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$44,000 Worth of Shits and Giggles

I’ve joined a group of 40 men and woman who are all interested in learning the history of Delhi .  The group is called Seven Cities, a reference to the number of times Delhi has been veni-vidi-vici’d over the last 1000 years.  Everyone chooses a city, researches its history and gives a tour of the site.

Does it surprise you when I say that I am the student who sits in the front of the class, the parishiner who marches to the first pew, and the volunteer who offers to present the first city, knowing that I have only two weeks to prepare?

And so, I’m in the midst of working on my tour of Delhi’s first ancient city with three very smart and energetic women:  Nicole from England, Linda from the U.S. and Joyce from the Netherlands.   I won’t bore you with the details of history, although I find them fascinating, but I will give you the CNN synopsis:

Delhi’s first city dates back to the 11th century.  It was built by a warrior clan who was overthrown by another warrior clan who were overthrown by Afghan invaders.  The Afghan occupier of Delhi didn’t have an heir and his favorite Turkish slave inherited  the city – beginning 100 years of what is now called the Slave Dynasty.   This is also the beginning of many centuries of muslim occupation of north India. Delhi’s first mosque was built during the slave dynasty, as was a very picturesque victory tower, or minaret.

Here’s a look at the remains of the great arches along the western wall of that mosque I mentioned:

And here are pillars along the cloisters in the mosque.  They are reused remnants from destroyed Hindu and Jain temples.   The elaborate ornamentation on the pillars were covered with plaster when they were used to build the mosque and some figures are mutilated or plastered backwards into the columns and their backs inscribed with verse from the Quran.  This is because natural life forms are forbidden to adorn Islamic architecture.  In contrast, Hindu architecture is elaborately adorned with tendrils of leaves and flowers, animal gods, and human forms.

Moving on to living history and a story that refuses to end:  Jim was shat on by the shit-on-the-shoe guy for a THIRD time!  This has got to be a local record.  (For my new readers, see http://www-standupcomedy.blogspot.com/2009/09/toilet-talk.html for the original story and http://www-standupcomedy.blogspot.com/2009/09/quick-epilogues.html for the follow up.)  He says he nearly killed the guy this time, probably out of complete embarrassment that he keeps falling victim.

If you’re too lazy to read the back stories, here’s a quick review:   There’s a guy downtown who puts shit on unsuspecting people’s shoes and then offers to clean it for a fee.  HOW he manages to get the shit on the top of the shoe remains a mystery – but he’s quite skilled.  I think big, western-sized leather loafers make the perfect landing spot.  I’m now so curious about the guy that I want to get shat on, too!  I’ve considered decoying myself but Jim says the man will never target a woman.  I have to try… for shits and giggles!

(And speaking of… I have just just just this minute accepted a request to address the men at a Burns Night party Saturday eve.  What the hell am I going to say….???  You can be certain that I’ll have a bit of scotch in me  – funny speeches are not my forte.  Jim is going to shake his head in that way that only he can when he looks at me and asks, What the hell have you gotten yourself into?  OR…. How are you going to embarrass me this time?)

My busyness this week has included entertaining the kids on YET ANTOHER DAY OFF FROM SCHOOL, this time for India’s 60th Republic Day.  We had a picnic, played frisbee and went roller skating:

When we returned home from the picnic we heard the call of a snake charmer walking down our street and we invited him to entertain us:


I also had an interesting dinner this week with a group of trailing spouses – all of us looking to reinvent ourselves and/or to make money.   I discovered that my interests are too many, that my skills are too few, and that there’s probably little chance that I’ll ever achieve the one and only meager financial goal I set for myself many years ago and have yet to achieve:  to earn the equivalent  in annual salary as my age times 1000!

Maybe it’s time to inflate my age…

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“He prayeth best, who loveth best All things both great and small…”

I’ve mentioned dogs in Delhi and elsewhere a few times in my musings – that’s because there are oodles of them.  In delhi alone, there are an estimated 300,000 stray pups and the city is trying to reduce this number for the Commonwealth Games in October.  There’s a campaign to sterilize 70-percent of the stray dogs in the areas of the city with the most strays per kilometer.  Past efforts at population control have included “relocating” them.

What strikes me most about street dogs here is that no one seems to mind them.  Neighbors feed them, attend to their wounds, sometimes even see that they are fixed.  I watched a man on a busy street corner accidently step on a dog underfoot and fold his hands in prayer, chanting “sorry sorry” to the yelping animal.  Hindus believe that all living forms are divine to varying degrees, and that humans are most precious because these souls have earned their ascension after reincarnating from lower life forms.  So, a dog has a soul and deserves a certain amount of respect.

During mosquito season, our car is often buzzing with the critters and the kids and I have a ritual where we spend the first five minutes in the car smacking away – an extermination dance of sorts.  My driver prefers to open the window and encourage the mozzies to fly away.  I’m sure he thinks we’re barbarous, but mosquitos here carry all sorts of disease – some, like dengue, are not curable.  I think my driver truly sees those flying fleas as tiny manifestations of God.

But back to dogs and the common care afforded them here.  In the neck of the woods where I frequent, which is mostly in the more moneyed regions of south Delhi, it’s not uncommon to run across a street dog wearing a coat to fend off cold.  My friend Lola tells me that dog owners will often recycle used doggy coats and give them to strays.   Take a look:

The dogs in India seem particularly lethargic.  They plop down for a nap anywhere:  in the middle of the street, along heavily populated walkways, in the trash.  This little guy was sitting outside of my neighborhood convenience store.  Notice the burned log to the left – remnants of a nighttime bonfire.  And don’t let the trash fool you.  This dog is living in Delhi’s 90210:

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I’m never bored with the bonfires.  These guys are warming up at the flower market:

And you can’t have fire without fuel.  These women probably used a long bamboo pole with a hook on the end to pull dead branches from trees.  On my run today I watched three little girls, younger than Olivia collecting wood in this manner.  Once you knock the wood down, you have to get it home.  I took this photo in front of the kids’ school:

And the colors, the COLORS!  These ladies are stringing garland:

Take a peek at a typical January morning here in Delhi.  It’s foggy and cold  – and it makes the tombs and ruins that pepper this city all the more mysterious!

And who will be the first to identify the title of this post?  Surprise me… someone other than my mother, please!  (She knows everything!)

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Justice isn’t Elementary in India

I’ve always had  a soft spot for Robert Downey, Jr.  Maybe it’s his boyishness, sweet smile, seeming vulnerability?   Sometimes attraction is not so easily explained.  So when I saw his picture in the local paper, of course I stopped to read the article.  It was not  a review of his latest movie, which I haven’t seen, but I hear disappoints.  Rather, this was a commentary about the dearth of modern crime fiction in India.  The writer asks:

“What is the point of a private eye, no matter how impressive, if his exertions in nabbing the bad guys comes to naught when confronted by a corrupt police force, a slow judiciary and a venal political class?”

I’m not an avid crime fiction reader and don’t know much of the genre outside of Agatha Christie, which I consumed as a teenager, and the Louisiana-seasoned novels of James Lee Burke, which I enjoyed during my residency in Cajun country.  However, I was intrigued by the author’s claim that Indian writers veered away from traditional crime fiction because they didn’t have the imagination to write a story where good trumps evil and where the institutions of civil society equitably serve the people.

So what, exactly is the problem?  I came across another item in the newspaper today that helps explain.  It’s about  police in India operating beyond the law.  The remnants of colonialism persist in a police force that still sees itself accountable only  to the government and not to the people.  Interestingly, police are recruited from dominant castes in the area that they serve.  Politicians are closely tied to recruitment and police departments serve the politicians by keeping crime stats artificially low.  This means that when the average citizen lodges a complaint or reports a crime, it often isn’t registered.  Or, as I wrote about earlier, police seek bribes and the cost of bribery lies far beyond the means of the average citizen.  People don’t trust the police, there’s apparently little effort to investigate crimes and shoddy work at best when it is done.

The author of the crime fiction commentary calls on readers and writers alike to shed their cynicism and to believe: ” Perhaps, if Indian writers produced more works of ‘imagination-driven faith’, it might be possible to inspire at least younger citizens with a sense of the legitimacy of justice for one and all.”

In 2006 the supreme court in India took on police reform and ordered a massive cleanup, but apparently, states are not complying with the directives and the supreme court isn’t holding them in contempt.

If the supreme court can’t inspire justice, then who can?  Maybe all India has left is the crime novelist!

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I had my first run as a 44 year old today and it felt great!  I ran outside in the morning, soupy chill and actually had a red, cold nose and frozen fingers.  In the Delhi heat, I dream of being cold like this.  Anyway, there I was jogging along, having a good old think about this and that, him and her, yesterday and today – you know how the mind wanders – when an oldie played on my ipod and I was thrown back years to middle school.  Remember Journey’s “Faithfully”?  I used to croon to this song with my best friend, Mary.  The sad bit of this is that Mary died in a car accident when I was 18.  But the good bit of this is that 26 years later, I still think of her and happily sing to Journey!

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And that same run got me thinking about the year ahead.  I’ve entertained the thought of compiling a list of things that I want to accomplish in my lifetime,  but that seems daunting and more like an exercise in disappointment.  Last night at dinner, a friend asked me to tell her about my three best years so far.  GREAT QUESTION!  I gave her two before we were interrupted, but the truth is, the third year was more difficult for me to identify.  I can easily think of  three bad years – and that’s a good thing because there are fewer of them.  The good years are far more plentiful.  I think my third answer is more of a compilation – all of my summers spent with my grandparents in north Cornwall, England.  These summers were fresh and free and ever so removed from my life in Baltimore.  SO – this year, it is this that I want to do – and maybe publicly sharing it will motivate me to see it through:  visit my grandparents’ graves.  They rest on a windy hillside overlooking the north Atlantic. How romantic is that?

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And finally, my latest adventures with George.  Some of you know his history with the emergency room – like the time he drank half a bottle of Robitussin and knocked himself out cold;  the time he ate 42 pieces of Xylitol sugar-free gum; the broken door knob that got stuck on his hand when he inserted his index finger into the missing lock cylinder (this one required the intervention of a hand surgeon!); and let’s not forget the motorcycle that hit him in Vietnam.  All has been quiet in India, but that doesn’t mean he’s not looking for trouble.  The other day I noticed that four birth control pills were missing from the cute little package that looks just like the gum that you pop through foil.   I think that even an Indian investigative unit couldn’t botch this case – George admits to playing with them but not eating them.  I’m betting that his painful hour on the toilet that day might be evidence enough.  We did call poison control in NYC as a precaution.  Turns out you can’t OD on birth control pills… so eat up ladies!

And the latest in photos.  Here are two little girls who approached me for money in the beautiful Lodi Gardens.  I gave them peanut butter sandwiches but that didn’t suffice.  They hung around and I tried to play with them for a bit.  The girl in the red is wearing a wooden cross attached to a string around her neck.  I fingered the cross because it was beautiful in its simplicity – and it reminded me of one I had just like it when I was a little girl.  I gave it to a friend years later.

Driving hazard #480 – a camel:

I went to the opera last week and saw a French-Indian collaboration, “If I were King”.  The lighting and acoustics could have been better but it was surprisingly well done:

PLEASE can I take him home, mama?

The four women celebrating with me all have amazing stories to share…

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Warming Hands and Heart

It’s cold here in Delhi!  What’s cold?  Mid-40’s at night – 50’s by day.  The air is wet and the chill is difficult to shake – especially when you don’t have heat – and most people here, don’t.   Around the city you see women wearing socks with their flip flops, men wrapped in scarves, bodies lying on the sidewalk bundled in burlap or other scrap fabric.  Yesterday, I read a commentary in the paper about bonfires, which is a common way for people to keep warm.  The author was waxing poetic about how the bonfire  in north India is an invitation, or “motel of warmth”  where one can stop, warm your hands and your spirits with others gathered around the flame – and then move on to your destination or to the next bonfire down the road.

Inspired, I joined these women who happened to be on my path this morning:

Notice the cell phone, the knitting, the fire of wood and trash and maybe even cow dung.  Here’s a photo of dung cakes.  They are mixed with something – grass, hay, corn husks, trash, usable waste of some form.  I’m not entirely clear about what goes into the concoction but it’s used for fuel:

And leaving you with a good laugh at my expense, here’s my latest adventure with henna.   I exposed my foot to the chill and let a beggar in the park decorate it – only to later discover that she laced me with mud and did a poor job, to boot!  (Beware:  I haven’t shaved since the beach – you may not want to click on this photo!!)

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The Plane to Nowhere and Sufism

I’ve been sitting here trying to figure out how to frame my day and share it with you – but after several lousy starts I’ve concluded that some stories just need to be told and not worked.

Before we went to the beach, I had heard about a man who gave ordinary people rides on a Boeing simulator that he bought and parked in the middle of a large village. With the help of a friend who had met the gentleman, we made reservations to board the plane yesterday.  I told the kids and my housekeeper, nanny and driver (why do I always feel defensive when I write about my help?)  that we were going on an adventure together.   I also invited the driver to bring his 3-year-old son.

For a nominal fee, we collected our boarding passes, climbed the stairs and entered the plane.  Onboard, we ate snacks and a light lunch, learned how to wear a life jacket and what to do in the case of an emergency, toured the cockpit and cargo hold, and exited via the emergency slide!

The owner, Mr. Gupta,  finances the simulator by renting it out for “air hostess” training, but the raison d’etre of the project is to give ordinary citizens who may never have an opportunity to fly the experience of entering an airplane and simulating a flight.

Of course, my worldly kids were bored with the seat-based activities and lecture but the cockpit and slide were a huge hit:

This row seats my helper fairies and little Deepu, the driver’s son:

I love this shot of my nanny, Bhina and her Sari flying down the slide:

George demonstrating how to inflate the life vest.

Afterwards, we went to my driver’s house for a “thank you” tea.  For those of you familiar with my blog since August, here’s a picture of Jagmohan’s 5-month old son, Tanuj.    I attended his naming ceremony in early September.  (Pics on old site:  http://www-standupcomedy.blogspot.com)

Last night, we met friends for an early dinner at an Australian restaurant where the hamburgers are short of divine but as close to good as we are going to get here in India.  Desire feeds off absence and I have never craved beef the way I do now!

After dinner we went to the tomb of Nizamuddin, a Sufi poet and saint.  Sufism is a mystical form of Islam.  Some Sufi muslims use music and dance as a form of prayer and avenue to connect with God.  In the most profound state of prayer, Sufis enter a trance  or mystical ecstasy – and they  “whirl” in dance – thus known as whirling dervishes.   Sufis also have shrines to honor their saints and holy advisors. This form of Isam is very popular in India because it seems more accessible and in some ways, similar to the idolatry practiced by Hindus and some Christians.

Here is Nizzamudin’s tomb.  He lived during the 13th century.  Only men are permitted to enter and throw rose petals on the tomb.  Women gather and pray outside:

I stuck the lense of my camera into the screen separating the women from the tomb and shot this:

We sat outside the tomb to listen to musicians and prayers:

I have a friend who lives in the neighborhood and I intend to go back during the day to see the charitable schools and feeding centers run by the Sufi community.  We passed through a labyrinth of alleys and stalls to find the tomb and had to leave our shoes along the way before entering the shrine area.  Here’s a typical stall selling roses for the tombs.  The flowers were delightfully fragrant:

And while we are on topic – look at all of these roses!  It’s Delhi’s International Rose Garden.  I went this week and almost whirled in ecstasy myself!

And this friends, is a very happy Theo:

Have a great week!  My kids return to school on Monday and I have lots of new goodies on my plate this next semester, all of which you will get to enjoy with me…

xoxo

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My Weird Life, and all that…

A few  last minute notes on our escape to the coast:

Overheard at the reservation desk:  Customer –  “I can accept a frog in my bathroom, but a monkey?”

Overheard by the pool:  Eddie’s new playmate to the pool staff –   “Towel Boy!…. ”

Feasted:  Bed bugs on my hand, arm, back and leg and one bite to the eye that left me with a huge blood blister on the eyelid.

Illegal in the states:  The massage I had on Sunday…

Air Marshal Wannabe:  Me.  When two men sitting two rows in front of me left their seats during the plane’s descent, entered the front cabin and closed the curtain behind them… I instantly hopped up and reported them to the cabin crew behind me and a male attendent raced to the front of the plane.    Turns out that the men were “first time fliers”.   It’s still unclear what they were doing.  (Was I influenced by the white bandana one man was wearing and the loud music coming from his cell phone during the flight?)  This could lead to a good discussion on prejudice.  What did I think I saw?  What did I really see?

Vacation High:  My  run with the resort Weimeraner.  He was on the beach and joined me when he saw me jogging off.  This was my first run with a dog.  He stayed with me the entire 45 minutes and protected me all along the beach.  I ran north instead of south this time and there were long stretches of natural beach and lots of wild dogs living in the brush.   I probably would have turned around had he not been with me.  But what a joy to watch him play in the surf – run ahead to scout the dangers – hang behind and cover my back when we passed a pack of dogs.

And a few final photos.  Here’s a rare shot… Georgie looking (and being) ever so sweet.  This child really tugs at my heart.  (Tramples it and chews it up as well! )

I woke up one morning, stumbled outside and found Eddie here.  He likes mama bear’s hammock!

Eddie was hit by a ricocheting BB from a balloon shooting game in the kids’ club:

Sunset kissed:

She loves me – She loves me not….  ah, my little mini-me is so much herself and it makes me wild with pride.

And in less than 24 hours we went from bathing suits to sweaters.  Mom – this one is for you… see, I AM working on it:

Whirling Dirvishes on the agenda this week… stay tuned.

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Feeling Like a Rock Star

If you want to feel like a rock star all you need to do is jog along the beach in southeast India.  Scores of children from fishing villages along the coast will run to your side and yell and cheer and want to slap skin – it’s a pleasant ego trip and endorphin high all wrapped into one late afternoon of exercise!

I am writing to you from a lazy, ecologically friendly, ayurvedic resort just north of Pondicherry, India.  (Cool in concept and surprisingly child friendly – even though the ketchup is homemade!)  It’s been such a crazy five months that we decided at the last minute to flee Delhi and recharge with clean air and sunshine.  We were also motivated with news that we would lose an NYT paid-for R&R if we didn’t use it by the end of the year.

The coast here is undeveloped and beautiful but a bit weary from neglect.  It’s dotted with fishing villages and polluted with the refuse that comes from them, but the natural beauty here is very real and just needs the healthy protection of sound environmental laws and tourist money put to good use.

During my run yesterday, I passed through a stretch of beach used by locals as their bathroom.  It was a shelf of sand, steep from erosion and it rested about three feet from breaking surf.  There was only room to run in the soft sand along the top of the shelf which made my run difficult and sluggish.  Dotted every few feet along this spot was pile after pile of human poo.  I literally ran through dozens of droppings – all resting in  scooped-out sand bowls and waiting for the surf to wash them away.  Yes, it was gross but I’m growing hardy to such sights.  What I thought of most as I ran through this poo-field was that the depositors have quite a view of the Bay of Bengal!  I also wondered whether I should let the kids frolic in the sea…  but that thought passed as quickly as it came.  Here we are – all having a good play:

We’ve had quite a few laughs here – like when we ordered a banana split (listed on the menu) and were served a banana sliced in half.  And when Jim ordered “two bowls” of spaghetti for the kids and two empty bowls arrived.  I think the English among some of the staff here is only two-words deep into a sentence.

We’ve ridden the local elephant, Laxmi…

…and milked the resort cows:

Lounged around our thatched hut…

And swam in the eco-friendly, elevated pool…

But this was my favorite spot:

I’m reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Love in the Time of Cholera”… one chapter between naps.

I’m hoping 2010 brings lots of time to read and laugh!

Happy New Year, all….