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Spring Break Part 1: NESA and Istanbul

Still catching up … geez.

I got an early start on Spring Break with a trip to Istanbul in mid-March for the NESA Spring Educator’s Conference, where I participated in a 5-day certification course in Adaptive Schools. The workshop focused on developing collaborative teams, a big part of my job as an English as an Additional Language coordinator at my school. On the first day, I realized right away how desperately I wanted to develop my skillset in coaching, facilitating meetings, dealing with conflict, and otherwise fostering a culture of collaboration at our school. AES sent a big group to the workshop, so we were able to debrief and reflect together. This was among the best professional development I have ever experienced, and our workshop leaders Bob Garmstrom and Carolyn McKanders illuminated me about the power of individuals on collaborative teams. I worry that the fast pace of school life back in Delhi has kept me from practicing what I learned, but I hope to kick off the school year in August with a more deliberate approach with my Adaptive Schools book in hand.

Here, Bob breaks a board with his hand in response to AES teacher Susan’s demonstration of taekwondo.
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For its banquet theme one night, NESA encouraged everyone to wear a fun hat. Our AES group honored our school mascot by wearing tiger hats. We looked pretty fierce.
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One highlight of these international conferences is that you inevitably run into old friends from previous schools. I was thrilled to spend a little time with Sarah, a BFF from Shanghai American School who now works in Dubai.
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Of course, Istanbul wasn’t all about professional growth. We lived there from 2001-2005, and it’s our favorite city in the world. Unfortunately, Tony was off in Rajasthan with a group of students, so he couldn’t join me for this visit. However, I caught up with two special friends – Tracey and Ece. I enjoyed a glass of tea on the ferry from Europe to Asia, where I met Tracey in Kadiköy. We went for a walk around our old stomping grounds in Moda, and she introduced me to Çiya Sofrasi, a restaurant I had read about in the New Yorker. The food was dreamy, including a weird dessert of candied whole walnuts – in the shell – with clotted cream. After dinner, we took a dolmus (small bus) back to her apartment so I could meet her adorable little son, Zach. Our time together passed too quickly.
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Ece, another dear friend from our days in Turkey, met me for lunch in another favorite destination: Bagdat Cadessi. We spent the afternoon together, and she drove me back across the Bosphorus – magical in the misty rain – to my hotel on the European side. The daughter of an Army officer, she had access to an “orduevi” or military house, which was right next to my hotel and featured a bar with a view of the city. We had a drink in the bar and then headed down to the restaurant for kebabs. Effervescent as always, Ece brought me up to date with her goings on and the disheartening state of Turkish politics. We reminisced about old times and speculated about the future. My life is richer with her in it.
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During the week, I devoured all my favorite Turkish treats: dolma midye (stuffed mussels), mezes (small servings of hot and cold salads), simit (sesame seed-coated bagel-ish bread), beyaz peynir (cheese), olives, Iskendar kebab, visne suyu (cherry juice), locum (Turkish delight), sahlep (a hot drink made from the orchid tuber), döner sandwiches … well, the list goes on.
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Hanging out at the durum stands. The guy making the peace sign was our sandwich maker.
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I introduced some of my Delhi friends to Huseyin, my favorite carpet seller, who has shops in and near the Arasta Bazaar. Here, we sip tea and check out the carpets at Harem 49. I had no plans to purchase anything, but isn’t it always that way?
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Here’s my new kilim.
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Surajkund Mela 2015

Still catching up…

The Surajkund Mela, a sprawling arts and crafts bazaar on the outskirts of Delhi, takes place the first two weeks of February and spotlights a different state in India every year. The heavily forested state of Chhattisgarh in central India took the spotlight this year. Nancy and I visited the mela on its last day – Valentine’s Day (which was heavily promoted at the local markets). The venue always features over-the-top displays, and this year was no different. The Santa section was a bit confusing, and we didn’t really understand why a group of male dancers wore hats of gold tinsel. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned in India it’s that we’ll never understand it all. We chuckled about how we never would have dreamed of eating food at this mela our first year in India, and then we plopped down on a fly-covered bench to gnosh on a plate of yumminess.

There’s nothing subtle about Valentine’s Day in India.
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Surajkund Mela
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Lunch. Not sure what it was, but we liked it!
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I bought this embroidered umbrella to add a little Indian spice to the deck of our lake house in Michigan.
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Bangkok dejá vu times two

Still playing catch-up…

I heeded the siren’s call of Bangkok twice this spring: both for medical reasons and just for fun. Many international teachers, including the Dents, visit Bumrungrad International Hospital in Bangkok for their annual check-ups and other health concerns. In fact, Tony and I were just there in November. When I heard a group of friends were planning a medical weekend at the end of February, I jumped on board. I spent two weeks with this group in Washington, D.C., last May, waiting for our new Indian visas so we could return to Delhi. The experience was stressful but bonding. How could I resist a get-away to relive those memories and create new ones? There was plenty of street food, shopping and laughter. Three big reasons to visit Bangkok. And so, I did it again at the end of April. This time, a different group of ladies was celebrating the impending nuptials of of our friend, Kathryn. I arrived a day early to visit Bumrungrad. Three doctors, two ultrasounds, an X-ray and an MRI later, I found out some good news but also some bad news: I probably need foot surgery. Rats! When the rest of the ladies showed up, we crashed at a cute little guesthouse and ate our way through the city. A fun night of bachelorette party silliness and dancing was followed by two hours of pampering at the Health Land spa (oh, yeah, we did that the day before, too). Man, I love this city.

BKK Visit 1 – streetfood breakfast. I wanted to cry from joy.
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BKK Visit 1 – Karen catches a motorcycle taxi to the hospital.
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BKK Visit 2 – Ready to hit the town in our matching tank tops spray painted with Kathryn’s initials in English and Hindi.
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BKK Visit 2 – At the spa-aaaaah.
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Ajloun Castle & Jerash – Jordan Journey, Day 11

After a day of doing absolutely nothing in hopes Tony would get over his cough (he didn’t), we decided to storm the castle. George took us north to Ajloun, where the rocky landscape of Amman gave way to … well, more rocks, but also rolling hills of patchwork farms, olive groves and forests. He said the area was a popular hiking and picnicking destination for locals, especially in the spring when wildflowers bloom. Today was cloudy and chilly, perfect weather for exploring a 12th-century castle on the top of a mountain.

Ajloun Castle sits on a hill called Jabal Auf, offering a 360-degree view of the surrounding countryside. Construction started in 1184 on the site of an old monastery, and the castle was expanded and rebuilt through the 1200s. The castle was one in a chain of fortresses that used pigeon post, which could send a message from Damascus to Cairo in one day, according to the Lonely Planet guide to Ajloun. After the crusader threat subsided, the castle was used by Mongols, Mamluks, Ottomans and eventually local villagers. Remember the Swiss explorer, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, the guy who “discovered” Petra for the western world? Well, it turns out he also “discovered” Ajloun Castle!
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We found a stash of catapult balls and saw the gap where castle dwellers would dump boiling oil on invaders.
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Leaving the castle, I bought some tea from this man, mainly because his teapots were so freakin’ beautiful.
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After lunch, George drove us to Jerash. I knew this was the site of ancient ruins, but again my poor preparation for this trip served us well. We walked through the impressive Hadrian’s Gate and the small Hippodrome feeling somewhat blasé.
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I mean, how many Hippodromes can a girl see and still get excited?
“This is where they raced the hippos,” Tony said. We were still giggling when we crested a hill and saw this.
What the WHAT??!!
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That photo doesn’t even begin to capture the sight. We were standing in the middle of a 2,000-year-old Roman city, and it was easy to imagine it full of life back when it was called Gerasa by its 20,000 residents. We strolled through the plazas and up the colonnaded streets, climbed into the nosebleed section of the gorgeously intact theatre, channeled the excitement of ancient worshippers at the Temple of Artemis, marveled at the infrastructure (including old manhole covers leading to the underground sewer system), lost count of the Byzantine churches, and desperately tried to wrap our heads around the history of this city.

Founded around 170 BC in the fertile mountains east of the Jordan River, Jerash experienced its ups and downs under the Romans, Byzantines and Muslims until an earthquake in 749 wreaked havoc, leaving the city deserted for about 1,000 years. A group of European explorers, including – you guessed it, Burckhardt! – visited the ruins at the beginning of the 19th century, and archaeologists have continued to study the area ever since. Check out the Rough Guide to Jerash for more details.

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Why travel?

“This is what it’s all about,” I thought to myself as I stared out the window of our 787-8 Dreamliner. I had never seen anything like it. At first, I thought it was sky. Hazy, pewter sky. Then I spotted a boat and realized we were buzzing the Persian Gulf. Soon, swirly barren islands created a paisley pattern in the water, and clustered buildings rose like a sandcastle city from the sea. Beyond the city, the pale desert stretched to the horizon.

My crankiness over the impending layover in Qatar immediately subsided as we approached the airport. I kept smacking Tony’s arm and pulling him away from his movie to witness the weirdness. “That is surreal,” he said, leaning over me to peer out the window at Doha. It reminded me of our trip to the Grand Canyon on our honeymoon, hushed visits to the underground cistern in Istanbul, hikes on the Great Wall of China, our first time attending a baci ceremony in Laos, or participating in the lavish wedding of our Indian landlord’s daughter in Delhi.

And, again, I thought, “This is what it’s all about.” The uncomfortable hours crammed in tiny airline seats, the jetlag, the expense, the inevitable tummy issues, the mind-boggling layers of planning, the currency conversion confusion, the sleep deprivation, the omnipresent risk of cultural faux pas, the exhaustion. However, the minute we see something for the first time, learn something fascinating, eat something we hadn’t tasted before, or meet someone with a unique story, it’s all worth it.

We chose this lifestyle for many reasons, but living abroad can be tedious. Errands that would be simple back home take longer and involve several steps -and often many missteps. The fascination of your host country can pale in the blinding frustration of daily life. (Yes, there’s an elephant blocking my parking space. That’s wacky and totally worth at least a tweet, but the fact is, I need to park my car, so now what do I do?) Sometimes I worry I’m getting lazy as a traveler. When Bangkok is your go-to city for an easy laid-back long weekend, where do you go from there?

The sight of Doha from the sky probably doesn’t impress people who have traveled in the Middle East, but for Tony and me, it was that moment as a traveler when your heart speeds up and you can’t think of words to describe what you’re feeling so you keep muttering, “Crazy.” Once we landed and discovered our connecting flight to Jordan had been delayed, my euphoria faded.

But it’s nice to get a reminder now and then of what it’s all about.

Devil’s Circuit – down and dirty in Delhi

October 12, 2014

Last year, an adventurous group of AES teachers participated in a local mud run. I asked if they passed out Z-packs at the end of the race and joked that the free beer should include a shot of hepatitis vaccine. I mean, Delhi is a dirty city in the best of times. We take off our shoes when we come in the house. We rinse off our feet if we step in puddles. Do I really want to intentionally roll around in Delhi mud? Then … an email announcing this year’s event appeared in my mailbox, and this time I couldn’t control my hyperactive FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). Before I knew it, I had sent a “reply all” adding my name to the list of participants.

Today was the day. The Devil’s Circuit.

With an eye on the “best costume” prize, our leader and first-grade teacher, Kate, urged us all to dress in school colors or otherwise promote the AES Tigers. She had tiger tails and hats made for us. I wore knee-length yellow and white socks (which were yellow no more within minutes), an AES “Game Day” T-shirt, my tail and tiger hat. Middle school drama teacher Beth brought the face paint and managed to decorate much of our crew despite the bumpy bus ride.

Clint got a very scary tiger mask made.
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After a very long bus ride, we arrived at Wave City, where the sign reads, “Welcome to the city that thinks for you.” Here’s the scoop from the Wave City website:

Wave City is one of India’s largest Smart Cities, which is spread across an impressive 4500 acres. It is built on the Smart City concept by IBM. World renowned AECOM is its Town planner & Landscape designer. Wave City is constructed keeping in mind contemporary design and new–age architecture. With the luxury of open spaces and modern designs, this city ensures a pampered, secure and luxurious lifestyle. It boasts of more than 750 acres of green spaces, wide roads & congestion-free BRT network for smooth traffic flow, mechanized garbage control systems, fiber optic connectivity for each resident, 24×7 security systems, healthcare provisions including hospitals, medical university, ISKCON Temple, educational institutions, local shopping centers, malls and multiplexes – among many other facilities. It is a city full of vigor and vitality, which makes it the perfect place to enjoy a comfortable, convenient and uncluttered lifestyle.

Ummm… right. We didn’t see much “vigor and vitality.” But there was tilled parched earth as far as the eye could see with an occasional little park and clusters of concrete buildings. Lots of signs promoted communities of the future, such as Greenwood Enclave. It’s hard to imagine any enclave here being green or woody. For some reason, roadblocks prevented our bus from using the marked route to the Devil’s Circuit. We actually went off road, rocking and bumping on a pitted dirt path, to reach the race.

This sign cracks me up! That “sample built-up” ain’t gonna happen.
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tails

Right off the bat, we slogged through thick slippery mud, climbing over or ducking under hurdles. I skipped quite a few of the obstacles, particularly those that predictably plopped competitors into a mud pit. However, I did conquer a few, including:
* hopping across wooden poles stuck upright in the mud,
* climbing a wall and rappelling down the back,
* scurrying up, over and down a rope spider web arch,
* pulling myself out of a deep pit with mud up to my shins,
* scooting across a beam stretched over a mud pit while holding hands with my friend Beth, who was doing the same on a parallel beam, and
* carrying a sand bag from point A to point B (I dumped out about half the sand … shhh.).

Wow, I’m racking my brain and I can’t think of any more. I started to tackle the monkey bars, but the bars were too big and wet to grip, so I quickly gave up. I managed to stay dry from the knees up until we came to the last obstacle. There we had to lie down face-up in a muddy trench and use the chain link fence covering the opening to pull ourselves through the water to the exit. We emerged completely soaked and muddy. The finish line included a tank of icy cold water. We climbed out, shook our tails for the cameras and then claimed our participation medals. As the only group in costumes, we also won the costume contest!

Brave Tami!
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Kate and Kathryn came up with a creative way to get across the pit, so Beth and I followed suit.
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More pics.
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The Devil’s Circuit Facebook Page featured this shot of us as their banner for a few days. Pretty hilarious!
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Summer Flashback: Jack turns 1!

A few friends and family members gathered at Kate’s house July 7 to celebrate the first birthday of my littlest Jimenez nephew – Jack.
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His brothers, cousins and neighborhood friends decorated cupcakes. Big brother Paul created a cupcake mutant, while cousin Emma went with a more conventional creation.
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Jack didn’t give us the messy frosting explosion we have come to expect at first birthdays. In fact, he barely acknowledged his cute gluten-free cupcake.
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Instead, we got our messy explosion every time Jack ate watermelon this summer as evidenced here (a couple weeks before his birthday).

Watermelon Jack from Sharon Dent on Vimeo.

In Kate’s family, little boys get their first haircut when they turn one, so it was Jack’s turn! It also provided an opportunity for him to have his first lollipop. The rainbow-haired young beautician was patient and sweet with our little lovebug.
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Such a handsome big boy!
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Goan fisherman steal the show on ‘dolphin trip’

Early Friday morning, a longboat arrived at the beach in front of our bungalow. Similar to a large canoe, it featured an outboard motor and a wooden outrigger cobbled together with yellow rope. Marianna and I waded through the water to climb into the boat, and sat while the older fisherman and his young assistant remained in the water waiting for a break in the waves before pushing the boat back out to sea for our “dolphin trip.”

We motored to the edge of the bay, occasionally pausing to scan the sea for dolphins. A few fins surfaced. An arched back, a flip of a tail. Maybe five dolphins in all, including a baby. After the excitement of our dolphin encounter in the Maldives last year, this was rather anticlimactic.

Our captain maneuvered his little craft toward a larger boat, where men were hauling in a huge red net jumping with sardines. About ten skinny workers clad in underpants and tank tops clustered at the stern, pulling the net hand-over-hand, their upper bodies bowing jerkily up and down, brown legs tensing with the effort. They sang as they worked, a repetitive chorus in response to a leader’s verse. Our boatmen chuckled, and the younger man noted how singing makes work easier. I almost asked what the song meant, but I worried the lyrics might be embarrassing to translate. Instead, I asked how long it would take to finish the job. About one and a half hours, he replied.

As the song continued, empty net piled at the fishermen’s feet and captive fish were forced into the remaining space at the sea’s surface. Trapped, the sardines leapt and splashed, some catapulting out of the net and back to freedom, some flipping into the claws of swooping brahminy kites. The brown-and-white birds circled the boat, stealing frantic fish – both at sea level and in the air. Near collisions and threatening shrieks resulted in surrender, fish falling from loosened claws, snatched from the sky by the aggressor.

I hadn’t brought my camera on our brief excursion, but the image would have made a brilliant photo. The paint-peeling fishing boat, bobbing in a jade sea, dark bodies bent over crimson nets, small orange buoys evenly spaced along the net’s edge floating amorphously around the boat, a blazing neon sun rising over the forested hills that jut up from the beach, and birds of prey suspended like a mobile overhead.

Here’s a photo of a brahminy kite taken by Johan Stenlund and posted on his website, Birds in India/Goa. Now imagine scores of them circling the fishing boat!
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Here’s a photo of a fishing boat at our beach, similar to the one that took us on our “dolphin trip.”
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Gotta love a gala: Korean National Ballet’s Gala in India

Korean children comprise about 30 percent of our elementary school’s student population, and quite a few of them study English as an additional language with me. They were excited to hear that Tony and I will travel to Korea for Christmas this year, and one little girl even made a one-page Korean phrasebook for me. At a parent-teacher conference for one of my students last week, I received a ticket to the Korean National Ballet’s Gala in India.

To celebrate 40 years of diplomatic relations between Korea and India, Korea sent its most famous orchestra, ballet and martial art troupes to tour India this year. What a treat to see the ballet with my friend Nancy and new friend Elizabeth.

At the Siri Fort Auditorium Sunday night, a cranky Korean lady stormed down the aisle shouting, “This section for LG employee only! If you don’t LG employee, please move your seat!” Some people sheepishly got up, but we stayed put. We had been told to sit there by an usher, and by then, the auditorium had filled. We didn’t get to the venue an hour early for nothing! Approached again by the seat police, Elizabeth brazenly uttered, “Embassy,” and that was it. We were cool. (Elizabeth’s husband works for the Embassy of Denmark, so it wasn’t a total lie.)

Dancers performed scenes from “Prince Hodong,” a Korean legend about nation, war, love, betrayal and death; “Don Quixote,” in which the ballerina coyly waved her fan and turned 32 times; “La Bayadere,” a story of love and betrayal set in an Indian temple; and “Giselle” with its “willis” – “mysterious creatures, conveyers of the ideal; the illusion of their immateriality is accentuated by the ethereal tutus, the slow fluid gestures and the use of points.”

(Full disclosure from pathetically uninformed ballet plebes: Nancy and I couldn’t figure out what the emcee was saying when she referred to the “willis.” We thought she was having language-interference pronunciation issues. When a dancer emerged holding an armful of flowers, I leaned over to Nancy and said, “Ohhhh… LILIES!” and we barely stifled our snickers. It wasn’t until I read the program later that night that I realized the ghostly characters were called “willis.”)

Although the emcee encouraged people to cheer and whistle for impressive dance moves, I still found the performances beautiful and evocative. I also appreciated how many Korean families brought their children – girls and boys – to see the show. Sitting in the LG section, I shouldn’t have been surprised at how many people filmed and photographed the gala (despite the emcee’s stern order to turn off our phones). I finally decided, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. But I only snapped a few shots during the curtain call.

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May these events galvanize the spirit of friendship between our two peoples, helping our two countries become each other’s best friend in the days to come.” – Korean Ambassador Joon-gyu Lee