Monday, December 14, 2009

Shopping in Old Delhi

Lesa and I have been exploring some of the market streets in Old Delhi. We do this on Saturdays when the kids have school - which gives us about 5 hours to explore some of the slightly sketchier parts of town without worrying about keeping track of children. One of our favorite areas includes the streets and alleys surrounding Chandni Chowk.This is a famous Old Delhi market street that runs into the massive Red Fort (Lal Qila). It is always full of shoppers looking for "cheap and best" prices.
One of these alleys is called, Kinari Bazaar. Also known as "Wedding Street," this alley is ground-zero for fancy Saris, ribbon, beads and special decorations and garlands. Its also a great place to shop for a man's turbin. This is the same place where I recently found capes for the kids' Halloween costumes.

Once you start wandering these streets and alleys it becomes quite a maze... These passages are often narrow and snake their way through the neighborhood. I often think of an electrician-friend of ours back in Austin when I see the wild web of phone, cable and electricity lines tangled above us as we walk. (see above)
The smells are memorable - usually good ones! Paratha Walla Marg (translated as "paratha sellers street") smells wonderful. One of the open-air restaurants here is well over 130 years old. (1872) Parathas are made of unleaven bread stuffed with vegetables, spices and sometimes cheese (paneer) - pretty much a meal on the go. These are often eaten for breakfast here in north India.
On our last trip in, we took one of our friends, Jane a little farther up Chandni Chowk to the Fruit and Nut/Spice/Pickle Market. This neighborhood smells incredible. Once you hit the spice stalls you often find yourself sneezing from all of the wonderful spices drifting in the air! Our favorites items are definitely the nuts, though. We go for the cashews, pistachios (pista) and almonds!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Do You Speak Hindi?

Next week we will have lived in India for an entire year! As a family we've accomplished quite a bit, but I have to admit, one of my big goals is still unrealized... my Hindi is still really bad. Our Indian friends and neighbors are very polite and encouraging, but it's still a thorn in my side that I haven't done better with the language.
I know a good deal of vocabulary now, but I just can't seem to get it together. And finding a conversational tutor in Noida has been a challenge. Everyone wants to teach, but no one seems to really know how to teach Hindi as a second language - conversational Hindi.
I'll side-step my guilt for now and bring you to the real topic of this blog... After being so exposed to this ancient language, it's been interesting to discover how much of it can be found in spoken English. We use it almost every day and don't realize it.
I'll give you a few quick examples... "Bangle, jungle, cot and sentry." These are all Hindi words and mean essentially the same thing in English as they do in Hindi.
The word "khaki" (light brown or tan) was not a surprise to me... probably adopted by the British Army, but the words "bandanna" (a scarf) and "bungalow" (a house in the Bengal style) were.
The word "cushy" (soft) is from Hindi, as well as "thug" (meaning thief). If you have kids, you use the word "pyjama" almost every evening - I know I do... but then again I live here. I'm supposed to be speaking more Hindi. I should note that Indians wear these during the day, not necessarily to sleep in... And of course we all wash our hair with "shampoo." - this word has its origins from the sub-continent as well.
We listen to the 'pundits' on radio or television - also a Hindi word meaning "scholar" - although I'm not sure its original meaning holds very true. Anyone, it seems, can now be a "pundit."
"Cheetah" and "calico" (colorful fabric) are also words from India. And finally, if you're into computer imaging, or online communities, or maybe are aware of the new James Cameron film, you've also used the word "Avatar." This is Hindi word meaning "incarnation or embodiment." As the story goes, Hinduism's Lord Vishnu projected himself in the form of the original "avatars:" Krishna and the Buddha to name just two.
Oh, and for the language purists who may be reading... yes, many of these words are not only Hindi, but may share common origins in the rich Urdu and/or Persian languages as well.
OK. I guess I'd better get back to trying to speak the Hindi language, rather than just be fascinated by it...
Meri Hindi kucch khaas nahi hai! (My Hindi is really bad!)

Friday, November 27, 2009

Thanksgiving

Ok, we managed to pull off a nice Thanksgiving dinner last night. No turkey though. We hear you can find one for about $75 to $120. But without an oven, what would we do with it? After some menu planning and searching through markets and stores, here is our Swimming-In-India Thanksgiving menu:

Homemade Applesauce (made from Kashmir apples)
Stuffing - we made our own chicken broth and added pear, raisins, onion, celery and spices. The hardest ingredient to find was celery. Not a typical veg used in Indian cooking. (Also - I diced the bread and dried the cubes in the hot Indian sun).
Sweet Potatoes in brown sugar. (these are not orange, but a pale yellow, but tasted mighty good!)
Garlic Mashed white potatoes
Yellow corn (got this frozen at the market)
Green beans sauteed in butter with almonds
Jellied Cranberries (OceanSpray -found this at the INA market in Delhi)
and Pumpkin Pie (Made to order at the Canadian-operated Red Moon Bakery in Sarita Vihar)

All of this was prepared on our stove top or in our small microwave. We shared the results with our neighbors Mini & Shail, who seemed to give the menu a thumbs up!

We all have a lot to be thankful for this year. We are all healthy one year into our India adventure and eating pumpkin pie! Wishing you all a very Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Elephants in the River

We'd been hearing nice things about Jim Corbett National Park. The kids had an unexpected day off from school (not so unusual), so we headed north by car to the neighboring state of Uttarakhand. Chauhan drove us. He seemed to enjoy the drive as Uttarakhand is his home state. We stayed in a great little resort called "Tiger Camp." It's right on the river bordering the eastern edge of Corbett.
Our lodging was lush and jungle-like. Tiger Camp had great service, was very tidy and had good food. Since it was chilly at night there was a camp fire to keep us warm with guitar/singing to entertain us.Audrey and Evan enjoyed cutting loose... There were safe paths to explore in the lodge compound and each morning we walked down to the rocky shore of the river. There we would see many birds and even troops of monkeys coming down for a drink. This was by far the clearest, cleanest water we have seen in India.
While were were exploring the rocks and winding our way up the shoreline we heard an odd noise behind us.We looked back behind us and there to our surprise was a male elephant standing all by himself on the rocks in the middle of the river! As we got closer, we realized there was a second elephant as well! Their mahouts had brought them down for a drink (a very large drink) and a morning bath! video
We all stood with our mouths wide open as one of these gentle giants walked right past us, up the middle of the river. Then the two started playing in the water - splashing, and spraying, "trumpeting" and making large waves with their trunks. Such a pleasure to watch them enjoying the river.
We became alarmed when the mahouts started throwing rocks at the two elephants. They seemed to think "bath time" was over, but the elephants definitely had other plans... The elephants ignored the two ranting mahouts. Stones just bounced off the elephants' thick hides with a thud - the animals just kept right on ignoring their keepers, and continued to play in the cool rush of the water...
When we finally left the scene, the elephants were still nudging one another and splashing in the middle of the river. They seemed to enjoy this moment of freedom and defiance - turning their large elephant-rumps towards their still very upset mahouts!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Good Coffee Beans in Delhi

When we first moved here I think we brought about 6 pounds of coffee beans from Austin. Lesa and I love a good cup of "joe" in the morning. We were afraid we might have a problem tracking down quality, fresh roasted beans. Of course Indians love their Chai, but if you order coffee here, nine times out of ten what you get is Nescafe. Instant coffee. They often try to hide it in foamy sweet 'cappuccino'-like drinks, but it's still just bad powdered coffee.
Our coffee supply ran out in a few months and then the dilemma struck home. I thought I would try and assimilate and go with the Nescafe... It didn't work for me.
Fortunately a sympathetic Canadian friend came to our rescue. He pointed me to Devan's Coffee & Tea. This small, but tidy shop is located near Lodi Colony in Khanna Market. The market is "L" shaped and local in atmosphere. It seems to be mainly known for fabric shops, but as you round the base of the "L" you begin to smell the aroma of wonderful roasted coffee. The beans are grown in the hill stations of south India. The shop has a wonderful variety of beans (pea berry, robusta, etc) and roasts - all types from dark french to light. Devan's will sell you whole beans, or grind them to your liking. It's also a good place to find teas from all over India. Devan's also sells brewing equipment, presses, and accessories for both tea and coffee.
Remember to keep your beans at home when you come to Delhi.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Lost in Translation

Communicating successfully with the children's school and teachers has been very challenging. We are confused by assignments, terminology and the names of school supplies. Typically we end up frustrated, not understanding what is required. But today's communication jumble gave us a good laugh!

All children have an almanac in which they write their homework assignments. The teachers and parents use it to exchange information. Last night I wrote this message in Evan's almanac:

"Dear Teacher,
Evan lost his first front tooth on 31 Oct. His other one is very loose. It may fall out during the school day. He must bring it home. He has a container."

Tonight, Evan reported that his teacher had the whole class look around the classroom for the tooth he lost.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Having A Bad Day? Think Again.

Traffic accidents are a common scene here. Most are frightening, this one is absurd. What was he doing?... changing radio stations?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Wild Deer in Noida?

We are still finding interesting places to explore on foot here in Noida. Early on Diwali-morning we went out again to walk through a nearby forest. Our neighbors, the kids, Lesa and I made up the expedition troop this time 'round. The forest is less than 1 km from ATS. The rumour was that there are deer (Nilgai) living in this patch of woods. I was pretty skeptical. This eastern part of Noida has been pretty worked-over from construction and deforestation. Much of the area around ATS is dusty and desolate. There are plenty of domesticated goats, cattle and water buffalo, but I've never seen a wild deer anywhere I've explored in Noida...
As we approached the woods, the asphalt quickly became a dirt road and then random trails and brushy forest - mainly eucalyptus trees. Locals were watching us as we entered the woods... looking quite perplexed. These stares always give me the feeling I've shown up at the wrong wedding reception. A few asked why we were there? Shail helped explain that we were, "just out trekking." I think this confused them even more. Especially because it was Diwali.
We walked the perimetre of the forest for a bit, but then managed to find a pretty good trail to follow. Once inside, the forest let us momentarily escape the urban-Noida landscape. I could hear the breeze through the leaves of the trees. We started to see animal tracks that we couldn't identify... and then after a short distance, sure enough, there were some very large deer peering at us through the underbrush!
At first we just saw one or two. Then we quickly realized there were as many as fifteen healthy, large Nilgai in a herd. They kept watch of us, and would let us get to within 75 or 100 feet of them, then shy back away into the woods. We followed and enjoyed watching the deer for a little while and then finished our walk, passing a local Temple near the far side of the woods.
It was great to know these large animals are surviving, despite the rapidly changing landscape that surrounds them!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Hiking in Noida

I've been doing some hiking with our neighbors (Mini and Shail) over the past few weekends... The treks have started at the gates of ATS where we head out on foot to explore 'rural' our Noida. The weather has cooled down considerably here (upper 80's during the day and between 65 and 70 at night now) making it a great time to hike.
Our first recent trek took us south - in search of the river Yamuna... which we did eventually find. This is the waterway that divides Noida from Delhi. The river itself is less-than spectacular. Without much rain the Yamuna is reduced to a slowly moving swamp. But the five kilometre journey to the water's edge was interesting...
Our first barrier was the Greater Noida Expressway. This is a four lane highway that runs past ATS. It gives us easy access to New Delhi, but cars typically drive too fast and the highway has a reputation for really bad trucker accidents. The three of us scrambled across this road at about 7:15 am in the early morning mist.
Very quickly we ran into the last thing I would have expected... the Indian Air Force. The IAF's local shooting range, oddly, is in the farm fields to the South of our complex. Hoping their rifles were routinely pointed in a less populated direction, we gave the troops plenty of space as we hiked on.
As we traversed planted fields, we came across quite a few birds including several eagles, a male peacock and many small songbirds.
We saw many farm families working in the fields. Corn, wheat, rice and radishes seemed to be the main crops growing in the area at this time of year. We also walked through several local nurseries. Maybe these are a bi-product of all of the new construction - both commercial and residential -going up on along the Expressway? India loves her beautiful, ornate gardens... so more and more of these are planted with the completion of each new construction project.
Perhaps the strangest encounter along the way was discovered as we walked along a narrow, bricked village alley. Over the top of a stone wall we saw the large statue of a figure standing in a private garden. Shail spoke to some guards at this compound's gate, and with a little insistence they let us in. There, towering in front of us with the figure of Nehru himself, the first PM of India. The guards told us we had entered the workshop-retreat of an apparently famous state-sculptor! There were fiberglass statues (probably molds) and a few bronze ones scattered throughout this enclosed garden. All famous politicians or historical figures. Evan a large horse and the head of the god Brahma. For me, the place was a little creepy - random statues standing in the relative quiet of this slightly over-grown, hidden garden...

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Diwali

Diwali or Deepawali (in Sanskrit this means a "row of lamps") is probably the biggest festival in India. It is celebrated by Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains. Each religion emphasizes a different (and sometimes complex) aspect of this holy time. Diwali, in its most basic form, is a Festival of Lights. We went out and bought some of these little lamps (that's one of ours above). They're called diyas. After some head scratching (and the help of our trusted driver) we figured out we needed to get cotton wicks and mustard oil. Lighting them signifies victory of good over the evil within an individual and the welcoming return of the goddess Lakshmi.
The holiday in many ways reminds us of Christmas. Colorful lights are hung everywhere outside - in town centers, on buildings and temples. We put up our own - out on the balcony. Gifts are exchanged between friends, neighbors and loved ones. Candles and lamps are lit in the evening to light Lakshmi's way - the goddess of prosperity - to your doorstep.
Since this is a festival to share with friends we tried to jump right in! Last night we had some of our good neighbors over for snacks and chai. We exchanged simple gifts, our kids played, we all chatted and ate cake and namkeen and Indian sweets!And, oh yes, there is plenty of food during Diwali! Leading up to Diwali, the markets were filled with vendors making special gift packages and baskets. Special Indian sweets are prepared for sale in sweet shops.
For days leading up to the festival, fireworks (known as "crackers" here) are constantly heard going off in the distance. This is our first Diwali here in India. I think our whole family agrees that this festival of light is a very accessible, joyous and heartfelt occasion!

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Land Rovers of Ghoom

Strange as it may seem, the town of Ghoom (spotlighted in the previous posting) is the location of some of the few remaining classic Land Rovers in India. The Land Rover company (ironically now owned by the massive Indian Tata Corporation) hasn't sold Rovers here for decades. I have never seen them in other parts of India. But a few surviving examples can still be found still running about on the narrow, winding roads in the Himalayan hill stations of Darjeeling District. The kids and I managed to spot four of these rugged, aluminum-bodied trucks. The oldest dated back to 1952 - A Series I, still in working condition.

Tea Train

One of the most famous (and oldest running) narrow gauge trains in the world runs through Darjeeling District. The track starts in the city of Siliguri and winds its way up through the Himalayan foothills to Darjeeling. During its run up into the hill stations the train passes through what most consider to be the best tea-growing region in India.The track for this train really is narrow. The rails are only about two feet apart. The train is very small and very slow, (agonizingly slow), but the seats are comfortable and the views are often spectacular.
We just took the "Joy Ride" version of a trip, riding the 8 km from Darjeeling to the next town of Ghoom (sometimes spelled, Ghum). The train ascends about 1,200ft as it travels from the center of Darjeeling over to Ghoom. It is slow going as the train passes beside the main road and winds its way upward past guesthouses, village shops and several Buddhist Monasteries. The train makes a 10 minute stop at the Batasia Loop. Here the train circles around a garden memorial dedicated to all the Gorkha soldiers who have died for their country in past military actions. The Gorkha are considered to be some of the best Special Forces soldiers in the world - known for their courage and incredible abilities in high altitudes. The memorial overlooks the Himalayas and the massive snow-covered peak of Kanchenjunga.
The town of Ghoom is the highest point on the entire 83km line, with an elevation of about 7,400 feet. The top floor of the Ghoom train station has a small museum dedicated to the history of the train. As you can imagine, the track was not easy to build - many workers died during construction of the line which was completed in 1881.
After a 30 minute stay in Ghoom, we all hopped back on the toy train for our return trip back to the city of Darjeeling.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Darjeeling District

We have returned from our trip to Darjeeling... Spent eight days in the Himalayan foothills overlooking Mount Kanchenjunga - the world's third tallest peak (approx 28,160 ft.) The weather was cooler and everyday we had a view of the snow-capped range.
Darjeeling has a much more Asian-oriental feel to it due to the huge shadow of China. The cultures of Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, India, Sikkam and Burma all mingle together in Darjeeling.
While there, the kids discovered a fondness for Momo's - a Tibetan dumpling filled with pork, chicken or cabbage. Lesa and I savored the Tibetan soups... very nice on a chilly evening. We all enjoyed eating at the "English" bakery in Darjeeling as well!
We traveled to three hill stations in the district. Kalimpong was the first and our favorite. It was quiet and we stayed in a lovely family-run Guest House (Holumba Haven). Good food and plenty of garden space for the children to play in. The owners had two small children (aged 6 and 8) - so Audrey and Evan had a blast there. Hide and Seek, Tag, bunnies and guinea pigs - plenty to do. All while under the shadow of massive Kanchenjunga. Who could ask for more?
Kalimpong has a fascinating past as it was a trade crossroads for hundreds of years between Sikkam, Nepal, and Bhutan. As a result, all four major orders of Buddhism are represented in the town by monasteries - the oldest of these dates back to the 17th century. Buddhism is probably the most prevalent religion in this part of India. There is also a strong influence from Christianity and, of course Hinduism. We chatted with monks in each of the several Buddhist monasteries we visited - they were all well spoken, educated, and gracious.
Darjeeling, (elev approx 6,000 ft) was the second place we visited. Although established on a high ridge, the city was a bit of a disappointment. The city-center is crowded, noisy and has a lot of diesel pollution because the taxis ("Sumos") constantly running between neighboring towns. More on Darjeeling (and the unusual neighboring town of Ghoom (elev. 7,400 ft.) later...
Finally, we had a one-night stay in the town of Kurseong - in a pleasant, but weathered hotel called, Cochran Place. This small hotel sits on top of a ridge line with a near-360 degree view of the neighboring foothills. Warmer, and lower in elevation (4800 ft), Kurseong is surrounded by tea plantations. This is the heart of Darjeeling Tea country where many plantations have operated for 150 years or more.
The trip to Darjeeling District included a three hour flight from Delhi to to Bagdogra and then at least another 2-3 hours by jeep/taxi up into the many hill stations above.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Monkey Business, Part 2

We've been having some issues again at ATS Village with "invading" monkeys. I think it's the same bunch who have taken a liking to Towers 10 and 11 (ours is Tower 10). These marauding monkeys can be quite dangerous. One recently entered a nearby apartment, ransacked the refrigerator (that's the first place they go once inside your flat) and attacked a guard before being chased away! The ATS management has hired another monkey-handler to "patrol" the grounds. Different for a large Langur (see "Commando Monkey," Relee-India, Feb 2009) who was used earlier in the year - these fellows are the more common Rhesus Monkey. Supposedly the "domesticated" monkeys dislike wild ones and will chase them away...
I think our little monkey-patrol was bored the other day so the trio put on an impromptu show for the residents of ATS. Using a little tambourine to call us down, the Monkey-handler had his troupe perform some tricks...One monkey sat on a large can, used a walking stick, and then nodded/shook his head to questions. The other "played dead" and rolled over. A bit humiliating.In the end, the poor little guys were dressed up in sunglasses and hats as their performance finale! Lesa and I enjoyed the show, but I'll believe it when I see that these two monkeys can actually scare away their marauding, balcony-hopping brethren....

Thursday, September 10, 2009

English with a Hindi Accent?

Early on, Evan had difficulty communicating with his local schoolmates - especially in Class I where most of the children primarily spoke Hindi. The other kids and Indian adults had difficulty understanding his American accent and he became very self-conscious.

I think his early solution to this anxiety was to just stay very, very quiet at school. He became an observer rather than a speaker. Evan has never been very out-going, but this increased reticence worried us about his ability to adapt to his new social environment.

Much of our concern has evaporated over the past months. An incident this weekend confirmed this... Evan had a play-date with his good friend and classmate, Pulkesh. It was just the three of us at the apartment. Lesa and Audrey were out shopping with a friend in Delhi. We went swimming in the pool and later, the boys had fun playing with Star Wars figures in Evan's room.

That's when I observed the change. Evan would speak in his normal voice to me, but when he spoke to Pulkesh, his voice and accent completely changed. He was speaking with a thick North Indian accent to Pulkesh... Indian-English. I had to do a double take to see who was speaking. Audrey has used an Indian accent on occasion for some time, but not to this extent. Evan was doing what a Speech Pathologist calls "language code switching."

Evan (the observer) figured out the easiest way to connect with his Indian schoolmates was to mimic their speech. And I have to say, it seems to work. Pulkesh didn't seem to notice or acknowledge Evan was switching his speech. And Pulkesh was clearly understanding what Evan was saying! It didn't affect their play together in anyway. The boys were just having fun.

Lesa and I still worry about Evan a bit, but less now that we have both seen this new "India" version of him emerge. Kids are far more adaptable than their parents ever will be!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Two Unexpected Encounters

There are very few Land Rovers in India. I have only seen one in our nine months here so far. This is a fact that is a little annoying to me, since many of you know I really like old Land Rovers. Mine (1963 Series IIA) is being baby-sat by a good friend back in Austin.
It came as a huge surprise that one was parked in the driveway of our Hotel in Mussoorie this past weekend. We had just returned from a walk into town and there it was - a late model Defender 110 with Denmark plates. Denmark? I had a chance to speak with the owner/driver. He and his wife are driving across Asia... 20,000 kilometers so far from Denmark to Mussoorie, India. Apparently Land Rover has been helping their adventure with some spare parts. His only major mishap so far was breaking down in Pakistan. Fortunately, the Pak army uses LR Defenders in their Armed Forces so the couple was able to make repairs without much delay.

A second chance meeting came through a local bookstore in Mussoorie. Before we traveled up to this hill station, it had been one of my hopes to maybe meet the Indian author, Ruskin Bond. He's a prolific writer, and happens to live near Mussoorie. Two of his more famous novels include "The Room on the Roof," and "Delhi is Not Far."
While we were poking around a small street side bookshop (an opportunity to get out of the misty, Mussoorie weather) Lesa spotted a poster of Ruskin Bond. He is apparently friends with the shop owner - and comes faithfully every Saturday (4pm-6pm) to sign books, and chat with readers. Both of us were excited - we bought one of his novels and a collection of children's stories and told the shopkeeper we would return the next day to meet Mr. Bond.
We arrived at the bookshop at 5:30 the next day from an afternoon of sight-seeing. We were afraid we might have missed our opportunity to meet this local legend. The shopkeeper recognized us right away: "I told Rusty you'd be coming. He's waited even though he's not feeling himself today."
And there he was. Very gracious and charming. We apologized for being late from our sightseeing trip and he asked us where we'd been - Mr. Bond has lived in this area most of his 75 years - He seemed genuinely interested and was willing to take some time with us. He shared his thoughts on how things have changed in and around Mussoorie. The author told us he lives about an hour's walk outside of town and when the weather is pleasant his still enjoys the stroll from his village into Mussoorie. What an honor and a treat to meet him in person!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Mussoorie

We finally made a trip to one of the many hill stations in the Himalayan foothills. Mussoorie is a regional town sitting at about 6,000 ft above sea level. It is about 5 hours away by train (Dehradun) and then another hour by taxi up into the mountains. Our friends, Nicki, Jennifer and her 2 children, Artie and Mazzy made the trip with us.
When we arrived in Dehradun our group hired two cabs to take us up into the mountains and our hotel in Mussoorie. This was definitely a treat, because we all got to ride in "Ambassadors" up the mountain roads. The Ambassador is a very old design - the original Indian "Luxury" automobile. Now they are mainly used by government officials and taxi companies. There are hundreds of Ambassadors in Dehradun and Mussoorie.
The town of Mussoorie is situated on a winding ridge that overlooks the valley below. There is an increase of maybe 4,000 feet from Dehradun (in the valley) up to Mussoorie. As you increase in altitude you begin to see fir trees for the first time and the air becomes clean and cool.We often found ourselves wearing jackets and looking out above the clouds. We walked narrow village streets shrouded in thick mist. Our hotel was in an old summer-estate originally owned by a former Mugal prince. We ate some wonderful Tibetan food (common in the hill stations) and our visitors enjoyed poking around in the local shops. Sellers on the street roast fresh popcorn and sell hand woven clothing, Himalayan crafts and, oddly, magic kits - a strange phenomenon Mussoorie is known for... Because much of the town was laid out by the British during the Raj, some of the streets look rather English, lined with flowers and trimmed with wrought-iron.
We definitely will be exploring more of these lovely hill stations in the future - as with so much of India, each place we go has its own unique beauty and personality.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Bollywood Audition?

India continues to have moments of absurdity... A Canadian friend, Mark, who lives nearby, recently had a chance to do a screen test for the Bollywood director, Onir. Mark met him through a "friend of a friend." Apparently Onir's latest project includes the role of a middle-aged, "European" man. Mark rang me up a week or so ago to see if I might be interested as well... He gave Onir my number and sure enough, I received a call from the project's casting director, Swati. She asked for a few photos.
The whole thing seemed kind of silly, but I emailed her the photos, letting her know that I wasn't really an actor. Apparently I look sufficiently European and middled-aged to her. Swati sent me a text message requesting I attend an audition with some other actors at 6pm the next evening.

Chauhan (our driver) drove me over to a neighborhood in Delhi I'd never been to before. It was a maze of narrow streets, town homes and small businesses. Swati was waiting for me outside. She waved me over and let me inside a somewhat shabby three-story town home. We went into a brightly lit, large room where an assistant director was discussing the script with a group of actresses. Swati handed me the script.

The short film, called "Afia," is slated to be part of a 5 film project about some of the malices of India. I was definitely feeling like a fish out of water. The part they wanted me to memorize was multiple-pages long.... I am not used to memorizing lines, and I do not feel natural speaking them in front of a camera and people I have just met.
Then I read the description of the scene. I'm swimming in the scene. I had to re-read it twice. Swimming. I'm swimming and then the main character, Afia, flags me down at the edge of the pool - she's urgent and has to speak with me. Then I have to get out of the pool and wrap a towel around myself before the dialog starts... Can you visualize me actually doing this?

Each actor had about 15 or 20 minutes in front of the camera. I tried to stay away from the filming in an adjacent room. I helped one of the actresses run through her lines and she did the same for me. It was finally my turn at about 7:30. They saved me for last. At this point I was pretty nervous.
"Since there's no pool," I asked, "Do I need to take my shirt off for the scene?" There was a long pause, then everyone laughed. "No, no, no. We just want to see what you are like on film."

I have to say, everyone was very nice and very encouraging. They shot footage of me for about an hour and thirty minutes. Standing, walking , sitting, attempting to exchange dialog... wide shots and close-ups. They were very patient and cordial. We joked and laughed through most of the audition. I am definitely not a natural at this sort of thing. My guess is, maybe I had some part of the look they wanted, but in the end I am just not an actor.

Anyway, after some tea, and a few final shots I thanked them and off I went into the darkness and the ride back to Noida with Chauhan. He and I laughed about it most of the way home. Lesa and I are still laughing about it.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Indian Houseboats

We spent a night on an Indian houseboat while we were down south in Kerala. (near the village of Alleppey). House boating seems to be a fairly common thing here in India... You can do it is several locations throughout the country - the coast of Kerala being one of the more famous places. The Indian Houseboat culture here reminded me a little of the sail boating culture in the US - both are definitely relaxed, special ways of living.Our houseboat was very similar to the one pictured above. The boats use what is essentially a river-barge hull with "cane" mobile-home on top. The boat we were on, called the "Mind Sweeper," had 2 air-conditioned state rooms (each with a bath), a kitchen in the stern and a dining room/lounge area towards the bow. The boat had an inboard diesel engine that was actually fairly quiet. Most of the cabin is is made of wood, cane, and bamboo. At the peak of the season (winter months) there are about 250 houseboats cruising the lake waterways and canals around Alleppey!
The crew consisted of a captain, crewman, and cook. - They were all very friendly and competent and served us great, fresh Keralan food, chai - even a cold beer in the evening! The kids had the run of the boat. We just kicked back, read, but mostly just enjoyed watching the South-Indian village life slowly glide by as we wandered down backwaters and canals....

Monday, August 10, 2009

Behind The Wheel

I finally accomplished one of my big goals for self-independence here in India. Last week I got fed up enough to get behind the wheel of our Maruti sedan and start driving. It's been 9 months since we moved here (if you can believe that). Chauhan (our driver) was off and we needed to get some things at the store. It was hot and I couldn't stand the thought of taking an auto-rickshaw. Out the gates of ATS I went into the relative chaos that is driving in India... My only two real challenges are getting my left hand used to the gear shift and confusing the windshield wipers with the turning signal levers (opposite on a RHD vehicle). Accelerator, brake and clutch pedals are all in the same order as a left-hand drive car.

Since last Wednesday I have driven on the Noida Expressway and have handled the traffic at the local mall... not sure I will venture into Delhi traffic anytime soon, but I am out there now handling the local road-chaos. Chauhan will still do most of the driving, but at least on weekends, evenings and holidays I no longer feel dependent on the skills and good will of others.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Raksha Bandhan

Today is Raksha Bandhan - a Hindu holiday celebrating the relationship, respect and love between sisters and their brothers. Its my basic understanding of the holiday that the sister places a Rakhi (bracelet) on her brother as a sign of love and respect. The brother also expresses his love and promises to be a protector for his sister. Often sweets or gifts are exchanged. Instead of sharing a sweet, Evan chose to take Audrey to the movies as his "thank you" gift for the Rakhi.

Since Lesa was working, and our driver was off for the day... we headed out first by bicycle rickshaw (in search of an auto rickshaw driver in our neighborhood). After finding a driver and a bit of price haggling we headed out in the three-wheeler to take us across town to the mall. Unfortunately, our first auto rickshaw broke down after just a few blocks.
The kids and I waited in the hot sun for a few minutes until we managed to hail a second auto. Off we went through Noida traffic to enjoy a cool movie theater, popcorn and "Ice Age 3."

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Back from South India

We returned safely from a wonderful trip to Kerala (South-west India). The weather was cooler, and in the mountains we even needed to wear jackets most days and nights! It was a great break from the dust and heat in Noida.
While in Kerala we spent a few days in Fort Cochin (a former Portuguese - Dutch - English colony). We all enjoyed the beach near Alleppey and an overnight stay on an Indian-style Houseboat. The trip wound up with four days up in the mountains near Kumily. This is where tea, coffee and spices are grown - very famous for its spices! The Periyar Wildlife Reserve is also nearby. It is a Cloud-forest preserve with about 1,500 wild elephants, and (at last count) sadly, 37 tigers.

I am excited this week because I have my first big voice-over assignment (Mahatta Media) ...I am putting in a few hours each day in the sound studio. More to come on our adventures in South India in the next day or so...