked me why there were such big points in the front of the blouse. “Yours doesn’t have these!” she exclaimed. Everyone looked at my blouse and, lo and behold, I had been wearing it backwards for the entirety of the evening! It was a truly embarrassing moment, and everyone laughed hard enough to bring tears to their eyes. 
The other funny moment at the shop was when Rachana asked us what kind of food we liked (the family had been planning for our visit and worrying about what they should make and what we would like to eat). Mary (being her usual mischievous, sarcastic self and in a very serious tone of voice) said, “Anything is fine, except that I really don’t like Indian food, so I hope it isn’t Indian food.” At this, Rachana became wide-eyed with worry as she stammered, “uh. . . .uh. . . .” Suddenly, Mary came clean, saying, “I’m just kidding. I LOVE Indian food!” Rachana laughed hard and long, and so did the rest of us!
Rachana and Mary. . .  Check out one of Mary's signature facial expressions!

After we’d hemmed and hawed extensively over the expansive choice of fabrics, we left the shop and headed for Rachana’s family’s home. When we arrived, we were excited to meet her mother and grandmother, and to have a tour of their beautiful house.  We left our shoes at the door (which is customary at most places in this country) and stepped onto the pristine marble floors to survey the scene. Everything was very elegant. We were taken upstairs for a tour of the full home, and one of the most interesting rooms in the house was the room for prayer, which had a beautiful shrine as its centerpiece and which was peppered with small statues of a variety of gods and goddesses as well as candles, flowers and little steel bowls of turmeric and other powdered colored substances. 
Back downstairs, we got a glimpse of the kitchen and pantry, well-stocked with spice mixes and foods like potatoes, red onions and rice. We also saw the Indian-style lunchboxes that family members take with them to work and school. They are short and cylindrical stainless steel dishes with little stainless steel plates built into their lids and clips on the sides to keep them closed. There’s something about them that I love, and I’m hoping I can bring a couple home with me (if I can find them somewhere around here). They interlock and stack together so that you can have a little tower of talis (which is like tapas in Spain: lots of little dishes eaten together as a meal instead of only one plate). 
Before we settled down for dinner, Rachana’s mother and sister whisked me upstairs at Gagan’s request to tell me how to properly wear a saree. You start by tucking the end (knotted so it can’t fall out so easily) into the top right side of your petticoat (we’d call it a slip). You then wrap it around once, and pull out all of the fabric that will be pleated, holding it bunched up in your hand. Next, you decide how long you want your palu to be (a palu is the part of the saree that comes over your shoulder like a scarf). You then pleat the remainder of the fabric. The pleats are usually five or six inches long, and Indian women can whip the silk quickly and evenly between their fingers into a thick, even pile of organized fabric. You tuck the pleats, facing the left side of your body, into the front of the petticoat and then pleat and drape your palu, deciding which style you want to wear (and there are many)! After my saree was correctly wrapped, it felt much more comfortable to walk! I had been told, by Gagan, to wrap the length of fabric around me three times, when it should have only been one, which resulted in a stride that looked like my knees were tied together! Learning how to wrap a saree from Rachana’s mother was a really special experience for me. She showed me how to do it and then told me to take it off and try again by myself. I only made a few mistakes, and Devi watched carefully and helped to make sure it was right! Everyone loved the fabric I had chosen, and everyone thought the saree looked great on me. I love it so much that I really want to find occasions to wear it at home in the states!
Diane, Rachana's mom and me. . . check out our sarees!
In the living room, we talked for a while before we ate, and when we did eat, the size of the table prevented us from being able to eat all together with the family. Therefore, the family insisted that the four of us eat first, while they served us and while Rachana’s mother slaved over the stove preparing fresh loaves of roti (roti means bread, and in this case it was chapatti). It was a little bit of an uncomfortable experience for all of us to sit there eating without our hosts, being served by Gagan and Rachana and Devi, who hovered around constantly piling more food onto our plates against our protestations. Everything was delicious! We had rice and homemade paneer (cottage cheese technically, but with larger blocks of curd) in a red sauce, excellent potatoes (aloo, though I’m not sure what kind), some delectable chicken cooked with greens, and a few other delicious dishes besides. We even got to try some delicious homemade onion raita (in the U.S. Indian restaurants always have the raita with cucumbers, but I thought the raw bits of red onion in the yogurt were even better) and homemade lemon pickle. 
After dinner, we sat and talked some more, and were served delicious caramel custards for dessert before we finally organized ourselves for some photos and presented the family with a gift before getting on the road. On the way out, we were taken upstairs by Rachana’s mother, who wanted to show us their separate guest cottage, which occupies their third floor. They insisted that we should come back and stay with them in their guest rooms, and Rachana invited us all to their wedding, which will be sometime near the end of next summer. If I can work out the price of a plane ticket, I just may take them up on the offer!
Women of the house on the left: Devi at the top, then Rachana in pnk, her grandmother in orange and her mom in the blue.  On the right, Dei joins in next to Devi and Gagan (of course) next to Rachana
On the way home, Devi drove four of us in her car, while Mary rode on the back of Dei’s motorcycle (I begged off of that one because I was wearing my new sari and I didn’t particularly think it would be a good idea to try to go sidesaddle for forty minutes on the streets of Bangalore!). Despite that we tried to resist and told them that they should stay home and eat, Gagan and Rachana, on another bike, escorted us all the way back to the hotel. The family ate late that night because they had spent their evening taking care of us. Visiting the family was definitely a highlight of the trip! 
Our Saturday in Bangalore was somewhat less organized than usual, due in large part to the fact that we were trying to rearrange the schedule to include some of the activities and sights that we’d missed due to the bombings the day before. We spent more time than usual waiting for the bus in the morning, and then traveled to the Government Museum, which we discovered didn’t open for a while. We took a walk in a lovely park while we waited, and discovered a courthouse in the midst of the foliage. 

Women in firey colors against the red museum. . .  Callie, Elizabeth and Samantha
Bamboo-lined road through the park on the left, court building in the middle and at right
When we returned to the museum, it was officially open but was without electricity (there are regularly brief blackouts or flickers of the lights here in India), so we were ushered into the museum of science and technology next door until the lights could be restored. For a country so technologically smart, with so many brilliant scientists working in fields like engineering, it was sadly underdeveloped. The science museum had a few key pieces that would make it fun for kids: one huge mechanized plastic dinosaur that roared and rolled its eyes and a room called “fun science,” filled with buttons to push and wheels to turn and mirrors that could make you fatter and flip you upside down (I shot a few photos just for fun).
After a sprint through the unexciting science museum, we traveled back over to the art museum and were finally allowed to head inside. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the best museum we’ve visited, as it included the same types of things we’d seen (and at better museums) in other cities. However, after the visit to the Government Museum, we traveled to a fine arts college to view their art gallery, which was AMAZING! The gallery was new within the past year, and it included a surprisingly wide array of modern and contemporary art, as well as a very nice collection of shadow puppets, which were beautifully painted and mounted on wall-sized light boxes. It was sad that we had to rush through this one! At least, however, I had time to take a variety of good photos for my ongoing art research. 

After yet another quick and gratuitously huge hotel buffet luncheon (where Jill got sick to her stomach after challenging herself to an all-dessert lunch), we left for another round of cultural visits. We stopped briefly at a theater and also visited the Bull Temple, a Hindu temple which has at its center a gigantic black bull, said to be Shiva’s companion. Compared to some of our other temple visits, the Bull Temple was quiet and the traffic was slow. We took off our shoes and entered the temple, walking around the bull and, in doing so, keeping him on our right, which is protocol for travel in Hindu temples. 


Inside the temple: Ganesha on the right

The bull: side view on the left and offerings from the front on the right
Besides my musings on educational structures and social hierarchies in India, I’ve also been thinking a lot about the variety of religions that call this country home. Hinduism, in particular, has several very interesting tenets, and I’ve enjoyed visiting the temples because they are each so different. You really never know what kind of a scene you’ll find inside! Though I didn’t go on the visit, some of our group visited Mumbai’s Kali Temple, where there were such intense, pressing crowds of people that they could hardly move. They were also told there that they needed to pay large sums of money to the gods, and their foreheads were smudged red when they returned later to the hotel. 
In contrast, the quiet contemplation of this temple was nice. Outside, several vendors had set up shop, and among them was a woman selling carved wooden henna stamps, which were purchased for classroom use by several of my colleagues. With her was her toddling daughter, who was absolutely the cutest child I have seen in India. She was crawling around playing with the fragrant flowers that some of the other teachers had given to her, holding it up and trying to hand it back to us each in turn. 
Cutest baby in all of India!

Joan tries to buy henna stamps from the baby's momma, while she crawls all over them!
From our afternoon of brief visits, we traveled back to the hotel through the flower market, where we were supposed to spend some time, but which we had to drive through due to time constraints and because a bomb had been diffused near the market sometime earlier in the day. There was just enough time for showering and changing and wrapping my saree as well as I could (better than my first try, but by no means were the pleats expertly executed) before we set off for our scheduled home visits, which would allow us, in pairs, to visit the homes of local teachers, to dine with them and to visit with their families and friends. Based on the stories we told each other in the morning, each home visit was different from the next.
My home visit was scheduled with Angela, and we were driven to a beautiful gated complex (which housed military families) and pointed in the right direction by the driver of the car we’d traveled in from the hotel. We walked up to the door, which was cracked open, and found ourselves suddenly greeted by a colorful crowd of people. While at some households our colleagues were met by a single husband and wife couple, our host and hostess had invited colleagues from school and a couple of their children to boot! It was a little overwhelming at first, but, as it seems to go with Indian families, they were extremely hospitable and made us very comfortable. Immediately, the women commented on my saree (they were surprised and excited that I had tried to wear traditional Indian dress), and I confessed that I knew I hadn’t done the best possible job of putting myself together. The ladies all told me it looked pretty good for only my second night’s try, but one woman offered to teach me another method for wearing my saree. Of course, I jumped at the chance! She whisked me upstairs and showed me a second method that involved wrapping my palu over the shoulder from front to back and pulling a pin from her own shoulder to secure my palu in place just right. 
Throughout the evening we drank delicious, sweet homemade wine (it tasted like port, which, if you’re Carlin, you know that I love) and chatted about our schools and our countries. The girls who were there were 12 and seven, and both of them performed songs for us, with the older girl adding a Bollywood dance, and the words to the song, which were mostly Hindi, also included the random phrases, “rock your body,” and “everybody on the floor,” which were hilarious to hear from her as she swayed her hips and jerked her shoulders just right in her pretty red and gold skirt and shirt and with her short haircut and cute little glasses! I told them the story about my monkey attack and about wearing my saree blouse backwards, which gave the ladies a good laugh (and all of the people there but the hostess’ husband were women).
Then it was time for dinner, and I was treated to what was hands-down the very best home-cooked meal I’ve had in India. There was delicious homemade paneer, fantastic warm and chewy, buttery parantha, soft white bread rolls with a dish made of mashed cooked veggies, a tasty rice pilau with fried onions and even some tender mutton stew (which I tried for good cultural measure). I was in foodie heaven! Dessert, which was kheer (rice pudding) was also excellent! I told the hostess, Neena, that it was one of my favorites, and she said, “Everything is your favorite!” because I had been telling her that all night (and it was true!). However, I especially love all things pudding in the dessert realm, and I was impressed with the delicious milky pudding. We finished our dinner off with a chewy, green, flower-flavored hunk of pan (pan, I have to admit, is NOT my favorite!), and then Angela and I sat for a while with our little hostess Zuha between us asking us questions. She asked us our favorite Indian foods (dosa, parantha, roasted skewered chicken for me), and also wanted to know what we like to eat at home. She was shocked when I said “sushi,” and my answer sparked a long line of questions from all around the room! “How big are the pieces? Isn’t it cooked at least a little bit? Do you put anything on it? Isn’t it covered in blood and guts?” Soon thereafter the conversation started to peter out and we exchanged gifts (which is customary in all situations involving hospitality in Indian). When the phone rang and it was time to head out to the car for the ride home. Despite that our schedule said we should make it back by 9:30, our car didn’t pull up to the Taj until nearly midnight, and then there was packing to do before the morning plane for our final destination (so soon!). . . . Trivandrum (and I’ll spare you the full name of the city for now) here we come!
Much love and many butterflies,
Callie/ Ms. Cook
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    M.I.A. ("Paper Planes")

MUMBAI Part 2: Educational Inequity Revealed

Back to the story. . . . On Monday morning Karinsa and Mary and I were absolutely gushing about our fabulous day in the wild, and I was incredibly happy that it had gone so well, considering all of the crazy stories we’d been told about the reasons we should NOT make the journey.   A group of our colleagues had been to the India Gate and to see the caves at Elephanta Island, and they reported that their day had been good as well. It was really nice of the USEFI folks in Mumbai to be so accommodating and to allow us some flexibility with our schedule so that we could make our day at the park possible. 
Our schedule on Monday consisted of visits to the Muktangan School and their associated teacher training program. The model for this particular school is innovative and really takes into consideration the needs of the community and input from students’ families. We spoke with Elizabeth Mehta, who founded the school after working in the Indian educational system for several decades, about its inception. She wanted to work with the community to create a high-quality school for children who lived in the slums in Mumbai (mostly the children of garment workers), and planned to train women in the community as teachers for the school. The program has been an amazing success on all fronts. The associated teacher training program trains women in the community in using innovative, interactive, student-centered best practices and provides them with a career they can feel really invested in. 
Initially, the organization began with preschool education, as that type of education in India is usually run at the neighborhood level by the community’s mothers. The teaching methods the women were using with the kids were extremely successful, and parents in the community reported that their children who were attending the preschool program were more assertive and vocal than their peers and siblings who were not. When it came time for those students to move into a different school setting, parents in the community were adamant that their students would not fare as well in the general system’s population as they had in the nurturing environment of the Muktangan model. As a result, Liz put together a proposal for a new primary school based on the teaching model they had been using with the preschool kids. As with any big bureaucracy, the school system in Mumbai initially denied the organization’s request to found a school, claiming that they were not allowing charters for any new primary schools at the time (in my experience, it seems that every large system has stupid rules like this that fail to take into account what would be beneficial for kids and for the community at large and instead stick rigidly to a set of predetermined “rules” that are inflexible and sometimes completely arbitrary). 
Eventually, things were worked out and the school was able to open in a portion of a shared school building (with three other schools), and now they are expanding their program one year at a time. The school started in 2003 and now runs through fifth class (fifth grade). Visiting the school was completely different from visiting any of the other schools we’ve seen. Whereas students at all of the other schools were in rather large classes and seated in rows facing a teacher who was doing all of the talking, students at Muktangan were more often than not seated in circles and with small groups working closely with teachers. Currently, due to the tight restrictions on space, there are about 30 students in each classroom with two or three teachers (with the kids split in half and distributed between the two teachers), although ideally they will one day have the space to keep each small group in a separate classroom setting.

I think what was most interesting to me about Muktangan was the teaching methodology and how it affected both teachers and students. I loved learning that the teachers were all local community members who were invested in the community’s children, and that the pedagogical model the school employed had a direct affect on building the students’ confidence and feeding their naturally inquisitive nature.
As opposed to the reactions we received from students at the rural schools we had visited (where we were absolutely mobbed and asked for handshakes and autographs, in case you don’t recall), the students we observed at Muktangan were largely oblivious to our presence. They seemed busy with their work and, for the most part, pretty comfortable with visitors. They also had more resources than most of the other schools we had visited, though that was less due to government funding (they receive the same as every other school), and more due to a combination of private fundraising and smart use of materials. While I’m on the subject of materials, by the way, Muktangan is a school that is still in great need. If you’re interested in donating supplies (especially, they said, educational software and teachers’ editions of textbooks, however outdated they may seem to us), any donations would be greatly appreciated. If you’re interested in learning more about the school, you can watch a brief film at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ol9XlszOE4, and you can find their website at http://www.muktanganedu.org/.  

Teacher training sessions at Muktangan
In the afternoon (after a fabulous buffet lunch at a great restaurant nearby), several of us visited a kindergarten-level classroom where we sang songs with the students. As a high school teacher, I felt really silly singing and spinning around doing the hokey pokey (which they call the “boogie woogie” with the same words otherwise), but it was fun nonetheless.   They knew most of the songs we suggested, including Old MacDonald, though the name MacDonald was tough for them to say, so the teachers had changed it to "Lakshmna Chacha," which means "Uncle Lakshmna," with Lakshmna being the name of Ram's brother in the famous epic Ramayana, which we've heard so much about (and if you're interested, here's a link to the entire text translated into English online: http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/rama/index.htm).

The visit to Muktangan left me pondering a few things. I thought about the schools I’ve worked in and the different types of teaching methods I’ve used and observed, and I wonder, after hearing how much student-centered learning improved the students, both in school and at home, whether a stand-and-deliver, lecture-style teaching method (which is what is used at most schools in India) might be detrimental to students’ developing individuality and blossoming intellectual curiosity. My own personal philosophy, especially in our contemporary, fast-paced and video and TV dominated culture, is that it is indeed detrimental to teach students lecture-style, and that it is beneficial for them to be more actively involved in the learning process. What worries me is the number of teachers I’ve encountered who don’t know how to effectively engage students in active learning, or who refuse to try new things. It makes me more and more frustrated that principals can’t get rid of teachers who aren’t doing their job. Let me stop while I’m ahead. . . . My tangent about the Baltimore City Teachers’ Union is a soapbox for another day!
After our visit to Muktangan, I went out for the evening to do a little browsing and a little shopping with Karinsa, Mary and Gagan before retiring to my room for some tasty room service – steamed rice and steamed veggies (I have to special order it because otherwise ALL of the vegetables here come with sauce all over them. I’m officially requesting (and Mom, take note) that if it’s possible, my first meal back (which will probably be at your house, Mom and Dad) be filled with steamed veggies (no butter, only a sprinkle of salt), and maybe some baked, sauce-less fish! What I’m craving, when I get back to my own house, is lots of kale and some salmon sashimi from Sushi Hana (care to join me, anyone? Carlin? Rebecca? Kalima? Lisa and MJ?)! 
Tuesday’s visit to The Cathedral and John Connon School raised a lot of questions for me. As compared to the other schools we have seen, this was certainly the “elite” high school our schedule had promised. The building was old and extremely beautiful, with polished dark wood banisters, stained glass windows and vaulted ceilings. 
Swanky library on the left


Check out the drafting desks for art and architecture classes and the courtyard for gym classes!

The children were organized and quiet in their crisply ironed uniforms, and it was hard not to notice that all of them were light-skinned, while I saw darker skinned Indians sweeping the floors of the school. This had also been true at the Krishnamoorti School we visited in Varanasi, and it instantly brought to mind the few times I had turned on the television here and been greeted by a barrage of commercials for skin-lightening creams. The disparity between people of different skin tones and between the classes made me consider the United States, as well. I have to remind myself that the disparity in schooling is just as prominent in U.S. education as it is here in India. Take, for instance, my school, Doris M. Johnson High School, which is definitely one of the best neighborhood high schools in Baltimore City, and compare it to the school where Allie (one of my colleagues on this trip) teaches. Her school is a private all-girls high school in upstate New York, where tuition runs $40,000 per student per year, and where the cafeteria serves organic local foods. Meanwhile, my school is a public school without the same range of resources and where the cafeteria serves federally funded meals that hardly provide the necessary nutrition for students to do their academic best. 
I understand that money buys opportunity, and that those without economic resources are without opportunities that money can purchase, but that theory is morally problematic for me nonetheless, and especially so when it happens to disproportionately favor one group over another based on immaterial physical characteristics (such as the color of skin, in the case of both India and the U.S.). It’s hardly fair to see the library at one of the poorer schools we’ve visited (which I regret not photographing for the sake of comparison), where there are few books, all of which are ragged and out of date, and then to look at the library at The Cathedral and John Connon School, which is small but packed with good reads. It’s no coincidence, either, that the faces are lighter at this school than at the poorer schools we’ve visited, just as it’s no coincidence that Baltimore City Public Schools, with its meager resources relative to other school districts, boasts an African American population of more than 90. What troubles me most, I think, is where I fit in this equation, and what anyone can do to change such ingrained inequity. The sad fact is, I think, that the establishment, such as it is, doesn’t want change, and I hear myself saying all of these words about equality, but at the same time I know that if I have children I will most likely choose not to send them to a public school in Baltimore City, or at least not unless I’m sending them to a charter school where I know the principal and trust the school’s teachers. Does that make me part of the problem, or just a discerning potential parent?
I mentioned my uneasiness to one of my colleagues as we stood looking down from the balcony while students giggled and chatted and played basketball during their short break between classes. 

She said that she doesn’t see it the same way; that people without privilege can do things to make their lot in life better, with education being a key to making those changes happen. While that may be true to an extent, and while I certainly agree that education is a key to positive change, I said, “What about the kids who are born into a life without privilege, with parents who haven’t been privileged themselves, who don’t go to a school that is privileged and who aren’t, then, taught how to access privilege for themselves. How can you hold them responsible, when no one is showing them how they can become successful? How can you say that is fair?” She said she just hopes that students in privileged situations make the most of that privilege and go on to do good things. I agree with her that students who have privilege should be aware of their situation and should use their resources wisely and with cognizance of the world around them. However, there remains something deeply troubling in such unequal systems. The idea of true democracy doesn’t mix with the idea of true capitalism. Democracy says everyone should be important, while capitalism says only a few can have the resources that make them important. I get frustrated when I think about this, because what can change the system? Certainly both of our two political parties have been bought and sold by corporations, and clearly no other viewpoints are held in our society as valid on an electable national scale. It makes my head hurt, and it makes me want to head back to the hilltop monks’ quarters to sit and meditate.
After lunch back a the hotel, I joined Julie and Samantha for a trip to two of the city’s art museums. There was an AMAZING exhibition of photography at the National Gallery of Modern Art. It was a retrospective showcasing the work of Raghu Rai, a prolific Indian photographer. What was especially interesting about his work was that it chronicled life from the 1960s up until earlier this year in some of the cities we’ve already visited, which meant that we were able to bring a wealth of background knowledge to our viewing experience. If you want to check out some of his absolutely fantastic work, try this link: http://www.magnumphotos.com/Archive/C.aspx?VP=XSpecific_MAG.PhotographerDetail_VPage&pid=2K7O3R13L4PM&nm=Raghu%20Rai (the link is good, though it's a little annoying that the company puts its name in the background of all the photos. . . . and, by the way, I'think Caroline will love this guy's work, so tell her to check it ou). I’m still trying to figure out what kind of camera he’s shooting with. I’m sure that the prints at the show (which were huge) were all digital, but I know he wasn’t shooting digital in 1965. If any of you have any insights, let me know (Joe, Jonathan, Caroline, John?)!
We also checked out the Jehangir Gallery across the street, which had a really nice, though small, contemporary exhibition. I fell immediately in love with Maya Burman’s work (and I'd give you a link, but I couldn't find one that did her paintings any justice), and asked about the price of the one piece that had not yet sold. It was about $8,000! If only I had $8,000 to invest in art!
Downstairs from the gallery, we wandered into a government-sponsored exhibition where artists and artisans from Uttar Pradesh were showing and selling their work (apparently artists from different parts of the country are invited there on a rotating basis). At the exhibition, I bought some beautiful original oil paintings (though I just left them in the hotel in Mumbai, to the tune of several hundred dollars, so I’m worrying and hoping that the hotel folks will find it for me and forward it on). I also (finally) decided to get a saree! Sarees (and they do spell it with two “e”s and no “i”) are sold as six and a half foot long pieces of fabric, with extra added to the end and designed to be used by a tailor to make the matching shirt. My saree is absolutely gorgeous – a lightweight brown silk with embroidery that is yellow, orange, green and white, and the fabric has a purplish sheen in the right light. 
Once I told Gagan I bought a saree, he looked at it and told me he’d go with me to negotiate a tailor to do the necessary alterations, which included adding a “fall” a the bottom of the saree so that it would hang nicely because the fabric is so light, making a petticoat to go underneath (essentially a simple, long, drawstring skirt), and cutting off the end of the bolt of fabric to make the tailored shirt (which only goes until right under your bra line and which closes with a long row of little hooks in the back. . . . and they also include a GREAT invention in the shoulders of the top – there are little strips of fabric with snaps on them to secure your bra straps to the shoulders of the shirt so that they don’t show while you’re wearing your outfit. We need those in the U.S. for sure!). When we went to the tailor, which was around five last night, we negotiated with him and he agreed to complete the entire project in only four hours’ time for a mere 1200 rupees, which is only about $30.00. I was amazed to see the top when it came back, and Gagan helped me put the saree on so that I’d know how to wear it. It looked great! I’m so excited to wear it to dinner tomorrow night when I go to meet his fiancée and her family!

This is what I get for lettin Gagan make suggestions 
on how to wear women's clothing late at night (ask any
Indian woman - it's all wrong!)
I’ve spent a couple of the last few nights, by the way, up late talking with Gagan. It’s really interesting to hear his impressions of the U.S. and his perspective on Indian culture. We had a great conversation the other night about relationships in the U.S. versus relationships in India, arranged marriage and etc. He was totally shocked that we don’t have arranged marriages as a part of our culture, and was also really surprised to hear that college graduates and newlyweds usually prefer not to live with their parents, but rather to strike out on their own. We’ve also talked extensively about food in the U.S. versus Indian cuisine. I told him he should come to visit me in the U.S. so I can take him out for sushi and make him my famous kale with udon and sesame-soy dressing. Yum. . . . I could go for some of that right now!

That evening, we visited Kaivalyadhama, which was started in 1924 and which was the world’s first scientific institute for the study of yoga. The session was excellent, and learned a lot about the breadth of research that supports the practice of yoga among students in schools. Research they’ve conducted has shown that yoga alleviates anxiety, improves memory and elevates a student’s ability to learn, which means that it also promotes higher test scores among students. Of course, research also showed significant and fairly rapid improvement of students’ musculature with regular practice, as well. 
Learning more about the scientifically-proven benefits of yoga made me think back to my time at the Baltimore Freedom Academy, when I taught a weekly yoga class for students after school. There was a fairly solid core of students who would come to classes, most of them girls who were either dealing with self-esteem and body image issues or girls who had high levels of anxiety, depression or who were struggling with learning disabilities or obsessive-compulsive disorder. It was amazing how practicing for an hour or so could change their demeanor. I’d throw in a CD of ambient, energetic music and light little scented tealight candles all over the carpeted “student lounge,” and we’d practice some asanas in the candlelight with the shades drawn on the windows, ending with savasana and some guided relaxation. Before class, I could see that Telisha, who was a very hard-working, intense student, was stressed and worried, and after our class was over she’d be giggling and smiling all over. All of the kids reported that they felt much better (more relaxed and happier) after our yoga classes. 
This connection between a multi-faceted physical, mental, emotional and spiritual practice like yoga and better mental health and higher test scores doesn’t surprise me, but it does make me question why we don’t offer more physical fitness options like yoga to our students in the U.S. As a kid, as most of you know, I was much heavier than I am now (by about 75 pounds when I was in 10th grade), and between that and having moved around a little bit, from Archbald to Toledo to Grosse Pointe to Bel Air, I was definitely not a “cool kid” by any stretch of the imagination. As a result, gym class, with its focus on team sports, was always a painful thing for me. The fact that I was constantly made fun of and almost always chosen last for every team did nothing to help me become more physically fit. In fact, I hated gym so much that in middle school I forged notes saying I couldn’t participate on a fairly regular basis, and I was extremely happy in 7th grade when I dislocated my knee and was allowed to sit out of class for a few weeks. In terms of extracurricular activities, I did enjoy softball as a kid in Grosse Pointe, but when we moved to Bel Air my parents signed me up for indoor soccer in 6th grade, which was an experience that has left me hating the sport for the rest of my life (the team was co-ed and the other two girls on the team wouldn’t talk to me, and I was made fun of constantly, to the point that I would cry all day on Sundays and beg and plead not to be taken and forced to play). 
My point in telling this story is that I know it would have helped me to have access to more personalized sports options, where I could be successful on my own and where the goal was not competitive with my peers or predicated on my level of social acceptance in the school community. As it stood, I grew to hate physical activities, which left me gaining weight on a continual basis, which in turn meant that my self-esteem wasn’t great and I was increasingly less successful with team sports and was more and more a social outcast. 

I should clarify that I'm not suggesting that team sports are not an important part of the school's curricular offerings, because I know that they are incredibly beneficial to many students for a wide variety of reasons (though they had the opposite affect on my childhood; fitness, teamwork and self-confidence are bolstered curricular offerings, because I know that they are incredibly beneficial to many students for a wide variety of reasons (though they had the opposite affect on my childhood; fitness, teamwork and self-confidence are bolstered for most students who participate in team sports, and team sports provide a venue for success that builds self-esteem for those students who excel at athletics but might otherwise struggle academically). What I AM advocating, however, is greater access to personalized, holistic options for physical fitness that allow ALL students to feel good about themselves and to feel motivated to be active and healthy. As an adult, I have discovered that non-competitive sports like yoga, hiking, recreational cycling and rock climbing motivate me to remain active and to eat well and also help me manage my typical type “A” personality stress level and make me feel good about myself. This has been a huge change from my experience with sports and fitness as an adolescent and a teenager!

Anyway, that about sums up the excitement of Tuesday, except to say that in the evening I invited several folks up to my awesome single “bachelorette pad” to watch a movie Mary had brought along called Salam Bombay. Gagan watched it with us and said that the tough world of the child protagonist that the movie projected was true of “old Bombay.” It’s an interesting movie if you want to learn more about the city’s past, but it’s pretty depressing, so, Mom, this isn’t the one for you! If you’re up for a story without a happy ending, however, you might try picking it up!
Thursday we had a bit of a later start than usual, so I got up early and converted my awesome room into a yoga studio with a bay window view of the city and the sea, and had a lovely morning ashtanga practice.

Mumbai from my swanky hotel room!

 Breakfast was followed by a really great panel discussion about Mumbai, and the panelists spoke about the role of women and women’s education in the city and answered questions from us on a variety of topics. There was a reporter there from the local paper, too, and our trip was in an article that was published in this morning’s paper.  I searched for a link but couldn't find one for you, so you'll have to wait until I get home to read it!
After the panel, I went with Gagan to put my saree together, took some time for a workout in the hotel gym and then went out for dinner with a group of my colleagues. We were supposed to be meeting up at a seaside grille, but the place was closed for monsoon season, so the group selected another spot to eat and to have drinks. I’m not really a drinker (I’ve had all of two glasses of wine on this trip so far), and I hate secondhand smoke. However, the place the group chose was fairly smoky and loud, so Gagan (who doesn’t drink or smoke) went with me to find another spot for some food.  It was an experience! We ended up in an un-air-conditioned dining hall attached to a small hotel in one of the markets, where I realized fairly quickly that I was both the only woman and the only foreigner in the place. It was packed with Indian men! If it weren’t that Gagan is so completely protective, I might have felt uncomfortable, but because I was with him it was a great experience! I had the best chapatti (a kind of flat bread that’s chewier and a little thinner and darker in color than nan), dal (lentils – yellow, in this case) and roasted Indian chicken (tandoori) I’ve had so far! After we ate (and he made me eat Indian-style, hands only), we had pan on the street outside! Pan is an Indian sweet that’s basically a certain kind of big, green leaf with lots of other stuff piled on top (fennel seeds and a whole bunch of other things), and then wrapped together and closed with a toothpick. It’s covered in something colored orange and pink along with that silver edible foil-y stuff that’s on many other Indian sweets, and it tasted like I was eating flowers!

This morning we got up extra early for our uneventful flight to Bangalore (now called Bengaluru). We’re about to check into the hotel, and then we’ll have lunch and a dance performance this afternoon. I can’t believe there are only five days left in India, and only 15 days on the trip as a whole! 

Much love and many butterflies (and more blogging soon!!)

Callie/ Ms. Cook
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    Lounge Music

MUMBAI: When Monkeys Attack (Gundah Bundar!), and Other Stories

Hello from Mumbai (formerly know as Bombay)! I’m starting to compose this entry from our bus today as we travel to visit an “elite private school,” The Cathedral and John Connon School (it’s currently Tuesday, though I know I won’t finish the entry or post it for several days). We arrived in Mumbai on Saturday morning from Kolkata aboard Kingfisher Airlines (which, incidentally, is run by the same company that makes Kingfisher beer). It was an interesting experience to be on a five star airline with a slogan that reads, “Fly the good times.” It was a little like being on Hooters Air (and yes, for those who haven’t seen the check-in counter at BWI airport, there is indeed a small but buxom Hooters airline in the U.S.). Apparently, the owner of the airline hand selects the flight attendants (all, curiously enough, gorgeous women). There were multiple channels to choose from on the individual TV screens mounted in the back of each seat, and there was even a glossy breakfast menu to select from, as well as a little package of Kingfisher swag for each of the passengers. As we slid from the sky and into Mumbai, I caught a glimpse out the window of a sea of houses pressed tightly together, many with bright blue tarps where their roofs were falling apart. 
Upon our arrival in Mumbai, we were rushed aboard our bus, where we saw our first up-close glimpse of the city. Mumbai is very cosmopolitan, without any cows on the streets and without any bicycle or auto-rickshaws in sight (downtown, that is, because outside the city is a different story altogether). We were expeditiously delivered to our hotel, where we had only a few minutes in our rooms before lunch was to be served. I wrestled with the bellhops to convince them to let me take my own suitcase upstairs (much quicker and cheaper than having them deliver it to my door), and they finally relented despite their insistence that they do every little thing for me (this would drive you CRAZY, mom!). 
This is stop in Mumbai is my one hotel room assignment without a roommate, and at first I was feeling a little sad that I would be without anyone to chat and process with. Daniel, who is the only male teacher in our group, and who has a single room all along, said, “Wait until you see it. . . . Once you get in there, you won’t want to give it up!” Lo and behold, he was right! My single room has a king size bed and an ipod-docking alarm clock right beside the expansive view of the Mumbai skyline. It’s lovely and I’m enjoying a little peace and quiet, privacy and alone time.
After lunch in the hotel’s Italian restaurant (Italian in India?!), we headed over to Gandhi’s Mumbai home (a residence that belonged to a friend of his, but where he stayed when he was in town, and where he had a room). Seeing his home away from home was an experience! We even got the opportunity to meet with his granddaughter while we were there, and we watched a short film about his life. Seeing his room reminded me of my Stelliott January Plunge trip to Memphis several years back, where we toured the National Civil Rights Museum and saw the glassed-off room where Martin Luther King, Jr. stayed before he was killed, and the balcony on which he was assassinated. Both were emotional, thought-provoking places, and I thought at length about why the people who attempt nonviolent change always seem to meet violent ends. 
Gandhiji's room (on the left)

Some AWESOME posters at Gandhi's house
We returned to the hotel after our visit to the house, where Mary, Karinsa, Diane and I met in the lobby for a walk by the sea. We wound our way through the nighttime streets of Mumbai, and finally three of us ended up at the edge of the Arabian Sea (Diane decided she didn’t feel comfortable walking around at night and went back to the hotel just a few blocks into our walk). The view was beautiful, with city lights on one side and the blackest night fading into the water-bound horizon on the other. There was a cool breeze coming off the water that was refreshing after weeks of stifling, humid heat, and there were families and couples sitting along the cement walls enjoying the evening outside. 
Mary and Karinsa (and the Arabian Sea)!

We got a bit lost on our walk back to the hotel and ended up needing to take a taxi “home” to our hotel. Finding our path back was partially problematic because of the fact that there are two different Taj hotels here in Mumbai, with ours being the less well-known and slightly less fancy of the two. This meant that, when we asked police or security guards for directions, they pointed us in the wrong direction. I have to mention that, at one of the little guard stations where we stopped for directions, the police there in their military uniforms and with their automatic rifles had a tiny gray and white kitten. It was more than adorable to see a huge, uniformed tough guy cradling a kitten in his arms while he tried to explain how we could get back to our hotel. 
While we traveled from the airport to the hotel, and while we walked around that evening, I had hatched a plan. I suggested to my colleagues that we find a way to visit Mumbai’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park, which is the only national park in the world located inside the limits of a major city. I was VERY excited about the prospect of getting out of the smog-filled downtown and out into the green of the mountains, and I was excited about the idea of going to another country’s national park, as well. In addition, I had read about the Khaneri Caves, a network of 109 Buddhist caves carved into the hills inside the park. 
At first, there were several of us interested in finding a way to make the trip happen. We talked to Gagan, who said that it might be possible, but that we’d need to take a full day to make it happen. We agreed that, if it would be a good trip, we wouldn’t mind missing Sunday’s scheduled museum visits, as well as the afternoon’s optional visit to the Hindu caves on Elephanta Island. After talking to the concierge, we hemmed and hawed about whether we would go on the trip. We were told different things about the park by different people. Some said it wasn’t worth the travel at all, that it was for kids, that we wouldn’t see any animals, that there were dangerous people living deep in the forest brandishing knives and guns and waiting to rob foreigners at gun or knifepoint. Others said it was a good place to visit, and that if given the choice between the two it was a much better choice for a one-day visit than the caves on Elephanta Island. 
Before our seaside stroll, Mary, Karinsa and Gagan had decided they didn’t want to go. I, however, was determined to make it happen (and when I want something, I can be pretty stubborn and persuasive, if you know what I mean!). After some additional conversation, we decided to take the plunge and branch off from the larger group in order to have our own little outdoor adventure. I was SO excited! 
On Sunday morning I met up with Gagan, Mary and Karinsa (Gagan’s like a mother hen. . . . He won’t let us do anything even remotely dangerous by ourselves. . . . Mom, you would approve!). We had decided to take the local train up to Borivili, where we’d then catch an auto-rickshaw to the entrance of the park. 
The train ride was much calmer and more enjoyable than we had imagined (due in large part to the fact that it was Sunday), and the car was breezy with its open side doors and grated windows. 
The train from Churchgate Station to Borivili (Karinsa in pink, me in red, Mary in blue, Gagan in white)

Hanging out by the doorway of the moving train (my mom's nightmare!), and figuring out directions
Our auto-rickshaw ride to the park was short (which was good, considering that Mary was sitting on my lap!), and there were a few sprinkles while we drove through the crowded streets. Thankfully, those were the only raindrops we encountered on our journey! Gagan snapped our photo at the park’s entrance to document that we made it to our destination safely.

Callie, Mary and Karinsa on a fabulous adventure!
After getting our tickets and glancing at the park map, we headed down the path toward the safaris and were distracted along the way by a family of scavenging monkeys. 
Notice, on the right, that the monkey has a plate!

Gagan warned us that the monkeys were not to be messed with, and that we were too close to them. Did we listen? Not really. I was standing snapping photos when the mother monkey decided she’d had enough and I was too close to her babies. In a split second (I can hardly remember what happened), she had flown across the pavement and landed at my feet, grabbing my legs and preparing to sink her teeth in as the rest of the family gathered behind her for the attack. Needless to say, I was shocked! Karinsa was turned in the opposite direction, and she kept moving (though she said that the noises she heard behind her were scary), while Mary watched as I screamed (I don’t remember screaming) and tried not to trip, desperately running and shaking the monkey from my legs. Gagan started to run, but turned around and saw that I was in trouble as the whole monkey family ran to jump on me. Mary describes seeing Gagan jump between me and the big father monkey, who had his long, sharp teeth bared in a hiss, and started screaming at the monkeys, which caused them to finally retreat. 
We were all shaken up after the attack, and Gagan explained that when monkeys bite, which isn’t infrequently, they take out a big, deep chunk of flesh. I had monkey prints all over my legs, but somehow I had miraculously managed to escape without a scratch or a bite, either of which would have definitely sent me right home to the United States to undergo a long battery of injections for rabies. I am still extremely grateful to Gagan for saving me, and I know now that I should try not to be such a stupid white traveler and should listen to the natives for a change! I don’t blame the monkeys for the attack, as I was obviously too close to them in their natural habitat, but somehow monkeys aren’t as sweet and cute as they used to be. On the train ride home, Gagan taught me a little Hindi: “gundah bunder,” which means “BAD MONKEY!” After the attack Gagan got a kick out of telling me, “Oh my god, there’s a monkey behind you!” and seeing me jump! Except, of course, the one time I happened to meander within a foot of a monkey, when he DIDN’T tell me the monkey was there, but rather waited for me to notice and gasp and jump back away from it. Really, I love his playful spirit! 
[One side note here: Last night I talked to my grandparents, and Grandma said, “We are SO GLAD you weren’t hurt by that monkey!” She said it in such a matter-of-fact tone that I had to laugh. I said, “You should write that down! Did you ever think, when I was a baby, that you’d one day speak those words to me?!”]

The sign I should have read BEFORE I entered the park. . . . Why wasn't this at the FRONT of the park?!
Anyway, back to Gagan. . . . Just the other night, while a few of us were out shopping with him, he was helping me bargain with a vendor for a scarf. The vendor originally told us that the scarf I was purchasing was 50 rupees. I listened while Gagan spoke with him in Hindi, and I noticed that Gagan was sucking his teeth and that the vendor did not look pleased. After the transaction had been completed, I asked Gagan what the argument had been about. He said that the vendor wanted him to tell me the cost was double. “They are foreigners,” he had said, “just tell her 100.” His reply was, “No, they are my family.” He invited me the other day (along with three of my colleagues) to come with him to dinner at his fiancée’s house when we’re in Bangalore later this week. I’m excited to meet his soon-to-be family, and he’s already insisting that I should come back to India again to visit, and should stay with his family in Delhi when I do. I’ll really miss him when we leave for Sri Lanka and his time with us is over! I digress.
After the monkey attack situation, we were all a little shaken up, but we managed to laugh about the incident, and I like to think that I learned my lesson about monkeys! The whole scenario is ironic when I think about the fact that I always complain about the stupidity of the people at Shenandoah National Park when they insist on following bears around with their cameras. . . . And here I am with my camera out clicking furiously away too close to the monkeys! Just because something looks cute does not mean that you can assume it’s friendly and cuddly, too!

View from the bridge on the way to the safari bus stop

Along the way, we stopped to try a crazy fruit that I've never seen.  Gagan didn't even know the name in Hindi, let alone the English name.  The inside was clearish white and gelatinous, with a hole in the middle of each section that was filled with watery liquid.  It wasn't my favorite fruit, but it was an experience to try it!


Across the park at the safari stop, we waited patiently to hop aboard the bus. When the bus pulled up, there was a mad crowded rush for seats like I’ve never seen before in my life. People were pushing, shoving, pulling and pressing. There was no such thing as a line, and no consideration was taken when dealing with little kids or the elderly – everyone was jostled and pushed just the same. Somehow the amazing Gagan managed to squeeze into the front of the bus and save seats for us while we attempted to let some of the little kids get on the bus in front of us to save them from the crushing mass of people behind them. 
The safari itself was brief but interesting. I have never seen an old bus (it had to be pushed by a group of men to get the engine started) handle rutted, grassy mud roads like this one did! The view from the windows was lush and green as the bus rolled through double gates like the ones in the movie Jurassic Park. It was interesting, after going through such tough security, to then see a couple of tigers behind a very tall fence. We asked why, if the tigers were caged, did we need to be in this caged bus? The bus driver explained (in Hindi, of course, with Gagan translating) that the tigers are very territorial and that their space is fenced off just to prevent them from getting into fights. After his explanation we did see a white tiger in the distance who was not “behind bars,” so to speak (except for his stripes, that is! . . . There’s a “Dad joke” for you! Ha!). 
The tiger safari was okay (no pictures worth seeing – I could get better photos at the Baltimore Zoo!), but the second part of the ride, the lion safari, was much more exciting. We were rambling over the dirt road behind another safari bus when we noticed that there were two lions right on the road in front of us. Mary and Karinsa got their cameras ready!
The lions were really only inches from the side of the buses, and clearly were used to the drill, because they just sat and placidly stared at us as we took our photographs through the little 5x7 inch holes in the grates that covered the windows. I took a big risk and put my arm out of the bus to get a great shot (maybe I didn’t really learn my monkey lesson after all). The bus driver yelled to Gagan, in Hindi, to tell me to get my arm back in the bus, as apparently more than a few people have had their hands bitten off (a week or so ago it was a baby’s arm) by the lions who look so peaceful one minute and then get tired of being looked at the next.
After the lion and tiger safari we took a short train ride through a different part of the park, where we saw a few different animals (hawks, an interesting breed of deer, nothing too exciting), and then we had to wait FOREVER (okay, only an hour) for the shuttle bus to the Kanheri Caves, which were located at the opposite end of the park. 


Passing the time at the park: Gagan and Mary compete by skipping stones, and I try swinging Tarzan-style from some crazy jungle vines! 

When the bus arrived, it was clear from the second we saw it that all of the people waiting were not going to fit on the bus. There was another mad dash and press of people as everyone piled into the vehicle as quickly as possible. Luckily, we managed to find seats, and we drove for 15 minutes or so through the jungle as we made our way up to the caves. We passed men swimming and bathing in streams and the occasional vendor selling fresh fruits and peeled, sliced cucumbers with salt and chili by the roadside. We tried the cucumbers when we arrived at the caves, and they were DELICIOUS, like no cucumber I’ve ever tasted! I wish we had street food like that in the U.S.!
The Kanheri Caves were absolutely breathtaking! We were amazed that anyone we talked to had told us it wasn’t worth visiting, or that it was a place that was dangerous or only for little kids. Mary, Karinsa and I were nothing less than ecstatic to be in the countryside and on a cool, breezy hilltop among the green of the jungle’s foliage. We spent more than two hours exploring the caves, the waterways and the basalt hilltop they were carved into, and, honestly, it wasn’t enough time to see it all. The network of 109 caves were built and used between the 1st Century B.C. and the 9th Century A.D. by Buddhist monks. It was used as a university and as a monastery during that time, and the caves are so beautifully built and well-planned that we agreed we would have felt completely comfortable living there now (except for the signs that said to watch out for leopards after 6:00, I was prepared to backpack in and stay there!). There was a waterfall down the side of the hill with extra pools carved into it to create spaces for bathing and washing and gathering fresh water. Each of the monk’s dwellings had a reservoir for water in the front, with an ingenious notch carved into the stone to funnel rain into the reservoir.
All in all, the place was amazing. Here are some photos, though I don’t think they can really do it justice. If you’re ever in Mumbai, take a daytrip and go. . . . It’s well worth the train ride!
Our first glimpse of the caves (on the left), a red-faced monkey in the middle, and another view of cave #2 on the right

Stupa on the left


Carving of the temple's donor couples on the left, and a view of buddha from below on the right

Buddha's hands and Buddha's feet

Look at the scale on these amazing statues!  There were two of them at the front of the temple






 View from the top of the hill/ mountain

Check out the cacti on the top of the mountain!  Karinsa contemplates the gorgeous view in 
the photo on the left (she's tiny, look to the left!




The photo on the left is one of my favorite of the day, and the right photo shows a group of teenagers
hanging out with their feet in the water singing Hindi pop songs (it was lovely)!


There's something I love about the photo on the left, and the one on the right shows
Mary (as per usual)  making friends with the natives!

When we ran out of time (the Kanheri Caves close at 5:00), the guards in the park started blowing their whistles, and everyone started to make their way out. As we left the gated cave area, we saw the monkeys descending from their perches atop the surrounding rocks, preparing to snatch up the trash and bits of leftover food dropped by their human visitors. All of the monkey move-up made me really uneasy after my morning mishap (how’s that for alliteration?!)! As we walked the seven kilometers down (we were adamantly against another ride on the overcrowded shuttle bus, though they slowed down for us and attempted to tell us we could literally hang onto the side of the vehicle as it drove down overflowing with people), we stopped to buy more cucumbers with chili and salt and also tried star fruit with chili and salt, which was really good! The star fruit here tastes completely different from what you can get in the U.S. The fruit I’ve had in the states has been bland and nearly tasteless, but here the star fruit was tangy and sour, with an edge of sweet. It seriously tasted like SweetTarts candy!
After leaving the park, we decided to walk back to the train station through the town instead of cramming ourselves into the auto-rickshaw, and we were pretty tired from our long day by the time we got back to the train station and then back to the hotel, where we were treated to a fabulous Indian dinner in the hotel’s restaurant (courtesy of USEFI, of course). I especially liked trying a couple of new Indian sweets – one like ice cream and another sort of like fried extra-sweet mini funnel cakes. Mmmm! Needless to say, after a busy day and a huge meal, I collapsed into bed completely exhausted!

Gagan is exhausted on the train!!

This blog entry (livejournal tells me) is getting too long for posting, so I'm splitting it in two accordingly.  Read on for the rest of the Mumbai saga (and intermittent musings on education and yoga)!

Love and butterflies!

Callie/ Ms. Cook
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    Hotel lobby musak (ugh!)


Greetings from Kolkata, the cultural capitol of India!
Kolkata could hardly be more different from Varanasi! We arrived on the night train (the Kalka Mail), and the ride was an adventure all its own. We left the Taj Ganges hotel on Monday night by air conditioned tour bus with a fat pile of multi-course boxed gourmet dinners in tow. After an hour’s drive (during which Joan and I counted a whopping 18 men peeing in public, or, as Joan would say in her British accent, “having a wee”) we arrived at the train station and parked the bus in the crowded parking lot alongside a long row of open-air urinal stalls. Our two guides (Gagan, from the travel agency, and Neeraj, from USEFI) were very particular about ensuring that we traveled into the station in small groups and that we identified our luggage at the bus and again in the station. 
I think that all of us were expecting a train station like an airport, or maybe like Baltimore’s very lovely Penn Station, air conditioned with benches and a big click-clacking board that rolled over intermittently to show the latest arrivals and departures (I really do love Penn Station, and I especially love the sound of the big board’s tiles flipping over. . . . Somehow it’s really a satisfying sound!). The station in Varanasi was a far cry from what we’d imagined. As we walked through the unpaved lot past the overpowering stench of the urinals and into the station, we passed over and through a pressing crowd of very poor people, some of them curled sleeping under thin, dirty blankets on the sidewalk and others begging while a loud argument was going on between a man and a woman (she was hitting him and screaming at him amid a small group of spectators). The first eight of us, under Neeraj’s watchful eye, stood watching wide-eyed and a little startled. We were soon moving again, and were rushed through the station, past a sea of people laying on the bare floors waiting, weaving our way between groups of people and around elderly porters balancing towers of huge suitcases on their heads. Finally we arrived on the platform, where we had to wait for over an hour for our very late train to arrive and for sleeper cars to be added before we could board. 
Waiting on the train platform was definitely the least fun part of our night train journey. We stood careful watch over our combined mountain of multicolored luggage, sweating profusely and being feasted on by ravenous mosquitoes while Gagan and Neeraj bustled around us like worried mother hens, counting and re-counting heads and talking to the porters who had carried our luggage in hurried Hindi. As we stood on the platform we became extremely aware of how intently we were being watched. A train car pulled up to the platform in front of us filled to bursting. All of the wooden plank seats were covered with men, and they stood in the aisles and hung out the doors as well. The army green cars weren’t air conditioned, and there were no windows per se, only metal bars, which made the whole thing feel like prison cars or overstuffed cattle cars, an image harkening back to World War II that made many of us uncomfortable. Vendors walked along the platform selling aluminum foil-wrapped Indian dinners to passengers through the bars of the windows. The dinners were quickly consumed and the empty containers were thrown out onto the tracks without a second thought. The men on the train stared us down as if they were intently memorizing every inch of our bodies. Meanwhile, men on the platform circled us, openly looking us up and down and staring at the bags at our feet. Needless to say, the wait was way too long, and we could not have been more relieved to board the train, despite the tight quarters. We had three compartments between us, each with six beds (really just bare mats stacked three high, attached to the walls with the middle on each side folding down to create benches. Initially our insanely stuffed luggage took up an entire compartment by itself, and Gagan and Neeraj rushed around the car directing the organization of the luggage into compartments. You should have seen them trying to shove our gargantuan bags into the tiny spaces under the benches. . . . Gagan was hilarious with his constant exclamations of “It is possible” and “It is NOT possible!” They worked SO hard!  Finally, the boxed dinners (which had made us uncomfortable with their pristine whiteness and declaration of “Taj Ganges” on the dingy, urine-soaked platform) were passed out, and we ate.
The train ride to Kolkata was around 12 hours long, and, surprisingly, most of us slept fairly well. The train pitched and heaved and rumbled along, the horn blasting intermittently, as I climbed up to the highest bunk and tried to spread the allotted sheets onto the slightly sticky blue vinyl mat. It seemed likely that the sheets had not been washed – they felt limp and humid and were covered with stains, holes and occasional hairs. We all tried to ignore these facts as we used what locks we had to secure a few key bags to the benches (including my computer and camera pack) and bedded down for the night. 
Kathy, Aimee and Jill get cozy on the night train!                          Mary chats it up (of COURSE) with our young bunk-mates!

Peeking over the edge of my top bunk                                           The view down the aisle
I woke up early the next rainy morning (around 6:00) and headed to the train’s bathroom, where I discovered what I couldn’t see the night before. . . . The Indian-style toilet opened right out onto the train tracks, and I could see the rails and the grass between the ties as it passed. No wonder, I thought, that the tracks we’d walked past had smelled so much like stale pee! Joan and I, being the first two up, stood in the aisle and ate leftovers from the previous night’s boxed dinners. When enough of the others woke up, we sat on the bench their empty beds provided and chatted for a while. I spent a little time working on one of my quilted wall-hangings and explaining the alternative photo processes behind the piece to Gagan before we pulled into the station. As the other passengers started to vacate their beds, there was an attendant picking up the bedding and refolding it (suspiciously like it would go back out without being washed), and men with buckets of tea bags and instant coffee packets, paper cups and big kettles of hot milk started to walk up and down the aisles, yelling, “Chai! Chai, coffee! Coffee, chai!” Gagan was making fun of their accent as soon as they were out of earshot. . . . He is definitely getting really comfortable with our group and is SUCH a jokester!
Kolkata’s train station was different from the station in Varanasi in many ways. Although there were still people sitting waiting everywhere, the facilities were a lot more modern.
Our sea of luggage (and Gagan in the black shirt)                     The train station at Kolkata
We made quick work of getting to the new bus and were delivered in short order to the new hotel, the Oberoi Grand, which was even more beautiful than the Taj Mahal Hotel in Delhi. There are bowls of rose petals all over the place, fresh flowers in the rooms and live piano and violin music in the lobby. I checked into the new room with Samantha, my new roomie who is a high school English teacher from the Bay Area in California, and she decided to take a little nap while I went to check out the fitness center, which was MUCH better than the one in the hotel in Varanasi. I worked out for almost two hours, which felt really good after the long, stiff train ride and after sitting through so many lectures. In the afternoon, we had a lecture with Dr. Mullick, the director of USEFI’s Kolkata office, and then went on a rainy day bus tour of the city, which included a quick visit to Mother Teresa’s house, which was a bit rushed because they were about to close. The only place you can take photos there is at her tomb, so here are a couple of photos for anyone who’s interested:
After the bus tour I joined Elizabeth (who I’ve decided to call Eliza-ji from now on. . . . she likes it!) and Jill for a little walk down to Park Street (maybe a 15 minute walk from the hotel, which is right in the middle of the city for a change), where we found a restaurant called Peter Cat, which the guide books recommended for dinner. We were seated right next to a table where a man was smoking, and I asked if there was a nonsmoking section. The waiter said there was no section, only nonsmoking tables. “Okay,” I said, “we’ll wait for a table.” We waited a good ten minutes and were finally ushered to a new table, this one next to a table of THREE smokers. “There are more people smoking here than over there,” I said to the waiter. “But this is a nonsmoking table,” he replied. This is one point where the Indians make no sense at all! How can you possibly think it’s a good idea to intersperse your smoking and nonsmoking tables?! It’s as if they think the atmosphere of each table is separate!
Anyway, after a couple of quick stops on the way home (a bakery where I picked up a surprise dessert for Samantha, who wasn’t feeling well, and a music store to peruse the Hindi music section), we made it back to our posh hotel for the night. The interesting thing about walking in Kolkata as opposed to Varanasi is that it feels almost like New York City; so much so, in fact, that there have been moments where I’ve forgotten I was in India here. I’ve felt startled to see, suddenly, a woman in a saree begging with a baby in her arms or an Indian toilet in the restaurant bathroom. It’s interesting to note that the tour guide on our bus tour actually said, straight up and word for word, “We’ve pushed the slums out of the city and into the suburbs.” Hearing that stated so matter-of-factly really left me incredulous. I’d be just as shocked if the establishment in our country admitted that the plan to gentrify cities was specifically designed to eradicate low-income housing opportunities and displace the poor (it’s true, of course, but not readily admitted by those tangled up with “the establishment,” such as it is). Regardless, after a night’s sleep on a moving train and a busy day, the hotel’s fluffy whitest white down pillows and comforter felt amazing! When we first saw the caliber of hotels we staying in over the course of this journey, many of us were uncomfortable with the opulence. Now that we’ve been on the road for a while, I understand why the decision was made to provide us with such spectacular accommodations. It would be tough for us to take on such a demanding schedule, and to really process so many new experiences, if we didn’t have a comfortable spot for evening respite. We’ve also been told that there aren’t many accommodations between the five star level and a level that wouldn’t be acceptable for those of us used to western living. It’s still strange, nonetheless, to return to the room at the end of the day and find three people there turning down beds and placing slippers by the beds, or to have every hotel employee in the hallway stop in his or her tracks to bow and say “good evening, ma’am.” There are times when I’d prefer to be in a different type of accommodation; for instance, when I need to go to the bathroom and I have to pay someone to flush the toilet and hand me a towel. Sometimes I want to get my own paper towel and flush the toilet for myself! Or in the dining room, when I went to pour some water and two people rushed over to pour it for me. Imagine what they’d think if they saw me cooking and cleaning my own space at home?! 
Wednesday morning dawned rainy and gray (I should have known because the hotel concierge sends up a printed weather forecast each night for the following day). After a nice long Ashtanga session, I headed down to meet the group for the hotel’s amazing breakfast buffet, which included everything from cold cereal to dried fruit to salad greens to croissants to yogurt to fresh carrot and cucumber juices. While we ate and talked and I sipped my delicious chai masala the group got a phone call from Sunrit (the director of USEFI Kolkata), who was concerned about the rain in light of our scheduled morning activities, and who was flooded into his house outside of the city. As a result, our walking tour of the city was cancelled and we were given the gift of our first ever morning off, which was something many of us really needed at this point in our travels. It’s tough to travel and research and learn without a “weekend” in sight! 
I had a tough time deciding what I should do with my morning, but ended up settling into joining Daniel, Jill and Elizaji on a trek to check out the flower market. We’d been told the previous day that visiting the morning markets is the only real way to understand and experience the essence of this city. I was really glad I joined them for the trip, although it was extremely muddy and smelly (Elizabeth says it wasn’t mud – it was poop we were walking through, or maybe a mxture). However, despite the wet sucking mud that ended up coating my new Mary Jane Keens (insert sad face here), I had some amazing experiences at the market. The flowers and plants there were beautiful and the people were the friendliest I’d met on the trip to that point. We were the only foreigners there that we saw, and we wandered conspicuously through the maze of tents and muddy alleyways snapping photos as we went. I tried to ask for permission before photographing people, and I would show them the photos after they’d come up on the camera’s screen. Everyone smiled big and laughed, called to their friends and showed off their portaits. . . . They loved seeing themselves in pictures, and then the folks at the next flower stall would call, “One picture, one picture!” I made lots of new friends at the flower market that way, and I ended up with a few free roses to boot!



The guy holding the flowers said, as I walked by (in his thick Indian accent): "One picture, 
one chance," in this suave voice.  It was too funny!
After leaving the flower market, we took a taxi back to the hotel and I took a little walk with Elizabeth into the New Market, which is right behind our hotel. While Kolkata doesn’t seem to support as many typical hawkers and beggars as Varanasi, tourists have a way of being followed pretty relentlessly by shopkeepers who beg in their own way, trying to get you to come into their stores. What they must not understand is that, for me at least, being hounded like that makes me want to visit their shops less than I would otherwise!
After returning to the hotel for some gourmet-quality lunch, I decided to take a couple of hours off during our afternoon (we didn’t have another session scheduled until 4:00), and I scheduled myself for a massage in the hotel’s spa. The experience here was AWESOME! There was a huge “therapy suite” with vaulted ceilings and comfy furniture, and my Thai massage therapist started by washing my feet with some kind of tingly hot towel and then putting me in slippers. She worked on my back for so long that I actually didn’t have any knots or crunchies left, and then she fixed a shower and brought me fresh tamarind juice and papaya slices that had been cut into the shapes of little leaves. I was VERY happy when I left, though it was a little disorienting to get off the massage table and immediately hurry down to meet the group and be ushered out onto the crowded Kolkata streets in a rush and bustle. We were all sweating profusely (as per usual) by the time we reached our destination,
At the American Center it took a while for all of us to get through security. We weren’t allowed to bring much inside at all: no bags, no cameras or phones, and for a second they were about to tell me I couldn’t have a pencil sharpener or a drawing pencil. Once we made it through the checkpoint, we were sent upstairs for a brief presentation on major personalities of eastern India before heading down to the main event, which was a visit with traditional scroll painters from a local village. Dr. Mullick said that he likes to bring the painters into the city to meet people and to give their work some exposure, as they don’t have much exposure or market for their work as it stands. I told him that there are plenty of potential buyers in the U.S., but he the problem is that they have no business sense, and no money available for the agents it would take to get their work abroad. The villagers brought a wide variety of work with them, all of the paintings in vegetable-based homemade paints on paper scrolls, and all of them finely detailed and brightly colored. They also demonstrated how they “sing” their paintings. That is, they sing songs that explain the myths and folktales depicted in their work.  I purchased several beautiful pieces, including some from a brother-sister duo who were there with their father, who is also an artist in the village and who taught them their trade. Their work was amazing, and very reasonably priced for the quality and the amount of time it took for them to complete the pieces. The biggest piece I bought was a long scroll telling four different mythological stories, painted over a span of two months by the sister of the brother-sister painter duo. It was still labeled from having been part of a presidential exhibition in Delhi, which I think makes it that much more valuable. 
We returned to the hotel and prepared for a cocktail party that was being thrown for the hotel’s guests. We all stood chatting for a couple of hours, having drinks and snacks before retiring for the night.
On Thursday the weather cleared up a bit and the group left early for a school visit. The school we visited, the Sishu Bikash Academy, is a large boarding school for disadvantaged rural students from age eight all the way up to 18. We arrived and were absolutely mobbed and overwhelmed with uniformed children. They came at us from every angle, pushing and prodding and asking to shake our hands. 
Kids, kids and more kids!  Daniel towers over them in the middle photo, and Gagan joins the frey on the right
I asked to use the bathroom and was told to follow a student, who would take me there, but who instead tried to lead me upstairs to the classrooms. A teacher eventually headed them in the right direction, and the kids stood in a tight cluster waiting for us as some of us took a few minutes to hit the restrooms. 
Coming out of the bathroom, we were mobbed again, and this time asked for our autographs. I have never felt like such a star! Everywhere we went, kids were thrusting notebooks and pens into our hands and begging to have our signatures. Meanwhile, we were surrounded and dripping sweat from every inch of our bodies like never before. 
Karen and I sign autographs for our adoring fans
Eventually I struggled free from the melee and made my way to the office where we were meeting with the school’s principal and director. Children watched intently through the bars of the windows while he talked, and more children poured into the doorway as our conversation progressed, overflowing from the school’s dry, dirt courtyard and eventually pushing in front of us to ask, very quietly, for more autographs. We were all a little surprised, I think, that the students were allowed to stand around watching without anyone saying anything to them. Weren’t they supposed to be in class somewhere?
The principal talks while kids hang in the window and we listen in the photo on the left (you can see Mary in the light blue, Joan digging in her bag, Elizabeth and Aimee). . . . The center photo shows Mary signing an autograph, and in the photo at the right, Gagan proves he's famous with the ladies!

Mary shows her family photos to the boys in the photo on the right (she gave away the pictures
of her family to a few kids!), and in the right photo Samantha signs autographs for her fan club
After our visit with the principal and, of course, the customary cups of delicious, milky chai masala tea (served with yummy white, pistachio-crusted Bengali sweets), we headed out for a walking tour of the village. This particular village, populated largely by Muslims, was much more rural than the first village we had visited. Villagers were outside their houses talking, cooking, washing and etc. White cows lounged contentedly beside picturesque, lush green fields, and everyone we met was friendly and open.
The outside of a village house on the left, and Karinsa with our village friends on the right

Scenes from the village: Notice the little baby goat at the end of the road in the middle photo!  The old woman in the right photo said she was very happy we were visiting her village because she'll never be able to visit us in the U.S.

We stopped along the way, while we were walking, to visit with the kids at an all-girls school. I had fallen behind taking photographs, and when I caught up to the group I saw the lines of uniformed girls in their bright orange skirts and white button down blouses. The principal of the Sishu Bikash Academy led the girls’ school in a few rounds of song for us, and kids from the school across the way listened in, excited by the visitors, peeking their little heads over the wall that surrounded the school’s yard. 
The girls sing a prayer for us
These are village kids from the school across the courtyard.  At first, they peer over the wall watching the girls sing, and then 
they run over to their own school
The girls at the school were very friendly and open and excited to talk with us, and we stayed for a little while (maybe 15 minutes) talking with them, taking pictures and etc. A few of us (Joan, Samantha and I, I think), talked to the school’s English teacher about the possibility of further collaboration. We were instantly plotting with Sunrit about how we might be able to find funding to travel back to the village and spend at least a few weeks collaboratively teaching at the school. We’ll see if we can find a way to make it happen! (This reminds me, by the way, of how Noreen and I spent a little time in Iqaluit during our last Fulbright experience plotting about how we could return to the arctic to teach for a season or a year). 


Elizabeth and Jill interview girls for their project on the left, and on the right I'm dressed to match the girls' uniforms!

Samantha with the girls (on the left), and an outside view of the school (on the right)
Back at the Sishu Bikash Academy, we watched as some of the kids prepared to leave for the day on rickshaw schoolbuses.  

Back of the bus!

Kids prepare to leave on the bus (left photo), and Julie shares
photos with the kids on the right

We were then set free to wander into classrooms and to talk with students. I went up to a classroom with a few of my colleagues and watched the end of a lesson.


After the lesson was over, students were dismissed, but they didn’t leave the classroom right away. Instead, they descended upon us, thrusting their little notebooks into our faces and begging, once again, for autographs. I wrote dozens of greetings and signed dozens of times while I stood trapped in the back of a sweltering classroom by an undulating sea of little boys in blue uniforms, sweating so profusely that my chin was dripping and stinging beads of sweat ran down my forehead right into my eyes (I couldn’t wipe it off because everything I was wearing was already too wet, and my hands were too full of notebooks and pens to grab the edge of my shirt). At first, I didn’t mind signing a few books, and I fully expected that, because I was in a classroom, the teacher would eventually calm the kids down and prepare to start her next class. However, it didn’t seem that any of the school’s staff were paying much attention to our whereabouts, and the teacher in the classroom didn’t seem to mind the veritable mosh pit of activity at the back of her room. Eventually the boys started to get a little too insistent about their autographs, and started slamming their notebooks on top of each other and jostling one another for a position that was closer to me, so I had to cut off the autograph session and push out of the room so that I wasn’t condoning their aggressive behavior. 
I ended up spending a good amount of time, after extricating myself from the classroom and walking in and out of a few others, standing on the second floor balcony taking photos of kids while my colleagues were wandering around and while a few of them were playing soccer (“football,” here) with kids in the school’s courtyard. They were super excited to see themselves on the camera!

My little friend here wanted to be in every photo I took!
He didn't speak any English, and when I took a photo and 
showed it to him, I said, "It's good!"  He started to yell, after
a while, "It's good!  It's good!"  It was cute!

Angela plays "football" with the kids in the courtyard!

When we returned from our school visit we had a quick lunch and then I struck out on an adventure with Aimee, in an attempt to find a few contemporary art galleries around the city. We spent a good 20 minutes with the concierge before leaving, mapping out the galleries we thought we wanted to visit and trying to pinpoint where they were located on the map (the concierge called a number of the places to get landmarks that maybe the cab drivers could follow). He suggested that we rent a hotel car (at 500 rupees per hour) because the hotel’s drivers would be better able to navigate the particular places we were trying to travel to, but we decided against his advice. As a result, we didn’t get to nearly as many galleries because we spent a lot of time getting into taxis with drivers who told us they knew were we wanted to go and then had no idea. This meant they would pull over suddenly as a result and then ask some random dude on the street for directions. It was annoying! At one point, we just said, “you know what? You have no idea where you’re going, so we’re getting out.” As a result, we ended up visiting a really cool boutique where I bought a couple more nice tunics. 
We did eventually make it to a couple of very small galleries, which were both really hard to find. We discovered, for starters, that the buildings in Kolkata are numbered as a whole instead of each shop in a building having its own number. This means a block can be only one number even though there might be eight or nine stores in the building that makes it up. There are also a lot of gated courtyards with virtually unmarked stores inside, which can be tough to discover unless you know exactly what you’re looking for and you’re very persistent. After the two smaller galleries (nothing too exciting in either of them), we made it to the CIMA (Center for International Modern Art), which was small but interesting. All in all, it was a nice little excursion, and it was pretty late by the time we made it back to our hotel, tired, of course, as per usual.
After a long day, I returned to the hotel and decided to take it easy. I ordered a delicious warm goat cheese and roasted beet salad that was phenomenal alongside a trio of crème brulee that was to die for (including saffron and cinnamon flavors). It’s strange to sit in a posh five star hotel room on a down comforter eating gourmet cuisine while outside the window there are literally little kids with very little clothing cooking and playing and eating and sleeping under a blue tarp with their parents, breathing thick pollution in the humid air, right on the paved street. In fact, it’s such a foreign experience for me, on both accounts, and so completely without context, that it’s impossible for me to determine exactly how I feel about that particular disjointed economic scenario.
Friday morning was rainy again, and we had morning “free time” on our schedule for the second time in a row. Gagan took me, along with Karinsa, to the music store down the street to help us pick out some appropriately popular and teen-friendly Indian rap and electronic dance music. We also stopped at a bookstore where I was able to find a few good books of short stories by Indian authors, along with a book of folktales and a book of Indian ghost stories, all of which should be really helpful for my curriculum project. 
Back at the hotel we were treated to our usual extravagant, delicious buffet lunch before heading out to visit Swabhumi – The Heritage Plaza, which is a new marketplace for Indian handicrafts and other Indian goods. The trip wasn’t very exciting, as most of the stores seemed to be closed while we were there. 
We returned to the hotel with just enough time to quickly clean up and change for dinner at Dr. Mullick’s house. We picked him up and headed to his neighborhood (Kidderpore), where we visited a Hindu temple dedicated to Lakshmi and then went on a brief walking tour of the neighborhood, visiting a Catholic church in the midst of a mass as we went. We arrived at his apartment building and were warmly greeted by his family and by the other families in his complex, who had also opened up their homes to us. We had a lovely evening of conversation and tasty food, including something we had all heard as “jellyfish.” We were in the mood to be adventurous, and we many of us spooned a few pieces onto our plates. We were really surprised by the texture of the jellyfish (moist but not too chewy), and I was surprised, in particular, that it was my favorite dish (it tasted a lot like General Tso’s chicken, which is one of my favorite Chinese dishes). Eventually, however, we realized that the caterers had actually said CHILI fish, not jellyfish! It was a pretty funny discovery, because even Gagan was fooled! Here we were going on and on about how cool it was that we were trying jellyfish for the first time, and it wasn’t jellyfish at all!
After our visit, we said goodbye and went back for our last night at the beautiful and decadent Oberoi Grand Hotel. I was up late that night packing and organizing and readying another box to be sent home via FedEx from the hotel’s business center. Because it took me so long to get everything together,I didn’t have the opportunity to post my Kolkata blog before leaving the city early the next morning. I apologize for the momentary lack of communication there, and I definitely intend to keep up a little better with my blog during the rest of the journey. Mumbai has been great so far; especially yesterday’s special side daytrip (for just three of us and Gagan) to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. Wait until you hear the stories! 
I’m signing off for now, but there will be more to come, and sooner than you think! I’m determined to post about Mumbai before we depart from the city on Thursday morning, so be on the lookout for new photos and more tales of adventure!
In the meantime, much love and butterflies are coming your way!
Callie/ Ms. Cook
  • Current Music
    Brandi Carlile, Tegan and Sarah, and Jack Johnson on my ipod!

VARANASI (a.k.a. Benares, Banaras, Kashi, etc.)

Ah, Varanasi/ Benares/ Kashi (and so many other names). . . .
This city is overwhelming, to say the least. We arrived two days ago now, and the past 24 hours of the experience has been incredibly packed and extremely intense. This is where the stereotypes of India as a tangle and press of people and animals and smells in tight, dusty alleyways has finally come true. By virtue of its proximity to the Ganges River (they call it Ganga, and it’s seen as the mother of all things), this city is one of Hinduism’s holiest, always packed with an undulating influx of pilgrims on top of the exploding local population. Overwhelming is a mild descriptor for the experience of walking the streets and alleys of this place.
We started off sort of slowly, with a school visit to the Krishmamurti school. The place was beautiful compared with much of the city, green and peaceful on the banks of the Ganga but away from the bustle of the ghats, which are the steps that go down into the river, where the people and pilgrims of Benares go to wash themselves and their clothes in the holy water.

The campus of the Krishnamurti School
We sat quietly with the students first thing in the morning while they filed in, first the girls and then the boys. They were mostly in western dress, the day being Saturday, which meant that only the older students had classes and the younger ones were free to play. The school is a boarding school for most students, though a few are “day scholars” from the city, who come and go each day, and students ranged in age from 8 to 17. We listened as the students sang several incredibly beautiful songs. Most of us were moved to tears by their voices. 

Morning assembly at the Krishnamurti School: Elizabeth, 
Samantha and Julie in the foreground
After they were finished singing, the school’s principal asked us if we had a song to share. We re completely unprepared for this request, and we looked to Karinsa, who is a music teacher, to help us out with ideas. After a minute or two of whispering among us, we decided on an ambitious repertoire of “My country tis of thee. . .” and “Oh Beautiful for spacious skies. . . .” I was really self-conscious singing for such an audience, but I think we pulled it off and managed to sound decent. We decided that we should make it a point to improve our catalog of selections during one of our upcoming bus rides, just in case we get asked to sing again sometime!
After the morning assembly we had the opportunity to talk with the principal and with one of the teachers. We received a basic overview of the Krishnamurti philosophy, which is centered around nurturing students with strong critical thinking skills and open minds. They call this having a “religious mind,” meaning that you don’t necessarily subscribe to one particular dogma but are open to thinking and learning and understanding the world. I love the idea, though it would take a lot of work to create a space like that in Baltimore’s schools. This particular school only accepts 50 to 60 percent of applicants, and students have to score well on certain tests before they can enter. I asked whether there were scholarships for students who didn’t have the means to attend, and the principal said that yes, there were, and that they’d like to be able to do more in that arena. 
Next, we were given a guided tour with a few of the high school-aged students. We visited classes at a variety of levels, and spent some time talking with children, which was GREAT. The little kids were really interested in seeing photos of Mary’s family and home.

Mary shares photos of her family with the girls
Meanwhile, another group played a few games with Joan and Ella (her stuffed pink elephant that she is traveling with for her students. . . . . Her students will be writing a book called, “Ella Goes to India” and will use photos of Ella in India in different places to illustrate their book). 

Joan teaches the boys to play "telephone"

Karinsa and I visit with the girls
We also visited the art studio, where a few boys were working on projects, which they were really excited to have photographed.

Boys in the clay studio. . . . They were excited to show off their work!
When we vistted a middle school class that was playing a review game for a history exam, we jumped in and helped them out with their review.

Look. . . . I'm in the back right corner!
All in all, the school was beautiful and the students were very open and inquisitive. What struck me about the place, however, was that despite it being a place for really privileged kids, the resources were still scarce. Their library consisted entirely of books that were very worn and out of date. I asked the kids about their reading, and all of them said they like to read, but I was surprised about some of the titles they said were their favorites (Black Beauty and Pippi Longstocking were mentioned). However, everyone did mention one modern text: Harry Potter! Some things, I suppose, are truly universal!

After having a cup of delicious chai masala (the BEST I’ve ever had – milk boiled with cardamom, sugar and tea leaves), we departed for a meeting at the Sankat Mochan Foundation with Professor Vir Bhadra Mishra, a famous advocate for the environmental health of the Ganges, and founder of the foundation. I was told that he was recently featured in Time Magazine for his work on behalf of the very polluted river. He talked with us about doing grassroots work to help people understand how they contribute to pollution. It’s impossible, he said, to tell people that the Ganges is polluted, because that is like saying that their god is polluted. Instead, he will take people to the spots were, for instance, raw sewage is flowing right into the river, and then will ask them to reflect on what they are doing to the Ganga, the mother of all things. Clearly, this is a much more effective approach.
After our meeting, we were given gifts of beautiful flower garlands and boxes of Indian sweets.

Next, we left for a quick lunch at the hotel before heading out for a visit to a local village. Only six of us chose to go on the visit (everyone else was really worn out, and I would have been, too, if I hadn’t been feeling sick the day before and skipped a lecture for what ended up being an 11 hour nap). The village visit was an AMAZING opportunity to interact with a different side of Varanasi (and we would see many more sides of the city. . . . keep reading and it will get REALLY interesting!). We talked about the village briefly with some men who lived there and were able to see the outside of a school, where Joan decided to jump into a game of cricket that some of the kids were playing (cricket is HUGE here). 

Joan at bat in a schoolyard cricket match!
Next, we toured a factory that produced a certain kind of pickled fruit. It was completely unindustrialized. The men and women working there were sitting on the floor working with the fruit or standing to cook it. It starts by being pickled for about six months in plastic tubs, then the women use a tool with needles in the end to sort of squish it and make it juicier. After that, the fruit is cooked and soaked with sugar before being pitted (by hand) and put into jars. It was an interesting operation, to say the least, and a far cry from what we see when we tour a factory of any sort in the U.S.

After the factory tour we were also taken to see some of the villagers who were working as weavers. They make fabric, in their homes, for extremely ornate, brightly colored sarees. 
Although seeing the village’s industry was interesting, the most intriguing thing about the village was the children. Some of my colleagues had brought along candy (individually wrapped lifesavers), stickers, pencils (just plain old yellow wood ones), erasers and pencil sharpeners, and so they started to give a few away to some of the children who were hanging around studying us from a distance warily and following wherever we went. 
Joan and I give gifts to the village kids
Word got around fast! Soon there were droves of kids surrounding us on all sides. At first, they were respectful and sweet and polite, but eventually a few of them started to get a little aggressive and sneaky, trying to peek into Aimee’s bag and asking me for “money, money.” At one point, Joan and Karinsa pulled out little photo albums of their homes and family, and then kids were really entranced, and that was an interesting interaction. 

Karinsa shares photos of home with droves of curious village kids

I also enjoyed taking pictures of the kids and then letting them see themselves on the screen of the digital camera. They really thought it was hilarious to see themselves and to pick out their friends on the little digital display. In the end, I felt much better seeing the kids in the village, where they had space to play and fresh air to breathe, than I did seeing them in the city, where it was dirtier and so packed full of people. 
Look at all these guys!  We felt like stars being followed by such crowds!
We returned to the hotel feeling excited about our visit and energized to check out the city, with the intent to walk around and maybe do a little bit of shopping. Seven of us hopped into four bicycle rickshaws for a bumpy ride into the heart of the city. 
The view from the rickshaw: Mary leads the way!
This was my first trip out of the swanky hotel grounds and into Varanasi itself, and I was completely blown away pretty much right off the bat. The air pollution was the first thing I noticed after the traffic (which I’ve sort of gotten used to after the press of Delhi’s roads). The air was hazy with humidity and with smoke from the crematoria, mixed with an assortment of other fumes and thick scents wafting in from every angle. There were profuse and pungent diesel fumes and smells of rotting fruit, strong body odor and old urine (men here pee on everything, everywhere, all the freakin’ time. . . . it’s disgusting! Joan, who is from England, keeps saying, “oh, there’s another one taking a wee!”), fresh cow patties and sweaty cow hides, boiling sweet chai and savory frying samosas, burning nag champa (incense) and strong disinfectant, dust being kicked up from the dirt roads and fragrant flowers being strung together into bright and beautiful garlands. All of that mixed together creates a concoction that is pretty much completely, nauseatingly overwhelming. I’ll mention here, as a side note, that the Indians really love their moth balls. Nearly every nice bathroom has moth balls in the sink drains (I’m not sure why), but the smell is really overpowering and definitely too much for me.

The view from the rickshaw: the streets of Varanasi
We had asked our rickshaw drivers to take us to one of the ghats that didn’t seem too far away. They wove their way through traffic using hand signals, sometimes cutting other drivers off and intermittently swerving around big rocks or around cows standing or laying sadly in the middle of the road.   Eventually we came to a stop in a little courtyard (if you can call it that) in one of the city’s many tight alleyways. 
***Here is your warning. The story I’m about to tell is definitely an adventure, though a dangerous one I would never repeat (Mom: read this at your own risk, knowing that I’m fine in the end and that my lesson’s been learned. To any of my students: Don’t EVER let me find out that you put yourself in a situation like this).***
When we got out of our rickshaws and started to pull out our rupees to pay, our drivers insisted that they would wait for us and that we should pay them after they had gotten us back to the hotel. In fact, there was a sort of “guide” who would show us where we should go. I assumed that the wiry little guide would take us out to the main street where we could do some casual shopping, and so I followed him (and the five other members of my little group, all of whom are older and presumably wiser that I). We wound our way through alley after alley at a breakneck speed, whizzing past booths filled with armed guards (military presence here is necessary after a December bombing that resulted from ongoing tensions between the Hindus and Muslims in the city), past little shops filled with bolts and bolts of beautiful saree fabric (the floor is covered in white mats so that they can easily unroll a whole six-foot saree without getting it dirty), past little (literal) hole-in-the-wall temples, past beggars and hawkers and bikes and motorcycles, past children and elderly women and men and food stands of every kind. We stepped over and around cows and dogs laying in the walkways and passed goats along the way, trying to avoid piles of garbage and cow patties and people who were at varying stages of illness and deformity. 
It didn’t take very long for us to lose our bearings, and suddenly we were completely stuck with this guide of ours because he was the only sure way back to the rickshaws (which we hadn’t paid for). He kept saying, as we went, that it was only a little further to the ghat, which was where we had wanted to go in the first place. It got darker and darker, and once night had descended on the city, it became even stranger to navigate the alleys we were walking through. Something in my intuition bristled at the black-as-night passageways and doorways we were passing, and after not very long we were all sweating and panting, trying to keep up with the guide and with each other, slipping on piles of steaming cow shit and dodging animals and people as we went. We passed shop after shop after crowded, brightly colored shop. We passed necklaces, rosaries and anklets, sarees and scarves, various types of snacks and fruits and carts of wilting vegetables (apparently they don’t like the heat and humidity much, either). All of it was a nauseating blur. Sweat dripped down my back and into my eyes and I noticed an orange-painted statue of Ganesh set into a wall as we sped past.  I put my camera away while we walked and locked my bag closed, just to make myself feel better. 
We told the guide that we were not comfortable with where we were going, but he assured us that the ghat was right around the corner. “Trust me,” he said. “Don’t you trust me?” And Mary, who was at the front of the group, said, “Yes, yes, I trust you.” Suddenly we were there, and being whisked up a dark stairwell, where I saw a carved stone gargoyle sitting in front of a doorway in the darkness. . . . until I realized that the statue wasn’t a statue at all, but a withered little old woman squatting silently in the doorway. It startled me when she shifted as I passed, and sent a chill up my spine. Few experiences have brought home my mortality the way this one did. On the second floor, we stepped over and around people lying on the floor in rags in various stages of death, most of them elderly and all of them rail thin and silent in the dark. One more set of stairs led us to the roof of the building, behind a clock tower, and right in front of us was a series of blazing orange fires on the roof two buildings away, fed by large piles of sticks wielded by men running circles around the fires, which were smoking and studded with bits of orange cloth. The smell of burning wood and flesh was strong in the air. These were the burning ghats, where cremation takes place 24 hours a day, and we looked down on the Ganga to see families dipping their saffron-shrouded dead into the holy waters in preparation for the funeral pyres. I think all of us were in shock at where we had ended up, on the roof of a dark building full of people waiting to die (so that they could be sure they’d go back to the Ganga in death), having been led there by a man none of us knew. I thought about how easily we could have been jumped or kidnapped (apparently the kidnapping rate is pretty high here in Benares), and we all decided quickly that it was time to go. We asked our guide to take us back to the rickshaw, but were accosted by beggars before we left the roof. We all felt obliged to pay before we left, though as we descended the stairs and stepped once again over the bodies on the second floor, Karinsa pointed out that it was probably unwise to let people see where we kept our money.
Back in the labyrinthine streets and alleys, we were rushed again at a frenetic pace over bricks and dirt and between tight rows of shops and intermittent shrines and temples. Our guide stopped suddenly and took us into a shop full of musical instruments, where a few of us looked around, though no one bought anything. Our guide seemed unhappy that we hadn’t made any purchases (most of these guides have arrangements with various shopkeepers who give them kickbacks in exchange for targeted business). When he tried to lead us up another dark set of stairs into another cramped shop we very sternly refused to follow. This made him angry, and his demeanor changed quite a bit. Joan took charge and demanded that we be taken to the rickshaw “Right Now.” Everywhere we walked we were followed by crowds of hawkers pressing up against us with “Miss, Miss, necklaces?” and “Miss, Miss, scarves?” and “Miss, Miss, money, money?” Elizabeth thought it might be effective to try her French on them (maybe they’d be thwarted because they wouldn’t know the language), but they started hawking their wares to her in French as well. The hawkers and beggars here are absolutely relentless. There is no other word for their insistence that we buy or give, all the time, again and again and again. I know how wrong it is to say this, but it’s exhausting.
When we finally emerged on a wider road, the guide told us we should know our way from there and turned to us for money just as Joan told him very forcefully, “Your job is not done until you take us to the rickshaws.” Finally he delivered us (Elizabeth was bumped in the back by a horned cow along the way, and jumped and screamed. . . . she was okay, so it was funny), and we had never been so happy to see a fleet of uncomfortable, broken-down rickshaws in our lives. Joan commented that our driver’s yellow-brown teeth and his tobacco chewing habit had never been so endearing as we climbed aboard and endured a long and bumpy ride back to the hotel. We sat down in the restaurant to eat something while we processed the insanity of our experience with one another and with our guide from the tour company, Gagan, who looked frightened and worried when we told him the story, like he was afraid he might have lost a few of us and ended up in big trouble. Suffice it to say that it was a lesson learned. I showered and scrubbed that night and tried to wash the cow shit from my shoes before collapsing into bed immediately to prepare for our early morning boat ride on the Ganges. (One small note here: Thank you to Katryna for convincing me to bring a second pair of closed toed shoes and for suggesting the cargo pants. . . . Both have been super helpful on these crazy excursions through the garbage-strewn streets!)
We took a bus through the quiet streets of Varanasi near sunrise on Sunday (before five a.m.), and arrived at a ghat where old wooden boats were anchored in profusion. We stepped onto one and then from the first into another, and finally came to a stop on a third boat, where we sat on the wood planks framing its sides. 

The boats were rowed up along and up the shore, against the current, with some difficulty on the part of our navigators. They walked nimbly down a little plank on the outside of the boat to push us away from other boats and from half-submerged buildings along the shore when we got too close and were stuck. Local Indians bathing in the Ganga offered to help out by pulling ropes attached to our boat, and pilgrims looked up from their washing and stared icily as if they were upset they were being bothered. We saw several interesting things during our ride. We saw the first gym in Varanasi, where old men still work out with dumbweights.
The first gym (it's in the orange pillar-ed building)
We also saw a building marking the river’s highest level, and a temple that is completely submerged every year, when the people say that the river comes to worship at the temple.
And, of course, we saw people. People washing, people bathing, people brushing their teeth, people praying, people doing laundry, people sleeping, people contemplating the Ganga. Before we knew it, unexpectedly, we were upon the burning ghats again.
This is the one picture near the burning ghats that I 
took before I was told no pictures are allowed.  you can see
a lick of fire behind the boats and lots of smoke from up above.
The building we were in the night before is the one on the right 
(though you can't see the clock tower in this photo)

We saw the clock tower we had stood behind the night before, and I shot a look around with the others who had been on the previous night’s excursion before looking back to see more family members being dipped in the Ganges before cremation. There were bits of burned wood floating in the chai-colored river, and I looked at the water and thought about the bits and pieces of people that the river contained. I thought about the cows who had died on the street, who, we had been told, where thrown into the river with bricks tied to a leg to keep them from bloating and bobbing back up. I thought about jumping in and swimming with all of this pollution, maybe accidentally kicking a floating bloated dead cow with my foot inadvertently. I was feeling pretty well done with the smell of burning flesh and with all of the wood smoke and diesel fumes, with all of the people and the harassment of the unrelenting hawkers and beggars. I was completely overwhelmed. . . . And then our guide announced that we would be taking a walk through the alleyways “to see a different side of the city.” Karinsa and I looked at each other. We were not pleased.
We walked back along many of the same routes we’d been on the night before. It was sticky hot and I had that before breakfast hunger variety of nausea that was made a little bit worse by the smells of the streets and the funeral pyres. We passed the same orange Ganesh we had seen the night before, and many of the same shops.



People, shops and street temples from Varanasi's alleyways
I remarked to Mary (who is from Maine) that I had never wanted more to be transported to the Appalachian Trail. I wanted the woods and the quiet and the cool shade of the leafy green trees so badly I could taste it. She said she’d like to come with me. Eventually the tour ended and I could relax for a moment after fighting my way through the oppressive heat and humidity and into the bus through the usual large, obnoxious crowds of beggars and hawkers, whom I’ve come to completely ignore, as looking at them invites an interaction that you can’t get out of. The air conditioning felt amazing after our walk, and it felt good (although very admittedly elitist, which always makes me at least a little uneasy) to drive back through the gates of the Taj Ganges and select our breakfast from a huge buffet of options before retiring to my sparkling clean room for a nap before our trip to Sarnath. 
The trip to Sarnath, the place where Buddhism was born, was absolutely amazing and completely separate from the rest of my experiences in Varanasi (the city of contrasts for sure). We first visited the Buddhist temple there, where I photographed some of the paintings on the walls (done by a Chinese artist) depicting how the Buddha came to be. Basically (and this is only one of the slightly varying versions I’ve heard here), Siddhartha was born after his mother had a dream of a white elephant. A sage told the king that the white elephant meant that the child would be either a teacher or a great prophet. At that time (as is also the case now), teaching was not seen as a profession suiting people of the highest castes. Therefore, in the hopes of keeping Siddhartha sheltered from outside influences, the king kept him from leaving the palace. When Siddhartha was a teenager, he snuck out of the house and was immediately confronted with four things: An old man, a man who was ill, a funeral and a monk. 
Having been made aware of the suffering in the world around him, Siddhartha knew that he had to jettison his current life and go in search of answers. He rode off into the woods and searched for a guru to teach him. He tried several different paths to enlightenment and eventually spent days fasting and meditating in a place called Deer Park in hopes of reaching some kind of an understanding. After several days, he was brought a bowl of milk by a girl from a local village. Without thinking about his fast, he took the milk and realized, at that moment, that extremes were not the answer; that the answer, instead, was the middle path and moderation. The Deer Park, where he had reached nirvana and become the Buddha, was on the site of the temple we visited.


After leaving the temple we proceeded to the archaeological site where some of Buddha’s relics (bones) are still buried in a stupa (a large, almost cone-shaped sort of burial mound made of stone). There are ancient ruins there, more than 2000 years old, where Buddhist monasteries and temples once stood. The ruins were absolutely amazing, and I could definitely have spent hours more at the spot. In fact, I didn’t even get a chance to see the whole area, as I got caught up taking pictures of the beautiful carvings that had been left and ran out of time. 
Notice the stupa in the distance in the photo on the right

On the right side of the lefthand photo is the spire of the temple in the distance

In the distance in the righthand photo is a group of Thai monks, all in white, worshipping in the park
When I rejoined the group, we headed to the site’s museum, where many of the most beautiful artifacts are housed, including the famous seated, meditating Buddha. The sad part of the visit was seeing how almost all of the artifacts had been damaged at some point or another by invading armies and intolerant groups of Hindus or Muslims. I was amazed at the thought of what it must have been like for archaeologists to discover these things.  Can you imagine unearthing something as beautiful as a life-sized statue of the peaceful Buddha?  I was also really interested in and surprised by some of the imagery in the Buddhist art. Among other things, I noticed some designs that matched (almost exactly) the circular designs and patterns I saw when I traveled several years ago in Mexico (notably, the Pre-Columbian spindle designs many of you have seen in my work). I’m still curious as to why this is the case, and how the two ancient societies, on opposite sides of the globe, managed to come up with some of the same imagery. Can it really be simple coincidence? I’m doubtful, but am interested in maybe pursing further study of the issue.
After the temple we had lunch at the hotel and took a little time for rest before a musical performance by a pair of renowned sitar and tabla players. The music was Indian classical music, and it was beautiful. Interestingly enough, after the performance the tabla player came up to me and commented that he had seen in my biography that I lived in Baltimore. He told me he’ll be visiting to play there in October or November and promised to send his contact information with Adam (the Executive Director of USEFI and, coincidentally, a former resident of Baltimore as recently as May and also the brother-in-law of one of my colleagues at the Baltimore City Teaching Residency). 
Shri Rabindranath Goswami (sitar) and 
Shri Ramchandra Pandit (tabla)

The group listens
After dinner we all collapsed into our comfortable beds and dreamed deeply about the night train to Kolkata, which we’ll take tonight. I’m excited, although it makes me a little uneasy that Gagan is buying chains to lock our luggage to the train so it doesn’t happen to disappear. 
This morning, after breakfast, we visited Banaras Hindu University, where we got our first look at the inside of a large Hindu temple. 

This particular temple was dedicated to Shiva, and Monday happens to be the special day of the week to worship Shiva, so there were quite a few people inside. It’s really too bad that we couldn’t take photos inside, because it was beautiful and a little grotesque in a strange sort of way. The centerpiece of the temple was a sort of fountain that we’ve been told about several times, with a phallic symbol in the middle and a base that’s symbolic of female anatomy. There was a gold-plated pot of honey suspended from the ceiling, and the honey dripped down onto the top of the phallus, which was also being covered by the worshippers with little pots of offerings of milk. People were dipping their hands in the milk and honey mixture and placing garlands of flowers that were magenta and marigold yellow and white on the fountain-like statue as well. There was a man walking around the centerpiece singing, and a glass-sided box full of flowers and other offerings was set against the back wall of the main room. Inside the box there was a fat cockroach perched on the flower garlands, and the floor was absolutely covered with flies. The smell of flower petals hung heavy in the humid air, but was mixed with sour milk. There were people all over the floor sitting in meditation or laying down in worship, and then there were brightly colored deities in separate side rooms with candles in corners and bright yellow, orange and red powdered colors for dabbing on foreheads. It was a beautiful place, all in all, and totally different from the sterile white marble of the temples we’ve visited thus far. 
Now I’m heading back to the hotel for lunch in a car that is surrounded by slowly crawling traffic (kids are getting out of school for lunch, so the streets are extra busy). All around us there are rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, cars, pedestrians, cows, dogs, kids in school uniforms, school bus wagons, motorcycles, mopeds, and on and on. It was a million degrees at the university, so I’m looking forward to an air conditioned lunch and an opportunity to maybe work out or try the pool before we depart for the train station. Wish me luck with the night train!
More later! Love and butterflies for now,
Callie/ Ms. Cook
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AGRA: Ancient Riches and Modern Poverty

Happy Thursday!
I’m composing this installment from the bus to (and later back from) Agra, where my attention is constantly being pulled away from writing as I’m compelled to gaze at the landscape and intermittent tangles of people and animals and multicolored motorized and man-powered traffic (cars, buses, bicycles, motorcycles, rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, carts pulled by water buffalo, and, of course, foot traffic). Every time I put my camera down I end up picking it right back up again! Here’s the proof:

View from the bus window

Traffic leaving New Delhi

Auto-rickshaw lineup

Closer to Agra, a man gets a shave by the side of the road

Kids gather around our bus
Anyway, I’ll throw in a few things about Tuesday night’s adventure. After leaving USEFI for the last time, folks broke up into small groups to head out for shopping and other adventures. Truth be told, I really wanted to check out the Craft Museum or the Modern Art Museum, but both closed at 5:00 and we didn’t leave USEFI until 4:30. Instead, I joined Mary, Joan and Karinsa in searching out a bookstore within walking distance that had been recommended by Bharathi, one of our amazing USEFI contacts. Searching for the bookstore, we found ourselves lost in a school of some sort, which was really interesting. Finally we asked for directions from someone who spoke some English (it probably won’t surprise you to hear that no one in my group has a grasp on Hindi that goes beyond a few simple phrases), and we found ourselves in a lovely little school bookstore, where I bought a fat stack of really useful books, including a book of stories for young people, a kid-friendly version of the Ramayana (an ancient story we’ve been hearing a lot about these days), a set of magazines on culture that are published specifically for school aged children, and an amazing full-color book of yoga poses (just for fun). After we had spent a good amount of time (and dropped a sizeable chunk of rupees) in their store, the proprietors asked us to stay for coffee, which is a fairly regular custom in these parts. Of course, we had to agree, though when they headed to the back room to make our beverages I turend to Karinsa and mouthed, “the water!” Though I was worried it could make me sick, it would have been rude not to drink my coffee (which was really quite tasty – probably something powdered and reconstituted in boiling water, quite honestly. We sat and chatted and sipped for a good 15-20 minutes before we headed out in search of our next destination, Khan Market, which would be my first shopping excursion in India. 
We headed to the street and spotted a sputtering green auto-rickshaw, which the four of us piled into. 

Joan, Karinsa and Mary (all on my lap) in the auto-rickshaw!

View from the backseat
There are definitely no rules here about seatbelts, or even seats! Two of us had our butts on the actual seat, and the other two were basically sitting on our laps (I know mom is cringing just reading this)! It was definitely an adventure to be piled in like a bunch of puppies while the auto-rickshaw driver wove in and out of traffic, nearly hitting everything he passed. At least he wasn’t smoking a joint, however, like Mary and Joan’s first auto-rickshaw driver, who gave them both a contact high before they’d reached the hotel (I told Joan I’d blame every silly thing she says or does for the rest of the trip on the fact that she might still be stoned!). That little incident, as well as the fact that I constantly smelled weed while walking around the city, made me ask whether marijuana was legal here (it isn’t, though there’s not much in the way of crackdown). 
We arrived in Khan Market, a strip packed with little shops selling everything you could want and at every level of quality and price. 

A street in Kahn Market

We were amazed by all the powerlines!
Our first stop was an upscale women’s clothing shop, where I ended up buying four gorgeous tunics from the very attentive shopkeeper. One of them needed altered and she had it fixed and sent to my hotel by the time I returned from my excursion. They were more expensive than what some of my colleagues have bought, but much prettier and of better quality (I don’t think the colors on these will bleed all over my skin, unlike the cheaper ones), but I didn’t mind paying a little more for higher quality and for something I know I’ll keep and wear for a long time. I also knew the shopkeeper there was forthright and trustworthy. A couple of my colleagues had experiences with cheaper places and with street vendors where their money was snatched out of their hands or stolen off of countertops. Karinsa bought a couple of puppets from a woman on the street, supposedly for the quoted price of 150 rupees. As she pulled out a 500 rupee note, the woman grabbed it from her and took off. I’m happy to buy from nicer shops and avoid that kind of experience. While we were at the market I also purchased some beautiful brightly colored handmade papers to use for chine colle in the woodcuts and engravings I’m planning to work on when I return to good old B-more and set up my studio at Towson for my MFA work. 
Exhausted (as usual), we haggled shrewdly with an auto-rickshaw driver who initially wanted 80 rupees for EACH of us (which actually only totals about $1.95 each) to take us back to the hotel. Joan was a great bargainer, and told the guy no, “let’s go ladies,” (imagine her with her characteristic British accent, turning around and starting to walk abruptly away). We finally haggled down to 50 rupees for the four of us piled in clown car style (about $1.20). Big difference, right?! My intent was to quickly pack up, exercise a little and then hit the hay. Of course, after packing and working out briefly (I also indulged in a little soak in the Jacuzzi with Joan, Mary, Aimee and Karinsa), I got back to the room and started working on my blog, downloading photos (slowly with the internet connections here and the size of my 10.2 megapixel files), trying to get a phone card and etc. Eventually, Elizabeth returned from her adventure (she and two other folks went to visit the home of someone they’d met at the reception the other night), and of course we chatted and decompressed and didn’t end up actually sleeping until after 1:00 (AGAIN!). It seems like I can’t get a decent night’s sleep even when I try! I think I’ll miss rooming with Elizabeth when we move on to our next city. It’s nice to know that our shared history (we’ve known each other for TEN years!) means we can’t really offend each other or be too honest (and knowing someone for ten years, I think, also means we’re OLD!). The other teachers on the trip are really intelligent, kind people, but I likely won’t end up keeping in touch with most of them after the trip is over. On the other hand, however, it’s a pretty good bet that I’ll at least know what Elizabeth is up to for the rest of my life. I’m so fortunate to have her along as a travel companion! I told her we’ll have to make sure to schedule in a little one-on-one time even when we’re not roomies anymore, because processing the days events together every night has been great!
. . . . So Wednesday morning we took a bus to Agra. Seeing the country by bus is a great opportunity to understand more about the culture and landscape (my expedition in Mexico taught me this one). We’ve seen streets crowded with people and flat green fields between villages. This is where cows wander the streets, and we’ve also seen snake charmers and monkey tamers, both of whom have come over to our bus window and then asked for money from us (we were told by our guides not to give them any). When we didn’t want to pay him, one monkey tamer gave me the finger and then started to unbutton his pants, presumably to pull his junk out for display because he thought we were being rude, but I didn’t see anything because I turned around until after our bus had moved (thank GOD!). The animals these guys use are apparently not very well taken care of. The sad thing about the snake charmers’ cobras is that their fangs have been yanked out so they can’t bite and they are also kept in a cramped, tiny basked and kept severely underfed so that they’re only semi-conscious most of the time. I mean, I’m no great snake lover, but that’s unnecessary. As for the monkeys, who were on leashes, they didn’t look particularly well cared for, either, as they were picking up and eating garbage (eating potato chip bags and licking Styrofoam that had been tossed by the side of the road). I also learned today about the reason there are so many cows walking the streets. Apparently, the cows who wander around are old cows who no longer give milk. Killing cows is prohibited, so that’s not an option for an old animal who’s no longer useful, so people just put them out on the street and they’re supposed to basically fend for themselves. I saw a few of them eating garbage just like the monkeys. It’s sad.

Monkey guy outside the bus window

Monkey on a stick
When we arrived in Agra we checked into our hotel (very nice, by the way, though not quite as luxurious as the decadent Taj in Delhi) and then set off to see Fatehpur Sikri. This was one of my favorite sites thus far due to the incredible beauty of the carved red sandstone buildings. 

This is the lotus seat from which the emperor would make judgements
The story behind the place is also really intriguing, as it was built in the second half of the 1500s by the Mughal Emperor Akbar as a home for himself and his three wives, who were of three different religions (one Hindu, one Muslim, one Christian). Our incredible guide told us stories as we toured the site. One story was about an elephant that lived in the palace and who was trained to squish the heads of criminals who were declared guilty by the king by stepping on them. He also talked about the different religious symbolism in the stonework and told stories of the eunuch guards hired to watch over the emperor’s wives while he was away at battle. Each wife had a separate residence in the palace, and it was interesting that each one was very different depending on each woman’s religion and personality. We also saw the original king sized bed, which was AMAZING! The stone platform was built to almost double my height, and there was apparently a staircase up to the top at one point. When the emperor lived there, the platform of the bed would be covered in ornate rugs, cushions and etc. 

The original King Size bed

Check out the green parrots on the buildings at Fatehpur Sikri!

The blue paint on the roof of one of the wives' houses is the original
stuff from the 16th century!
At the site we also visited a beautiful white marble mosque. We took our shoes off, covered our heads and ascended the stairs on the sounds of musicians outside singing traditional hymns. Inside the mosque, we picked up red and yellow pieces of string to tie around the marble latticework for good luck (we were supposed to make a wish with each one). 

Karinsa ties a string to the marble lattice screen
There were also a couple of people in my group who purchased fabrics for prayer. The fabrics were placed on a stone altar of sorts in the middle of the mosque, and then money was put on the fabric and the person who put the cloth down would make a request and a prayer. At the end of the day, the fabrics are given to the poor and the money is given to charity.

Sorry it's fuzzy. . . . I hate using the flash!
After our trek around the fort, we left the confines of the gates and walked around to see the front entrance to the palace. This was one of the first times we’ve been really bombarded with child beggars, coupled with a ridiculous contingent of very insistent people hawking jewelry and postcards. Both groups are relentless in their pursuit of rupees, and they seem to know how to tell which members of our cohort are most susceptible to their plight. My strategy was basically not to make any eye contact, and not to engage in any dialogue with any of them. As a result, I walked right past most of the vendors and the kids and was asked repeatedly what I was doing to create a situation where I wasn’t being pestered. In the end, it’s just that I happen to have a very well developed ability to compartmentalize my experiences, and I know that I cannot change the socioeconomic system of a country by giving to its beggars. Maybe that’s a harsh outlook on the situation, but that’s my coping mechanism, and it works really well for me. I also reason that I spend a great deal of my time, energy and dollars on my own job as an educator in an underprivileged American school district. I see the value in working to improve our own educational and social systems before we work on those of others.
While we were at Fatehpur Sikri our photography-savvy guide took our group photo outside the gates. While he was snapping shots with everyone’s digital cameras, there was a whole crowd of children gathered around, watching intently over his shoulder as he composed and clicked. 

Bilal (our guide) shoots the group among spectators

Outside the gates of Fatehpur Sikri
After a quick lunch back at the hotel, Our guide took us to visit a marble factory, where we were given a quick tour and demonstration of how marble inlay work is done. The work is exacting: artists carve designs in basic white or brown marble and then grind bits of semi-precious stones into the precise shapes they need in order to fill in the designs that have been carved out. The resulting pieces of art are really beautiful, though incredibly expensive.
We returned to the hotel and ate a quick meal before heading up to bed. I’m exhausted, as per usual, but I made myself stay awake long enough to upload the newest batch of photos from my camera to my computer. When I finally went to bed it was after midnight, and our early morning alarm came too soon, at 5:00, when we pried ourselves from our comfortable beds and prepared for our visit to the Taj Mahal. 

The group in the hotel lobby (Agra)

I LOVE this one!

Self-portrait at the Taj Mahal (notice Elizabeth in yellow in the background!
The Taj Mahal was majestic and huge, picturesque and pristine, covered in exquisite marble work and built with every possible structural consideration. It is an incredible structural feat for the mid 1600s. The four minarets, for example, are built on a slight slant outward, so that if they should fall due to natural disaster they will fall outward instead of inward and will not damage the structure of the central dome. The Taj Mahal was built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan as the final resting place for his favorite of his three wives. She was his favorite because she was the only of of his wives to bare him a son. I find this really interesting, historically and biologically speaking, considering that we now know that men contribute the chromosome that determines a baby’s sex. In so many different periods of history, men have blamed women for having the wrong children (usually having a girl when having a boy is preferable) when it was really the men’s “faults” all along (and I put “faults” in quotes because really, how can having a boy be better than having a girl, anyway?). Regardless, it took Shah Jahan 22 years and 20,000 workers, masons and jewelers to complete the structure. He intended to bury himself right across the river, in an identical black version of the white Taj Mahal. However, while a structure was built for the foundation, his vision was never realized because he was imprisoned by his own son, Aurangzeb, at Agra Fort, where he was forced to look out at the Taj Mahal like a mirage over the water. His son imprisoned him, by the way, because he was the third son but wanted to be the emperor. I n order to accomplish his goal and realize his aspirations, he killed his two older brothers and then imprisoned his father so that he would be the successor for the throne.

Agra Fort

Classic  booty shot inside the fort (Callie, Jill, Daniel, Angela, Ella (the stuffed elephant), Joan)

Mary is melting!  

Group atop the fort (Taj Mahal in the background)

Oh my GOD. . . . it's the Taj Mahal! 
While the Taj Mahal was an amazing structure just by itself, there were a few other little interesting sights to see along the way to our visit. We saw a whole crowd of (white faced) moneys walking down the street at one point, many of them with babies clutched onto their backs or stomachs. We also saw some of the city’s feisty chipmunks lounging on a rock eating millet someone had left out for them. I’m including these photos especially for my family, as I know how you guys feel about monkeys and chipmunks (this one’s especially for Carlin. . . . He would have freaked out if he’d seen these monkeys in person!). 

Lounging chipmunks!
We ate a quick breakfast back at the hotel after our visit to the Taj Mahal and then headed back out for two more visits: to Itmad-ud-Daula’s Tomb (referred to around here as the “Baby Taj,” and to Agra Fort (where Shah Jahan had been imprisoned). Both were beautiful and filled with interesting stories.
Now we’re back on the bus to Delhi, where we’re hoping to arrive in time to head out for one more evening on the town before we depart for he airport tomorrow morning for our flight to Varanasi. I’ll update you in a day or two to let you know all about Varanasi! I can hardly believe, at this point, that we’ve only been in India for five days. This whole trip feels like a dream. . . . We’re being treated like royalty and have had such amazing opportunities to see so many beautiful and historically significant places. I feel extraordinarily fortunate to be here, and very thankful for Senators Fulbright and Hays and their innovation. It’s incredible to stand in a place that has been home to such advanced ancient civilizations and to wonder what it might have been like if I’d been here a few hundred years ago. It’s interesting, as well, to consider how Indian society is evolving today. I still have many questions about how caste operates in contemporary society, and about how impoverished Indians view their lives. A few of us were debating today whether there is truly any hope of upward mobility for children born in poor rural communities. We see children who are apparently very adept at begging (you give them a little money, they just hide it in their little fists and continue to beg some more), but we wonder why they’re not in school, if they’re registered to attend, if education can even give them hope of moving into a more comfortable position in life. I also try to consider that not all people have the same standard of living that we do, and wonder whether what we have in the U.S. is really what everyone else in the world really wants or needs in order to be content, productive world citizens. I think we spend an immoral amount of resources on selling our culture to others, to the expense of their own traditions, and I also think that we need to stop making so many value judgments on other cultures. I’m interested to see how these philosophical debates pan out as we travel. 
Okay. . . . I think that’s enough for now! I’m going to finish the book I’m reading and maybe see if I can get in a little bit of quilting before the bus ride is over. I’m definitely enjoying this little chunk of suspended time. . . when we’re traveling by bus we can’t feel pressed to be always on the move. Anyway, I hope you all are well. Please write and say hello!
Thanks for reading (or skimming, as the case may be, considering this is a ridiculous tome)!
Love and butterflies,
  • Current Mood
    drained drained

DELHI: The Saga Continues

I can hardly believe that we’ve barely been in Delhi for 72 hours! Texas seems like ages ago, and I’m feeling pretty well acclimated to the culture. . . as long as I’m with someone who knows what he or she is doing! I do have to admit to experiencing a complete and total culture shock for a few hours after arriving. We didn’t make it to bed until around 5:30 a.m. and then had to be ready to leave the hotel again at 1:30 p.m. That sounds like plenty of time, but Elizabeth (who had managed to sleep some on the planes) got herself up at 8:30 to have breakfast and head out and check out the city. I stayed comatose in my fluffy white bed for a few more hours (I intended to get up at 9:30 to exercise away some of the stiffness of travel, but in my half-sleep I must have slapped the alarm until it turned off without even realizing it). I finally pulled myself from bed around 11:00, looked out over the misty, overcast Delhi skyline (we have a huge picture window with a beautifully sweeping view) and got ready to head down to lunch in the hotel restaurant. When the elevator opened, there I was, the only American person in sight and one of the only women in sight, wearing brightly colored clothes among men in blacks and whites and tightly wrapped turbans sitting lounging and chatting on plush furniture perched on beautifully ornate rugs, feeling completely self-conscious and entirely out of place. I walked over to where I thought lunch should have been and looked around for any familiar faces, but I didn’t see anyone from my group or from the math and science cohort. Normally, lunch alone at a hotel would be no big deal for me, and maybe even a relief because it would mean I could read or write without being rude or having to make small talk. However, in a totally foreign environment, I felt something I’ve never experienced before. . . . I sort of panicked. Instead of having lunch, I got back on the elevator and went back up to the room, where I sat down (trying not to cry) to write and eat an apple and a granola bar for my lunch. I was trying to calm myself down when the doorbell rang (yes, the rooms have doorbells) and a hotel employee asked me if he could clean my room. I wanted to say no, but I had to say yes, so there I was feeling panicked and out of place and needing to be alone but instead trying not to be in the way while my room was being cleaned and things were being moved around me. Finally Elizabeth walked in, and we stood there talking quietly until the room had been cleaned and reorganized. I was glad to see her and she definitely made me feel much better. I had missed everyone at lunch because I was looking in the wrong place, but the experience helped me to realize the extent of my own necessary dependence on others during this trip.
After the miniscule amount of sleep we had all had, and considering it felt to us like the middle of the night (Baltimore is 9 ½ hours behind Delhi), we were all looking like zombies as we walked into our first set of lectures at USEFI’s headquarters. We started out with a session on pre-service teacher training and teacher professional development in India. Although the content was interesting, and although I very much wanted to listen respectfully and to be alert and awake, my eyes had a mind of their own and were heavier and heavier by the moment. We had tea in the USEFI café in the mid-afternoon (apparently tea is a very solidly established remnant of British colonization), which perked us all up just a bit. Our afternoon session was about Indian culture, and included some information about ancient art that I found really fascinating. We learned a little about the Harappan civilization, which was uncovered in India and Pakistan and which dates back more than 5,000 years. We saw slides of cave painting depicting musical instruments, dance and different types of animals and saw slides of sculptures showing dances and, of all things, an ancient stone sculpture of a SQUIRREL (this one’s for you, Carlin!). I actually saw a whole set of tiny Harappan squirrel sculptures yesterday at the National Museum, and managed to snap a picture before I was told by the security guard that I wasn’t allowed to take photographs in that particular section of the museum (check out this photo of the sculptures!). 

Ancient minature Harappan squirrel sculptures. . . . Carlin will DIE when he sees this!
After a long afternoon of lectures, we attended a somewhat extravagant welcome reception, held on the USEFI lawn under a beautiful tent surrounded by a Hollywood-style red carpet and set up with tables covered in delicate white lacey tablecloths and purple accent chair covers. It looked like a wedding! We talked for a few hours with guests from a variety of backgrounds (religious leaders from several communities, Fulbrighters here in India to work on other types of projects, someone from the Library of Congress, some of the speakers we have heard from, and will hear from, while in Delhi, and etc.). We enjoyed a big buffet of Indian food, including excellent papadam (a thin, crispy flatbread that reminds me a tiny bit of Pringles chips, weirdly enough), which ranks up there as one of my favorite Indian foods. 

Elizabeth Heisner with me at the opening reception

The India-Sri Lanka Group!  From the back, left to right, Joan, 
Aimee, Samantha, Daniel, Elizabeth, Ally, me, Karen, (next row), 
Mary, Kathy, Diane, Yael, Angela, (front), Jill, Julie

When we finally boarded the bus, we were feeling fairly awake, considering that, by that time, it was early evening in the U.S. and still the 4th of July. I checked out the very nice hotel gym, which I toured with another member of my group, and saw all of the massage rooms, the weights and machines, the mini-fridge of chilled mini water bottles, the complementary fruit, the sauna and Jacuzzi and pool and etc. I spent a good hour on the elliptical machine in a very comfortable, familiar state of mind – on the same brand of machine I’m used to at my home gym, plugged into the fast-paced and energizing electronic music mix on my ipod, reading my book to kill time. It felt good to really be moving, though it was strange to have so much service around me (the attendants kept coming over to ask if I needed a towel or some water or juice or the TV channel changed). One of my colleagues went for a swim and was followed around while she swam, constantly being asked if she needed a towel or was ready to get out. We were joking that the next thing she knew, she would be asked whether she wanted someone to do the swimming for her, too!
Saturday night was another short night’s sleep, as I got up early to practice my Ashtanga (I worked it out with my friend the gym attendant the night before that he would find me a private room in the gym for practice, which was GREAT!). After practicing and showering I made my first trip to the ridiculously comprehensive hotel breakfast buffet. The buffet at the Taj Mahal hotel is absolutely astounding. Every morning they have, among other things: eggs, chicken sausage, quiche, French toast, waffles, pancakes, dozens of varieties of cereal, milk, soy milk, yogurt in five different varieties (including a delicious baked yogurt in little terra cotta cups with figs cooked into the bottom. . . . mmm!), dozens of types of high quality cheeses, at least two or three dozen types of breads, muffins, coffee cakes and rolls, six or seven types of cut and uncut fresh fruit (today they had lychee fruit, which looks like a spiky red and green curly-ended koosh ball when whole), chicken in sauce, smoked salmon, various cold meats, cooked vegetables, teriyaki tofu, couscous, yogurt smoothies, several types of fresh juice (including fresh watermelon juice, which is delicious!), and then there are the traditional Indian breakfast dishes, as well. There are also very attentive waiters who come over to ask if there’s anything else they can get us (this morning I ordered a plain dosa – which is a delicious south Indian sort of crispy huge crepe that tastes a little to me like cooked cheese, although there is no cheese in the dish at all, as it’s made from pounded lentil and rice flour combined with liquid of some kind, and the dough is left to ferment overnight). Mom emailed me to say that she had a dream the other night that I was not being well-fed on this trip and was hungry all the time. I am so far from starving that I’ll likely come back having packed on a few extra pounds unless I start to be a little more careful!
After breakfast we had an insightful morning lecture at USEFI with a brilliant professor (who worked with Martin Luther King, Jr. to found the School of Social Change near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) on media in Indian society. I was interested to learn that, while the prominence of newspapers and other print media is declining substantially in the U.S. (think about the Tribune’s recent slashing of newsrooms all over the country, including our own Baltimore Sun, which is being redesigned to better match what they think “readers want” by including less news, shorter articles, and more pictures and graphs), newspaper circulation in India is on the rise. Part of this is due to the fact that there is nowhere for circulation numbers to go in the U.S. but down, as we’ve already reached a point of approximately 90 percent distribution in our country, while distribution in India is close to 35 percent. The whole thing is interesting, especially considering that India also has more than 30 different TV news channels, while we’re down to only a few (which are all biased, corporate puppets, as far as I’m concerned). Their society is on the rise in so many ways while ours is definitely in intellectual (not to mention economic) decline. I’m amazed at our country’s blind patriotism sometimes.
Anyway, before lunch on Monday we made a trip to the National Museum for a guided tour of ancient and religious art with Dr. Shobhita Punja, who was an amazing speaker. Frankly, I could easily have taken a whole course with her if I’d had the time. She explained some interesting theory behind Buddhist and Hindu art and also showed us a wide variety of miniature sculptures from the ancient Harappan civilization. That was especially intriguing because it is a great contrast when compared to the larger than life style of pyramids and temples in other ancient societies. One of the most interesting things at the museum, however, was the bones of the Buddha, which (much to the professor’s chagrin) were moved from there original resting place and put on display in a glass jar in the museum in India. There are only a few bones left, truth be told, and now the jar of fragments is housed in a small red and gold pagoda built as a gift by the Thai government a couple of years ago. It’s strange how we memorialize people when they’re gone (it harkens back to the dried heart that we saw in Mexico at a monastery we visited. . . . It belonged to the monk who had founded the place and was in a clear box inside a black case in the dark). 

Sorry this photo's a little jacked up. . . . 
I didn't want to take a million pictures of 
such an amazing artifact.  However, Buddha's 
bones are definitely in there!
After the museum trip and lunch back at the hotel (in the Chinese restaurant inside the hotel, which was unique because it was Indian Chinese) we had a little time for what they’re calling “individual pursuits.” A few of us went for a muddy, rainy walk to try to locate an ultimately elusive mango festival. In the end, we haggled with a confused auto-rickshaw driver to get back to our hotel, drenched and tired, to pack up for yet another excursion, this one to the Red Fort. 

My first auto-rickshaw ride (At least my driver wasn't smoking weed,
like Joan and Mary's first driver!)

The Red Fort was essentially a massive, opulent palace built by the Moghul emperor Shah Jahan. 

Here's the proof that I made it!  Check out how the photographer
made it look like the building is totally one with my hairdo!

Detail of the inside of the Red Fort

Probably the most interesting part of the trip to the Red Fort was that it was in Old Delhi, which is VERY different from where we are staying, which is in New Delhi. Old Delhi is where you see the streets packed to overflowing with huge crowds of mostly lower class/ caste Indians. A little girl with knotty hair and a dirty dress waved at our bus incessantly and made repetitive practiced motions of putting food into her mouth until she convinced Daniel (our token male) to wave back. When we got off of our bus a block later, there was that same little girl (she had run after the bus), grabbing Daniel’s hand and begging him for money. Against his better judgment, he gave her 100 rupees, and for that he had her following him around for a while. She even pinpointed him in the crowd later on and begged him for more money, which left him sort of incredulous.
We took a dinner break after wandering around the Fort (where we began to realize that we are constantly stared at), and we were released in small groups to check out the older part of the city. We set out from an Indian McDonald’s, which I went into in spite of my distaste for the corporation. The McDonald’s in Delhi doesn’t serve beef, but does serve chicken sandwiches, something called “veg surprise,” which are essentially veggie burgers, and (of course) fries. There were other items that were more culturally specific, but somehow the Mickey D’s menu has slipped my mind! I went with three other Fulbrighters and one of our USEFI guides, who rushed us through the overcrowded streets and to Haldiram’s, a vegetarian restaurant that he described as an Indian fast food chain. We ordered and split a variety of dishes, including nan, dosas, paneer, rice and dal. After eating, we stopped at the sweets counter downstairs, where I ordered a small box of mixed Indian sweets, including burfi and barfi, which are mildly flavored and covered with edible silver leaf on top, which makes them really fun to look at and to eat. 

Indian sweets (LOVE the fat yellow ones!  I'm not sure what it's called
or what it's made of, but it sure is tasty!)
Walking back to the group’s meeting spot was an experience that was overwhelming for many of my colleagues, though for some reason I took it in stride. The streets were dirty, sometimes radiating the strong scent of old urine, and the buildings were dingy. They seemed piled on top of each other and squished together and were covered with a spider web of power lines. There were street vendors, of course, brewing large pots of chai tea or cooking various types of fried Indian snack foods. There were people sleeping on the sidewalks and women with children sitting begging here and there. There were occasionally skinny, unhealthy-looking, sand-colored dogs (often sleeping in the middle of the path), and one group claimed to have seen a cow. We moved fast, weaving swiftly through and around crowds of people, and made it back to the Red Fort in time to see the “sound and light show,” which was essentially a primer on 500 years of Indian history condensed into an hour. It was outside and the buildings on the palace grounds were lit up in turn, as they appeared in the stories. We didn’t make it home that night (due to weird standstill middle of the night Sunday traffic) until after 11:00, when I hit the gym and stumbled to bed. Thus far, I have only had three or four hours of sleep per night, which, when coupled with lingering jet lag, has made it tough to be as attentive as I’d like to be in our lectures. I’ve tried to make it to bed earlier, but it takes time to really process so much new knowledge, to be able to talk with Elizabeth to decompress for the day, to work out after sitting still and stiff for so much of the day, to write these blog entries. It’s much like living during the school year, when I often jettison hours of sleep here and there in order to devote time to other pursuits, however, there is no weekend to use in order to catch up. Every morning is early and every day is absolutely packed!
Monday was an extra early morning (gigantic breakfast at 6:30 this time), and then we boarded the bus to visit Humayun’s Tomb and Qutub Minar, which were both interesting historical and religious sites. 

Inside Humayun's Tomb

Humayun's Tomb (outside looking in - 
this was BEFORE I learned I wasn't
supposed to take pictures of the inside
of the building

Token postcard-quality shot (though
the weather really wasn't cooperating
all that well)

We spent much of the rest of the day an hour away at the Center for Cultural Research and Training, where we learned more about the economy, about art, about religious diversity and about Indian dance. All of the sessions were informative and interesting, though there was an uncomfortable moment during the religious panel when one of my colleagues decided to inquire at the last minute about how the religions view homosexuality. Of course, their responses were totally negative. The professor speaking about Hinduism was especially outspoken about how unnatural homosexuality is, and about how there are animals who practice homosexuality, “but that’s the difference between people and animals – we have the ability to control our desires.” I thought the question was altogether unnecessary, considering that it was totally unrelated to the topic at hand. I was also a little annoyed that my colleague didn’t have the forethought to consider that it doesn’t feel good to hear about how unacceptable you are in this culture if you’re sitting there listening to this conversation as a person who is gay. She is Jewish, and I wondered how she would have felt if I had asked in front of her, in a socially conservative culture, about the acceptance of Jews. The whole scenario makes me consider how we communicate about various types of diversity and how the things we say can affect others. Another interesting point in the panel discussion was when the speakers were asked about conversion. The Hindu community representative very strongly expressed that there is no reason for anyone to convert. Everyone, in his opinion, should continue the traditions they were born into. This is an interesting viewpoint, as it is both very accepting of other faiths and also very closed to outsiders all at once. I wonder what he would have said if I had asked his feelings about conversion in the case where someone was raised without a prescribed religion, or what he thought about westerners’ fascination with Hindu. 
After lunch at the CCRT, we were treated to an absolutely amazing presentation about Odissi dance by renowned Odissi dancer Mrs. Kiran Segal, her two of her teenaged students and their three musical accompanists (one on a drum and another on violin). The music and the dance were both mesmerizing – the dance costumes brightly colored and the girls made up with traditional makeup, the music of their jingling silver jewelry (covered in tiny bells), the amazing beat of Mrs. Segal’s singing (choppy and sort of clicking, like “tik-a-tik-a-tah”). I’m hoping I can find a CD of the music at some point before I come home, as I’d love to share it with all of you.

Young Odissi dancers (jumoring shutterbug teachers after 
their performance)
We returned to the hotel exhausted at 9:30, with a few of us feeling sick (they call it “Delhi belly,” and I’ve had a mild case of nausea myself on and off for the last 24 hours). I managed to make it to bed around 1:00 (another late night), and got up early this morning to practice my Ashtanga before a light breakfast and then the bus back to USEFI. We looked for the hotel’s resident monkey this time as we pulled out of the hotel driveway. Apparently the story is that he is chained to the tree in the back of the hotel in order to fend off a plague of other monkeys. There are two kinds of monkeys, we’ve been told, black faced monkeys and white faced monkeys. The white faced monkeys are apparently very even-tempered, while the black faced monkeys are nasty and mischievous (I wonder if there are racial implications here). Keeping one black faced monkey fends off all other monkeys in the vicinity. A waiter told one of my colleagues a story of a biscuit factory he used to live near, where there was a rash of monkey-related trouble. The monkeys would apparently break into the factory and steal biscuits right off the conveyor belts. To solve the problem, the factory decided to chain one black faced money behind the building (they fed him well and took care of him), and as a result, suddenly, there were no more monkeys within a two and a half mile radius! Crazy, right?!
Okay, so that’s the next installment of my novel for now (feels like that, huh?). I debated about letting this get so long, but I feel like it’s as much for me as for any of you, and you can feel free to skim when you’d like (if you make it this far!). If you’re reading this, please do comment or shoot me an email, as I’d really love to have some feedback and to “hear” a voice from home. So far I’ve only heard from my mom (thank you, mom!). I wish this thing had a counter on it, actually, so I’d know if anyone is looking. In the absence of a counter, let me know!
Tomorrow we head to Agra to see the Taj Mahal (not the hotel version this time!). I’ll write more, of course, when there’s more to tell!
Love and butterflies,
Callie/ Ms. Cook
  • Current Mood
    tired tired


It’s after 5:00 a.m. local time and I’ve finally, FINALLY arrived in Delhi after a (mostly) excruciating 36 hour journey from the hotel in Austin, Texas, through Dulles International Airport in D.C., and through Frankfurt, Germany, where we endured a five hour long layover before departing for the final leg of the journey to India. I’ve never been motion sick in my life, but apparently something was going on with me during this trip (though it could admittedly have been complete and utter exhaustion and lack of decent sleep for hours and hours on end). I’ve been nauseous for the past 25 hours or so, since halfway through the flight to Frankfurt, and the airline’s hot meals (though the ravioli with marinara and the Indian-style vegetarian meal of palak paneer and basmati rice still tasted pretty good for airline fare) apparently didn’t agree very well with my stomach. Both of our international flights were on monstrously huge planes with either seven or ten seats across in the economy section and with ridiculously posh first class accommodations that we had to slowly parade through and eye longingly whilst shuffling like lemmings to the cliff of economy class sardine-dom. I have NEVER seen first class seats like these! They had real pillows with real sateen sheet pillowcases, mini white down comforters, 20 inch TV screens (for each seat) complete with remote controls to be used from the spacious lazy-boy style leather recliners while resting your feet on the complementary matching leather footstools. I count that little tour as cruel and unusual punishment, especially because the seats seemed to get smaller and smaller (and at one point I was behind a dude who had a conveniently broken recliner button that meant I was staring at the back of his head wondering if he wanted me to braid his hair or something!
Okay, enough about the downsides of international flights (and let this be a lesson for you, Mom, that you do NOT want to travel to India, just in case you were about to book a trip, because I would NOT have wanted to see you sitting in the sardine can while we idled on the scorching runway without air conditioning for half an hour)! The one really cool part of the flight itself was seeing Ireland at sunrise from the air (my very first glimpse of Europe!). It was ridiculously lush and green, and there were these wisps of white mist clinging to what looked like the hedgerows between fields. It was beautiful! Landing in Germany was also interesting, especially considering that a large part of my genetic makeup came from that part of the world. Apparently I look very German, too, in case anyone had any doubts about my origins. Most of the airline personnel started out by talking to me in German before trying their English, while they started with English for most of my traveling companions. I think the red glasses and my funky haircut completed the true German look, because I saw several women in Frankfurt who fit a variation on my physical description. It was bizarre, because this older lady with short blonde hair and funky glasses kept looking me up and down like she knew me from somewhere. . . . It makes me want to know more about my family tree.
. . . . And after all of that (and hours of trying to sleep sprawled on airport floors and balanced precariously on rows of airport chairs) we FINALLY arrived at the gate in Delhi! Most of my colleagues were very excited to arrive at our destination, and I have to say that I was more than relieved to step off of the plane after so much time spent so cramped and stuffy (and SMELLY. . . . gross!). After leaving the gate I had my first encounter with the infamous Indian toilets, which I have to say are NOT designed at all for those of us with less-than-stellar knee strength. Basically, for those who don’t know, they consist of a porcelain-lined (in the case of the airport) hole in the floor surrounded by cement with two footprint spots on the sides. The idea is that you squat and pee in the bowl, and then you are supposed to use a little faucet (and your left hand) to rinse out your “junk.” They don’t really do toilet paper all that often here, unless it’s in the westernized, touristy spots, and I’ve been told that culturally TP is seen as being a little gross (like, why would you want to put paper up your butt?). This is why it’s impolite to serve food or shake with your left hand, and why those types of jobs are (thankfully) reserved for the right.

Dark (but descriptive nonetheless) photo
of an Indian toilet (this one's in a school)
Anyway, enough about the lavatory! When we passed through customs we were greeted by the folks from USEFI (the United States Educational Foundation in India) who very thoughtfully brought us all bouquets of daisies! We watched a group of Sikhs in robes and turbans greet an arriving dignitary by touching his feet as he walked from the gate with his luggage cart while we waited for the rest of our group to get their luggage, clear customs and assemble (everyone’s luggage made it this time. . . . yay!). It was after 3:00 in the morning when we left the airport to board our buses to the Taj Mahal Hotel. We were given really nice bags with nametags, articles and schedules along with bottled water (because we’re not supposed to drink the water here, though I oh-so-brilliantly in my sleep deprived and jet-lagged stupor managed to use tap water to brush my teeth). The half hour bus ride to the hotel was interesting as I got my first glimpse of India. The streets were fairly empty of traffic, though I did see a few police cars (antiques by our standards) here and there, as well as groups of auto-rickshaws parked by the road for the night with their drivers gathered talking or sleeping on their seats with their legs hanging out of the cabs here and there. There were also occasionally people sitting outside talking in those white plastic lawn chairs that are ubiquitous in the summertime anywhere, and there were guards here and there sitting or standing with their rifles. I also saw my first glimpse of the poverty India is (unfortunately) known for, as there were scattered groups and individuals laying sleeping on the dirt here and there on straw mats or just covered with a single dirty blanket (no shopping carts of goods or cardboard box forts around here that I can see). I’m interested to see how my response to poverty changes as I travel here. I’m trying to see it, to some extent, through the religious lens through which most of India’s Hindus view it, which is to say that poverty in this life is reflective of one’s path through his or her last incarnation, and he or she can ascend from that position into a better one in a future life. We’ll see how this little philosophical exercise goes!
Anyway, we arrived at the opulent Taj and were treated to fresh watermelon and orange juices and had red powder pressed into our foreheads by a beautiful woman in a gorgeous red sari for prosperity. Finally, Elizabeth and I (she’s my roomie for this leg of the journey, which is nice, since we’ve known each other for a good 10 years by now) sauntered sleepily up to our posh room (where they actually have a ten-item PILLOW MENU, among other things). There are fresh flowers on the desk, chocolates and fruit and down comforters. I’m about to (finally) collapse after I post this, and I’ll be up in another three and a half hours to start attending lectures and the opening reception. Wish me luck!
Hope all’s well at home!
Love and butterflies,
Callie/ Ms. Cook
  • Current Mood
    exhausted exhausted