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A Fairy Tale Life

Once upon today in a land far, far from there but close to here, where the mornings sound like spring and smell of summer – there lives a little girl named Olivia.

Olivia is sweet, except when she isn’t.  ISN’T is in the mornings when she yells at her brothers because… well, that’s what nearly 12-year-old girls have the right to do, apparently.

But IS is the rest of the day – through which she sings and sings and sings.  She makes everyone smile.

Olivia enters the gates of Paradise when she goes to school.   Inside, the campus rises like Never-Never Land and stretches as far as her little girl eyes care to see.   It blooms with flowers and cheerful faces.  Statues by India’s famous mosaic artist Nek Chand  blend into the landscape,  peaking from behind bushes, calling from corners.   Rumor has it that they dance and feast at night…

Outside the gates is a kaleidoscope of Chaos:  pilots with fake licenses fly airplanes, poor children poop on sidewalks because there isn’t any where else to squat.  Monkeys attack pedestrians and turbaned workers barrel-down the highway in the open air on top of trucks, scarves and kurtas blowing in the wind.  Malls teem with families at 10:30 at night.

Olivia knows the privileges of Paradise and the indiscriminate realities of Chaos.   Let it be said that it takes an extraordinary child to navigate the two.

Armed with courage that she doesn’t know she has, Olivia will travel this week without her family, something she has never done.  She is going with her school for a “week without walls” to Corbett National Park in the foothills of the Himalayas.  Tread lightlywhisper… for Corbett is the protected home of the Bengal Tiger.

And Olivia is really, REALLY scared.

Yes, a few imaginative things could go wrong on this trip.  Security is always a concern when one hundred citizens of Paradise travel far from home in a place where everything and nothing can go wrong.  The roads in Chaos sometimes look like the highway to hell – they’re pitted and narrow and dangerous and they wash-out in the rain.  Protesters from a lower caste are blockading popular travel routes in northern India until they get job quotas in the government.  These are her mama’s worries, though.  Olivia knows nothing of them.

Instead, she worries about the darkest dark, about Sher Khan creeping around her camp terrorizing mere mortals, about mischievous monkeys crawling into her tent and catty pre-teens who might laugh at her lovey, “kitty”.

Olivia won’t return the same little girl who reluctantly left her mama standing outside the gates of Paradise at 4:15 this morning.

She may have a tear and fear or two along the way, but when she alights from the bus on Friday she will know that Once Upon a Time ends in Happily Ever After.

God Willing.

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Lala won’t get to sleep in her bed when she returns friday – she will have just enough time to take a proper shower before I drag her to the airport.  We leave that night for Beijing and Hong Kong.

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Yesterday, Eddie and his best friend, Markus were playing soccer in 94-degree temps barefoot on concrete – this is how much they are addicted.  Look at this photo, (2004?) – little did we know it was a foreshadow.  That’s Ed in green and Markus in Orange… barefoot and ready to play ball.  Two little chunky monkeys well-fed on mama-milk!

Gitanjali – director of our sponsored child’s school:

Lala with Ritika.  Ritika is a  year older, yet look how much smaller she is compared to Lala:

Ritika’s classmates.  They have just finished their exams and will graduate to 7th grade in April.  Lala was shocked to hear that they don’t have summers off.  I explained that school is the safest and happiest and most interesting place for Ritika to spend her summer:

George insisted on selling old toys Saturday.  He set-up at the end of our driveway at 2 pm.  Our nanny, Bina,  warned him that everyone was sleeping then.  “Why is everyone sleeping in the middle of the day?”  He asked.

And sure enough – two hours later, come four o’clock, he had buyers!

That’s 160-pounds of love on me!

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Can One Voice Make a Difference?

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The play I’ve been working on for the last six weeks staged last night.  It was joyful to see the actresses performing as though there was nothing more natural than to act; and satisfying to see the audience responsive to the lighter moments, achingly silent during the painful ones.

They listened to the voices of:

  • Anabella De Leon, a human rights activist and congresswoman from Guatemala;
  • Mukhtar Mai, who was brutally gang raped in her village and survived to find the strength to bring her rapists to justice and to open schools and educate women in Pakistan;
  • Hafsat Abiola, an advocate for human rights, leadership for women and democracy in Nigeria;
  • Inez McCormack, leader in the fight for social justice and fair labor practices in Ireland;
  • Maria Pisklakova-Parker, a crisis counselor and tireless voice for domestic abuse victims in Russia;
  • Farida Aziz, working to emancipate women in Afghanistan and to bring peace to her country;
  • Mu Sochua, nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her work on an international agreement to stop sex trafficking in Southeast Asia.  She is now a leading member of parliament for the opposition party in Cambodia.

The cast was as diverse as the roles they portrayed:   Meena from India, Alya from Pakistan, Serke from Ethiopia, Ulrika from Sweden, Lou from England, and Deana and Alicia from the United States.

SEVEN would never have made it to stage without Patricia, the director-extraordinaire. When I met her on the sidelines of our sons’ baseball game and discovered she was involved in theatre, I knew I had found someone who could bring SEVEN from script to stage.

For the actors, it was a journey within themselves as well as a journey through the lives of the characters they portrayed.  Patricia was brilliant at helping the women identify with the tensions and resolutions that forge the path of a life. She knew the dynamics of staging and lighting and pacing;  how not to panic and how to trust that all would come together.  She was an inspiring guide on this journey.

The proceeds from the play go to Courage Homes India, a non-profit group in Delhi that is opening a transition home for children rescued from sex slavery. The number of victims here is staggering.  Every day in India, 200 girls are sold into prostitution. The co-director of Courage Homes and a human rights lawyer with Justice Ventures International spoke with the audience after the show.  They reminded us that each successfully rescued girl no longer faces being raped repeatedly every day.

We had 200 people in audience.  One person who works for a foundation told me that after seeing SEVEN he was rethinking the proportion of resources and money that his organization allocates to sex trafficking in India.

The voices of Seven are not easily denied…

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I don’t have official pictures from the performance yet, but here’s a shot of the cast, relieved and happy and celebrating:

And me talking on stage at the end of the play:

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The morning after the play, we hosted a Holi party.  Holi is an exuberant celebration of all that is good.  It is customary to throw colorful powder on friends and strangers – have friendly water-gun wars – drink, eat and share in community.   Traditional revelers consume bhang, a marijuana-like drug that is brewed into yogurt drinks.  We decided to forgo this tradition!

Here’s a peek of the fun:

Post-play and post-Holi, I found myself feeling hung-over from the excitement of the week. But all is quiet now, and I can focus on culling submissions for the middle school literary journal.

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A few photos for the grandparents….

Eddie showing off his reading skills:

Lala sharing her school work at a parent conference:

And Georgie at his music performance… my dreamy child.

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The Bubble

(you know you’re getting lazy or life is getting too busy  – or both – when you repeat yourself, such as i did with the post below.  it is life… )

It’s easy to not live in India when you live in India.  There’s a triangle that stretches from my home, to school and the American Embassy compound. If you wanted to you could live almost entirely within this space.  We call it The Bubble.  It’s not the Truman Show – but it’s close.  If you read me regularly than you know that I walkabout all over this city, but The Bubble is a blessing when you really need things to be easy.   School is not only a place to study or work – there’s community theater, visiting artists, libraries, sports, a coffee shop and bakery.  If you are with the embassy, you can live on compound and shop at the commissary.  The American club has a pool, restaurants, shops, a bowling alley, hair dresser, barber, dry cleaner, ATM, health club, tennis courts.   You can bowl, eat the sacred red meat and drink home-brew… tax-free.

I’m writing about the bubble because this week I lived within its confines.  I worked four days and didn’t have time to spread my wings.  Jim is working on book revisions so we’re back to weekends without daddy.  We tend to spend more time at home when he’s not around – that’s actually a good thing because I’m a big believer in unstructured time for kids.   Leave George to his own devises and he usually ends up making a mess “experimenting”.   Scenes like this one don’t ruffle my feathers:

A cleaner activity involved raiding daddy’s closet:

And this is classic George:  He cooks-up an idea and outsources the labor:

I spend more time cooking when we’re home-bound.  Thanks to mom, we have real chocolate chips.  I like to throw in a touch of cinnamon and pine nuts in my chocolate chip cookies.  (Did I really write that?  Smack me – I sound like Martha Stewart!  Truthfully, the only thing we have in common is that I would have sold those shares, too…)

And with the sublime weather now, I spend a lot of time right here:

What classes did I cover this week?  Hint:  I got to wear a whistle…

And play spider woman…

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No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

The Maya saga continues:

Sadly, Maya is becoming a slight nuisance.    I see her at least once, sometimes two-three times a day and she expects me to give her something each time.  She even shoves flowers inside the car and refuses to take them back.  Then she chases the car for money as we drive away.  I continue to give food and clothes and shoes and yes, even money at times.  But the other day, her chasing our car got me into a bit of trouble.

After we crossed through the intersection where she works, a black Mercedes sedan with Russian diplomatic plates cut-off my car and stopped in front of me across two lanes of traffic.  The driver, a large gray-haired, moustached man came to my side of the car and started yelling at me in Russian, pointing his finger menacingly in my face.  Then he pointed at the flowers.   I was speechless but when he retreated to his car, my anger surfaced and I got out and followed him.  I barraged him with my own choice words.  I. Was. Furious.  For several reasons:

1.  Because he bullied me;

2.  Because he totally misunderstood what he saw.  He had no idea of my history of giving on that corner and of my commitment to do what I can for Maya and her gang.

3.  Because I couldn’t control my anger and I got out of the car and yelled in front of the kids.  I can still hear Lala pleading “Don’t Mommy”.   Did they see me defend myself or did they see me yelling at a stranger?

There’s something about a man bullying a woman that pushes me beyond my capacity to think clearly.  Instinct takes over.  I promptly called the Russian Embassy and let the press secretary have an earful.  Unfortunately, in my anger, I didn’t think to record the license plate.

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On a sweet note, two of the boys at the intersection were wearing Lala’s school T-shirts from Beijing last week – bright yellow with bold black Chinese characters emblazoned on the back:  Jing Xi Xue Xiao.  Our two worlds colliding…

And today, another little angel in the gang, asked me for medicine to make her hair grow long.  The only medicine she needs is a healthy diet – which got me thinking about making them boiled eggs every day.

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I want to remark on the differences I have noticed between China and India when it comes to “servant” culture.   When we lived in China, we could afford help because we earned a western salary in a developing economy.  But the average, middle class Chinese family could not afford to hire a nanny or a cook or someone to clean their house.  Like in U.S., this is a privilege of wealth.

However, in India, it seems that everyone has home help – and lots of it.  Your average middle class family hires people to watch the kids, clean the house, sweep the sidewalk, empty the trash, garden.   It’s an embedded servant culture that slices people into layers of the served and the serving.

Santosh Desai, a columnist in the Times of India wrote a good piece titled “Used to Being Served?”  Here’s a taste:

“…in India, if born in the right class, we consider it our right to be served, not merely with efficiency but with unquestioning obsequiousness. As consumers of service, we do not merely consume the service provided, we consume the air of servility with which it is provided. The nature of our dependence on being served goes well beyond the physical; it gets translated in an implicit belief in possessing an intrinsic superiority, an assumed right to lord it over someone lesser. It also gives rise to a lifestyle that is based on wasteful physical effort, since the person expending the labour is someone else.”

You can read the rest here:

http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/Citycitybangbang/entry/used-to-being-served

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My favorite quote of the week, from a local friend.  This is his response to whether India would/could advise a nascent democracy in Egypt:

“India’s not going anywhere.  It’s on its own trip.”

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Some things aren’t so cheap in China.  This week a friend asked me to buy chemotherapy drugs for someone in Beijing.  It costs 36-USD for one pill in China and $6.50 here.  One of the reasons for this is that the raw materials for many drugs world-wide are sourced in India.

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When the electricity goes out at my home this green monstrosity kicks-on and generates power until the city supply returns.  We fill it with diesel and it literally huffs and puffs and spews smoke.  It reminds me of the Nu-Nu on Teletubbies:

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Lala is teaching me how to z-board…

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From Jaipur in January  – dinner in an old Villa.  The entire dining room looked like this, almost dizzying in its detail:

Eddie with his soccer trophy:

And George getting his uniform inspected in Cub Scouts: