Monday, November 5, 2012

Proud to Be an American

Let me start out by saying that I know that I am privileged. Privileged to have been born to two parents who love me and care for me unconditionally, privileged to have been raised in a family that could afford for me to take ballet lessons and send me to summer camp, privileged to have grown up in an area with safe, worthwhile public schools, privileged to have had the support of friends and family as I've screwed up as many times as I've succeeded, privileged to have a college education, a great job, a wonderful husband, a bright future...

But until we moved to India, I hadn't ever considered how many of those privileges stem from the fact that I am a citizen of the United States of America.

Maybe you've always been genuinely patriotic,  maybe you're one of my amazing friends who served our country in the military or a volunteer corp, maybe you've lived outside the country and came to the same realizations I have, maybe it's just me. But if you have a few free minutes this morning, before you leave to exercise one of your greatest rights and duties as an American citizen, casting your vote for our next President, I hope you'll read my thoughts.

The wealth divide in India is extreme.  33% of Indians live at or below the poverty line, that's over 400 million people.

Here are just a few of the ways in which that disparity affects the people of this country:
  • 90 million females are illiterate
  • 20% of children ages 6-14 are not in school
    • In some states, over 60% of girls who are enrolled, drop out before completing 5th grade
  • Infant mortality is as high as 63 deaths per 1,000 live births
    • 1 in 5 women die during birth
  • More than 122 million households are without something as simple as a toilet
  • In 2010, one bride was murdered every hour due to unmet dowry demands
  • 45% of Indian women are married before the age of 18
    • Child marriages result in the abandonment of a formal education, unsafe pregnancies, and a restriction of freedoms for community participation
  • 51% of men and 54% of women think that wife beating is justifiable
  • 61 million children have stunted growth as a result of severe malnutrition
I'm going to offer one more, more personal example.

I've mentioned in past blogs that we have a house keeper here. What I haven't mentioned is that we have a house keeper because we feel obligated, as a family who earns a middle class salary, to create a job. Most middle and upper class homes in India have at least a housekeeper, but many also have cooks and nannies. This is not unusual. And here's why: for one hour a day, seven days a week to clean our home, our house keeper asked for a salary of 1, 500 rupees a month. That's less than $1 a day.  

Yes. Cost of living is much less here. But to put that salary in perspective; our rent for our large but simple, furnished apartment comes out to about $600 a month, and basic+ groceries cost us around $100 a month. Bus transportation from our apartment to and from my office (a very short distance), and a few weekend rides, costs approximately $20 per person a month.  We are living within the same means as my middle class peers, all of whom were raised in middle class families, and simply perceive this divide as part of normal life. 

For the millions in India living in poverty, their children have almost no chance to make a better life for themselves. Our house keeper was married off at 18 to a man who drinks her salary and  then beats her. She had a baby within the first year of their marriage, but tries her hardest to avoid having a second. Each month she scrapes together $60 to send her child to school. Some months she doesn't have it. The reality is that even if her daughter makes it through elementary school, high school is a reach and college a fantasy. An economical cycle will put her child in the same situation she was put in.
In contrast, 4% of the world's wealthiest billionaires come from India. India's billionaires alone make 10% of the national income and in 2008 before the crash,  that statistic was 22%.

So how does the US stack up? Currently 16% of  Americans, approximately 47 million people, are living at or below the poverty line. A number that started climbing after the housing bubble burst in 2006 and got worse after the stock market crashed in 2008.  And our billionaires? Like in India, they make 10% of the entire national income.

Increasingly,  our children are going hungry, our people are going without necessary medical care, and our renowned social welfare programs are collapsing.  But in 2012, I am still undeniably proud to be an American. Because as an American I had the right to cast my ballot, from thousands of miles away, and vote for the candidate I trust will create the future I believe in. 

It was a motto my grandparents and parents lived by and is an unwritten tenent of our country; our children will do better than we did. Because I am an American, I get to have that dream too.

When you vote today, I hope you will be thinking about what this election means on a grand scale for the increasing wealth divide in our country. Our country that has provided us with the incredible rights to education, clean water, hygienic and safe public spaces, shelters from fear and poverty and better lives for each successive generation.

Please vote for the candidate you truly believe can make our country better not just for you, but for everyone.

I gathered these statistics from:

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Backwaters of Kerala

Last weekend Tal and I headed to the south Indian state of Kerala for a weekend away. You CAN fly, but it's far more economical to take an overnight bus. It makes for much better stories too.

Tal and I grabbed an auto-rickshaw after work on Friday, and made it across the city without running into too much traffic. When we arrived at the bus pick-up location listed on our e-tickets, we were told to walk a few blocks to a different location. At that location we were told to walk a few more. At the next location we were ordered (Yes. Ordered.) without any other instruction, to get into an unmarked minivan filled with twice as many people as seats. 

Four months ago I would have found all of this verrrrry fishy. But when the gentleman behind the counter (at what may or may not have been our bus company) suggested that we climb into the van, Tal and I just looked at each other and shrugged. Seemed about right to us.

The van dropped us off at a final location, and our bus was only (Yes. Only.) an hour late.  Our seats were nice and comfy, the air conditioning was the perfect temperature, and despite a series of VERY loud, VERY dramatic movies in a language we couldn't quite put a finger on, we both slept the majority of the next 10 hours.When we woke up, we'd been transported to the beautiful backwaters of Kerala.  

We had a completely romantic, totally memorable weekend exploring the waterways of Alleppey, and the culture (and GREAT markets) of Cochin. But my hands-down favorite part of the weekend was  our hour long cab ride ride from Alleppey to Cochin. Sure the scenery was amazing and I was in great company snuggled up to my best guy. But it was playlist engineered by our driver that was the icing on the cake. For the first twenty minutes we were serenaded by really lovely traditional Hindi tunes. And then, with NO warning whatsoever, our ears were accosted by hardcore American gangsta rap, so offensive that I don't dare Google the lyrics to find out what we were listening to. And for the final twenty minutes? Celine Dion. 

I couldn't make this stuff up.

Residents of Alleppey use hand crafted canoes to get from place to place. Our hotel runs a small ferry shuttle from the main land to their property.

Ice cream truck at the beach.

One of the main attractions in the area is the opportunity to tour on a luxury houseboat. Many of them offer overnight stays as well.

The inside of a houseboat. Tal and I took a lovely sunset cruise but opted, on the advice of my coworkers, to stay on shore in a traditional hotel.

Most of the land in the area is covered by rice paddies. The weekend we were in the area was one of  two annual harvests. 

A recently harvested paddy. 

Tal and me next to a giant pile of unprocessed rice.

A gorgeous sunset.

Our waterfront hotel.

Cochin used to be known for it's massive spice markets, and in many of the old buildings you can still smell the spices. However most are now used as antique warehouses. The majority of the stores we wandered through in the market sell their wares wholesale to shamncy boutiques in Western countries.

Cochin is home to a Synagogue built in the 1500's and still used today. We weren't allowed to take pictures inside, but it was a beautiful mix of Indian aesthetics and Jewish customs.

Spice markets are still common in the area of Cochin called "Jew Town".

The town clock tower atop the Synagogue was built in the 1700's. 

The giant fishnets in Cochin.

There was a festival of some kind the day were were in Cochin. I love the colors of these ladies' outfits.

To be honest this elephant made me sad, but still made for an interesting sight marching down the middle of "main street" Cochin.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

It's Festival Season Ya'll!

Yo! Nora! What's with the total desertion of the blog? Did you catch Denge Fever and your fingers fell off and you can't type anymore? Did you secretly return the United States and stop having hilariously traumatic experiences? Did Warner Brothers buy the rights to your blog and you're working on a movie script instead?

1. Who still says "yo?"

2. Though I have had quite a few terror inducing, franticWebMD search inspiring mosquito bites, and India continues to traumatize me on a daily basis, I do in fact still have my fingers, my sense of humor and my baseless dreams that this blog will be turned into a blockbuster staring Emma Stone.

The real reason I haven't written iiiiiissssss (drum roll please!).......

I'm lazy.

Here's what's been going on:

Festival season has begun in India and we've had the opportunity to take part in several Pujas (Hindu rituals) and attend traditional dance and music performances around the city.

Here are some photos snapped by the photographer I hired to be my husband:

Beautiful, fragrant flowers are used to decorate people, homes, cars and anything else decoratable during festivals. I asked my friends why, and they gave me the same non-answer they give me for everything, "it's auspicious".

During the festival honoring Ganesh, thousands and thousands of oil candles were lit downtown.  I was told by a nearby teenager that it's auspicious (of course) to light the candles because they "bring light to the world's darkness".

This lady cow doesn't actually have anything to do with the festivals, but was worth having a picture of for illustrative purposes. The woman sitting next to her was trying to sell vegetables, but she kept eating them! Because cows are (you guessed it) auspicious, she couldn't do anything but shake her head and hope Ms. Cow stopped.

Hundreds of dancers from all around Bangalore lined the streets. Each group had their own interpretation of the traditional choreography, but everyone danced together to the same music.

My dear friend Varsha is nearing the ninth month of her pregnancy, so I recently had the privilege of attending her Godhbharai, the Indian version of a baby shower. In Hindu tradition, much like in Judaism, you do not celebrate the baby prior to birth. So the event's purpose is to shower the mama-to-be with love and blessings.

All of the guests are women, though children are welcome as well. Mama-to-be Varsha had spent the afternoon sitting still so that the gorgeous henna design on her hands could dry in time for the event, and when we arrived she was dressed in a beautiful Sari with a wreath of flowers in her hair. Varsha sat on a special throne of sorts and married guests approached her to offer individual blessings, and present a gift. A coconut is traditional (Why? "It's auspicious". Right.) but sweets of any kind, clothing and jewelry are all common too.

Varsha's husband talked me through the ritual so that I could participate. I felt a little clumsy, but so honored.
Varsha manages a wonderful group of people in the same company I work for. A few of the women from her team prepared dances to perform at the celebration as a surprise.
These beautiful pictures were captured by my colleague Pamela, in the pink.
Varsha and Vivek have been wonderful friends and neighbors to us, and they're going to be exceptional parents. 

My favorite part of the event was when Varsha was asked to choose a cookie, several of which had been hidden inside a collection of embellished boxes. The cookie she ended up with would predict the gender of the baby. Varsha's cookie informed us she'll be having a boy (or a very sweet, very moist almond biscuit)!

Traditionally, not learning the gender of the baby via ultrasound is a practical superstition.  These days, in order to deter the practice of sex-selective abortion, it's also illegal. There are a series of customs in Indian culture that make having a daughter a very expensive reality, and for the many families in India for whom money is scarce, the birth of a daughter is a mixed bag.  Unfortunately, despite the law, these abortions, along with child abandonment, remain common practice in rural and poor communities.

Sometimes it's not just homesickness that makes me sad in India.

But sometimes because we're in India we get to be part of moments that are truly beautiful.

Recently we attended an art exhibit sponsored by Leonard Cheshire Disability, the non-profit organization with which Tal is currently working. Leonard Cheshire provides a variety of services to people with disabilities, with the goal of creating a society in which every person will  "have the freedom to live their lives they way they choose." All of the paintings in the exhibit were created by artists who are deaf. The works being exhibited specifically focused on each artist's interpretation of what it means to live without sound. The art was empowered and beautiful, and though the exhibit was themed, each piece told it's own story. And not one painting was sad.

We couldn't resist taking home one of the paintings.

Our attendance at this event landed us on the society page of the Bangalore Newspapers. Step aside Kim Kardashian there's a new socialite in town!

This weekend we had planned to go to Delhi/Agra to see the Taj Mahal, but the airline from which we'd purchased tickets picked this week to declare bankruptcy (why does everything bad have to happen to MEEEEEEE?)  Needless to say, our flights were canceled. I'll let you know when we get our refund. You let me know when pigs fly.

Check back next week to read about the adventure we're having instead: a 10 hour overnight bus ride for a 2 day get-away to the backwaters of Kerala. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A Trekking Adventure: Coorg

My first week here I was flipping through a copy of Indian Vogue when I came upon a travel section with recommendations for weekend get-aways all around India.  Normally when I flip through Vogue I'm in fantasy land- I stare longingly at clothing I'll never be able to afford, and dream about the assorted reccomendations I'll never be able to take. But in India... 

I still can't really afford any of the clothes, and I wouldn't be able to stay in any of the hotels they suggest... But I can get a heck of a lot closer than I would in the States!!

And thus began my desire to travel to Coorg.

The fact that it's home to many of India's largest coffee plantations didn't hurt (*she types with shaking hands because it's 3pm and she needs her mid-afternoon fix...)

This outfit was not approved by Vogue.

This stud get's 100% of the photo credit. Talented and cute? I am a lucky girl.

This is what I look like after hiking up hill for hours.

This is what my face looks like surrounded by acres and acres of coffee


Guess who can (finally) exit and re-enter India without being arrested??

My Yoga Adventure: Dharamsala

As you know by now, India has proven to be a bit harder on my spirit than I'd expected. Somewhere on this emotional roller coaster, between loops of Visa frustrations, unavoidable culture shock and unexpected bouts of homesickness,  I stopped feeling like "me".  Despite Tal's best efforts to make me comfortable and keep me chipper, I've been a bit of a negative er… Nora.

A few weeks ago, as I watched Tal book his flights for yet another international adventure sans moi, I decide to take matters into my own hands. So I can't get out of India? So what. I'm living in the frickin CAPITAL of inner peace. It was time for me to get my Yoga on.

And so, at the recommendation of a friend, I booked myself a plane ticket to Dharamsala (in the Indian Himalayan foothills) and reserved myself a spot in a 5 day yoga course. 

Day One:
The trip started out beautifully. My cab picked me up right on time at 6:45am, and we had an uneventful, traffic free ride to the airport. I breezed through check-in and security. With plenty of time until boarding, I decided to grab a coffee at the food court before heading to my gate. While I was stirring in my milk and sugar, a middle aged Indian man approached me, pointed to my nose and said, "this is beautiful".  Now… I'm pretty content with the way I look, but I was DAMN sure this gentleman had not given my various features a once-over and decided on my slightly crooked shnoz as his favorite. "Sorry?" I asked. "The piercing" he replied, pointing to my nose again, " it suits you very well".   My nose ring. That made infinitely more sense. "It brings added grace to a woman's beauty" he concluded, and with that, he walked away.

Nothing like an eloquent, genuine compliment from a stranger to make a girl feel a little brighter.

I had to change planes in Delhi, but my journey continued without a hitch. Five hours after leaving Bangalore's crowded city streets, I landed in a completely majestic, natural wonderland. 

It took just over an hour for the cab driver to wind his way up the single lane, unpaved mountain road to the village of Dharamkot. But the scenery was spectacular,  and before I knew it I was grabbing my backpack from the trunk and walking down the short trail to the Himalayan Inyengar Yoga Centre.

The teachers asked that we not take pictures inside the centre, so this is borrowed from their website.

I was greeted warmly by the office manager, and taken to my room. I was excited to walk around so I simply threw down my things, locked the door and returned to the office to sign in and pay. Four other travelers, all Israeli,  were in the office when I returned. After learning that they were also signing up for the course I was taking, and chatting a bit I asked if I could join for the small hike into town.

I spent my first evening with my new friends, Hadar & Ravit, wandering around Bhagsu, a town east of Dharamkot, chatting, eating and shopping. They'd been traveling around India for over a month already, and everywhere we went they found friends from previous adventures. 

I knew that Dharamshala was a popular destination for Israeli tourists, but what I discovered BLEW MY MIND.  Menus and signs are in Hebrew but not Hindi, Indian shop and restaurant owners conduct their transactions in perfect Hebrew but are surprised if you respond in English, and grocery stores have as many jars of Tahini as Chutney.

Can you spot my Nikes among the bajillion pairs of Tevas?

I really wish I'd spent more than 30 seconds inspecting my room at the Yoga center. If I had, I would have discovered the mold, spiders and leaking roof in the light of day, rather than at 10pm when I finally returned from exploring. But since there was nothing I could do about it, I burrowed deep into my sleeping bag and fell asleep dreaming about the fabulous day of yoga to come.

Day Two:
Yoga started at 10, but I woke up with the roosters around 6:30. 

Seriously. Roosters.

I spent the early morning sitting outside, breathing the pure mountain air, enjoying the remarkable view and reading my book (Zadie Smith's White Teeth, in case you were curious). The first day of yoga was wonderful. It's a practice I wasn't especially familiar with called Inyengar. I'd taken a few classes in Brooklyn some years ago, but I've done primarily Vinyasa classes. The course is intended to start you from scratch, and break down every asana (pose) in detail. There are about 30 people in the class, one teacher and one assistant. Between the two of them they make sure that each student is in perfect form at all times. It's incredible what a big difference a little correction makes. The class was three and half hours and they request that you practice on an empty stomach. I was REALLY nervous about both the length of the class, and the no food bit,  but before I knew it - it was 1:30 and we were sent on our way for the day. I felt wonderful, and couldn't wait for day two.

After class I walked back to Bhagsu with Hadar, where we joined Ravit (who, like my dear husband is not-so-into yoga)  for lunch in an open air Thai restaurant. Most restaurants in the area seat you on the floor with pillows and low tables. We sat chatting for several hours and were eventually joined by another friend from their travels, Ilana. After some time I dragged myself away from the lovely conversation, to go in search of a new place to sleep. As luck would have it, their guest house, Sky Pie, had one room left for rent. After I retrieved my bag from my room at the Yoga centre, I rejoined my new friends for the rest of the evening.

I feel compelled to tell you about the dessert they MADE me eat. (Right. Like anyone has EVER had to force me to eat dessert...) The first part is a sweet that is unique to this area called Bhagsu cake. It's basically a biscuit bottom, then a layer of caramel, then a layer of chocolate.  Trust me when I tell you that this description does NOT do it justice. Out of this treat, they created a dessert called Hello to the Queen/King. A bowl is filled with sliced bananas, then topped with a ground version of the biscuit, then topped with warm, creamy chocolate sauce, next a scoop or three of vanilla ice cream, and finally if it is Hello to the King... they add ENTIRE PIECES OF BHAGSU CAKE. 

So much for my yoga detox…

Day Three:
Thanks to my new room, some Tulsi incense, and my noise canceling headphones - I had a great night's sleep and woke up refreshed and excited for my second day of yoga. I was up early again, so I had a cup of ginger lemon tea at the cafe next to my room and continued my tradition from the previous morning. At 9:30 Hadar met me outside, and we took our scenic 15 minute hike to the yoga centre. 

Day two was even better than day one. We flowed through everything we'd learned on day one, and added several new asanas. It  stormed during most of the class, and the sound of the thunder in the distance and the rain hitting the roof was a perfect sound track.  I left the class feeling more centered than I have in months. And despite the three hours of yoga, and total absence of calories in my system - I was also  incredibly energized.

After a quick shower, we grabbed lunch at the local..what else..falafel joint. I was very excited to learn that Dudu, the owner, also has a restaurant in Hampi, one of the next places on our travel list. He's this cool young Indian guy who made friends with an Israeli traveler and learned to make falafel, tahini, hummus & sabich.

The afternoon  and evening were completely uneventful, and completely wonderful. Everything in Dharamsala is wonderful.

Day Four:
I need to tell you something about myself, lest you get the wrong idea. I'm not some great yogi. On a good day I can barely touch my toes, much less contort myself into some of the more complicated yoga poses. And let's not even talk about my meditation skills. If I'm only thinking about 3 things at one time, I feel a sense of inner peace.

But on day four, I had a yoga break through. Towards the end of the class, our teacher introduced bridges.

This is a bridge. This is not me.  I do not look anything like Ms. Gumby here.

After we were taught how to properly, and safely do a bridge - we were instructed to do TWENTY. We all laughed, because we were sure that Pedro, our teacher, was joking. He was not. 

But sure enough, despite the fact that I've never successfully done a bridge (including in gymnastics classes when I was 8) I did 20. And when Pedro announced that we'd be doing the final three all together, I did three more.

And then, I commenced with the crying.

It wasn't hysterical hiccup crying, and I didn't feel sad. I felt overwhelmingly proud, strong and beautiful.

But really Nora, crying? Just as I was having that exact thought, Pedro explained to the class that many people experience an emotional release after a series of backbends.  

So not only am I completely normal, but I finally achieved Yoga success!

I spent the rest of the day on an emotional high. I felt AWESOME.

In the afternoon I took a jewelry making class. Taking classes is a very popular activity in Dharamsala. Courses range from flute lessons to Aruveydic healing. If I could have stayed on my vacation for longer, there were at least 5 other subjects I would have happily studied.

But since I only had a small amount of free time, jewelry making was just fine with me!  My teacher, Tapas, and I sat on the floor of his studio and his wife brought us chai!

Whenever he wanted me to use the blow torch he said enthusiastically,  "Fire. FULL POWER!!"

The final product. Not bad right??

Day Five & Six:
My finals days in Dharamsala passed much like the days before. Incredible yoga classes in the morning, spectacular mini-treks and peaceful afternoons spent with new friends and a good book. (I moved on to How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran...gosh you're nosy!)

Here are some pictures I took on my daily walks:
A view of McLeodganj - the town that is home to the Dalai Lama's temple

The evening of day five was the first night of the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah. Because of the large presence of Israelis in the area, there is a Chabad House (a Jewish center & kosher restaurant run by a Hassidic family from Israel) . And while I wouldn't normally attended services at a house of worship that was QUITE this religious, it was an amazing experience to be in such an innately spiritual setting, celebrating one of our holiest days.

The Chabad Center in Dharamkot. Not. Too. Shabby.

Day Seven:
While I was completely ready to return to Tal, I was very sad to be concluding my yoga course and leaving such a magical place and wonderful new friends. The good news is that the Yoga centre moves south for the winter to Goa, a popular beach destination that is a quick overnight train ride from Bangalore.  I'm planning to head there in November to continue my studies. Yoga in the morning and a sun and sand in the afternoon? YES PLEASE!

But before it was time to say goodbye, there was time for one last Hello... to the Queen.

So am I feeling better?

Ladies and Gents, from here on out you can call me Stella, 'cause I've got my grooooove back!