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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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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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We discovered we share our apartment with other creatures.  This is in our new "living quarters", the brand-new apartment building up on the third floor of the doctors' apartments.  We've seen far fewer ants than in the guest house and it's nicer overall.
Gecko (wall-lizard) on the window-frame An upside-down gecko under the furniture. It's in the center of the picture just above the table leg.
We have lizards!  There are at least two wild geckos in our apartment.  They're smaller than my pet gecko at home, and they scurry around up and down the walls and hide behind the furniture. 

One very unwelcome visitor was the five-inch-long centipede.  It was in our bedroom.  We were going to bed, then Michael almost stepped on it with bare feet.  After quite a shock, we trapped it under a throw rug and ran for our shoes and stomped on it through the rug.  It wouldn't die easily.  That was scary; the fangs were half an inch long.  After finally seeing it dead, we flushed it. No picture, we just wanted that thing AWAY.  I feel no guilt for its death, because it's suspiciously like a similar giant centipede from my high school biology (bottled in formaldehyde) and that one was poisonous. That startled us a bit and we didn't get to sleep for quite a while.

Not in our apartment, but just outside it on the stairway is also a large hornets nest on the ceiling of the stairway outside. There are numerous giant beetles, June-like bugs and smaller bugs. We've seen a praying mantis and a katydid that could be straight from our back yard. The crickets here look just like US black field crickets, but they can actually fly a couple feet if you startle them.

We haven't seen any mosquitoes or flying insects in our apartment yet. We have an All-Out plugged in (like a Glade plug-in, but with bug repellent). The window screens are intact.  A few beetles have crawled around the floor, but that's about it.  Guess the geckos have to eat something.
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It can't all be perfect.  But at least it's well on it's way.  And the service is still much more responsive than Comcast.  :-)

The good news: the Internet connectivity here, when it works, is reasonably fast.  It's not nearly as fast as our home cable-internet, but it's at least comparable to DSL.  The bad news: It's been up and down for us.  Most of this is our fault for coming in and wanting service in our living quarters. It took them a couple days to get it set up in our guest house apartment, and then we moved to the other side of campus.  To their credit, they connected up our new apartment in half an hour and it was working fine!  Then sometime around noon today it suddenly stopped I'm not sure why; I'm guessing the construction work outside was a factor. (They are building a hospital next door, on the other side of our building.)  Anyway, they fixed it this evening.

It probably helps that Michael and the lead internet/network technician are getting to be pretty good friends.  He and Michael trade Linux tips.  They did a six hour road-trip together today, and visited the place Ghandi started his salt march.  Michael brought home a fully-functional hand cranked spinning wheel that folds to the size of a cigar box. It's ingenious and absolutely gorgeous.

I tried calling my office today via Skype, and it lasted only about 30 seconds before the connection dropped.  It may be something in in our configuration, or the college's authentication may have kicked in or something.  Who knows but it might be as simple as adding Skype credits. :-O  I'll try again tomorrow or the next day after Michael's looked at it.

As a fall-back, as long as it's before 5pm local time I have use of Michael's office; that internet connection seems a bit more reliable. So I have internet for at least 8 or 9 hours a day if I need it (though it may not overlap much with my office's time zone).

Ah well, these are minor complaints. And if it keeps running I'll be happy.

Indian food

Sep. 7th, 2009 10:52 pm
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The host institution is bending over backwards to accomodate us. Among their wishes is to provide food that we will enjoy eating. Professor Hiren, our key guide, has taken us for lunch and dinner to various restaurants to try to see what foods we like. Apparently, they will arrange for the local Visnagar restaurants to deliver food to campus for us. The local Gujarati cuisine is completely vegetarian (as are about ~80% of the local people). Fortunately we love cheese, and most of the vegetable dishes are served hot so we can eat them without fear of getting sick.

Chandrika, our faculty coordinator's wife, cooked us a standard Gujarati dinner when we visited them. We ate it in the traditional manner, with our right hands, as we were all seated on the floor.
A Gujarati meal, with many dishes including gulab jamin
 


We've also eaten a couple times at Shukan, the main hotel-restaurant in town. It serves Paneer (Indian cheese), in just about any way we could imagine. Much of it's Punjabi (North Indian), with cheese cooked in different spicy sauces. Michael especially likes the dry paneer tikka: a toothpick hors d'oeurve-style cheese chunk, dipped in Tandoori yogurt/spice sauce, and topped with a grilled pepper or onion or tomato slice.

I'm remembering much of my culinary Indian terms. Aloo (spelled Alu) or Batate for potato; Ananas is Pineapple. The Gujarati dal (lentil soup) is more watery here. The Lassi is normally a sweetened custard sundae. They serve "buttermilk" (chaas) which is more like the plain/salted yogurt Lassi drink I'm used to, but frothy.

Michael is living on chai coffee. That's made with hot steamed milk, sweetened, with cardamom and other spices. I still prefer tea, but the coffee is good. There's also a certain novelty in being able to push a buzzer and summon a new cup of coffee brought to you upon demand.

For drinking water, we've been able to drink bottled water (seals broken in front of us). I've also been drinking tea made from tap water after it has been boiled in the electric teakettle. The water from the sink is not safe to drink or use, due to the prevalent bacteria that cause diaharrea and worse. We brush our teeth using bottled or boiled water. It is also not safe to eat vegetables or fruits that have been washed in the tap water; we try to only eat hot food. It's that way throughout India. An article in last week's national newsmagazine was trumpeting a new project for safe drinking water in Harayana, a relatively small state near Delhi. So it can be done.

Sanitation and tradition also dictate that eating occurs with the right hand only. We've torn our <i>naan</i> and <i>roti</i> breads with our right-hand to scoop up mouthfuls of food. Forks are usually provided, though not always. Spoons are served with Lassi and desserts. Silverware is acceptable, but eating with fingers is strongly preferred.
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Our hosts are treating us like visiting royalty. Sankalchand Patel Engineering College (SPCE) has decided Michael is a VIP, and they want us to feel comfortable here.

We initially stayed in the guest house VIP apartment--a whitewashed studio apartment, with a private bathroom with indoor plumbing.  There wasn't a separate kitchen like I'd hoped, but it had an electric teakettle and small refrigerator.  And we have air conditioning!

Professor Hiren and the college were very thoughtful and tried to anticipate our needs. They supplied the room with American comforts. In the refrigerator was Tropicana orange juice, Kelloggs corn flakes, bags of milk, and all-important bottles of safe drinking water.  Another little cart held Tetley tea bags and sugar cubes.  We also had whole, uncut apples and bananas. Hiren had gone out of his way--literally, two hour's drive away--to Ahmedabad to pick up toilet paper for our bathroom. (Indians do not use bathroom tissue.) They really went to great effort, and we appreciate it.

Nothing's perfect. In the Fulbright orientation, they tell you to expect small problems. We had our share.  The hot water heater didn't switch on; they replaced it with a new unit.  The air conditioning window unit kept the room cool, but it was old and very loud. We had trouble talking to each other over its clanging and rattling. I couldn't sleep more than about two hours the first night, it kept waking me up with its loud bangs.  They replaced the unit on the second day, and the new one was humming along quietly until this afternoon when it suddenly stopped. Maybe it  realized I was typing about it? They just took it out and will find a new one. Our internet connection also had a problem with a faulty cable, and it wasn't working until about 7PM on Friday. It was out again on Saturday afternoon too, so I was originally typing all this in a text editor then.

UPDATE: On Monday, we just moved to a new apartment.  The campus is finishing a brand-new building for the doctors in the brand-new hospital. It's several rooms, brand-new, and sunny.  Our neighbors across the hall and downstairs are medical doctors; Michael is the only Doctor of Engineering.  :-)  We'll see if they can get the shower hooked up to the hot-water heater; the rest is pretty nice so far.

And we have servants (or peons, as professor Hiren unflinchingly calls them). A guard/houseman is at the guest house night and day. He fetches us chai coffee whenever we want it. A housekeeper comes in once a day to sweep and mop the entire apartment. She also mopped up after the air conditioner water leaking on the floor (twice).  There are at least four additional people I've seen helping them, in and out of our room, but I don't know what their status is.  None of them speak any English.  They understand "thumbs up" means good.  For the rest, we smile at them and they smile back; I guess that's all we can do until we start learning some of the local language.

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