Tag Archives: India

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. 
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.

Thanksgiving Tiger Hunt – Ranthambore National Park

A scroll through last weekend’s Facebook photos revealed a cornucopia of Thanksgiving parties and reunions enjoyed by our American friends and family around the world. As for us, Thanksgiving meant an Indian buffet and Rajasthani entertainment on the lawn of our hotel in Sawai Madhopur, five hours southwest of Delhi by train. We traveled with a few other families from school, and we all felt grateful for the fresher air and relative peace.

Here’s a little history about the the park from the website Sanctuary Asia:

The Ranthambhore Fort, occupied for years by Raja Hamir, has lent its name to the Tiger Reserve. A Hindu battlement, it has seen a series of Muslim rulers try unsuccessfully to lay siege to it, including Allaudin Khilji in 1301.The army of the Moghul Emperor Akbar camped here (1558-1569) and the Akbar Namah records the menu that the generals were served when they had a meal under the famous banyan tree that visitors can still see at the base of the ramparts.
The park area itself was once the hunting preserve of the Maharajas of Jaipur and many tiger shoots took place here including an infamous visit in the early sixties when a tiger was set up to be shot by Queen Elizabeth II.The Ranthambhore Park earned Sanctuary status in 1958 and when Project Tiger was launched in 1973, it really began to receive the protection it deserved. Placed under the care of the now-famous Fateh Singh Rathore, by the 80s the park had earned itself the distinction of being one of the world’s best-known tiger forests.
The first real signs of ecological renewal were the scores of once-dry pools, streams and rivulets that began running full of water all year long. This helped native plants to re-establish themselves. A major side-benefit of Ranthambhore’s return to health was the ground water recharge service performed by the forest, which helped restock wells in surrounding villages.

For our safaris, we split into two jeeps. The Dents rode with the Rosenfields: Kristen and Jonah, and their two boys, Asa and Liam. In the other jeep: the Gregors and the Curreys. Alicia Brown skipped the first two safaris to rest her weary tummy.

Tiger hunters!

To reach the tiger park, we rolled through the city streets for a drive-by glimpse of daily life. Flaunting designs shaved into their fur or painted with dye, camels hauled carts loaded with bricks and marble slabs. Psychedelically decorated trucks – every inch adorned with colorful designs, sanskrit wishes, huge pompons and pleasantries such as “Horn Please” in elegant script – blared tinny music or parked roadside with their hoods up. Smiling faces pressed against the glass or hung out the windows of overstuffed buses with additional passengers waving from the rooftop. Where the path narrowed and traffic bottlenecked, piles of trash attracted boars, goats, cows, dogs and monkeys. Donkeys carrying baskets of dirt wove between the cars, and villagers carried on with their routines.








Out in the countryside, the scenery changed dramatically. Deforested farmland and pastures bumped up against the rugged hills of the Aravelli range, one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world and the same ridge that peters out near our home in Delhi.



On our first safari, Friday morning, we spotted tiger prints in the dirt but no tigers in District 6.

We bumped through a stunning landscape turned golden by the rising sun and saw other interesting mammals, such as spotted deer, nilgai and antelope. Cresting a hill, we encountered this guy, a sambar deer. He sat calmly, staring at us and chewing nonchalantly with no clear intention to move out of the road until the driver revved the engine and rolled forward a bit. Still nonplussed, the deer slowly stood and stepped off the road into the woods.


Our guide explained two ways they track tigers in the park: footprints and warning sounds. We had seen the footprints, and soon passed a small deer running in the opposite direction of a sharp barking sound. A large gray nilgai was warning the other animals that danger lurked nearby. The nilgai stood alert at the edge of a cliff, looking down into the valley.

Occasionally it stomped a foot aggressively and startled us with its sudden barks. Eventually, a gray-and-black striped hyena scurried into view, only for a moment, and then both animals sped away in opposite direction. Afraid I’d miss it, I didn’t even raise my camera. “This is only the third time I have seen a hyena in my whole career,” the guide said. Small consolation for no tigers, but we’ll take it!
Our hyena looked just like these guys (which I found on the website Look At India.)
ranthambore hyena

Other shots from the morning safari.





Safari number two, Friday afternoon in District 8, we spotted only one tiger. (I bought him from the puppet maker after the show Thursday night.)


We enjoyed the view from this mountaintop.



Otherwise, we saw some langur monkeys and a few other mammals.


Just as we were heading out of the park, Kristen leaned forward, tapped the driver on the shoulder and said, “I just saw a leopard, and I am not even kidding.” Completely calm. We backed up, and sure enough, there he was! Camouflaged in the leafy dusk, he paused momentarily before slinking away. This was the only semi-clear shot I took.

Safari number three, Saturday morning, took us to District 7, where we continued not to spot any tigers. We did, however, experience some fairly dangerous driving maneuvers. We opted to risk tiger attack and walk up this short hill rather than risk rolling off the mountain in the jeep.


At the end of our safari, we pulled up to this gate to leave the park. Unfortunately, it was locked. Our guide explained: “The man who has the key in his pocket is not here.” Oh. OK.
So we waited. After awhile, someone arrived to unlock the gate, and we headed back to the hotel.

As our two jeeps arrived at our hotel, someone shouted, “There’s a tiger on the main road!” Our drivers immediately whipped the jeeps around and sped back out. This was possibly the most dangerous 10 minutes of my life. We drove ridiculously fast with no seatbelts in an open jeep, nearly popping out altogether every time we hit a pothole or speedbump, cresting hills in the wrong lane, swerving around pedestrians and slower vehicles at breakneck speed. Although several of us thought the tiger would be sitting next to the “main road” in town (a scary proposition!), it turned out the tiger was seen on the main road inside the park. By the time we arrived, other jeeploads shared the news of his escape into the forest. It’s really no surprise that we didn’t see a tiger. One of our guides said there are only about 56 in the whole park.

The train ride home was pleasant enough for Tony and me. Upgraded to second class, we had our own tiny compartment in a tranquil car. The rest of our group – back in “steerage,” as Liv called it – crammed into a compartment with four bunks and no curtain. Everyone in their train car seemed to be talking at full volume, and an overly friendly Rajasthani man desperately wanted to be their BFF. Yikes.

Overall, I loved Ranthambore. I always relish Rajasthan’s colors and chaos, but this trip rejuvenated me like no other domestic journey in recent memory. Nature, clean air, comfy beds, fun people. All good.

Math and English collide in cuteness

When I was in second grade, we sat at our desks and raced through pages of addition and subtraction problems. As a teacher of English learners, I’m sure my students often wish life could be so easy. However, today’s second graders learn math in an entirely different – and much better – way. They learn the concepts behind the place value work they do. It’s not enough to “carry the ten.” Kids need to understand they are conceptually regrouping ten ones for a single ten. I am not lying when I say I only just realized that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 40 years when I “carried the ten”!

Earlier this week, I was working with a second-grade math group, which included three English beginners: one Israeli, one Korean and one from Bahrain. We were practicing the strategy of “Read-Draw-Write” to solve a word problem. With help, they read the problem and I explained some of the tricky words. Next it was time to draw the problem before writing the equation and answer sentence. They had learned to draw a place value chart with symbols for the tens and ones. I turned to help the Bahraini boy, who had been absent the previous day and needed to catch up. By the time I got back to the Korean boy, he had finished his drawing to illustrate giving away 10 seashells. It looked like this:

So cute! And so wrong. I had to remind him that by “draw,” we mean draw a place value chart.
He did it, reluctantly, but then he insisted on drawing an arrow back to his original sketch. Fair enough.

Reminds me of another confused little Korean kid I knew in Laos. Check it out: Korean Math Warriors.

Wrapping up year 2 in India

Our first year in India was hard, possibly the hardest first year we’ve had in our 12 years overseas. As Bob Hetzel, our outgoing school director, is fond of saying, “Whatever is true about India, the opposite is also true.” That makes it particularly difficult to learn the ropes and settle in to this city that defies all western logic. Add that to the heat, the pollution, the crowds, the chaos.

By the end of our first year, we were feeling marginally better about our decision to move here but still overwhelmingly frustrated. Then a departing teacher, who spent five years in New Delhi, shared this snippet of wisdom: “Your second year will be exponentially better. And your third year will be exponentially better than your second year. And so on. You won’t believe it!”

He was right. Year two really WAS exponentially better than year one. Not perfect, but much much better. I don’t really know WHY, but it was. As I gear up for a Michigan summer, I can honestly say I look forward to coming back to India in the fall.

New Delhi is finally starting to feel like home. We’ve even expanded our family after talking about it for years. We’re going to miss these girls over the summer, but I made a quick video to keep them with me as we travel.

Sangeet Wednesday

If we felt confused about the mehendi party on Monday, this day was no different. The invitation said “Sangeet” and the bride’s mother had explained that it was the engagement party. An engagement party the day before the wedding? Clearly more research was needed. A google search yielded heaps of conflicting information, so once again it was trial by fire. In retrospect, this wedding planner’s website offers a Sangeet description similar to the one we attended Wednesday for Sanaa and Madhavkrishna. Bottom line: the Sangeet is a big party.


Indians are not known for their punctuality. Apparently, members of the wedding party don’t know that. Tony and I didn’t want to be the only ones at the Sangeet, so we arrived at the Shangri-La Hotel ballroom about an hour late, unfortunately missing the ceremony. (Who knew there was going to be a ceremony?) We were told the bride, Sanaa, sang and danced, and other family members performed skits. Dang it! We got there in time to see Sreeram, winner of Indian Idol’s 5th season, though. He seemed disappointed at the empty dance floor. (I didn’t find out till later he was so famous, or I would have taken more photos.)


We greeted Sanaa and Madhu. I felt like a fluttery nervous schoolgirl in the presence of a princess.

I asked to see Sanaa’s mehendi, and she pointed out her fiance’s name painted on one hand and his initial “M” hidden in the henna swirls of the other hand. The groom-to-be is supposed to search for his hidden name in a romantic little game. This photo is blurry because the bossy handlers were rushing me.

After mingling a bit, we followed the crowd to a large veranda, where dinner was being served. I couldn’t take my eyes off everyone’s clothes long enough to eat anything.





With help from friends, I dressed more appropriately for the Sangeet, borrowing this gorgeous anarkali from Nancy, the gold shawl from Deepa, and the purse from Katrina.

Mehendi Monday

As we wrap up a week of wedding festivities, I hardly know how to start writing about it. Like everything in India, the events were hard to process at the time.

Our landlord, Ashwani, and his wife, Alka, live downstairs with their daughter, Sanaa. Sanaa completed a master’s degree in England last year, returned to work in Delhi and recently announced her plans to marry childhood friend, Madhavkrishna. The proud parents invited us to three of the celebrations: Mehendi on Monday, Sangeet on Wednesday, and the wedding ceremony on Thursday. This was our first wedding in India, so we had absolutely no idea what to expect.

Workers draped the entire house in lights, and enclosed the courtyard with orange and gold fabric, woven to create a roof and walls. Garlands of marigolds and jasmine adorned the courtyard and stairwell.

Last week, I had a quick chat with Alka, mother of the bride. I was feeling anxious about what to wear to these events, and Alka calmly assured me that whatever I wore would be fine. (Note to all Indian women: You do foreigners a big disservice by acting so nonchalant about such things. Please, I beg you, give us explicit instructions about how to comply with your cultural norms.)

Alka told me a “suit” would be appropriate for Monday’s mehendi party. “Suit” does not imply an Ally McBeal mini-skirt and jacket, as it did in the States back in the days I actually wore business suits. In India, a suit is a long top with blousy pants. This outfit ranges from relatively casual embroidered cotton to flowy embellished chiffon. With that in mind, I planned to wear my gray silk kurta (long top) and mauve choridar (tight-legged pants that gather at the ankle). Fortunately, I sought advice one more time from a cousin visiting from the States for the wedding. “It’ll be pretty fancy,” she said.

Panic set in. Right after school, I dashed off to Sarojini Market and popped in to a tiny dress shop. The salesclerk plopped one kurta after another on the counter, but my brain froze. I didn’t even know what to ask for. Finally I blurted, “I’m going to a mehendi party TONIGHT!” He swept all the kurtas off the counter and said, “Come in.” At the back of the shop, he started pulling packages off the shelves, whipping the brightly-colored garments out of the plastic and piling them in front of me. “This is the latest fashion,” he said. I picked one, tried it on over my dress, and realized it needed a little altering.

“Ten minutes,” the shopkeeper said. He then walked me around the corner to a bangle shop, which was packed with ladies. The bangle man stood behind a glass display case, surrounded by thousands of bangles in every size, color and degree of bling. Each lady in turn placed an item of clothing on the counter, and he quickly darted around his tiny space, pulling bracelets off the shelves and yelling requests to a worker in a storage space upstairs, who lowered bags of bangles through a hole in the awning. The banglemeister shuffled the delicate bracelets like cards, masterfully color-coordinating and arranging them on a wooden dowel, which he then held up to the light to dazzle the customer. I waited about 30 minutes for my turn. In the meantime, Tony had brought my perfectly altered dress (called an “anarkali”), so taking my cue from the Indian ladies, I placed it on the counter. Bangle Man gently felt my hand to determine the size and then flitted about, collecting fuchsia, black, green and gold bangles of varying widths and flashiness. I bought 20 bangles for each arm, which turned out to be excessive, but I couldn’t resist!


Tony was an extremely reluctant chaperone on this night because his Indian colleagues at school had told him this was a ladies-only event. In fact, my online research supports their claims. Based on what I read, I was expecting an intimate but lively evening with ladies sprawled out on cushions, offering marriage advice to young Sanaa while classical musicians played in the background and mehendi artists painted henna designs on our hands. However, father-of-the-bride Ashwani explicitly invited Tony to the mehendi party. See why confusion is our constant companion in India?

The mehendi party took place at a hotel, and the minute we stepped into the foyer, I knew we were out of our league. Far from intimate, the hotel ballroom filled with more than a hundred guests. My new anarkali felt extremely casual among ladies draped in saris and dripping with jewels. Feeling self-conscious, I quickly left the crowd to get my hands painted. The one fabulous part of my outfit – the glittery bangles – only made a brief appearance, as I had to remove them for mehendi. For most of the night, I walked around with wet henna, unable to hold a glass or eat any of the appetizers. While Tony took advantage of the open bar and omnipresent strolling waiters, I let go of my wardrobe worries and chatted with other guests, trying not to smear the mehendi. Eventually, I brushed off some of the crusty dried henna to sample the snacks and wine, but I learned my lesson. The more experienced wedding-goers explained that I should only get one hand painted next time to free up the other hand for eating and drinking.

The bride’s brother, Karan, gave a sweet speech about his little sister, and the crowd began to dance.

Tony and I felt humbled by the family’s kindness and inclusive spirit. We never stood alone or felt left out, and we enjoyed interesting conversations with visitors from all over the world, including Denver, San Francisco, Singapore and other cities in India. Shortly before midnight, we said our good-byes.
“You’re not staying for the dinner?” people asked.
We didn’t even realize they were serving dinner! But, no thank you, we told them. It was already way past our bed time on a school night, and we knew it was going to be a long week.



I brushed off the dry mehendi a bit prematurely, and I didn’t coat my hands in oil before going to bed, so the henna design isn’t as vibrant as it otherwise would have been. Still fantastic, though!

This is a bad photo taken with Tony’s phone while I was trying not to mess up my hands, but I wanted to show Sanaa’s beautiful orange sari. She and her groom-to-be were watching the entertainment.

Weird, wonderful, colorful, camelful Pushkar Camel Fair

Last year around this time, one of my students was absent on Friday and Monday.
“Were you sick?” I asked.
“No…,” she answered. “My mom told me not to tell you that we went to the Pushkar Camel Fair! It was awesome!”
I soon realized many students (and teachers) were “sick” that weekend, so I did a little research on the fair. I discovered the five-day fair takes place every year during the month of Kartika on the lunar Hindu calendar, which falls in October or November. It transforms the sleepy town of Pushkar, in the Indian state of Rajasthan, into a bustling carnival of animal traders, performers, revelers and tourists. Depending on the source, camels at the fair reportedly number from 25,000 to 50,000. That’s a lot of camels. I had to see it. Good thing I didn’t call in “sick” too early – the 2012 Pushkar Camel Fair coincided with our Thanksgiving holiday! I booked the hotel and train tickets far in advance, so you can imagine how excited I was when last weekend finally rolled around.

I’ve done my share of lay-around-the-beach vacations that yield little in the way of blogworthy photos or stories. This was not one of those vacations. This was visual overstimulation like never before. In just 2 ½ days, I took almost 500 pictures. Looking at those snapshots on the computer, I recall the object of my attention at the time, but then I notice about 50,000 other interesting details I missed the first time – in the background, in the foreground, in the crowd, in the clothing, on the faces, on the buildings. It was hard to focus the camera on any one thing in Pushkar, and now it’s hard to focus mentally on any one thing as I recall the experiences from the weekend. The color, the dust, the juxtapositions, the flowers, the spiritual energy, the joy, the peace amidst the chaos. Everyone loves a good beach vacation, but I’m quite sure Pushkar will rank as one of my most treasured trips.

Prepare for an onslaught of photos. I’m struggling to cull.

Home away from home.
My little band of teacher-travelers included Becky, Isaac, Katrina, Nancy and Nancy’s two kids. While Becky and Isaac stayed at a nearby budget hotel, the rest of us booked rooms in two “haveli hotels” owned by a friendly man named Anoop. A “haveli” is a private mansion of historical significance. Anoop lives in the first floor of Dia, a small bed and breakfast, where I stayed in the breezy Anandi Room and enjoyed the company of several cats, two turtles and a happy yellow lab. Nancy’s gang and Katrina stayed at the larger Inn Seventh Heaven, where roots and vines crawl through the balustrades and dangle from the rooftop restaurant. We mostly ate at the Seventh Heaven restaurant, Sixth Sense, patiently waiting for our food to arrive by a rigged metal dumbwaiter, guarding our pancakes from Fat Dog and startling as pigeons took shortcuts through the open windows or landed on the ceiling fans.

Camel cart tour.
Despite waking at 4 a.m. Thanksgiving morning to catch our train and riding for more than six hours on the ironically named Shadtabdi Express, we were all eager to hit the ground running. We followed the crowds to the fairgrounds along a road lined with tempting shops and market stalls, repeating, “We’ll shop in the morning!” Upon arriving at the fairgrounds, we weren’t sure where to start. Fortunately, the camel handlers don’t give you time to think. We all piled into a camel-drawn cart for a ride without any idea where we were going or what to expect. The cart joined a caravan of like-minded tourists and hauled us the short distance to an expanse of desert where camel traders in colorful turbans crouched next to their animals, awaiting shoppers and tolerating the gawkers. The orange hazy sun setting in the dust-darkened sky provided an apt backdrop for this surreal scene.






For camels who like to accessorize.



Pushkar is the home of the world’s only temple to Brahma, the Hindu god of creation, and devout Hindus believe a dip in the holy lake will wash away sins of a lifetime. All roads in Pushkar seem to lead to one of the 52 “ghats,” the stairways leading down to the lake. Pilgrims purchase offerings, which they drop into the water with prayers for health, happiness and prosperity. They fill the streets, ladies clad in their most stunning saris with bags balanced on their heads and barefoot men dressed in plain white “lungis,” a long stretch of fabric wrapped and tucked to cover the nether regions, and additional yards of fabric, often neon-bright, twisted into turbans. There was a different vibe here. Everyone seemed to exude a sense that this place was special. Women made eye contact and returned my smile with gentle “namastes,” encouraging their babies to wave. Children laughed and tossed out all their English phrases. “Good morning. Good afternoon. Good evening. Good night,” one boy said proudly. Most men seemed preoccupied by their families or their spiritual journey. We didn’t encounter the swarms of Indians obsessed with taking phone “snaps” with us. We didn’t get the creepy once-over so typical of young men in Delhi. There were stares, as usual, but they were fleeting and moved on quickly to other happy pursuits. I simply couldn’t put down my camera.

Let’s play “spot the foreigner.”

Human touch.

How gorgeous is that little girl?

The colors almost hurt your eyes.

More street shots… Note the motorcycles trying to drive through the crowd, the painted people promoting a music festival, Isaac strangely appearing in several backgrounds, the group of youngsters who ALL asked to shake my hand, little white balls of sugar offered at a shrine, the streetside parking (motorcycle, cow, motorcycle)…

Walking around at night was equally interesting.

Sweet, spicy tea in a tiny clay cup.

More, more, more.

Temple hike
Anoop (the hotel owner) encouraged us to hike up a nearby hill to a small temple overlooking the valley. I do have a weird need to climb things when I’m on vacation, so I convinced Isaac, Becky and Katrina to join me. At the top, we took off our shoes to visit the little temple, where we heard a short Hind-glish version of the temple’s history and purpose from a quirky groundskeeper.

The camel fair features a full program of fascinating events and attractions, including camel dancing, Indian bride competition for foreigners, temple dance, mustache competition, Rajasthani folk music, turban tying competition, and laughter show. I have no idea what most of those were. We only braved the crowds to watch one event: camel dancing, which seemed akin to camel torture. I asked a restaurant owner about another one of the events: Kabaddi.
He explained, “It’s very much like American football. You have a line in the middle with seven players on either side. Then you say ‘kabaddi, kabaddi, kabaddi.'”
…awkward lull while I stare in confusion…
His friend tries to help, “You no say ‘kabaddi,’ man tell you ‘sit down!'”
The two guys looked at each other like it all makes sense and is indeed very much like American football.
I just nodded and said, “Ohhh…Okayyy.”

Here are some scenes from the stadium during the camel dancing. Some of my friends paid to watch from a camel perch, but I just poked around at ground level. I’m kicking myself for not going to that circus!

Looking over the schedule of events and mapping out a tentative plan for our visit, we noted the rent-a-camel option. I wracked my brain, rewinding through 12 years of living overseas and a lifetime of travel … had I ever ridden a camel before? It’s possible I’m wrong, but I do believe Pushkar provided my first-ever camel ride! How is that possible?

We all boarded camels at the fairground and rode out to the same area we visited on our cart ride. My camel handler was about 8 years old and tough as nails. He walked us through the horse market, where the swanky horse owners threw a hissy fit to see a grungy camel in their midst. While the boy was arguing with them, my camel slyly tried to nip a taste of fresh bundled greens clearly intended for the spoiled fancy horses, but he got yanked back before he could sneak a snack. Out in the camel field, the handlers made us dismount so we could shop at their makeshift souvenir tent. That was a bit annoying, but it gave us an opportunity to act like idiots for some silly pictures. I thought it would be funny to put my hat on the camel and strike a pose like, “Yo camel, why’d you take my hat?” However, the camel thought it would be funnier to snap his big yellow teeth at me and strike a pose like, “Yo dummy, I am way too cool for that stupid hat.” After the camel and I had come to an agreement, the handler said, “No touch camel. No hat to camel.” Yes, thank you, the camel already made that perfectly clear.



More camel ride photos.

Sacred lake.
Hoping to spend some quiet time lakeside, we walked down the steps at one of the “ghats” that lead to Pushkar Lake. Immediately we were accosted and handed a metal pan of religious paraphernalia. A man guided me to sit on the steps while he led me through a litany of prayers using a coconut, flower petals, red paste to mark the third-eye on my forehead, rice to symbolize prosperity, sugar, and a string, which he tied around my wrist with a blessing. He told me to repeat after him, so I uttered the names of many Hindu deities (Durga, Ganesha, Shiva, Parabrahma…) along with random phrases like “happy father, happy mother, happy husband, everybody happy, everybody healthy…” Then he told me to hold the coconut and say my own prayers silently before taking my pan down to the water’s edge to dump the contents as an offering. Done and done.



View from a rooftop restaurant.

While the rest of our crowd headed home Saturday afternoon, Katrina and I stayed an extra day. After a chat with Anoop, we decided to enjoy a leisurely walk in the countryside. My hotel, Dia, sat at the edge of town. We were all prepared to check out hillside temples and freshwater springs until Anoop warned us about the red monkey. “He’s pathologically psychotic,” he said, explaining that someone at one of the temples used to feed him opium or something. Since that guy skipped town, the red monkey is off his rocker, attacking people without provocation and even climbing through windows to bite people in their own homes. So… change of plans. We still went for a walk, but we mostly stayed in the dry irrigation canal and steered clear of the temples and the springs. We didn’t see the famed red monkey, but on the way back to the hotel, we saw a monkey aggressively jump on the back of a pig, riding it for a bit while the pig squealed and ran in terror. Awesome.

Happy Independence Day, India!

India got a shout out from Google today.

Today marks India’s 65th birthday as an independent democratic nation. Here’s the scoop from wikipedia:

The Independence Day of India, celebrated on 15 August, is a holiday commemorating India’s independence from the British rule and its birth as a sovereign nation on 15 August 1947. India achieved independence following the Indian independence movement noted for largely peaceful nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience led by the Indian National Congress. The independence coincided with the partition of India wherein the British Indian Empire was divided along religious lines into two new states—Dominion of India (later Republic of India) and Dominion of Pakistan (later Islamic Republic of Pakistan); the partition was stricken with violent communal riots. The Independence Day is a national holiday in India. The flagship event takes place in Delhi where the Prime Minister hoists the national flag at the Red Fort, followed by a nationally broadcast speech from its ramparts. The day is observed all over India with flag-hoisting ceremonies, parades and cultural events. Citizens rejoice the day by displaying the national flag on their attire, household accessories, vehicles; varied activities such as kite flying, bonding with family and friends, and enjoying patriotic songs and films are seen.

Our elementary school assembly yesterday spotlighted many of India’s symbols, including the peacock, lotus flower, tiger and flag. Know India is a nice website with more information. A student led the school in singing India’s national anthem, “Jana Gana Mana,” a gentle beautiful song written by the late poet Rabindra Nath Tagore. Check out this YouTube video to hear it and read the English translation.

Lots of kite flying and bubble blowing in the ‘hood today. As for me, I’m planning to crash a single ladies pool party for lunch and then head to Zumba class!

Chillin’ at the Dalai Lama’s residence

For the love of Peter Rabbit, as my Nana used to say, why am I still blogging about spring break?! It’s been more than a month.

Well, here’s why: With less than four weeks before we head Stateside for the summer, life is crazy busy. My calendar is packed with the usual stuff in addition to report card writing, physical therapy appointments for my wonky neck, rehearsals for the elementary school play, professional development workshops, summer travel planning, end-of-year social functions, and meetings, meetings, meetings. It seems I rarely have time to think, much less think about what I did over spring break.
Nevertheless, it’s time to wrap it up. So, make those Scooby Doo arm-waving gestures and doodly-doo sounds to take yourself back to April 4.

Theresa and I were hanging out in McLeod Ganj up in the mountain state of Himachal Pradesh.

Walking around town, I kept feeling an odd mash-up of deja vu and country-confusion. I KNEW I was in northern India, of course, but I kept seeing people, architecture, clothing and food reminiscent of my visit to Tibet in 2009, as well as market stalls stocked with Chinese-made souvenirs like so many I had seen and purchased while living in Shanghai. Sometimes I actually had to remind myself: You are in India, dummy.

The town has a distinctly Tibetan vibe because it is home to the Dalai Lama, Buddhist spiritual leader and, until recently, political leader of the Tibetan government-in-exile. (Last August, the Dalai Lama handed over his political responsibilities to Tibet’s first democratically elected prime minister, Lobsang Sangay.) This excerpt from a BBC profile of the Dalai Lama explains how this Indian town became a Tibetan settlement:

The 14th Dalai Lama was born on 6 July 1935, in a small village just outside the current boundaries of Tibet. His parents, who named him Lhamo Dhondub, were farmers with several other children. When he was two years old, a search party of Buddhist officials recognised him as the reincarnation of the 13 previous Dalai Lamas and he was enthroned before he turned four. He was educated at a monastery and went on to achieve the Geshe Lharampa Degree, a doctorate of Buddhist philosophy. But in 1950, when he was 15, the troops of Mao Tse-tung’s newly-installed Communist government marched into Tibet. As soldiers poured into the country, the Dalai Lama – his title means Ocean of Wisdom – assumed full power as head of state. In May 1951, China drew up a 17-point agreement legitimising Tibet’s incorporation into China. When Tibetans took to the streets in 1959 demanding an end to Chinese rule, troops crushed the revolt and thousands of protesters were killed. The Dalai Lama fled to India on foot and settled in Dharamsala, in the north of the country, which is now home to the Tibetan government-in-exile. He was followed into exile by about 80,000 Tibetans, most of whom settled in the same area.

The Dalai Lama’s residence and Tsug Lakhang Temple are simple and unassuming, painted mustard yellow. White sails rise up from the temple, similar to those at the Denver airport, providing cover but plenty of natural light. Wooden platforms with sliding handrests and knee pads lined the area in front of the Buddha shrine for prostrating pilgrims. I only saw a couple people use them; it seemed to be a quiet day in the temple.




Monks were mending those cushions on the right.

We learned later that the Dalai Lama had been teaching at a nearby monastery. One of my colleagues, Sue, had tickets to hear him speak, but she said the audience was too thick to see him and the FM radio that was supposed to transmit his talk in English malfunctioned. Still, she said she enjoyed his soothing voice, even if she couldn’t understand the words. We regretted not doing our homework and thus missing his talk, but then again, I’m not a fan of crowds.

A sign next the prayers wheels.


Multi-generational blessings.

Theresa gets in on the prayer wheel action.

A monk was lighting candles in this small sanctuary.

After turning all the prayer wheels in the temple, we headed outside to the “kora,” the circumambulation path. Buddhists walk the path clockwise in meditation. Trees along the path were draped with prayer flags, and other visitors had left colorful flat stones painted with Buddhist mantras. Benefactors funded sections of prayer wheels, marked with plaques explaining the blessings. The most common mantra was “om mani padme hum,” which calls forth blessings from the god of compassion. To learn more about the mantra, visit this excellent website: Om Mani Padme Hum – the Meaning of the Mantra in Tibetan Buddhism.

Cows numbered among the pilgrims on the path. Theresa tried to pose with them, but one poked her in the belly with its horn.

I made a little movie so you could take a virtual walk on the kora! I love practicing yoga to the music of Deva Premal, and this recording of her chanting Om Mani Padme Hum is one of my favorites.

If you want to know more about the Dalai Lama, check out his website: His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet.

Our first train trip in India!

Months ago, Tony and I had seen Amritsar, India, on a travel show and were entranced. We decided to check it out ourselves over the long weekend following Thanksgiving. With four fellow teachers in tow, we boarded the train at the New Delhi station early last Friday morning.

Jan and Tony at the station. (We worked with Jan in Shanghai, and here we are together again at AES!)

Visualizing news footage of Indian trains with passengers pouring out of the windows and piled high with people on the roof, our expectations were low, to say the least. We were pleased to find comfortable seats with plenty of legroom, a bathroom that was clean and stocked with toilet paper and soap, and food service surpassing that of U.S. domestic airlines (which doesn’t say much, I know). We received large bottles of water, tea, cornflakes (with hot milk!), bread with butter and jam, and a hot meal made of something unfamiliar but tasty. Later I learned the prime minister’s wife was onboard, which may explain the impeccable service.

Tony, who usually stuffs his 6-foot frame into tiny airline seats with an outpouring of cranky comments, kept saying, “I LOVE the train. Where else can we go by train?” After six hours, our love for the train was a bit less passionate, but it was certainly much, much better than we had anticipated.