Monday, December 23, 2013

Merry Christmas from Ethiopia!

Merry Christmas from Ethiopia!  We’ve been here just a couple of days, but Christmas Eve is tomorrow.  Initial impressions of the capital, Addis Ababa, are that it’s a fairly peaceful capital, fairly clean, beautiful sunny, warm days, and cool nights, and has some western bonuses like a great hamburger shack, international cuisine like Greek, Armenian, and Italian, and lots of nice people.  We went to the National Museum which features Ethiopia’s contribution to the evolution progression, Lucy.  Actually what we saw was a copy of Lucy, but nonetheless it was interesting to see and learn about.  They recovered about 40% of her bones (shown in the dark brown in the pic) and they assembled a complete skeleton of an upright female that was pretty short. (compare the shortest member of our family, who is quite tall in comparison!)

Besides Lucy, coffee is Ethiopia’s gift to the world, and even though I don’t enjoy dancing to the java jive, it’s enjoyable to smell and learn about.  Ethiopia is the origin of all Arabia coffee in the world, although it produces and exports far less than Brazil and some other nations.  Arabica is the best quality coffee bean, but it can only be grown is very specific climatic conditions, thus the high demand and somewhat limited availability of growing possibilities.
Last, there is a great affection here for the Lions of Judah, and we see lion symbols everywhere. We’re not sure who Judah was, but maybe someone can enlighten us.  Our taxi driver even told us a “story” of how the former Emperor, Haile Selassie, had pet lions that lived with him as friends and roamed the palace freely.  Not sure about that one, but he swore it was so.  Great story if you want to intimidate people, though.  Just invite your enemies over to your house for “supper”.

Kids at a Christmas Fair

Friday, December 20, 2013

THe Festival Season

Most people put the Christian population in Kerala at about 12%.  Mysteriously, though, that number appears to be more accurately around 90% when it comes time to deck the halls.  Christmas decorations are everywhere, and it was rather shocking at first, but then I settled in and enjoyed the parade.  The most prominent decoration, which I failed to get a good picture of yet, is a great collection of various giant stars, which are hung on string in front of churches and businesses.  They are very cool, and I now have my own collection.  What I don't have is string, and even my resourceful driver couldn't find any.  Oh well, it's now on the list with some other things to buy when back in America.  
The pictures below show a finale show closing an International Film Festival here, and it featured about 200 men in long skirts playing drums or horns very loudly.  It was across the street, so we decided to check it out, and it was great fun.  However, we're taking ear plugs to any future event, as the volumes were for the next state, I believe.
Next is a picture of some very sparkly "Christmas Saris" featured in a local department store.  The photo does not do justice to the thousands of sequins, pearls, and other type of bauble on these.  They look beautiful on the women with their gorgeous hair and skin, but they have got to be heavy, too.

The next 2 photos are of an annual Christmas Bazaar in Trivandrum run by a family of women who are Christian and who run a very delicious bakery during the rest of the year.  They filled the basement of a church with baked goods galore, handmade cards, textiles, and all manner of pickled delicacies, etc.  There  were around 50 or 60 cakes, most of which are fruit cakes, a British tradition, and a culinary mistake to my mind,  The decorations on the frosting were very fine, though. It reminded me of the Christmas bake sales at the church where I grew up. The highlight of those sales was always the Italian cookies the priests' sisters made.  They sold them in a multi-layered box and made several different kinds which were beautiful and tasted heavenly. I still associate the smell of anise with opening that box of cookies each Christmas and trying to guess which ones I would like.
Finally, I was looking for some fresh ginger powder to take to Ethiopia in case we want to baked some gingerbread.  I wanted my readers to see just how many spices there are in this place where Columbus and others were searching for spices.  They would have been very impressed with the 3 aisles of spices I had to search through to find some ginger.
So Christmas is coming to people everywhere here in Kerala, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, religion seems to be of little consequence.  It's festive and fun for everyone, so why not enjoy it, as my Muslim friend said?  Indeed.  Even our Hindu driver got into the spirit. I had given him a card with a bonus early on Thursday, and when we got  back from a walk in the park that afternoon, there he was at our door, waiting for us with a large envelope and larger bag.  Two Cards, one for the New year and one for Christmas, featuring Mary, who is very popular here with Muslims as well, go figure.  He also had several snacks from my favorite chips store wrapped in a bag, and some of them are making the trip to Ethiopia with us to share on Christmas.  I think we need more Christmases throughout the year, a time to stop regular routines and remember friends and families, shop for gifts, make fun treats, and plan get togethers. Why hasn't someone arranged a mid-year Christmas yet? I would vote for it

Keeping Your Wits About You

A person has to keep their wits about them when traveling in another country.  The rules and procedures in the airports in India are a case in point.  Where to begin? We started this morning on a trek that will take us to Addis Ababa , Ethiopia, to celebrate Christmas, New Year, and our family being together on one continent.   We committed two beginners’ mistakes this morning that raised my blood pressure just a little.  First, in some cities in India, there are separate airports for international and domestic flights.  Not separate terminals, but airports in different places, though usually close together.  No problem, we knew we were taking a domestic flight to Mumbai, and were on another flight to Addis.  Or were we????  Actually, there is an exception to this rule, and its name is AIR INDIA.   It is owned by federal government; as a consequence, they do what they want.  Our driver left us at the domestic airport, and drove away.  We only got as far as the first door, where an Indian Army soldier handed me back the mandatory paper e-ticket (they sometimes take the info on your smart phone, but don’t count on it.) and announced, “Wrong  airport.”  As soon as he said it, I asked where the prepaid taxi stand was, because I then remembered I’d committed this error last year in Jaipur once.  Air India often flies their domestic flights out of the international airports but not always.  See, they do what they want! 
Ok, no emergency, we had some cushion time.  We waited for our flight gate to be announced, which they finally did when they said, “Board, we’re at this gate.  Find us and get on.” or something like that.  The number of times your identity is checked and the bags counted, weighed, and scanned is probably about 3 times what it was the last time I went through any other airport, but we’re used it…. Or so we thought.  After you ticket all your carry-on with a tag, it has to travel through another scanner.  At this juncture if your bag passed inspection, someone will stamp your tag, and you’re off.

Steve got as far as the bag check before you get on the bus which takes you to the plane when he got pulled over and was told to return to GO to collect a missing stamp on one of his carry-on pieces.  Luckily it’s not a big airport, but still, I got on my bus and wondered if this would be one of those times where we weren’t destined to fly together…We’ve had other snafus, so we’re used to it, probably too used to it, but here I sit waiting for the plane to leave with S at my side reading his Kindle.  Let the vacation begin!  Oh, and we DO remember to keep our boarding passes close at hand, even after we’ve boarded, because there is no end to the number of times officials want to see your boarding pass, even after you’ve reached your destination, and are trying to leave the airplane, the airport, or any secure area.  They want to make sure you know where you’re going, I guess.

Things I Miss

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged, mostly because I’ve been both very busy and sick.  However, I’ve been keeping a little list and now it’s time to share it.  It’s titled “Things I Miss”, and I’ll dispense with the usually people categories; everyone misses their family and friends, so nothing blog-worthy in that.  However, I have a few items that are perhaps particular to living in India; let’s see!
1.     Fresh herbs, other than cilantro.  If you like cilantro, you’re in good shape.  If you are used to cooking and tasting fresh herbs in your food other than cilantro, India is not the place for you.  Very seldom I see a sad looking bunch of parsley, which I grab and take home to try to resuscitate into something I can use.  While in Chennai during Thanksgiving, I went to the “foreigner’s store”, a place where you can find a few cheeses, and other non-Indian prepared foods at non-Indian prices.  I was elated to find some quality Grana-Padana and Parmegiano cheeses, but I was shocked to find a head of my old friend rosemary in a cold case.  I grabbed it immediately and took it to the counter, where I refused to let the sacker have it (needed an inservice on handling precious cargo) and rushed it to my hotel room to keep it for a week before I left.  Many chicken paillards and other mediterrarean delights later, I said good bye to the rosemary, but visions of thyme dance in my head for when I return in February to Chennai.
2.    SECOND:   Service people who show up and with whom I can communicate.  We have an electrician that our super calls when things are beyond him whom S and I have dubbed him “Monday Max”.  Our 1-year-old RO (reverse osmosis) water cleansing machine went on the blink about 2 weeks ago, and Monday Max was called in to “do the needful”.  He looked at the machine, took out a part that looked rather important, and turned to leave.  I beat him to the door and asked when he would be returning, hopefully with a new part.  This was on Friday, and I suggested perhaps next Wed or Thursday?  No, ma’m, not that long, Monday Max. [translation: Monday is the maximum amount of time that will be required before I return with the new part.]
We blew by one Monday, then a second, before Monday Max appeared again.  We called and we visited our super about every 3 days, but Monday Max had run into some “Irregularities”.  Whether it was with the RO part, his bowels, or legal issues surrounding servicing RO machines, we were clueless.  It took about 2 weeks, but we now have a working RO machine.
3.     THIRD:  Using a credit card over the phone.  This past week I have visited two banks to make deposits in other people’s accounts, and taken cash bundles like I’m paying off a kidnapper to various businesses, all because almost no one will take credit card information over the phone.  I believe there is actually a federal law against it, a law the Indian people have decided to obey.  Yesterday I spent over an hour on the phone with my least favorite airline consolidator changing the date of a ticket, because I’m not allowed to tell them to charge it to the account.  They have to bill me in live time while I wait on the phone, then pay the bill by ME putting in the credit card information, and then them waiting for it to be verified, and only then will they issue a new ticket.  I may have whined about this before, but I called Iowa City to transact some business twice in the last week and each time people couldn’t wait to take my credit card info, and then be done with me, and sent me an email receipt within the hour.  It took me back to a gentler time in my financial life, certainly.
4.     FOURTH:  A final thing I miss is being able to go into a restaurant, study the menu, make a choice, order it, and then wait for it to appear.  There are many potential break downs in this process in India, but here are a few.  First, you need to know when to go to the restaurant.  Its ‘timings’ are quite important, and not only to know when you can order, but WHAT you can order.  In the south, one doesn’t order appam for the mid-day meal, only for breakfast, or for dinner.  If you want pappad, some establishments only serve those at lunch time. And the famous South Indian dosa is served as a breakfast staple, or for an evening snack, but never at lunch time, I think….  If you’ve gone to a restaurant when orders are being taken, the next step is to see what the food possibilities REALLY are, not what the menu says.  Menus in many places we’ve frequented in the south are exercises in writing descriptions, and making lengthly lists, but when you order something, many times you will be told by the waiter one of four things:  (a) not available, (b) evening time, not now, (c) complete (translation: we’ve run out, there is no more for you, choose again.), or (d) NO, reason is undecipherable, or none is given at all.  Many times you will get one of these replies after the waiter has spent considerable time describing the dish to you, and telling you how first rate it is.  Hmmmmm. The trick is not to get bogged down, but keep your palate flexible, and have many options at the ready.  Sometimes I’ve had to regroup after 2 or 3 get the “no-go” response, but you gotta give it to me, I always find something to eat.
There are several things I DON’T miss about living in Iowa, many which revolve around the weather this time of year, combined with the 8:00 report-to-work time.  It’s always a trade-off living in a different place than you’re most comfortable in, but we’re still believe we have a good list of things we like about living here.  Sometimes, I’d just like a salad with fresh parsley while I use my credit card online to order exactly what I want to eat and have it arrive at my door.  It’s a lot to ask, I realize now.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Ushering in the Christmas Season in India

Thanksgiving came and went, and we were able to mark Thanksgiving with a buffet in our hotel (nice gesture, but what exactly was in the "pumpkin pie"?) and a very special, very unusual surprise Thanksgiving meal my Madrassa teachers threw me for lunch, again a very touching gesture that they were very pumped about.  When speaking to family members, they reported frost, cold temperatures and even that most dastardly term, "wind chill".  YIKES!  However, those landmarks also prove helpful in marking the beginning of the Christmas season, but without them here in India, we relied on our favorite Christmas carols to kick off the season.  If you don't own a copy of the following, I must encourage you to visit iTunes and give them a listen.  These are some of our stalwarts.

- Vince Guaraldi's soundtrack for "Charlie Brown Christmas".  Unbeatable.
- J.S. Bach's Magnificat:  It is Magnificent.
- Handel's Messiah:  The Hallelujah Chorus is the most known chorus, but there are others that I like better, so listen to "And the Glory of the Lord", "And Suddenly, There was…" and my personal favorite, "For Unto to Us a Child is Born".  Inspired work you should be enjoying.
- Amahl and the Night Visitor, Menotti:  A great opera from the opening notes to the last, great listening, and I believe the made-for-TV production might be available via the Internet.  Still, the music is the real attraction.
- Los Angeles Guitar Quartet playing Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite.  Soothing, energizing, lovely.
-The Chieftains' Bells of Dublin:  That crew always sounds like they are having a whole lot of fun, this time with both traditional and new carols. The ending song is sung in a pub, and you can definitely here the "spirit" of the place.
There are lots more, especially some albums of Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, but one has to stop somewhere.

Gift giving considerations are not far behind the consumption of cold-turkey sandwiches….
Here's a link to Nicolas Kristof's article in today's NY Times on "Gifts that Reflect the Spirit of the Season".  You will find some great gift ideas for people who don't need or necessarily want more things in their lives, ideas on how to help less fortunate people both in the US and abroad.  I have my eye on a couple for upcoming birthday gifts, etc.

And then there are the foods of the season, rather the toffee, cookies, gingerbread, and caramels of the season. I really can't reminisce about those foods, too recent, too hurtful. I am relying on my sister-in-the-kitchen to keep the traditions while we are apart, and get reports of their consumption.  I don't have a stove, so no use dreaming.

Finally, we were driving somewhere on Friday evening and saw a huge creché scene outside a silk shop.  We're in the south of India, so we should expect some signs of Christianity, but we weren't accustomed to it last year in the north, plus seeing the secularization of the Christmas symbols seemed familiar but somehow weird. There are so many temples, mosques, shops for garlands and temple offerings, and randomly placed religious symbols everywhere in this country that I sense that nothing fazes Indians when it comes to this sort of display.

Enjoy your Christmas decorating, and think of me, as I always loved a well-placed Christmas decoration.  I don't believe you can overdo it, but enthusiasm has its own merits, so go ahead and enjoy the season!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Daily News

Reading a newspaper in another country is a challenging task, if you are concerned with comprehension.  If it’s in another language, you assume you won’t get it all, or any, but if it’s in English, it always comes as a surprise that comprehension alludes you.
Such is the case with our daily reading of newspapers in India.  Last year we read the Jaipur edition of The Times of India.  Journalistically, it was not the pinnacle, to say the least.  However, now we are in the south, and the paper of choice is The Hindu, which is also highly regarded as the premier newspaper of the country by more discerning readers.  When we read the newspaper, we struggle with comprehension, many times just with the headline, mind you.  Let us take today’s edition of The Hindu.  One headline read “Bharat Ratna for Sachin, C.N.R. Rao”.  Clues?  The capital letters, except it’s a title, so who knows if those are proper nouns or not. Then I remember the Bharat Ratna mentioned in an Indian novel I read, it’s a prestigious award akin to the U.S.  Presidential Medal of Freedom.  Ok, someone is getting an award….. Now for a little cultural information.  Sachin is a first name, I think, so who is this guy/gal?  Any Indian would ask me if I’d been underground the last week, because it’s the first name of the cricketer extraordinaire who retired this week.  S. figured out that piece.  Ok, I should have known the sports news would be on the first page, having lived in a Big 10 community for so long, but I forgot sports reign supreme.
On to C.N.R. Rao.  I hypothesized it was a radio station, for some reason, then thought it was just another political party that is part of the alphabet soup of this country’s politics.  I decided to dive into the article and see if I could find out.  Turns out this Rao fellow is a big-time scientist.  Woops, sorry!  Who would have thought a man of science would be given the same award as a man of athletic prowess?  The U.S. has more in common with this country than I thought.
This constant deciphering of the news is part of the reason I am an infrequent imbiber of the daily news.  However, there are other interesting aspects to journalism here.  First, there is a familiarity with certain public figures that is, well, interesting.  In the same newspaper, another headline read “Sonia to look into Kerala’s Concern”.  Sonia Gandhi is the current head of the Congress Party, but let’s dispense with formalities.  Here I disgress to put in a feminist outcry of media being way too familiar with the females (Hillary, Sonia, etc. but interestingly, not Angela for the stern Merkel) but not with their male counterparts, but I digress.
Sometimes the word choice is very comical in newspaper articles, at least to us outside the culture.  When describing a riot earlier this week, the Hindu says “A group of miscreants set fire to a forest section…”.  Now I’m not pro-torching, but would you like your misguided child to be labeled a miscreant?  Perhaps there should be more of that, come to think of it. Forget unbiased reporting, start calling out the trouble makers with some serious name calling.  If it worked, I might be for it.  Another headline provided more bemusement with “Do we really need these big fat Indian weddings?” I hope it was a play on the film by the similar name showing the glories of a Greek wedding, but am not so sure.
Finally, when reading this headline I realized it takes a lot of cultural information to translate a simple sentence: “Tipplers Get High in Season’s Spirit”.   I figured out this article is about some hotels selling illegal hootch, although what season it is will remain a secret to me.

All that to say that cultural insider information is paramount when reading the daily news, especially when it’s in your same mother tongue, because without it you can make some stunningly inaccurate assumptions.  I leave you with a quote in a side bar that neither of us could grasp: “…But people consider a royal candidate as stable, because they are not corrupt and their writ runs.”  It’s that last part that has me scrunching up my forehead in wonder.  If you get it, let us know, but be warned, they are NOT talking about a royal family, I don’t think….or is it? We can’t tell.

Friday, November 15, 2013

In the News….

It’s been a week in Kerala….. First we read about a rabid dog in our hometown biting 13 people before it’s captured.  Next we tried to go to a local restaurant, only to be waved off outside the eatery, with a grim NO.    When we read the newspaper the next morning, we found out why.  The health department is checking their list (after a few years of vaca) and going back to the 66% of eating establishments that weren’t granted a health certificate to see if they have magically improved.  They hadn’t, and in fact the reason the health board was checking at all is because there is a huge typhoid outbreak in our fair city, thanks to typhoid carriers who are in food preparation that don’t use good hygiene.  Enough said, right? Today we read the local paper only to see that the city where we spent a week two weeks ago is currently under siege by protestors not happy about land use restrictions recommended by an environmental protection report.  Guns were fired and police vehicles set ablaze.  Not the type of tourist destination we had in mind.  There was also news about huge flooding due to a heavy rain.  You might assume because this is a tropical monsoon-centric area that the infrastructure would reflect the weather, but not so much.

Finally, there was yet another mass transportation disaster this morning with a train derailment, which comes on the heels of 2 buses going up in flames because the drivers are striking roadside objects while passing by, rupturing fuel tanks.  I pinned a big reminder on my desktop to not use the bus system in this country if at all possible, even though we had our daughters take them last Christmas.  Sorry about that! There’s more bad news locally, but that’s plenty.  Sometimes it feels so easy going here, paradise-like weather, gentle friendly people, then other times I wonder if we are going to have to be evacuated when the next big protest comes.  Kerala, with its strong leftist and Communist roots, is firmly entrenched in the protest habit, but up to now it seemed pretty peaceful, even harmless, as we drive by.  I’m going to hope it simmers down a few degrees next week, and I’m not talking about the temperature.
There was actually a positive human interest story this week: a famous cricket player (Sachin Tendulkar, who could be equated to the Michael Jordan of cricket) played his last test match against West Indies this week.  All I knew about it was I couldn’t get some of my students unglued from a tv after our lunch break, and then they explained the match was “historic”.  We still had class.