Wednesday, December 29, 2010

"I'm on a boat, yeah"

it's like Kolkata's Taj

fortified with candy canes, they are ready to explore...the Victoria Memorial.

the grounds and gardens are really lovely here and Kolkatans are right to be proud

(hey look, we're in Asia)

After a visit to the Museum, we were happy that this was a place where kids are allowed to run on the grass. Faster, BR, faster!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

we are the sights

Wherever we go, but most especially when we visit popular Indian destinations, people want to photograph our kids. In fact, J and I suspect that our brood might spark just as much enthusiasm as the the sights these tourists originally set out to see. Sometimes they even want the kids to pose with them in their own family or group shots.
We've taken to prepping the kids in advance and every day there are different standards (though they are always expected to be polite). Some days we simply ask that they wave, on others we urge them to make an effort to answer questions and maybe even smile. When they are too tired, we try to gently decline and move along (but this is not usually understood and we suspect that it is our turn to be perceived as rude).

People of India: I understand that this is acceptable and appropriate here, but we are not used to this AT ALL! Furthermore, this is actually the opposite of everything we try to teach our children about how to interact with strangers: we teach them not to speak, touch or allow anyone to touch, lift or carrying them anywhere. (If this happened in the US, I would have an absolute fit at any stranger under age 75 who tried to hug or kiss my kids without my permission).

The good news for the kids: their patience and fortitude is nothing short of heroic so I am confident they will be duly compensated in the afterlife. Well, except for BR who runs away screaming "No, no, NO!" and tells people who ask that his name is Spiderman.

saris and stretch marks

I've never seen an ad like this before:

Sunday, December 26, 2010

highlights from Christmas in Kolkata

The day started off nice and calm, enjoying the new craft supplies the girls received as gifts. Aunt Mer helped make some new creations.
And then the neighborhood party got started...

There was food, and music and
Santa Claus in a horse-drawn carriage,

and goofy little kids,

and silly grown-up kids
and dancing!

They were the first out there, and we had to drag them away an hour and a half later.
And last but not least, another favorite Christmas moment in this great Joyful City:
It's Mother Teresa again! With a thirty-foot inflatable Santa, of course.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

who cares about presents under the tree

All week, we've been waiting to hear whether Mer would be able to snag a spot on the over-crowded flights out of Frankfurt, Germany to Kolkata. The news is in: she is on her way!
L. has been pretty distraught anytime I have even mentioned the possibility that Mer might not make it. She told me how wrong I was in my earlier post: "Mommy, I just don't care about presents at all. I just really, really miss Aunt Mer."

This is going to be the best Christmas ever!

One from whom folks hide their faces

Remember the census in the Nativity story? The part where Joseph and Mary had to travel to Bethlehem to be counted and it was so crowded with others like them that all the rooms were booked. Haven't you ever wondered: if Joseph was from Bethlehem, then where were all of his relatives? Didn't he have any brothers, cousins, uncles—anyone who might have thought to save them a spot in their home, at an inn, or a room off the kitchen? Was Joseph alone in the world, or did his family refuse to help?
Who knows.
So they end up in a stable. But then, why a manger? Newborns are not especially wiggly and are unlikely to roll away or inadvertently injure themselves. So why does the Gospel tell us that Mary put Him in a manger?

Maybe because they needed a safe place for Him and it was the best option. Maybe the stable was just that crowded—that there was no extra space anywhere, not even for a baby. And maybe every other surface was just too filthy. The space was so full of animals and people that, pressed up against a wall on one side and a goat or donkey on the other, the warmest and safest option was the place closest to the animals' breath, rather than its' hooves.

There is no shortage of dirt around Kolkata so I can easily imagine a scenario in which it is difficult to find a suitable place for a baby. Even in our luxurious apartment we wage a continuous battle against dirt and disease; anytime we leave home we return home to a full scrub-down in the shower (usually twice a day, and yes, that process is a joy for us all). But that's nothing compared to the challenges faced by families who live in lean-to's on the sidewalks of this city. These children are at especially high risk and their morbidity rates are no doubt among the highest on the planet. When these kids get close to mine, I worry about lice, TB, maybe even typhoid.

Chicago, San Diego, Denver, New York—all the cities in which I have recently lived—have plenty of poor folks in various states of mental or physical disorder. Many ask and hope to receive, and while some are shy, others are very persistent. It is not always pleasant or pretty.
Earlier this year in Colorado, I took A. downtown for a haircut. L. must have been in school that day because BR and I were alone in the waiting area, flipping through a magazine or something, I don't remember. A couple of other customers showed up and we barely noticed until one man tried to strike up a conversation with BR.
"Getting a haircut today?"
"You're all grown up—gonna sit up there in that tall chair all alone? You gonna be brave?"
More silence.
BR's rule is not to talk to strangers, ever, and mine is not to pretend they are talking to me. I tried not to interfere. Also, the guy was a little too loud, a little too friendly, and also he smelled very strongly of urine. He seemed a little…off. Maybe he would go away soon? But BR was shrinking and cringing and I could tell that this man was not going to give up.
"I'm sorry," I spoke up, "he doesn't talk to anyone he doesn’t know. He's very shy around know?" I tried to look relaxed and convincing. I hoped he understood: See? We're friendly folks; it's nothing personal.

It must have worked. Next thing you know, the man launched into a stream of stories about the many other children who are afraid of him, and the parents who are to blame for fostering that kind of fear in their children. He was indignant; after all, he was in a wheelchair! What threat could he possibly pose to a young child standing several feet away, he wanted to know.

I nodded. Yes, how utterly ridiculous. (And then I quietly stabbed myself in the chest with a handful of invisible forks for being such a fake.)

A.'s haircut, though not exceptional (I seem to remember that I had to return a few days later for some repairs), dragged on. There was plenty of time to hear about this man's difficulties with his unreasonable landlord (he was not, as I had wrongly suspected, homeless after all), the challenges of life in a wheelchair and the difficulties of riding on buses that it entailed. Some folks were thoughtful, he told me, but others simply walked right past even when the chair tipped him over one day and he fell to the ground. "One man had a cell phone but he didn't offer to call anyone for help," he said. It occurred to me then to ask how long he had been in the chair. "Two years," he said.

Eventually, A. climbed down from the chair (beaming, as usual) and it was time to go. Our new friend leaned forward toward me. He was, indeed, in desperate need for an all-around trim (beard and hair), and it gave him a sort of crazed look. And then of course there was still the smell.
"Can I ask you something, Miss?"
Now, I wasn't exactly afraid of him anymore, but I dreaded what he might say. I mean, maybe he really was nuts after all.
Cringe. (Sweat.) Breathe.
"Well, maybe…" It seemed safest.
He looked embarrassed, but sincere: "Do I have a body odor? I mean, is it strong? Because I can't shower all that often now that I don't have a care provider coming to my home anymore. It's hard to bathe…with the chair, you know…"


I guess I imagine that, what with the glow around the manger and all, the shepherds and wise men and everyone else standing around the Holy Family would be craning their necks, trying to catch a peek at that beautiful and holy Child.
But maybe I've been too selective in my reading and I've missed the point of the story as it exists as a whole; maybe in infancy Jesus' life on earth was no different from the one he led as a man. Jesus did not have a proper bed as an adult, either, and he gave potential followers due notice: if they joined Him, they would lead an existence lower than that of most animals, with "no place to lay their heads." I guess that's just it, Jesus wasn't the kind of person everyone wanted to hang out with—ever. He was, in the words of the Prophet Isaiah, one "from whom people hide their faces." You know, the kind of person you would rather stay far away from; the ones you wish would go away and for heaven's sake stop talking, already.

This isn't a traditional heartwarming Christmas tale, I know. But to me it's comforting: there they are, all those folks in Bethlehem—the shop owners, innkeepers or the travelers—all busy, probably overtired and overworked and harried by the census officials. Some are oblivious and some attentive to this tiny, silent and unremarkable Infant in His makeshift bed.
And there He is: Immanuel, God with us.
Whether we cringe and back away, or lean in to get closer to this Presence among us.

without a camera...

we have not been able to properly document all that we've been up to over the last two weeks.

- diligently studying:

(photos taken before camera died, as proof that I am homeschooling and they are learning. Really, I am. Honest.)

- a visit to the zoo (I want to write a whole post on this sometime because it was so impressive. Only a few of the animals were not native to India and we couldn't get over it: of course West Bengal has their very own tigers, but India also boasts its own varieties of lions, bears, elephants, a gazillion birds, monkeys, deer and more deer and on and on and on. More than enough to fill up a zoo and they don't even need to bring them from other continents, even! Oh, and you can't beat 50 cent admission.)
- skipping school and going to Nicco Park instead to ride the bumper cars, cable car, train, etc. (see, kids, India is awesome!)
- riding in some auto-rickshaws and even more taxis
- the grounds of the Victoria Memorial (we still haven't been inside yet, but we're very excited to)
- making new friends and meeting neighbors (last night Jer and I had drinks with a bunch of folks our broker introduced us to; it was an ex-pat-in-the-third-world's dream--folks from all over the world here for business/tourism/spiritual odysseys/language learning with half a dozen languages going at once and people hopping back and forth between them [well, at least most of the Europeans were] and everyone equally loving and hating the host country for its exotic strange beautiful hideousness and eager to share the best ways to shop and how to avoid the Metro crush.)
- a Sunday stroll on the Maidan, a big grassy area in the center of town
- everyone wearing sweaters (ok, I'll admit it, the evenings are actually chilly. And no mosquitoes!)
- sipping plenty of chai and eating and eating. (ok, some of us have been eating, but L. has been feeling like this about Indian food lately, and I am getting over some nasty side-effects to the malaria meds I was taking before. I have switched now and as of today I am feeling 1000% better. Phew, now I can go back to writing posts about food--I mean, eating all that good food I was telling you about.)
There is plenty more, but that's a good enough list for now (with entirely too many links---you're welcome).
Readers be warned: you can expect a deluge of photos once we get that new camera.

Monday, December 20, 2010

OH NO! and oh no!

(Aunt Mer is supposed to connect in Germany)

Friday, December 17, 2010

BR, again. (subtitle: Argh.)

Apparently this year-old's motto is: "Never Give In." He is even considering lengthening it : "Never Give In. And if you ever think you might, don't."

This would be perfectly noble and admirable, if the authorities in his life were heartless ruthless dictators.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

what he thinks about: a peek into BR's mind

I often wonder what's going on in that little brain of his. So yesterday I tried the direct approach, and asked him what kinds of things he thinks about every day.

He shrugged casually, then answered: "Plans and then ideas."

Meredith is coming to town!

Last night during prayers, L. picked Aunt Mer.
She prayed that she would be safe and that her travel would go smoothly next week when she comes out to visit.
The truth is, I was a little surprised. It seemed, well, uncharacteristically thoughtful.

Folks, it took me 24 hours to realize:
Mer is bringing a suitcase full of Christmas loot.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

for to make you drool

(Grandpa Tom, you will enjoy this one!)

First of all, a very important broadcast: we found cheese for BR! We found cheddar at a nearby grocery store, and then we also found a Western restaurant that is so, so yummy. Paninis, spinach stuffed canneloni smothered in cheese (!), quiche and even lasagna. But this place is known especially for its bakery where we found lemon tarts, black forest cake and chocolate truffle cake. What a treat that was for Sunday lunch. (no wonder India made L. happy that day!)

As you well know from my earlier photos, we are not exactly starving at home, either. Our cook is obviously out to impress us. Vegetarian delights like the spinach pakoras she served us the other day and stuffed parathas tonight. Basically, a paratha is the closest thing to Moroccan m'sim-min/malawi I've ever found anywhere. Growing up, we used to eat them with honey or jam and that's how I've been serving them to the kids. They love. Tonight, the cook stuffed them with fresh peas and then served them alongside potatos and cabbage and a perfectly-spiced mutton curry.

The last couple of mornings, she has shown up with a few delicacies she has picked up from local vendors: there was something that looked like a taco and inside was filling like in a tamale (a kind of meal, but I don't know what exactly) and very sweet, like it was mixed with honey. The kids declared it too sweet! Then today it was lentil puris. I'm a real sucker for savory stuff at breakfast and this was my kind of meal: a fried shell (kind of like a crispy sfinj) with spicy daal filling. And either pineapple or guava juice to go along.

When we are out and about, we might need a snack so we can head to any of the thousands of stands that prepare rolls: these are parathas (again) wrapped around grilled chicken (or egg) and onions and peppers and chiles, with a special sauce. If we want to avoid fried foods, we can opt for one of the many varieties of freshly made momos (a Nepali dumpling). If we are thirsty, there is cinnamon coffee, lemon tea or traditional chai. Or perhaps instead we might be in the mood for a mango lassi?


This getting to be totally ridiculous, right? I know. And I have barely covered a fifth of what's out there on any given street in downtown Kolkata.

Well, the only downside to all of this feasting is that the kids are not at all convinced that we are living off some of the world's best cuisine. They keep crying for macaroni and cheese and other similar grossness. I try to pick up some Western fare when I am at the supermarket, along with the ingredients the cook needs to make us the above-mentioned fabulous meals (although, I have wondered: what must the shop clerks think when I keep showing up with a shopping list of items with names I have no idea how to pronounce--let alone recognize on the shelf--and scribbled phonetically on a slip of paper?). I keep a supply of spaghetti pasta and Ragu around for emergencies.

I am sure it would help if I could get the cook to prepare some dishes that aren't quite so hot. I have tried to explain that to her, but in the last few days I have been losing hope that my message is being understood: at lunch, when the kids refused to eat the special kidney bean dish she had prepared, she was a little shocked because she "had only used one chile!"

a new smile

L. lost her first front tooth today! Oh well, the gap will probably still be there next week when Aunt Mer arrives with the new camera...
Hmm, I hope the tooth fairy visits kids in India...

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

doesn't that just beat all?

On Sunday, we visited the Indian Museum which is almost 200 years old and the largest museum in India. We are pretty sure it is reason enough to visit this country. (L. loved it. She went skipping along from gallery to gallering, singing "India makes me happy!" )
They do not allow photography, but it looks a lot like this. Their collection was very impressive and kind of pretty much blew our minds. (except BR who only wanted to play in the fountain, of course) This, the room full of rocks and a Buddhist temple from a couple centuries B.C. were special favorites. And who could forget the 250 million year old preserved tree trunk (it is 28 feet long).

Saturday, December 11, 2010

you can't compare Kolkata and Casablanca*

For one, they are on different continents altogether so it just doesn't make sense. Although they have some things in common like having been under colonial rule and having significant Muslim populations, one is Arab and one isn't. In both cities, it is commonplace to speak 2 or more languages, food is made fresh and "from scratch," and cab drivers regularly refuse to run their meters.

But there are differences. Weather, obviously. The climate in Kolkata is "wet and dry tropical" as opposed to Casablanca's semi-arid Mediterranean. This means that Kolkata's annual mean temperature is Morocco's average high during its hottest month. And where Kolkata is lush with vegetation, Casablanca has few native plants that truly thrive besides hibiscus and palm trees. The rainfall in India makes any building older than a year or two look rather drab and Casablanca is famous for its bright white buildings which are truly blinding to look at in the summer sunshine. As to the people in both places, I found that folks in Casablanca are expressive and passionate and very talkative. In Kolkata we are approached by many friendly people, and yet there is a kind of restraint and quiet dignity people's manner.

To me, that is by far the most difficult thing about being an outsider--trying to gauge what people are feeling or thinking by their behavior. I lived for so long in Morocco that communication was relatively easy. Here in India, however, I am almost completely lost when it comes to non-verbal speech, hand gestures and the more subtle facial expressions and only a little less so if we share a common language. Sure, some things are apparently universal, like pinching kids' cheeks. (Ah, you think my kid is cute. Great; so I do I.) But most of the time it's not so clear and I am on my own to attempt to interpret the message. They're not saying anything and they look like they are frowning. Did I do something wrong or he just a cranky guy? Why are people ignoring me when I ask questions? Do they not understand English or am I being too forward? (Who knows.) Head bobbing, with a frown or a blank expression, apparently means any number of things, like: "Yes! Sure, no problem at all, and I am happy to do that!" Maybe it also means, "Wow, you're being a complete idiot right now"? Or perhaps simply "Yes, I don't mind" or "Well, I guess I'll do this but it's a great inconvenience and I'm only doing it very reluctantly," but then again maybe it means "Don't even think for one minute that I'm going to do that, but I'm going to make it seem like I will, anyway, so you'll go away."

Longing for some good ol' Brooklyn directness right about now... (I asked a librarian in Brooklyn for help in finding something once and she said: "No. I don't do that." That's it. No other options offered. I didn't particularly enjoy that exchange but at least I knew she wasn't going to help, right?)

But the main reason that it is impossible to compare them is that one city has a population around 15 million and the other around 4 and Casablanca's population density is somewhere around 9100 per sq. km as compared to Kolkata's 27,400. Yup, that's three times as many people/sq. km here. And that just changes everything about how people get about and relate to each other, as I learned so recently during our brief stay in NYC. Hmm... Maybe what I really ought to be doing is writing a post about how Kolkata compares to New York City...

Speaking of that, I have come across some behaviors that are distinctly New York-like, and not just the kind of tunnel-vision that city dwellers are so famous for (although there's plenty of that). In both places, transportation is a big issue and people have to get creative. Once I saw a couple of guys in NY pushing a load down the middle of a street on a little platform-with-wheels they had obviously constructed themselves. So who cares if they were blocking traffic? They had to get their stuff home somehow, right?

But there was one woman in particular who impressed me like no other. Before I ever lived in Brooklyn, I had often seen parents do
this, or this. But this lady, who seemed to be headed to Park Slope, totally freaked me out because she had both seats hooked onto her bike. There she was, pedaling along, with a toddler in a front seat, a second toddler in the back, a basket attached full of stuff and then a huge backpack loaded up with groceries or something on her back. And she was really petite, besides! I couldn't believe she could even hold up the bike while standing, let alone ride it up a hill. Then I spent some time trying to imagine how she even went about loading up the front and back seat while balancing it all... It totally blew my mind. It makes folks who load up a family of four or five on a motorbike seem totally not-hardcore. (Wait, you mean you are not using your own muscle power? Well, I am NOT impressed...)
Although the guys I've seen around town doing this are pretty darn tough:

Yup, that's right. He's pedaling along, hauling a washer and a fridge and another dude. (the other day I even saw someone with two fridges and a washing machine.)

So this is an irrational endeavor, to try to compare these two (or three) great cities. But I am smack in the middle of that especially uncomfortable, and irrational, phase of culture shock where one wishes for something familiar and comfortable but instead situations keep popping up that make a girl feel stupider and stupider. Of course, it will pass eventually, and some things will get easier. The rest will just have to wait, I guess.

No matter where you live, there is something universal that bonds people together about our efforts to try to get around, get by and try to make oneself understood, and thankfully, I haven't found a person in India yet who is anything but gracious and sympathetic when I explain that I am new here, and I am just trying to learn.

*for any readers who might not know: the only reason I am even thinking of making this comparison is because I used to live in Casablanca.

Friday, December 10, 2010

he may have fleas, but he sure is funny

This is one of BR's favorite things to do. He burps and then pauses and waits for the prompt: "What do you say, BR?" Then he gets all silly and says anything that comes to mind. Usually he is inspired by anything in the near vicinity.
"Uh uh."
"Excuse me!"

Today at lunchtime he added a new one.
"BR, you know what to say..."

More lunchtime convesation today:
"Knock, knock!"
"Who's there?"
"Banana..." and so on. For like 45 minutes. Sometimes they mixed it up and instead of banana they would say, "pomegranate" or "strawberry" or "mango." Still, it got a little old, and I was staying out of it. Besides, they were entertaining themselves pretty well without my help and they were even taking turns. BR likes to repeat (immediately) any joke that L. has just told and act as if it were brand new. It's kind of pathetic, but pretty cute, I guess.
Then, they demanded that I participate. So since I couldn't come up with any really funny new knock knock jokes off the top of my head, I just said dumb stuff like "Pineapple!" "Pineapple who?" they'd ask and I would say, "Ooh, delicious pineapple for me to eat!" and they would laugh hysterically. (It's so easy!)

And then wouldn't you know BR really got swept up in the moment: "Say knock knock, mommy."
"Knock knock."
"Who's there?"
"Pepperoni who?"
"Pepperoni pizza!"
Him, eyes wide and very happy: "Oh, please come in. Thank you very much for coming!"

need advice from other moms

I think these are flea bites. They are only on the parts of his body with exposed skin. They don't seem to bother him (I don't react to flea bites either), but they look awful . I counted 70 on his face and neck alone. Our housekeeper thinks he has chicken pox, to give you an idea of how they look.
So, I have added flea collar to our shopping list. (jk) I think we may have to do a flea bomb treatment for the whole apartment. Anyone have any tips? I'm not sure his bedspread is washable so I don't know what to do about that. Obviously I can't not treat it, but I need to wash it afterwards if I do... Buy a new one?
(ps: It seems our now-ancient camera has developed that trendy hipstamatic function. I figured out that I am able to take photos that turn out like this one as long as I do it indoors and use the flash. The shots I have taken outside just show up a bright white nothing. But we hear we have a new one headed our way as a Christmas gift...Thank you!)

Thursday, December 9, 2010

good news, bad news

The good news first: you won't have to suffer through more shots like these for awhile:

(admit it, Papa, you've been insanely jealous about all the Indian "gruel" we've been enjoying...)

Now the bad news: we won't be posting more photos because our camera broke the other day. It just up and stopped working. We're pretty sure it's dead.

Guess I'll just have to post more of my Thoughts for the time being. (hmm... does that count as good or bad news...?)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

it's all getting to be so confusing

We finished Little House in the Big Woods and we've moved on to the next book in the series, Little House on the Prairie. For those who don't know the story, the Ingalls family moves from the woods of Wisconsin and travels by covered wagon all the way to Kansas. Her father was restless and courageous (and probably a little bit reckless), but his enthusiasm was obviously contagious and Laura and her sister Mary seemed to enjoy every new adventure and even look forward to more.
A few months into their new life on the prairie, the author remembers how disappointed she had felt about her father's still-unfulfilled promised that the girls would get to see a real papoose.
L. stopped me: "What's a papoose, again?" Then A. answered before I had a chance to: "I know what it is and I've even seen one."
L. "What!? No you haven't!"
I jumped in: "A.: do you really remember what a papoose is from earlier in the story?" I was kind of impressed since it had only been brought up one time in the book.
A. "Yes and I have seen one, too--it's a little Indian baby!"

rainy day fun

we went hunting for frogs.

found one:

and another:

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

"here come the suitcases!"

who hasn't dreamed of a chance to roll down one of those baggage ramp thingies?

sights (no sounds)

There is a reason that most of my photos up until now have been taken inside or at least inside the gates of our guesthouse/complex. I am honestly too overloaded when we are out and about even to think about photos and besides, I don't have enough hands to hold onto the children and the camera.

Taxi rides are an adventure all of their own, and I have yet to cross a street by myself with the kids. These photos don't really adequately capture the roar of the city (or the traffic), but here's a small sampling anyhow of the varieties of architecture, shelter and modes of transport within Kolkata limits.

he loves cab rides!
aw, mom. not another cab ride!

One of my favorite things about going around town is the city-wide devotion to Mother Teresa. The signs of her legacy are everywhere; nuns visiting the homeless on the sidewalks in their signature blue and white, and the homes and shelters for the poor sick and dying. Images of her pop up everywhere. Murals, statues and shrines, and not just Catholic ones, but Hindu and Muslim memorials, as well. It is as if the entire city is proud she was theirs.

(Premdan, one of the MoC homes) (look in the bottom right of this next shot to see a bust of M. Teresa)
As "Calcutta," the city was the capital under British rule and I hope to capture more of the distinctive architecture in the future. It is really quite lovely although much of it is not holding up to the toll of weather and time. I wish I could capture the sounds and smells, too, but that will be impossible. There is a culture of honking here that defies logic and trucks around the city even add "Blow horn" to their bumpers to encourage the more timid drivers. It is...impressive.