Sunday, August 30, 2009

Final Days of Ganesh Chaturthi

Ganesh Chaturthi is an 11 day celebration, culminating when villages transport their Ganesh to a lake and immerse it, watching it dissolve. As Ganesh dissolves he takes away with him the misfortunes of his devotees.
I was lucky one morning to be out when this procession of three tractors, each with their own large Ganesh and many smaller ones passed me by. A group of men led the way, playing drums, singing and dancing. Children sat on the back of the tractor, laughing having a lot of fun.
I've learned a couple important terms during this celebration. The temporary tent temples that I described in the last post are called Pandals. Puja is a sacred ritual that Hindu people perform, to pray and adore their deities.
The stalls selling the Ganesh statues have disappeared and the Pandals stand empty, all signs that the celebration is coming to an end...until next year that is.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Ganesh Chaturthi

This is why we are in India - to experience the people and their culture! Ganesh Chaturthi is the ten day celebration of the birth of Lord Ganesh, the elephant-headed son of Shiva and Parvati. For a couple weeks now, we noticed stalls popping up filled with colorful statues of Ganesh, from palm-sized ones to almost life-size (elephant) ones, that had to be driven in the back of a pickup truck.
Saturday, the day before the start of the celebration was particularly festive. People were out to purchase their Ganesh statue, as we would a Christmas tree, checking them out from all angles, checking for color and looking for the perfect one to take home to the family.
We had gone out for lunch and had done a bunch of errands, driving here and there, watching everyone out on the streets. Finally I couldn't stand it, I asked the driver to pull over and made everyone get out so we could walk and mingle with the Indian people. Right away kids came up to us and people smiled and said hello. It was a busy street, lined with hundreds of statues, ladies selling flower garlands and handmade glittery decorations, and others selling giant banana leaves.
The next day was the start of the celebration and we decided to walk to a village just down the road from our house. We saw a temple with a giant Shiva statue sitting ontop, but before we got to it we came upon a small, temporary temple set up on the side of the road, made of blue tarps and banana leaves. It was like a tent and inside was a statue of Ganesh and offerings of food and flowers. It was decorated with garlands and Christmas lights.
A small group of people were there, both adults and children, and they waved us in. Michael and I took off our shoes and stood in one of two lines as they handed out handfuls of flower petals. We followed their lead and threw them on the statue. Next, a small flame, red powder and coconut water were brought around. Everyone waved the flame towards themselves, and painted a red dot on their own forehead. We drank (pretended) a bit of the coconut water and then threw the rest over our heads signifying God's blessing. Lastly, someone brought around some food which looked like puffed wheat which we politely declined.
Alanna and Craig looked a little uncomfortable and did not partake in the ritual, but they did allow the people to put the red dot on their forehead.
Across the street was the big temple and again Michael and I went in to see the people and their rituals. When we came out a lot of kids had gathered and they asked us to follow them to their Ganesh. So off we went down a dirt road and we came upon their little tent made of tarps and banana leaves. Inside was a small ganesh, the fire, food and all the decorations.
They were thrilled to have us there and they all wanted their picture taken. Then they would run up to see themselves on the digital screen. It was delightful and Alanna and Craig both went in the temple with the kids. Some of the parents came and laughed when they saw us and offered us some food, which we again declined. After we had taken all the pictures and had shaken everyones hands and said goodbye, we carried on with our walk. It was such a nice experience, it is what we will remember.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The OWC (Overseas Women's Club)

I joined the OWC last week - they are both a social and a charitable organization made up of over 900 (mostly) women. I'd checked out their website before I even got to Bangalore and knew that it would be a great place to meet people and get involved with charities - they fundraise and distribute money to 25 local charities.

When we decided to move to Bangalore one of my goals was to volunteer at a charity. I knew that I would have lots of time on my hands, and if I couldn't find a charity to get involved with in India, there must be something seriously wrong.

Every Thursday morning OWC members get together at Leela Palace Hotel for coffee. It's a good time for newcomers to join and meet other newbies and talk to others who have been in Bangalore for a year or two. With most people here for only two years, membership is ever changing.

So last week, with the kids finally in school, off I went to join and somehow, I am now not just volunteering for a charity, but have volunteered to be on the Charity Commitee. I will have three or four charities that I will be responsible for, determining their needs, allocating money and seeing that the money is put to proper use. I am really looking forward to meeting with the committee and visiting the charities.

Wow, I must say the OWC is very organized. On the social side, there seems to be a club for just about everything: book club, writing club, wine appreciation club, cooking club and on and on. They organize monthly speakers, road trips, lunches etc. I joined up for two things next month. One is a hands on cooking class at Caperberrys Restaurant (where we went for my birthday lunch) and the other is lunch at an Indian Restaurant. Both were only 600INR ($14 Can).

The OWC publishes a monthly magazine with info about upcoming events and interesting articles related to Bangalore and India. They have also published a book, a survival guide really, called In & Out of Bangalore. It is fabulous, and when I got my hands on it about a month ago it was such a relief to have so much information all in one place.

I have to say that the company Michael works for did very little to help us out when we arrived. I felt like we were aliens dropped onto another planet. We didn't know emergency phone numbers, what hospital to go to, where to shop for food, what is safe to eat, what water to use etc. Everything is in this book!

It was good to get out and talk to people and find out some new bits of information. Like one person who lives close to where I do - she told me about the Ham Shop, just a couple doors down from the mosque. The next day we went and bought bacon and it was delicious! Another person had such a bad dental experience he's opened his own dental clinic. And there were others who were newer than me and I was giving them advice.

It's a good group of interesting people from all around the world. A lot of people are still on summer holidays and so the social events and charity meetings are on hold until Sept. Looking forward to when things start up, but for this month I'll at least go to the Thurs. coffee mornings.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Monsoon Floods House

The monsoon arrived last night. We woke up around 1:30am to a major thunder and lightning storm. The rain was coming down in torrents. We lied awake and listened to the storm and watched the lightning for at least 45 minutes. When it started to quiet down I went to get out of bed and that’s when I found my feet in three inches of water.

What a feeling! We got up and realized that the balcony off our bedroom wasn’t draining. Well, it was draining – through the door and into our bedroom. The whole floor was flooded and it was threatening to go into the hall and down the stairs. Michael went out to try to unclog the drain outside and I started mopping the floor.

We phoned the property manager who said he would send someone in the morning. Of course we said no, he had to send someone right away. In fact, the water had started to seep through the walls into the living room.

There was so much water on the balcony that Michael couldn’t find the drain and I wasn’t getting far with the mopping. Did I mention the electricity was out? Thank goodness we brought our headlamps – they’ve really come in handy.

No one came and so we phoned the property manager again – big surprise, his phone was turned off. Michael got ahold of someone else who said to try the maintenance people at our complex. Out he went in the rain and found someone who could come soon – after they unplugged a drain at another house.

We started moving furniture in the living room. The floor was getting really wet. And Michael started dumping water over the balcony with a pot. Finally a guy came and brought a big long pole and was able to unclog the drain.

The floor was still flooded but there wasn’t much else we could do. Went back to bed and then we heard the mosquitoes buzzing around. On came the flashlight, and Michael became “Mosquito Man,” swatting, missing, swatting, killing. The mosquitoes were winning. He finally had the brilliant idea to put on mosquito spray and we settled in for an hours sleep before the kids had to get up for school (yes, on Saturday but that's another story).

We got the kids on the bus and then went back to bed till 10:30. The property manager finally arrived just after that and we convinced him that he had to get someone in today to clean up the water. Took a couple hours but he and someone’s maid cleaned it up. We got the electricity back on and the internet has been intermittent.

As for the water damage, we’ll worry about that next week. Luckily nothing much of ours was damaged, just our new bedspread. And we will have pest control in on Monday to get rid of mosquitoes and anything else that may have gotten in.

They were the best of days, they were the worst of days...

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Sea Wallapping at Cherai Beach, Kerala

As promised, ten year old Craig is my guest blogger. Here is his account of Cherai Beach:

"At Cherai Beach we went high wave jumping and built sand castles. It was sooooo much fun! Until the second day:( we were walking on the beach with big waves right at shore. First, I tripped then came a big wave which smashed me into the rocks. I got a big bruise on my thigh, good cut on my foot, bump on my head and blood on my knee which, after a few days is still hurting and sore but other than that great trip!!!"

Well that about sums it up in a nutshell from Craig.

I'll elaborate a little but I'm sure my account won't be half as exciting:

From the houseboat we took a 2 1/2 hour taxi ride to Cherai Beach (1000INR). The drive was ok except through the city of Ernakulum which is big, busy and full of grey highrises. Made me appreciate Bangalore with all the trees, parks and low buildings.

We stayed at Cherai Beach Resort. Our hut looked out over a peaceful lake. And just across the road from the resort is the Arabian Sea. It was so nice to swim in the ocean. Actually the waves were big, you couldn't really swim. In fact you couldn't let your guard down or you would get pounded by a huge wave. Hence, Alanna coined a new term, "sea walloping." We all had so much fun trying to jump higher than the wave, diving under or trying to body surf. And if we didn't time it right we got a good "sea walloping!"

The beach was long and sandy but they are in the process of building up a breakwater with boulders between the road and the sand. I guess when it gets stormy the water would easily swamp the road.

We booked the "Monsoon Package" - 2 nights, including all meals for 12,200INR (for four of us). The food was good for the most part. The Kerala fish in banana leaf was excellent, as was the mango milkshake and fresh grape juice.

The Monsoon Package also included an Ayurvedic Massage for both Michael and I. We decided to take advantage of it the first night. We didn't know where to go so we went to reception and they sent us off with a little old man to show us the way. We followed him to the lake and he motioned for us to get into the boat. Oh oh, we thought there must be some mistake and we tried to explain that we were going for a massage, not a boat ride. But he nodded vigorously, saying, "massage, massage." And so we got into the narrow canoe and he paddled us a short way to some huts. Off we got and sure enough this was the massage hut.

An older Indian woman and a man were waiting for us. We each went to a separate room, me with the woman, and Michael with the man. The room was bare bones, with a massage table with no linen on it at all. There was a two burner gas stove. One side was heating up oils, the other side was heating up water.

I lied down on the table and she plied me with so much oil that I was scared that I would slide right off the table. It was an odd but relaxing hour. After the massage I stood up and she had a tall drink ready and she said to drink it all at once. She spoke little English so I have no idea what it was but I drank it (I was a little bit scared of her). The drink didn't have much taste.

Then she put me into a steam shower, the kind that looks like a small capsule. You step into it and the door shuts around your body, with just your head sticking out. The hot water on the stove was heating up the steam shower. I sat there for about ten minutes by myself, sweating. She let me out and I had quite the time showering and trying to get the oil off of me and out of my hair.

Next she gave me another drink and a small pill which again I took but had no idea what it was. Then she had a small bowl of red, brown and white "paint" which she put on my forehead. That was the finishing touch and she walked me out to wait for Michael. Of course I was still sweating from the steam bath and immediately wiped my brow. Oops...she took me back in and redid my forehead.

Back to the beach. On the second day we decided to walk along the beach to where we had seen more people in the water the day before. The tide was right up to the rocks and down further there was a bit of a beach. When we got there no one else was there.
The kids jumped into the water but Michael and I noticed a group of fifteen guys coming down the beach towards us. Sure enough they stopped and sat on the rocks and stared at us. This is pretty common because there aren't many tourists on the beach and the Indian guys just stare at the westerners in their bathing suits.

We felt a little uncomfortable, being the only ones there so we decided to walk back to our beach by the resort. I took the road and Michael and the kids decided to walk along the shore. This is where Craig's story comes in.
Michael had a backpack on and was carrying four towels and the kids each had a towel around them. I lost sight of them as the rocks hid them from view. So after a bit I climbed the rocks to see where they were. That's when I saw Michael up to his waist in water and the backpack getting soaked. Waves were crashing into him and he was stumbling. Then I look behind him and I see the kids climbing up the rocks.

I start waving to Michael to come up the rocks but he wouldn't. So I went to help the kids. Just as I got to them about ten guys in matching blue shirts come running up, looking very concerned. I'm assuming they were lifeguards. Sure enough Craig had hit his head on the rocks and had some scrapes on his arms and legs. Alanna had some scrapes as well.
Luckily nothing more serious happened, the waves were really crashing in. The three of them had another good "sea walloping" and I think we all learned a good lesson that waves and rocks don't mix - at least don't put yourself between them.

So that was it for the morning, we walked back to the hut pretty dazed. Took it easy, had lunch and rested. But then we decided we didn't want to end the trip like that so off we went in the afternoon when the tide was out again. The kids jumped right in and didn't come out for 1 1/2 hours. We had a blast and watched the sun go down.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Kerala Backwaters

Got picked up from our hotel in Cochin by taxi and made our way to the Kerala backwaters at Kumarakom, near Kottayam. It was Sunday morning and the streets were filled with people walking to church. There is a large Christian population in Kerala and every church was overflowing with people standing outside.

We boarded the houseboat at 11:00 A.M. and took off shortly thereafter. The boat is a traditional kettuvallam (rice barge) and has two floors. There are two small bedrooms, an eating area and a kitchen on the lower floor. The upper balcony has a seating area and a mattress and pillows to lounge on and watch the scenery go by.
We began on a medium size canal and then made our way onto a huge lake (Vembanad Lake) and cruised along the shoreline. Three guys took care of us - the cook, the captain and the assistant. The cook was especially friendly and spoke pretty good English. He made us an excellent lunch, including some flavorful little fish, served whole of course.
We spent most of the afternoon on the lake, which got a little boring because there wasn't much to see in the way of village life. However, late in the afternoon we came to Alleppey and we were able to go on the larger canals. The houseboat is too big to go on the small canals. It was nice to see people and life on the water. Riverboat taxi's cruise people back and forth, people wash dishes, clothes and themselves in the river. The pace slowed and it sure felt like a different India. People paddled and sang and laughed and waved.
The famous Kerala snakeboat race was a week away and we were able to see some of the teams practising. They are similar to dragon boats, being long and narrow. But the snakeboat is even longer and there are a lot more people paddling. There's a lot of excitement surrounding the big race. They were building the starting gates and the grandstands at the finish line. On the backwaters, the snakeboats are the only ones who are fast and loud.
We stopped along the river to buy beer at one place and at another, the "Ice Cream Corner," we bought jumbo prawns to have for dinner on the boat. Then we were back on the lake and it was enjoyable and incredibly relaxing. 
At 5:30 P.M. we docked at a small village. All large boats must be off the lake from 5:30 P.M. - 8:00 A.M. to allow the fishermen to go out and set up their nets for the night.We went for a walk through the village. Kids ran out and waved or asked for pens, which sadly we were not prepared for. Must remember to keep some in the backpack. 
Back to the boat and the cook set Craig up with a homemade fishing line - he used bamboo for the rod and chapati dough for bait. Craig caught four fish, including two Kerala sharks - he was thrilled. In the end he threw them all back in the water. I think he did it to make his sister happy - considering she ran to her room crying and calling him a murderer.
At nightfall, the fishermen set out to lay their nets in the water. We had dinner at 8:00 P.M. and went to bed early at 10:00 P.M. Were we in in for a long night. The guys had a generator on to keep the A/C running, but it was so loud that we asked them to turn it off. We thought we would just use the fan in our room. Big mistake. It turned out to be even louder. Then there were the pillows - why would they would give us pillow cases filled with cement? And the sheets - they reeked of that dusky, damp monsoon smell. 
Surprisingly, I did mange to fall asleep right away, but woke up at 1:00 A.M. and so did Michael. We tossed and turned until 5:30 A.M. when we got up and went outside. Worth it though because that is when I took this award winning photo (Global Adjustments 4th Annual Beautiful India Photo Competition):

The sun rose and the fishermen were out to retrieve their nets and their catch. The palm trees made beautiful silhouettes. Even though we were  exhausted we appreciated the peacefulness and the beauty. Soon everyone was up and we were on our way, cruising the lake and down another canal for a couple hours til the end of our journey.
Personally, if I were to do it again, I would go to Alleppey and hire a small boat to tour the backwaters. The best part of the trip was on the canals and I'd rather tour the small ones and see the villages, than spend so much time on the lake. Cost for the entire twenty-four hours for a two bedroom houseboat, including meals for the four of us - 8000INR ($200Can).
I'll post the last part of the trip (Cherai Beach) soon and you can look forward to my guest blogger: Craig!

Friday, August 7, 2009

School Orientation

There was excitement in the air as we drove up to the new school. New uniforms, new books, new pens and pencils. There was a meeting scheduled at 10:15 for new students but we arrived at 9:30 to go through admissions, arrange transport (school bus), and numerous other "stations."

We found the sports complex, otherwise known as the gym, and the kids were asked to sit in the "waiting bay" as I was given homework to do. I had to update emails, phone numbers, address etc. and another form re: food preferences, allergies and vaccinations. Important things like veg or non veg. Do they eat ghee, mutton, or pork? I was sure I had filled this out previously and of course I didn't have all the info about vaccinations with me. Oh yes, I remembered, I had filled it out in Canada and brought it with me - it was sitting in a file folder back at the house.

Got through that and onto transportation. The school has a fleet of 22 buses that pick up and drop off all the kids. Alanna and Craig get picked up just around the corner from our house at 7:50am and dropped off at home at 4:35pm. I think they should get to school within 1/2 hour. They go to their classroom, drop off their stuff and then proceed to the dining hall for breakfast. Did I say breakfast? Yes I did. Both breakfast and lunch are provided! Yipee! Think of the time saved in the morning. They just get up, get dressed and go! One of my pet peeves is thinking up things to give them for lunch. I have a two year reprieve, I am so going to enjoy NOT having to feed my children!

That`s all we got through and then we had to go upstairs for the meeting for new families. In walks a caucasian woman, with long dark hair, wearing six inch high heals (wedge). She has on a black and white polka dot dress with short sleeves and a full skirt. A wide belt is tied into a large bow at the waist. Well, she looks just like Minnie Mouse, I think. The big, square sunglasses sitting on top of her head could even be the signature ears.

She walked straight to the front of the room and introduced herself as the school psychologist, responsible for making our transition to a new school, new home and new country a smooth one. Actually, she spoke very well, and reassured us that the students would be assessed constantly for stress and that she had a team of counsellors available to students and the family, particularly the poor, depressed mothers left home all alone while their children are occupied at school and husbands at work.

Personally I`m relishing the thought of spending Monday alone. I should really go down to Commercial Street and pick up the curtains that I ordered last week. But there are so many other tempting options. I could go to Bliss, the Belgian chocolate lounge in the mall and have a nice cappuccino and eat all the chocolate I want - and not have to share anything. Or I could go to the pool and lounge around, order a nice cool drink and read a good book. Of course, if I get truly bored someday I could resort to...the fitness room and, ugh, exercise.

Anyway, back to the school. None of the other administrators were at the new student meeting as they were all at the scary H1N1 flu meeting (formerly known as swine flu). Yes, with children flying in at this very moment from over 50 countries the school may be in a bit of a panic. Each student will have their temperature and blood pressure checked on Monday to check for symptoms...and then what??

Back down to the gym we picked up Alanna's books, texts and both kids uniforms. They had a check list, threw everything into a bag, I signed for it and off we went home. Dumped it all out right away of course on Alanna's bed and sensed something was missing. Yes, definitely - we had multiple gym shorts, gym shirts, socks, ties, a cap for Craig, even shoes. But no UNIFORM!

Well, the kids tried on what they had and Craig looked quite good, he liked the colors and everything fit well. Alanna, on the other hand can't stand the color or design. She is appalled. The track suit was a couple inches too short in the pants and sleeves. I have to admit they are not very attractive.

Michael and I went alone in the morning to listen to administrative speeches and get some info on the IB program. The kids came in the afternoon to see their classes and teachers. Craig is in Grade five and has two very nice teachers. There are 23 in his class I think. They will be studying ancient civilizations and are talking about a two night/3 day trip to Hampi for his class at the end of the month. Hampi is an ancient city a few hours from here - should be a great experience - I hope I get to go!

Alanna, in grade seven, has a male homeroom teacher, much to her chagrin. There are three grade 7 classes (as there are three grade five classes) and I think they stay in their own class for the most part, but they will have different teachers for different subjects.

The fun part will be next week when they start to choose their activities - sports, clubs, languages and other options. And lastly we picked up the rest of their uniforms so they will have something to wear to school bright and early Monday morning.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Kerala, Day 1 & 2, Fort Cochin 44INR=$1Can

Just spent five days in Kerala, on the southwest coast of India. We took a one hour "Go Air" flight from Bangalore to Cochin. The cost was zero for the flight and 4000INR ($100Can)per person, return for taxes. Not a bad price.

The first two nights were in Fort Cochin, a great little fishing town on the Arabian Sea. It is quiet, with small buildings dating back 500 years to when the Portugese and Dutch set up shop, trading spices, teas and other wares.

The first afternoon we took a tuk tuk to the Jewish town. There is an old Synagogue and lots of shops selling jewellery, carvings, antiques and spices. Unfortunately the Synagogue is closed on Fri. and Sat. so no luck seeing it. Craig had some fun on the way back to the hotel - the tuk tuk driver let him sit up front and drive it on one of the smaller roads - big smile on his face and a lot of concentration.

All along the beach front are Chinese fishing nets. They look like giant Praying Mantises lined up one after another. A huge square net descends into the water. On the beach a group of men pull down on a bunch of ropes, lowering huge rocks (weights)and the net is raised. After they check their catch they release the rocks and the net is lowered into the water. They do this every ten minutes or so. The fish are taken to one of many stalls along the beach and are soon for sale.

The first night we stayed at Fort House. It seemed ok when we arrived and lunch at the restaurant was good. But that night it was so noisy with people yakking, dogs barking and ships sounding their horns. And dinner was awful. So the next day we moved to Arches - half the price, quiet, close to the shops and way more comfortable.

Found a good restaurant called Teapot that had mouthwatering chicken curry, good samosas, and huge pieces of Death by Chocolate - need I say more. About $12Can for the four of us to eat.

Fort Cochin was a nice way to start the trip - laid back, little traffic, and lots to see and do. Next - Kerala backwaters and Cherai Beach...

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

A Great Weekend Getaway (Published Article)

Here is an article that I wrote for the Rangoli magazine (Oct. 2009):
Fort Cochin, a quiet town on the Arabian Sea, is a one hour flight from Bangalore but feels like a world away. Fort Cochin makes for a great weekend getaway or the starting point to a trip to the Kerala backwaters, nearby Cherai Beach or elsewhere in Kerala.

There are deals to be had, especially when travelling during monsoon season. My family of four took a comfortable one hour "Go Air" flight from Bangalore to Kochi. The cost was Rs 0 (yes, zero) for the flight plus taxes, Rs 4000 each return. Not a bad price.
We quickly arranged for a prepaid taxi at the airport and set off for Fort Cochin, 90 minutes away. The town may be quiet but the port is bustling with fishing boats large and small, with horns to match. The town itself has one or two storey buildings dating back 500 years to when the Portuguese and Dutch set up shop, trading spices, teas and other wares.
The first afternoon we took a ten minute rickshaw ride to Jew town. There is a 350- year- old Synagogue, the oldest in India, and shops selling jewellery, carvings, antiques and spices. The buildings are colourful and the streets narrow.

The Synagogue is closed on Saturdays and it happened to be closed on Friday when we were there, so we missed out seeing the inside of it. But it was a nice lazy afternoon browsing in shops and sipping cappuccinos.

Fort Cochin is a walking town and the next morning we walked along the beachfront where Chinese fishing nets are set up. They look like giant Praying Mantises lined up one after another. On the beach a group of men pull down on an elaborate set of ropes, lowering huge rocks (weights) and a big square net is raised out of the water. Someone scurries out along bamboo poles to check the catch. The men release the rocks, and the net is lowered into the water again. The fish are taken to one of many stalls along the beach and are soon for sale.

The men repeat this every ten minutes or so and are happy to have tourists come and try their hand at it. Just show a bit of interest and they’ll soon be calling you over to help them out!

A short walk from the water is Princess Street, lined with shops and restaurants. We enjoyed the aromas of shops selling essential oils and pretty glass bottles to put them into. There are so many oils to choose from but I finally narrowed my favourite down to Kerala oil.

Nearby, we found Teapot, an eatery which has delicious Kerala spiced chicken curry, samosas, and huge pieces of Death by Chocolate - need I say more.

A little further on is St. Francis Church, said to be India’s oldest European church. Kerala has a large Christian population but we were still surprised to see so many churches. As we drove out of town Sunday morning, churchgoers filled the streets and the churches.

With Fort Cochin’s laid back feel and old European charm, you may feel like you’ve left the country altogether. But that’s the beauty of it – you haven’t left the country - this is just one more of the many sides of India.