Francesca – Summer 2015
July 3, 2015
YES. I have made it to India, after a 16+ hour flight that had everything from “congestion over Eastern Europe” to stunning views of the deserts of Afghanistan with its sand dunes rippling like an ocean thirty nine thousand feet below. I was seated next to a rather chatty Indian couple who own a Chinese restaurant in Maryland, to which the entire family (and extended family) is now invited to eat at on the house. Whoa. I rewatched Kingsman: Secret Service, and I am pleased to report that it was equally as good the second time around. I suddenly have a desire to purchase an expensive tailored suit and become a spy.
Upon leaving the aircraft, I was stopped and informed that my bag, which unfortunately lacks legs to sprint to connections, was “unable to be delivered”. Masterful use of the passive tense. It apparently will arrive tomorrow, and will be taken to Jaipur for me; I’m definitely going to repulse Will when I roll up in the same clothes I spent almost a full day in, but oh well. Next time I’m going to make sure I bring more clothes in my carry-on and less books and sketchbooks and pencil boxes.
Customs was suspiciously easy, with a large man with a fat black mustache chiding me on misremembering my flight number before nonchalantly stamping my passport and sending me on to the “next station”, which consisted of two young men in olive-green jackets glancing to make sure the mustachioed officer had indeed stamped my passport. (He did.) I weaved through several cigar stands, did not pick up my bag (ugh), and went out to look for Ayan. I will admit, not having the massive red North Face duffel and only having my little rucksack did kind of make me feel like a badass as a I strolled out into the exit hallway, as if I were one of those cool backpackers that travels the globe with only two pairs of socks and an extra t-shirt.
No sign of Ayan in the exit hallway. Here I made my fatal mistake of leaving the airport building– the point of no return!– where I was immediately blasted in the face by hot nighttime humid air. No Ayan there, either. Well, he was probably just late.
Two hours later, I would be lying if I said a little part of me wasn’t panicking as I held my dead cell phone in my hand and sat alone against the wall of the airport, between two enormous potted plants, as everyone waiting for their family and friends stared at me, but I am a very patient person and I figured that things would work out at some point, and if they didn’t, well, Will’s flight was arriving in just a few hours, so I could just wait until then. Despite begging and cajoling the tough-looking Indian military guards at the door, I wasn’t allowed back into the airport, and I frequently walked back and forth by the doors to mooch some of the crisp AC air. I re-read my Neil Gaiman book. I drew some pictures, which elicited some oohs and ahhs from the security guards. I even painted a little watercolor scene of the airport arrival station. Finally, I had the genius idea of charging my phone from my laptop, which enabled me to call my father and have him open my email– I couldn’t load any emails because my 3G connection was awful– and find Dheeraj’s number and call him, who in turn called Ayan, who had in turn been told that I was arriving tomorrow. Well, all’s well that end’s well, that’s my policy!
I’m sure the Indian military men were excited to finally see me leave so they could go off and do their Indian military duties instead of keeping an eye on me so that I didn’t sneak back into the airport, something I considered doing more than once.
Ayan was very cheerful for a young man who had just been woken up at 2 AM. He is very cultured and clever and has curly hair piled into a man-bun (some fads are felt ’round the world, but he says he wore his hair like that before it became a trend) and square-ish glasses. We hopped in his tiny black car, which is indeed very tiny, and off we went. To be honest, at that point I was just happy to get off the grubby floor of the airport exterior, but my first impressions were a lot of stray dogs, sodium lamps, and speed bumps, which Ayan would pop over like nobody’s business. Good thing he spent so much time in England, because Indians drive on the wrong side of the road. Yikes. I guess I won’t be practicing my driving anytime soon.
Much to my annoyance, I have no toiletries (they’re all in my bag), but I borrowed some shampoo from the linen closet (shh) and managed to at least wash my hair. The shower pressure makes Harvard’s look like Niagara Falls, so I did as Ayan suggested and just filled the bucket from the bathtub faucet. This took a couple tries because I filled the bucket up too much and then couldn’t lift it (classic noodle-arms Francesca), but there is something extremely satisfying about dumping bucketfuls of cold water over your head. (Apparently you’re supposed to use the smaller bucket, which makes much more sense. I’ll have to try that tomorrow.) My bed is very hard compared to beds back home, but I kind of like it.
Will arrives at 7 AM tomorrow. Poor Ayan basically has to drive right back to the airport to get him, haha. Tomorrow is my first real day in India! I’m pumped. But also super tired.
July 4, 2015
Happy Fourth of July to everyone back home!
I went with Ayan to the Meer apartment, which is beautiful, all white walls and cream-colored doors and shelves and shelves of books. Rosenda’s paintings make an appearance occasionally; she has a watercolor of a wily-looking tiger that I found particularly eye-catching. The apartment is two stories connected by a steep beige-colored staircase, which has a walled-off deck half-way up.* It was more difficult than I thought it would be to fall asleep on my mattress, but eventually I did, and after groggily slapping the snooze button on my alarm a few times, I woke to the sound of two soft voices; Ayan showing Will his room, which is connected to mine by a joint room that leads to the linen closet and the bathroom. So I rolled out of bed, wrapped in only my sheet (no bag = no clothes = no pajamas), splashed some water on my face, got dressed, and rolled on downstairs.
Will and Ayan were in the kitchen laughing over some trifling thing. Will looks like a classic country English boy; he has very deep blue eyes, one of which is blackened– a rogue cricket accident, he explained– and floppy dirty blonde hair which he blows out of his face with the occasional upward puff. He has a perpetual sort of dreamy look on his face and each of his bottom teeth are separated by very tiny spaces, which gives him a sort of sharklike grin. He is 23 and has had several different jobs, including delivering magazines and working in a glass factory, and an older brother who went to Oxford and is now at graduate school in Harvard. He dislikes English winters and seems to me to have some hippyish inclinations and ways of thinking, though you would never guess it from his outward appearance. He enjoys cricket and attempted to explain it to me, but it sounded confusing and ridiculous; the matches can last for up to five days, and the outcome often depends on the weather. It’s “like baseball” but “totally different” and involves some sort of running back and forth between sticks, and trying to hit balls with a bat before the “baller” can hit the “stumps”, which to my knowledge are just three sticks stuck behind the designated batting stick. Ayan also likes cricket, so a rousing conversation ensued about which cricket players each man’s playing style resembled, to which I nodded and pretended I was in the know.
Ayan made Will some tea, and brewed some coffee for me in the same Italian coffeemaker that we have at 84 Prince, which felt a tiny bit like home. (Well, except at home there’s never any coffee left for me after the rest of the family is through with it. Heh.) We made omelettes and discussed chai, colonialism and more cricket over breakfast. I hooked up my music to the speakers and played a perfect Saturday morning playlist and it almost felt like a breakfast at home. Then the boys went to tinker with Ayan’s car (a small black buggy– small cars are the norm in India), which had stopped working earlier that morning after he had it freshly repainted, while I tried to sort out my bag situation. In the meantime, Rosenda called and offered me her wardrobe until my things arrived, which is a very kind and Rosenda-like thing to do. Ayan and I decided to go and fetch my bag later at 10;35 PM when it arrived on the next Paris-Delhi Air France flight.
We went to have lunch with Ayan’s friend TJ, where a rousing argument on whether or not Jon Snow was really dead occurred– Ayan often gets stopped and told he looks like Jon Snow, which he actually really does, if Jon Snow had a deep tan instead of living on the icy Wall. We had South Indian food, which is much lighter and spicier than Northern Indian food, but equally as delicious. I let the boys order for me so I don’t remember the name of what I had, but it was a very thin fried pancake with masala (spices mixed with potatoes) on the inside. A bit like a giant fried potato crepe. After that, we bought a guitar. Then we bought three mangoes since it is the end of the mango season (no!), which were sinfully delicious. Ayan declared that he would happily sacrifice a small child if that meant mangoes were in season year-round, and I had the feeling he was only semi-kidding.
A Note On Driving In India
The roads here are like China but a thousand times worse. It’s hot in the cars, and everyone gets irritable and exhausted (literally) and drenched in sweat from having their backs pressed against the car seats. It’s dusty and there are people everywhere sleeping on the side of the road, children running up and down the highway, dogs chilling underneath trees, people waiting for buses or selling things left and right. Getting a license in India can be done in two ways:
1. Taking a theory exam that the assistant can give you the answers to, and then showing up to a road test in your own car (meaning that you have already had to drive your car without a license just to get to the damn test), driving up 100 yards, turning around and driving back, and assuring the official that you are indeed a capable driver.
2. Showing up to the driving office and handing the officials a few bucks.
Drivers have absolutely no regard for lanes, and the mirrors are more like accessories than actual things that people look at. There are bikers and motorcyclists and just random people who dart across the street. Cars go onto the sidewalk, cars tailgate other cars, cars even go against the traffic if they feel like it. It’s like a permanent state of road rage. People are constantly honking their horns, not because they want traffic to move faster, but just to let other cars know that they are about to swerve right in front of them. It’s like a friendly “hey, I am literally right next to you, please don’t move even a single centimeter to the left” type of horn blast. Blinkers are most frequently used not to show which way you are turning, but rather to inform the drivers behind you which side would be most appropriate for them to pass on. There is a lot of yelling out of the car window and cursing at other cars, an activity that Ayan and I relished. We make a good driving team; Will is too soft-spoken and polite to yell at anyone.
After our little afternoon excursion, we returned to the Meer apartment, and Ayan went to the gym while Will and I hung out, playing an English pun game called “I’ve got a new job” that is strongly reminiscent of the type of word games that Martin and Douglas play on their plane trips in the BBC radio sitcom Cabin Pressure. Those English and their words games. The problem is, Will’s played this game a million times so he never runs out of puns– and personally I think that most of them he was repeating rather than thinking up– so my turn always took twice as long. I fell asleep for fifteen minutes, and then read a couple of short books on India that were in Ayan’s bookshelf. Then Will and I went to the roof to chill. The sun was hanging low in the sky, giant and orange through the haze of the edge of the city, where humid and thick jungle enclosed on the little slum town rose on the hill that was behind the apartment, separated by a concrete wall topped with barbed wire and a ginormous pit of trash. Women in saris were cooking on the street over open fires, babies were being washed, and the houses rose in every color, each with a metal roof held down with rocks, logs, and even just trash in an attempt from keeping the monsoon wind from lifting off the sheet metal. People waved at us from their roofs, and we waved back, and a little girl on the street below me smiled, and I smiled back. I started copying what she did, and in less than five minutes a large gaggle of children were down on the street below. They flapped their scarves in the air; I did too. They wiggled their fingers and jumped up and down; I did too. Soon it felt like the entire population was there, men, women, and children alike, and I could hear their laughter as I imitated the way Indian children wear their scarves (I plan to devote a whole paragraph to scarves and Indian clothing later). The hot wind was blowing through my hair, and it was hot and I was barefoot dancing on a hot roof over a hot jungle.
Dinner was beyond delicious, but was also a sure-fire path to heart disease, because everything was a) greasy, b) fried in fat, or c) came in giant portions. I forget most of the names of the dishes we ordered (I’m going to start remembering them, though, have no fear) but my favorite was this plate of little fried chicken pieces that were smothered in the leftover butter sauce, the drippings from making ghee. We also had sagaloo (sp?), which is spinach and curd. And there were these sweet (fried, of course) waffle-like breads that you ate with little rolled sausages which were akin to American ballpark food but about a thousand times better. I shamelessly stuffed my face until I was completely full, and then I ate some more because hey, food that good shouldn’t be thrown out. In India, forks are not cool. You just shovel it all into your mouth with your (right) hand’s fingers and your thumb, which can be a bit difficult because it’s not like in China where the rice clumps together, it’s basmati rice, which is the opposite and separates easily. It’s messy and glorious, much like everything else in India. I’m still working on my finger-shoveling skills, so my preferred method for now is pinching things up between slices of naan.
Germs, shmerms. My new motto.
We dropped Will off at the flat and then hopped in the car to go to the airport to pick up my bag. Little did we know that this would the start of a five hour long endeavor that concluded at 3;30 AM. I commented to Ayan that the whole experience would have made a good episode of a comedy TV show, and he replied grumpily that the comedy had ended at around 1;30 AM. The difficulty arose in that the Air France baggage claim kiosk was completely empty; in fact, all the customer service kiosks were empty. Eventually, two Indian girls from a company called Bird Worldwide– “Why are you called Bird Worldwide if you deal in ground baggage?”– arrived at the kiosk neighboring Air France, so we strolled on over. “You don’t know when they’ll be back? You don’t hang out together? Eat lunch together? Nothing??” We cursed the failures of modern human communication and then laughed deliriously at the thought of getting the Air France attendants’ private information and shooting them a Facebook or a WhatsApp telling them to hop on it and fetch the bag.
Ayan is a very good person to be stuck at an airport with, because he has a good sense of humor. I’m sure it would have taken much longer if Ayan hadn’t accompanied me, because he hurried things along by alternating yelling at the security guards in Hindi with calling up every Air France person available and ranting at them in French (“damn, qu’est-ce qui se passe, buddy???” *not an exact quote haha– he is very polite).
An hour passed. We got coffee. We doodled. We attempted to convince the security guard that we were children under 3 so we could be admitted to the “relaxation lounge” for free. We discussed life and our respective university experiences. We discussed what we would buy with a billion dollars.
“Look at those suckers lying on the airport floor,” Ayan had scoffed as we observed several men sleeping on their suitcases as we walked into the airport, which was crisply air-conditioned. “They’re going to get herniated disks in their necks. Wow, it’s nice and cool in here.” Three hours later, we were both stretched out spread-eagled on the shiny tiles of the airport floor, shivering and complaining about how hot countries always had the AC on way too high. “You have to get up,” Ayan said, his eyes closed, and waved his hand listlessly in the air. “Only one of us can sleep at a time. Can’t they turn these lights down?” So I groggily clutched my passport and Ayan’s army-green Moleskin shoulder bag for safekeeping, wrapped my giant scarf around me, and stood watch.
Finally, Ayan’s passive-aggressive French side prevailed and he started calling the Air France people every ten minutes; each time they would assure us that it would only be 10 more minutes, until Ayan snapped at them that they should suggest perhaps 9 or 11 minutes, since we had heard 10 so often. Soon KLM Airways arrived with their luggage, and upon our inquiry said that the Air France attendants should have come before they had. “If those guys walk in here with cups of coffee, I’m going to deck one of them,” Ayan growled as we sat side by side under a plastic potted tree. Finally, Air France arrived with my bag and a few others, and tried to explain to us that I needed a special lost luggage form. We both turned and gave him such a withering stare that he faltered and weakly said that he was just joking, to which Ayan gave a prime Che chuff paired with a truly murderous glare and said the time for jokes was most definitely not now, and I signed a piece of blank printer paper and wrote I received this bag in good condition, and then we drove like zombies home and passed out.
* India is very big on what I have termed roof culture. If your roof is able to hold the weight of a person (that is, if your roof is concrete and not a slab of corrugated metal, like many of the non-apartment houses), even in the dead of night it will have people on it. (Actually, especially in the dead of night, when the sun is down and it’s cooler.) Roofs are the place to socialize and chill out, there’s a beautiful blissful breeze that lifts away the oppressive humidity for a moment.
July 5, 2015
नमस्ते! (Namaste! = Hello!)
I woke up to a weak tapping on my door. It was an exhausted-looking Ayan– this was the second night in a row he’d been up basically all night, but he rallied and mumbled about how Sundays were meant for sleeping anyways. Will was obnoxiously cheerful, having slept over twelve hours while we were fetching the bag from the airport. We were all too full from dinner at Karim’s (the North Indian restaurant) to have any breakfast. The cleaning lady came in with her broom and mop and cleaned the apartment, so we spent most of the morning yawning shuffling back and forth with our cups of coffee into various rooms as the cleaning lady finished them.
Finally, it came time to leave for Jaipur, so we all shuffled downstairs. The two of us piled into the car (it’s a full-size car! With windows that actually roll up! With working AC! Instead of the usual open-air tiny cars!) that the Tushita Foundation uses for all road trips, whether it’s from Delhi to Jaipur or just back and forth from Jaipur to Amer. The car was quite full because we were carrying down a bunch of laptops and other office supplies to Jaipur from Delhi. Our driver is a very smiley but silent guy who drives very safely and honks the horn very quietly and infrequently. A rarity.
The five hour road trip wasn’t the most interesting, but it was fun to look out the window and watch the scenery change. We left Delhi on an astounding fifteen lane highway, which slowly turned to very China-esque strip malls, which then turned into abandoned buildings and arid croplands, with people walking on the side of the road.
Firsts I Saw On The Road:
- First cow! The cows are very skinny, they mostly eat trash on the side of the road.
- First dead cow! 🙁 Maybe the other cows ate all the available trash in the area.
- First goat flock! The goats are very beautiful, they have super nice speckled colors.
- First camel! Camels are honestly the weirdest looking animals ever, they don’t even look real. They have such long faces that really makes them look like they’re smiling, and when they sit down, their front and back legs fold in opposite directions. And they don’t really have any fur or anything, just sandy-colored skin, so they look kind of naked and awkward. All the camels in India that I’ve seen so far are one-humped camels.
- First monkey! I am scared of monkeys. I hope they don’t get any closer, haha. They’re sort of cute from a distance, if you’re a monkey person, I guess.
- First Motorcycle With More Than 5 People! Followed closely by First Car with Person Sitting on Roof, and First Motorcycle Carrying Way Too Many Bricks.
We drove past, not through, Amer to get to Jaipur, so we got a glimpse of the beautiful Amer Fort, which literally made me gasp. It looks very similar to the Great Wall of China, it has all these towering red walls on top of the hill that the fort is on. We’re going to visit it, so I’ll talk about it more then. We also had a chance to see the Lake Palace, and we drove by the Hawa Mahal and the City Palace, which are three of the big tourism must-sees of Jaipur.
The Tushita Foundation house is in the Civil Lines of Jaipur, which is a nice area where apparently a lot of government officials live; our street closes its gates after 10 PM. The house is super beautiful– it has three floors; the bottom floor is where Tushita Travels does its business, and then upstairs is the kitchen, Will’s room, and the “girls’ room” for Aly and I. There is a large square grate on the floor between the bedrooms and the kitchen that you can stand on and peek down on the first floor. It’s good for yelling at people to come upstairs, or for chatting with any of the Tushita guys. It definitely feels very different from an American house, and for a brief second I was kind of homesick for more of a “normal” house set-up, but that faded almost as quickly as it came. My bed is hard (yay! my back feels awesome these days), but it’s really nice and cool in our room, and I have a beautiful Rajasthani quilt that I snuggle up under at night. Only rooms with closed doors have AC units, so next to our bedroom is an open walled deck with rug-like curtains that we roll up in the evening to let the breeze in and roll down during the day to shade us from the sun. We eat all our meals out there, which are cooked by the incredible Bim Sing (I think I spelled that wrong), a very short Nepalese guy with an impressively sizable belly who Veena taught how to cook Indian food. Everything he makes is literally so delicious that I want to keep eating it forever, but also really spicy, so my mouth is constantly burning. It forces you to drink a lot of water though, which is probably a good thing. For breakfast this morning, we had omelettes with pan-fried toast, which was so good that I’ve decided that from this moment onwards, I too am only going to cook toast in a frying pan. It completely puts toast on a whole new level. Omelettes are really good breakfast foods in India, and for me personally, because I don’t think I could do spicy food for all three meals of the day. We eat vegetarian six out of the seven days of the week; Sundays we have meat, usually chicken, but sometimes lamb. Every meal that isn’t an omelette is served with chapati, which are unleavened flatbreads that are basically Northern Indian tortillas. And the chai here is the best. Ever. I could drink it all day.
And then we got to meet Aly! I had spoken to her a little bit over email, and it was awesome to meet her in person. Aly said she was a little intimidated at first in India, and I definitely would have felt the same way going outside in Jaipur alone, without the guide of someone who knows how much things are supposed to cost, and where to go and what to do and how to talk to people, and that sort of thing. She told us that she spent the first few days just in the house and in the Civil Lines, and only left after she had driven around for a while and knew in what direction things would be so she could make sure she had her bearings and could tell where the tuk-tuk drivers were going. India is not an easy place to live in some respects, because everything is very foreign and people stare at you often (though DEFINITELY I get stared at MUCH LESS OFTEN than I did while living in China– I wonder why that is?), and buying anything is challenging because you have to bargain, and neither of us speak any Hindi at all. Poor Aly had been eating dinner alone every night since she got to Jaipur, so she was pumped to have people to talk to and socialize with. She is a rising senior at Princeton who likes opera and classical music and geoscience, so she and Will talked for a long time about opera and music things after dinner. But before we had dinner, we decided to go outside for a bit to see Hawa Mahal, even though it was a Sunday and most of the shops were closed. The thing I like most about Aly is that she’s very down to earth and pretty fearless; she had just come back from a solo trip to Jodhpur, including taking a super crowded train for seven hours all by herself. We walked right down the street, and she flagged a tuk-tuk (auto-rickshaw).
“400,” said the guy.
“100,” said Aly firmly. (About $1.50, there are ~ 60 rupees to the American dollar) This is an acceptable price for a trip from the Civil Lines to Hawa Mahal, which is actually a decently long ride, especially in the crowded streets of Jaipur. The guy nodded, so we all clambered in and off we went. Everyone stared at us and waved. I copied Aly’s policy of ignoring all men and smiling and waving to only women and children. Will gave giant goofy thumbs up to everyone. Compared to him, Aly and I are both hardened and cold-hearted Asia travelers since we both spent time in China, where we learned how to ignore people and how to brush off the staring and glaring and how to avoid getting blatantly ripped off. Will is very generous with his money and is a genuinely nice soul.
While we were in the tuk-tuk and stopped at a red light, we were approached a few times by begging children, which is really tough. There are usually little girls carrying babies, or little boys with giant wide eyes, who rub their fingers together and look sad while making eating motions. They tap their little fingers on the car windows, and a lot of people don’t even turn and look and just totally ignore them. Will and Aly and I wave and smile, but we don’t roll down the windows; in the tuk-tuk, the kids can just reach in and pull on your sleeve, because there are no doors. We were told many times not to give them money, because their pimps just take it from them, and it encourages further exploitation. I didn’t have anything to give. The twenty seconds of those red lights are the longest ever.
We marveled at the Hawa Mahal (HAH-wha mayh-ELL?), which means in Hindi something like “Palace of the Winds” (Mahal = Palace, as in the Taj Mahal). It was built in 1799 by the Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh and is meant to look like the crown of the Hindu God Krishna. There are 953 small windows, which are called jharokhas, and it has this lattice structure that was intended to allow royal ladies to observe the world outside while still maintaining their strict and mandatory purdah (face cover). It was closed (because it was Sunday), so we took a few pictures and decided to walk around the little streets and look at the stalls and the gorgeous doors. Jaipur has really beautiful doors and archways that have gorgeous mosaic patterns and are very colorful, and most buildings have at least one wall painting in this orangey-pink color, which used to be a brighter pink but has faded in the sun, giving Jaipur its nickname, the Pink City. Will followed Aly and I as we chatted, and left us in charge of shooing away tuk-tuk ride offers by saying ne, ne, ne, ne, which means no. If you can say “ne” with in a strong enough voice, people get the point. I feel like I got less stares than Aly and Will* because I’m not blonde and I have a much darker skin tone, especially after my summer days on the beach; I can’t believe i was swimming in the ocean just a couple days ago. And I have an Indian-style scarf. The scarf is a woman’s shield in India. It has infinite uses. I usually wear it around my neck, with the ends down my back, like most girls in India, but whenever I want to avoid prying eyes for a while, I wrap it around my head and tuck it in so only my eyes are showing. This usually does the trick. Adding sunglasses works even better. There are actually many women (and men) who do this to avoid getting dust in their face, and of course devout Muslim women wear the a full-body and full-face cover, leaving only the eyes exposed.
* Interestingly, the teachers at the Foundation and the older children thought that I kind of looked a bit Indian, like a “girl from Delhi”, who maybe had an Indian mother and a foreign father. Hmm. I don’t know about that, haha.
** Older and married women mostly wear saris. Girls and young women usually wear a sort of loose tunic shirt called a kurti (?), with leggings or loose pants. Veena brought a few kurtis for me to wear, but I can’t wear the pants because they are very oddly shaped. They have absolutely enormous waists, and the legs are comically long– like six feet long– and they’re supposed to bunch when you put them on your legs, but the ankles are minuscule so I couldn’t fit my feet in. On Indian women, they look cool (literally and metaphorically) and beautiful, but the one pair I did fit into made me look like a frog wearing some linen drop-crotch gangster pants. Hmm.
We ran into a group of children playing cricket in the street, so Will played for a while and Aly and I sat with the little kids. All the young men and boys love talking to Will about cricket– I think they are too shy to approach us girls– and he loves talking about cricket too, so it’s a good match. Most Indian kids know how to say their name, how to ask “how are you!” and how to say their age, but after that conversation starts to get a little bit iffy. We reminded them to stay in school and to study hard and look after one another (peace and love, bruvs, as Will likes to say) and politely refused an offer to come up and have some tea with the parents of one little girl.
It started to get late, and when we heard the muezzin call, a soulful and beautiful chant that echoes from dusty pink wall to dusty pink wall and calls Muslims in Jaipur to prayer at the mosques for Ramadan, we knew it was sundown and that we should probably head back.
The tuk-tuk tutted its way back to the Civil Lines, and we went back home.
Dinner was awesome. Afterwards we played some music; Aly and I sang, and Will played the drums and shook the shaker that I brought. Tomorrow I’ll write about my time at the Foundation and everything about that, it’s 11:35 PM now and I’m so tired from running around all day playing soccer and cricket and carrying kids on my back.
July 8, 2015
Since coming to Jaipur, we’ve fallen into an awesome routine, which I’ll attempt to describe to you all now.
Either my alarm clock or Aly wakes me up every morning at 8:15 AM.
Then I stumble out of bed and onto the deck. 8:15 AM is yoga time.
When Veena-ji (-ji is a respectful honorific; -bana is the male equivalent) asked me if I wanted to learn some yoga, I was like yeah, sure, that sounds great. Doing morning yoga, peacefully bending and waving in the wind in the land where yoga has its origins, being all zen and serene– this was what I was envisioning. Well, that’s not exactly what I got. Manisha, our yoga instructor, is a short and serious young woman who can bend over and touch her nose to her knees effortlessly, and arrives on her bike promptly at 8:30 AM. In America, yoga is sort of a do-it-as-best-as-you-can type of thing; if you have an injury or you aren’t flexible enough to do a pose, you just modify it and call it quits. This doesn’t fly in real Indian yoga. Manisha tells us that since we only have two months, we aren’t allowed to “take it slowly”. There is no such thing as not flexible enough in Manisha-style yoga. “Anything is possible if you stretch” is her mantra.
The first day we ended our session with something she calls stretching us out. I found myself lying on the floor with one leg outstretched and pressed against the floor and the other leg bent almost back to my face, with Aly (on Manisha’s command) standing on my leg that was the floor and then pushing her whole weight on the one in the air.
“Are you going to be okay?” Aly whispered down to me, trying to hold back laughter at my face. “I can literally feel the tension in your leg!” Just wait until it’s your turn, I thought to myself. The inner devil inside me laughed evilly.
“You will be able to do a split,” Manisha said in her quiet Indian accent and shot me a wolfish smile. “I promise! Press harder.” She gestured casually to Aly.
“Manisha,” I said, gritting my teeth. “If Aly pushes my leg any more I’m going to break.”
Manisha glanced over at me. She shrugged. “Break her.”
Well, that’s kind of how my morning yoga sessions go. I’ve now memorized three variations of the sun salutation and two variations of the moon salutation, and the sea (?) salutation, too. It’s hard work, and I always flop back into my bed exhausted when we finish, but yesterday I managed to sit in lotus posture for a whole minute. Lotus posture is the basis for all meditation, breathing exercises, and advanced poses; it is done by sitting cross-legged but with both ankles above your legs, resting on your thighs. Manisha can sit in lotus for over an hour, which is literally insane, because even a minute hurts. A lot. We finish our session by chanting our ohms five times, which is beautiful and always sends a little shiver down my spine.
After yoga is done, we roll up our mats, and go take showers. I’ve really gotten totally accustomed to the heat; in our room, we keep the AC on at 26 C and when I step into the room, I honestly feel like putting on a sweater. That’s right. What used to feel hot to me in Boston, what used to be shorts-and-tank-top weather is now sweater weather. 26 C feels cold. 26 C feels like cuddling-under-the-heavy-quilt cold. I remember when I first arrived in Delhi, all I wanted to do was take a cold shower. Now I take hot showers, because I get chilly in our room and need to be warmed up. I still feel hot when we’re outside, but I’ve stopped getting disgustingly sweaty and now I only feel truly hot when I’m playing badminton outside with the Tushita girls or when I’m running around.
Aly always gets first shower, and then I take my shower, and then we go get our breakfast from the kitchen and bring it onto the deck, where we eat all our meals. Today we had cereal, which would have been a nice touch of home, except we only had hot milk to have it with. I guess on the one hand, it’s good, because boiled milk means that there are no weird sketchy milk parasites, but on the other hand, I can now tell you from experience that corn flakes with hot milk just isn’t the same as normal cereal. But it was the first crunchy thing I’ve had in ages, which was a nice change of pace in terms of food texture.
We clear our plates to the kitchen sink, and scrape the leftovers into a bucket, which is used for compost in the garden. Nothing is wasted in India. Then it’s time for music lessons! (We like to keep busy at the Tushita House.) The guy who comes to teach us is named Siraj, and he is a super talented musician, whose specialty is singing and playing the harmonium, which is an instrument kind of like an accordion, where you pump a fan with one hand and play a keyboard with the other. It’s the perfect instrument for accompanying singing because, unlike an electric keyboard, it’s portable and can be played anywhere; no electricity required. He teaches Will how to play the tabla, the Indian finger drum, and Aly and I are learning traditional Hindi songs. Siraj learned all these songs by ear from his father when he was a boy, and his father learned them from his father. The first one is a hauntingly lovely Sufi (Muslim) song, a “morning song” (Indian music has a special key scale for each time of day and for certain weathers) and try as I might, I could not find it anywhere on the internet. I’ll have to sing it for you guys one day. The second one is called “Hey Ram” (something like Oh, Lord) and is a popular devotional song to Lord Rama, a Hindu god. You can listen to it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O6rrsYHp1lg ; Siraj says he still sometimes cries from joy when he hears people sing this song in the Hindu temples. We’re making a mash-up with Hey Ram and Let It Be by the Beatles, which Siraj is insanely excited about; he thinks we’re going to become famous with it. Since Will and Aly are both semiprofessionally trained classical musicians, they take rehearsal really seriously, which sometimes can become irritating, but on the whole, singing with them is really fun.
Then, depending on the time, we eat lunch at the Tushita House if it’s late, or we drive to Amer and eat it at the Foundation if it’s early enough. My first day at the Foundation was just amazing. When we arrived, the teachers had signs waiting for us, and put wreaths of marigold flowers on our necks, and marked our foreheads with red paint and rice. Walking into the Foundation made me instantly feel like I was coming home. The care and love put into the building is plain as daylight; the maps, the posters, everything is there out of a love for learning and an eye for what children like to see. I loved the little puppets on the wall, and the note from Giunia that is still pinned to the board, the paper faded from age. The teachers were a little bit shy at first, but since Aly had been working with them for almost three weeks, they were much more comfortable with her. We learned each other’s names and then worked on grammar. Aly did most of the talking, since she was finishing up editing a piece that she had been working with the teachers on before, and I was happy to just listen and hear how each teacher liked things to be explained so I could do it, too. Soon we will start having group discussions, where we each bring in something to talk about. I can’t wait to hear what everyone has to say. Then the children started pouring in with toothy smiles and wide happy eyes, and I felt like my heart was going to melt. Everyone was so cheerful and full of positive energy, and kids would run over one another to shake my hand and ask me “How are you, mam?”. It was obvious that they felt totally comfortable at the Foundation, and I can’t wait to meet and get to know some of them better. I have a little bit of trouble remembering the names of the smaller kids, but Aly is so good at it! She learned the names of about thirty little kids in fifteen minutes, and hasn’t forgotten them since. I spent my first few days in Rahela’s class with the youngest kids, playing alphabet hand-games and teaching them little songs. They are really fond of Ring Around the Rosie– their favorite part is when everyone falls down at “ashes, ashes, we all fall down”– and we played until Rahela and I were begging them to pick another game. We taught them Duck Duck Goose (Rahela and I were definitely the most frequent picks for Goose) and it was touching how the children made sure that everyone was included. There is one disabled boy in her class, and the children picked him as the Goose and held his hand, leading him around the circle and cheering for him. It feels special to see that sort of inclusivity in such small children; adults in the USA still struggle with some of the concepts that these kids seem to have already learned.
Of the younger children, Nena is my baby, with her dark hair and nose-crinkling grin. She loves to play hand games with me, and we count to one hundred together as we play, and she loves it when I get down on all fours and chase her around the classroom, pretending to be a tiger and growling. I know I’m not supposed to be picking favorites, but I am also especially drawn to Aisha, a girl in Payal’s class, and Nurain, one of her good friends. I think Aisha is just gorgeous, with wide eyes, a full mouth, and a sassy temper. Nurain has a beautiful smile and very sharp eyebrows, and teases me relentlessly concerning my poor badminton skills. The girls imitate my flailings and laugh at me, and I laugh with them. “You play too slow and you talk too fast!” they like to say. When we’re tired out from badminton, we sit on the bench in the corner and talk about our families or whatever else the girls can say in English. Sometimes I let them fall back into Hindi, and I close my eyes and smile to hear their laughter washing over me. The afternoon of my first day, these beautiful pink flowers were falling from the trees in the wind, and we picked them up and decorated each other’s hair with them. Nena had so many in her hair that her whole head was covered in pink, and she jumped up and down, she was so happy. Aisha took just one flower, and Nurain and I braided our hair and weaved the flowers in. This flower, they explained to me, was in bloom all year. I had never seen anything like it. The color was just gorgeous.
Yesterday I was editing the childrens’ journals and by chance I had Aisha’s. So I called her in, and we sat down together, just the two of us, and I read her journal back to her and helped her see her mistakes. Her English is very good, and she just makes little errors, like using “than” instead of “then”, and writing “taught” instead of “thought” (the “th” sound is hard for Indians); it was more the content of the journal that interested me. I felt like I had a little peek into Aisha’s life. She talked about weeping when her uncle scolds her; she does a lot of cleaning of not only her room, but the rooms of her grandmother and uncles (interesting); she talked about missing her friends and the Tushita Foundation and about how she admires Payal and Ruksar, calling them “brave and beautiful and intelligent”; she talks about praying often and reading namaz and hearing talim. I wish I had brought my journals from when I was 12 or 13, so I could re-read them and realize what a different childhood I had. I was always playing music and singing and drawing, and spending all day playing in the parks or in the ocean and coming back dirty and grubby and salty, with the ocean in my hair. I had far fewer responsibilities, and was far less devoted to both my home and to religion. Aisha has the cutest little drawings in her journal, and Nurain as well, which is perhaps why I like them so much. Artists everywhere are drawn to one another. Also, Aisha likes collecting inspirational sayings from magazines and copying them into her diary, which is something I did when I was younger (and still do!). I drew a smiley face next to each one and signed it with my name, Cheska. Aly told me that when the kids asked her if she was a friend of Cheska mam, she didn’t know who they were talking about at first! I haven’t been called Chesca in a long time and it makes me happy to hear the old pet name alive once again.
I have been teaching Ruksar how to play the guitar, and since I leave the guitar at the Foundation every day, one day I suggested to her that she should bring the guitar home so she could practice more than the 15 or 20 minutes we spend together. I was shocked to hear her tell me that her father wouldn’t let her play music in her home. Jan later explained to me that music done by women has some negative connotations traditionally, and used to be associates with courtesans, but I still feel like a girl should be able to practice just some simple guitar songs in her own house.
Every day at the Foundation just flies by.
Here I am on my first day, decorated with the flowers we picked from the playground.