Settling in Santiago part 2: looking for a silver lining in the cloud of exhaustion

How is it possible to feel overwhelmed at the pace of life while also feeling like nothing is getting done? Since I last posted, I’ve enjoyed a few fun outings with new friends, received our shipment from India, and started school. However, daily life is a series of baby steps and barely recognizable accomplishments as we navigate so much newness.

Tuesday, Tony and I left school with plans to meet a handyman at our house and hang curtain rods. (Three weeks after moving in to our apartment, we still don’t have curtains in our master bedroom, so we’re still sleeping on a trundle bed in a guest bedroom.) The handyman cancelled at the last minute, which seems to happen more often than not here.

OK. Change of plans: We checked out a supermarket near school called Lider, which is owned by Wal-Mart. The underground parking was nearly empty, so we wondered whether the store was even open. Not only was it open, it was amazing. It pretty much WAS Wal-Mart. Not that I love Wal-Mart … but … after living in India for five years with no convenient supermarket option, this was Nirvana. We took our time, strolling down every aisle, realizing – with the help of google translate on my phone – that we could find just about any ingredient we needed for just about any recipe. We bought cheese and wine and avocados and fresh bread and a rotisserie chicken and a pork roast and some school supplies … oh man, I could go on and on. We knew to weigh our produce and get it priced in the produce section, and we knew to do the same for bread in the bakery section. At checkout, we had actually remembered to bring in the cloth shopping bags (which we usually forget in the trunk of our car) and I knew how much to tip the woman who bagged our groceries (one of a gajillion little learnings on this steep curve). We pulled out of the parking lot, consulted with google maps, and got right on the highway. We went grocery shopping and got home without screwing up dramatically or getting lost! We were buoyed by a sense of success.

So, try to understand our state of mind if that made us happy. You can only assume that we are generally not that successful. Daily life is riddled with mind-numbing frustrations and inconveniences that we haven’t figured out how to handle. My eyes continuously brim with tears that I somehow keep from spilling over.

That said, here are some things that have marginally improved our quality of life in recent weeks:

* We have searched and searched for adaptors for the oversized Indian plugs on our microwave, coffee maker, electric kettle, portable heaters, and back-up UPS batteries for our computers. Obviously, we haven’t been able to use any of those things since we gleefully unpacked them. Finally, Tony snipped off all the plugs and rewired them with Chilean plugs! I actually stood in front of the coffee maker and watched it brew the first pot of coffee, just in case it caught on fire. So far, so good!

* I paid some bills! Oh sure, you may think that’s mundane and not worth mentioning. Try moving to a country where you don’t speak the language, don’t receive any actual bills and suddenly get inundated with people saying, “What? You haven’t paid your bills yet?!” I had a major freakout yesterday when I got a text message from my mobile phone company saying: “Your plan will expire tonight if you don’t pay your bill.” Except it was in Spanish. And then someone reminded me that we have to pay the rent before the 5th or we’ll get slammed with late fees. And then there’s the gas, water and electricity bills, not to mention the “gastos communes,” which are fees for apartment dwellers that cover the concierge, groundskeeping, janitorial services in the common areas, and so on. Fortunately, it seems almost everything can be paid online. My good friend google translate helped me figure out the phone company’s website, and then I paid the rent from my Chilean bank website (which involves a LOT of steps, including using a little clicker that looks like a garage door opener and gives you a code to enter online). Our concierge says the other bills haven’t arrived, and I nodded and pretended to understand when he rattled on about something, which I decided to believe was, “When the bills arrive, I will deliver them to your apartment.” We’ll see. So, whew!

* Tony and I joined a couple newbies for a hike up Cerro San Cristobal July 17. Just a 5-minute taxi ride from our house brought us to the trail head, where we met Jen and Sarah. We trekked up for about 45 minutes, a 300-meter increase in elevation, to the 14-meter statue of the Virgin Mary on the summit. The statue towers over an amphitheatre, where Pope John Paul II said mass and blessed the city in 1987. A nook at the statue’s base features racks of candles and a wall of offerings and prayer requests. A small chapel sits a few steps further down the hill, flanked by a few gift shops and snack stands. I couldn’t find much information on the chapel, but these guys have a nice summary (and a pretty fun travel blog): Cleared and Ready for Takeoff.

Even on this overcast day, the views were exhilarating.
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* Our shipment from India arrived! The moving company delivered everything on Saturday, July 23, and we had unpacked all 138 boxes by the end of the weekend. “Unpacked” is different from “put away,” of course. I will use the metaphor that Tony uses when I put on pantyhose: 20 pounds of potatoes in a 10-pound sack. That’s what our apartment feels like right now. Too much stuff and not enough space, so it sits in piles around the perimeter of each room. However, it’s such a treat to enjoy a home-cooked meal at the dining room table instead of eating a peanut-butter sandwich while sitting on the toilet seat (or standing in the kitchen). We cuddle with Ella on the sofa each evening, and we’re slowly digging through the mountains of clothes to complement the limited wardrobe we brought in our suitcases. Even in this state of chaos, our stuff brings a sense of comfort.

The kitchen boxes towered on the balcony and overflowed out into the hallway. And this kitchen is puny. Whenever we try to do anything in the kitchen at the same time, Tony mutters, “It’s like we live on a boat.”
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Ella mostly hid in the closet, but she came out to explore when the movers took a lunch break.
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This is where we’re sleeping till we get curtains in the master bedroom. Yes, it’s a trundle bed.
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The only casualty of the move: a big terracotta elephant I bought at a street market in Delhi. I really loved him.
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Furniture unpacked and reassembled. So grateful for places to sit!
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Cross your fingers that we experience ongoing successes that outweigh the oppressive sense of failure permeating most of our days… Wow, that was intense. Oppressive sense of failure? Really? Well … frankly… yeah. That pretty much sums it up. But – and it’s a big but – we learn something new every day. That’s the silver lining, for now. Stay tuned.

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All’s good in the ‘hood: Exploring Providencia

After camping in our empty apartment for four days, I knew I had to get out. I jumped at the chance to explore our neighborhood with fellow newbies living in Providencia and returning teacher, Colleen (you might know her as the “pot lender”).

We walked and walked and walked all afternoon, pausing for a rooftop beer and later meeting up with Tony and Colleen’s husband, Brad, for dinner in the totally walkable neighborhood of Barrio Bellavista. I was shaking with excitement over how easy it was to walk everywhere (to be fair, it got pretty cold by late afternoon, so I might have been shivering). Colleen pointed out her favorite restaurants, outdoor markets, specialty shops and bars along the way. We did catch a taxi to nearby Vitacura, where we checked out Parque Bicentenario, a huge beautiful urban park, and then popped into Hotel Noi for a peek at its rooftop pool bar. Later, we lucked out and got a table at Uncle Fletch, a bustling burger joint. After dinner, we stumbled upon a contemporary art gallery, where they served us free wine to sip while perusing the paintings and sculptures. Too pooped to walk another step, Tony and I taxi-ed home, eager to explore some more another day.

I wish I had taken more photos, but it was a rather dreary overcast day.

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Unintentional camping in Santiago

July 12 had been looming ominously. That was the day we would get kicked out of the hotel. Tony was ready for it. He was sick of living out of a suitcase and wanted to get started with the settling-in process. I, on the other hand, faced reality: We would still be living out of suitcases in our apartment. (OK, maybe we would actually unpack our suitcases and hang clothes in the closets, but that wasn’t a significant improvement in my mind.) Plus, we would be giving up the free buffet breakfast, wifi and central heat.

Our shipment – due to arrive on July 16 – included sheets and blankets for a queen-sized guest bed. However, we quickly realized our tiny extra bedrooms would hardly accommodate such a large piece of furniture. Instead, we bought a twin-sized trundle bed and all the necessary bedding. That became the camp bed as we awaited our new Tempurpedic, purchased shortly before our departure from Delhi. We also visited a department store here to buy a fridge and dryer, which were scheduled to arrive between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. (!) on the day of our move-in. By 8:45 p.m., Tony was asleep and I had given up. After an extensive multi-day whatsapp conversation with the store’s floor manager, we finally received our appliances at the end of the week. Good thing it’s winter here! We just put all our food on the balcony to keep cold. But, then again, clothes don’t dry quickly in chilly, damp weather, so we tried not to do laundry that week.

We used plastic cutlery, plates and cups and ate mostly sandwiches until I thought my belly would burst from backed-up cheese. Finally, I borrowed a pot from a colleague and looked forward to making spaghetti for dinner. I filled the pot with water, dumped in the pasta, and then realized … I didn’t have a spoon. The apartment’s previous tenant had left a large knife, so I wrapped the sharp end with a towel and stirred the pasta with the knife handle. I kind of felt like McGyver, especially after a couple glasses of wine. After dinner, I texted my pot lender and begged for a wooden spoon.
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This kind of makeshift life can be fun, or at least tolerable, when the end is in sight. We found two folding chairs in our basement storage room, so we no longer had to sit on the toilet seat to eat breakfast. We painted a few walls and brainstormed about where to hang all our art. We shopped for curtains. However, the moving company repeatedly pushed back the date of our delivery, and soon we found ourselves irritable and over it. When I got the email that our shipment would arrive on Saturday, July 23, I refused to get excited. I’ll believe it when I see it.

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Settling in Santiago: hurry up and wait

Here we are in Santiago, Chile! We have accomplished a lot in our first six days, but we still feel eager to get out of the hotel and into our own place. Our new employer – International School Nido de Aguilas – put us up at the Atton Hotel el Bosque with a posse of helpers who facilitate apartment hunting, buying a car, setting up our mobile phones, getting registered with the International Police, learning about banking, and more.

This is our fifth international school and the first one that didn’t provide furnished housing to new staff upon arrival. The only drawback is that we will have to leave the hotel and move into our new apartment about a week before our shipment arrives (assuming it arrives on time). That means we have to buy a bed, sheets, towels, kitchenware and other necessities that are presently en route from India but just won’t get here soon enough. The good news is we found a nice apartment in a quiet leafy neighborhood, just a short distance from parks, a gas station, a grocery store, a pet supply store, and lots of restaurants, bars and coffee shops. A 10-minute walk gets us to a huge mall, massive supermarket, Home Depot-ish store, and many entertainment options.

It’s winter here now, but so far that has meant mostly beautiful sunny skies with clear views of the Andes Mountains and temperatures in the high 50s. We have walked from the hotel to our apartment and all around the district, feeling giddy that this is our new home. People make eye contact and smile. They greet one another with a kiss on the cheek. And the wine – hola madre! – is cheap and delicious. So far, no complaints!

Here’s a little rundown of our transition up to now. I haven’t taken many pictures, but I will soon!

Getting There
Which would you rather hear for your entire flight? A screaming baby or a howling cat?

If you said “baby,” then you would have won the jackpot on our Detroit-to-Houston flight. The poor lady in front of us held a 10-month-old baby on her lap that shrieked for the entire three hours. Bad for her seatmate. Good for us because our cat, Ella, was also shrieking in her carrier under the seat, but nobody could hear her over the baby din. Whew!

If you said “howling cat,” then you should have joined us for the 9-hour joyride from Houston to Santiago, when Ella screamed her face off and attempted all sorts of prison break maneuvers for the whole flight. She dug at her pee-pee pad like a madwoman scratching an escape route through the padded walls of her cell. She clawed and bit at the mesh of her carrier (my pinky suffered some collateral damage when I tried to soothe her). She rammed her head and body into the fabric, effectively opening a zipper at one point. After a few hours, I discovered she would wail slightly less maniacally if I extended my leg and rubbed my toe against her head that was wedged against the end of the carrier. If I fell asleep or shifted my weight, she went into full psycho mode again, so I basically held that position for about five hours. Ella’s anxiety spread to Tony, who spent most of the flight in the bathroom.

When we landed in Santiago, we were greeted by a young man from Wou Vets. Although we had stressed for months about leaving Ella at a “pet hotel” while we stayed at a “people hotel,” all our apprehension vanished at the opportunity to unload her for awhile. So that’s where she is now. Probably angry and confused, but safe at the Wou Vets Pet Camp. You can check out photos of Ella and the other furry guests on their FaceBook page: Wou Vets Community.

Whirlwind Week
The school transported us from the airport to the hotel on a bus with a bunch of other newbies who had arrived on early morning flights. Tony and I had arranged to move into the apartment of a departing teacher, and we were eager to see it, so we quickly unpacked and headed out for a walk. Without the keys, we simply stood on the sidewalk and looked up at the building. Then we strolled around the neighborhood, popping in to the Lider Express supermarket where a huge display of palta (avocado) greeted us at the entrance. How can I not love a country where avocado is a dietary staple? (about $2 for a pound)
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We had a quick meeting with bank representatives, who set us up with accounts but didn’t really explain how much money was in there or how to use our new cards. Oh well! Many of the newbies met up for dinner at an amazing pizzeria called Tiramisu. We were told to get there when it opened, so we arrived a little before 7 p.m., and the line had already formed. Quaint and cozy with delicious food and wine, this place was a special treat. I have a feeling that wasn’t our last Tiramisu pizza.

My first glass of Chilean wine IN Chile!
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Monday, we met Anna, a representative from the relocation agency finding homes for all of us. We joined a small group that had already targeted specific apartments. Our place was the first stop, where the realtor, Roberto, met us in the lobby and took us up to the third floor. Workers were painting and working on minor repairs, so it was tricky for the six of us to check out the apartment with any real scrutiny. We basically said, “Looks good to us!” and jumped back in the bus to visit the other newbies’ digs.

Tuesday, a group of us bused to the International Police Station to register as residents of Santiago. That took for.ev.er. Fortunately, our school helpers had gone ahead to pull numbered tickets that secured our places in line. When we arrived, there were still about 200 people ahead of us. After getting fingerprinted and photographed, we got our precious RUT number. This is like gold in Chile. You can’t get a phone, buy a car, sign a lease or even purchase pillowcases without it. So getting that number was the necessary first step before we could do … well, literally, anything. That process wrapped up in the early afternoon, so we grabbed some snacks on the street and then went en masse to buy mobile phone plans. Again, thank goodness Nido gave us handlers. We never could have done this by ourselves.

Wednesday, we were wrangled for vehicle shopping by Tito, a car-savvy Nido employee, and Valentina, a Nido graduate and university student serving as translator. Tony and I ultimately bought a 2016 Toyota Yaris Sedan, a boring but reliable car that gets pretty decent gas mileage … something we have to take seriously in a city where gas is about $5 a gallon.
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Thursday, we signed our lease in the morning and then met Roberto at the apartment in the afternoon to pay the deposit and pick up the keys. We spent more time really perusing the place, trying to get a feel for what it will be like to live there. We both think we’re going to love it!

Friday, we had an early morning meeting at the school about banking. We each have a peso account and a U.S. dollar account, and we can’t have a joint account, and we don’t get our money sent to the States automatically, but we have to pay to wire money, and some things can be done online but most things have to be done at the bank’s branch office, which is only open till 2 p.m., and there’s some little clicker that gives a code that we’ll need each time we make a local transfer, and sure, of course you can pay bills online. But how? We’re still thoroughly confused, but I suppose we’ll figure it out.

It was our first visit to the school, and we only got to see the meeting room inside the elementary school library, but this was the view from the parking lot. Not bad, eh?
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In the afternoon, we went to the mall to shop for a few additional items we’ll need to camp in our empty apartment next week.

Transitions suck. That’s all there is to it. This seems like a fantastic city, and we’re meeting great people, and so far, we’re so completely 100% thrilled with our decision to move here. And yet… I want to start living my life here. I want to speak fluent Spanish right now. And have my shipment delivered and unpacked right now. And have my apartment arranged and decorated right now. And I want to start my job and meet my colleagues and know how everything works at my new school. Right. Now.

Patience is a virtue that neither Tony nor I have ever fully embraced. So, for the next few days or weeks or … let’s face it … most likely MONTHS, we’re going to try our best not to bite each other’s faces off for petty reasons as we navigate so much newness. One step at a time and all that. I’ll keep you posted!

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Summer 2016: Short but sweet

As we transition from India to Chile … from the northern hemisphere to the southern hemisphere … from summer to winter … from a 9.5-hour time difference to NO time difference … from Hindi to Spanish … it’s all kind of blowing my mind.

I could have spent our short summer break stressing about it all, but there was no time! We had a shorter-than-usual holiday because (a) “newbie teachers” at the Nido de Aguilas International School have to show up to school a couple weeks early for orientation, and (b) it’s winter in Chile, so our new school’s long “summer break” actually starts in December.

Besides, I was distracted by a whole bunch of cuteness in the form of nieces and nephews. I also wanted to catch up with all three of my siblings and a couple sib-in-laws (reunited from Michigan, Texas and England); my parents, who drove up from Florida; and one of my dearest friends, who visited from St. Louis.

Tony and I didn’t have time to enjoy our summer activities as much as usual: biking on the trails, kayaking, grilling out, walking around the lake, etc. But we also didn’t have time to stress about the huge transitions about to turn our world upside down.

Cocktails with Tarren, who is more like a sister after 30+ years of friendship.
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After she returned to St. Louis, Tarren sent Cardinals teddies to all the kids (and tasty treats for the adults).
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My sister, Megan, and her two munchkins stayed with Tony and me at the lake. We read a lot of books.
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We pretended the fan was blowing us over so we could bellyflop on to the cushions.
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We tried to stage a couple photo shoots. Impossible to get this group to cooperate.
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We took a boat ride with our neighbor, Kim.
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We took out the kayaks and the stand-up paddleboard a couple times. I remember when Nico and Paul were too little to paddle alone, and now they’re taking passengers out for a ride!
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We played at the nearby mall, always a fun destination with the kids. The Bass Pro Shop’s fish tank and taxidermy extravaganza, the carousel, and the Lego store were big attractions.
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We found a new trampoline park with a ninja warrior course. So fun!
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Meg battled a little boy and knocked him into the foam pit for a chance to face off with Kate. Ha!

We had a pool party at Kate’s house.

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Ella mostly lounged in a sunny spot and tried to stay clear of all the children.
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But she had a hard time escaping from this one.

Our last night in Michigan was Flare Night, when lake dwellers line the perimeter of the lake with road flares and light them at 10 p.m. According to the Oakland Press News, the tradition started in 1945 to celebrate the end of World War II. Our neighbors always have a blow-out party that night, so it was a fun way to wrap up our short summer break. In a rite of passage, Nico lit our flares (with help from Tony).
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AES Graduation 2016 – Tony wows ’em

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:
Share everything. 
Play fair. 
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. 
Flush. 
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.

Thank you.

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AES Board Farewell Dinner – too teary to talk

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.

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Dalai Lama brings bliss to American Embassy School

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.

DSCF3342Photo 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.

DalaiLamaAES64Photo 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.

IMG_4195Photo 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.)

IMG_0418Photo courtesy of Eric Johnson

Greeting our friends, Scott White, ES assistant principal; Paul Johnson, HS principal; and Gary Coyle, director of technology.
DSCF3543Photo 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.
HHDL AES16 Mark (57)

HHDL AES16 Mark (62)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.
HHDL AES16 Mark (135)Photo courtesy of Mark Cowlin

Still mingling on his way out.
HHDL AES16 Mark (67)

HHDL AES16 Mark (136)Photos courtesy of Mark Cowlin

Here’s the video of His Holiness the Dalai Lama addressing the American Embassy School in New Delhi.

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Spring Break 2016: Finding peace in Rishikesh

I barely had time to unpack my suitcase, do laundry and repack, and I was off again.

Spring Break!

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).
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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.

My cottage.
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View from the restaurant deck.
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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.
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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.”
Oh crap.

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!
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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.
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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.
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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.)
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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!
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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.
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Animals next to her mother’s house.
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Cricket game.
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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.
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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.

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Horsing around on high school mini-course

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.
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At the gardens.
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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.

Marwari Horses
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.
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I love this description from the Indigenous Horse Society of India:

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.
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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.
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This is Komal. Well, this is Komal’s backside.
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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.
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The adjoining stall housed three yearlings, also heartbreakingly adorable.
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Riding Lessons
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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

Hack Rides

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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

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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.
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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.”
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Down Time
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.
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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.)
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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.
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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.
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Sunrise.
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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.
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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.
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Farewell
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.
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A short flight later, we were back in Delhi, saddle sore but filled with bliss.

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Adventures in Teaching and Travel