Friday, July 12, 2013

London Calling

S and I have spent 4 lovely days in London, where the weather has been perfect, and the locals are in awe of the sun.  We did some touristy things, and enjoyed it all, and also tried to recover from a nasty flu we both fell victim to before we left India.  The Kew Gardens and St Paul's Cathedral were particular highlights, along with a great Moroccan restaurant, Momo, but the town itself has it going on with clean streets, beautiful parks and gardens galore, and an underground system that we used daily and found very friendly.  Only downside we could see, apart from the outrageously expensive taxi ride from Heathrow (90 Pounds....) were all the smokers.  Europeans, get over the nicotine addiction and you'd be 2% more fun to be around. Make that 5%.
Here are some clicks of our London times.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Good Bye, Jaipur, Hello Delhi

We have packed our bags, said our good-byes, and left Jaipur.  We are now traveling a bit around this part of India to Delhi, Amritsar, and Dalhousie, then to London for a brief 3-day break from our flights home.  See this link for photos for the 4 events briefly described below.

 1.   Good bye for now to Sara Dairy and the scrumptious Paneer Pakoras.    Saras Dairy has become a family favorite with their delicious paneer dosas, lassis, and most yummy, their paneer pakoras.  These taste like nothing else I’ve eaten, but my daugthers tell me they are similar to mozzarella sticks.  But with great chutney and great breading.  Check out photos of each step of their construction.
2.    Q’Tub Minar, Delhi
It is the tallest minar in India, originally an ancient Islamic Monument, inscribed with Arabic inscriptions, though the iron pillar has some Brahmi inscriptions, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Located in Delhi, the Qutub Minar is made of red sandstone and marble. The tower has 379 stairs, is 72.5 metres (237.8 ft) high, and has a base diameter of 14.3 metres, which narrows to 2.7 metres at the top storey. Construction was started in 1192 by Qutub-ud-din Aibak and was completed by Iltutmish. It is surrounded by several other ancient and medieval structures and ruins, collectively known as the Qutub complex.  It's very cool to see and walk around, although it was blazing hot the morning we went.
3.   National Gallery, Delhi
I limited myself to one recently renovated exhibit and gallery, that of Mysore and Tajore Painting.  It is characterized by bright, primary colors, subjects of Hindu gods and goddesses, and lots of real silver and gold highlights.  They were stunning to see in all their opulence.  That fat baby is Krishna, who was known to eat straight ghee (clarified butter.) 
4.  Gandhi Smriti & Multimedia Museum
This is the place where Gandhi spent his last hours and where he was assassinated.  The Birla Corporation has financed a very innovative digital/Multimedia Museum in the building.  You touch, blow, and twirl things to make sounds, text, and video appear, and they are unified by their common theme of Gandhi's teachings.  It is a fantastic museum that shows the confluence of creativity and the digital age; check out their website:
5.   High Tea at the Imperial Hotel, Delhi
Who doesn't want to pretend they have stepped back in history or to another continent and enjoy the finer things?  We came, we saw, we consumed.  At first we thought it looked like a lot for each person to have their own tray.  In the end, it was quite manageable. 

Friday, June 21, 2013

Lots of Blogs in One

I’ve had wonderful company for a week now, and it's kept me hopping.  We've gone some interesting places as well, so here's a quick recap with some photo links, I hope.  The new FLICKR face may be fun to view, but it's a little awkward to get around still, for me.  Can anyone tell me how to find the "grab the Link" function?
Picture Set #1 features the big fruit news, Alfonso mangos, king of the fruit, are here!  They have a taste like no other, but also a very short season from what I can tell.  They are pricey, so I rationed myself to 6 when I first went.  When I went back, they were no more, with sad faces on the eager vendors.  However, yesterday I was driving by a vendor who I knew sold choice fruit, asked our driver to stop.  When I asked about the Alfonso, he smiled broadly and reached under his table, and pulled out an entire box of 9.  SOLD!  Today we have 4 remaining. I also photographed the exterior and interior of a lychi for all of you who have eaten the canned-kind at a Chinese restaurant.
Also in this set of pictures are photos of Rambagh Palace, a palace turned luxury hotel, where one can take a champagne tour of the grounds at sunset.  It was pretty incredible, but honestly all eyes were on the resident peacocks, who are now in full display because it’s mating season.  I’ve been trying to capture the male with its tail feathers fanned all year, and on that evening I saw about 3.  The ritual is quite elaborate, and involves fanning, then doing a 360 slowly so all the females can see exactly how cool you are.  There is also involved much shaking of the shorter back feathers and attendant rump, which are rust colored.  However, all the females I saw were quite unimpressed.

Set #2 of photos features two fun events, one of which is our visit to the iconic movie palace, the RAJ MANDIR.  It’s a huge one-theatre affair, decorated in what looks like a mix of art deco and Indian color love.  The experience itself was wonderful; people were talking loudly to each other, clapping and hooting when their favorite star came on, talking to the screen sometimes, and in general having a great time, with a requisite intermission for grabbing snacks and more chatter.  It was a family affair, with several babies in tow who sometimes were down with the movie, and sometimes decidedly not.  However, no one even noticed, or at least didn’t register any concern at all, and that was refreshing to see.  Although we smartly pulled in the driver to help us not do anything stupid (although he said that’s what movie theatres are for!) we rarely needed to ask about the plot, even though it was in Hindi with no subtitles.  We weren’t there for the plot, and it was as predictable as it gets.  The dancing of my favorite Bollywood star, Ranbir Kapoor, was incredible.  Google a promo for our movie, “Yeh Jawaani, Hai Deewani” for a treat.  He’s quite the hoofer.
The second fun happening was a return trip to the famous Hawa Mahal, this time from behind the wall’s fa├žade, the interior.  It was fun to see what the women saw as they peered through the windows.  Finally, we returned to a place Abhas discovered, a guy with a 150-year-old Zeiss black and white camera, who still takes pictures with it, the old-fashioned way. Our visitors enjoyed seeing the process, although it was pretty hot posing in the sun.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013


Our drive on the most traveled road between the capital city and the city where I worked in Megalaya was a bumpy, slow one that resembled a joy ride gone amuck.  The scenery was punctuated by the road ”development” that left large gaping holes in the hillside, large stones falling into the road, and obvious erosion problems because of the removal of all the trees whose roots kept everything in place. [See pic for evidence.]

I had tea while in Shillong with a professor of tourism at the local university.  He answered some of my questions about the nascent steps of the Northeastern States to embrace tourism.  It’s stunning scenery, no doubt, but definitely lacks the infrastructure to sustain large-scale tourism.  I shared with him that Daughter #1 had written a senior honors paper on tourism in the ethnic, autonomous state of Yunnan, China, and he was quite familiar with large scale research on the location and topic, research that showed that very little, if any, of the profits gained from tourism trickled down to the ethnic tribes, the people who suffered the negative consequences of the influx of people, even a loss of their livelihoods.  We talked about the precarious balance needed between an attempt to share the unique beauty of the area with the need to manage and plan the development so that the people’s way of lives are not changed for the worse, and the environment is protected, not only because it is the cash cow for the tourism, but for the sake of all those who live off the land.
On a personal level when we visited Cherripunji I wished there were more developed trails where we could trek and explore the topography up close.  Perhaps, though, that’s not what best for the area.  Because it is part of my national fiber, I have a tendency to think development is usually positive, and should be encouraged. The professor seemed to think the people in charge of tourism in their neck of woods were quite cautious and mindful about how to attract tourists and preserve their way of life, so I won’t put that on my list of concerns.
Pictures on FLICKR of Northeast:

Happiness Quotients

I think those people who do research on what brings humans lasting happiness are onto something when they reveal that people get a longer-lasting positive vibe from experiences than they do from things. The benefits of travel are many, and anyone who’s done much knows it’s not easy to put into words, but you are glad to have had the experiences and draw on them for a long time as food for thought. There are the obvious considerations like seeing “stuff” that is different from your culture’s “stuff”, “stuff” being landscape, edifices, , food, clothing, and especially how the people of the culture interact.  I think one of the highest on the list is seeing things you simply don’t see in any books, on any website.  Things like a country’s hospitals, or schools, or governmental offices.  These local institutions reveal a lot about the values of a country, and how they operate. 
Coming to this part of the country (the extreme Northeast) wasn’t always easy or fun (Cameroon-level
awful roads when traveling, no internet connection, phone connection, hot water from time to time), but it was fascinating to learn about a whole other India I had no idea existed. Being in the actual environment adds so much to your understanding of the place, from the sensorial to the cognitive.  Had I not physically been in the mileau, I would have a much less complete picture of it.  Actually, in this case, I had no idea that the people looked more like Laotian or Cambodian than Indian, that their food, clothing, and religions were different, so coming here was a treat in most respects.  The people were kind and the scenery outstanding.

We saw people from a few of the tribes that are represented in the Northeast, and didn’t recognize them as Indian.  Our host laughingly said they referred to themselves as “Indian by accident.”  Her son was quick to say he didn’t like that phrase, and revealed the next generation’s discontent with being thoroughly dismissed by the rest of the country. He went on to explain the current protests and unrest because of this dismissive attitude. 
Sometimes universals are revealed again and again.  As we talked about different areas of the city, our host said the immigrants from Bangladesh had come into their area of the city and made it unclean, throwing trash and disregarding any maintenance to property.  Has any country ever warmly embraced their immigrants?  It made me reflect that former Governor Bob Ray of Iowa was quite a humanitarian (and risk taker) to be one of only 2 or 3 governors who would agree to accept the first wave of Vietnamese refugees in the late 70s.

Schools Around The World

Yesterday I was walking down an outside hallway when this budding Yankee fan and his posse ran by me, knocking me off my balance in their passing.  I laughed and said something like “HEH!”.  The Yankee fan abruptly stopped, looked down, and said, “Sorry, mam!”  His and my responses to the familiar encounter amused me, and I asked him to stay put so I could get a click of his gang.  They are precious.  Seeing where some of the students in this country go to school, and what resources they  have (or don’t have) when they get there, makes me wish I could go to every country where students immigrate to Iowa City and take photos to send back to my colleagues at Weber Elementary.  There is a wealth of knowledge in just the visuals of their environments that I know they would appreciate.   Children are immediately adaptable for the most part, but parents bring with them the comfort of how things were in their home country and the intimidation of the American environment. If teachers could see how different those environments are, they could understand the parents a little better.

As we are driven back to the airport in the south, I pass a typical rural dusty, uninviting, cement secondary school with small, glassless windows, and imagine the crowded, meager interior. Outside the front door (actually a curtain) uniformed students mill about pools of muddy water, garbage, and large, uneven rocks, and chat as adolescents do everywhere.  I wonder if those students should see a movie that depicts an American campus and classroom, what must they think?  Are they incredulous at our resources and excesses, or envious, oblivious, angry, unfazed?  Do they question the chance of fate that put them here and not there? I see the children walking to or from school arms around each other, sisters, brothers, all friends. They seem content, and happy. I decide it’s an impossible question, but I conclude I do miss hanging out with the up-to-the-waist variety of student that keeps me on my toes, literally. 

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Wettest Place on Earth

How do YOU spell relief?  We spell it M-E-G-A-L-A-Y-A, the northeastern state of India, where we’re currently visiting. We arrived Wednesday in Shillong, the capital city, where I’ll be doing another workshop next week. As we walked around the market place and strolled through the park on the lake, we noticed the faces of the 3 ethnic groups that dominate the area, neither heard nor saw any Hindi, and smelled the street food like momos (from Nepal), grilled corn. and stir fry noodles.  Sometimes we didn’t feel like we were in India at all, but we knew we were in a border area. We also knew it by the fact that we have very infrequent or no Internet connection, but the unscheduled break is fine.... until it isn't.
Seven Sisters Falls, Cherrapunji, Megalaya
Mouth of Waterfall, Bangladesh flood plains in distance
We’re now in the area of Cherripunji, which has the distinction of being the wettest place on Earth. The weather is such a relief from the relentless heat of Jaipur, we don’t even mind the wetness.  The lushness is reminiscent of Olympia National Park in Washington with its verdant, tall forests, but also reminiscent of the Queen Mother’s Home, Doi Tung, in Northern Thailand, where you could stand and let the clouds move over you. The views are gorgeous.  Directly behind our hotel you can see the Seven Sisters Water Falls emptying into a large gorge, and if you look to the right you can see the flat floodplains of Bangladesh, the recipient of all that moisture. It’s very striking to see the division between India and Bangladesh, with green hills abruptly giving way to flat, brown flooded plains. There are stunning butterflies of all colors of the rainbow, but none would slow down for a pic, and wildflowers that we call annuals in Iowa and pay a premium for.  See photos @... I'll have to upload when I get back to reliable internet.  For now, enjoy the 2 it took me a few minutes to upload!
Tomorrow we’re going on a jungle trek with a guide over a gorge on a bridge made of tree roots, and it sounds intense but should be incredible scenery.  We took a walk at dusk and were treated to a chorus of frogs or insects clicking loudly like they were in a castanet choir. Finally, we both enjoyed the sound of rain falling, which we’ve not really heard since we left the Midwest.  We’re not in the desert anymore! 

Postscript:  Trek cancelled because of heavy
 rain:  it figures!