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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!
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There are Jews in India, and they date back centuries. We worshipped on this Yom Kippur with the Bene Israel Jews at the only Jewish temple in Gujarat, Magan Abraham synagogue in Ahmedabad. It was an unforgettable experience.

We left Visnagar at 7 AM to try to catch the morning service. Ahmedabad is a two-hour drive away. We didn't know what time they would start or end, nor how long it would take to find it. We arrived at 9, sometime after the Torah reading (it's one of the early parts in their morning service).

It was a little difficult to find the synagogue. The synagogue's website hasn't been updated in several years and the phone numbers on the webpage didn't work for us. What helped us most was another American who had visited two years ago, and his blog entry had enough clues to help us find our way.  You go just beyond the bridges in Ahmedabad to the Khamasa Gate area, and start asking people for the way to the "Yehudi Church." (Most English-speaking Indians know what a church is, but they've never heard of a synagogue.) Our driver first was given directions to the bright magenta Christian church nearby. when we explained that it wasn't the right one, he found someone else who directed us another four or five blocks down the main road going away from the bridges, to the Magen Abraham temple. The temple is on a little side street on the left. We tried to ask passersby the names of the cross streets there, but we couldn't quite communicate well enough.

2009 is the 75th anniversary year of this particular synagogue, as recently reported in the Times of India.  This is the only Jewish community in Gujarat. The people here trace their religious ancestry back for centuries, and prefer to call themselves "Bene Israel" (Children of Israel) rather than "Jews". For today's service, visitors came from all over india and around the world. A couple weeks ago they had a special commemoration service. They commissioned a special siddur (prayer book) with three columns per page: Hebrew, Marathi (the local language spoken in Mumbai/Bombay), and Hebrew transliterated into Marathi. A majority of the members here in Ahmedabad speak Marathi as their first language, with Hindi a close second. The congregation includes a host of other languages too, like Gujarati and English and modern Israeli Hebrew. Services are conducted in traditional Hebrew, of course.

We were nervous about showing up unannounced and late, but they welcomed us warmly. This is a small outpost of Judiasm, the only one for literally hundreds of kilometers.  They're used to visitors. After the morning service, Michael talked with a couple members, and they were especially pleased to hear that he was a computer science professor teaching in Gujarat.  I tried to talk with the women members, but I didn't find many good English speakers among them except the handful of westerners. One member I did talk with a little later proudly told me her nephew is a computer engineer in Mumbai (Bombay). The Ahmedabad Jews are very active in their city, and have businesses and consulting firms. The members here look and dress and sound and work just like their Hindu neighbors. They're totally Indian and completely Jewish at the same time. It's really neat.

The color of the day was white. The temple was draped in white, with white sheets completely covering the floors and furniture.  It's a stately Art Deco building, with Indian-style marble accents. The white walls and blue trim inside reminded me a little of an Art Deco version of a Masonic lodge hall.  I wore my navy-and-teal salwar kameez, but every other person wore white. The white may be a traditional Orthodox practice; even our Reform rabbi and cantor back home always wear white on Yom Kippur. The men wore white shirts and trousers or white kurtas and pajama pants. The women were mostly in white salwar kameezes, with the rest in saris.  The women sat in the balcony; the men stayed down below. The men wore white tallits (prayer shawls) with blue stripes. Someone even loaned Michael a tallit and a kippah (yarmulkule/skullcap) when he first came in, to cover his head.  Michael (in his off-white kurta) had procured a Muslim cap, and he used that for the afternoon service after several other men used identical head coverings. Just like entering most Indian houses of worship, we took off our shoes on entering the worship area. (We later learned the people normally keep their shoes on for the weekly Friday night shabbat services, but remove shoes for holidays.)

It wasn't crowded. There were about 40 or 50 women and children throughout the day in the upstairs balcony, and 20 or 30 men in the hall below. I counted only eight obviously foreign women over the course of the day, and five non-Indian men.  Later, I chatted with the three female American students who were studying in Ahmedabad. One was from Baltimore; she was doing a fashion internship making corsets at a ladies' garment factory.  Another was an architecture student from RPI. Another was from New York City, and I didn't catch her name or info. It made me feel a little old when they were talking throughout the service about how they were going to go out of Gujarat to get drunk and celebrate on one of the student's 21st birthday next month. I guess my problem is I didn't come to an Indian synagogue to talk with foreigners.

I did come to worship with Michael. Michael is Jewish. I happen to be Christian (Evangelical Lutheran). But nobody asked me, and I did not mention it; not out of deception, but I didn't want to distract anyone. On a personal level, I feel completely comfortable worshiping God in Jewish synagogues with my husband--especially Reform temples with moving spiritual music. We are both members of a Reform Judiasm congregation. Also, Michael and I plan to raise our future children in the Jewish faith, so I'd better be comfortable wtith it.

It was hard to tell what was going on. The service did have the standard Jewish components, but it was still utterly foreign to me. The entire service was in Hebrew with an Indian accent. I had never been to an Orthodox Jewish service before, so it was difficult to follow; I did recognize and participate in several of the responses. Also, most US services are Ashkenazic (based on the eastern-European liturgical tradition).  This service was Sephardic. The bima (raised altar area) was in the middle of the synagogue, with twinkling miniature Christmas lights and seven fluorescent-bulb candles.  Michael was lucky for the afternoon service; he had a guide (from Australia) who had experience in Reform and Orthodox services and explained him what was going on.  Turns out they follow the siddur exactly, with all the standard components but with some additional emphasis.  For instance, the cantor was standing at the bima reading and swaying and muttering silently to himself except for a spoken word here and there. Turns out they say the Avuot twice; the first silently as individuals, then responsively as a congregation. The responsive prayers are neat, with the cantor's baritone belting out below, and the women and girls in the balcony echoing in Indian-accented chants.

They use handkerchiefs in interesting ways. The most unusual and different part of the service was during the morning, for the Shema, when Indian Jews literally prostrate themselves before God. They take out a white hankerchief, bowing down on their knees with their heads on the floor on the handkerchief.  This happens multiple times during the morning service.  I'd read about this and given Michael a white pillowcase. He didn't end up needing it, since the floors were covered in white sheets anyway. For myself I had a pure white... dishtowel. Not the most elegant way to worship, but I saw at least one other woman with a dishtowel too (and hers even had flowers on it). It's the spirit of the gesture. Later, during the break, we did buy several handkerchiefs at a mall. We each had our own for the borech-hu; though they didn't do it again in the afternoon service. Because I'm female, I took an extra handkerchief, folded it into quarters and put it over my hair in my barette like most of the women there do. It's completely accepted there and much cooler than a full veil; I'd been using my dupatta, and that had been way too hot.

I struggled with the heat all day. The synagogue is not air conditioned, and I was overheated up in the women's balcony. It supposedly started at three; only us foreigners showed up on time. At three-thirty the service was moving along, and by four-thirty the members had started arriving in substantial numbers.  My blood sugar also dropped. It's traditional to fast on Yom Kippur from sundown the night before to the end of the service the next evening.  Michael fasted, but my body just wasn't up to it. I gulped down a liter of mango juice and a handful of snack food that morning, and that was my food for the day.  I also drank plenty of water. The synagogue has a modern, safe drinking water system in the back, with chilled water. I visited it hourly, drinking water and also wetting down my dupatta (cotton scarf) to help keep me cool as it evaporated in the heat.

The service was led by three men: an older rabbi, another assistant who speed-read Hebrew (he may have been another rabbi). There was also a young teenage boy who read out clear Hebrew. At the very end of the service, he also blew the shofar - a magnificent ram's horn a yard long.  Like in Hindu temples, everyone removes their sandals on entering the sanctuary and sits on the floor or the benches. The bimah was decorated with multicolor christmas lights and flower garlands.  Two ten commandments were on the wall, one in Hebrew and one in Hindi, and the siddur was in Hebrew with Marathi translations.  The services, Michael learned, were standard orthodox, with a hazzan speed-chanting in Hebrew, and the members alternatively taking part in the services and chatting with their friends.

At around eight o'clock we all broke the fast with an unfamiliar but tasty, probably hand-pressed grape juice that tasted like raisins. They also passed out raisins that were sweet, but not seedless.  It's traditional there to break the fast with two glasses of grape juice, given the heat.  Many people there refrain from food, but still drink water to avoid dehydration. As one of the members told Michael, "Life and Health come first."

Michael chatted a bit with several of the Indian Jews present about the experience of being Jewish in India.  Although the worship was strictly Orthodox, the congregants he spoke with are not as strictly observant outside of the synagogue as American Orthodox jews.  Most Hindu Indians know of Judaism as a type of Christianity, and Ahmedabadis refer to the synagogue as a "Yhoodi Church".  In a country with over one million different deities, Judaism is just one more local religion.  One of the congregants told Michael that he likes to explain his religion to the Gentiles, but the only ones that are really interested in listening are Christians.  On the other hand, Indians tend to be strongly pro-Israel because they see Israel as anti-Pakistan.

We may go back there for other festivals or Shabbat services in the future.
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My husband is a guru. Or is it a god?

Michael had a faculty member visit this evening.  As a Fulbright lecturer, Michael is not just here to teach undergraduates, but also to mentor faculty.  One of the Indian lecturers here had just applied and been accepted to a US graduate school for a master's degree. The professor came over to our apartment for the evening, and he and Michael talked for a couple hours.

In the US, we joke about the slavery of underpaid graduate students. Here, it's actually true. In India, if you want a PhD, you find somebody who already has one and you become your advisor's peon. This includes doing laundry and errands and washing dishes and other menial tasks that have nothing to do with the field of study. If you're lucky, the advisor might choose to advise you too. Doctorates are heavily dependent on a PhD student's relationship with the advisor, unlike in the US where doctorates are University-centric and students might change advisors a couple different times. Very different. It helps explains the frequent spam from hapless Indian students who send unsolicited CVs to American professors, begging for their support.

Michael explained the American graduate-school systems as he understood them.  Most foreign students to focus exclusively on rankings, and US students (and employers) are only somewhat aware of them. Realistically, it's much better to balance the rankings against the possible funding available and the chances of getting in. Multiple applications are good-- you apply to a top school you would love but don't expect to get in, a lower-tier school where you're pretty sure you'll get in, and one or more middle schools where you feel you have a good chance. A program ranked #17 is not appreciably different from a program ranked #5. And funding is critical; if a university is a regional state school it can still have plenty of research dollars, even for master's students, despite that university being ranked 70th or 80th in the country. It still provides a very valuable US degree and often leads to success (with an American job and visa to follow).

In India, there are hordes of agents who students can enlist to take care of applying to American schools and coordinating all the paperwork. Our Desi friends in the US, who succeeded, generally said those agents are worthless. (Though granted, our NRI friends are stunningly brilliant people and are completely fluent in English. It might be different for a person who less talented or less fluent.)  Michael also suggested the professor contact the Indian student associations at the schools where he was applying. They can tell what the climate and atmosphere are like for Indian students at that particular school, and they'll have the inside scoop on if a program suddenly cut its funding. For visas, the existing students also know what days and times the nicer visa officials are on duty, and can advise each other on when to go to get a visa.

After their talk, when the professor was leaving, he caught Michael off guard by bending down and called him guru.  He asked Michael for a blessing and wanted to Michael to run his hands over him, like a god! The request felt very strange. But that's the sort of esteem in which Doctors of Philosophy are held here. It certainly takes arcane knowledge and higher-than-average luck to get a PhD, but in the US it is nowhere near as prestigious as it is here. One more difference.
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My husband is a brilliant, intelligent man. He is also a fool.

He broke his toe trying to drive an electric bike (motor scooter). I'm glad he didn't break anything else. And I'm extremely thankful he will not try driving a motorbike in India again.

Nothing gory, but cut to hide the details of his stupidity. )

Medical care here is cheap. He had three fractures in his big toe. It cost Michael only a few hundred rupees (about six US dollars). That covers the X-rays, doctor consultation, bandages and meds. He was in and out in about 20 minutes, despite the hospital ER being crowded with people. His insurance has a $15 copay, so the cost is moot. It's likely my cell-phone call to the health-insurance company cost more than the treatment.

We took this as a sign that Michael should not try driving a motor scooter again. He also was sufficiently alarmed by riding on the back of a motorcycle to the hospital that he asked me not to do it. I'm just thankful this incident happened; the next time he might not have been so lucky. Traffic here is crazy and I would be worried sick any time he tried it.

So now he's thinking of getting a regular bicycle. I'm not sure what I think of that. At least we have another week or two before the bandages come off, to think of alternative ways of transportation.
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SPCE issued a press release and held a press conference for their visiting American scholar. The local Visnagar newspapers attended.  Several people made speeches or statements, apparently including Michael (though I wasn't around to see that one). The story will be printed sometime in the next few days.  The article will be in the vernacular Gujarati, so Professor Hiren has offered to provide a translation.  The reporters called Hiren on Saturday during lunch, asking him for more information on the Fulbright-Nehru exchange program.

Today (Monday) there was a TV news crew for the Gujarat state news.  They interviewed Michael briefly on videotape, along with the SPCE principal (Dr. L.N. Patel).  They also asked to tape Michael teaching a class. He'd already delivered two lectures that day, so he pretended to teach a class--he preempted an operating systems lab, and taught the students how to remove all the files on a disk recursively.  They'll have the segments on the Gujarati news channel tomorrow morning at 11.
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The Indian collegiate system here is very different from the US. At American colleges and universities, usually a single professor writes the syllabus, projects, homework assignments, and exams for a course; and the same professor teaches the class. That professor chooses what topics to teach and adjusts as needed; there might be some key concepts the department wants, but the subject matter is really up to the instructor. That sort of academic flexibility is not common here in Indian engineering schools, except possibly at IIT.  I think that was the biggest surprise to Michael.

Grading at Sankalcand Patel College of Engineering depends heavily on standardized final exams for each subject, given at the end of each term. SPCE is part of a consortium of a half-dozen engineering colleges and universities.  Most of each student's course grade is determined by his/her performance on the final exam, and the exams are developed separately by an independent examination board. Consequently, the subjects really need to teach to the tests.  Faculty at SPCE typically team-teach, with two or more faculty teaching each course's  "theory" lectures, plus lab instructors.  All students in a given year and major take the same classes together.  In computer engineering here, there are about 120 students per class. The classes are divided into smaller sections or "batches" for the more practical lab sessions, about 30 or 40 students per batch.

Scheduling the teaching will be interesting.  As I mentioned in previous posts, their semesters don't line up with the traditional Fall/Spring semesters at US colleges.  It didn't help that Michael had to wait for 4 weeks after his visa was approved. Those dates were more convenient for us, but the main SPCE semester ends in mid-October. They are still working him into the schedule on a supplemental basis.  He is supplementing Artificial Intelligence, Operating Systems, and Parallel Processing. The current faculty will continue teaching their course material and will cover the standardized exam topics.  Michael will cover specific extra topics in each course, that he feels would be good additions to the existing material.

Michael will also likely give some workshops and seminars, especially starting late October. The college plans to invite faculty from other institutions, and possibly some students too. He and Hiren worked out a list of teaching and seminar topics on Friday and Saturday.

The work week here is six days, Monday through Saturday, and faculty teach a certain number of hours per week.  The engineering class times range from 10 AM to 5 PM. There is a half-hour break for lunch.  A majority of the students stay in "hostels" (dormitories) on campus.  Some additional students stay off-campus, and commute from the surrounding areas.

The engineering college has fewer female students than male students; I think it's not as bad a ratio as it is in the US, but it's still about a two-to-one ratio. The girls sit separately, too; female students cluster together at the front of one half of the classroom, and male students on the other half and behind them.  They also have separate dormitories ("hostels") and eat at a separate dorm cafeteria ("mess").

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