Posted tagged ‘India’

Leaving (With a Pool)

April 21, 2013

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We have graduated to jasmine. And Christina has been allowed to operate the food processor.

This means that we have definitely moved up a notch or two in the small steamy world that is Fort Cochin. (Or Fort Kochi, under its its original Indian and now official name. Many names of places in India were re-transliterated a few years ago – so Cochin became Kochi – Bombay – Mumbai – Madras–Chennai.)

But the reconfiguration I am talking about now is ours, moving from mid-budget (and rather heavily laden) backpackers to lap-of-luxury (and packed light, considering) travelers.

In other words, we’ve sprung for our last night or so in India, meaning that we now have a room in a top hotel “with a garden view” complete with freshly-pressed kimonos, straw bedroom slippers and jasmine blossoms gyred upon our pillows. (Due to the off-season, there is a thirty percent discount.)

Being India, there are a ton of crows that hang out by the pool–we have a pool!– often resting on shower head, and in the late afternoon–we are just by the harbor–there’s a build-up of fishy smell–but the water is clear and blue and chlorinated, and it really is quite nice.

The move-up in cooking occurred at the Flavour Cooking School, where Meera let Christina go hands-on with the blender. (Almost every dish involves the blending of a “paste.” )

So we are almost gone. Before I signed off from India – and who knows if I will, as we have about a 24 hour journey ahead of us – I wanted to make all kinds of point about safety and misogyny, and the difficulties and wonders of travel here, but there is no time to make the points clearly. So better to just post some of the last day’s photos.

They include: our hotel–crow and cat–, Meera Leo and Christina cooking in the dark (during a power outage), the cook at our hotel taking us back into the kitchen on discovering we were interested in cooking, people pouring out of the Catholic Church – many more on the shady sides, and various family members of Sabu, our driver from Munnar.

PS thanks so much to all of you who have followed this trip. I’m sorry for my disjointedness. I really appreciate your support. Must run now.

More on Finding the Elephant (Thrissur)

April 19, 2013

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The elephant had an erection. I can’t make any jokes about the size of it as it was somehow part of the sadness of his situation, how the body goes on even enchained, how little dignity is allowed the enchained.

The thing that struck me most – and I have seen elephants before – but what struck me most about this one was the development of the head. The sculpted mounds of the temples; the cranny in the center of the cranium; the intense (and immense) modeling of the skull, the slightly bloodshot thick-lashed eyes that looked with intensity out of its thick skin almost as if looking out from a mask,

Touching its side felt like touching a road made live, tar-folds of a circuitous bristled pathway, back and forth and back and forth, and back again. Dry, grooved, tear-inducing.

It sounds like I am being overly sentimental. I don’t think I am. .

We left chastened. Again, I’m not sure why exactly – we had known any captive elephant we would find in India we would make us feel sad and punily powerless, and not really all that separate from the actual people that get the elephants and make money off of them. All connected.

(PS– these are pictures from Thrissur, India, a couple of days before a large elephant festival, where elephants, in costume, parade around a Hindu temple. The guy in the photo is the elephant owner or trainer. The young woman is my daughter.)

Fort Cochin–cooking with gas

April 12, 2013

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Rushing from Internet to taxi to go to Keralan Backwaters, but in recovery from sickness, I feel I’ve not mentioned any of the wonderful things about Fort Cochin–primarily its beauty and the sweetness of its people — a very unusual mix of Catholics (from St. Thomas’s conversions of several centuries ago), Muslims, Hindus, and teeny teeny smattering of Jews from 2nd century (more on all this later.)

So while I still have the signal–patience seems to be in much greater supply here than electrical power–I wanted to post the above pictures. The beautiful girl is my daughter. Probably the coolest thing we’ve done is to take cooking classes with the wonderful Meera Leo of the Flavour Cooking School (more on that later too.) Meera really runs the “class,” but her very kind husband helped teach chapati making, and one of her little sons was also a frequent participant. The drawing is my attempted depiction of his climbing around from living room to cooking room to see what was up with us.

PS – the picture with Meera and my daughter shows them making Dosa.

Withdrawal in Cochin

April 10, 2013

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This started as a post about travel in India, but I realize, not being able to post it yesterday, that it is truly about addiction. (Ha.)

Yesterday was both miraculous and miserable. The night before was spent primarily in the miserable stage, unable to sleep because of nausea and worry – my GI tract was still–how shall I put it–fragile–and we were planning a plane trip South (from Ahmedabad to Cochin) which was going to involve a couple of flights and an hour and a half taxi–and even packing seemed impossible. (This was not only because of sickness but because my daughter had gotten presents for about 12 people including ourselves at a shop run and supplied by SEWA, her women’s workers collective, plus we had been given a huge assortment of gifts by various people who have helped her here.) We had gone, in other words, from traveling light to traveling jammed.

As I made myself get up and open the thick, seemingly metal-lined, curtains (designed to keep out heat) onto the bright light of Ahmedabad, breakfast was unthinkable and I succumbed, at the urging of both my near daughter –the one in the next bed–and far daughter–the one on the other side of the internet connection–to stumbling downstairs to the hotel lobby for a can of Coca Cola.

I had not prior to yesterday morning drunk an actual whole Coke for over forty years. (Disclosure – I did have some sips of coke visiting Mexico a few years ago at times when there was no choice by coke or mescal). But a whole coke! Truly it was only a drink I had in my childhood when at most we had very small glasses at the local pizza parlor or sometimes a small frosty bottle from a gas station machine (the kind with the rows of thick round bottle glass windows.)

On the other hand, I was, about thirty years ago, seriously addicted to diet sodas –Tab principally. It was a cola drink made by Coke with a strong dollop of fake lemon intended to overcome the taste of the saccharine. I drank liters a day at a point, but oddly was forced to give it up when I came to India the first time- – in 1982-83. They didn’t have fake sugar here then — and once I got that particular monkey off my back, I never let it back on.

But I was reeling and now even my husband on Skype was telling me to view it as medicine, and truly, i couldn’t imagine even a sick morning without caffeine (tea out of the question), so I gulped it down. Each sip felt great until its cloying end when my teeth could actually taste how sweet it was. Which meant that guzzling was the only option.

At any rate, the Coke enabled me to get moving and, between burps, shove stuff into the backpacks and suitcase (to be fair, my daughter was working too) but when I went down to the desk both to pay and engage in an endless discussion about what time to get the cab–for some reason, language really failed here–I found myself leaning heavily on the counter and wishing to settle down in a puddle of bowel and despair on the hotel’s probably cool tile floor. I apologized for seeming snappish, mentioning that I did not feel well, and the young very cute, and seemingly genuinely concerned clerk offered to get me some lemon juice in water. To my credit, I did not scream at him that this was not a problem that would be solved by lemon juice and that I absolutely did not want water.

Then when upstairs and got on skype again to see what i could do about changing our flights till the next day.

I called as if from the States but got an operator from a country who seemed to be from a country where she had received impeccable training in politeness, but not in Coke-fueled American-style desperation, meaning that she could not seem to understand why I would not wish to change a set of flights that was going to last a little over four hours for a set of flights that would last fifteen and a half. (Long waiting periods between multiple connections.)

Resolve suddenly stiffed both will and gut. Here’s where the miraculous part begins. Let’s just go, I told my daughter.

And so we did. Yes, with lapses – leaving a tip for room cleaners, but not managing to think of one for the very sweet girl who made us and any bags go through a metal detector every time we had entered our hotel–India is very big on the idea of security at the fancier hotels–making people and luggage repeatedly go through metal detectors but never in fact doing anything when they set them off.

Having also to go through airport security twice – there is a separate check for each flight even in the case of connecting flights. There were also, I must point out, three lines for men and only one for women and children, so that the men’s lines were about maximum 7-10 men long, but the women’s had to be several times reconfigured to avoid blocking the entire space. Separate lines are used because only women conduct the scanning and pat downs of women, and men the scanning and pat downs of men.

But we got here. Safe. Eruption free. And now, oddly, the true desperation kicked in.

My daughter had suggested that we stay in a well-reviewed but fairly budget hotel. I had had my eye on a hotel recommended by a friend which had a small but supposedly beautiful swimming pool, yoga classes, and very good bread, but whose price had gone up hugely since my friend stayed there.

We decided to try the budget option.

Well, it was very clean but also very spare, with, it turned out, no wifi.

Our room, which we got with A/C, due to the fact that it is very muggy here in Kerala and also rather mosquitoey, also had no true window. (Two narrow panels by the door, which because we are on the ground floor were covered with curtains and barred.)

A very intense overhead fan, which combined with the A/C, set my teeth chattering. (I think that may also have been due to fever.)

And that feeling that it really would be great to just vomit.

My daughter was also not feeling 100 percent, as they say.

Especially since I began worrying again about our family member in Afghanistan and went on a brief crying jag.

She was willing to move she kept saying. She’d move right now, if I want, she added, popping pepto. What about some Cipro? she suggested.

She is a trooper.

I did not take the Cipro but did calm down. We went out for a brief walk.

It was dark but one of those busy Internet cafe, juice, all kinds of batiky-Indian print clothing, Kashmiri shawls, backpackery sort of streets that could be anywhere from Kathmandu to Bali. Not un-nice, but a little aggressive when you are past backpackery age. We bought some soda water. Spending the big bucks for Perrier because the Indian ones all were bottled to be about half-full.

Honestly, the hotel was super clean. Spare but nicely appointed, and I soon realized that what is fundamentally bothering me is the lack of wifi. (Well, the lack of window.) But it was night now and the wifi would be my night window. My connection with MY world, and a bit of a shield, I guess, from this one.

And here’s where the addiction comes in. I have a beautiful beloved fantastic wonderful dear iPhone and it works even when there is no wifi, sort of, but even the cell reception wasn’t great, but it got email, and seemed to take a photo, and would I thought take a blog post. But when I typed it up on the WordPress App, feeling some of that craved whatever-it-is seep into my veins – slowly, just a squinted drip at a time, I thought, I could then be happy and cheerful.

But then the whole post was lost because it didn’t load right, and despair set in again.

I put on extra clothes to stop the shivering.

Things picked up around 1:00 AM when I realized there were office emails I could answer. And when people actually answered me back. You know, about contracts.

And I called my husband and he said I had to stop worrying so much.

And honestly, this morning felt almost okay. But when the very nice hotel man said that he did not have a room with a window (we’re not talking view, just window), we moved, and instead of going to the expensive place, saw another budget one touted by the guidebook as we went by in the auto rickshaw and have ended up here. The Delight Homestay, which has a lovely garden, and two windows in the A/C room! And wifi if I go sit outside and walk around looking for it.

The veins are pumping. The shakes have slowed.

Ah.

PS – I am so sorry that I’ve not been able to return visits. I really appreciate your kind comments and visits and will make an effort to reciprocate.

PPS – Fort Cochin is in northern Kerala, and Kerala is in the southwest tip of India. I will write more in the next day or so. The people are very pleasant and courteous. Their features tend to be somewhat different from North Indians–they curly haired and have softer, more rounded features – to the degree you can say such a thing. It is about 30% Christian/20% Muslim, and I think the balance are Hindu (and maybe some Jains.) They speak Malayalam as the native language, but because this isolates them even within India –it is not, like Hindu, an Aryan language but has a whole different root system and alphabet–they tend to learn English as a second language, and use it quite well.

PPPS–there seem to be serious power issues in Cochin which means that although our hotel allegedly has internet and I’ve once been able to find a week signal, it is very intermittent. As a result, we have now gone to a very lovely Internet cafe which is, guess where, right next to our original hotel!

I am, however, supremely glad for the windows.

Below are pictures of boys playing field hockey and cricket in the large Parade Ground outside our new hotel.

Finally, I am sorry all the tenses get so messed up in these posts – interms of past/present. Reflects the way they are written and mymind state. Thaks for your patience.

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Drawing The Veil

April 7, 2013

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We wait for Gopal to bring chai.

He is taking a long time and we begin to suspect that although he came up to the office to take the order, he has now in fact left for the day. (This turns out to be right.)

I am in the meantime feeling down about faces. I like to draw faces. I do not do it terribly well.

I’m okay with little children. With children, it’s usually good enough to just draw sweetness–simple lines.

Adults are more difficult. The lines are creased.

I had thought I might be able to do teens–no wrinkles–which is why I started up on the Muslim girls in the car. Here’s what happened:

There is traffic and the one squeezed a seat away has taken my picture – for some reason, Indians like to have photos of Westerners– and so I take out my notebook and start to draw her. She is the girl in the burkha, a very pretty sweet girl. (It is not a classic burkha, but a cloak with a tight black head covering and a veil over her face.) I figure that will be simple, if a bit strange,

It is not so simple though. I haven’t drawn anything but cartoons (i.e. elephants) for a while, and when you are actually drawing a person, you want to show at least some aspect of them, something that they will recognize as themselves. Which, in the case of this girl meant it almost all had to be captured with the eyes.

Well, she has slight circles showing under the eyes, so I get them too. And the individualized hairs of brows and lashes.

But it is so difficult. My vision is not good (so many excuses!)–I cannot see the page well. Finally, I take off my glasses, which seems to help–the shape of the veil covering her head is also surprisingly hard. Hair can be drawn quite gesturally, but this has to be more accurate- she has a very slender scalp I check the closure – the way the veil that covers her nose and mouth laps over the head veil.

She is pleased. I tear off the page and give it to her and she is very pleased. She does not seem to think that the idea of a portrait in veil was odd, and now her friend, who sits just beside me, wears blue and not the hot black, and is not veiled, looks expectantly, and traffic still sluggish, so I begin again, making all kinds of excuses that they do not understand about how bad my drawing is, especially in the jerking car.

I make these in part because I can tell from the start that she will be more difficult. To me, the most important part of amateur portraiture aside from capturing some aspect of the face, is that you make the person look pretty. (Honestly, I think prettiness is probably even more important.) This girl is pretty, but she has bigger features (well, features), and it is hard for an amateur like me to capture the idiosyncrasies but maintain the strong prettiness.

I erase as much as I draw–it is surprisingly hard to do her nose stud in a way that does not look like some weird extra nostril or pimple.

But I get something down and she too is pleased, and now we have arrived, and I turn to the third girl, in black burkha but with her veil down (face showing), and I imagine that she looks disappointed–we are on a rough dirt street, sandy, brick and trash strewn, and we say goodbye, and I offer to do hers, I would be happy to try standing here in the street, but I know they cannot understand my English, and my portraits are so bad, I hate to make a big deal of it –so we say goodbye, walk on around the corner, go up to the office – they are on their way home.

To get to the office, we have to go through another building, onto a dirt alley, and then up an external stairwell. On one side of the stairs is a a view over a Hindu Temple; it is jammed into very narrow space beside some poor shanty-type shacks, charpoys (crude cots) on the dirt alley, where extremely poor people, naked babies, sit or lie down at the end of this hot day. Just next to this alley is the overpass of a large bridge that goes over an expanse of river, mainly dried up right now, the strands of remaining water deep green, the dried silt bed littered with garbage that people seem to pick through or pick their way through.

As we get upstairs to the office (where now we wait for tea), I look down the stairwell – it is open to the world – the alley, the bridge, the jam of temple, and there see the three muslim girls just across, on the concrete overpass of the bridge, beside the whizz and honk of traffic. They are standing there, on a part of the overpass opposite our stairs, clearly waiting for us to look down to them; they all three wear their black veils now, head and face coverings —even the girl who does not wear black, whose face I drew in full, and the girl I missed, the one I still regret, who wore the tight head veil but not the face covering.

I wave at them. They wave back. I imagine that they smile. Their eyes smile.

(I took a photo of the three girls, but two of them did not have their faces covered and although my daughter does not think that their photos would ever been seen, I feel worried to show their faces online, so have cropped the picture only to show the one girl who always kept on her veil. These girls are among the group studying computer at SEWA, the Self-Employed Women’s Association. I rode in a car with them from the SEWA poetry reading, which they also attended.)

PS — thanks so much to you all who read these posts. I’m sorry that I don’t have much time to edit – i.e. shorten, and haven’t written poetry, and tried working on novel. I really appreciate your stopping by though. It means a great deal to me to have someone to write to. K.

SEWA Slam, Women’s Poetry Reading, Ahmedabad

April 6, 2013

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I cannot understand more than a word or so of Gujarati but it turns out that there is a certain style to empowerment poetry–strong rhythms, impassioned spirit, use of repetition and refrain, and sardonic humor–that is universal.

But before getting on to poetry — and you can see it being read in all of the photos above –I should say that the reason that I am in Ahmedabad right now is that my daughter has been working with the Self-Employed Women’s Association, a women’s organization that was started by the extraordinary Ela Bhatt in 1972, first as a women’s wing of the Textile Labour Association, which in turn is India’s oldest and largest union of textile workers, founded by Anasuya Sarabai, the philanthropic daughter of an Indian industrialist family in 1920 (after being inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s successfully led strike of textile workers in 1917.)

SEWA split off from the TLA in 1981, as a separate woman’s collective, made up of “self-employed women,” that is, women from the informal labor sector – headloaders, rag pickers, vegetable sellers, piece workers (usually working at home), bidi cigarette rollers (also often working in the home), women who tend to be extremely poor, with few sources of capital and little bargaining power against their bosses, landlords, the law, family members, anyone.

After its split from the TLA, SEWA spread out a number of limbs and roots –its symbol is a Banyan Tree–including (in addition to the labor collective), the organization of a women’s bank, social security system, insurance program, health clinics, child care, rural workers associations, training programs in various trades (everything from henna decoration to computers), literacy programs, life skills programs, a girls’ club (largely for the daughters’ of SEWA members), a SEWA academy, video SEWA, radio SEWA.

So, I come here to visit one of the offices for the afternoon as my daughter finishes her work, and guess what they happen to have set up for that day — a large poetry reading! (Not, I admit, in any connection to me.) Except that I got to go.

About thirty women read. All were beautifully dressed. (A few in my daughter’s office were busily applying eye liner to each other before they left.) Many spangles and bangles. (Some people think of women as dressing up for men, but when women dress up for other women, they can really go to the max.)

There were young girls reading, and also women who had been members for thirty years. This means that these women most likely started out as manual laborers–headloaders or vegetable hawkers, women who first learned to read and write in SEWA literacy classes.

The poetry was serious and impassioned–some, you’ll see in the videos below, read with great gestural emphasis. There were also, of course, many jokes. Although I had a strong sense that “the Man” was mocked somewhere, I really do wish I could have gotten the particulars.

SEWA is multi-religious, multi-caste. Hellos were said by poets with traditional muslim or hindu greetings and sometimes both. The hoots and whistling following some refrains would occasionally have an Inch’Allah thrown in, if the poet was Muslim. (I also think that some poets read in Urdu, but I cannot be sure as it is also a language I do not understand.)

Was it different from a Western slam? Sure, aside from the beautiful dress, each reader sat cross-legged, was barefoot, and afterwards took, as a reward, a wrapped-up wad of pan (betel nut leaf with flavorings folded into a little triangular “football”) from a small brass pot in the middle of the stage.

But even my unschooled ear could pick up the rhymes, the repeated phrases (each one growing and growing into a further, longer, more resonate repition), the rhythms and echoed refrains.

Ela Bhatt, now fairly elderly but unbelievably sweet and dignified, spoke (and even sang briefly). The women adore her, often using her name in their verse. It is clear that they feel that she (and SEWA) have given them a chance in life.

The closing, which my daughter tells me is typical of all large SEWA gatherings, involved the singing, with rhythmic clapping, of “We Shall Overcome.” In Gujarati. With multiple verses. All known by heart.

Pure poetry.

(I have included very blurred photos of some readers above, and of Ela Bhatt. Sorry that my light and camera were poor. I was only able to upload one video and I’m not sure it’s really there. She was one of many spirited readers. )

Ahmedabad (Forecast–Heat and Smoke)

April 5, 2013

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Yesterday, the online weather forecast for Ahmedabad, a large city in Gujarat (Western India) where I am staying, said simply “smoke.”

The smoke one is conscious of is not the smoke of a stream or clouds or billow, and it is not particularly dark. It’s smoke that is like a form of humidity, meaning pervasive, felt ever presently on the skin and in the nose, prickling more than particulate.

There was often a smell of smoke in the older India I visited many years ago–one could scent it even when the plane landed–but that smoke smelled rather sweet – of cow dung with, if one was lucky, a touch of cardamom This smoke is edged with plastic, the burn of bottle and bag.

My daughter suspects that there’s probably also fair amount of motor exhaust–she has been here few months, and crossing a street, or worse a roundabout, has been one of her major and very understandable fears–but frankly, she can no longer smell the smoke at all, so I’ll call myself the immediate family authority. While I’m sure there’s also exhaust, it’s the plastic that feels pre-eminent.

I do not mean to make the City seem unpleasant! The smell is certainly not overpowering, and I’m sure is strengthened by the heat–the hot season has already descended already — over 100 each day–which tends to keep any kind of weighted air close to the ground. It’s just that this burned plastic smell is something that really worries me. I suspect that it pervades many many cities in Asia (and probably in the entire third world).

What is especially odd here is that fairly substantial efforts are made to collect and recycle plastic – in part because it is something that poor people can do. At the same time, the concept of “virgin plastic” has become a popular feature of trendy products; that is, products tout the fact that they are not made of recycled plastic. Agh!

(My sense is that this may come from a long history, stemming from the caste system, that is concerned with notions of personal “pollution” – that is, the “pollution” that historically was deemed to come from sharing wells, taps, food, even sunshine, with untouchables and low caste persons. Again, I think India has made great strides in that area – so this is completely a guess on my part.)

(Also, again, by raising things like this, I do not mean to make the City seem unpleasant – Ahmedabad is an older industiral City, the center of Gandhi’s labor movement, and still a big center for Gandhism. People here have been extraordinarily generous and kind to my daughter, and are very friendly on the tourist level too to me, although it is not it is not a tourist center.)

In the meantime, the above is a view of Ahmedabad, this morning, from our hotel window (ironically a Holiday Inn Express).

Below is a very blurred picture of traffic. If you look closely, you can see man, wife on motorcycle just behind and ahead of the bike.

PS- I haven’t decided how to handle blogging here yet, or writing. I am trying to write a fair amount, but don’t know whether people would prefer immediate sorts of posts or more thoughtful; more personal or more touristic. Oh well. I’m sure I’ll figure something out.

On the personal front, my feet hurt terribly – didn’t have time to sandals (even the very old ones I have packed up in some box), and some new online shoes that are not sandals have not worn in -I always have to have some clothing travel glitch, (ii) I should have brought a sleeping sack – a cloth bag–like I always make my daughters bring, and (iii) the food in Gujarat is delicious — very vegetarian and slightly sweet. (Yes spicy.) It is ten and half hours ahead of E.S.T. here. Don’t ask me about the half hour – I think something to do with keeping India on a single time zone.

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