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.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

A Visit to the Neighbors

S convinced me we needed to stare down our fears by taking a walk next-door to the zoo.  The lions have grown so large in my imagination I expected some to jump out at me, but I was pleasantly surprised to find lots of docile birds, behind bars anyone is docile I suppose, and some other peaceful animals chillin' in the morning breeze.  Then we got to "Carnivore Corner" and my imagination proved to be pretty accurate.  We have confirmed that the lions are the main sources of the growls we hear so clearly, but there were other cats there as well who were doing some vocal exercises. While I was looking at some short deer, I heard some young female voices close behind me laughing softly and saying, "You, you say 'Hello, ma'am'."  So I turned around and took the offensive with a bright "Hello!"  Suddenly about 20 high school girls eagerly crowded around me and hung on my every word.  It was my rock star moment, and it was fun.  They were from Calicut, where I spent the week last week, so when I told them I loved their countryside (truth) and their biryani was even better than Trivandrum's, they all exclaimed, cooed, and clapped hands.  I asked if I could take their picture and they were ecstatic. When I asked if I could get in on the action, they almost knocked me over in their effort to be next to me in the shot.  They were very impressed to meet someone from the U.S., and I did my public diplomacy for the day in the most pleasurable way possible.
Here is the FLICKR link to the zoo pics.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

I used to be a software engineer...

Western Ghats of Kerala
Friday and Saturday we took 2 days to take a break in a beautiful area of Kerala, the district named Wayanad. The landscape in this rain forest plateau of the Western Ghats is exquisite, and I had the good fortune to be invited by a student to visit his plantations. He shared with me mid-week a refrain I have heard many times here, "I used to be a software engineer, but now…"   His new venture is quite challenging and fascinating to learn about. He is working on trying to reduce the amount of labor needed to grow such crops as ginger, and is using both his farming roots and background coupled with skills honed in his 10-year experience as a software engineer for Intel.  He is using embedded systems, which, as best as I could understand, is a fancy software-engineer term for micro-computers. The plantation itself was an exciting field trip for me, as I've never seen plantations of coffee, let alone of ginger, cardamon, turmeric and pepper.  Add to that the greenhouses with the experiments in reducing the labor, cutting out the soil (growing everything hydroponically), and other cool stuff, and the afternoon was like the best of field trips, both informational and fun.  Of course his mother, was a typical Keralan host, providing us with libations immediately upon our arrival, then she disappeared to prepare a multi-dish meal for us when we finished touring the grounds.  What a treat.

Tea Plantation
We also stayed in a tent-like hotel that was in a coffee plantation, with a great laid-back host and good food, and we began plotting immediately how to get back here in May when the wildlife sanctuary promises to have herds of wild elephants.  For now, we were content to see the country side of rolling tea plantations, scores of butterflies of all colors, and see where our kitchen's spices originate. This state is famous for being gorgeous, and this district of this state seems to be well above average on the gorgeous scale.  Check out pictures of the weekend HERE.