Monday, August 31, 2009

First Week of School – August 29

We have survived the first week of school in Chennai! By all accounts, it was a huge adjustment – probably the biggest so far of this whole adventure. But we are able to relax this weekend, knowing we have put one of the toughest weeks behind us.

School started on Monday, August 24. Mike and the kids – in their new school uniforms – took an auto-rickshaw to Vidya Mandir Senior Secondary School. I accompanied them as well, hoping desperately that I would not cry when I dropped them off. The first day of school is always hard on a mom, and even harder when it’s in a foreign country!

That morning, there was a general assembly at which Mike and the kids were introduced. Mike had to give an impromptu speech, which he handled quite well! At the end of the assembly, the students sang a prayer in Sanskrit and then sang the national anthem (I think). In case I have not mentioned before, Tamil is the local language here in the province of Tamil Nadu, and spoken more commonly than Hindi. All the kids at the school speak both Tamil and English.

Our kids were pretty overwhelmed on the first school day, especially James, as he was swarmed with students asking him a myriad of questions. Unlike our school back home, here the students stay in one classroom and teachers move from class to class. So for the five or so minutes when there is no teacher in the room, there is the potential for a lot of chaos, especially in 3rd grade! The 7th Graders in Tasmine’s class are a little more relaxed around her. They are very friendly, especially during snack time and lunch, when they play games like charades and “name that tune.” During one of the snack breaks, Taz shared some M & Ms that we had brought from the U.S. They were a big hit. Taz is not able to participate in all the classes yet, since the 7th Grade is doing a lot of tests based on first semester material. However, she is learning Sanskrit, which she likes. When second semester starts in October, she can participate more fully.

We are slowly adjusting to our day-to-day life here. We bought a cricket bat and now Mike and the kids practice cricket in the street outside our apartment. We also bought some badminton rackets (called “shuttle” here) so that we can play on our roof. The roofs here are flat and are used for relaxing and hanging out laundry. I have attempted a couple of the less spicy Indian dishes from my South Indian cookbook, with decent results. One of the teachers from the school is also going to teach me how to cook a few things; on Friday night she taught me how to make a dessert called pasayam.
I am hoping that we can get rested up this weekend, and perhaps see a few sights in and around Chennai.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Welcome to Chennai – August 23, 2009

Images of Chennai – a woman sitting on the street corner, making garlands of fragrant jasmine flowers; a cow pulling a wooden cart full of clay Ganesh statues; the “flame of the forest” tree outside our apartment balcony; a man on an old bicycle outside our apartment selling buckets; kids playing cricket on the beach on the Bay of Bengal; and the constant honk of the auto-rickshaws.

We arrived in Chennai on Tuesday evening, August 18, to be greeted warmly by Mr. Umapathi – the husband of our exchange teacher, Chitra. Not only did he personally escort us to our new apartment, but he presented us with sandalwood garlands and a cake decorated with our names! The apartment is lovely – far nicer than I expected. From our balcony, we have a view of the aforementioned “flame” trees and coconut palms, as well as other balconies and rooftops in the area. We are lucky to live on a quiet street, especially since Chennai is not a quiet city! There is a small market right next to our apartment building – much like the corner stores of old – where we can buy ice cream, pop, and other snacks. In the morning, I go buy our milk, which comes in two half-litre packets (total cost – 22 rupees – about 45 cents). The milk is boiled, then put in the fridge to drink later that day. We cannot drink the tap water here (even the locals do not drink it!), but we have large jugs of bottled water brought right to our door (it costs about 40 rupees – 80 cents – for a 5 gallon jug).

In the apartment, we also have three air-conditioned bedrooms (we use the AC sparingly, so we can adjust to the heat), a kitchen, and two bathrooms. We even have a TV! The one channel we get in English is the Disney Channel, but it is an interesting mixture of Hindi and English programs (“That’s So Raven” in English followed by a Hindi version of “Wizards of Waverly Place”).

The first few days in Chennai were spent finding our bearings in our new neighborhood, which is called Mylapore. It is a great base, as it is only a 10 – 15 minute “auto” ride from a large central shopping area. We managed to find a well-stocked grocery store (Nilgiri’s) and a very affluent mall (Citi Centre), both with the help of Mr. Umapathi. The prices here vary a great deal – most groceries cost half what they would in the U.S., and some are even cheaper. The only exception is imported goods – a small jar of Skippy peanut butter (a must-have for the kids!) was 250 rupees ($5.00 US)! We are slowly getting used to South Indian food, which is predominantly vegetarian. Our favorite is the masala dosa, which is like a thin crepe wrapped around a lightly spiced mixture of potatoes and veggies. We have also tried vadas (like a spicy donut) and idli (rice cake).

On Saturday, August 22, we went to Vidya Mandir Secondary School, to meet the teachers and have a tour. The school is private, for grades pre-K up to 12. Mike will be teaching Grade 9 and 11 Math, and the kids will be attending school here (Taz is in the “7th Standard” and James is in the “3rd Class”). Mike will be in the minority, as there are only four other male teachers! All the female teachers wear saris, which seem to be more common in South India than they were in Delhi. Having seen the school, our kids are excited to start, as they are eager to meet other children. The hardest adjustment will be the heat, as the classrooms are not air-conditioned and the humidity here is quite intense.

Sunday was our last day off before school started, so we went to Marina Beach. The kids dipped their feet in the Bay of Bengal, but we were very cautious as the waves are huge and quite powerful! After years of wave-jumping in the Pacific Ocean, the kids were surprised how warm this water is!

There is so much we want to see and do here, but we have to remember to pace ourselves! Hopefully we will have a chance to attend local festivals and performances, visit temples and see more of Chennai in the weeks to come.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Postcard from DelhiAugust 18, 2009

Delhi is quite the baptism of fire for a newcomer to India! It is a huge, crowded, noisy city of 16 million people with traffic more intense than anything I’ve seen in the U.S. (and that includes Los Angeles and Chicago!).

To recap, we arrived here on Friday, August 14, after traveling for almost 24 hours (a 2 hour bus ride, a 3 hour wait at O’Hare Airport, two 8-hour flights and a layover in Frankfurt!). Air India turned out to exceed expectations, despite the foreboding warnings we received. The service was great, the flight was on time, and we had individual TV screens at each seat with our choice of TV and movies in English, German and Hindi!

Our first full day in India – August 15 – happened to be India’s Independence Day. On this day, the Prime Minister of India addresses the people from the ramparts of the Red Fort in Delhi. We did not attempt to attend, as we were told it would be overflowing with thousands of people – perhaps a little too overwhelming for our first day! Instead we ventured out in the late afternoon to the India Gate, a memorial arch built to commemorate the Indian and British soldiers who died in WWI. It is surrounded by a large area of green space that serves as a sort of public park – a great place for people-watching. We saw lots of Indian families out enjoying the holiday. Even though there was not much wind, there were dozens and dozens of paper kites in the air. Everywhere you walked, there was something for sale – giant rubber balls, paper flags of India (the only people wearing the flags were the tourists!), stuffed elephants, fried dough from little carts, mini helicopter toys, light-up glow wands, and bright pink cotton candy. And ice cream carts! There must have been at least fifty carts – mostly the same brand. Taz and I tried the ice cream – what a treat to get an imitation Dove Bar on a stick for only 20 Rupees (40 cents)!

We had our first auto-rickshaw ride on Sunday, August 16, when we ventured out to the Red Fort. The “auto” as it is called, is an experience not to be missed. Way cheaper than a taxi, but definitely more dangerous, as these little guys weave in and out of traffic. For those of you who play Wii, I imagine it is like riding in a live version of “Mario Kart,” except with huge buses as part of the obstacle course. And did I mention the horns? I’ve never heard so much honking. It’s just part of driving here.

The Red Fort was truly awesome. Originally built in the 1600’s, it was the palace of the Mughal Emperor Shan Jahan. The walls are enormous – made of red sandstone, and enclose a huge area, that once housed 3,000 people. It once had huge foursquare gardens with fountains and reflecting pools, ornamental pavilions, hammams (bathhouses) and a Hall of Public Audience, where the Emperor sat upon his Peacock Throne made of gold and met with his ministers. For those of you who are familiar with my writing, you know that this is right up my ally. I tried to imagine the site as it was, perhaps similar to the Khan’s Palace in my book! The kids were not quite as thrilled as I was, as I exclaimed over the latticework, the carved stone and the miniatures in the museum.

On Monday, August 17, while Mike was at meetings with the other Fulbright teachers, I took the kids out into the Pakila Bazaar to go shopping. Quite an experience, with stalls selling clothes, toys, electronics, scarves, perfume, purses, etc. Kind of like an underground flea market, with no fixed prices. I’m usually not one for haggling, but I kind of got into the spirit of things (everyone knows I love a good deal!).

Reading the news here has been interesting. The big entertainment headline has been the American treatment of “SRK” (Shah Rukh Khan), the Bollywood star, who was detained at the Newark Airport when leaving the U.S. As far as sports go, cricket is huge here. Mike is very eager to learn more about it, especially since cricket lasts much longer than ANY American sport. Apparently, there are matches that last for days!! (Yes, days).

On the 18th we leave for Chennai, which we are all looking forward to, as we are tired of living out of suitcases and ready to settle into our apartment. But it has been quite an experience so far!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Fulbright Orientation in DC

As I write this, only four days remain before we board our plane for Delhi, India on August 13. However, I feel a little more confident going into our journey, following our orientation in Washington, D.C.
From August 3 – 7, all the Fulbright Exchange teachers from the U.S., along with their exchange counterparts, met for a series of informational sessions and one-on-one conversations. Our group commandeered almost the entire hotel and, at times, it felt like a mini United Nations, except that it was composed mostly of teachers! We met teachers from Hungary, Switzerland, the U.K. (England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland), Czech Republic, Turkey, Ghana, Mexico, and India.

While Mike attended various sessions and got to know his exchange teacher, Ms. Chitra Balasubramanian, the kids and I were free to sightsee in DC, which is a great city for families. All the Smithsonian Museums are free, although the crowds were bigger than usual, maybe due to the popularity of “Night at the Museum 2,” which is set at the Smithsonian. Unfortunately, none of the museum exhibits came to life when we were there (of course, maybe that’s because we were just there during the day . . .).

On our last night, the Fulbright farewell dinner was followed by a “cultural fair,” which was basically an international talent show. There were French songs, Swiss yodeling, Hungarian folk dancing, Ghanaian drumming & dancing, and the UK contingent did their own version of “Britain’s Got Talent.” The Indian group sang a song of peace and then followed with a rousing dance number from “Slumdog Millionaire.” I was worried that our own country would be woefully unrepresented, but fortunately, one of the families led everyone in a sing-along of “This Land is Your Land.”

So now we’re back in Cedarburg, preparing to leave. Our exchange teacher, Chitra, is here and beginning to adjust to life in the U.S. She likes how quiet and clean Cedarburg is, but our cost of living is much higher. She was surprised to learn how expensive coffee is at our local coffeehouses! After all the stories she has told us, we are very excited to get going. Hopefully, my next post will be from Delhi, after we arrive. - Carla