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Welcome to Flora's journal! My India-related posts are public. A very few of the more personal posts in this journal are "friends-only," not published to the whole Intarwebz. If you would like to read those parts of my journal, please leave a comment on this entry telling me how you know me. Comments on this post are hidden from everyone but me.

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Thanks for reading!
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Greetings! Flora here.

I've decided to try blogging about work-related stuff. So the public entries on this blog in the near future will focus more on software requirements and usability, with tangents into geek culture.  I will still keep my cooking blog over on LiveJournal; head there for any recipes.  My public info is public, so feel free to link. If you re-use any material, I'll be flattered; please attribute it to Flora Black and link back to the original post.  Unless I've stated to share, please kindly ask for permission first before quoting anything that's Friends-locked.  I'm reasonable.

India: My public blog about living in rural India is moving to a new DreamWidth blog, [personal profile] visnagar_memories.  Please update any links.

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Five million people named Patel came together for a six-day festival at the nearby temple and town of Unjha. We joined them in celebrating Patel progress and culture.

Every few decades, the Patidar caste has a huge gathering. The last one was in 1976. Patels are historically businessmen and farmers. In Gujarat, well over half the population are members of the various Patel sub-castes. The festival helps raise money for various educational foundations. But mainly, it's about religion and Patel pride.

Seven of us--Hiren and Chandrika and their kids--piled into Alkesh's car and braved the crazy traffic around the fair. Dozens of jam-packed buses zoomed around us, shuttling people back and forth from the surrunding towns. Many additional people rode on the roofs of the buses, holding on and cheering. The festival-goers needed all the transportation they could get; most people here don't have private cars. Those people who are lucky enough to own their own vehicles usually have motorcycles instead. The parking lots were filled with motorbikes as far as we could see; Michael said the number of motorcycles was more than the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in North Dakota. Alkesh parked in one of the relatively few automobile lots and we joined the throngs of people.
Photo of a huge motorcycle parking lot, lit up with carnival lights

The sheer numbers were daunting, but the festival had good logistical management. Barriers herded people into queues, with artfully decorated solid walls to stop people ducking under. Brightly colored cloth covered the ground everywhere, keeping the dust down. For once, manure was not a problem; guards and fences kept the cows out of the main areas. Litter control was rather lacking, however.  We shuffled our way through mini-snowdrifts of discarded plastic cups around the overflowing dust-bins.

Superficially, the festival is similar to a big state fair. There's a combination of amusement-park rides and educational exhibitions. There's also a lot of shopping; all the various industries are represented. Everyone who is anyone is there. So Toyota and Tata motors showed off their gleaming new cars. Energy companies displayed new CFL light-bulbs. We even saw a vendor selling cotton candy (pure-veg, of course).  I wanted to see the agricultural exhibits, but it was late and most of the exhibits had closed. One of the few open booths was sponsoring a campaign against the worldwide eating of beef. They tried to single us out and ask us to sign a petition. We declined.

Unlike US fairs, this festival had a very strong underlying religious aspect. The temple at the center of the fair is a major part of the devotions. Chandrika, Hiren's wife, had joined the tens of thousands who walked 25 kilometers to the temple at Unjha, leaving at moonrise and arriving in the early morning.

Painting of Krishna coming down from heaven to the farmers below

A series of life-size dioramas and paintings showed how Patels had progressed through the centuries, from small farming villages to modern times. Mixing history with religion, many scenes showed scenes from the Mahabharata and (I think) how Lord Krishna had ridden down from heaven on an elephant and blessed the Patel clan. With the gods' help, the farmers evolved, using better technology, and Patels moved into other industries. The last panel featured the modern, global Patel businessman, standing by the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower to symbolize the worldwide Indian disapora.
 
Several old pictures, showing an elderly woman in tribal dress, and village life

Our favorite part was a display of old black-and-white photographs. They showed historic Gujarati life in villages, with traditional farming methods and ethnic costumes. We couldn't read the dates, but it was nice to see those windows into Gujarat's past. That was a very small part of the festival. The recurring theme showed the past as an afterthought, to contrast with how far they've come and how modern they are now. America is such a young country; we have so little history when compared to India. It's great that Indians are proud of their progress, but they have such a rich heritage, too.
flora: Stylized Indian national flag (india)
Lovebirds and elephants are romantic. But it's great to discover a city with new friends.

We explored the sights, smells, touches, and tastes of Pondicherry--with other Americans! The Fulbright conference wisely gave us some free time in the evenings.  We spent some of the time with another Computer Science lecturer, Clif, and Clif's family--his wife Lane, and their two children. It was delightful to get to know them.  We had an early dinner together with them at a delicious, Italian-style wood fired pizzeria (justly recommended by their guidebook).  We tasted real cheese pizza with tangy tomato sauce and Italian spices. Lane and I commiserated with each other. Lane isn't working; she's been busy being a mom and studying a bit of programming. Their family had originally thought of applying for South Korea, but they're managing okay in Kerala. They're also in an urban area, so it's a bit more exciting there than in rural Gujarat.

Pondicherry was French colonial, unlike most of the rest of India which was British.  The street signs are still bilingual, in French and Tamil. There are little touches of France here and there, like the painted ceramic tiles giving address numbers. The people are definitely Indian though.
An antique store with a sand painting on its doorstep
We admired an elegant sand painting on a doorstep, and followed over the threshold into a lovely little antique store. Michael bought an inexpensive bell that had once hung in a temple.
We also wandered the major city park. The kids played in the playgrounds. Michael and I explored the tropical flowers in the elaborately planted flowerbeds. I picked up a fragrant white temple-flower blossom that had fallen on the sidewalk and put it in my hair temporarily until I could find some jasmine.

We strolled along the promenade, by the rocky beach on the Indian ocean. On the beach, I made out with a parrot.
Lane holding the parrot
The green "fortune-telling" lovebirds, and their handlers, cater to tourists. They normally pick out a little rolled-up scroll with the customer's future, like an interactive fortune cookie. This time, the bird's trainer invited me to let it perch on my finger. From there, the parrot clambered all over me, chirruping and squawking. It climbed all around my shoulders and head and hair, lightly nibbling and tasting me with its tongue the whole time. It probably enjoyed the dried salt from my sweaty walk on the beach. It tickled me as it nibbled its way up my neck and over my face to my mouth. And there it just stayed, chirping and lightly chewing at my lips and teeth. This lovebird was kissing me!  French kissing!  The bird was evidently enjoying it too. I couldn't stop laughing, and it wouldn't stop kissing me. So I kissed back, with my husband looking on and grinning as he snapped pictures [he hasn't uploaded his pictures of me, so here's one of Lane instead; I'll replace it when I can]. We quickly attracted a crowd. After maybe five minutes of parrot mouth-to-mouth, I coaxed it back on my fingers and handed it back to the trainer. Still laughing, we thanked him and gave him a 100-rupee note.  That was totally worth it.

Michael and I also embraced an elephant. The major Hindu temple there has its own elephant. People buy the elephant grass or a length of sugar-cane and feed it, and the elephant blesses them in return by tapping them on the head with its trunk. Lane and Clif had been the night before, and they watched our bags while we fed the elephant. It grabbed the food straight out of our hands; I don't think it actually patted our heads, but we definitely patted it. The prehensile trunk is surprisingly strong and muscular. It snatched the food before we could get many pictures. It was friendly, though, so I hugged its legs: sort of like a big, dry, rubbery tree trunk.
Women at the Puducherry fish market

On Wednesday, we toured the large fish-market and flower-market.  The fish market smells of fresh fish. Unlike Visnagar's open-air markets, the Pondicherry bazaar is indoors and open well past sunset. We ducked in between a couple shops, and found ourselves in a warren of little market-stalls underneath the buildings. The area is well-illuminated with big fluorescent lights. Our new friend, Lane, had been there the night before. She navigated us through the maze of sellers with ease, steering her children (and us) in the right direction. There were women hacking heads off fresh fish, merchants and carts with vegetable-wallahs, and smaller shops selling kids clothing or saris. There were more vendors in a single room in that market than the whole street full of vegetable-sellers in Visnagar. And that wasn't the half of it.\
Flower market
Our ultimate destination was the huge flower-market, on the other side of the bazaar.  We smelled the giant garlands of marigolds and roses before we saw them. They're used for weddings, and for decorating temples and shrines. I wanted some jasmine, the fragrant white flowers that South Indian women wear in their hair. There were numerous vendors; I bought a long strand of fresh jasmine from a woman who strung them while I watched. I clipped them to my barrette. Our friends needed to get back and put their kids to bed, so all six of us crammed into a single auto-rickshaw and held on all the way back to the hotel. I stashed my jasmine flowers in the mini-bar fridge, where they kept nice and fresh for the Thanksgiving banquet the next night. Jasmine is a wonderful smell.
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It was great to meet the other Indian Fulbrighters and their families at the Fulbright conference.

The Indian Fulbright conference takes place every Thanksgiving weekend. The US-India Educational Foundation (USIEF) sponsors it for people who are in India for the fall semester. Many Fulbright India grants are for the spring, and there's another, larger South Asian conference then. These conferences are a mix of bright, creative students, scholars, and schoolteachers. And a few dependents, like me.

The people came from very diverse backgrounds and life stages. For example, a panel on "Being a Cultural Ambassador" included the following: A dynamic mid-fifties widow, traveling to schools around India, lecturing on strategies for teaching blind and visually-impaired students. An Indian-American art scholar with a six-month-old child, documenting the Chennai art museum's formation of Indian cultural identity. A fortysomething Haitian immigrant and science teacher; her late-teenage son has brown skin that often lets him pass for Indian. A bright, recent college graduate of East Asian descent, teaching English in a Delhi government school. And the lone (first-ever) Fulbright scholar to Bhutan, an Oklahoman professor studying tobacco policy and also happening to be the highest official American presence in that country.

I only attended one presentation session. There were a couple different tracks, and it was well-organized so the technical topics were grouped together. Michael led off with his presentation, telling how he's inserted critical design thinking into the Indian examination-based system that rewards rote memorization. Another participant described the growing Indian biotech industry, and how it's being limited by a severe lack of venture capital; he's now working with the government to try to create something like an Indian NIH. Another scholar, one of the other two computer science professors, gave a very interesting talk on how he had adapted a chemistry-based peer learning approach. He is also teaching students to contribute to Free and Open-Source Software. I asked him how they felt working in the FOSS community, since sometimes open-source can be rather insular and male-American-dominant. He replied that like India, there is a huge diversity in open-source software projects; you just have to find the right community. I agreed, and mentioned DreamWidth (the very blog I'm writing this on), as one such safe place.

The best part of the conference was talking one-on-one with the other people. They're very bright people doing fascinating work. Nora, the teacher for blind students, described the astonished reactions when she tells of Jacob Bolotin, the blind, American heart/lung doctor--in 1912. And Kim, a biology teacher on a teacher-exchange, described how she challenges her students to find their intelligence among the eight different types of intelligence. She also spoke of some of the economic struggles in her rural Oregon hometown, which echo the tribulations of my childhood town in rural Michigan. We also chatted at length with the Bhutan scholar, who is as nice as he is interesting; we had a great speculative discussion ranging from Bhuddist causality in economic systems to science fiction to modern Middle East politics.

We also traded stories of gender experiences in India. One woman, a feminist scholar in Delhi, was passionately fired up about the "Eve-teasing" problems there. Another, a young mother, had colleagues who felt she was neglecting her child (who was with his father during the day). I shared my surprise at the numerous stay-at-home faculty moms in north Gujarat, who have the same engineering degrees as their husbands but never use them. Yet another mentioned how she had invited the professors from her institution over to drink a toast to her late father-in-law when he passed away. None of them showed up, and they apologized the next day that men do not drink alcohol in front of women. Overall, it sounds like there's somewhat more gender equality in South India and the cities. It's still a far cry from America.

I talked with some of the other dependents, too. There were several families with elementary-age children or younger. A handful of us spouses/partners are working. One is working for the Clinton Foundation; she's helping clinics reduce mother-to-child AIDS transmission from 50% to 1% with the right drugs. Another is a computer engineer, working at IBM in Bangalore. A few other spouses, who are also faculty on their sabbaticals, are working on grant proposals. One or two moms volunteer at their children's schools or just deal with running the household.

Michael and I knew that living in our small town was better than we'd expected. Now, talking with others, we really appreciate Visnagar and the college. USIEF likes sending people to small towns, because they'll be appreciated there and well cared-for. Many of the researchers who went to big cities had to struggle with day-to-day problems; they were put in moldy living quarters, or their host institutions didn't give them an office for two months. Some of the students just go home at night and hole up in their dorm rooms; they're totally missing the broader experience of living here. The more mature people are better able to deal with the idiosyncracies of Indian life. That group includes Michael and me, though we're barely in our 30s. I think it helps to have the right attitude, of going out and embracing another culture.

In between meals, I teleworked from the hotel room. Most of it was offline; the Internet access cost 100 rupees an hour, and it was down for a couple days. I was especially productive Thanksgiving day, when almost everyone else went off to visit a temple. It's not very exciting to write formatting requirements for reports, but it beats spending four hours on a bus; I'm about done with long over-land travel. Michael went, and he said it was nice but not worth the long bus ride.

We enjoyed Pondicherry in the evenings. That'll be a separate blog entry when I can link to pictures.

Thanksgiving day ended with a banquet and dance. We went to a different hotel, with a rocky beach by the ocean, with an outdoor dance floor. Michael and I wore traditional Indian dress. I heard several compliments on how handsome Michael looked. Several of us women dresed in saris, though most wore nice salwar kameezes or dresses with knee-length or longer skirts. Most of the men wore Western suit jackets but very few ties. The gay couple were especially handsome in their wedding-fancy kurta pajamas. Everyone mostly stood around and mingled, sipping cocktails and wine, until the food was finally served. Yes, there was turkey, but in a curry sauce. The fish was great though. The dance followed. Nobody danced to the American dance tunes, but almost everyone joined in once they started playing Indian music. I tried some traditional Indian dance moves and apparently kept enough rhythm that Michael didn't recognize me at first, across the dance floor. It was a fun way to wrap up the conference.

By coincidence, this was an auspicious time to have a Fulbright event. Just this week, the Indian overnment signed an agreement with the U.S., to double the number of Fulbright grants to India. The local Deccan newspaper even reported it, and they didn't know we were in town. If you're a teacher or researcher and interested, this is a great year to apply. They haven't increased the publicity much, so your chances of getting in might be better this year (they're currently about one-in-ten for student researchers, and slightly higher for faculty and teachers). They're especially interested in science and technology; nothing in the legislation says so, but it's how the diplomats discussed it. They'll still have plenty of openings for their traditional strengths of English teachers and social/cultural researchers. It's a wonderful experience.
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South Indian mountains are worth seeing. But don't cross the Ghats by car.

We traveled from Wayanad to Pondicherry by car. Wayanad is in Kerala, the western side of India. Pondicherry is on the ocean on the east coast. In between is the south Indian subcontinent. It's divided by a couple mountain ranges, the Eastern and Western Ghats. The roads through the mountains wind their way up the side of the mountain and then back down. They're medium-small, as mountains go. We still found ourselves looking down at clouds rolling through the valleys below.

The tea plantations were gorgeous. Imagine an entire mountainside covered with lush deep-green foliage. The occasional worker adds a dot of contrasting color to the vertical planes of solid green. There were large carrot plantations, too. These are all at steep angles, with some terracing.

Michael was enchanted by a little mountain village. The rows of houses follow the contours of the mountain, like the villages found on mountainsides in Spain and Italy. We got out and walked around a bit. I watched a construction site, where workers shoveled dirt onto a tarp, four people picked up the corners, and they all scrambled up the hillside. The grade would be too steep to use a wheelbarrow, even if they'd had them.

We saw a nice waterfall and rapids area, similar to the Great Falls area in Maryland/DC. A short 1-km path leads down to some rushing waters. The weren't many people on the trail, but we passed by a few Westerners. No Americans, but an Australian couple and another who were speaking German. Several enterprising vendors set up shop at the head of the trail to cater to the tourists. We had a fruit drink, with something that was either frothy sweet-lime or frothy orange juice, squeezed and frothed right in front of us. I also noshed on a big bunch of chunky orange carrots (washed in mineral water). They were sweet, and amazingly fresh, since they had been in the ground that morning.

We also saw the botanical garden, planted in the nineteenth century. November is the off-season, so the tickets were at a deep discount--even the non-Indian price. Most of the flowers weren't blooming, but there were still some lovely flowers. The topiary was worth seeing too; there were hedges sculpted into squirrels, elephants, and mice. We wasted half an hour trying to get lunch in the town, but left the seedy hotel restaurant after seeing their hygiene standards. Probably a good thing; the service matched the quality, and they had been out of nearly everything on the menu. I went to the shop next door and bought some Lay's potato chips to eat instead.

We traveled through some dense rain forests. The moisture hits the mountains and falls as rain. The rain stays mostly on the western side of the Ghats. That area is supposedly one of the most ecologically diverse areas in Asia. For us, the mostly-nocturnal wildlife was still sleeping, so we didn't see many animals other than monkeys. We passed through a Eucalyptus plantation too; I wonder if there are Indian koalas? It rained for a few hours; not a hard rain but a softer, steady rain. The rain was refreshing to us, because it helped cut the heat.

We didn't know it, but the rain had washed out several roads that weekend. So we went up, and back down, at least three extra mountains. Each mountain takes at least an hour to traverse. There are winding roads that zig-zag back and forth across the mountainside, around some perilously tight bends at the top, then zig-zagging back down. The rain had raised the creek levels. Our trusty little Indigo car forded a couple creeks, mocking the larger vehicles stuck by the side of the road.

That night we pushed on through Tamil Nadu. In Kerala, we'd seen many signs in English. In Tamil Nadu, everything is in Tamil. The Tamil script is not Devanagari; it's a bunch of loop-de-loops that reminds me of Korean. Our limited Hindi was useless there. We ate supper at a hotel; some delicious ginger fish, and South Indian buttermilks with ginger and green onions. Michael also charged up his laptop during dinner, since his presentation was the next morning and we wouldn't be getting to the hotel until late.

As the hours wore closer to midnight, we were glad to enter a well-maintained Indian toll road. We weren't sure how close we were to Pondicherry. We saw signs for Chennai. I was hopeful for a bit when I saw an ambulance marked Pondicherry; we later passed it, parked at a roadside hotel. Several hours later, we left the smooth, well-lit highway, and went on a rickety road toward Pondicherry. Michael worked on his presentation. I dozed a bit, as much as the potholes would let me. Even late at night, Indian roads are active. There were women carrying big metal water-jars on their heads, walking down the side of the road in the dark. The men were relatively few, mostly bicycling, or driving camels or donkey-carts.

We finally pulled into Pondicherry around 4 AM. The theoretically eight-hour trip had taken Seventeen hours. We gratefully thanked our poor driver and went to the hotel.

Kerala

Nov. 22nd, 2009 01:28 am
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Kerala is a green paradise in South India.  We flew down to Cochi (Kochin) before the fall Fulbright India conference.  More pictures are here: http://blacks.smugmug.com/India/Kerala

We'd booked a custom tour package through Ebenezer Holiday.  I would highly recommend them to anyone traveling through South India. Everything was prepaid and ready for us in advance.  The travel agent personally picked us up at the airport, with his driver. The car was clean and had working safety belts, even in the back seat--the first car in India we've seen with all seat belts working! 

The first day was sightseeing around Cochin, a port city.  The Chinese fishing nets were very interesting, and surrounded by flotsam. 
Kerala fisherman with the chinese fishing nets

We saw the seventeenth-century Dutch church. About one-third of the population of Kerala is Christian, especially Roman Catholic. Michael, dressed in his all-white kurta lungi, could even pass for a priest (one shopkeeper thought he was "a Father.")

Michael in front of the Jewish synagogue grounds in Jew-Town, Kerala

We also stopped by the local Jewish cemetery and synagogue in "Jew-Town," now an antiques district. The merchants lining the street to the synagogue were on the lookout for rich tourists.  We had to shoo them away constantly.  We decided we didn't want to go back for Shabbat services. We had a fantastic dinner at the Grand Hotel instead--delicious fish and chicken.

The next day, we traveled up to the Kerala backwaters. There are dozens of converted rice barges that now act as luxurious houseboats. We scrambled up the gangplank and spent a leisurely afternoon boating down the river, through palm tree forests and dense floating knots of water hyacinths.  We floated past muddy green fields of rice paddies, which oddly enough are lower than the water level.  Our boat pulled over to a local fisherwoman's hut, and we bought some fish and giant prawns for dinner.  We watched the birds swooping around, and the occasional boat-bus or boat-schoolbus zipping by.  The local people waved at us as they looked up from scrubbing their laundry or bathing in the river.  No nudity inhibitions there.

For the afternoon, the boat pulled over and we relaxed. We dined on succulent ginger-curried fish for lunch, served on banana leaves, of course.  There was a several-hour break for the crew's lunch break.  Michael lounged around and studied Hindi vocabulary, comfortable in his traditional South Indian blue-checked lungi. My husband is so handsome when he dresses up Indian!  I took a little nap. It was so peaceful.

There were many birds, swooping everywhere--and I mean everywhere!  The numerous crows have adapted to living with the people; they followed the women around to filch food scraps from their dishwater.  Three crows even invited themselves to our breakfast the next morning, swooping in as soon as we stood up, and grabbing the toast and eggs while they were still warm. There were plenty of semi-wild ducks and domestic chickens too.  We also saw a kingfisher perching and diving into the water, and some other seabirds that might be terns. I heard lots of frogs, too--bullfrogs, even--but I didn't see them.

Dinner was challenging.  After a picture-perfect sunset, the crew lowered the thick liners to shut the windows (never mind the wide-open doorways).  Michael noticed a little gecko snapping up clouds of flies next to the overhead lights. On closer look, he saw they were mosquitoes. Thousands of mosquitoes.  We don't want to get malaria; however, we didn't want to stink up our bedroom with curry either.  At first I tried duct-taping our mosquito netting to the boat's ceiling, but it was dusty and the tape wouldn't stick.  So I grabbed a couple of the chairs and set them up on the table, then draped our mosquito netting over them to form a canopy.  So under our improvised mosquito-tent, we ate our dinner in the main cabin of the boat.  They cooked us some delicious prawns in a curry coconut sauce.  We retired to our well-sealed bedroom.  The air conditioner drowned out the night noises, but the tightly-shut windows kept out the mosquitoes.

The next day, we traveled up to Wayanad, Kerala.  We passed through tea plantations, and spent the night in the Green Gates Hotel.  Rather, we slept in a bamboo treehouse made into a hotel room.  Green Gates was by far the cleanest, most comfortable room out of all the hotels we have ever stayed in throughout India.  Never mind that we could see through the cracks between the floorboards to the ground far below; that treehouse was a two-story luxury hotel room, with hot water and a comfy down comforter. After a tasty dinner, we snuggled in for a comfortable night's sleep.
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Today we introduced some future Indian teachers to tools many US teachers don't even know about.  Logo, Scratch, and Alice are pedagogical programming languages - they're designed to teach kids how to program, and introduce them to computer science. These new tools are easy to use, and we're hoping they can use them here.  We presented them to Panchsil College of Education, in our hometown of Visnagar, Gujarat.

Logo is the age-old classic that draws geometric figures based on simple commands.  By putting the pen up and down, changing its color, and changing the direction, you can make Spirograph-style designs and drawings.  If you can trace (x,y) coordinates on graph paper, you can program Logo.  Michael taught the students a simple program of how to draw a simple square box. Then he rotated it 15 degrees, randomized the pen color, and did multiple iterations to make a pretty sunburst design.

He then moved on to Scratch. Scratch lets kids make 2-D graphical games and stories.  In Scratch, kids don't type code; they drag-and-drop colorful building blocks to create little scripts.  The basic unit is a "sprite" - an animated character that responds when you click on it or it bumps into something.  Michael built a Pong-style game right in front of them in five minutes.  He also showed them a little maze game he'd written, where a little cartoon mouse "accidentally" morphs into a flying hippo. That was a hit.  We found out later that Scratch has also been translated into Gujarati, so they can even use it in their native language.

Michael then blew their minds with Alice.  Alice is designed for 12-year-old girls to write their own 3-D videos and games. It's very fashionable right now in computer science education.  Alice was Randy Pautsch's project (the late Carnegie Mellon professor of "Last Lecture" fame). The popular computer game, "The Sims" even has plug-ins for Alice. 

Michael demonstrated the capabilities of Alice, together building a little farm scene with a field, barn, mooing cow, and flying bird. The students objected slightly to it being an "American"-style cartoon cow; he challenged them to make one with an Indian cow.  He then showed them one of the demos, a flight simulator program, to give them a taste of how powerful Alice can be.

They let me speak too.  I kept it short, five minutes.  I mainly reinforced Michael's points, that programming is an important life skill for kids, and starting early led to my current career in software. The podium was next to a big poster that said "Preparing Teachers for the I.T. Age."  I pointed to the poster and emphasized how these teachers really are creating the future of India. I also mentioned how my software company has several Indians who were lucky and learned how to program early, and now these future teachers can share those skills with their students.

After the workshop, we toured their beautiful campus.  Panchsil College of Education is a well-designed college.  It has lovely landscaping and the campus is immaculate--no trash or pollution.  It's also very new, only about six years old.  We also met a few of the faculty and talked with them briefly.  They were pretty shy, but nice.

The people were also incredibly friendly and welcoming.  For instance, our first sight was a beautiful welcome design on the floor, crafted of flower petals.  They welcomed us ritually and marked our foreheads with red coucomb (sp?) and draped us with heavy, fragrant garlands of sacred marigolds. They tied little red strings and folded papers to our wrists, as some kind of protection against evil spirits.  Then Dr. Neelu Ghosh gave the most wonderful, warm, welcoming introduction that Michael has received in India or the US.  We found out what the prayer is, that's at all these ceremonies. It's to the Hindu goddess Saraswati. goddess of education, music, knowledge and the arts.  At the end of the day, they presented us with a lovely souvenir of Saraswati, with the Teacher's College's name.  We're still deciding whether we'll end up displaying it in our house, or put it in Michael's office.

We hope we helped make programming more accessible to these students. Michael and I are excited about this college. If these teachers actually implement some of these tools, it could make a huge difference in preparing their students. Not to mention, it enables them to build their own educational computer programs.  Michael plans to collaborate with Dr. Ghosh on future pedagogical research. We'll both keep in touch with her and her family as friends, too.

A small side effect, I think I got hooked on Scratch.  It's so easy it's addictive. The sprites are reminiscent of my very first programming back in the old TI-99 days.  It really does encourage object-oriented thinking and event-driven programming. I went a little crazy and spent the rest of Saturday afternoon making an Indian version of a Frogger game.  The frog has to dodge the cows, not just cars, to cross the road.  If I can figure out a way to post it online I will.
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The ancient Indus Valley "cradle of civilization" is today an island in a dry sea of salt. Hundreds of miles of salt flats stretch across to Pakistan. It's a barren wasteland that looks eerily similar to snow. We saw it, and tasted it too.

We left very late. Kutch is a five hour drive from our home in north Gujarat. We planned to leave at 8 in the morning. Our driver came by 9. However, his jeep was out of town; it didn't arrive until after 10:30. We ended up leaving at 11. We submitted a ShmooCon abstract to fill the time.

The Great Rann of Kuch looks exactly like a frozen Great Lake in the midwestern USA. But it's *salt*, not snow. This was a great, shallow sea as recently as the time of Alexander the Great. Even now, when it rains in monsoon season, the sea briefly returns and fills with shrimp. Flamingos flock here by the thousands for the shrimp feast, turning pink from the shells. But in the dry winter months, when we visited, the Great Rann is a silent, barren landscape of solid white. Neither plants nor animals nor people live there. We saw only a handful of vehicles - mostly construction equipment. And mostly heading the other way. There aren't any gas stations out there; people mostly use camels or the rare, precious tractor.

If you've ever walked on a snow-covered lake, you have an idea of what Kutch is like. When Lake Michigan freezes over, it's a vast expanse of flat, sparkling white stretching beyond the horizon. Not completely flat; the wind sculpts the snowdrifts into long, horizontal white dunes. With sun or freezing rain, the formations develop a hard, brittle crust that crunches underfoot. Walking on the crust makes footprint craters that break through to the soft snow below. Now imagine that same landscape, but with a 90-degree temperature and absolute still silence. Add a briny ocean smell, and substitute salt for snow. That's Kutch.
View of the Great Rann of Kutch salt flats

We stopped the car and walked on the salt plains. The surface cracked under our feet exactly like frozen snow. We broke off a little bit of the crust and tasted it; natural sea salt. I stayed near the relative stability of the road.
Michael on the Great Rann of Kutch - before he fell in
My husband wandered over to a pretty, open pool of water, with Yellowstone-like colors from the minerals. The salt crust was thin at the water's edge, and Michael fell in!  He didn't go far, but he sank past his ankles in brine. When he extracted himself, his feet and sandals were completely covered in salt.

We needed the jeep. The sturdy, national highway ended 40 kilometers before Dholavira. The Indian Government was actively doing construction on the lengths on over the salt flats, with a strangely solid, single raised bed. On land, it was another story. We took two hours to travel the last 40 kilometers. After an hour of barely-road travel, our driver suddenly realized he'd passed the last gas station for 200 kilometers and we wouldn't have enough to get back. So he stopped at one of the villages and they poured a can of diesel fuel into the jeep. Whew!

We finally pulled into the Harrapan ruins at about 4:30, the only car in the parking lot. A handful of workers were still sifting through the archeological site with drum-shaped screens.  Other workers were coating the ancient bricks with a slurry of cow manure and mud.  There are huge, elaborate systems of reservoirs created to capture the monsoon rains for use in the dry seasons. Photography was prohibited, since it's an active archeological site.

There's a tiny, year-old museum there too. The workers followed around us, switching on and off the displays of the millenia-old artifacts.  They have found many toys, including carved marble chessmen-like figures and toy carts; pottery; stone and shell beads; and beautifully detailed seals for stamping designs into wax. The seals included several intricate, recognizable designs startling in their lifelike quality. Several seals showed a multi-headed water buffalo--like a bovine Cerberus. Their mundane, single-headed buffalo are today outnumbered by camels and goats in this part of India. The climate changed, and the area became deserted.
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We posted our India photographs.
http://blacks.smugmug.com/India
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We spent the post-Diwali week in Udaipur, Rajasthan, known as the Lake City.  We stayed with Dr. Neelu Ghosh and her family.

Dr. Ghosh and her husband have two charming, intelligent teenage daughters - Ashmika, 17, and Abiditi, age 14.  Their English is impeccable; Michael and I had to adapt our language to not talk down to them.  They're easily the most fluent English-speakers we've met in months.  They're also fluent in Hindi and Bengali, and proficient in Gujarati and Sanskrit.  And they're creative. Their family's home is beautiful, decorated equally in carefully chosen decorations and their daughters' own impressive artworks. And the girls are as nice as they are smart. 

Ashmika and Abiditi showed us around the sights in Udaipur.  We visited Lake Fateh Sagar, an artificial lake/reservoir in the shape of India.  We took a ferry boat out to the Nehru Gardens in the islands in the middle of the lake.  The ferry was packed with (Indian) tourists visiting for their Diwali vacations; it's normally not that crowded.
A photo of the lotus pond and historic fountain in Udaipur.(Click the picture for more photos of Udaipur.) 
 
We saw Udaipur's famous fountains. There's the Musical Fountain, an elaborate modern water fountain that plays traditional Rajasthani folk tunes to a sound and matching light show.  It was a little cheesy, but oh well.  The historic Saheliyon-ki-Bari (pictured above) made up for it.
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Today I visited the Patel family and their children's school. Chandrika, professor Hiren Patel's wife, invited me to come spend the afternoon with her. They have a seven-year-old son named Arditya and a four-year-old daughter called Aditi. Chandrika is a stay-at-home mom, the norm in Visnagar where the low cost of living allows a comfortable middle-class lifestyle on a professor's salary.

The Patels' children are very bright and amazingly well behaved. Remember, these children came with us on an eight-hour road-trip each way, and never complained; no tantrums, no fussing, and no fighting with each other for the whole weekend. This behavior continued at their home. They momentarily disagreed with each other about a toy but immediately resolved it by themselves and continued playing happily in seconds. As I told Chandrika, when I have my own children someday, I would feel very blessed if my future kids are as good as hers.

We talked about life in the US and India. Chandrika and Hiren lived in Alabama for two years in the early 2000s while he worked in an engineering job there. She was a little nostalgic for the US, and shopping at Wal-Mart and the dollar store and supermarket. She still remembers many of the prices! She explained a few of the differences in India, like how a milkman delivers fresh milk to her home every morning, and she shops for vegetables in the evenings for dinner. She showed me her foodstuffs and spices, and I recognized almost all of them by name except for “elaichi” (cardamom). She also made some delicious “chai” tea, boiling milk and water and sugar with grated ginger and spices and loose tea leaves, strained out at the very end. Her kitchen is currently improvised, with a stove set up in a small side bedroom. Half of their house is being renovated for when Hiren's parents move in next month.

We talked a little bit about our families. Chandrika grew up in Visnagar and her parents and siblings still live nearby. Hiren's parents currently live about 5 kilometers away; Chandrika and her family will visit and stay with them for the Diwali holidays. I told her about my parents and my sister and my husband's parents, and how we wished they all lived closer to us in the US so we could see them more often. Most people (at least in Gujarat) choose to stay near their relatives. Furthermore, the custom in India is for parents to move in with their son's family when they retire.

Chandrika showed me photo albums with their wedding pictures and their children's baby pictures. Hindu weddings are very elaborate, festive, major life-cycle events. All the family members have some part in the ceremony, and there are many special customs: to name a few, all kinds of ritual greetings, painting the bride's hands with beautiful henna designs, a lively negotiation for gifts when the bridegroom goes to formally enter the bride's parents house, lighting fires together for a blessing, chanting songs and prayers, the couple feeding each other sweets, etc. Everyone we visit proudly shows us their wedding album and family photographs; it's often the first thing people do when we visit someone's house. I regret that I did not take any of my own wedding pictures with me to India; it would be nice to reciprocate.

Both children go to the same “English medium” primary school, where the lessons are taught in English instead of Gujarati. Like almost all middle-class families here, the Patels pay tuition for a private school (called a “public school” here, in the British terminology). The Patels consider the ultra-low-cost government schools to have insufficient facilities and provide an inferior education. Their children's school is located very close to their neighborhood, well within walking distance, but across a busy highway. Chandrika walks her children to and from school for safety. The children's school schedule is a half-day each, Monday through Saturday. Her four-year-old daughter goes to kindergarten-like classes in the mornings, and her seven-year-old son attends “first standard” (first grade) in the afternoon. They each eat lunch at home.

Chandrika and I visited the children's school to pick up Arditya. We dashed across the road and then dodged the cows and other traffic on the sidewalk and shoulder. Chandrika introduced me to the school's principal, who invited me to walk around and see the school. I also met Arditya's teacher, a woman about our age. The classrooms are very similar to US schools, with chalkboards and colorful posters on the walls and little student desks. The school building is different though; like many Indian institutional buildings, it has open-air stairwells and hallways with roofs but no walls.

Chandrika and I stood by the school's principal in the hallway and waited for her son. The principal is a kind-looking lady, not much older than us, and she is well-liked by her students. Dozens of children ran up to her as they streamed past, briefly touching at her feet before dashing outside. Touching feet is an Indian gesture of respect for elders, and also a wish for the older person's blessings and good fortune to be shared with the younger person (like having their good luck rub off on them). There were hundreds of children in smart red uniforms, spilling past us and outside into the playground and plaza. This was the last day of school before the holiday break for Diwali, so the students were very excited and eager to go on vacation. We finally found Arditya and carefully walked back to the house.

The Patel children are exceptionally bright. Arditya is the top-ranked student in his grade level. His four-year-old sister, Aditi, can already say and write the entire English alphabet despite speaking only Gujarati at home. Professor Hiren credits his children's success entirely to Chandrika's influence; he proudly praises her parenting skills and intelligence. Chandrika went to college and has a bachelor's degree in Electrical Engineering, so she's a good match for Hiren and, in his opinion, the best possible mother for his children. Hiren says having one good, literate mother is like giving them a hundred teachers. When I see the success of Chandrika's children, I have to agree.

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Camels are fun, and so are forts.

We went on a road trip to Jaisalmer Fort and Jodhpur in Rajasthan. Jaisalmer was high on our to-see list. UNESCO ranked Jaisalmer Fort as an Endangered Site due to sewage/drainage problems and changing weather patterns; one big earthquake could seriously damage this ancient fort. It's in the neighboring state of Rajasthan, but it's still pretty far from Gujarat - about a seven-hour drive for us.  We left very early, about 6:30 on Saturday morning.

Professor Hiren Patel and his family came with us.  So Hiren, his wife Chandrika, and their two children (ages 4 and 7) all piled into the SUV with us and our driver, Alkesh.  The car was big enough that it wasn't too cramped.  Chandrika and the kids stayed in the back for most of the trip and slept. Michael and I are absolutely astounded at how well-behaved their kids are. No fussing, no fighting, the whole trip. Amazing.

The domestic animals were interesting. Just outside of Visnagar, we had to wait ten minutes for hundreds of sheep to pass. The sheep are marked with dye on their wool to indicate their owners.  Then it was mainly farmers' fields, with the occasional herds of goats crossing the road. We crossed into Rajasthan and used the National Highway. After a few hours the countryside started looking more like California, with scrubby plants that looked like sagebrush. The number of goats increased, and so did the number of camels.  We occasionally see camels in Visnagar, pulling carts and so on, but they're far outnumbered by the water buffalo and cows (both ox-carts and free-range).  In Rajasthan, the camels are king.  We saw cows every now and then too, but mostly it was camels and goats.  They both like grazing on trees. Camels are natural pruners for those desert trees, and probably contribute to their umbrella shape; the leaves grow high and wide just above where a camel's long neck can reach.

The highway out to Jaisalmer is very well maintained. The road runs parallel to the India-Pakistan border, and India has a large military base there. A caravan of several dozen military trucks passed us. There's still several kilometers of desert between the road and Pakistan, so we weren't too close.

There were numerous herds of goats crossing the road. Mostly they moved out of the way in response to our horn honking. One stubborn little black goat decided to slow down, and it turned its back on us and stopped in the middle of the road. Our driver braked smoothly to a halt but the car still gave it a small push forward--kind of a nudge.  The goat glared at us and trotted away haughtily to the side of the road, and we continued.

Jaisalmer Fort was an outstanding tourist attraction. It's visible from pretty far away, a big yellow-brown fort on a hilltop near the Pakistani border. Jaisalmer is a "living fort," meaning people live in this millenia-old landmark. Jaisalmer is also a tourist attraction, though mainly for Indian pilgrim/tourists.  It's made out of carved yellow sandstone.  There are also several medieval Jain statues on display.  In terms of scale, Jaisalmer is the best historic palace/fort we'd seen yet.

Jaisalmer also has "non-veg" restaurants that serve meat. No beef of course, but they do offer chicken and lamb. Michael and I hadn't had meat in over a month, so we were very happy to eat some chicken. The Patels ate vegetarian dishes, of course. The chicken tikka was delicious, though the tandoori chicken was rolled in some kind of brown salt and it was much too salty. But it was just good to eat meat for a change. They also had some nice ginger tea and sweet milky coffee; we filled my thermos with a pot of their excellent coffee.

We wouldn't stay in a hotel that night.  While at the fort, Hiren found a good "Desert Safari Adventure" complete package deal: about $50 per couple including dinner, a night's lodging, entertainment, and transportation via camel. So we drove out to the sand dunes on the edge of the desert where the road ended, to the start of the camel trail.

Camels are too high to climb. Our camel knelt down in the sand and we climbed right on it.  I nearly fell off at the very beginning. I sat down in the saddle behind Michael, and while we were waiting for the camel-driver I took off my shoe and dumped the sand out of it. The camel stood up suddenly; I grabbed Michael with one arm and my shoe with the other, and somehow managed to not fall off (and even kept hold of the shoe!).  Michael and I rode one camel, and the Patel family rode another.  It was probably about 40 minutes, through the scrubland and into the giant desert sand dunes.

Camel riding was bumpy but easier than expected. The camel saddle was a Western-style saddle with a pommel, well padded in brightly-colored, quilted fabric. There's a little kids song, "This is the way the camel rides (bumpety, bumpety, bump!)" and it was just like that - we went up and down and up and down vertically as the camel strolled forward.  Camels have very looong legs.  Riding them makes you realize how high up they are. At least it didn't move faster than an (unsteady) trot. Our camel's handler walked on foot beside us, lightly switching the camel with a whip if it slowed down.  At the end of the ride, the camel driver asked our names. He laughed out loud when he heard Michael, and told us we must be lucky because our camel is named Michael too!  Michael Jackson!  Did we know Michael Jackson, the famous American star? Um. Michael Jackson has a completely different meaning in the USA. We didn't stick around to explain, but tipped the camel-driver 50 rupees and slipped down the sand dune toward the campground.

Our lodging for the night was a tent.  It wasn't really camping; Sweetie and I are both former scouts and we know what camping is.  These were permanent structures, cabins with cloth walls and roof and even a modern flushing toilet and sink.  We dropped our stuff in the tent and went to the campfire circle.

The dancers knew how to entertain. Several different Rajasthani women alternated, rotating in and out, in full traditional costumes with little bells jingling. The dance moves covered the full range of classical Indian and modern casbah-style dancing. The live band wore turbans, with drummers and musicians playing traditional instruments. At one point they dimmed the lights, and one woman filled a set of small scales with live coals from the campfire. She balanced the glowing coals, then danced with them, whirling the scales faster and faster over her head and around herself like a Harlem Globetrotter wields a basketball. It was just like some of the better parties at Pennsic. The audience applauded, especially the schoolchildren. 

Toward the end, one dancer came over and pulled me in to join her in dancing. She was excellent; she made eye contact and made sure I could follow her, giving me lots of cues as warning when she changed steps. I am not a dancer at all, but I managed to keep up and followed her rhythm and most of the steps. After a few minutes, the other dancers pulled in the girls from the school group, and we all did a circle dance where pairs of women join hands and whirl around. Dinner was rather anticlimatic after that.

The next morning, we stopped by a little lake in Jaisalmer. The local people feed the catfish there twice a day, and over a hundred catfish all lined up at the water's edge to get the food. There's also a nice temple there. All of us rode up and back to the lake in a pretty little camel-carriage. We left soon for the many-hours drive to Jodhpur.

Jodhpur was outstanding, with medieval palanquins and howdahs--elaborate coaches for carrying royalty, on poles by hand or mounted on elephant-back. Some were solid silver. They also had some medieval manuscripts on display, though no medieval illuminations (the artwork was lovely nineteenth-century Moghul). They had plenty of eighteenth-century spears and lances too. Jodhpur also has a collection of musical instruments and turbans, but we didn't see them on display. Unfortunately my cell phone ran out of charge just when we walked into the fort, so I didn't get any pictures in Jodhpur. I would've liked a picture of the breathtaking view of the village below the mountain; I hope Michael's pictures turn out.
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There are three big uncertainties in the US, that are very dependable in India: weather, women, and work. One of Michael's Indian colleagues pointed this out, and it's worth writing about.

Weather. The weather doesn't change much from day to day here; it mainly depends on the season.  It rained in Visnagar last night, the first time in over a month. Last night's rain was unusual enough for our driver's family to call him and tell him about it.  Most of the time, the days are always sunny and hot (90s to 100s Fahrenheit). I've stopped my US habit of carrying an umbrella in my purse, since I haven't needed it.

Women. When an Indian man needs a wife, his relatives arrange the marriage. The relatives investigate prospective families, their wealth, land holdings, family background, and education.  Most families handle all the details and background checks, then have their children meet each other well in advance of the wedding. There's often an extended one to two year engagement period, where the couple gets to know each other through telephone calls, movies, etc. in nonthreatening settings. Engagements can be broken without much social stigma. School crushes still happen, but most do not turn into marriage. If two friends want to marry, they will ask their families to arrange the marriage, and generally abide by their parents wishes if the families think it's unsuitable.

Indians view arranged marriages as good ways to promote stability and happiness; they pity Americans with our high divorce rate. There are hundreds of people involved in arranging a single Indian marriage.  In the US, we're entirely do-it-yourself, with elaborate dating rituals and the full spectrum of relationship ups and downs. We often wait to introduce our significant others to our parents until we're getting serious about our intentions. It's still fairly common in the southern US for a man to formally ask a father for his daughter's hand in marriage, but he doesn't need to have met the family beforehand. 

Work. In India, people don't change careers the way we do in the US. You do the same type of work for most of your life and then you retire.  It's not just caste. Most jobs have minimum education qualifications and if you don't meet them, you can't work there.  College admissions are competitive, with room for less than ten percent of all Indian high-school graduates. For college-educated people, their degrees often determine their work for the rest of their lives.  People can still branch out and start their own businesses, but it's not as common. Esteemed job holders like lecturers/professors and software engineers earn bragging rights in the Times of India matrimonials section, right next to the MBAs and medical doctors. 

The major exception to education? Housewives. All the engineering faculty we've met have wives who also have engineering degrees. In Visnagar, one (male) professor estimated that about 70 percent of the wives stay home instead of working.  I gather that for housewives, their status is based largely on their husband's job. That's why I've been the guest of honor at several functions along with Michael. There are a handful of female faculty too, but neither Michael nor I have had a chance to talk with them yet (we've both asked to, repeatedly). Kind of a double standard.
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A couple people have asked me what I'm doing when Michael is out teaching. I'm still working full time as a requirements analyst for the most awesome software company ever. I already liked my job, my company and co-workers. But the company is letting me telecommute from India for three months, and that is utterly awesome.  And they read this blog too. (Hello over there!)

Most of my online time the past couple weeks has been mostly reserved for work tasks. I was finishing some sample reports for our clients to critique, and coming up with questions for my colleagues to ask for me "by proxy". The customers finally reviewed them and they poked relatively few holes in the reports, and I'm revising them this week.  I did as much work as possible locally using OpenOffice.org, but had to finish them in Word (via remote desktop) just to squeeze all the data onto the pages.

I'm also going through innumerable flowcharts. Months ago, I put the requirements documentation into "functional requirements", flow-charts describing the more minor business logic of the application. We expected a few of the minor details would change, which is why I had held off on double-checking the flowcharts until now. But the developers are finally getting around to coding those parts now, and it's time to get 'er done. I'm using Borland DefineIT, which is slow, unreliable, and its main redeeming feature is it links to Caliber, the requirements-repository tool for this project. The problem is, DefineIT's license doesn't let me install it on my laptop and work offline. So I remote-desktop into my machine at the office.  The connection speed isn't lightning-fast but it's not bad, probably comparable to DSL.  The VPN does disconnect randomly, but it did that back home too.

Telecommuting requires discipline. My current situation reminds me of when I was taking online classes. I have to pace myself and stick tightly to my to-do list; there's nobody checking up on me in person. I do communicate with my boss and team-lead regularly, but mostly I'm on my own.  The communication has been getting better and the internet is more reliable in the apartment and I've been working more in the evenings.

Thursdays are regularly scheduled electrical blackout days here, when the power company turns off electricity to the campus during business hours. Contrast that to when we were in Delhi five years ago, where the power went out 20 minutes each day. The college has a backup power supply that they use, so I go over to Michael's office and work from there. Our apartment goes for about six hours without power on Thursdays, never mind it being right next to a hospital. Water is pumped via a local pump in the apartment building, so no power means no water either.  The water outages are particularly annoying when one of us is starting to take a shower; we shower twice a day in this heat.  But the water still usually runs out around midnight, even when there is electricity.

The first week or two of work was a real struggle to adjust. I was jet-laggged and sick (GI), sleeping several additional hours each day. A 20-minute walk across campus in this heat was exhausting and made me want to collapse into a nap. Now, I still get completely soaked from sweat if I walk across campus during midday, but I'm fine once I'm drinking water in an air-conditioned rooms.  I'm extremely glad I'm not doing my original plan of going back and forth, spending a few weeks here and then a few weeks back in the US. I don't think my body could've handled the shifting jet-lag. I still randomly wake up in the middle of the night for an hour or two at a time, wide awake and unable to sleep. That's partly a good thing, since that's when I've been writing most of these blog entries.

Now, I'm settling in and my work has been pretty productive here, despite being ten and a half hours ahead of East Coast time. And in spite of the connectivity. The internet availability has improved, but I still operate like the connection might die at any moment.  When I do have internet available, I grab all the emails and copy them to my laptop to respond to offline. Then if the internet or power dies, I can still keep working and just send them when it returns. And the time zone kinda works in my favor, since a couple of the developers are early birds and start their work around 6:30 AM.

Conference calls have been more challenging, not just on my end. My boss had a department meeting, which she very kindly scheduled for 9 AM their time (just before my suppertime here). I tried using Skype, but the connection died. So I called via my cell phone at 6 rupees (12 cents) a minute, which is fine. That worked okay to get the main number, but the conference room where the meeting didn't have a working telephone. So my colleagues gathered around some kind of microphone (or maybe somebody's personal cell phone?) and had the meeting. Wasn't as good as in person, but I heard most of it. And it was nice to hear their voices again. Every organization has politics and good and bad aspects, but my company has really great people. I miss my co-workers.
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If you don't like crowds, don't go to a major Hindu temple on a festival night of the full moon.

Per our driver's suggestion, we squeezed in Ambaji temple on the way back from Mount Abu. Many shops line the roads around Ambaji temple. The shops sell everything a pilgrim needs to make an offering, including cocumb (sp?), huge piles of the red powder used to mark the heads of religious pilgrims. Our driver bought incense and a coconut.

Ambaji's large temple attracts many Hindu pilgrims to its gold-topped turrets. This was a festival - Sunday night, the night of the full moon after the Navaratri festival. There were long lines of people waiting, winding around like the queues for an amusement park but much more tightly packed. We went through security (metal detectors and armed guards).  The guard took Alkesh's incense away; I'm not sure if it's contraband or if it would be offered later.  We left our phones and camera in the car (photography is prohibited there).

Imagine a crowd packed more tightly than a Metro train at rush hour, but with the chaos of a mosh pit and the zeal of a Pentecostal church. We were caught in the thick of it. The drums were beating and the Hindu pilgrims were in high religious fervor. We were buffeted forward and almost lifted off our feet in the waves of swaying people pushing forward and pressing behind and all around us. The crowd ebbed and flowed in time to the hypnotic rhythm of the drums. Every so often, the loudspeaker blared chants that were suddenly answered with loud shouts from all the people surrounding us.  Some people near the sides prostrated themselves; most were just standing and slowly moving forward in the crowd, getting as close as they could to see the place where the idol would sit, if there were an idol there. (It's a kind of decorated alcove; the lack of an idol there has religious significance.)  After maybe a half-hour, we somehow were pushed toward the side and out of the surge. We made it out to the cool night air and just breathed.

The beggar-children outside the Ambaji temple spotted us. Visnagar kids may follow us around, but the Ambaji kids were much more aggressive. They physically tapped and poked at us to get our attention. They followed us to our car and tapped on the windows all around us. Our driver actually slapped one child on the cheek when the boy would not let him get to his car.  The driver then somehow maneuvered it away.

We had dinner at a Gujarati dining hall. The waiters must not see Westerners often. They gathered around our table, refilling our dishes, constantly dishing out food so it was hard to actually eat.  The mutter paneer was done a different way than I make it; theirs had a thin rather than a thick creamy sauce, but I liked it.  I also liked the palak (sauteed spinach).

We would've appreciated Ambaji more if we had not gone on a festival day.
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Today we left Gujarat for Mount Abu, and saw a wild crocodile and some elaborate medieval Jain stone-carvings.

We made a day-long excursion north into Rajasthan. Rajasthan is the Indian state just north of Gujarat, the land of innumerable Mughal princes and marble palaces. We visited Mount Abu, in the southern tip of Rajasthan.  We left early in the morning and rode the three-hour drive or so.

State borders are not trivial here.  In the US, or even much of Europe, a border is typically a sign saying "Welcome to So-and-So".  In India, states are organized along language and cultural lines, not just geography. There's an actual border crossing checkpoint to cross between them. Drivers pay a licensing fee to the state. National permits are available, and the brightly painted "Goods Carriage" trucks proudly advertise that status. At the border, the signs all changed instantly from Gujarati to the Hindi alphabet (much easier for us to read).  Transliterated English is common in Hindi too. For instance, the border from Gujarat to Rajasthan has dozens of businesses selling the local building materials, beautiful marble stones, with Hindi signs transliterated from phonetic English "MARBL BILDEN MATARLS."

The road up Mount Abu is very scenic, if you're brave enough to look out the window. The mountains are beautiful, studded with palm trees. The countryside, and the road, looks a lot like Yellowstone National Park--complete with big drop-offs down cliffs. The Indian cement blocks serve as guardrails, but have occasional wide, ragged gaps about the width of a car (hmm).  There are constant hairpin curves.  Many have signs posted with a picture of a horn, to remind you to signal to the hidden, incoming vehicles. Alkesh, our driver, blared the horn at every blind curve; almost constantly. There were several times when we rounded a bend only to see a tourist bus blithely straddling the middle line and hurtling straight toward us. Somehow we made it up to Mount Abu.

Mount Abu is a major tourist attraction and pilgrimage place. There are many Bhramachaya centers there, like the "Center for Universal Peace." There's also a modern Jain temple with mosaics in tiny mirrors and cut glass. You can see what your image must look like to a spider, as you see your reflection in hundreds of little mirrors. There's a large, pretty lake; we walked around it a bit. A couple pilgrims came up, young men dressed all in white. They spoke excellent English and talked to Michael and Alkesh.  They talked and walked with us for over half an hour, and never said one word to me. I don't know if it's because I'm a woman and it would break some religious taboo of theirs, or because they assumed that, as a woman, I'm not worth speaking to. They invited Michael to their temple (we declined), but didn't ask for money. It still reminded Michael of an old Opus cartoon.

The medieval Jain temples at Mount Abu were the best part. There are several of them, two built between a thousand and eight hundred years ago, and other modern ones being added onto today.  Centuries ago, these temples were composed of elaborately carved marble, with dancing girls and figures representing the major Jain religious figures. The temples are free. It's forbidden to take photos, eat or chew. Large signs also warned menstruating women from entering. The temples closed at 6 PM, so we were glad to catch them before the day ended. The temples were relatively quiet, and we easily walked around between the large tour groups that had been bused in.

The Jain temples were covered in ornate stone carvings, made by hundreds of stonemasons over decades. In the center of a temple is a mammoth Buddha-like idol with gemstone eyes, and in front of the idol are a herd of marble cattle and animals. Around the periphery are about 50 or 60 cells, each one with a smaller idol inside.  Every surface is carved with translucent marble flowers, geometric tessellations, and dancing girls clad only in beaded jewelry.  The temples are quiet. Even the busloads of pilgrims walk quietly and pray silently.

We saw the wildlife sanctuary, but only one animal of note. We went on foot, walking for a couple hours, but we still didn't see any animals but one shanty's domestic chicken.  The sounds and sights were still good, though; we heard strange jungle birds calling and saw many beautiful flowers and some giant many-limbed ancient trees.  At the end of the trail was an artificial lake. A good-sized crocodile was lurking at the edge of the water, right under the guardrails. Michael suggested I jump in and wrestle it, and when the croc heard that it must've been scared because it immediately slipped away into the lake. Michael says that's proof that crocodiles must fear me!
flora: Stylized Indian national flag (india)
We now have Indian clothing.  We went shopping in our town, Visnagar. We're both much more comfortable in Indian dress.

We first went to a salwar kameez shop. The salwar kameez is a very common outfit worn by South Asian women. It has three parts. The salwar is a loose-fitting gathered pants. The kameez is a short tunic that has a solid shirt-like body to the waist, then the panels divide at the hips to allow free movement. It's normally topped with a dupatta, a long scarf draped around the neck. Salwar Kameez outfits are more common than saris for northern Indian everyday wear, but they're common throughout India and Pakistan. The female faculty at the engineering school wear salwar kameezes, and so do the female students when they're not in jeans and T-shirts. I frequently see girls in salwar kameez school uniforms too.

Indian women love decoration and bling; my tastes are simpler. The salwar kameezes in the shop were all super-fancy by American standards. They were all spangled with sequins and/or heavily embroidered. I asked repeatedly and finally they found a few that weren't too gaudy for my tastes. One is turquoise with embroidered fabric. Another is a light peach-pink with white embroidery all over ("chikan work"). A third is a simple weave, possibly handloom. It has a dark pink over blue, embroidered with gold and blue accents of stylized flowers.

The salwar kameez tailor took my measurements. The end result was disappointing. I bought mine made-to-order instead of ready-made. They were cut too small in the bust, especially after they were washed once and shrank in the hospital laundry's heat. (Laundry here is piled together in a tub and boiled, then hung on a clothesline.) Chandrika and I found another tailor a week later and we got them altered. I wanted some saris too, but it was getting late and Michael also wanted some Indian attire.

Michael first tried a dhoti. My sweetie sweats, and he's had a lot of trouble with restless legs here. He's been literally itching to get out of his standard khaki pants, which are much too hot for him in this heat. He first wanted to try the dhoti, the traditional, wrapped white loincloth/toga-like garment Gandhi made famous. Nowadays in North Gujarat, dhotis are mainly worn by retirement-age people; the younger generation wears jeans or trousers. The tailor, who was our age, called in an expert who was walking down the street in a dhoti. He tried to teach Michael how to wrap it. Turns out it's a complicated wrap, going between the legs. Michael said later the shape made him feel like he was wearing a big diaper. So the dhoti wasn't good.

Michael had much better luck with a lungi. Lungis are long sarongs, like a long, plain wraparound skirt. Unlike a skirt, they're straight tubes of fabric, not shaped. Lungis are extremely common in south India. Despite their non-bifurcated shape, they're a manly garment (much more masculine than a Scottish kilt). They're often just tied, but the faculty member with us thought adding a drawstring would be a good idea--especially for a novice at lungi-tying. In the professor's words, it would help avoid a "wardrobe malfunction." My modest sweetie quickly agreed. He ordered several kurta lungi and kurta pajama sets. Kurtas are a tunic like an extended button-down shirt; they can reach to the knees, or lower for some more traditional styles. Pajamas have more fabric than pants, but they still give his legs the ventilation and "breathing room" he needs for comfort. He still will wear his khaki pants/trousers for teaching, but like me, he prefers to wear Indian clothing.

Now we're wearing Indian clothes every day. It's so much more comfortable and suitable to the hot climate here. I might pack away my Western clothes until we go back.
flora: Stylized Indian national flag (india)
Forget the pied piper of Hamelin.  Nothing lures a crowd of homeless children faster than an American with an iPhone.

Whenever we walk into town, we pass through a neighborhood of several blocks of improvised dwellings. This is where the poorer people of Visnagar live; the not-quite-homeless. The structures are not really houses, either, just lattices of wooden sticks, with tarps or blankets stretched over them to provide some shade against the sun.  They're at least semi-permanent structures, and families live there year-round.  We see women doing laundry in basins in their yards behind the lashed-stick fences. Despite the poverty, they're all genuinely friendly. The adults smile and wave at us; the kids stare and smile and follow us like puppies. These aren't beggar children living off tourists and wanting Western money. They're just normal kids wanting attention from the only non-Indians they've ever seen; they look at us like movie stars.

Michael takes his iPhone with him, snapping photos of everything and everyone. The kids (and adults) see, and want their pictures taken too.  All the people are delighted to see their picture on an iPhone. The kids run up to us, wanting us to take their picture with them and show it on the digital screen. They're aware the technology exists (cell phones are plentiful), but it's a novelty to pose with a westerner. Apple iPhones are in kind of a gray-market status in this country. Jailbroken phones work for voice (albeit unsupported) with a local Vodafone SIM card, though not the data connection.
Michael with the kids.
The attention is fine, even cute, for the first couple kids. But once the crowd gets to be over a dozen it's unmanageable. The children all followed us as we continued walking through their neighborhood. Even the kids we had photographed didn't stop, they just kept following, and called to their friends to come running out to join them. There must have been fifty or sixty kids, or maybe more. We ended up running out of the block and into town. They didn't follow us across the busy road into Visnagar proper.
Indian mother holding her child
We probably can't post many more of the pictures, since so many people are missing clothing. It's not just the kids. One woman insisted we take her family's picture, and only afterward remembered to pull up her choli. More problematic are the children who run around bottomless or completely without clothes.  And there are lots of those kids.  The ones who do wear clothes might never have seen Americans, or even met anyone who traveled there, but many wear American castoffs from  "Boys and Girls Club of the Monroe Area" or similar giveaway items. It could indicate real abject poverty, since textiles are so inexpensive in India. But it's also possible the kids enjoy wearing shirts with English words on them; certainly most of the college students do. It's probably some of both.  But these kids aren't beggars like Slumdog Millionaire; they're living with their families. They didn't look malnutritioned. And none of these children asked us for money. One kid even bicycled up to us and wanted to give us a rupee coin (we refused). What a change from Delhi!

I don't know how many of these kids are in school.  Friday was a national holiday (Gandhi's birthday), and the schools were closed. India reportedly offers free primary-school education through age 14, though I don't know how widely it's enforced or effective; it is a developing country.  Most of the college's faculty send their upper-middle-class kids to "English medium" private schools.  Whenever we ask the ages of the professors' kids, the answer is always given in their "standard" (grade level), not their age in years. That may also reflect the academics' bias toward schooling.

We didn't know it, but our driver's rental-car business is right downtown. So we ran right by the little shop where our driver, Alkesh, does business. His father was minding the desk, and he sent Alkesh after us. They invited us in and treated us to some cold Thums-Up [sic], a popular cola here.  Alkesh has a little house that belonged to his grandfather. The front room has his black-and-white photo in his policeman's uniform, next to a half-dozen large, elaborate portraits of the goddess Lakshmi. The whole house sits behind a little front office with a rope bed/bench and a desk with a Gujarat map and mileage chart. His whole business office is about half the size of my cubicle at work. 

In addition to Alkesh's father, we met his wife and their children, two seven-year-old twins (a son and daughter).  Alkesh's kids are learning English at school, and they said hello to us. Mostly they were shy and hid behind their mother.
Alkesh's wife, Abiditi, and her children Rasviti and Rasvitya
Alkesh's wife is a mechanical engineer by training and housewife by choice. These days her mechanical devices are limited to her treadle-powered sewing machine (for private use, not like the many men in the tailor shops).  She invited me to try it; they were surprised that I knew how to operate it.  She doesn't know English. She learned ME in the Gujarati language. She chose to stay home and raise the kids and teach them good values. Visnagar is a small town with a very low cost of living, even by Indian standards, and single-income households are the norm here.  I get the impression that dual-income couples are considered one of those things that city people have to do to afford living, but it's strongly preferred to have the wife stay home and raise the kids properly. And here, running a household is a lot like running a full-time business. The wives manage the servants, and do all the shopping and cooking and cleaning for their households, which often are large families spanning multiple generations.

Housing is not very expensive, but that doesn't mean everyone has a proper house.  Some of the college students choose to pay $20 per month and rent a whole house, instead of staying in the college hostels (dormitories). One of the professors, driving us around in our first week, pointed out what he called the slum areas.  Those have enormous trash heaps and big stinky cesspools next to shacks constructed of whatever was handy at the time. It's common there to build a temple in front of the illegal houses that don't meet building codes. The temple blocks people from trying to tear down the building. Apparently there are between ten and twelve thousand homeless people in Visnagar, and hundreds of temples. The town's total population is about 50 or 60 thousand, a small town by Indian standards. That professor is of the opinion that people who want work can find it, and people who are homeless are probably that way by choice. I don't know if our stick-house neighbors are included in the "homeless" figure, but I would expect so. They probably don't consider themselves homeless; they're with their families.

We have seen the truly homeless. There's a family of at least three adults and several kids, who all sleep on the sidewalk right outside the gate to the college. We've stepped over them several times or walked around them when we go walking at nights.  Click to read the rest of this entry; it's disgusting. )
flora: Photo of a baby penguin chick (Default)
We killed another giant centipede today. But the ant invasion was worse.

It was entirely my fault. I had spilled some orange juice just before leaving for Yom Kippur services. In my haste to get out the door, I wiped up most of it but I didn't thoroughly mop up everything. And I left the cup with a little bit leftover juice still sitting out, instead of putting it away in the covered garbage can. So all day long, about half of the top of our little refrigerator had sticky OJ residue and the cup was sitting right by it. Between the spill and the cup, the ants had a sweet feast.

We came home and discovered the ants. Mostly we've seen little brown ants that don't harm anything, and crawl along the walls in the closed-off rooms. The big inch-long black ants are normally only in ones or twos around the edges of the rooms; they don't bite, so we kick at them and kill a few and a few run away. But these big black ants were hordes, almost swarming. Michael and I each took our shoes and went stomping and hitting. Then we gave up and just started mopping up the ants with rags. There were so many we couldn't get rid of them entirely. They covered the base of the wall around our front doorway, for a couple inches high on each side. We closed the door and hit at them from our side until they ran away in fear to the stair hallway, and then we had a more manageable couple hundred left inside by the refrigerator.

My sweetie saw the giant centipede darting in and out from under the fridge. Based on his previous experience, he'd already sworn he would kill any he saw again. When it ran back out, he just dropped a textbook on it. Parallel computer architecture is a dense subject, and this was a formidable American hardcover we'd brought with us. The centipede never saw it coming. The tome landed on the upper half of the centipede and smushed it thoroughly. I cleaned up the mess and flushed it. This centipede was about the same size as the previous one we had seen in the apartment. We stil don't know if they're poisonous to humans.

The ants were spooky. We had cleaned up thoroughly on Monday night, but the ants were still a problem the next day too. Michael went on another whacking spree on Tuesday night, and killed several scores of them right before he went to bed. He was tired and left the dead ants all over the floor, to sweep them up in the morning (or be swept up by housekeeping). Michael noticed a couple live ants were dragging the bodies of their companions back, and thought nothing of it. But by the time the next morning dawned, the floor was completely clear. The ants had come back and removed all the bodies. And the live ants were completely gone too, not even visible in the hallway.  I've seen a few scouts since, but the numbers are back down to the previous levels. Weird.

I hope this means the end of our creepy-crawly visitors, but probably not. We have some permethrin insecticide I brought with us for dipping clothes and bedding in, and that seems to help repel them when we spray it on the doorway.

We need more geckos.

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