For 20 years, I’ve watched Tony grade essays around the world – in his cramped study at our old house in Kansas, at the ruins of Troy and cafés in Istanbul, by the Great Wall of China and Starbucks in Shanghai, on the deck of a rainforest lodge in Borneo, along the banks of the Mekong River in Laos, among the terraced rice paddies of Bali, and at the beach in Phuket, Thailand. “Everywhere, every city we’ve ever been in,” Tony says. “I’ve graded papers everywhere.” It’s true. Even on vacation, we’re never alone. For as long as I can remember, I’ve shared my husband with William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Toni Morrison. In part, that’s the life of a high school English teacher. (“Why don’t you just give multiple choice tests?” I whine, staring out the window and wishing I had brought a friend on this trip, every trip. “Because I’m supposed to be teaching them how to write,” he responds, exasperated.)
For 20 years, I’ve watched Tony get to school at the crack of dawn and stay well after the final bell. His classroom door is always open for students who want extra help with an assignment (even assignments from other teachers) or who need a letter of recommendation for their university applications. In his free time, he reads the novels, plays, and poems he plans to teach, even when he’s read them a million times before. He highlights, color codes, writes notes in the margins, fills the pages with sticky notes, and always finds something new.
Tony jokes with his students, “Most people will tell you they became teachers because they love kids. They get energized by you. Well, I don’t. You suck my energy away. I became a teacher because I love books. I love literature. I love the academic life.” But everyone knows that he really does love kids and worry about them and care about them. The students know it best of all.
That’s why I felt especially proud of Tony when the high school seniors chose him to be the faculty speaker at their graduation this year. “The odds were in my favor,” he said when the announcement was made. “I have taught almost all the seniors.” True. Still, it feels good to be appreciated, he admitted.
Tony’s speech perfectly captured his quirky sense of humor, reflective teaching style, and connections with the graduates. He spoke to them, weaving together themes from his classes with life lessons. He referenced inside jokes that only the students would get, and – best of all – in my opinion, he reminded them to carry on the values that AES instilled in them: compassion, service to others, and a growth mindset.
Here’s the American Embassy School of New Delhi graduation video. Skip ahead to 44:50 to see Tony’s speech.
A few people have asked for the script. Here you go. Feel free to share. Tony later realized he misattributed the phrase, “Pavements gray,” so he fixed it in this version.
I am truly honored to be speaking to you today. But, before I begin my speech, I would like to say something that is actually important.
Simply put, I care about you – many of you. I’m fond of you. I’m proud of you. You’ve earned my utmost respect. And when you are gone, I’ll think about you; I’ll remember you; and I’ll miss you, starting Monday, when you definitely should be gone.
OK, the speech.
Earlier this year a traveling salesman came to our school. OK, he wasn’t actually a traveling salesman. He was what Paul Johnson would call a teacher trainer.
But, I like stories about traveling salesmen, so here we go . . .
Anyway, this salesman made us all think about what AES teachers do, and he tried to make us worry and wonder if we were, in fact, preparing you for “the real world.” And by “the real world,” he meant – I guess – life beyond AES, where you will all go and exist, starting in about 40 minutes.
Now, I was a little traumatized by his premise that AES is “not the real world.” We aren’t real. Ironically, in the place where we teach you “to be or not to be,” we are … NOT.
Let’s think about what this means.
You can’t BE a student at AES. Apparently, you can only NOT BE a student at AES. When you move those tassels, of course, you won’t be students at AES anymore, but for a few more minutes you are students at AES … NOT.
This happens in every class, I’ve lost a few of you. Don’t worry about it.
The idea that AES isn’t the real world is sort of a great contradiction to Descartes and the fundamental keystone of all western philosophy: Here, at AES, “we think, therefore we are” . . . NOT. In Latin it would be: Cogitamus, ergo NON sumus.
Now, I did wonder if, in fact, I had prepared you for “the real world.”
But, I’ve been an academic all my life. So, I guess I never have actually really been in or seen the real world.
Oh, I’ve heard of it. It comes up occasionally in class. It’s what the poet William Butler Yeats called “pavements gray.”
And Wordsworth said,
“Where getting and spending we lay waste our powers
For the little we see in nature that is ours.”
That’s from Mr. Glennon’s favorite poem by the way.
Indeed, the real world, as I understand it, is what the Romantic poets, and Walt Whitman and Thoreau and even Huckleberry Finn on his raft were forever trying to escape.
So, maybe I didn’t teach you how to live in “the real world,” but I know I taught you how to escape it – you can pick up a book. You can pick up a book, too.
Here, in “NOT the real world,” we spend way too much time trying to teach you something totally irrelevant out there: how to be self aware.
What we teach at this school is how to look at the world critically, logically, creatively, theoretically, artistically, mathematically, communally, politically and compassionately
And I have always tried to do that without taking away the sense of wonder that 5-year-old you initially brought with you to kindergarten.
Now, some of your parents don’t know what I mean by wonder. But it is the most important thing I teach!
Socrates taught us that “wonder is the beginning of knowledge.” So I’ll teach you the way I taught your children: Do you remember when you were a kid, probably 3 or 4 years old, and you were riding in the back seat of the car. It was night and your parents were driving. For some reason it was quiet and you looked up and you noticed that the moon was following you?
Amazing that you still remember the emotion! You remember because you wondered.
That emotional joy of discovery is why I teach literature, a topic which has always been an exploration of what it means to be a human being. When you examine everyone from Macbeth to Gatsby, Frankenstein to Elizabeth Bennet, Job to Hermione Granger, you learn something.
I mean that here, in the “NOT the real world,” we think about the infinite possibilities that is man all the time. “What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculties!” as Hamlet says.
Twenty-five hundred years ago, Socrates (who, by the way, they poisoned right out of the real world) said, “The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.” I do verily believe it.
And so let me give you my one bit of advice for people about to go into the real world. Don’t go! Don’t go! Some of you girls couldn’t walk very far in those shoes you’re wearing anyway. So, don’t go!
Don’t go into the world that Willy Loman describes by screaming: “The competition is maddening!”
I don’t know if we prepared you for the real world. And I’m not sure I’m ready for tomorrow either. I do know that AES is special though.
Here, in “NOT the real world,” we constantly strive to better ourselves.
Here, in “NOT the real world,” we value community, and the noblest trait is caring about others more than ourselves.
Here, in “NOT the real world,” we think about learning as a lifelong goal, something we continue to do until our very last breath.
Here in “NOT the real world,” we know that what you spend a lifetime building can be torn down in an instant, and yet you should spend your life building anyway.
Here, in “NOT the real world,” we actually mostly try to teach you how to continue living in a world like this one, by being awake to the infinite possibilities that is humanity and your own unlimited potential.
So, did we prepare you for “the real world”?
I don’t know. I worry about it. Most of you can’t drive or make an omelet or write a check or iron a shirt. I had to tie four ties before we could get these kids out here.
No, don’t worry. None of that matters.
Truthfully, I kind of assumed you were ready for “the real world” the first day I met you. You were probably ready for “the real world” when you graduated kindergarten.
Bob Fulghum sums up the kindergarten curriculum this way. This is what you were supposed to learn:
Don’t hit people.
Put things back where you found them.
Clean up your own mess.
Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
Wash your hands before you eat.
Live a balanced life.
Learn, think, draw, paint, sing, dance, play and work some every day.
And take a nap every afternoon.
That’s why your teachers have couches in their rooms.
Kindergarten … I swear to God, that’s really all you needed to know to live and be happy in the real world.
Not ready for the real world? You knew everything the day I first met you! I’m not worried about you! I’m jealous of you, and I’m hopeful about the world because I think you’re going to change it. I think you’re going to make it better. I think every one of you is going to make it more like AES. And that’s what I was preparing you for!
Change the world and make it better. That’s your homework! That’s your homework, too. When is it due? Well, life takes a lifetime. How many days do you have left?
Eventually, when you’re done, they can dig a hole and bury you right in the actual real world. Nothing in the real world really lasts, anyway.
But in the meantime, don’t get sucked, pulled, drawn or contracted into the real world. Don’t ever surrender any part of your soul. That moral truth, by the way, is what you were supposed to learn from every tragedy I’ve ever taught you.
Now, if you’ve ever looked at “Cliffs Notes,” and I think some of you have, and I think some of you have, and I know some of you have … you will learn that the theme of almost every book not written by Jane Austen is “man’s inhumanity to man.”
Man’s inhumanity to man!
Well, from what I’ve heard, that happens out there in the real world. So, don’t go! Don’t contribute to it. Stay here – at least in your hearts.
Tonight is the AES Board Farewell Dinner, where our school honors departing board members and staff. The “leavers” are invited to get up on the stage to say a few words about their time in Delhi. Some give heartfelt speeches; others perform a little skit, sing a song, or show a clever video. Historically, it’s been an evening fraught with emotion.
I recall a particularly poignant speech in 2012, in which a teacher asked people in the room to stand if they had ever taught his children. Many pushed back their chairs and stood. Then he asked people to stand if they had ever coached his children in sports or after-school activities. More rose. Then he asked people to stand if they had ever put a Band-aid on one of his kids, had a hallway conversation with them, talked to them at a birthday party, or otherwise interacted with them. By then, nearly everybody in the room was out of their seats, many of us in tears.
It was a powerful illustration of the interconnectedness of an international school community. We work together, play together, travel together, struggle together, celebrate together, teach and care for each other’s children, and grow reliant on one another. Then we wave good-bye as those important people move on to other places, year after year, until we are the ones leaving.
At previous AES Board Farewell Dinners, I’ve wondered, “What will we do when it’s our turn to go?” Well, now I know. Nothing. With less than two weeks before we leave India for good and kick off a new adventure in Santiago, Chile, we will attend this dinner, but we won’t get up to speak.
Trust me, I’m as surprised as you are. Everyone knows I love the spotlight, especially if it’s an opportunity to make people laugh. Over the last five years, I’ve toyed with many hilarious ideas that could have blossomed into shtick for tonight’s dinner.
I do want to honor Incredible India, where spectacular experiences are a daily occurrence. I want to express my deepest appreciation for a professional community that thrives on thinking and growing and learning from each other. I want to send a big shout-out to friends who supported us through the bumpy patches and laughed with us the rest of the time. This country, this city, this school, this community – all of it – has been unlike anything we’ve experienced in our 15 years overseas.
And that’s precisely why I can’t get up to speak tonight. I know I won’t be able to harden my heart against the tears when I look out at the crowd. And nobody wants to see this girl cry. It ain’t pretty.
So know that this is my way of telling you how much you mean to me, from the bottom of my tear-stained heart:
Please stand if you ever prepared food, booked travel, arranged a visa, handled money, set up a mobile phone, drove a car, mailed a postcard, or signed official paperwork for me. Please stand if you ever answered an urgent email from me. Please stand if you ever delivered, painted, fixed, cleaned, or moved something at my home or classroom.
Please stand if you ever exercised, ate out, shopped, danced, visited a historic site, took a walking tour, discussed books, played cards, got massages, lounged by a pool, ventured out to community events, walked in the park, or otherwise played with me. Please stand if you traveled with me.
Please stand if you taught me something or if I taught you something or if we learned something together. Please stand if you and I were part of the same department, task force, committee, focus group, or grade-level team.
Please stand if you ever gave me a hug or I gave you one. Please stand if you’ve heard my cat stories, student stories, mom stories, niece and nephew stories, and/or poop stories. Please stand if I ever cried in your presence.
If you’re standing, it’s because you made a difference in my world. Thank you.
I’m not quite ready to say good-bye. So, if I see you tonight, please don’t dwell on our departure. Let’s just share a few more laughs for the road.
Recently, global news has filled my heart with sadness and anxiety. As a teacher of little kids, I try to maintain a light-hearted demeanor and a smile on my face. With adults, I joke about suppressing my feelings as I sing a song from the musical, “Book of Mormon.”
When you start to get confused because of thoughts in your head, don’t feel those feelings! Hold them in instead. Turn it off like a lightbulb! Just go click. It’s a cool little Mormon trick.
Sometimes that helps.
However, I can’t stop thinking of fear in the eyes of Syrian refugees. I lie awake at night angry over the helplessness we all feel when innocent people die in pointless bombings in random cities. I worry about fear breeding intolerance leading to hate resulting in rash laws and unlawful actions that ultimately shred the fabric of humanity. I stress about American politics, which presently seems to offer no viable option for making the world a better place. I wallow in my own personal uncertainty: so many unanswered questions and conflicting emotions related to a new life on a new continent and saying good-bye to a place and people we have loved for five years. In addition, India has been throwing us curve balls with confusing messages related to visas and taxes, creating a tense vibe among our staff.
So, yeah, I’ve been a little stressed lately. So stressed that I almost skipped a speech at school Friday by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of the Tibetan people. As a support teacher, I didn’t have to accompany a class, so knowing the rest of the school would be at the speech, I almost stayed in my room to get some work done. Still, I knew I would regret missing this opportunity, so I headed to the gym.
Photo courtesy of Alan Rubin
Children in pre-kindergarten through second grade lined up outside to greet the Dalai Lama. Everyone agreed they wouldn’t benefit from sitting on the floor of the gym for his lengthy speech, but a receiving line was better than nothing. Many teachers had front-loaded his visit with wonderful lessons featuring his own quotes on kindness and compassion, so children were eager to see him. Inside the gym, we packed grades 3 through 12, teachers, and a few special guests from the top bleacher down to the floor, within a few feet of the small stage. Several teachers managed to secure invitations for their Tibetan maids, who stood at the front in traditional dress, nearly bursting with excitement. Each held a khata, a white scarf, which they would present to the Dalai Lama for blessing.
Photo courtesy of Tim Steadman
An overflow venue was set up for parents to watch the speech via live streaming video.
I traveled to Tibet in 2009, and in 2012 I visited Dharamsala in northern India, where the Dalai Lama lives in exile. I know his story. I empathize deeply with the Tibetan people. Although I’m not a Buddhist, I do embrace many Buddhist values. Yet I never could have anticipated the visceral impact of the Dalai Lama’s presence. I cried all day following his speech, but they were tears of gratefulness and hope. Even now, my eyes well up as I write this and my heart swells with happiness. I realize this sounds hokey and dramatic, and I don’t really understand it myself. One little octagenarian shifted my whole mindset and transformed my energy in less than two hours. How long will this last? Or maybe I should ask, how do I hold on to it? Or maybe even more importantly, how do I share it with others?
I’m still processing this myself, so I apologize in advance if my thoughts ramble.
Photo courtesy of Eric Johnson
I entered the gym and sat with Tony in the bleachers. The usual rumble of chatter echoed off the walls, which were draped with black and gold, our school colors. The stage remained quiet, Tibetan prayer flags stretched across the backdrop and a comfy chair awaiting the arrival of His Holiness. After awhile, the head of Indian Studies got on the mic and encouraged us to quiet down and get our minds in a more meditative space. A hush fell over the gym, and even our youngest students remained calm until we were dismissed, more than 90 minutes later.
Soon, AES Director Paul Chmelik announced the Dalai Lama had arrived and was greeting the children outside. Later I learned why it took so long from that moment until the Dalai Lama entered the gym. I thought he would walk past the receiving line outside with a wave and a smile to the children, but he apparently paused and chatted, laughing, touching foreheads in a traditional Tibetan greeting, clasping their little faces in his hands, asking questions and chortling at the answers. “How old do you think I am?” 99! 75! (In fact, he’ll turn 81 this summer.)
Photo courtesy of Eric Johnson
Greeting our friends, Scott White, ES assistant principal; Paul Johnson, HS principal; and Gary Coyle, director of technology. Photo courtesy of Alan Rubin
As the Dalai Lama passed through the doorway to the gym, the crowd stood. One of the Tibetan maids began to weep, her cries breaking the silence. He worked his way toward the stage, taking his time and engaging with those along the way, sharing a good laugh with a wheelchair-bound guest who had met him before, blessing the khatas and gently patting the bowed heads.
Photos courtesy of Mark Cowlin
When he stepped onto the stage, he put his hands together in namaste and faced the crowd. Then he greeted the children on the floor, waggling his fingers and wobbling his head with a big grin. After an introduction by Dr. Chmelik, a sweet song by our elementary school choir, and a welcome from two high school seniors, the Dalai Lama addressed the audience – without notes and standing for the first 30 minutes of his speech.
Photos courtesy of Tim Steadman
“Indeed, I am very very happy come here, mixing with young brothers and sisters,” he said, citing two reasons. First, the past cannot be undone, but the future awaits, and these young people have the power to create a vision and work toward a world of compassion. His second reason for enjoying school visits, he said, was “little bit silly.”
“I am old person, old monk,” he said. “When I met some old people, I feel, oh, hmmm, you go first or me go first? When I meet these young people, I also feel little bit younger! More fresh, more fresh, like that!” And he laughed, a good hearty guffaw, at his own silliness.
With a translator standing by, he peppered his speech with funny anecdotes, often cracking himself up and pausing for a deep chuckle. He told of being a lazy student when he was young and tutored, along with his older brother, by a teacher who had two whips: a regular whip and a “yellow whip, a holy whip for holy student, Dalai Lama. I think holy pain is same as regular pain,” he laughed.
In a poignant moment, the Dalai Lama answered a student’s question about pets at his temple. He recalled having cared for many injured animals over the years – birds, dogs and cats, noting that compassion pays off with animals, too. They appreciate our affection and repay us in kind, he said, acting out the kneading gesture of a cat while making a purring sound. I loved that.
Between stories and laughter, the Dalai Lama repeatedly emphasized the importance of compassion in the world. He stressed the need for “a sense of concern for the well-being of humanity, a oneness for 7 billion human beings.” Compassion is intrinsic to human nature, he said, noting how human bodies function best when our minds are calm. It’s biological. As the world’s population grows and climate change impacts our natural resources, there is no other option than banding together through compassion. He pointed out that a person killed by a tiger or elephant is big news, but we hardly notice anymore when a person dies at the hand of another person. “This we have to change,” he said.
Addressing human rights violations around the world, he said it was useless to merely condemn them. He called on people to think about the causes of human rights violations and then “try to tackle the causes.”
What are those causes? Discrimination and intolerance seem to fuel emotions that lead to violence, he said. “I always think of myself as another human being, and that makes a close feeling (with others),” he explained. “If I’m a Buddhist monk, particularly Dalai Lama, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, then I am myself a little bit isolated from the audience. Out off 7 billion people, only one Dalai Lama. If I have too much emphasis on Dalai Lama, then I feel lonely. When I feel I am another human being, then we are brothers and sisters. … Too much importance on status, race, faith, nationality, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, influential or not influential. All problems are caused by these things. The only solution to those problems is to believe we are all fundamentally the same.”
When people feel connected and care about one another’s well-being, everyone benefits, he said. As social animals, human beings cannot survive without community. “The very source of our successful life, happy life, depends on the rest of the society. So too much self-centered attitude, narrow mindedness, selfish thinking … is actually destroying your own happiness.”
Pondering the power of religion to hurt and heal, the Dalai Lama pointed out that all major religions teach love, tolerance and forgiveness. It’s only natural that different philosophies arose around the world in the quest for those things, but the goal is the same. “There’s no grounds to discriminate or fight; we can develop respect when we realize it’s the same purpose,” he said. However, the culture surrounding religion is where real challenges arise. Social habits and beliefs instilled by religious institutions may cause more harm than good in today’s society, even if they originally served a useful purpose. He specifically named India’s caste system and the Islamic Sharia law as systems in need of change. To prove it can be done, he shared his own decision to sever the political arm of the Dalai Lama Institution and turn over power to democratically elected leaders in Tibet. “Almost a four-century-old practice is ended,” he said. “The reality of a time leads to changes in religious practice.”
The Dali Lama wrapped up his speech with a plea to teachers. Nurture deep connections with students, model compassion, and explicitly teach the values of kindness, tolerance and open-mindedness, he said. (Even his teacher with the whips grew to show great affection.)
So many resonating ideas surfaced during the Dalai Lama’s speech. He talked about relations with China (it’s getting better); science and religion (no reason for conflict); courage (honesty leads to self-confidence); study and self-reflection (there’s still so much to learn); optimism (“Power of truth is much stronger than power of gun.”); and his favorite places in the world (depends on the weather). Bottom line: Any change has to start with one person. Show compassion, receive compassion, and pay it forward.
What a role model for teachers and children, alike. This man is powerful enough to change a Buddhist institution, yet humble enough to purr like a cat and giggle with children. The future of an entire culture rests on his shoulders, yet he bubbles with optimism and hope. He can talk about brain science or world religions with confidence, yet he has no problem admitting “I don’t know.”
After watching the video of his speech – re-playing until I plucked meaning from occasionally scrambled word order or his heavy Tibetan accent – I came away with even more to think about. One thing the video couldn’t capture, though, was the energy in the room. It was unlike anything I have ever experienced. At the risk of sounding like a Buddhist charlatan, I can attest that the Dalai Lama’s aura washed over me in a deep and profound way. I’m clinging to it, committed to at least striving to embody the compassion he believes can save the world.
Accepting his AES swag. Photo courtesy of Mark Cowlin
Still mingling on his way out.
Photos courtesy of Mark Cowlin
Here’s the video of His Holiness the Dalai Lama addressing the American Embassy School in New Delhi.
I barely had time to unpack my suitcase, do laundry and repack, and I was off again.
Before I knew I would chaperone the high school mini-course, I was craving a traffic-free get-away to nature. I got that, unexpectedly, with our trip to Krishna Ranch last week, but I had already booked a trip with my friend Alli for the following week. We took the train to Rishikesh and stayed at Atali Ganga, a peaceful little eco-resort on the shores of the Ganges River (Ganga in Hindi).
Atali Ganga stretches up the hillside on the east side of the river. From the main road, a short steep driveway takes you to the reception area, which includes a pool and climbing wall. Stone steps and pathways lead to the Green Deck, a grassy lounging area on the second level; Café White Water, where we ate all our meals, on the third level; and then to individual cottages on five subsequent levels. Alli and I were neighbors on the fifth level, 85 knee-jarring stairs from the lobby.
View from the restaurant deck.
Trees, shrubs and potted plants lined the paths and surrounded the buildings. Small tables and chairs, shade umbrellas and loungers were tucked here and there, providing ample spots for reading, napping, writing, or chatting. My cottage far exceeded expectations with its stone tile floor, comfortable bed, hot shower, and screened windows to let in the fresh breeze. I didn’t even notice all the special touches until I needed them, like when I realized the bamboo ladder just outside my front door was meant for drying my wet clothes, or when I spotted the yoga mats provided in the room just as my weary muscles needed a stretch.
I also appreciated the eco-friendly efforts: Signs offered gentle reminders to preserve water and power; linens were laundered only every three days; soap and shampoo came from wall-mounted dispensers instead of disposable containers; and housekeepers refilled glass bottles with fresh water each day.
On our first afternoon, we joined Sonita, one of the activity directors, for an introduction to the Ganges in an inflatable kayak. Alli and I took turns as Sonita piloted us upriver a bit and then floated back down. We both hopped out of the boat and into the icy water at the end. It was exhilarating! Afterwards, we plopped down in the riverbank’s powdery sand to enjoy the view and a cup of chai.
That evening, the hotel served snacks by a fire pit and set up a telescope for us to look at the moon and Jupiter before dinner.
The next morning, we joined a group for whitewater rafting. This was my virgin voyage, and I have to say the “safety talk” kind of freaked me out. I was feeling pretty nervous by the time we set off on our 24-kilometer ride. Our boat mates included a nice Indian family with two sweet children.
“Well, it can’t be too dangerous if they’re letting the kids do it,” I said, thus jinxing our journey.
After 4 kilometers, we rowed to the shore. “What are we doing?” I asked.
“Dropping off the kids,” answered our guide. “We’ll pick them up again after the big rapids.”
We rowed and floated down the jade-colored river, which was calm enough at times for us to pause and check out the tree-covered hillsides, mysterious little caves, sandy beaches and paths winding through the forest. But the calm was quickly broken by 14 Class-2 and Class-3 rapids that doused us and got our hearts pounding. The rapids had funny names, such as Three Blind Mice, Golf Course, Rollercoaster, Black Money, and Return to Sender.
During one stretch, our guide encouraged us to ride along on the outside of the boat. Alli and I both hopped in the chilly water, held on to the raft’s safety line, and let the current tow us along till our limbs went numb.
Shortly before the end of our trip, we met the two children, who had been trucked downstream, and brought them back on board.
Big sigh of relief.
So I survived my first whitewater rafting experience, and it was fantastic!
Because this stretch of the holy Ganges River looks nothing like the brown, toxic sludge that creeps into the holy city of Varanasi, I falsely assumed that riverside cremations were prohibited up here. However, we actually saw two on this day. One had just finished, and the family members were brushing ashes in to river. The other was just getting started with a pile of wood and a body on a pallet nearby. That was a little disconcerting.
Back at the fire pit that evening, under a full moon, we chatted with Manoj Biswas, the owner of Atali Ganga. He explained that this section of the river was the most holy for North Indians, and riverside cremations were not only allowed, they were sacred. If you can’t cremate your loved ones in nearby Haridwar, then you at least find a way to bring their ashes here to put in the river, Manoj said.
He also helped us understand which mountains surrounded us. There are three Himalayas, all with profound Sanskrit names, he said: The upper Himalayas (Himadri, which means “respect the snow”), the middle Himalayas (Himachal, which means “shrouded in snow”), and the lower Himalayas (Shivaliks, which means “locks of Shiva’s hair”). Atali Ganga sits in the shadow of the Shivaliks. He also said the pronunciation is Him-AL-ya, which translates to “abode of snow.” When we say Him-uh-LAY-uh, it has a different and unrelated meaning.
Why are the lower Himalayas called “locks of Shiva’s hair”? According to Hindu legend, the gods wanted to send the goddess Ganga down to earth to provide water for people. However, they feared her impact when she fell from the heavens would cause total destruction, so Shiva offered to catch her in his hair and then squeeze the water out onto the earth. Sure enough, pure water pours down the Shivaliks to join the mighty Ganga River rushing through the valley.
A sunrise hike got our next day off to a peaceful start. Alli and I climbed to the top of the Atali Ganga property to meet Robbie, one of the resort’s activity guides, who led us on a 2.5-kilometer walk on a boulder-strewn path. We saw barking deer (and one barking dog), peacocks, wild chickens, trees full of langur monkeys, a little flock of red-cheeked parakeets, and a few other birds, although most stayed hidden in the foliage. Robbie noted that winter, with its naked trees, is the best time for birding. Still, we could hear their chatter. Here’s a recording of peacocks.
We crunched along a carpet of dry leaves, past several termite towers, through a narrow gully that fills with water during monsoon season, near a small village (with only four houses and a field of wheat) and down to the road, where a van hauled us back to the hotel.
Robbie showed us these hard little seeds that were used as a unit of measurement for weight before the British showed up with their drachms, ounces, pounds and stones.
We had planned to play on the resort’s high ropes course, but we opted instead for a lazy day of lingering over coffee and reading in the shade. After a quick dip in the pool and more lounging around, we decided to pop down to the river. We waded in the water and sat in the sand, watching other guests kayak and swim.
Day four started as a repeat of day three and turned into a whole lot of trekking for me. I joined Robbie for another early morning hike, climbing up and down the rocky paths. We didn’t spot any animals, but we heard lots of rustling in the bushes. Wild chickens, Robbie said. I asked whether people eat them. “They are very fast walking,” he said. “If people can catch, they eat.”
After crossing a nala, a dry gully that fills with monsoon rains, we fell in line behind a village woman. She trekked up the precarious hill in worn flip-flops, holding her long purple skirt with one hand and balancing a large brass pot of water on her head with the other. She said “namaskar” to me and chatted in Hindi with Robbie as she climbed. Later, Robbie told me the woman was surprised to see us hiking so early in the day. She and other women out collecting wood yesterday had seen a bear at that nala, so she warned us to be careful.
Robbie led me through a small farming village. Cows and water buffalo looked up from their breakfast to check us out.
After a bit of reading and lounging, Alli and I headed to the river for a while. It was blazing hot with no shade, so we didn’t last long. I decided to join a group going on a 4-kilometer afternoon hike.
Led by Sonita, we crossed the river on the Malakunti suspension bridge and trekked along the mountainside. (Mala means necklace, and kunti means pendant. The village of Mala sits up the hill, so the bridge is like its pendant hanging below.)
Along the way, we spotted pink and green stains on the dirt path, signs of local celebrations. It was Holi, a holiday that welcomes the arrival spring, when revelers toss colored powder or water on each other. The path rose and fell, sometimes ominously narrow with a sheer drop to the rocky beach. We often scrambled over piles of pale flat rocks, and looking up, we could see where they had broken free from the hillside.
I kept taking my phone out to snap a photo and then slipping it back into my pocket. I didn’t realize every time I did that, I butt dialed someone in the States. So sorry about that!
Eventually, we reached Sonita’s village, Sirasu. There, we saw ladies working in the fields, and Sonita showed us the different crops: wheat, chickpeas, onions and garlic. She also pointed to the big group of men and boys playing cricket in the distance. Women generally run the farm, care for the livestock and manage the home, while men have jobs outside the village, she said. We stopped at her mother’s house for chai. Children from the village hid behind a wall to spy on us, and a calf tied to a metal ring snorted at us and nibbled at the grass. An old woman walked by, doubled over by the load of hay on her back. I put my hands together and said, “namaste,” and she stood up, gently set down her load, and returned my greeting with a wide grin.
Sonita leading us through the wheat fields.
Animals next to her mother’s house.
After finishing our tea, we set off again. Just past the village, bamboo scaffolding encased a huge ashram and temple under construction. Rishikesh is a magnet for spiritual pilgrims and yoga enthusiasts. This National Geographic Traveler story takes place at an ashram next to Sonita’s village and does a nice job describing the vibe of the area.
It was getting dark by the time we saw the second bridge. A precipitous path cobbled together with pale purple stones zig-zagged down the mountain. I asked Sonita if the color was natural, and she pointed across the river to where purple-tinted rock rose out of the water and blended into the hills. We walked across the bridge and up another steep hill to the road, where our bus waited to drive us back to Atali Ganga.
Our final day in Rishikesh, we had to check out early, so we spent most of the day in the open-air reception area, reading and writing. I felt my usual melancholy settle in, knowing I had to leave behind beauty and fresh air and face the reality of Delhi’s smog and traffic. What a perfect week, though. And, seriously, what an amazing month – so many Incredible India experiences!
That’s it for a while, though. My next big journey will be a life-changer as Tony and I wave farewell to India in just two months, travel to Michigan for a quick visit, and then move to new jobs and a new home in Santiago, Chile.
Since moving to India, Tony has accompanied high school students on a mini-course called Marwari Safari at a horse ranch in Rajasthan once a year. Although all AES high school students and teachers embark on mini-courses around the country each spring, he always claimed his mini-course was the best. Students got away from the big cities, didn’t have to travel from place to place, learned how to ride horses, enjoyed a little down time every day, and ate delicious food, mostly straight from the garden. For the last four years, I wished I could go, too. This year, I did!
On Thursday, I received a call from the high school assistant principal, saying Tony’s co-chaperone was too sick to travel. Would I be willing to sub? I had a little panic attack. It meant missing a week of school and parent conferences, and this is my busiest time of year as Elementary School EAL coordinator. “Maybe this is just what you need,” she said. Turns out, that was true.
We left just three days later (March 13) on the overnight train: Inder Jit, our tour organizer and riding instructor; his assistant, Bijay; 14 high school students; Tony and me.
After 12.5 hours on the train, we arrived in Udaipur and went straight to a boutique hotel for breakfast in the garden. Afterwards, we toured the City Palace and the Sahelion Ki Bari gardens. I had visited the palace in 2014, but our local guide on this visit had a great sense of humor and pointed out details I hadn’t seen the first time. Many of the students were surprisingly attentive and curious, despite sleep deprivation.
At the palace.
At the gardens.
Following our tour, the bus carried us another 20 minutes to Krishna Ranch, our home for four days. We were greeted by ranch owners Dinesh Jain and his wife, Francine, passionate promoters of the Marwari horses and lovely people overall.
For a short time, I took riding lessons in Delhi with mostly sluggish horses that slowly and methodically walked the perimeter of the ring. At Krishna Ranch, we rode Marwari horses, which required a whole different approach to riding. Frisky and keenly alert, they were bred for speed and endurance in warfare.
The Marwari horses originated when native Indian ponies were crossed with Arabian horses. The traditional rulers of the Marwar region (in northwestern India) first started breeding Marwari horses in the 12th century. The horses come in a full range of colors and patterns, but their distinctive ears set them apart from other breeds. The ears stand up and curve inward, creating a whimsical and endearing appearance.
The head conveys the indefinable oriental presence of the horse and should be expressive with a high forehead, large sparkling prominent eyes, straight or slightly Roman long face giving a clean chiseled profile and well rounded defined jaws, the nostrils are large and gently flared set over firm fine lips and an even bite. The ears should be of medium length and shapely, curving and curling inwards at their points in a scimitar or lyre shape typical to the breed. They will be somewhat longer in the mare.
Narani, the cook at Krishna Ranch, shares everyone’s passion for these beautiful horses.
At Krishna Ranch, some light-colored horses had decorative henna socks painted on their lower legs and their Hindi names henna-ed on their flanks.
This is Komal. Well, this is Komal’s backside.
Dinesh and Francine own 14 Marwari horses, and they borrowed a few more for our group. They also breed and sell horses, cautiously entertaining offers from India’s growing upper class. However, Dinesh has been known to buy back a mistreated horse or refuse to make the sale if he feels the prospective owner can’t provide appropriate care. His genuine love and concern for the horses makes this place even more special.
One morning, he saw me peeking over a stall door to check out the youngest resident of Krishna Ranch, so he opened the gate and introduced me to Gori, a 3-week-old black filly with a white blaze. Gori’s father was last year’s champion Marwari stallion, said Dinesh, who petted and cuddled the sweet baby as we chatted. Usually, the young horses are afraid of people, he said, but the workers who groom the mama, Rupali, couldn’t resist brushing little Gori, too. She nuzzled my hand and let me pet her velvety nose.
The adjoining stall housed three yearlings, also heartbreakingly adorable.
Each morning and afternoon, we all crowded under the wide umbrella of a magnolia tree for lessons from Inder Jit. Dinesh and several grooms helped facilitate the lessons, sprinting alongside high-spirited horses and calling out instructions to the riders. They generally kept three horses going at a time, giving the students 5 to 10 minutes of practice each.
Early in our relationship, I took Tony horseback riding. He walked his horse to the middle of the field, dropped the reins and let his horse eat grass while I cantered around him for an hour. You can imagine my surprise when he confidently leapt up on his Marwari horse at Krishna Ranch and took off around the arena. After four years of chaperoning this trip, he has acquired a pretty substantial set of horsemanship skills. That’s my cowboy.
During the first lesson, my horse clearly wanted to exit the arena and get back to her friends at the stable. Dinesh told me to make the turn sooner, rather than riding the whole length of the ring. “Then she will know what you want,” he said. When my turn finished, we chatted more about that. He mentioned that he’s been working with Bollywood directors who need horses for their films. The director often just wants to start shooting as soon as the horse shows up, but Dinesh asks, “What will you want this horse to do?” Then he puts a trained rider on the horse to practice the scene several times before any filming starts. When it’s time for the actor to do it, the horse knows what to do.
Side note: John C. Reilly recently spent some time here with Dinesh, getting riding lessons and then shooting scenes for “The Cowboys,” a French film that came out earlier this year. “Some of our guys had to dress in Pakistani clothes with guns and everything,” Dinesh said.
One afternoon, we all struggled with the horses during our lesson. They were refusing directions, bucking, spooking at the fence line, bolting, and even rearing a bit. The kids got pretty nervous and started gasping and worrying when they watched their friends take turns. (A scary cow was hanging around on the other side of the arena’s wall.) As the last rider, I was ready to opt out. By then, the horses were full-on wacko. But Dinesh convinced me to climb aboard a skittish bay mare named Rani. He helped me convince Rani to turn left when she really wanted to turn right, which we practiced several times. After she realized she wouldn’t get her way, she completely relaxed and let me take control. Once again, I recognized Dinesh’s gentle genius.
Between lessons, we went on a “hack,” or trail ride, each day. Day 1: We rode single file with a groom walking alongside each horse to the nearby village of Bada Havala. I was assigned to Noori, a stubborn pinto, and told to take up the rear. We were supposed to keep a horse length between us, but Noori really wanted to get to the front of the line. I managed to keep her under control, just barely, but I bloodied a knuckle in the battle, and I worried that I was hurting her mouth by holding the reins so tightly. When we stopped to walk around another village, Chorta Havala, I whined to Dinesh. He told me to trade horses with Bijay, one of our tour assistants (and expert horseman/polo star). I swallowed my pride and rode Suresh, a gray gelding, for the rest of the hack (and the subsequent hacks). Calm and gentle, Suresh allowed me to relax and enjoy the scenery.
As we clomped through the villages and countryside, young children bounded out of their homes to wave and shout, “Hello! Bye bye! Dada!” (One of our students told me “dada” is like “ta ta” in English.) We passed homes of newlyweds where the outside walls were painted with a traditional wedding procession – camel symbolizing love, elephant symbolizing good luck, and horse symbolizing virility One house also had the groom on a horse and the bride being carried in a palanquin. “They can’t afford the real procession like a maharaja, so they paint it instead,” Dinesh explained.
On our ride and walk, we noticed many animals with painted horns, most notably some bullocks with very long pointed horns painted bright orange, red and blue. Dinesh said the paint was a remnant of Diwali, the most sacred Hindu holiday. Farmers celebrate by decorating their hard-working animals in a show of gratitude. That includes expensive paint on the horns, henna decorations on their legs, beaded necklaces and other adornments. Another fun farmer tradition at Diwali: They set up a puja, or shrine, in front of the home, using animal dung to form idols of the gods and adding a little incense and other props. Then they open the gate and let their animals parade out of the courtyard to trample the puja and track dung down the path, leaving a temporary reminder to neighbors of their animal-owning status.
Day 2: Our group filed out the Krishna Ranch gate and on to the trail on the same horses we had yesterday. We rode to “Shilpgram – The Rural Arts and Crafts Complex,” a sprawling representation of villages in Western India. The place was mostly deserted, and the students were mostly apathetic. Still it was interesting to see how many villages cluster homes around a courtyard with a few key industries. According to the Shilpgram website, “Traditional village life was said to have been, to a considerable extent, self-contained and self-sufficient with a potter, a carpenter, a blacksmith, often a weaver, living alongside one another.”
Our silly students posing at the sculpture garden.
Back at the ranch, grooms unsaddled the horses and let them take turns rolling in a pile of sand to cool off. The horses looked ecstatic as they shimmied their sweaty backs down into the sand, kicking their legs in the air, but when they stood up again they were caked with grit.
After lunch, we returned to our horses for a brushing session. The grooms showed us the technique: vigorous curry combing for about 40 minutes on each side, followed by a softer brush. Suresh stood patiently while I groomed him and actually fell asleep while I gently stroked his chin. Sweet boy.
Day 3: This was my favorite trail ride. Astride our hyper steeds, we traipsed through the countryside and up into the hills to Badi Lake, a man-made reservoir that provides irrigation water to farmers in the valley. We passed the most fascinating people and scenery along the way.
Stone walls enclosed small fields of wheat, which were just beginning the transformation from green to golden. Bougainvillea draped over fences and climbed up walls, adding a splash of fuchsia, coral, baby pink and white to the dry, dusty landscape. At one point, it created a canopy overhead, dropping neon leaves on the path like a natural red carpet. Herds of little goats scrambled up the hillsides or mewed at us from their tethers. Water buffalo with curlicue horns lounged in the shade of their enclosures. Always a little cranky looking, they raised their noses in the air, rolled their eyes, and flapped their ears when alerted to our presence. We passed a camel that was nearly obscured by the towering cargo of hay on its cart. One enclosed field was cleared and brown but featured one towering tree, planted in a concrete ring, with branches bare of leaves but fiery with saffron blooms that rained down on the parched earth. The scene looked like a sepia snapshot with a Photoshopped splash of orange.
Village ladies always catch my eye as they labor in the fields or around their homes dressed in colors that offset the drudgery. Several times, a woman would hear our hoofbeats, pop up from the wheatfield, pull her dupatta up over her head and wave with a big smile. Others crouched by the irrigation channels to wash blankets, which they draped over the bushes to dry. Heads piled high with freshly harvested greens, a few ladies emerged from the fields and paused to watch us pass. Many stood roadside with their children. All wore saris in shocking hues of mainly red, orange and yellow.
We took a short break to check out the reservoir. Tony noted that the water level changes dramatically, depending on rainfall during the monsoon season. He pointed to a small temple near the shoreline, almost completely submerged with only a bit of its spire poking out of the water. “I’ve been here when the water is below that temple,” he said. “And I’ve been here when the water was up to the edge of this path.”
Between lessons and rides, we sat on our porch or strolled around the property. Our building’s exterior was painted with traditional Rajasthani designs, including glued-on little round mirrors, and the jhali screen above the door featured an image of Ganesh. Sparrows had stuffed sticks and other debris inside the jhali (a mesh screen on the inside kept it all from falling on the bedroom floor), and they flitted in and out of the nest. It was like having pet birds that could come and go as they pleased.
Sitting in rattan chairs on our porch, we overlooked a large garden, where the cook, Narani, might be digging up onions or picking chilis. Next to the garden, workers collected water from a pump to wash big pots or to give the horses a drink. On the far side of the garden stood a long row of stalls, where horses lay in the straw or stood with their heads hanging out the windows, calling to their friends. To the right of our porch, just under our bedroom window, a farrier trimmed the horses’ hooves and tacked on new shoes. Cookie, the puppy that wandered on to the property one day and never left, curled under a tree to gnaw on the discarded trimmings. (Dinesh said the puppy enjoys riding in the saddlebag on multi-day horse safaris.)
Climbing to the roof of another building, we watched huge langur monkeys leaping from tree to tree and then pausing to snack. We gasped as a tiny baby monkey held on for dear life when its mother soared through the air, grabbed for a branch and swung to a perch. From our vantage point, we watched the soft green wheat sway in the breeze while peacocks wandered through the fields.
Behind our building, additional horses were tied up, along with a baby camel and a menagerie of chickens, goats and dogs. Watching the baby goats was better than TV.
On the rooftop of our building, we ate meals, lingered over chai and played Uno in the evening as the sun set behind the Aravelli hills.
On our final night at the ranch, Dinesh built a campfire for us. The kids roasted marshmallows, sang songs, pointed out constellations, and told stories.
Honey, I bought a camel.
Wandering slowly back to our room one evening, we encountered Dinesh and Francine. At the same time, the young camel came ambling down the path, led by one of the grooms.
“What do you do with that camel?” Tony asked.
“Even we don’t know what to do with it!” said Francine. “We’ll get rid of it, I think. They can be quite dangerous. Look!” The camel was tugging on the lead, trying to run.
We all followed the camel down to a small paddock. The groom let the camel loose inside, where it bucked and popped in the air, gangly legs kicking out at unpredictable angles. The puppy Cookie tentatively trotted into the paddock, ears perked at this curiosity, but then bolted under the fence when the camel’s wild thrashing came too close.
Although we all had a good giggle at the goofy camel, Francine repeated her protest about camel ownership. Tony and I joked about how most husbands get in trouble for buying a tech gadget or other expensive toy without asking their wives.
“How did you break the news when you brought home a camel?” we asked Dinesh.
He said the camel was a surprise even to him. He had been looking for one of his grooms, and someone announced, “He went to get the camel.” Sure enough, the groom showed up later with the baby camel that charmed its way into permanent residence at Krishna Ranch.
“He really was so cute and little,” said Francine.
Although the little camel is still too young to be useful, Dinesh plans to use him for hauling cargo on multi-day horse safaris in the future. “That is a good idea,” Francine conceded.
On the afternoon of our departure, some of the handlers demonstrated a few tricks. Dinesh said the horses often perform at weddings – dancing, bowing, rearing up high, and walking on their back legs. Then we gathered all the workers and our group together to express our gratitude. Our only Hindi-speaking student shared our appreciation and understanding that their long hours and hard work led to such a meaningful visit for us. We all shook hands, enjoyed a last glass of chai, hugged our horses good-bye, and trudged down the dusty path to meet our bus.
A short flight later, we were back in Delhi, saddle sore but filled with bliss.
Many visitors to India – especially those with limited time to explore the country – embark on a “Golden Triangle Tour.” The triangle comprises three key cities:
* Delhi, India’s capital, with ruins of seven cities dating back almost a thousand years.
* Agra, home of India’s most visited attraction, the Taj Mahal.
* Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, known as the “Pink City.”
As for Delhi, I feel confident that I have sucked the marrow out of this city (although it would be impossible to see it all) after living here for almost five years. And we knocked out Agra just weeks after moving to India in 2011.
However, I never got to that last vertex on the triangle: Jaipur. In our last few months here, I am trying to cram as much India as possible into my calendar. It was beginning to look like Jaipur wouldn’t make the cut. Then I received an email from my art curator friend Himanshu, who was planning an off-the-beaten-path tour to Jaipur called Ctrl+Alt+Jaipur the weekend before my birthday. Sign me up!
Turns out my friend, Sarah, and I got an almost private tour. The only other participant was a hip young woman, Monalisa, who joined us from Mumbai. On Feb. 20, Himanshu, Sarah and I drove from Delhi, arriving in Jaipur in time for a late breakfast at our hotel. We met Mona and headed out to explore the artsy side of Jaipur.
First, we popped in to Anokhi, a popular shop that sells block-printed clothes and textiles. When I say popular, I mean it is not uncommon for teachers at our school to wear an Anokhi dress to school only to find several other teachers wearing the same fabric in a skirt or blouse. It’s gorgeous stuff, but I haven’t been inspired to join the club (except to buy the softest comfiest pajamas on earth). Himanshu brought us here to spotlight Jaipur’s rich history of blockprinting. I had always thought that involved carving a block of wood, dipping it in paint and stamping it on the fabric. Interesting … but I didn’t really get the hype.
Our next stop on Day One was AnanTaya, a “design studio committed to the development of innovative ideas through understanding the importance of preserving ancient crafts.” I could have stayed there all day. Little signs next to the products explained the significance of the crafts and their role in Indian life. We met one of the founders, Ayush, who shared his passion for supporting local artists. He doesn’t mind when they sell their products outside his shop, noting they use his designs but they have the skills to do the work. His love for Jaipur art was contagious. “We grew up with beauty,” said, recalling family conversations centered on art.
I bought these incredible brass lassi cups, handcrafted by master craftsman Mohammad Dilshad in three traditional designs. Ella approves.
Lunch was an experience in itself. We went to a traditional Rajasthani restaurant called Laxmi Mishthan Bhandar, where I was reminded again of how my grasp of local culture remains frustratingly superficial, and my quest for deeper understanding only leads to more confusion.
The menu read, “Food which is half-cooked or halfripe, insiped, putrid, stale and polluted and which is impure too, is dear to men of a Tamasic disposition. Thus, Lord Krishna condemns unwholesome food. Instead, he recommends foods which promote longevity, intelligence, sweet, bland, substantial and naturally agreeable. LMB’s commitment to this ideal of food is a manual of faith. The food prepared in pure desi ghee suited to everyone’s palate bears out our credo.”
This is why it takes me ages to blog about my experiences in India. I get intrigued about something, spend hours researching it, discover something else I don’t understand, spend hours researching that, and finally get back to my original story. So, I got a little off task thinking about that blurb on the menu. According to wikipedia, “In the Samkhya school of philosophy, tamas (Sanskrit: तमस् tamas “darkness”) is one of the three gunas (or qualities), the other two being rajas (passion and activity) and sattva (purity, goodness). Tamas is the template for inertia or resistance to action.” Therefore, men of “Tamasic disposition” apparently eat food that makes them lazy. Who would want that? Bring on the LMB food that promotes longevity and intelligence!
OK, back to lunch … We ordered the Rajasthan thali. A thali is simply a meal comprising several small servings of various dishes. I really wanted to understand what I was eating to get the full experience, and the waiter eagerly played along. A couple times, he actually took my spoon out of my hand to demonstrate how to break off a little bit of that, add a little scoop of this combined with a dab of that, and then he would hand it back to me victoriously.
If the only word on that tray you recognized was “rice,” then here’s your guide to the thali. Papad: a cracker made from seasoned lentil flour Missi Roti: flat bread Boondi Raita: sweet yogurt with little balls made from chickpea flour Bati: fried flour balls to eat with dal and churma Churma: made from sugar and wheat flour or chickpea flour Dal: lentil conconction Mishri Mawa: ethnic Jaipur dessert made from fresh reduced milk and sugar Kair Sangri: a traditional vegetable dish combining a desert shrub berry and the bean from a flowering tree called Khejari Aloo Gobi: a dry, spicy mix of potatoes and cauliflower Danamethi Kishmish: sweet and sour fennel seeds with raisins Bela Rajashasti: spicy and steamed thick chickpea-flour dumplings with whole spices cooked in yogurt gravy Kadi Chokanwali: fried soft balls of chickpea flour with thick curry of Rajasthani herbs and yogurt
Himanshu and Sarah enjoying their thalis.
After lunch, we headed to the City Palace Museum, where Himanshu pulled some strings to get us a private tour with his friend Giles Tillotson, noted historian, author and art curator who handpicked pieces for a new museum exhibit, “Painting and Photography at the Jaipur Court.”
To be honest, I was a little starstruck in Tillotson’s presence and couldn’t focus well enough to retain much of what he shared with us. Still, his stories from behind the scenes left me enthralled.
I tried to do some research when I got home. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find much more than the basic promotional materials.
I took this photo before Tillotson gently asked me not to shoot pictures in the gallery.
The exhibit’s brochure explains:
The display begins with paintings from the 18th century, from the period of the founder Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II, up to that of Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh, under whose reign painting in particular flourished. It then captures the excitement of the late 19th century when the camera competed with, but also complemented, the artist’s brush under Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II. In the end, images leading to Indian Independence and its aftermath overseen by Maharaja Sawai Madho Singh II and Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II, bring us up to the mid-20th century.
According to an article in the Rajasthan Post from the exhibit’s September inauguration, “The photographic collections of the Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum have now been catalogued and archived. They include a collection of nearly 2,000 glass plate negatives dating from the 1860s to the 1880s, from the archive of Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II. Many of these pictures were taken by the Maharaja himself, the most famous of India’s royal photographers.”
Cameras at Court by Mrinalini Venkateswaran, projects head for Eka Archiving Services and co-curator of the exhibit, offers a wonderful glimpse into the historical context of the exhibit and breathes life into the static images in the photos.
Here’s a video from a local news channel (with really poor production quality).
Hanging around at the City Palace.
We spent the late afternoon and early evening strolling through Jaipur’s back alleys and markets. The buildings of the “Pink City” are actually more of a terracotta color, although the setting sun did create a pinkish reflection.
This guy was dying a blouse to match a sari. The shop owner asked me to mail him a copy of the photo. Done.
A small flower market.
I love the chai break photo bomber.
Marble sculptors. White dust filled the air and coated everything in sight. I would have liked to linger, but it was hard to breathe.
According to Discovered India, marble played a key role in Mughal art and architecture, and artists continue to ply their craft in Jaipur today.
The development of a marble structure is very delicate task and it takes a high degree of expertise and skill to carve a beautiful marble sculpture. The process starts with the selection of the right stone for carving. A carver may use his imagination to carve a figure or he might use a reference model to copy it on the stone. Mostly the artists prefer to begin with making a model of clay or wood and then try to copy it in stone.
When he is ready to carve, the artist starts with peeling off the large unwanted chunks of the stone. A long pointed and hefty chisel is used for this purpose along with a mallet. This is the roughing out stage of the stone. The strokes should be chosen very carefully as a little miscalculation can ruin the quality of the stone hence hamper the beauty of final sculpture.
Once the general shape of the structure is obtained then other tools like toothed chisel and claw chisel are used to refine the work. These tools are generally used for adding texture to the figure. Gradually the sculptor has attained the rough general shape of the final figure. Now the sculptor uses tools like rasps and riffles to enhance the shape of the figure and giving it its final form. A riffle is a steel tools used from removing excess of stone from the figure in the form of small chips and dust. The riffle is a smaller version of rasp which used for the detailing of the structure. Finally the sandpaper is used for polishing the sculpture giving it a beautiful smooth and elegant look.
The art of Jaipur marble sculpture is century’s old and transferred from one generation to another. The use of traditional tools and techniques to carve a marble stone in to a beautiful structure has preserved the heritage of this ancient art. There is a high demand for handmade Jaipur marble articles all around the world.
Himanshu took us to the shop of Avaz Mohammed, a renowned lac artist, whose family has suppled lac bangles to the City Palace for generations. Lac is a resinous secretion of insects that is harvested from tree branches and used as a plastic. Artists start with blobs of lac and soften it over a fire to mold, flatten, twist and otherwise shape it into bangles or other decorative items.
We sat on a bench smushed up to the bangle display as cargo-laden motorcycles honked and wedged pedestrians out of the way. Sarah nearly lost a leg to a slow-moving but oblivious motorbike driver. Himanshu eagerly showed us the family’s unique creation – the gulaal gota – an egg-sized bubble of lac filled with colored powder. The thin lac shell breaks on contact, showering the victim with bright powder. The artist’s family provided them to the palace for the former royal family’s Holi celebration, and now gulaal gotas are available to anyone who wants to shake up the festival of colors.
In his excitement to demonstrate this cool Holi accessory, Himanshu pitched a gulaal gota at Mona, who was wearing a gorgeous floral crepé kurta (a calf-length top, worn with leggings). The fuchsia powder coated her hair, skin and lovely outfit. I turned to Himanshu, who was poised to grab another ball, and said, “Don’t even think about it!” In retrospect, it would have been way smarter of him to pelt me in my T-shirt and jeans rather than Mona in her stylish ensemble. Mona was a good sport. I think I would have cried.
Poor unsuspecting Mona.
After a quick pause for coal-fired chai, we were getting tired and decided to abandon some of the destinations on our itinerary.
Our last stop for the day was Govind Dev Temple. Steep learning curve. Are you ready? I’m summarizing a very enlightening article called Vrindavan Deities in Jaipur.
Vrindavan is the childhood home of Lord Krishna and thus a sacred site for Hindus. In 1669, temple priests at Vrindavan got the horrifying news that Emperor Aurangzeb was planning to invade the temples and destroy the sacred murtis (idols) of Krisha. The priests fled with the murtis, traveling at night and taking refuge in caves during the day. Five murtis ultimately found safety in Jaipur, although one was later moved to another city. Those four Jaipur murtis each have their own temple now, and we visited all of them.
There’s so much more, but this blog post is already insanely long, and we’re only at the end of Day 1. I just have to say that article was reassuring in that it was written by a South Indian Hindu, who expressed confusion over this complicated North Indian story. “The problem with a polytheistic religion like Hinduism is that it is hard to keep track of its regional, and rather glorious, variations,” he wrote. Yeah. Imagine how a third-culture kid brought up in a military household with a Protestant value system might struggle to understand this stuff.
The Govind Dev Temple was constructed on the City Palace grounds in 1735, offering the maharaja a clear view of the Krishna worshippers. When we arrived, it was mostly deserted, but soon crowds filled the space, sitting on the mats or standing around the perimeter. A metal fence surrounded a sort of stage with a heavy curtain and locked gate hiding the Krishna murti. Eventually, the temple priest unlocked the gate and pulled back the curtain to reveal the murti. We all crowded to the front. A long bout of bell ringing and chanting ensued, including the catchy “Hare Krishna” chant. Priests then walked along the inside of the fenced area, sprinkling water out on the crowd. People were grinning and raising their hands in the air, exultantly. Finally, we joined the rest of the crowd to walk clockwise around the temple before reclaiming our shoes and heading out. Surprisingly awesome.
The next day, we visited the other three Krishna temples with murtis from Vrindavan.
Unfortunately, the gate to the murti was locked, and we would have had to wait too long to see it opened. However, the temple was interesting in itself with ornate paintings and tiles throughout and a bonus Hanuman temple adjoining the courtyard.
Less ornate, this temple was busy with worshippers circumambulating (walking the perimeter clockwise repeatedly) and pausing to bow to the murti.
In this austere temple, the priest was busy with ceremonial duties. He asked us not to photograph the murti.
And that was just the beginning of our temple trek.
Dedicated to the sun god, Surya Mandir reaches up to the sky from its perch on a rocky hill, 200 meters above the city. From there, we could see the grid pattern of city streets, the result of 17th-century city planning. Energized by the sun (or maybe the sun god?), we played in the courtyard a bit, posing and enjoying the views. It was easy to imagine the city’s founder, Maharaja Jai Singh II, coming up here to soak up some rays and find a little peace.
Approaching the temple. Cows, monkeys, and pigs. Oh, my!
Hindus ring a bell or ghanta when they enter a temple. I’ve read a few different reasons: The “om” sound invites the deity to be worshipped. The reverberation clears your mind to receive enlightenment. The sound scares away evil spirits.
You don’t have to twist my arm to worship Surya. Sunny days and blue skies fill my soul.
I have to be honest. By now, I was pretty templed out. When Himanshu said we had one more to see before we headed to our next destination – and especially when he said it was called “the monkey temple” – I was like, “Let’s skip it.” But thank goodness we didn’t!
Yes, there were hordes of monkeys, but they were surprisingly respectful (which is not a typical monkey trait, fyi). We walked down a steep rocky path from the Surya Mandir and then climbed a few steps into the top structure of an expansive temple complex that stretched down the hillside.
A group crowded in front of the shrine, while others lingered around the pool of water a few feet below. As we walked down, we saw three spring-fed pools: one for monkeys, one for men, and one for women. My mind almost couldn’t process the view. Buildings designed in the style of a palace or haveli were cradled in a mountain pass of the Aravelli Hills and crawling with smiling pilgrims in their eye-popping colorful saris and suits. This site has been a Hindu retreat since the early 16th century, but the Galta Temple complex was built about 200 years later.
This couple asked me to take their photo and text it to them. Why not?
Brilliant frescoes once greeted temple visitors, but time, weather, and vandals have taken a toll.
This woman asked for 10 rupees (15 cents) to snap her photo. Savvy lady, posing in an irresistible archway in that pink sari.
These ladies were laughing and singing and happily posed for me, free of charge.
My girl, Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge and education, tucked away in a little nook.
On to Amer…
From Jaipur, we drove to the village of Amer, which sits in the shadow of the imposing Amber Fort high on the hillside. Here’s the scoop on Amer, also known as Amber, from the Rajasthan Department of Tourism.
Amber, lying 11 kilometres north of Jaipur, is a remarkable conglomeration of royal palaces, robust forts, princely havelis, residences, gardens, temples, lakes and other ancient buildings. The history of the city dates back to the 10th century, when it was founded by Mina tribesmen. The Kachchwaha Rajputs conquered this region, known as Dhoondhar in ancient times, in the early 11th century, owing to its great strategic value. Dulha Rai, the first Kachchwaha king of Dhoondhar, made Dausa, a small town near Amber, his first capital. The territory kept growing through military expeditions or political alliances. The Kachchwahas laid the foundation of the fortified walls of Amber, established the Kakilgarh fort and built Ambikeshwar Mahadev Temple. Amber became the third capital of the Kachchwaha, and remained so for almost seven centuries. The rulers kept expanding the city by building palaces and temples of Vishnu and Shiva. The period from late 16th to early 18th century under the reign of Man Singh and Raja Jai Singh I and Jai Singh II is considered the golden period of Amber. A significant contribution to the art, architecture, science and financial wealth of the city was made under their rule. After independence, Dhoondhar kingdom was merged with the state of Rajasthan and Amber became a part of Jaipur district.
Here, we visited the Anokhi Museum to learn more about block printing. Remember my apathetic attitude toward Anokhi’s block printed clothing? Well, that has changed now that I have learned more about the process. Watching an artist carve a wooden block blew my mind, and the skill required to print evenly and efficiently is ridiculous. Plus, it’s not just dip-and-stamp, dip-and-stamp. Holy cow, it’s way more complicated and fascinating.
This is a short and informative video by geobeats that captures what we saw at the museum.
This display explained a 14-step process from plain cloth to printed fabric.
I could have watched this guy for hours. It was mesmerizing. I knew the fabric was printed by hand, but the blocks are also carved by hand using primitive tools.
He had to carve four blocks to make one pattern.
I never really thought about how hard it would be to line up the patterns or to place the blocks just right to deposit color exactly the same way across yards of fabric.
Well, I’m a convert to the cult of Anokhi, and I feel grateful for this new knowledge and appreciation for the art of block printing.
Next, Vineet Sharma, banker turned tour guide, met us at for a stroll through the village of Amer.
Just a few steps from the museum was our first stop: the Panna Meena ka Kund, a 16th-century stepwell or baoli. Stepwells provided water to the community, but also served as a marketplace, entertainment venue, and hangout spot.
Just across the alley sits the Ambikeshwar Mahadev Temple.
According to Vineet, monsoon rains sometimes overflow the stepwell, and the water fills the temple, which makes sense as it sits about 10 feet below street level. Legend says about 5,000 years ago a king had a cow that would only give milk in one specific place in the forest. Digging up the dirt in that spot, the king found a shivling – an idol of Lord Shiva, and decided to build this temple on the spot.
The shivling is inside the hole.
The Sri Jagat Siromani Temple was another highlight in Amer. It was commissioned by Queen Shringar Devi Kanakawat in memory of her son, Jagat Singh, and built between 1599 and 1608. Vineet found the caretaker, who opened the shrine for us.
While Sarah and I poked around the temple, Mona and Himanshu chatted with the caretaker. Apparently, he told them a story about the legendary 16th-century Krishna devotee and poet, Meera Bai, who considered Krishna her spiritual husband despite being married to a king. I found a summary on a website called Amerjaipur.in.
There is an interesting story about this temple. It is said that the statue of Lord Krishna in this temple is same statue that Meera Bai used to worship in the state of Mewar, 600 years ago. This statue was saved from destruction by rulers of Amer during the Mughal war with Mewar state and brought safely to Amer. And statue was set in a temple. Even statue of Meera Bai has been set along with Lord Krishna.
Vineet took us to the abandoned palace of the Kachchawa rulers, commonly known as the Narsinghji Temple, which was home to the royal family before they built the Amber Fort. The caretakers were hanging out, seemingly oblivious to the building’s historical importance.
Finally, we checked out one last temple, inside a peaceful courtyard. I have tried to find details about it online to no avail. If I stumble on any information, I’ll update this post.
From the temple’s rooftop, we could see the wall that runs along the top of the Aravelli Hills, reminding me of our treks on the Great Wall of China.
After bidding farewell to Vineet and Mona (who caught a flight back to Mumbai), Himanshu, Sarah and I returned to the car for our trip back to Delhi. However, the driver informed us that protestors in the neighboring state were blocking the border crossing. It’s a complicated situation, which gets more confusing with every article I read. You can read more here if you want, but I assure you, it raises more questions than answers.
So, suffice it to say, we weren’t sure we could get home. Well, the next day was my birthday and I was going to be cranky if I had to spend it in some roadside motel because the road back to Delhi was blocked. I quickly grabbed my phone to search for flights, but they were all booked. Train stations had also been ransacked by the protestors, so that eliminated another mode of transportation. Finally, we decided to drive for awhile and see whether we could get new information. The internet yielded nothing. No news. Himanshu got on the phone with him mother, who called everyone she knew who might have information. We stopped for chai, and Himanshu proposed an alternate plan. We could leave the highway and take country roads until we passed the blocked area. However, google maps was unreliable; it was pitch black outside; and we couldn’t be guaranteed that this new route was free of protestors. Feeling uneasy but eager to get home, we decided to risk it. Eventually, we got reassuring news from Himanshu’s brother that the road was clear. He had also been driving back to Delhi from another city and got there before we did.
I was able to spend my birthday back in Delhi after all. I took the day off work, sorted my Jaipur photos and relaxed. After that whirlwind weekend, I needed a break!
And, with that, I have officially wrapped up my Golden Triangle tour, five years after it started.
I highly recommend tours with Himanshu. In fact, he’s taking a group of us around Delhi next weekend to check out the street art. Check out his website, 1100 Walks. For a walking tour in Amer with Vineet, email him at email@example.com.
I toured Delhi’s Toilet Museum today, thinking it would be good for a laugh. And it was. (Potty jokes never get old, right?) However, more importantly, the museum’s light-hearted approach to toilet history effectively lifts the conversational taboo and lures unsuspecting visitors into learning about India’s sanitation crisis and one organization’s efforts to address it.
In the Toilet Museum, a guide summarized the displays, pointing out images of 4000-year-old stone toilets and drainage systems from the ancient civilization in Harappa, a model of a mobile toilet (India’s version of the porta-potty), sketches linking Europe’s bubonic plague epidemic with poor sanitation practices, a humor nook plastered with toilet-related jokes and cartoons, and a vast collection of actual toilets. These included a replica of French Emperor Louis XIV’s throne-like chamberpot, ornately painted Victorian-era toilets, a tent-enclosed camping toilet, an electric toilet that incinerates waste on-site, and a small table with a surface that lifts up to reveal a pot. (“So they could eat on it and shit in it,” the guide said. Side note: “Shit” doesn’t seem to be as offensive in Indian English as it is in American English, so it’s often used in casual conversation in its literal form.)
According to Sulabh’s website, Founder Bindeshwar Pathak was inspired by Gandhi’s call to abolish “scavenging,” the cleaning out of bucket toilets, pit latrines and other open sewers by hand. Scavengers – people from the “untouchables” caste – often pile the waste in baskets to carry on their heads as they walk long distances for burning or disposal. Outlawed in 1993, the practice continues with some estimates approaching 800,000 scavengers in India. In addition to the health hazards and degradation faced by scavengers, the lack of operational toilets also wreaks havoc on the environment, keeps girls away from schools and forces women to seek out privacy in dangerously dark outdoor areas before sunrise.
Dr. Pathak decided to “use the toilet as a tool for social change,” the Sulabh website says. He developed an eco-friendly, twin-pit toilet that naturally composts the waste, providing a culturally acceptable and affordable option for individual households. The toilet uses only a liter of water to flush the waste into one of the covered pits. When the pit fills, it is closed off and allowed to compost for several years while the waste is channeled into the second pit. When the second pit fills, it is closed for composting, and the first pit is re-opened. The dry composted waste from the first pit is removed for use as fertilizer, and the toilet water is channeled once again into that pit.
At the Sulabh complex, we checked out several varieties of the toilet. Sulabh Vice President Nigar Imam explained that the toilet technology works in any region. Depending on geography, the pits may be lined with cement, stone or wood coated with tar. The toilet may be fully enclosed with brick walls and a roof, circular with no door or roof, made of bamboo mats or jute, or otherwise constructed to meet the desires and needs of the family. “Some people want the moon, sun and breeze,” said Ms. Imam.
Ms. Imam uses props to demonstrate how little water is required to flush the toilet.
This model was specifically designed for homes with limited outdoor space for constructing a toilet.
A brochure offered at the complex includes a picture of a spacious WC with a tile floor, windows and a door. “Sulabh two-pit pour flush toilets can be constructed by even rich people where there is no sewerage,” it says. “The pits can be cleaned after 40 years.”
During our visit, Dr. Pathak made an appearance and posed with our group. He expressed optimism that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi “has ignited the minds of Indians about sanitation and hygiene.”
Modi launched his Clean India Mission campaign in 2014 with the goal of ending open defecation and generally improving sanitation across the country by March 2019 in honor of the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth. “Toilet first, temple later,” he said.
About 120 million toilets must be constructed to meet that goal, says Dr. Pathak, calling on wealthy individuals, companies and organizations to contribute. An individual toilet system costs about $500.
Sulabh is doing its part. Some achievements:
• 1.3 million Sulabh household toilets constructed
• 54 million government toilets constructed based on the Sulabh design
• more than 8,500 Sulabh community toilet blocks constructed
• Scavenging eliminated in 640 towns
After introducing us to the toilet systems, Ms. Imam explained that Sulabh also developed technologies for converting waste from public toilets into biogas and for recycling the run-off into water for cleaning or irrigation.
At the entrance to the Sulabh complex, the public can take advantage of squeaky clean toilets, cheap drinking water and a small primary care clinic, where doctors offer free consultations and medication to those in need.
Sulabh also operates an English-medium school with free tuition for underprivileged children, who comprise about 60 percent of the student population. Graduates and adults benefit from Sulabh’s occupational training classes. When we arrived at the complex, the school children were gathered for a ceremony to celebrate Vasant Panchami, a festival in honor of the Hindu goddess of wisdom and knowledge, Saraswati.
Living in Delhi, I frequently find myself discouraged and worried about India’s future. After visiting Sulabh, meeting Dr. Pathak, and reading up on the work of this organization, I feel a new glimmer of optimism.
The older we get, the more jet lag kicks our butts. With that in mind, I figured we should return to India after Christmas break a bit early to recuperate. However, the winter air quality in Delhi keeps us indoors, so we opted to spend a few days in Dubai instead, tempted by sunshine, fresh air and quite a few friends who used to work with us in Shanghai and now teach at the American School of Dubai.
We crashed at the home of the Toas, friends from Shanghai days. Unfortunately they had to work, but they left us a key and information on getting around town.
Dubai was everything we expected it to be. Biggest this. Tallest that. Fanciest everything. Sunny, bright, clean.
We spent one day walking around in the Dubai Mall (biggest mall in the world, of course). There, we gawked at the Dubai Aquarium fish tank (only the second biggest in the world, sigh…, although it does have the world’s largest acrylic panel). The tank holds 10 million liters of water and houses more than 140 species of aquatic animals, including … ahem, the largest collection of sand tiger sharks in the world. We walked through the aquarium’s acrylic tube, which offered surreal views of the sea life with a background of mall shops. The rest of the aquarium was much like aquariums everywhere. I loved the bilingual signage, though.
Although the outside temperature was a bit chilly, we braved the cold to enjoy delicious Lebanese food on the terrace of Al Hallab restaurant, overlooking the Burj Khalifa’s fountain show. As we were eating, Tony suddenly realized the building next door was The Address Hotel, which had caught fire on New Year’s Eve.
I couldn’t get the top of the building in the frame!
Our second day in Dubai, we got a bird’s eye view of the city from the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. An elevator flew about 33 feet per second to the 124th floor. We snapped a few photos and looked through the time-traveling binoculars that showed both real-time and historical images of the area below.
Then we climbed up the stairs to level 125 and stared out to where the city met the the desert on three sides and the sea on the other.
Back on earth, we hopped on the City Sightseeing Dubai hop-on hop-off bus. Without thinking it through, I insisted we take the “historic” route. I guess I thought we might see some evidence of the city’s former life as a fishing village and hub for the pearl industry, as illustrated in this old Daily Mail article, “Dubai Before the Boom.” We did not. However, we hopped off to visit the gold and spice souks, and then walked along Dubai Creek for a bit, which was interesting. When we were ready to continue the bus tour, we realized the company’s map was woefully uninformative and we couldn’t find the next bus stop. After awhile, we encountered a few others with open maps and perplexed expressions. Eventually, we all sat in the shade to rest, and lucky for us, the bus pulled right up! (For future reference, I’d suggest the Big Bus Dubai company instead, if for no other reason than we saw their marked bus stops all over the place. We never did see a marked stop for City Sightseeing Dubai.)
How’s a girl to choose?
That evening, we hung out with Shanghai friends, Kara and Dave. At their place, we played with their cats, chatted passionately about books with their daughters, gossiped about former colleagues and laughed until almost midnight. Not a good plan when you’re trying to get over jet lag! But super fun nonetheless.
The Coles, the Dents, and Sarah (We didn’t get a photo with Jake! Doh!)
The next day, we blew off Dubai and read by the pool for the entire day (with just a couple breaks to visit nearby cafés). We met up with yet another fabulous family we knew in Shanghai, Robyn and Jeff. It was great to see how happy they are living in Dubai. “You just work, work, work all week, like you always do, and then if you can find time to relax at the weekend, it’s like a holiday resort,” Robyn said.
For our final day in Dubai, Tony and I took Jake’s advice and checked out Dubai Marina, which naturally bills itself as “the most luxurious man-made marina in the world.” It was pretty swanky. Carved from the desert, the 3-kilometer long canal was flooded with water from the Persian Gulf. We walked along the promenade, flanked by everything rich people need: shops, restaurants, apartments and yachts.
It was just a short jaunt to the beach, which was surprisingly clean and user-friendly with showers, toilets and heaps of family-focused diversions. You could go tubing, ride a camel, bounce around on floating inflated “icebergs,” skydive, rent wetsuits for swimming in the chilly water or a lounger for sunbathing, dine at a beachfront restaurant and/or stroll in the surf, collecting little shells. We had a mouth-watering lunch at the Shake Shack (I know, this is something I would mock if someone else said it, but it truly made us so happy!), and then kicked off our shoes to dig our toes into the hot sand. Scrumptious.
In front of the restaurant.
Behind us, you can see construction under way of the future Bluewaters Island, a $1.6 billion (with a B) project that will include retail, residential and entertainment zones, all built on reclaimed land.
That’s the Atlantis Resort on the man-made island, Palm Jumeirah, in the background.
We left Dubai early the next morning, and arrived back in Delhi to find an elephant in our neighborhood, entertaining kids at a birthday party. Never a dull moment!
This is our 15th year living overseas and only the second time we’ve returned to the States for Christmas. Winter break is our longest vacation from school, so we usually want to take that time to check out exotic destinations, explore unfamiliar sites, engage with interesting locals and immerse ourselves in an unfamiliar culture. Well, no need to travel internationally to meet those requirements. We hit the jackpot this year at The Villages, a retirement community that bills itself as “Florida’s Friendliest Hometown.”
My parents recently joined the snowbird set, wintering at The Villages and gushing about their new lifestyle. I wondered, what is all the fuss about?
Well, now I know: fun. The fuss is about lots and lots of fun. First of all, there’s golf galore. You can play at 12 championship courses in The Villages (including ones built by Arnold Palmer and Nancy Lopez) or tee off at countless courses nearby. Not my cup of tea, but it sure keeps a smile on my dad’s face. More up my alley, every golf course has a fantastic club with a restaurant, bar and pool. Just a short golfcart ride up the hill, my parent’s neighborhood club features a fabulous pool with a big waterfall. Ah, resort living! Can’t cope with all that relaxing? There’s literally a group or a class for every imaginable interest you may have. Wood working? Archery? Languages? Check, check, check. The Villages Lifelong Learning College offers fascinating courses and lectures on every topic you can imagine. (I’m truly disappointed to miss the lecture, “Gone With the Wind: Fact versus Fiction in Historical Memory,” which is happening Jan. 14.)
Maybe you just want to meet up with some like-minded people: from your state, college alumni, sports fans, military veterans, former expats, etc. Trust me, they are here. Maybe you’d rather just hang out with your friends and listen to live music. Well, you can do that every single night in any number of venues, including the Spanish Springs village square outside our hotel. We couldn’t believe the crowds that gathered each night to drink, dance and mingle.
One of the most attractive aspects of The Villages to me was the fact that everyone is a transplant. As someone with high “belonging needs” but with no roots anywhere, I appreciate the idea that almost everyone living here came from somewhere else. Nobody is an outsider. The weather’s not too shabby, either.
Mom at one of the village squares: Sumter Landing.
Nico and Paul splash in my parents’ country club pool.
Sunset view from my parents’ backyard.
Golf carting with some cute cargo.
So, I get it. I can totally understand why my parents gush about life down here. It’s a little weird and a little surreal, but I get it.
Tony and I stayed at the Marriott Hotel, just a short golfcart ride from my parents’ neighborhood. (They played host to my sister Kate, her husband and three boys, so it was a full house.) Jetlagged, we crashed early and rose early, so it was nice to return to the quiet hotel and enjoy sunrise walks in the fresh air.
My mom whipped up a delicious Christmas Eve dinner, although Tony and I were so exhausted we could barely stay awake for it. Christmas morning, Nico and Paul excitedly opened their presents, but little Jack flat-out refused. He threw a tantrum when Kate tried to help him rip off the paper. What a goofball!
A pretty Christmas Eve table.
Jack doesn’t want to open presents … but Tony does!
A highlight of the morning was opening the presents that Nico and Paul picked out and bought with their own money. They watched with big smiles and wide eyes, waiting for our reactions. I gushed to Nico about my fantastic charm bracelet with blinking Christmas lights, and I promised Paul I would keep my earrings in the little bedazzled orange box he gave me. It’s pretty special to see kids learn the joy of giving.
Our traditional Christmas War was a bust. (See 2012’s blog post for details on how it SHOULD play out.) Only my dad had prepared. The rest of us were sitting ducks. In our defense, Tony and I went to Target to get weapons, but the only Nerf guns they had were $25 each! Arriving in the States just a few days before Christmas, we simply didn’t have time to plan a proper strategy. I don’t know what Kate’s excuse was…
Dad’s sneak attack.
Kate had ammo but no guns. What?!
For New Year’s Eve, we partied octogenarian style! Katie Belle’s, a favorite Villages venue had undergone a facelift, and this was the unveiling – sort of a “soft opening.” The place had apparently been a raucous dance club with a nice perimeter restaurant upstairs overlooking the dance floor. Rumor has it the owners were trying to cash in on the upscale clientele attending shows at the ritzy theater across the square and wanted to create a more refined dining experience, so they remodeled. It really was lovely, and the food was great (lobster and salmon for me, thank you!).
Waiting to get in…
Me, my mom and Bev
However, we had to laugh at the timing. My parents, their friend Beverly, Tony and I joined the crowd outside Katie Belle’s for the 3:30 p.m. seating. The musical act (a sort of karaoke lounge singer, who deftly impersonated singers such as Neil Diamond, Frank Sinatra and Johnny Mathis) kicked off around 5:30. At 6:19 p.m., waiters circulated to fill our champagne glasses, and the singer started a countdown. We all shouted “Happy new year!” and kissed each other as though it were midnight. That was odd enough, but then a huge group joined hands in a circle on the dance floor to sing several patriotic songs, including “God Bless America” and “Proud to be an American.” It was like some strange cult. I told my mom, “I’m afraid they’re going to sacrifice a virgin!” and she said, “Good luck finding a virgin here!” So that was different. By 7 p.m., the lights were blaring and we were ushered out the door. Perfect for a couple of jetlagged only-barely-too-young-to-live-in-the-Villages party animals like Tony and me!
Happy New Year (6 hours early)!
It’s going to be a great year! (The newspaper article referred to The Sharon, a popular venue for theatrical and musical shows, but it was a pretty good headline to kick off 2016!)
Kate’s husband, John, is a saint. He drove with his family from Michigan to Florida, stayed for just a few days, flew back to Michigan to put in a week of work, and then flew back to Florida to drive them all home! The day they left, the Dickinsons and the Dents embarked on a Country Club Crawl. I had joked earlier in the week about having a cocktail at every club in The Villages before leaving Florida. Instead, my dad planned out an abbreviated route that took us to five country clubs. We popped in to each one, had a quick drink on the veranda, and sped off to the next one. My dad, Tony and I split beers or otherwise cheated to stay relatively sober, but my mom discovered the Malibu Bay Breeze and got one at every stop. She may have been a bit sloshed by the time we met their friends Jim and Nancy for dinner (and our last club cocktail).
Stop 1: Evans Prairie
Stop 2: Palmer Legends
Stop 3: Glenview
Stop 4: Hacienda Hills
Stop 5: Nancy Lopez
(We couldn’t remember if this was stop 4 or 5…)
During our two weeks at The Villages, we spent a lot of time eating and chatting, two of my favorite things, but we managed to fit it a few outings.
Mount Dora is a funky small town with oak-lined streets, antique shops and sidewalk cafes with intriguing names such as The Goblin Market and Pisces Rising. After a little rest at the historic Lakeside Inn, we walked to the edge of Lake Dora to board a pontoon boat for a 2-hour eco-tour with Premier Boat Tours.
Mom posing with some residents of the Lakeside Inn lobby.
Dad waiting to board the boat.
We zipped across the lake while listening to a recording about the area’s history and then slowed down for a cruise through the twisting passages of Dora Canal. Parts of the canal were residential; lucky homeowners sit on their back porches to enjoy the wildlife and tranquility among the towering cypress trees draped with Spanish moss (which we learned is neither Spanish nor moss, but rather a relative of the pineapple – crazy!).
However, backyards can be dangerous places. This alligator was sunning herself among some Christmas yard art, while her babies hung out at the nest across the canal.
Our captains shrewdly spotted and identified gators, turtles and all sorts of birds, including my favorite, the anhinga, a ubiquitous canal dweller frequently seen with its wings outstretched on the banks or in a tree. The captains explained that the anhinga dives into the water and swims to catch fish, but it doesn’t have oily feathers like ducks. If it stays underwater too long, it will get waterlogged and drown. After awhile, it has to find a safe spot to stretch out and fan its wings in the breeze until dry enough to resume hunting.
Here’s one drying out on someone’s boat.
On another day, we checked out the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. From the visitor center, we took a boat ride through cypress-lined canals to the park. There, we encountered all sorts of indigenous species, from birds to foxes.
Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State park has been a tourist attraction since the early 1900s, when trains stopped to let passengers off to walk the short trail to the first-magnitude spring. The tracks ran alongside what is now Fishbowl Drive. While passengers enjoyed a view of Homosassa Spring and its myriad of fresh and saltwater fish, the train’s crew were busy loading their freight of fish, crabs, cedar and spring water aboard the Mullet Train.
The 50-acre site and surrounding 100 acres was purchased in the 1940s and was operated as a small attraction. In 1964, the Norris Development Company bought the property and expanded it as Homosassa Springs “Nature’s Own Attraction,” with an emphasis on entertainment and with a variety of exotic animals and some native species. Ivan Tors Animal Actors housed their trained animals at Homosassa Springs Attraction for several years. These animals were trained for television shows and movies. When they were not performing they were kept at Homosassa Springs. One of the most popular of these animals was Buck who was stand-in for Gentle Ben in the famous television series. Lu, a hippopotamus, was one of the Ivan Tors animals and still resides at the park after being declared an honorary citizen of the State of Florida by then Governor Lawton Chiles. Norris owned the attraction until 1978.
From 1978 until 1984, the land went through several changes in ownership. The Citrus County Commission purchased the attraction to protect it as an environmentally sensitive area until the State of Florida could purchase the property as a Florida State Park. Modern thinking about captive wildlife has influenced how the park is now managed. Both visitor safety and animal welfare are of utmost importance at Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park.
Lu, the hippo referenced above, lives in a tank at the entrance to the park and twice put on a nasty show of projectile pooping, which attracted even nastier vultures looking for a snack. Fortunately, the park warns you to stand clear.
Speaking of poop … we encountered quite a bit during another outing to Uncle Donald’s Farm, a somewhat ghetto petting zoo/working farm not far from my parent’s neighborhood. The boys fed chickens, petted a sheep and rabbits, cuddled (and got scratched by) some farm cats, milked a goat, took a hayride (complete with sloppy cow kisses), ran through a hay maze, and climbed on old farm equipment. It was pricey and not the most polished operation, but the kids had a blast.
Oh, and of course, we went to Star Wars 3-D!
Every family gathering has its share of drama, and we were no different. Still, I felt grateful for every minute with this nutty crew. I only wish the rest of the gang could have been there.
Imagine … a new TV show that merges The Amazing Race, So You Think You Can Dance, Survivor, Project Runway and Cash Cab.
That show became a reality Saturday for participants in the 3rd annual AES Rickshaw Rally. Dressed in ridiculous ensembles – often with a back story – almost 60 of us scuttled around Delhi in auto rickshaws, driven by somewhat perplexed men forced to occasionally take part in the silliness.
We assembled at the campus housing playground in the morning for a quick photo shoot, a lot of laughter, and the first set of clues. Organizers also gave us a baggie filled with unusual props: a printout of AES Director Paul Chmelik’s face taped to the end of a ruler, several stick-on mustaches (which, rats! – I didn’t discover till the race was over), a few rickshaw stickers, a map, some Hindi translations of common questions, a postcard, and a fluffy shiny ribbon (ostensibly to tie on our rickshaw).
My partner, Saguna, a second-grade teacher and Delhi native, dressed as a typical American, and I went over-the-top Indian. Our team name was “Culture Swap.” When we dashed through the campus gate to find a rickshaw, we lucked out and jumped in one driven by Sunil Kumar – the same driver I had last year! Saguna and I taped a garland of Indian and U.S. flags around his rickshaw, and off we went. We couldn’t go wrong with Sunil Kumar’s proactive driving skills, Saguna’s Hindi and knowledge of Delhi, and my … well, I didn’t really bring much to this party, except a willingness to act like a fool.
During the morning, we posed in front of the Salt March statue honoring Ghandi, found the Queen Alizabeth rose at the India-Africa rose garden, chatted with a priest at a temple devoted to the monkey god Hanuman, and lit a candle outside a Catholic church. Saguna and I split up at one point. She took on the metro challenge, while I dashed ahead in the rickshaw to complete two tasks at Khan Market: Find the “key wallah” and collect a key that would open a lock at a later stop, and get a sticker from the phone battery seller.
We had been told our school’s director, Paul Chmelik, would make surprise appearances throughout the day, so a bunch of us were happy to see him hanging out by the phone battery kiosk.
We all met up at Nehru Park, not far from school, for a picnic lunch and some Bollywood dancing, led by local Zumba instructor, Deepak. A crowd of school boys cheered and slowly infiltrated our picnic until they, too, were dancing up a storm.
After lunch, organizers handed out the afternoon clues. At India Gate, we found a big family sitting on the grass, enjoying lunch. As per our instructions, Saguna high-fived one of them after instructing them all to smile at the camera (we got extra points for smiles). We searched a bit for the ubiquitous snake charmers for the bonus challenge of snapping a photo with a cobra, but we failed. On to the Agar Sain ki Baoli, a stepwell located near the business district of Connaught Place. Ironically, we weren’t allow in because the REAL Amazing Race show was filming! Some competitors – included Sharda, who was dressed as an Indian Army officer – sneaked in or arrived before the Amazing Race film crew, but we were too late. The last two tasks were pretty tame, which was a relief because Saguna and I were flagging. We visited a book store and bought two books to donate to the Hope Foundation‘s mobile library project, and we popped in to the post office to mail our postcard to Paul Chmelik.
Team Culture Swap was feeling pretty smug by the end of the day. We had earned almost all of the bonus points, which required photo evidence of these challenges:
* Get your hair cut by a roadside barber.
* Pay to get your shirt ironed by a coal iron. Extra points if you do the ironing!
* Take a picture riding the propane guy’s bike.
* Find a laborer and do their job for them.
* Stop for chai with your driver and serve the tea seller.
* Ride the city bus for one stop.
* Find your doppelganger and take a picture with them.
* Play cricket with a local group.
* Photo with a team member and different modes of transportation. (Saguna hopped on a motorcycle, a bike, a stranger’s motorcyle rickshaw and a bicycle rickshaw, and I climbed aboard a Delhi police truck, causing much panic in Sunil Kumar.)
* Live cows, monkeys, camels, peacocks, elephants, goats, chickens, horses, pigs, rabbits and cobras. (We found cows, pigs and a goat. Where were all the animals today? It’s rare NOT to see a monkey or a horse, at least.)
Our final stop on the tour was Very Special Arts India, a nonprofit organization working with disabled and underprivileged young people. Its mission statement is, “No mental or physical challenge need ever limit the human potential to create and excel.” The kids and volunteers engaged us in dancing, singing and block printing.
The AQI was pretty awful this day, so Paul should have been wearing his mask.
A plethora of Pauls.
The AES Rickshaw Rally wrapped up with pizza, beer and celebrations at the Pint Room in my neighborhood. Despite our over-confidence, Saguna and I did not walk away with a prize. However, we had a hilarious time and got to know each other better, so that was a big win!
Clint, one of the Rickshaw Rally organizers, used storify to capture some of the day’s finest moments. Check it out.
Thanks to Clint, Allison, Kate and Maureen (and everyone else who made this happen!) for a spectacular day!