Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Last Days of the Maharajas

It is eight a.m. in India, but outside our airplane window, it is pitch dark. I have no idea where we are in our flight path right now – all I know is that the sun will be rising when we land in Frankfurt.When I last wrote, we were packing to leave Chennai. Our last few days there passed in a flurry of good-byes, gifts, final meals, and frantic attempts to stuff all our belongings into our suitcases. We were sad to be leaving our temporary home on Karpagam Avenue 3rd Street, but excited to be taking one last excursion before heading back to the United States. This time, we planned to visit a little of Northern India, with a day reserved for Agra – home of the Taj Mahal.

We set out from Delhi on December 26, stopping to pick up our friend, fellow Fulbright Teacher, Evelina, who would be joining us for our travels. Our first day did not bode well for the trip (inauspicious!), as we encountered horrible traffic driving into Agra. We got in so late that we had to postpone visiting the Taj until the next morning, which actually worked out better, since we got there as the sun was rising. Our first glimpses of the monument were stunning – slightly enveloped in the early morning mist, it looked ethereal and I felt like we had stepped back in time. Apparently, we weren’t the only ones with the bright idea of viewing the Taj at sunrise, as a lot of people were already there when we arrived. However, the site is so spread out that we never felt too overwhelmed by the crowds. We wandered for hours, checking out the beautiful marble-work up close and taking loads of photos (including the famous “touching the Taj” trick photos). As the sun rose, the Taj emerged from the mist, giving us a perfect view, although, in all honesty, no photograph can do justice to the monument.

After the Taj, we did not linger in Agra, but went on to Jaipur, stopping en route to visit Fatehpur Sikri, the former palace and royal city of Emperor Akbar, that served as the capital of the Mughal Empire for fourteen years, during the 16th century. We reached Jaipur around sunset, then checked into the Narain Niwas Palace Hotel – a heritage hotel that was once the country residence of a nobleman who served the one of the Rajput Maharajas. Even more impressive than the arched facade of the hotel and the peacocks strolling the grounds, were our rooms – huge suites that were the size of small apartments, each one with a giant, gaudy chandelier, carved teak furniture, high, painted ceilings, and portraits of past maharajas and other Rajput noblemen. Yes, for our final two nights in India, we were going to live like royalty.

Jaipur is also known as the “pink city” for the distinctive pink sandstone buildings found in the Old City. On our day of touring, we drove through this area, stopping to take photos of the visually stunning “Palace of the Winds” with its dozens of windows. Then it was on to the Amber Fort, one of the most amazing palace/forts I have seen in India. Even from a distance, it loomed up on the hill, surrounded by a huge wall. We spent hours exploring the 16th century fort, crawling up tiny, hidden passageways (thank goodness for James’infrared mini-scope!), waving from the balconies where the ladies of the court would have watched processions, and taking photos of the audience hall that whose ceiling and walls were covered with thousands of tiny mirrors. After the fort, it was on to the Jantar Mantar, a really funky, huge outdoor observatory/astronomy park built in the 18th century. The park was full of huge structures that looked kind of like giant wheels and skateboard ramps, all of which were used for various astronomical purposes, such as charting the sun’s position, calculating the angle of the planets, and so on. The kids and I could not understand any of it, but Mike was clearly in his element.

On our last full night in India, we sat outside, in the cool evening air, warmed by bonfires, eating delicious chicken tikka and tandoori kebabs, while being entertained by a Rajasthani cultural program. We felt very fortunate to have come this far, and to be ending our stay on such a pleasant note. James got one last chance in the spotlight when one of the performers – a young boy his age wearing a turban – asked him up to the stage to join in the dancing. To his credit, James did a great job in keeping up with the other boy’s moves. The next morning, we left Jaipur to return to Delhi for our 2:00 a.m. flight. And now we are here, flying over Europe, slowly making our way back to the U.S. As excited as I am to be coming home, I’m sad that our journey is finally at an end. It has been a difficult, amazing, transforming experience, and none of us will ever forget it. When you leave someone’s home in South India, it is customary to say “Poitu varain,” which is Tamil for, “I will go and come back.” In return, your host responds, “Poitu vanga,” meaning, “Please go and come back.” So, India, I will not say good-bye, only “Poitu varain.” And in return, I hope you will reply, “Poitu vanga.”

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

On Leaving Chennai

I am surrounded by suitcases, piles of gifts, and books to be sorted through. Mike and the kids are at school and I am faced with the daunting task of packing everything up, as we leave Chennai in two days, on Christmas Day. I am filled with a sense of excitement to be going home, and a slight wistfulness, as I will miss our apartment and our life here. On the occasion of our imminent departure, I thought it only necessary that I give the city its due. Because, after four months of life here, I have come to like Chennai far more than I thought I would.

When the Fulbright committee first informed us, back in March, that we might be assigned to Chennai, the first thing I did was grab my world atlas and look for the city. I had no luck finding it, leading me to believe that it must be a tiny village, too small to merit a dot on the large map of the Indian subcontinent. However, after a quick Internet search, I found out that Chennai was not a small village, but a bustling city of over six million people, located in southeast India, on the Bay of Bengal. The reason I had not been able to find it was because it was formerly known as Madras until the 1990s. When I had the chance to peruse the travel section of our local bookstore, what I read about Chennai did not inspire me. The guidebooks pointed out its lack of tourist attractions, and one book wrote that it was “polluted, crowded, and muggy.” Although these books did not instill a feeling of confidence in me, we accepted the posting nonetheless, as we thought it would still be exciting to spend five months living in India. I am so glad that we chose to come. In fact, as far as postings go, Mike and I think he got one of the best assignments.

So what is it I like about Chennai? Perhaps it is the tropical vibe – the coconut palms and flame of the forest trees, the huge expanse of Marina Beach, and the bustle of life all around me. In many ways it reminds of Los Angeles, a city near to my heart, because of the beaches, the palm trees, and the crazy traffic. On the one hand, it is a city full of Western conveniences, be it Pizza Hut and KFC, movie theaters that show English-language blockbusters, Levis stores, and video game arcades. On the other, it is a city still steeped in tradition, where religion is an integral part of daily life. During our morning auto-rickshaw commute to Vidya Mandir school, we pass by the huge Kapaleeshwarar temple, a dominant landmark in the Mylapore district. All around it are women sitting along the curb, selling garlands of jasmine and marigolds, which will be bought by the people going to the temple to do puja (prayer). Many of the doorsteps we pass by are freshly decorated with kolam - patterns made from rice powder -which have decorative as well as religious purposes. The morning ride is never dull, and my senses are always full of sights and sounds – wooden carts piled high with pyramids of limes, bananas and apples; green-uniformed sweepers cleaning up the streets; coconut vendors; women selling freshly caught fish and prawns; men on bicycles carrying everything from buckets to huge tins of filter coffee, and children of all ages, in their various colored uniforms, walking to school or riding with their parents on motorcycles.

I was told, after arriving here, that the people of South India are far more hospitable than those in North India. I cannot vouch for the north, as we were only in Delhi for four days, but I would definitely agree that the south is a welcoming place to be. Throughout Tamil Nadu, we have found most people to be friendly – if someone approaches us at a temple or a tourist site, it is usually not to harass us, but to ask us where we’re from, how we like India, and inevitably, if we will pose for a photo with them. The people we have met during our stay here, especially the teachers at Vidya Mandir, our Tamil instructor, my yoga teacher, and James' keyboard teacher, have made us feel very welcome in this country. Although this trip is meant to be an exchange, I feel like we can never properly reciprocate the generosity we have received, unless people choose to visit us in the U.S.!

When I have gone out to explore Chennai on my own, I have never felt threatened, even though Western women are not a common site. Most people let me go about my business, without any hassles. I was warned that the auto-rickshaw drivers would try to cheat me at every turn, but most of them have been fair. The drivers at our auto-stand at the end of Karpagam Avenue 3rd Street always greet us cheerfully, and have even come down the block to pick us up during the monsoon, when our street turned into the “Karpagam River.”

I also feel fortunate that we were given such a great place to live. Our apartment, which is now decked out for Christmas, has been very comfortable and centrally located. We also really like our Karpagam Avnue neighborhood. On the corner are James’ keyboard classes, the local grocery stand, and a South Indian vegetarian restaurant, which sells awesome samosas and onion bajji (onion rings). Down the block, we have the bustling Santhome High Road, with our favorite afterschool hangout, 36 Degrees (with the unusual slogan “At 36 Degrees U go Minus”), where we get brownies, French fries and awesome banana milkshakes. The delivery guys at Sangeetha (vegetarian restaurant) and Hotel Marina Park (non-veg, with great chicken tikka) know our address by now, and can be here in twenty minutes. School is a ten-minute auto ride away, in Mylapore, where you can buy just about anything, super cheap from the Luz shopping district. It is a fun, interesting, colorful place to be, and visually, there is rarely a dull moment.

So I think the guidebooks were wrong. Perhaps, if you were just passing through for a day, you wouldn’t notice the city’s charms, and you would have no desire to linger. But as for us, after four months here, we feel like we couldn’t have chosen a better place to stay for our life in India.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Excursions in Karnataka

With only a few weeks to go before leaving India, I decided to take the kids out of school for one last trip. Mike, unfortunately, did not get to join us, as he had to stay and teach at Vidya Mandir, but I figured that I had acquired enough India-savvy to travel on my own with the kids. For our destination, we chose Karnataka, the only other state in South India we had yet to visit. Our plan was to divide our time between the city of Mysore and the national parks near the Kabini River. The journey to Mysore, on the Shatabdi Express, was quite pleasant, if a little long (seven hours). Along the way, we did not go hungry, as we were given water bottles, South Indian coffee, breakfast, lunch, cookies, candy, and tomato soup!

Mysore is a popular city among school groups, as it has a lot of historical monuments. The most well known is the Amba Vilas Palace – an impressive structure dominated by domes, turrets and colonnades that was home to the Wodeyar family (former ruling dynasty of Mysore). As beautiful as the palace is by day, it is even more striking at night, when it is lit by over 9,000 bulbs. We also visited the Brindivan Gardens, a terraced garden at the foot of the Krishna Raja Sagar Dam, notable for its beautiful fountains, illuminated by colored lights in the evenings. This being Southern India, we had to see a few temples as well, and we went to the 11th century Chamundeswari temple on Chamundi Hill, though we chose the easy route of driving to the top rather than walking up all 1,000 steps! I liked the area for its great views of the city, while the kids were captivated by the cute temple monkeys. We also visited the 13th century Hoysala temple of Somnathpur, located about an hour outside the city, which had great rock-cut carvings. Along the way, we saw coconut palms, big banyan trees, sugar cane fields and bullock carts carrying huge loads of wood. There were times, driving through some of the smaller villages, where I felt like I was transported back in time, other than the large satellite dishes on top of the tiny houses!

After Mysore, it was on to the Kabini River Lodge, located just outside Nagarhole National Park (formerly a hunting preserve for the Mysore royal family). We chose the Kabini Lodge because it offered small jeep safaris into the park twice a day – at sunrise and in the late afternoon. On our first safari, we were very fortunate. Not only did we see elephants, sambar deer, eagles, peacocks, and monkeys, but we had a female leopard cross our path. As soon as the leopard ran into the bushes, our guide directed the jeep to race at a breakneck speed to a spot where the leopard might emerge. For our family, seated in the back row of the jeep, it was a crazy, bumpy ride, kind of like at an amusement park, and even though I was clinging on for dear life (there were no seatbelts, of course), the kids were loving it. We never did find the leopard, but we found another one (a male) hiding in the bushes, stalking its prey. It amazed me how our guide had such amazing senses – he could see birds and animals that were very well hidden and knew when certain types of animals were giving out warning calls. Alas, this first trip set the bar a little high, as our guide was now obsessed with finding more big cats to show us on our next two safaris, but with no luck. However, we did see some wild elephants up close – the solitary males with their huge tusks, eating bamboo, and the females with their young, drinking from a salt lick and spraying themselves with dirt. On our river safari, we were treated to a peaceful scene of various animals – monkeys, wild board, deer, peacocks, egrets – hanging out by the river as the sun was setting, while across the riverbank, we could see a male elephant taking a drink and spraying water from his trunk.

Even at our camp, there was wildlife to be seen, because right outside our cottage was an elaborate treehouse with a huge rope net underneath. I assumed this was for the guests to play on, even though I would not let Taz and James climb up to the top of the treehouse, as the ladder was far too dubious looking. However, we soon realized that the house and rope net were not for people, but for the resident monkeys, who used the structure as a huge play area. We had great fun watching them, until we heard a strange cry above us and saw an enormous swarm of the biggest bats I have ever seen – flying right over our heads. But even that did not drive us inside – it was only when Taz felt her feet burning and realized she was being attacked by fire ants that we retreated to the safety of our cottage! In all, though, we loved our experience of being so close to wildlife, and we only wished we had time to visit some of the other nature preserves in India before leaving at the end of December.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Temple Towns of the South

Time for vacation again! This time, our family was headed south to Pondicherry, for the Fulbright Conference. We were all excited to go, as the conference would give us a chance to re-connect with the five other Fulbright Exchange teachers posted in India and hear about all their adventures. Since we had a few free days before the meetings began, we decided to check out some of the famous Hindu temples of the South. Unlike North India, which was heavily influenced by various waves of Muslim invasions, the South was dominated by regional dynasties and developed its own unique religious and political institutions. The most visible legacy of these dynasties is their amazing temples, noted for their gigantic gateway towers, or gopura.
On Saturday, joined by fellow Fulbright teachers Evelina and James (who had flown in from Delhi and Mumbai, respectively), we flew out of Chennai to Tiruchirapalli (also known as Trichy, which is far easier to pronounce and spell!) in central Tamil Nadu. Due to flight delays, we did not actually get to our hotel until midnight. The kids are getting more used to travel in India now, as they barely complained about the late hour or the long wait for an extra bed and towels for our room.

Our first stop was the Ranganathaswamy Temple in Srirangam, noted in one of our guidebooks as “the largest temple complex in India.” It was truly huge, composed of seven walled courtyards, covering more than 120 acres. We entered through an immense and very colorful gopura, which was crowded with a stunning array of carved Hindu gods, goddesses, and mythological figures. It is interesting to note that the temples are not just beautiful tourist attractions (for foreigners and Indians), but active prayer sites, and we saw a number of pilgrims performing puja, including small children with shaved heads. We declined the offer of a local guide, preferring instead to wander around on our own and absorb all the wonderful details. The kids were very excited at the appearance of the temple elephant, who had a neat trick: if you placed a coin in his trunk, he would scoop it up, give it to his handler, and then pat your head with his trunk as a blessing. James was blessed three times, so we figure he’s covered for luck. After Srirangam, we went on to the Rock Fort, which entailed climbing up 400 steps (James counted, and it was actually only 364). The view was pretty awesome, as we could see the gopura at Srirangam towering above all the other buildings in Trichy. James’ elephant blessing must have worked in our favor, as the rain held off until we were finished sightseeing in Trichy and headed to the next town, Thanjavur (also known as Tanjore).

In Tanjore, we stayed at a wonderful resort on the Cauvery River. We had a truly memorable swim at 7:00 p.m. that evening, in total darkness, as soft rain fell intermittently. Despite the rain, the air temperature was still in the 80’s and the water was even warmer! We were warned there were snakes on the paths, but all we saw was a lone frog, sharing the pool with us. In the morning, we went on to the Brihadishwara Temple (also known as “the Big Temple”) in Tanjore. This was another stunning monument, made of reddish sandstone, with two gopura gateways, a huge courtyard, a main temple building, and a pavilion containing the second largest Nandi (a bull, the vehicle of the god, Shiva) in India carved out of a single piece of black stone. Inside the temple wall was a passageway containing beautiful frescoes and Sanskrit carvings. Taz was able to recognize some of the letters, thanks to her Sanskrit classes at Vidya Mandir. Our final temple stop, on the road from Tanjore to Pondicherry, was at the awesomely named (take a deep breath, now) Gangaikondacholapuram. Unlike the other temples, which were crowded with pilgrims and families, it was very peaceful here, with only a few visitors and some pigeons and parakeets among all the carvings. As luck would have it, the rain started up again, just as we were leaving. Our drive took us through some lush scenery – palm trees, rice paddies, rivers and backwaters – a wonderful glimpse of the interior of Tamil Nadu. Even though we only saw a fraction of all the temples spread out across this region, we came away with a much greater appreciation of them, both for their artistic elements and their powerful spirituality.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A Big Week at Vidya Mandir
In a school of 1,400 students, there is always something going on. This past week at Vidya Mandir was more eventful than usual, however, for two reasons: Project Day and Mike’s birthday. Project Day was held last Saturday, November 14. It is a yearly event, kind of like an Open House or a Parents’ Day, but with much more work involved. Each grade is assigned a topic (such as history, cultural traditions, temples) and given an hour or so at the end of each day to create projects focused on this topic. For example, Taz’ class (7th Grade) was assigned fairy tales and folk tales, and the students worked together to make colorful posters, shadow boxes, mini puppet theaters, and models showcasing the various stories. The kids are pretty much left to their own devices, to see what they can come up with on their own, all with a variety of recycled materials, and they are amazingly inventive. For James’ class (3rd Grade), the topic was Indian festivals, however, James himself was pulled from the preparations, as he was one of the lucky few primary students who was selected to participate in a play.

Project Day, which was coincidently held on Children’s Day, started off with decent weather. We had just recovered from the first round of the Northeast monsoon, and were hoping the sunshine would hold for another day. No such luck. No sooner had we arrived at school at 9:00 a.m. that morning, than the skies opened up! I barely had time to run James over to the stage where the teachers were setting up for the play before getting soaked (I had gotten too smug during the small stretch of sunny weather and had neglected to bring my umbrella!). Even in the rain, the play went on as planned, with three performances, and James was very excited to be a part of it, especially since he got to wear his new Indian-style pajama kurta (long embroidered top). He was actually the focal point of the presentation, as an American kid visiting India, who is shown a variety of Indian dances – classical dance, regional folk dances, and even a Bollywood-style number. The dancers were all excellent, even though they were just primary school children. I was stunned by their beautiful costumes, their enthusiasm, and their expertise! All three shows went off without a hitch – no small feat, considering they had only practiced for two weeks!
In between performances, I wandered around the school, where the classrooms were set up to showcase the projects. Not only were the displays artistic and creative, but the students presenting them were eager to tell me all about them. (“Aunty, Aunty, you have not seen my project yet!”). There was a lot to take in, and I did not even make it to all the grades, but some of the things that really impressed me included: a model Navaratri display with mini kolu dolls made out of Styrofoam; a huge, room-sized model of Chennai, with various buildings made of cardboard; a beautiful drawing illustrating the Red Fort in Delhi, and a mini model of King Tut’s tomb and sarcophagus. And even through the rain poured down off and on all day, everyone’s spirits remained up, for the kids were so proud of their achievements.

Given the big excitement of Project Day, the next week was a little more low-key. Mike’s birthday was coming up on Thursday (November 19), but he had just planned to bring in some candy and milk sweets for the teachers and his classes. He hardly expected the day to turn out any differently than a regular Vidya Mandir school day. However, he sorely underestimated the enthusiasm of the students. For starters, he was greeted by hundreds of students (yes, hundreds!), all of whom wanted to shake his hand and give him birthday greetings. One of his 11th Grade classes brought in a cake, and another made him a colorful glazed plate with all their names written on it. He was also given a handsome crimson kurta, a beautiful metalwork box, a small bronze Ganesh figure and a number of other gifts. He is already something of a celebrity at the school, but on this day, he was a rock star! When he came home in the auto-rickshaw that afternoon, he was laden with goodies. To cap off the day, we shared wonderful snacks from our corner restaurant with our Tamil teacher, Prof. Dasarathan, when he came for our twice-weekly lesson. Now the rest of us are wishing that we could celebrate our birthdays in India, too!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Western Peacock - by Taz Cullen

In the three months I have been living in India, I have been taking dance at Raack Dance Academy, a studio about 10 minutes from our apartment. My class is not Classical Indian Dance, but “Western Dance,” meaning we dance to music by artists like Michael Jackson. Sometimes we also dance to Bollywood music. The class meets three times a week. We performed on stage in October in a show put on by Raack. My class did a dance to Michael Jackson’s song “Black or White.”

When I went to my regular class last Wednesday, we were asked to perform our “Black or White” dance for an agent from Vijay TV. Vijay is a music television station in Chennai. After we danced, he picked ten of us to come back and audition on Thursday. I was one of the lucky ones picked! On Thursday, I had to be there from 4:00 p.m. until 7:30 p.m. for auditions and practice. At the end, I got picked! I still didn’t even know what I was being picked for! On Friday, I went for four hours of rehearsals! I found out then that our group would be dancing for the opening act of a Vijay TV show called “Super Singer Jr.” It is a show like American Idol, except the contestants are kids. I was really excited, because we would be on TV in India!

Little did I know how much work would be involved! On Saturday, we had six hours of practice! And this was during the huge monsoon in Chennai, so we had to get to Raack in an auto-rickshaw in the pouring rain. By Saturday afternoon, we still didn’t even have our costumes, but I knew I was going to be dressed like a peacock! Some of the little kids were going to wear flower costumes, including three of the boys! On Sunday, my dad and I had a really long day. We went to Raack at 8 a.m. (in the pouring rain again) and from there went to the Vijay TV studio. The TV studio was not at all what I expected!! It was moldy and funky-smelling, the changing room was smaller than a regular-sized bedroom, the bathroom did not have running water, and there were only 20 seats for the audience! I put on my peacock costume, which was pretty cool. We were there for about five hours, but we spent way too much time waiting around. We only ran through our dance three times to practice, and when we filmed it for the camera, it took five takes to get it right. But the hostess of the show could not memorize her lines, so we had to keep waiting until she got it right! Once we were finished performing, we had to exit through this tube-like tunnel, but when we got into the area that was hidden from the audience, it was really creepy, with dirty tarps, broken glass and wires hanging everywhere! There was nothing glamorous about this studio!

It was an interesting experience overall, but I won’t be going back to Vijay TV studio any time soon!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Rain, Rain, Go Away . . .

I feel like we’ve been waiting for the famous Northeast monsoon for weeks now. There was a lot of talk here in October, about how it was a much hotter month than usual (i.e. 95 degrees Farenheit instead of 85!), because the monsoon had not yet come. Then predictions of the upcoming monsoon were in The Hindu newspaper- first it was October 20 (conveniently right after Diwali), then October 26, and then it was just “coming.” Now it is finally here.

So what is a monsoon? According to the Internet, it is a seasonal wind in southern Asia, which blows from the southwest in summer and from the northeast in winter, bringing rain with it. The monsoon season is different all over India. On the west coast, in Kerala, the season is usually in September. In the states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, it was in October, when there was massive flooding. As much trouble as the monsoon causes, it is desperately needed for filling the reservoirs and for agriculture; some states receive up to 80% of their rainfall for the whole year during monsoon season. When we asked people here about the monsoon in Chennai, we were given a variety of answers, in terms of when it would arrive and how long it would last. As a result, we didn’t know if it would be more like a “rainy season” or if it would rain continuously for days on end. I’m thinking now that it might be the latter.

On Monday and Tuesday this week, the rain was fairly heavy at night and in the morning, but it cleared up by mid-afternoon. Not too bad, I thought – certainly not any worse than a few days of spring rain in Wisconsin. But then on Thursday night it started raining, and raining, and . . . raining. When we went out to catch our usual auto-rickshaw to school on Friday morning, our street was flooded in ankle-deep water. At one point during the commute, traffic at the intersection was unbelievable, with cars, auto-rickshaws, and motorcycles jumbled up in all directions, while a few hapless civilians tried to direct traffic without being run over. Few people wear raincoats or rubber boots here; most still dress as they usually do, though there were a lot of men and women with plastic bags on their heads! Although our street looked like a small river, our neighborhood was not hit as badly as some of the others; we heard tales of roads closed, knee-deep water, and two-hour traffic jams in some parts of Chennai.

Friday and was declared a holiday for all government schools in Chennai due to the rain. Unfortunately for our kids, who were hoping for a “monsoon day,” Vidya Mandir was still in session. It continued to rain all night and then all day on Saturday, with the roads getting progressively worse. We had already bought movie tickets for Saturday evening, so we braved the pouring rain, got soaked riding in an auto-rickshaw, and barely made it home, as it was slow going in the deep water. Now it is Sunday evening, and the rain has let up a little, but we’re still very leery of what is to come. And the kids are still hoping for a “monsoon day!”