Winter Break Part 2: Dubai

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.
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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.

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I couldn’t get the top of the building in the frame!
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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.
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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.
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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?
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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!)
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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.
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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.
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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.
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That’s the Atlantis Resort on the man-made island, Palm Jumeirah, in the background.
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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!

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A very villages Christmas

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.
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Nico and Paul splash in my parents’ country club pool.
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Sunset view from my parents’ backyard.
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Golf carting with some cute cargo.
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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.
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Happy nephews!
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Jack doesn’t want to open presents … but Tony does!
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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.
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Kate had ammo but no guns. What?!
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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…
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Me, my mom and Bev
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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!

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Happy New Year (6 hours early)!
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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!)
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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
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Stop 2: Palmer Legends
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Stop 3: Glenview
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Stop 4: Hacienda Hills
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Stop 5: Nancy Lopez
(We couldn’t remember if this was stop 4 or 5…)
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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.
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Dad waiting to board the boat.
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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!).
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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.
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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.
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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.
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According to the Florida State Parks website:

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.
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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.
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Oh, and of course, we went to Star Wars 3-D!
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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.

So long, America. See you in June!

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AES Rickshaw Rally 2015

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).
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.)
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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.
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The AQI was pretty awful this day, so Paul should have been wearing his mask.
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A plethora of Pauls.
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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!

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Loving Life in Leh

Leaving Delhi Wednesday morning, November 11, the smog was so thick one of the kids in our group asked, “Can the plane really take off in this?” Just an hour later, though, we looked out the plane windows at the snowcapped Himalayas and a sapphire sky.
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At Ladakh Sarai, our home for the next few days, we sucked in big breaths of fresh cold air and looked out at the horizon, where mountains rose up to the clouds. “What you see there is called ‘the distance,’” I explained. “It’s been a long time since we’ve been able to see into the distance!”

Tony and I were among 26 people – teachers and their kids – who traveled to Leh for the Diwali long weekend. Leh is the high-desert capital of the Ladakh district in the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.

The Ryder-Walker Alpine Adventures website explains:

Situated on the western end of the Himalayas, Ladakh has four major mountain ranges – the great Himalayan, Zanskar, Ladakh, and the Karakoram all passing through it. A maze of enormously high snow capped peaks and the largest glaciers outside the polar region dominate the terrain where valley heights range from 800 to 15000 feet with passes up to 20,000 feet and peaks reaching 25, 000 feet can be seen all around. Ladakh is also home to the world’s largest glacier outside the polar region, the Siachen.

Known as “Little Tibet,” Leh definitely reminded me of my trip to Tibet in 2009 (see my Farewell China Tour posts). In fact, I kept forgetting I was in India. The Tibetan influence was evident in the architecture, temples, prayer flags strung from nearly every tall structure, language, and the smiley gentle nature of the people.

Most of us had taken Diamox, a drug for preventing altitude sickness, in the days leading up to our trip. Although my symptoms included a racing heart, tingly fingers and long stretches of lethargy, I didn’t feel the horrifying sensation that my eyeballs were about to explode, as I did in Tibet.

Tony and I were assigned a yurt at the edge of Ladakh Sarai’s property. Inside, pink and green woven cloth draped the bedroom walls, and beige fabric with turquoise polka dots billowed down from the ceiling and attached to the walls about 5 feet from the floor. The double bed was comfortable with a thick, heavy duvet for the chilly nights. A cabinet painted with colorful dragons and traditional designs held another blanket, just in case. A wood-burning stove sat in the middle of the room with a pipe carrying the smoke out a hole in the ceiling.

Entering the Ladakh Sarai camp.
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The path to our yurt.
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Honey, I’m home!
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Looking up.
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The “foyer” and entrance to the bathroom.
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Home, sweet home.
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The first night, we discovered the stove was not at all easy to regulate. It got the room cozy warm, then swelteringly hot, to the point where I had to get up in the middle of the night, strip off my pajamas and go into the adjoining icy cold bathroom for a few minutes. When the fire burned out in the early morning, the room turned frigid. Tony and I had watched the workers light our stove several times, and we thought we were doing exactly the same thing, but our fire simply wouldn’t stay lit. It flared up and then petered out after about 10 minutes. We used about a liter of kerosene and 73 matches, but we finally generated a big enough blaze to warm up the yurt for a couple more hours.

Our yurt overlooked a neighboring farm with terraced fields strewn with straw and a lone black yak. Tibetan prayer flags fluttered from the farmhouse rooftop. The land sloped gently down to a treeline, beyond which the town of Leh nestled in the valley. From our bed, we could watch the morning sun glitter on the snowy mountaintops, turn the barren rocky hillsides a warm gold, and then slowly creep toward us, brightening the valley, then the farm and finally creeping up and over the mud-brick wall to our yurt.
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On our first day in Leh, Sarah and I took a quick walk around the camp’s perimeter. Sarah was hoping to pet the yak, but alas, the farmers had constructed a serious blockade.
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I loved the contrast of these orange berries against the brown-ness of everything else.
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We found a small “mani wall” with prayer stones.
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Looking back on our camp, where Kevin and Beth were hanging out in front of the duplexes.
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Later, Sarah, Emma, Tony and I started off in search of “the village.” Following the advice of a Ladakh Sarai worker, we exited the gate and turned right to walk uphill. We crossed a metal bridge over a riverbed with only a rivulet of water rushing through. We saw signs of high water and past flooding, though, as well as efforts to contain the banks with blankets of chicken wire and intentional rerouting of the water through a smaller channel down the center of the rocky floor.

We had only walked about 10 minutes when we reached a fork in the road. To the left, a large group of villagers were doing some kind of work with shovels and mounds of soil. We hesitated to walk through them, so we considered taking the road to the right. Sarah asked a man, “Which way is the village?” He pointed toward the workers. “Saboo Village.” Sarah pointed to the other road and asked, “Is there another village?” He laughed and pointed in all directions. “Nothing village,” he said. So we ventured into the crowd.

The workers smiled at us as they shoveled soil into piles on the right side of the road next to a tall wall. At the uphill end of the wall was a small stupa made of mud bricks, topped with a pole and a prayer flag. The workers had clearly just built a reinforcing wall out of mud bricks, about 4 feet high, at the base of the taller wall. Upon closer inspection, we saw the top half of the wall comprised large smooth rocks inscribed with the mantra “om mani padme hum.” The website Dharma-Haven has a nice explanation of that complicated mantra.

We paused to watch them work for a moment, and soon a lady called out to me, “Tea?” At first I declined, but then the whole group stopped working for a tea break, and we decided to join them. They kindly served us cups of chai and crackers for dipping. As soon as everyone finished their tea, they got right back to work. It seemed only fair to pitch in. The ladies grabbed empty rice sacks from a bin, threw them down on the ground and waited for the men to shovel some soil on top. A woman would then pick up either end of the bag and carry it to the far end of the wall to heave the soil onto a big pile. Sarah and I each found a partner and hauled a few bags of soil. “Very good!” one lady said to me after we dumped our load. Everyone sang as they worked, a tune simple enough that we could somewhat follow along, although we didn’t know what we were singing.

As we mingled, Emma took some photos with Sarah’s phone, and Tony chatted with a young man whose foundation had organized this volunteer effort. Sonam Wangchock, founder of the Himalayan Cultural Heritage Foundation, told us village elders say the wall is more than 300 years old. Heavy rains had eroded much of the base, threatening to topple the whole thing. He explained that Buddhists come to pray, making the traditional circumambulation on the path circling the wall. The extra soil was moved off the road to protect it from passing vehicles, he noted. It will be used to make plaster in the spring, when volunteers return to plaster over the mud bricks and finish the work they started on the historical wall.
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See more photos at the HCHF’s Facebook page.

Back at Ladakh Sarai, everyone was hanging out in the communal building, made up of several connected round rooms – two for dining and two for lounging, as well as a few other small work spaces. The dining rooms had trapezoidal tables painted with lovely Tibetan designs and lined up so everyone could sit on the perimeter benches and face each other. The two lounging areas featured wood-burning stoves in the middle, surrounded by cushions or sofas. Such a comfy spot to play cards or chat while sipping a hot ginger-lemon drink.

Breakfast and lunch were served buffet style from a low stove in the center of the communal yurt. Dinner, on the other hand, was an elegant affair with candles, pleated napkins and metal trays in lieu of plates. The waiters brought course after course of delicious Western and Indian food.
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One night, we all sat around a fire outside, roasting marshmallows and playing games.
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Day two in Leh, we all piled into vans to visit the Tibetan market in town and Leh Palace. After 15 years in Asia, there’s not much that Tony and I haven’t bought at one time or another. Still, it was fun to poke through the piles of toasty yak wool blankets, cases of silver jewelry, Tibetan handicrafts, and knock-off name-brand bags and clothing. We filed up several flights of stairs for a lunch of soup and momos (dumplings), and then headed to the palace.

According to the book Ladakh – The Complete Guide by Nicholas Eakins, Leh Palace was constructed “using traditional Ladakhi methods, with dried mud-bricks constituting the upper levels, and the lower levels constructed on a natural plinth of stone using rammed earth, stone and timber,” and the walls slope inwards for additional strength. A sign outside the 9-story palace said construction started in 1553 by Tswang Namgyal, founder of the Namgyal Dynasty, to be a miniature version of Potala Palace in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. At the very top, we could see faded painting, which made me wonder whether the whole place was once brightly painted. Today, it’s mud colored and very cold, dark and dusty. If I were queen back then, I think Tswang would have heard a lot of complaining.

Nyla photobombed our palace pic.
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On the morning of day three in Leh, we drove about 45 minutes to a trailhead near the village of Stok. The trail ran alongside a streambed with mountains on either side. Several of us hiked up to the top of a big hill, about four hours round-trip. If we had continued on the path, we could have reached the snowy peak of Stok Kangri, 6123 meters high. That wasn’t going to happen.

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Evan and Bernie climbed up a bit further to re-string some fallen prayer flags.
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Gorgeous colors on the way back to the vans.
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Day four in Leh took us to a couple monasteries, known as gompas.

We drove a long way Hemis Monastery, the largest monastic institution in Ladakh. To get there, we crossed the Indus River on a metal bridge draped with Tibetan prayer flags. Our vans crawled up a switchback road through dormant barley fields and grazing yaks until finally, we turned a corner and found the monastery hidden behind towering sand-colored hills.

Inside, we took off our shoes to enter a temple, where monks were chanting prayers. One monk kept time on a painted vertical drum, and occasionally the others would chime in with a bell, cymbals or a horn. Upstairs, we visited the Kali Devi temple, full of ominous images of the vengeful goddess. We climbed up the roof and enjoyed the vista for a while. Tony and I turned the prayer wheels and then wandered by a small room, where two monks were lighting lamps of ghee. The older monk invited us in and handed Tony a candle to light the lamps. He showed us one huge lamp that apparently burns for a whole month. Later, that same monk did a little laughter therapy/clapping game with others in our group. Outside the monastery building, young monks were busy with chores – fetching water, washing robes, mixing concrete, sweeping, and we realized the “village” clinging to the hillside was really living quarters for the monks.
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Photo by Scott.
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Photo by Scott.
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Photo by Scott.
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Leaving the monastery, we paused for a quick splash in the icy Indus River.
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From there, we headed to the 15th-century Thiksay Monastery, perched on a hilltop overlooking the river valley. Only two rooms were accessible. The Maitreya Temple featured a 2-story gilded statue, inaugurated in 1980 by the Dalai Lama, and murals depicting scenes from Maitreya’s life. The other open room included many glass boxes with small dolls representing various Buddhist entities. It’s not unusual for temple visitors to leave money or other auspicious gifts, but this room had an unusual collection of bangles and hairclips left as offerings. If you know why, please do tell!
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Driving back to camp, we passed through the former Ladakhi capital of Shey, where hundreds of white-washed chortens (stupas) dot the countryside. According to The Rough Guide to India:

Among the more visible expressions of Buddhism in Ladakh are the chess-pawn-shaped chortens at the entrance to villages and monasteries – large hemispherical burial mounds-cum-devotional objects, prominent in Buddhist ritual since the third century BC. Made of mud and stone (now also concrete), they are imbued with mystical powers and symbolic significance: the tall tapering spire, normally divided into 13 sections, represents the soul’s progression towards nirvana, while the sun cradled by the crescent moon at the top stands for the unity of opposites, and the oneness of existence and the universe.

While my heart sank at the thought of leaving Leh, I vowed to return home with a smile. It’s been a week, and that Leh-induced joy lingers. When can we go back?

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Culture clash, courtesy of a cricket

“Sorry I’m late, but traffic was insane this morning,” I moaned to Anil, my tennis coach. I left my water bottle and towel on a bench and walked across the clay court to greet him. He was staring through the chain link fence, past the bleachers, but he turned with a smile and replied, “I know, I got stuck, too. So many big trucks. That’s why air is so bad.” His eyes darted back beyond the fence, and then, distractedly, he pointed at the net where two baskets of tennis balls awaited. “Warm up,” he said.

We both stood on the same side, with Anil at the net and me at the baseline. He tossed balls to my forehand and backhand, and I attempted to hit them to the other side. Each hit elicited a comment:
“Beautiful, girl!”
“Nice try, girl!”
“Amazing form!”
“That’s your stroke!”
And so on. This is how my weekly lessons usually start. Very much still a beginner, I revel in Anil’s consistent praise and positive attitude. He has a bright genuine smile, and his cheerleading boosts my spirits. But on this day, he seemed fixated on something and his words fell flat.

When the baskets emptied, he picked one up, flipped the metal legs around to serve as handles and handed it to me to scoop up the balls scattered around the clay court. Usually, he would take the other basket to help, but instead he looked exasperated.

“What is that?” he asked. I followed his gaze but saw nothing unusual.
“What is what?” I asked.
“That sound!” he cried.
I set down my basket and paused to listen. Typical sounds in Delhi including drumming, honking, barking, mooing and shouting, the shrill sawing of rebar and clattering of bricks at construction sites, auto rickshaws revving, car alarms shrieking, random bells ringing, more honking, more barking and more, more, more, often all at the same time.

Yet, weirdly, all I heard was the chirp of a lone cricket.

“It’s just a cricket,” I laughed and resumed by ball collecting.

Anil stomped over the to the fence, a cloud of red dust in his wake. Suddenly, silence. He turned and smiled, “It stopped,” he said, relieved.

“It will start again,” I said, popping the basket onto a ball. “Haven’t you ever had a cricket in your house? They chirp and drive you crazy, but then they stop so you can’t ever find them.”

Anil shook his head in frustration. I handed him the basket of balls, and sure enough. Chirp, chirp, chirp. My kind, patient coach smacked the metal fence with his hand, quieting the cricket once again.

“Rally,” Anil said, his smile tighter than usual, his voice edgy. He walked to the other side of the net and hit a ball to me, counting aloud how many times I hit it back. At one point, he let my return zip by him. He grabbed a ball from the basket and whacked it at the fence. “It’s making me crazy!” he said with a forced laugh. I hadn’t even noticed the cricket’s encore.

Soon, a young man named Sandeep showed up. “This is new ball boy,” Anil said. Sandeep hung out behind the baseline on Anil’s side, sprinting back and forth, trying to catch the balls I hit across the net. I’m pretty new to tennis, but that didn’t seem like typical ball boy strategy. After awhile, Anil stopped, called to me, “One minute!” and then turned to Sandeep for a spirited conversation in Hindi. He pointed his racquet toward the fence, and Sandeep started to move in that direction, abandoning his ball boy duties.

Incredulous, I slowly and sarcastically asked the obvious question, “Did you just tell Sandeep to go find the cricket?”
“I can’t stand it!” Anil said. We both cracked up.

I tried to explain the irony to Anil. I tried to express how expats desperately seek out the sounds of nature in Delhi. I tried to make him see the silliness inherent in his obsession with an insect. But he just let that big smile spread across his face and squinted a bit, suggesting nonverbally that I wasn’t making any sense.

Driving home at the end of the day, I sat in traffic, enveloped in the discordant sounds of a developing city – street children rapping on my window with their relentless heartbreaking pleas for money, the bleating blaring blasting horns of vehicles pinned to the sides of my car, the rumbling cough of diesel bursting out of overloaded teetering trucks, the whiny tinny tunes erupting from open taxi windows, the reverberatating jackhammer of metro construction sending waves through my feet and up to my teeth. No way to escape it. Nowhere to go. Nothing to do, but take a deep breath and channel that cricket.

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Visiting Varanasi – finally!

As we kick off our fifth year in India, I knew it was time to stop avoiding Varanasi.

A key destination for any serious tourist to the subcontinent, this North Indian city dedicated to the god Shiva is also a place of holy pilgrimage for Hindus. They believe a bath in the sacred Ganges River will purify them, and moksha – a kind of salvation or liberation from the cycle of life – comes to those who die here. In fact, the elderly move to state-subsidized ashrams in Varanasi to wait out the last months or years of their lives, walking down the steep steps to the Ganges each day for a sin-absolving dip. The dead burn on funeral pyres along the shore, their ashes swept into the river.

It all sounded a little overwhelming, and frankly, when holidays roll around in New Delhi, I feel the need to escape the chaos. However, we don’t know how much longer we’ll live in India, and there are significant locations I don’t want to miss. Invited to join a group traveling to Varanasi last weekend, I knew it was time to check out one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.

After a short flight and about an hour in a van, our group of eight teachers reached the Ganges River in Varanasi Saturday afternoon.
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We piled into a wooden motor boat and put-putted upstream to our hotel, Suryauday Haveli.
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I tried to find some historical information about this beautiful riverfront structure, but every website parrots the blurb on the hotel’s home page (Benaras is another name for Varanasi):

Suryauday Haveli on Shivala Ghats is a reflection of the spirit of the holy city of Benaras. The Haveli traces its history back to the early 20th century. It was built by the Royal Family of Nepal as a retreat for the aged. It’s now been painstakingly put together again to provide the best ghat experience in Benaras.

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Ghat refers to the series of steps that lead from the building to the water. Suryauday Haveli is located at Shivala Ghat, which fortunately (and unlike many other ghats), didn’t have too many stairs. It did, however, feature a little herd of waterbuffalo cooling off ears-deep in the holy water. The hotel staff welcomed us with a shower of rose petals from the balcony.
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Our rooms all faced the river and opened to a courtyard shaded by trees and decorated with marigold blossoms.
Here’s Sarah, my roomie for the weekend.
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After awhile, we met up with former AES teacher, Jill, who started Lotus Foundation here to provide education, health care and job training to children and young adults from the Varanasi slums. On the way to see her school and hostel, we stopped to meet some of the children who benefit. As soon as we climbed out of the auto rickshaws at the banks of the Ganges, children and their mothers approached to meet the strangers and chat with Jill. The little ones immediately engaged us in jumping and clapping, despite the language barrier. We snapped photos and showed them the images, which triggered hysterical giggling. We also visited Jill’s humble school, where up to 20 students receive a free education, and her small hostel, where a few young girls can sleep safely. Her foundation is presently busy with renovations as they prepare to open a guesthouse and restaurant, offering job training to people living in poverty.

play with kids

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Marina plays a clapping game with Radha.
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Jill shares a laugh with little Veer.
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Showing my photos to the kids was hilarious.
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Posing in front of Jill’s school.
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The playroom. Kids do most of their learning in another room, sitting on mats.
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Badal wrote in Hindi, “I am a doctor.”
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At sunset, our hotel offered a complimentary boat ride to see the ceremony at the Dashashwamedh Ghat, the main and most lively ghat on the river. The shore was already crowded with boats when we arrived, so we pulled up alongside them and waited for the ceremony. The nightly aarti – which honors the river goddess – features blowing of a conch shell, incense burning, waving lamps of fire, bell ringing, clapping and chanting. Although we really couldn’t see the action, I always love the energy of people at a religious pilgrimage site, and I often found myself facing the crowd to see their reaction to the aarti. Eventually, our guide, Sanjay, told us to light our offering and drop it into the water. I had hoped to see hundreds of candles floating on the Ganges, but the current quickly swept them away.
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The next morning, a few of us met Sanjay again at 5 a.m. for a sunrise cruise. We slowly motored along the quiet shoreline to the Manikarnika Ghat. Although a body lay in wait on the ghat steps, the workers were mainly cleaning up from the previous day, sweeping, stacking wood, sorting through ashes.
According to Lonely Planet,

Manikarnika Ghat, the main burning ghat, is the most auspicious place for a Hindu to be cremated. Dead bodies are handled by outcasts known as doms, and are carried through the alleyways of the old city to the holy Ganges on a bamboo stretcher swathed in cloth. The corpse is doused in the Ganges prior to cremation. Huge piles of firewood are stacked along the top of the ghat; every log is carefully weighed on giant scales so that the price of cremation can be calculated. Each type of wood has its own price, sandalwood being the most expensive. There is an art to using just enough wood to completely incinerate a corpse. You can watch cremations but always show reverence by behaving respectfully.

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The early birds were already starting to show up at the bathing ghats.
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Stacks of wood fill the building and line the steps at Manikarnika Ghat.
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Workers unload wood from a boat.
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Boating back to our hotel, we watched the riverbanks come to life. Bathers soaped up their bodies, young men gleefully flipped into the water, and elderly couples stood chin deep while chanting. Ladies in colorful saris ladled water over their babies. Dhobis beat their river-washed laundry on the ghat steps and then put it out to dry in the relentless sun, spread on the steep stone hillsides or hung from railings. Small fires burned at the Harishchandra Ghat, a secondary cremation center near our hotel.

18-year-old Sanjay pilots the boat and shares stories about Varanasi.
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Pants drying in the sun.
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White sheets spread out on the brick walls were “hospital laundry,” Sanjay said.
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It’s no small feat to keep the monkeys off your clean sheets!
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Maureen soaks it all up.
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After an extended breakfast (with delicious coffee, courtesy of Maureen’s Miracle Coffee Maker), our group headed out for a walk along the river.

More laundry. I just loved it.
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A little slice of life at Dashashwamedh Ghat. I was sweating my face off, but those ladies look remarkably cool in their saris.
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Sarah and I broke off from the group to check out the Kedareswara Temple, a squat red-and-white striped structure at the top of a long flight of alternating red- and white-painted stairs. I read conflicting and confusing stories about this temple’s history, but here’s one version from the webindia123 website, with a few edits:

Kedareshvara alias Kedareshwar temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva is a river temple situated right on the banks of the Ganga at the top of Kedar Ghat. The stone Shiva lingam is said to have appeared spontaneously and a visit to this temple is believed to give one the fruits of a visit to the great Kedareshvara Temple at Himalayas. Legends has it that a pure hearted devotee of Lord Shiva prayed for a chance to visit the famous Kedareshvara temple in the Himalayas. Pleased by the devotion, instead of bringing him to the mountain, the Lord brought his lingam which is emerged out of a plate of rice and lentils, to the devotee. It is this lingam that can be seen on the rough surface of the natural stone.

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The remains of temple offerings. This was the only photo I snapped before I was scolded, “No camera!”
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By the time we met up again with the rest of our group at the Man Mahal Palace, we were all soaked in sweat and completely exhausted, depleted by temperatures hovering around 100F and relative humidity at 87 percent.

The palace was built around 1600 by Raja Man Singh, the king of Amber. More than 100 years later, Sawai Jai Singh II added on to the palace’s masonry observatory. According to The Archaeological Survey of India, Sawai Jai Singh II, a great astronomer and founder of the city of Jaipur, installed “instruments for calculating time, preparing lunar and solar calendars and studying the movements, distances, and angles of inclination of the stars, planets and other heavenly bodies.”

We lingered in the palace’s cross breezes, checking out photography exhibits and information about the astronomical observatory. Mark actually lay down on the cool stone floor to watch a looping TV video about the Ganges River.
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This sign was part of a Ganges River exhibit in the palace. During our walks and boat rides, we witnessed many of these “prohibited actions.” As Jill said, there’s little hope for the river as long as the city continues to pump it full of sewage, so these unenforced rules hardly matter. Read more in this bleak article from Down to Earth.
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Finally, we prepared to leave, and Craig asked a worker how to find the Thatheri Market.
“Up,” the guy answered, gesturing toward some steps.
“We just go up the street?” we probed.
“No, upstairs,” he said. “Observatory.”
Oh, yeah! The whole reason we had paid the Rps 100 ($1.50) admission fee! Clearly, we were dehydrated and not thinking straight.

We climbed the steps to the observatory and checked out the hulking instruments and the fantastic views. (The sun dial’s time was just one minute off from Craig’s phone. Amazing.) This site is one of five masonry observatories constructed by Sawai Jai Singh II, including one in Delhi. They are known as Jantar Mantar, which ASI says is “a corrupt form of Yantra-Mantra, meaning the calculation with the help of instruments.”

(Tony and I visited the Delhi Jantar Mantar a couple years ago. You can read about it here: Celebrating 20 Years With an Imperial Anniversary.)

Views from the palace rooftop.
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Posing with the sun dial and the samrat yantra – aka “the supreme instrument” or, as we dubbed it, “stairs to nowhere.” The samrat yantra was an instrument for telling time and the coordinates of celestial objects.
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We climbed around the observatory for awhile and then checked out the nearby market area. After watching this cow steal a potato from a vendor and after searching in vain for a Varanasi magnet for Craig, we took bicycle rickshaws back to our hotel and ordered both Dominos pizza and room service for a huge lunch banquet in Maureen’s room.
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Jill met us again later for another aarti. This time, we visited Assi Ghat and watched the ceremony from the shore, sitting on the stone steps close to the action.
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Overall, I found the hype about Varanasi to be mostly unfounded.

True, the river was distressingly polluted. But the pilgrims who stepped or leapt into its murky water believed at that moment that it was pure and powerful. We couldn’t help but feel their visceral joy.

True, the weather was oppressive. But we returned each day to a historic hotel with air conditioning, water pressure and dry clothes. Just another reminder of how fortunate we were.

True, there was no avoiding the reality of death (both human and bovine, it turned out). But those who watched their loved ones burn at the river’s edge didn’t cry. In their eyes, this event was a gift: death had brought salvation through the glory of the holy Ganges. That’s a pretty powerful experience to witness. (I don’t know if the same rules applied for the dead water buffalo.)

With so many more adventures to be had in India, I am unlikely to re-visit Varanasi. However, I can honestly say it is a special place, not to be missed.

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Jai Hind! Celebrating India’s Independence Day with unintended irony

It was only after sipping cappuccinos and filling up on pork products at a breakfast buffet,
only after standing on the hotel lawn to sing India’s national anthem and release balloons in the colors of the flag,
only after snapping photos of men in impeccable period costumes posing next to a rangoli created with flower petals,
only after watching the groundskeepers and valet-parking staff try to fly kites in the still steamy air,
only on the way home,
did we realize the irony of celebrating India’s 69th Independence Day at a British Raj-era hotel.

On the very day our host country was rejoicing in its freedom from occupation, we were relishing the upscale jasmine-scented luxury of The Imperial, inaugurated by Lord Willingdon, British Governor-General of India, in 1936.

Just five years prior to that, Willingdon had ordered the arrest of Mahatma Gandhi.

So … that realization was a little sobering.

Still, irony aside, we had a lovely morning with wonderful company. Breakfast at The Imperial is always a treat, and the staff beamed with pride as they served traditional sweets, pressed their hands together in namaste and said, “Happy Independence Day!”

We listened to a speaker, who referenced India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his famous speech to the Indian Constituent Assembly on Aug. 15, 1947.

Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long supressed, finds utterance. It is fitting that at this solemn moment we take the pledge of dedication to the service of Inida and her people and to the still larger cause of humanity.

(You can read the short but powerful speech at Fordham University’s Modern History Sourcebook.)

Reading that gives me goosebumps and makes me extra grateful today for the opportunity to live, work and play in the biggest democracy in the world.

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Family Traditions: Ocean City, New Jersey

Some of my earliest memories place me in a small house at the end of the boardwalk in Ocean City, New Jersey, looking out the window at the beach while Great Uncle Herb offered me half a banana … listening as Great Aunt Iris reported on the newspaper’s tide and current tables … walking clumsily through deep sand full of prickers from the dune bushes … rinsing off sand and salt water in the cabana shower outside.

During my trip to the shore in July, I rode a bike along the boardwalk to that house. It’s still there – although no longer in the family, and it’s avoided the fate of many older homes that have been demolished and rebuilt as large multi-unit rentals. We actually rented one of those homes for our weeklong visit. I shared one floor of a house with my parents; my sister Kate, her husband, and three young boys; and my sister, Megan, and her two kids. My brother, Mike, and his wife and baby rented a nearby house to share with his in-laws.

In the grip of nostalgia, we tried to do it all: beach time, boogie boarding in the ocean, sand castle construction, early morning bike rides, breakfast at Uncle Bill’s Pancake House, arcade games and rides and miniature golf on the boardwalk, ice cream and cheesesteaks and sticky buns and pizza and crab legs, beach combing for shells, crabbing off the 34th Street dock, and cramming the whole family onto a rented surrey (for a short ride on the boardwalk, but mostly for the photos).

I can’t count how many times during this week I paused to tell myself, “Remember this moment,” especially when my little nephews expressed unrestrained joy at being in this place. My face ached with laughter while boogie boarding with 8-year-old Nico or splashing in the surf with dare-devil Will, who is not yet three. My heart swelled when little Max danced to the boardwalk band and 6-year-old Paul rode his first roller-coaster with his adored cousin, Jake.

My brother always makes the ridiculous just a little bit more so, as evidenced by our surrey ride. “Let’s pull up next to random strangers and sing ‘Surrey With the Fringe on Top,'” he begged. And so we did.
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Mamas and babies on the boardwalk (photobombed by my mother).
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Early morning walk on the beach with my dad.
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The Ocean City, NJ, boardwalk.
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Beach time!
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Our highly unsuccessful crabbing attempt yielded one crab. We used traps baited with hot dogs. We learned a different technique from a fellow crabber, who hung a chicken neck from a string and then scooped up the crab with a net. Later, Mike and Summer’s family reported catching piles of crabs that way!
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At Corson’s Inlet, we found many large clam shells, a live horseshoe crab, a couple jellyfish and hundreds of hyper-clawed fiddler crabs.
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I have been wanting a picture of all five nephews and the one baby niece, but a normal family photo just wouldn’t cut it for this crew. I brought home costumes from India and staged a photo shoot one morning at the beach. Nico immediately morphed into a Mughal prince and chose regal poses rather than frolicking in the water like the other boys. The toddlers were surprisingly compliant, keeping their turbans on for the most part. Baby Annesley slept through the whole thing, unfortunately, and awoke just when the boys were too riled up for more group shots. All in all, pretty successful!

Bollywood at the beach!
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A serious drawback of living abroad is that gatherings with extended family are rare. I have relatives scattered around the world, and there’s simply no time to see them all regularly. And so I felt deeply grateful for visits from my mother’s side of the family, who all live in the Philadelphia area.

Sisters: Aunt Iris and my mom.
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Cousin Amy with her husband, Billy, and their three boys, Jake, Dylan and Alex.
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Cousin Karen and her two boys, Robbie and Mario, spent the day at the beach with us. Here she is with my nephew Jack.
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Uncle Bill and his friend, Judy, also hung out with us that day. Seriously, nobody took any photos of them? Geez.

Funny how nostalgia and family connections can make you love a place. I’ve been to nicer beaches, cleaner boardwalks, and classier coastal towns. But my heart belongs “at the shoo-wah” in Ocean City, NJ.

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New Delhi Book Club Does Door County

As an international teacher, I sometimes struggle to find friends who are not international teachers. My teacher friends are great, don’t get me wrong, but I also love to learn the stories of interesting people with experiences quite different from my own.

That’s why I felt particularly fortunate to join a small book club in New Delhi comprising a diverse group of fascinating ladies – a nurse, an actress, a scientist, a dancer … and more. We met monthly to discuss and recommend (or not) whatever each of us had read recently, and we maintained a lending library of books donated by the group. Occasionally, we joined a few other ladies for a dramatic reading of a play. Although their husbands’ jobs brought them to Delhi and, unfortunately, took them away again last year, these women all left their marks on the community and on my heart. I have missed the camaraderie, reflective conversations and laughter.

In fact, I don’t think I realized how much I missed them until a plan was hatched to hold a summer reunion. Not everyone could make it, but a few of us did, and we had a wonderful time hanging out at Sue’s home in artsy-fartsy Door County, Wisconsin, June 25-28. Sue’s husband is presently working in Afghanistan with the U.S. Agency for International Development while she settles into their retirement home (which they bought sight unseen while living in India). The house sits high on a hill overlooking Lake Michigan with a steep staircase leading down to the wooded waterfront. It was idyllic.

Each morning, we lounged poolside with coffee and breakfast treats, re-connecting and catching up. Over the four days, we also walked to the Edgewood Orchard Galleries, where I bought a sculpture for my own lake house; took a bumpy ride on Lake Michigan in a rented pontoon boat piloted by Sue’s son, Brent; participated in a dramatic reading of “Fences” by August Wilson; held an official book club meeting (see the book recommendations at the end of this post); and visited a food fair and an art show. Cocktails in hand, we returned to the backyard in the evenings to watch the sun set.

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Adrienne, Catherine, Henrietta and I clambered down to the lakefront.
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Brent deftly handled the pontoon boat on choppy water, steering us to glassy Horseshoe Bay, where we lingered for a picnic lunch.
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Monique and Henri take the dogs out for a walk to the art gallery.
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The gallery featured an art-lined path through the woods.
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I bought this sculpture of an ibis, which the gallery shipped to our Michigan house. Here she is at Lake Orion.
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We bought this fish for Sue as a thank-you gift.
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Afternoon cocktails prepared by Adrienne!
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Back to front, left to right: Monique, Adrienne, Sue, Henri, me, Catherine.
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Catherine’s party pants.
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Henri and me at Gills Rock, the tip of Wisconsin’s mitten thumb peninsula.
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My motto.
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Brent took a summer job at Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant, where he herds the goats off the sod roof at night.
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Reading “Fences,” August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play about black Americans in the 1950s.
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Sunset.
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Here’s the list of books we discussed. Fiction and non-fiction, old and new … in no order.
Beautiful Ruins – Jess Walter
The Saffron Kitchen – Yasmin Crowther
Don’t Let Him Know– Sandip Roy
A Dog’s Gift – Bob Drury
The Martian – Andy Weir
The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life– Bettany Hughes
The Children Act – Ian McEwan
Squatting with Dignity – Kumar Alok
Mornings on Horseback: The Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt – David McCullough
The Expats – Chris Pavone
Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly: The Remarkable Story of the Friendship Between a First Lady and a Former Slave – Jennifer Fleischner
A House Divided – Pearl S. Buck
Imperial Woman: The Story of the Last Empress of China – Pearl S. Buck
The Child Who Never Grew – Pearl S. Buck
Various books by Leon Uris
Clara and Mr. Tiffany – Susan Vreeland
The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge – David McCullough
The Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy – Douglas Smith
The Lunar Chronicles – Marisa Meyer
The Devil in the White City – Erik Larson
In the Garden of the Beasts -Erik Larson
Thunderstruck – Erik Larson
The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry – Gabrielle Zevin
I’ll Give you the Sun – Jandy Nelson
All the Light We Cannot See– Anthony Doerr
Catering to Nobody – Diane Mott Davidson
The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins
To be Sung Underwater – Tom McNeal
Wild – Cheryl Strayed
The Orphan Train – Christina Baker Kline
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking – Susan Cain
The Cherry Harvest – Lucy Sanna
The Passion of Artemesia – Susan Vreeland
FDR – Jean Edward Smith
We Band of Angels: The Untold Story of the American Women Trapped on Bataan – Elizabeth Norman
I Served on Bataan – Juanita Redmond
Wild Swans – Jung Chang
Pillars of the Earth – Ken Follett

Until we meet again, happy reading!

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Hungry Days of Summer

It took a couple weeks, but Tony and I are finally over jetlag and mostly decompressed from school stress. Time to get down to business. There’s so much to eat and drink before the end of July!

Here are some of my Michigan food-and-drink-related routines:
(1) I welcome myself home with a cake from Kroger’s. Usually I just pop in to the store and ask for a cake that says, “Welcome home, Sharon!” and then I eat it in secret. This time, I decided to be more inclusive and I had the hilarious plan of asking the baker to box in a corner and write, “… and Tony.” My sister Kate offered to pick up the cake for me, but when she saw the poor baker seemed to suffer from terrible arthritis, she said, “You can just write ‘Welcome home S & T’.” Lame.
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(2) I eat avocado every day. This is my Second Annual Eat Avocado Every Day Summer Challenge. It started last summer when I was stuck in Washington, D.C., with a fun group of ladies from AES, waiting for our new Indian visas to be issued. We found ourselves at the same Mexican restaurant most days, eating guacamole. Avocados in Delhi are rare and expensive, so it seems like a good plan to get ’em while I can. My favorite lunch time treat? A loaded BLAT sandwich.
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(3) I eat copious amounts of pie. My favorite? Strawberry rhubarb. Bring it. (And be sure to bring Breyer’s Natural Vanilla ice cream, too.)

(4) I drink a ridiculous amount of beer and wine. With import duties around 150%, booze is pricey in India. My go-to red wine in Delhi is Yellow Tail Shiraz, which retails at $30. Guess how much it costs in Michigan? $4.95! Less than five bucks! We have a beer pub in our Delhi neighborhood, where Tony and I go for dinner occasionally. A nice pizza and a couple glasses of beer costs us about $100. So, if most of my summer pictures show a drink in my hand, don’t judge.

(5) Bacon. Bacon. And more bacon. The Hindus in India don’t eat beef, and the Muslims in India don’t eat pork. So the only ubiquitous meat is chicken. Dang it, I am so sick of chicken. Bacon cheeseburger with guacamole? Yes, please!

By the end of the summer, I may be jonesing for a samosa, but for now, you’ll find me on my deck, beer in hand and gearing up for my next American snack.

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Adventures in Teaching and Travel