Friday, November 28, 2008

Chennai Day 14

This is my favorite picture so far: this is the High Court in Chennai, an institution that still bears some of the hallmarks of India having been a British subject. At the same time, elements of the culture here: order in what appears to my Western eyes as disorder. These are files from court cases. The large, uneven stacks toward the back, tied together with twine, are, I believe, back cases. In front, documentation for cases currently under consideration. There is a person whose job is to go through those big stacks, find the necessary paperwork, and place it into the little stack in front for the lawyers. As someone known for losing things, I cannot imagine how he begins to know where to look, or where to file cases back into the taller stacks. But isn't this great? You have to have a sense of faith - a belief that that there is some larger plan out there - to even begin to conceive that a system like this will work. And, as corollary, you have to be willing to be patient.

At about 1130 am, with a break in the rain but the skies looking cloudy, I broke out of the apartment to do some shopping for light bulbs, milk, and vegetables. I was about a block away when the skies opened up again, but given that I'd been inside for the last 24 hours, I kept walking. I stopped at the Departmental Store, which is like a very small grocery store. They sell food, drugstore items, cleaning supplies, and soda. I picked up some Kellogg's Cornflakes. If you have a box at home, take a look. My box touts the high iron content (25% of RDA) and notes that one bowl of cereal is equivalent to seven bowls of spinach. Also, that is is okay for vegetarians to eat. I'm wondering if the American packaging, or even the American recipe, is as concerned with iron content?

Next, the vegetable store. Very intense yesterday. It's a rectangular space bordered with large wooden trays, divided into squares, and each tray with a different type of vegetable. Onions are toward the back of the shop, in a big pile on the floor. There is one bin that has an assortment of vegetables in it. I think that these may be seconds and bruised pieces but haven't tried buying from there. Fruits, greens, tomatoes are toward the front of the shop for passersby to see. You pick up a large metal bowl, which doubles for our shopping baskets, put in whatever you are buying, then bring it to the counter at the side of the shop. The man who owns the shop sorts it (seems to be that onions, garlic, fruits are a set price), weighs your purchase on an old-fashioned two-sided scale, switching octagonal metal weights on and off until it balances. Then he takes the metal tray from the scale, dumps all of its contents into a bag, adds the pieces that he has not weighed, and gives you the price.

Usually, the shop is quiet - maybe one other customer, and then an employee working, sorting through the bins, cleaning, hosing them out. But yesterday there were four customers ahead of me. People kept filling bowls and walking away, and each time, the owner would look at me as I waited to pay, point to the bowl, and ask if it was mine. Nope. This happened several times, including once when a young woman, who'd left a large bowl of tomatoes, returned holding a shopping bag with two plastic bags of milk from the Medical Store next door to the vegetable shop. (It looks more like a food store to me, but that's what it is called.)

This may have been the last milk in Chennai. When I finally made my purchase and went next door, there was no milk left. Nor at any of the four stores we stopped at while coming home from the movies in the afternoon. (I'm beginning to wonder if crispy is not in the Indian cuisine. Before the movie, I bought what I was expecting to be popcorn from one of the many small carts in the theater. The sign said "American Corn." What you get: a papercup of large corn kernals - like our canned corn. You choose the flavoring - American (margerine and salt), Masala, Chinese, and some others. The guy working the cart scoops the kernals into a metal bin, adds flavorings, mixes it, and scoops it into a cup, then sticks a plastic cup in, and hands it back to you. I went with Masala - spicy, some lime, still not as hot as I'd been expecting the food here to be. Very good, but not crispy. Also, our movie had an Intermission, which is so smart, because then you can pop out for food or bathroom breaks and not miss any of the show.)

I did find cream at one store as well as butter (which I hadn't seen anywhere) and yogurt. Milk, however, was nowhere to be found. Perhaps the supply line to the dairy farms was flooded. Or perhaps the cows went on strike. Eventually, we did get milk, thanks to our driver, who offered to have his father, who guards a building up the street, buy some when the delivery van (or maybe cart) came to bring milk to that building. Somehow, he came back five minutes later with
the milk. For breakfast today, oatmeal with papaya, coffee with milk, and orange juice!

And that unknown fruit from yesterday's post? It's a guava. At every store that I stopped in for milk, I checked out the rest of the store and looked at the signs on the fruits and vegetables until I found it. I've never before seen a guava in any form but inside a bottle of juice. And the yellow ones are the ripe ones. I cut it up last night and ate it while playing my eighth hand of Solitaire: the taste is like a banana crossed with a pear.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Monsoon Thanksgiving

This is our street in Chennai at about 10 am this morning. (See that white car? It's not from the fifties - in Chennai, they have not changed the style of the model in forty years. Also true for Enfield, a great-looking motorbike sold in India.) It has been raining almost constantly for about 36 hours. On Tuesday we got about 100 milliliters of rain. After a very dry monsoon season this fall, Chennai's water basins are now full enough to take the city through July. In the Hindu, the daily paper, there was an article today listing each basin, its current content, and the amount of total volume that the site could hold. (This paper, in my brief experience, seems to like to quantify the topic.) Since I took this picture this morning, the street has siphoned off the water, filled up again, drained, and is now about four inches deep. Motorbikes going down the road leave a large wake. An auto-rickshaw stalled earlier today; they are low to the ground and tend to give out in a downpour. The driver fussed with the back of the vehicle, tried to start it, fussed some more, tried again, and finally the little motor caught and he puttered on his way.

This is the view from our balcony at about 2 pm. Raining, again, in huge, heavy gusts. That is the street, covered with water.
Our street in the direction that we rarely walk. The other way takes you toward the yoga center and the shopping area. After coming back home this morning from work, we decided to try exploring up the street for a view of how deep the rain is. This is a very mild view. If I'd had my camera as I walked to work, I could show you a narrow street, lined with tiny shops selling tea and Internet and Xerox (that seems to be a popular item in Chennai) and women pumping water from street-side hand pumps into large plastic urns, that was at least four inches deep.
Some branches, knocked down by the wind. And a sidewalk, which is not too common an occurrence. Most of the time, you walk along the side of the road. (I must be getting a little more comfortable, because now I manage to march along most of the time, letting the cars and bikes and motorbikes and rickshaws zip by beside me. Not completely confident, though - I still look over my shoulder from time to time to see if anything is coming up behind me. But crossing the street, I feel a huge sense of pride - such a little thing, but crossing the street with bravado is a quality of the residents of this city, and perhaps all of India.)
Below, one of the reasons that the streets fill up, then slowly empty. This is a sewer opening in the curb:

And here, the main sewer opening at the corner. Someone propped the lid open so that the rain can go down a bit faster.
So, here we are. We've stayed in today, reading, watching Chicken Run on the laptop, taking a nap, reading some more, checking email, doing some cooking, playing Solitaire, doing crossword puzzles. The forecast is continued rain for the next day or two. The yoga center was taking in water down the hallway when I went in at 930 this morning. My guess is that it will be closed again tomorrow and perhaps Saturday as well. I'm hoping that if I can't observe classes, that I might be able to schedule a chant or sutra class for myself with one of the teachers. We're being conservative and staying in today, with the news from Mumbai and the rain, but by tomorrow I may have serious cabin fever. At the same time, most of the city is deluged, so we'll have to wait and see.
Last pictures for today: an unknown fruit bought from the fruit cart around the corner. I bought one of these last week; it seemed to be similar to a pear. Today, the young boy who waits on us and does a lovely job recommending what to buy, pointed me to a basket on the side with some of the fruits that were yellow instead of green. I had made a gesture of taking a bite - meaning how do you eat this - but I think that his interpretation was that I wanted one to eat today.
And a papaya. A very good one, more like a mango and yellow inside with some round black seeds that I scooped out. Again, recommended by the fruit seller after I picked up a different papaya. Before today, the papayas I've bought have had flesh that is a much darker orange-red and no seeds, so I'm not sure if these are different varieties or different ages.
Dinner tonight will be stir fried vegetables, some pasta from last night's dinner, a beet salad for me, and papaya. And beer. No turkey or stuffing or pumpkin pie in sight. And still raining.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Fine Here

FYI: all is fine in our part of the country so far, and we are safe. It has been raining almost nonstop for about 16 hours, so the yoga center is closed again today. We're planning to relax at home, and perhaps go out for dinner this evening. I'll post some pictures later, but just wanted to let anyone reading the blog know that all is good here.
Happy Thanksgiving!

Rain Day

Today is a day off because of the rain. Schools were canceled and all students have a holiday. At home, we wait for snow. Here, the kids must wait for rain.

I stayed home until about 10 am and then walked over to the center. Instead of my traditional clothing, I wore a skirt and top from home in order to slog through the rain. I ended up detouring a bit, as the street that I usually walk down was flooded. All for naught - the street that the center is on must be lower than the surrounding areas and seems to become a wading pool when it rains. I slogged through, put down my umbrella, and walked into the office to check with my supervisor, who sent me back home because most of the students had canceled their appointments. On the way home, I took the direct route, wading through water about three or four inches deep in places, with my skirt clinging to my legs and the sleeve of my blouse starting to soak through. Still, the women were wearing saris and picking their way along the roads, and passengers on motor bikes were holding umbrellas over the heads of the drivers and going along as if nothing was unusual.

The two things that my daughters asked about when we talked to them yesterday is what I'll write about today and tomorrow. First, what is my job like, and second, how about the food? Today, a bit about the food.

Our most truly authentic eating so far has been at Mahabalapuram. We went to a local restaurant, "non-veg," (almost all eating places are labeled "veg," meaning no meat, or "non-veg," meaning meat and seafood are served). From the road, the sign said "Food Plaza," which may mean a general restaurant, but on that I'm not sure. We walked into a very cold, air-conditioned room with several Formica tables. The first thing that the host asks is "hand wash"? Because it is traditional to eat with your right hand, most restaurants have either a washing place against the wall, or in this case, behind some swinging doors. We followed directions, went and washed our hands, then were seated at a table right by the door.

Menus arrived, and the only tricky part was trying to order. Tour books recommended having tiger prawn or fish, as the town is beside the Indian Ocean and there's lots of fishing. Our waiter was very, very quiet, to the point that I could not hear him, and he kept asking us "one or two"? I was not sure if he was trying to find out how many meals we wanted, or how many people would be eating, or how many side dishes. I pointed to the man at the table beside us, who had a heap of rice on a banana leaf and a yellow plastic tray with several dishes of different things, and tried to convey that what was what we wanted. The language barrier was high, unfortunately, but finally we closed the deal, not sure what we would be getting but feeling relatively proud that we were eating out.

Here's what arrived, in stages: first, two small dishes of curry, one with chicken and the other with perhaps a shank bone - I took the meat off and the bone part was semi-circular and looked cartilaginous. The sauces were great - spicy, a bit hot, but not too much so. Also, a bowl of white rice and a plastic tray with several small dishes - an eggplant dish, something with spinach, a raita (yogurt mixed with a vegetable or fruit), a dish of something sweet and coconuttish with skinny noodles and one cashew nut, and a few other things. You scoop a heap of rice onto your tray (or leaf), spoon over some of the curry, mix it with the fingertips of your right hand, and then do a sort of pinch-scoop-bring your hand toward your mouth and mouth toward your hand and eat. Although the curries were spicy (though not as hot as many things I've had in the States - maybe they have a special pot for babies, elderly, and newbies), once you mix it with the rice, or eat some raita, it is tempered.

We worked on these dishes for a bit. Every once in a while, a waiter would head outside with a tray, bringing food to the drivers. Or people would walk out of the restaurant after eating. Because we were seated by the door, there was some traffic going past. The people would look at us, but hopefully we were making a decent impression by focusing on our food and by eating with our fingers.

And the "one or two"? Turns out we were ordering the number of tiger prawn that we wanted. We'd ordered four, and that was enough to feed a large family plus friends. A tiger prawn is about the size of a very small lobster, and next time, the answer will be "one."

Other than this, we've been eating at home most days. A cook drops a lunch off at about noon each day. It consists of several small dishes - some vegetable things (everything is cut up very small, mixed with some spices or coconut or lentils - it may be a base of green beans or a cabbage or turnip or potatoes), some rice (sometimes white, sometimes mixed with saffron and tomatoes and hot peppers), dal (a soupy lentil dish - the main protein), and maybe some chappatis. She is accustomed to cooking for Westerners, so the food is bland from a traditional South Indian's perspective, and I was starting to think that I was ready for it to be hotter. Then, today, we had some peppers mixed in with the rice. I tried one, and you know what - maybe not so ready...

The things that I do miss are milk for my coffee and cereal in the morning and something crispy and salty to snack on. The milk, I could buy daily, but have been too busy to do so. And with daily power outages, I'm not ready to use milk that's been holding in the refrigerator while it's off. (What makes me think that the same thing will be true of the milk that comes from the store is a good question.) The other part - the desire for something crispy and fresh - is somewhat filled by what I cook for dinner. I usually do something like stirfried vegetables with some rice, or a pasta with vegetables in it. And then, as much fresh fruit as I can eat. Tangerines, tiny little bananas, a citrus fruit that seems to be a cross between a grapefruit and an orange, pineapples that are smaller and not as sweet as the ones we get at home, and papaya, which is an acquired taste for me. Yesterday a colleague brought me two to show me what they look like when ripe and ready for eating. Still, even for natives, papaya are a mystery - some can be sweet and some not so much, and you can't tell until you cut into it. And pomegranates are in season. Do you eat the seeds or just the red flesh around the tiny seeds? I ate the whole thing, my husband, just the fruit part.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Hannah, do you still want to be a lighthouse keeper? Here's the lighthouse in Mahabalapurum:
And the lighthouse keeper's quarters. Not bad, huh? And right next to a beach town.
But not much rain except in the monsoon season and this week. (We are with the rain gods this week. Sunday we finished sightseeing, got into the car and the skies opened up and the roads were soon a few inches deep in water. Tonight, we went into the bookstore. Came out to find a torrential rain, which started just after we got inside, and on the way home, rickshaws were stalled with wet sparkplugs and women on motorbikes were drenched and some men had put plastic bags on their heads like a fifties' rain cap, as though that would make much of a difference when the rest of them was drenched. Ah, the human spirit of hope. And as soon as I typed this, a huge rainstorm descended.) (If you are a sceptic and don't believe in some sort of pattern at work, consider that last night, when my husband - the civil liberties person - went to the Chennai meeting of Rotary International, the speaker discussed India's new freedom of information act. What are the chances?)
But back to the tour. Below, a detail of gods from a frieze carved out of rock and into a small temple next to a much larger frieze called Arjuna's Penance.
Below, a scary ascetic Buddha at the workshop of a stone carver-friend of our driver. The stone mason is carving a six-foot-tall version of this sculpture to send to Ireland. Most of the large pieces from the workshops in Mahabalapurum go to temples or hotels or wealthy people's homes all over the world. From this tiny, very unfancy village, they ship these huge pieces by boat to Europe and the States and elsewhere. (This is how helpful it is to have someone drive you around: no delaing with rickshaws, good inside scoop on the area, and lots of really good stuff, like warning you not to walk off the path at the cemetary - not, as my husband thought, because he was breaking the rules - but because there are cobras in the grass. Just small ones, they noted, but still, who wants to step on even a baby cobra?)
My favorite carving: ther very sweet cows in the frieze next to Arjuna's Penance.
More asceticism: this, a cat, surrounded by mice. The cat is meditating and the mice are playing unimpeded around him - indicating how deeply he is meditating. Would a dog be able to achieve this concentration? I think not. (Our dog chewed through the seat belt of our dog sitter's car this week. Not a good thing,)
Details from the Shore Temple, built in 700 AD or so. Very influential on temple architecture all over the world. In Mahabalpurum, you see sculptures that look Chinese or Vietnamese or Greek, and most likely, they all were derived from Indian art.

What you don't see in any of these pictures are the women at each site who sweep all of the leaves and sticks and dust away from the sidewalks, monuments, and other flat surfaces throughout the day. You see this continually in the city as well: people sweeping off driveways or steps or courtyards. Their brooms are made of long pieces of stiff straw, bound together with twine, and are about 2 feet long. The straw is twisted so that the end of the broom is at an angle, and all day long, you see women on the street by their homes, or working as cleaners at hotels, or as caretakers of buildings, or at ancient temples or monuments that are used every day, who are sweeping. They just keep whisking the debris along, and they don't use a dustpan, but it seems to go somewhere, so that the sidewalk or courtyard is clean. And it's their yoga: the brooms are so short that they bend halfway over to sweep, but keep their backs very straight and flat, so that they (theoretically, at least) are able to do this work without getting a permanent backache. I'm not sure why the brooms are designed this way, except that there isn't a lot of hardwood evident in India, and perhaps this became the best way to make a broom, and people adapted around the design.
And it is still raining. The street has a small stream running down it. Tomorrow, we'll see who shows up for class at the yoga therapy center.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Chennai Day Nine

Long day at work, so I don't have too many available brain cells for writing a post. We spent Saturday night through this morning in Mamalapuram, a town on the Indian Ocean which is known for being the site of some of the oldest temples and carvings in India (pictures tomorrow, once I label them and do some weeding), then came back to Chennai this morning so that I could be at work by 9 am.

I - yeah and double yeah - had observations pretty solidly throughout the day, and when I didn't have a consultation or class to observe, I worked on organizing my notes from last week to turn in and started organizing my notes from today so that next Monday I won't have such a backlog. Saw some very interesting students, and I continue to marvel at the teachers that I am observing. It's like (no, it IS) watching a great artist at work. They are so knowledgeable and so good at what they do; it's hard to imagine that I'd any sense of what yoga therapy looked like or how much it could do until I came here for my internship.

And I am starting to know people's names (except for those three or four guys in the office, who all have names that start with A, and I just can't seem to hear the fine differences in the pronunciations of their names), and to feel more comfortable finding a corner to sit in during the observation that lets me be discreet but not feel like I'm trying to make myself invisible, and to understand a little bit of Tamil. I can recognize the word for "slowly" -at one lesson, I heard the teacher say it about every fifth word -, and the word for mucous (sounds almost the same, and I'm not sure that I need this word, but what can you do when you're observing people who are ill?), and a word that sounds like "cheerio" and seems to be either a call to pay attention (the teacher of the class for kids with special needs kept saying it to the group) or maybe "next" or maybe "okay," as in "okay, do you understand?", and I'm trying to hear the words for left and right. And the teacher today often said a word that sounded like "mucho," but probably doesn't mean the same as the Spanish.

The funny thing is how much you can understand when you can't understand the words. You look at people's faces and hand gestures more, you hear the change in intonation, and you notice how the person listening is reacting. I'm finding that the sessions in Tamil are sometimes more interesting than those in English, because I observe more of the relationship between teacher and student and how the teacher gathers information, instead of trying to write things down on my observation sheet.

Well, the wind is blowing, and it was cool enough today for me to put on a sweater, which means it's truly winter in Chennai. (Okay, I hear all of you snowbound Northerners whining, but sorry, I can't hear you over the gentle warm breeze. And if it makes you feel any better, it rained much of the time that we were at the beach, except for a long morning walk when we went past a herd of cows and calves, hanging out on the sand and being groomed by the crows, known as caw-caws in India. I went back to take a picture in the afternoon but then the rain hit and we hightailed it back to the room, where the television offerings were cricket (score - I am not making this up - 143 to 2 - but the other team had not been up to bat), Bollywood movies on a few channels, Indian game shows, India's version of Idol, a very bad movie with Scarlett Johansen, and CNN. I read a Bertie Wooster and Jeeves novel and sat out on the balcony, looking at the rough waves on the Indian ocean.

Friday, November 21, 2008

A banyan tree at the Theosophical Society. Banyan trees are good to do samayama on (meditating as a way of absorbing the qualities of the item upon which you are focused). They live to be very old, like our redwoods; are flexible enough to bend and not break in a heavy wind; can support the weight of many people; and were used as massive sun umbrellas in times when the priest of the village would gather all the people together for a meeting or ritual - and everyone could fit under the canopy of a single banyan tree. Their roots are remarkable - like tree trunks on their own.
Next, the Kapalishvara temple, the most famous temple in Chennai, and dedicated to Shiva. His consort Parvati has a small temple in the courtyard.
Me, standing on a stool on the porch, so that you can see my work duds. I need this stool to reach the clothesline.
Other quotidian details, but critical: our water supply. Today was water delivery day. The guys lugged six of these big jugs up four flights of stairs, carrying the bottle on their shoulder. Cost: 475 rupees or about $10. We use the water for all drinking and cooking, for brushing our teeth (it's hard to get out of the habit of turning on the faucet and running your brush under the water to rinse the toothpaste off), and for making ice cubes. In Chicago, I rarely bother. Here, a cold drink tastes refreshing.
Our bedroom. Very peaceful,Italic except when the people next door turn the television on. Lately, it's been quieter. In the courtyard of the building, a woman washes her dishes by a faucet. On the roof, two satellite dishes. (To my dismay, I can't watch Dancing with the Stars - American websites don't allow watching of episodes online outside the States. Who regulated that one, and why?There is an Indian version but so far I've only found short clips and not a full episode, but would be happy to watch that as well.)
The kitchen. A two-burner gas stove with gas supplied in large containers. Guys lug these up the stairs, too, but I'm hoping we'll not need to refill them this month. More water, because I don't want to run out and I do want to leave some for the next tenants, and we could go through this much, in any case. Here, water is like gold. It hasn't rained much this year and all of the drinking water for Chennai comes from rain, so things are very dry.
And that stove - that's all for cooking sources. Because who would turn on an oven when the winter average temperature is in the high 80s? On the other hand, what about a childhood with no home-cooked brownies or chocolate chips? And no roasted vegetables? You buy your sweets and cakes at the store, so baked goods are available, but I'm intent on finding a way to make toast on a stove, because I miss toast with breakfast.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Pictures from Chennai

Views of Chennai from St. Thomas Mount.

A few artifacts from the Government Museum.

The floor in our apartment building: a stencil in rice flour, an auspicious symbol.

Another view of the hallway, with the elevator from a previous era. Two metal grilles to close and a small jerk as it moves upward. We usually walk the four flights.

Chennai Day Six

Tender coconut ice cream, grilled tuna with beans and potatoes (little tiny potatoes that would be tres chic heirloom potatoes in the States) and an artfully-carved pepper that I took for a bean and munched a bit on before realizing, bottled water for me, Darjeeling tea. Bruschetta, fusilli al’Amatricianna, espresso, fresh lemonade with mint, and coconut ice cream for my husband. Served in a beautiful garden encircling a marble-floored verandah with a scrawny cat and a very helpful posting of arts events around Chennai (including a French animated film festival which ends tomorrow night) at a restaurant called Amethyst.

It took a half hour through traffic that rivaled the worst of Chicago back-ups. Cars (lots of Hyundai in versions not sold in the US), rickshaws, a man pedaling a bicycle pulling a cart, motorbikes, all crawling slowly across Chennai. Turns out that all the movie stars were in the area in honor of an Indian movie star who died yesterday, and the burning of the body was at 4 p.m. today.

As I write, my husband’s reading about Ganesh, his favorite Indian god (one should note that he had not previously had a favorite Indian god) from his Gods and Goddesses of India book. Oh, and he just pointed out the mouse that carries Ganesh about on his new statue of Ganesh. Ganesh is the mover of obstacles (how else could a mouse carry a god), and he outwitted all the other gods and goddesses in a race around the world by choosing to go only around his mom and dad and then touch their feet – and that won the contest, because “one who goes around his parents and touches their feet traverses the universe.” (Hannah and Molly, he’d like you to note this…) He is also reading the Tiny Tot Ramayama, in which the fact that Rama is blue is not once mentioned by any of his family or acquaintances.

And today I had a Patience Breakthrough.
Yesterday was a very hard day: so much waiting, so much unsureness about should I look for the teacher whom I to observe or wait for her to claim me, hours of waiting in a plastic lawn chair. At 5 o’clock, it looked like I would finally have a class to observe, and then the students (two youngsters with their dad) chose not to have an observer, and I thought, is it something about me that’s the problem? The other student doing observations generally looks like the cat who ate the canary, and yesterday, reminiscent of a colleague from grad school who would walk by your carrel, look at all your research and books, ask about what you were working on but NEVER reveal anything of her work, asked me about my day but would say literally nothing when I asked about hers but just sat and smiled serenely at me.

I came home very frustrated. But then, this morning I got up, did my old and more gentle yoga practice, chanted only after instead of before and after, thought about a mountain instead of the ocean, walked to the center instead of getting a ride, and found myself ready to wait. I’m not sure if yesterday was some sort of test (this lineage is very traditional and testing the student’s commitment is not unheard of) or if I made it into one, or if it was the fact that I wore a favorite pair of pants from Anthropologie – wide legs and a favorite color of beet red – with my Indian top, or if it was the hot breakfast (rice with diced banana and honey), or the walking to work , or that the person who puts my schedule together noticed my frustration or felt that I passed the test and gave me a jam-packed schedule for today when I left at the end of yesterday – but I just felt different. More prepared, more self-confident, more patient.

And here’s what happened today: I observed five classes. I met with my supervisor, who seems wonderful (and has the best fashion sense in the center, which doesn’t hurt, and this is in a group of very well-dressed women – yesterday she helped me with the scarfy thing, and then gently suggested that it was more of a shawl than a scarf and that even Indian women, who wear these all the time, have a tough time keeping them in place). She insisted that I have tea, when I demurred. And when I went to pick up the empty cups to throw away, she put her hand over mine and insisted on removing the trash herself. She smoothed the way for me to observe a teacher who had been somewhat stand-offish. And that teacher, during the observation, slipped me the student’s file to look at. Twice. And another teacher, who was passing out chocolate after lunch, offered me a piece. I wasn’t sure if I should accept, but having tried to refuse the tea, I felt that it might be okay to just accept the chocolate. The funny part: I was surprised that it was melting, because in Chicago, the chocolate is never melting.

And then, out to dinner tonight. Tomorrow may be completely different, so we’ll see how I ride out the change. And oh yeah, I have a new scarfy thing (I think they’re called dupattas?), smaller and potentially more wearable. And I used the large one as a shawl tonight and that worked much better.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Chennai Day Four

Woke up this morning at about 530 am to the sound of a procession and chanting. We went to the porch and peeked over the railing to see a man in white clothes walking alone, then a gaggle of beautifully-dressed women in saris, chanting and beating tambourines, and then two more men, again in white, walking behind the group. I imagine that they also had some sort of ritual function, but they were chatting and looked like they would have been happy to be playing a round of golf together. There was a large truck in the street and next to it a tall stack of newspapers. A boy, on his bicycle, had filled his basket and was out on the morning paper route, which you rarely see in the States anymore.

I went back to bed for a while, but am finding that I get up much earlier here than at home. I poured a bowl of cornflakes, cut up a banana on top, and poured the milk on. Hmm. Definitely a bit sour. Trying to play safe instead of sorry, I dumped that out and started over again, warming some leftover chapattis in a frying pan and eating them with some of the strawberry jam from the American supermarket.
It’s 84 degrees right now – at about 9 am. And this is winter in Chennai. I cannot imagine being here during the hot seasons, because now we usually have a bit of a breeze in the evening and not too much humidity. It does feel heavy this morning and the sky looks a bit grey around the edge, so maybe it will rain.

I worked yesterday from about 10 am until 1 pm, then had a break until 4 pm. Most of the time, I wait in a seating area outside the main office, where there are plastic molded lawn chairs, the day’s newspaper, and usually some patients waiting to be seen. The office is very hectic in the morning, and my first job is to go to the person who makes my schedule and pick that up. Then I wait and hope that either I will recognize the teacher or that someone will claim me. This is clearly an exercise in developing patience, but I feel very proud of myself that I’ve been able to feel the tiniest bit of increase in my endurance level. Yesterday I approached a teacher who I was to observe to let him know, and though he was extremely polite, his answer was that we would wait and see if the student came for class or cancelled, and then, if the student would agree to be observed.
So after lunch, I set myself the goal of trying to wait to be claimed by the teacher if I was to observe. I glued my backside to the chair, worked on knitting a Shetland Triangle shawl out of some Misti Alpaca Handpainted sock yarn, and waited. And while my 4 o’clock and 5 o’clock appointments never materialized, I would suddenly hear someone from the office say “Janet, please observe,” and I would thrust my knitting into my bag (my husband very deliberately warned me not to make them wait while I finished the row…) and follow the teacher to the practice room.

Small things are important here. The two cases that I observed yesterday, which weren’t on my schedule, were of a famous dancer who now teaches dance and has given workshops in the US and a man who is diabetic and has sent many friends and colleagues to the center but never been here himself. This second class was held entirely in Tamil, of which I know none, but I was surprised at how much that I thought I could understand, and at the end, the patient asked me if I speak Tamil.
Another small moment is when the teacher passes me the case file to look at. It doesn’t happen every time (and we’re talking two whole days of experience here-), but when it does, I feel very complimented.

Well, got to go get ready. Today I may try to wear the long scarfy thing with my shalwar kameeze – just ironing it had me working up a sweat.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Chennai Day Three

Dogs rumbling in the surf and fishing boats at Elliot's Beach in Chennai, above. Below, two calves at Kapalishvara Temple in Chennai. They were in a little pen to be admired and occasionally, to have worshippers reach over and touch them. Don't they look serene?
Closeup of some of the carvings on the temple. I wasn't there - these are photos from my husband's expeditions today - but I'm thinking It's a Small, Small World inspiration?
I woke up about 7 am today to drink coffee, have some cereal, and do my yoga practice. Then ironed my clothes for the day (Indians are very neat and believe in ironing, to the extent that there’s a small wooden cart that the vendor rolls down the street, stopping in front of houses to do their ironing, and this is a tropical climate – thus, I figured that perhaps I should press a few wrinkles out of my pantaloons), took a shower, and got dressed for the day.
Today we hired a driver for the day, mainly to take me to my job, so that I could center nervousness on any choice but the specter of hurtling across town in a rickshaw. What a difference. Deva, who was recommended by a colleague, was waiting outside by one of those old-fashioned, thirties-style sedans that you'd see in a movie with Barbara Stanwyck. He drove me to what I thought was the building, helped me find the actual building (I was one block away, and somehow, when you’re lost, all the buildings and gates and signs look identical), and then showed me how to open the gate (slidy metal thing at the top instead of a latch that flips in the center.)
My day went fine, and as expected, will be a lot of waiting in between people rushing toward me to say “Janet, go there to observe” or “Janet, please, a consultation.” Manners are impeccable: “please, sit” is the way that I’m told that it’s time to wait or “please, follow” when it’s time to move or “please, wait here” when we’re not quite sure what to do with me. I read a few chapters of a Peter Wimsey-Harriet Vane mystery but found it hard to concentrate, then spent time looking at the local paper, the Hindu, and then took out a sock to knit later in the afternoon. I’d been told that knitting is a lower class activity in India (yesterday I saw an ad promoting cross stitch lessons, ladies and children welcome, which I think means that cross stitch must be a form of work here and they were looking for men who needed work), so I’ve been unsure if it would seem inappropriate. But after waiting for much of the day and realizing how much knitting I could be getting done, I decided to jump in, and if the staff feels it’s not a good idea, I’m sure someone will let me know.
In between the waiting (which is actually a good test for me, because I am so not a patient person who enjoys waiting for unspecified lengths of time in unfamiliar places – I feel proud that I got through the day still Feeling Calm) I was able to observe three yoga therapy classes and a consultation, or first meeting, of a student with a teacher to do an intake and assessment. Each was different from the others, but there were some hallmarks that I noticed: the way that the teacher matched his or her approach to the student (quiet tone of voice with the very quiet student or a lighter, laughter-accented tone for the student whom the teacher has known and worked with over several years); that everyone needs to relax, relax, relax; that everyone needs to slow down; that chanting is a great way to have someone develop the length of his
breath and Americans should try it more often; and that cell phones, no matter what country they ring in, are an unnecessary interruption and should all be tossed in the river. Didn’t we all exist before being available every moment of our existence?
Tonight, we had the leftover lemon
rice from lunch (which also came with okra that was crunchy and wholly edible and far away from the stuff they served in the cafeteria at Duke University and some spicy potatoes and a dal of split peas and tomatoes and onions – so far, we’re sticking with the wimpy, unspicy level of heat in our food) with stir fried onions and carrots with some soy sauce (my husband’s expeditions today included a trip to the American supermarket, including replenishing the supply of TP and finding some cranberry juice and chocolate chip cookies) and cut-up cucumbers.
It’s only 9 p.m., but I’m just about ready for bed. There are no streetlights here, and once it gets dark (which happens much earlier that I would have expected – by 630 or 7 pm – but this is winter here – only in the 80s and humid instead of hot-box conditions, a la that scene from The Bridge over the River Kwai) it feels like it’s time to nod off. Tomorrow I’m supposed to have a fuller schedule, so maybe I’ll get a few rows of knitting done before going to sleep.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

I am not sure where to start with our experiences during our first two days in Chennai. I start to write a post, and then I start again, and then again. So, at least for this post, don’t look for clarity or much in the way of plot and development. Instead, some random notes on my adventures so far.

It is cleaner, greener, and more beautiful here than the tour books suggest. We are in a lovely residential neighborhood called R. A Puram, renting an apartment in a four-story apartment building. We have a large living room, a kitchen, a laundry room, two small bedrooms, two bathrooms (one with a Western toilet and the other with an Indian toilet), and a wonderful screened-in porch where we eat our meals. It is really nice to have a cozy home base to come back to, and good to have a kitchen where I can make a cup of chamomile tea or get breakfast when I’m hungry. This is very cushy, even in this neighborhood, where there are some very large houses owned by So-and-so Senior Advocate or Mr. Such-and-Such Film Director. (Honestly, I saw that on a gatepost yesterday.) I’ll try to insert some pictures when I post this – we have limited Internet access and I’ll be trying to write things up on Word and then cut and paste them into my blog.

We arrived about 1:30 a.m. Saturday. The flights were fine, especially the flight from London to Chennai, when I slept most of the way. I did have a moment of panic when it was time to board the plane; truly, I’m not sure if it was the medicine that I took to help me sleep (not a sleeping pill, even, cause I’m a lightweight) or the thought that I was boarding the plane that would leave me in India for a whole month. I suddenly felt nauseous, dizzy, and, oh yeah, I had hot flashes throughout the entire flight. But everyone on the plane was polite, friendly, really attentive to their babies and assorted small children – we were seated with a young woman from Miami going home for 3 months to see her parents – and midway through the flight, a friend of hers who was also heading home to plan her wedding stopped by to visit – and it was like listening to a semi-bored teenager who likes to party some (she was bored, couldn’t find a movie to watch, drained her Ipod and forgot to recharge it…)and that made me feel more comfortable, too.

The trip from the airport to our apartment? You cannot imagine the way people here drive. If there is a tiny bit of space, they barrel through. If they want to go in another direction, they U-turn. Anywhere. If the traffic slows down, they pull around the cars, drive into the oncoming lane, and then swerve back into the proper lane. And these aren’t even the rickshaw drivers, who are an even crazier version of the typical drivers. People ride two and three to a motorcycle, bicyclists file alongside, cars move in and out, and most of the time, it works, though I have seen one tiny accident so far, when one car scraped the side of another because that opening she tried to squeeze through wasn’t quite wide enough. And honking accompanies every few feet covered: honk to let the car in front know that you’re passing, honk to say you’re U-turning, honk to let the pedestrian walking down the street know that you’re coming, honk to insist that traffic jams get moving. (Hannah, you’d be dumbstruck – this beats out Boston hands down.)

On the other hand, walking and crossing the street – which was described as a certain death trap – is much more manageable than anticipated. (And yes, you suddenly notice that a cow is walking down the street in front of you, but they are sweet and gentle and it's seems strangely normal.) Especially in the mornings or late afternoons. And by today, we could walk down the street without being approached constantly by rickshaw drivers trying to get us to take a ride. Our goal this afternoon, after getting lost yesterday walking home, was to go out, walk and map our neighborhood so that we felt more aware of our surroundings. Definitely confidence-building. As my yoga students know, I’m not good with left and right nor with maps, so walking, looking for landmarks, and drawing my own little maps into my notebook with ways to mark the place (NOT the “house with Ganesh alter on the corner,” because we quickly realized that almost every corner house has a Ganesh altar) gave me a much clearer sense of where we live and how to get to the street with the markets or back home from a walk.

Once we reached the shopping area near to our house, we roamed up one side of the street and down the other to get a lay of the land. Sunday is a holiday (not sure if it’s every Sunday or a special day – the large wall calendar in the apartment has an image of a god on today’s date) and some things were closed, but we found a store where I bought a Coke and then spied milk (10 rupees or about 25 cents) for coffee and cereal (it comes in a plastic sealed bag which I’ll have to decant into a container), a fruit and vegetable store where you pile your selections into a large metal bowl, take it to the counter, and the gentleman weighs it on a scale (97 rupees, or about two dollars, for two small pineapples, what I think might be a pomegranate but could be something else, five small potatoes, some shallots, three onions, a cucumber or maybe a squash, green beans, some small eggplants, five little carrots, and a papaya), and the coffee store, where just the aroma of the roasted beans coming out the door was enough – you didn’t even need to drink any. (By then, we were new-experienced-out, so I’ll come back another day. The coffee in Chennai is renowned.)

All together, much better than yesterday, when we did too many new things and set our expectations too big. Though, after wending through the maze of stores in Spencer Plaza (as awful as any American mall, with too many people, too much noise, and those damn hallways designed to keep you going in circles so that you will shop more), we found FabIndia and after some gentle wrangling with the young clerk, who wanted me to buy silk, I found some batiked and cotton shalwar kameeze (the long tunics and full-legged pants worn by most women here, though I’ve noticed that the women I see walking, marketing, and such in my neighborhood all wears saris, so I’m wondering if there’s a class or age difference involved? And every woman here looks beautiful, and the colors and the way they are combined in the clothes could inspire an artist for years) so that I feel less conspicuous and much, much cooler and comfortable.

Tomorrow, my first day of work.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Stress Induction

Some things that I need to do to get through in the next week and a half before leaving for India:
  • focus, focus, focus. Start one thing and finish it before bouncing off the walls, around the room, onto the computer, and then starting something else. Nothing will get done if I can't manage to fooooooccccccussss.
  • summon the patience of Job to wait in lines, including tomorrow's line to vote, the line at the pharmacy to pick up some medicines that I need (five people in line when I stopped tonight, and the same man at the pick-up counter for the entire ten minutes that I roamed the cosmetic section looking for an equivalent to my favorite MAC lipstick, and then I bailed and went home - see what I mean?) and any random moments that involve the act of waiting, including stop lights, email coming up, letting the phone ring, making a cup of tea while standing still in the kitchen while the leaves steep instead of running off to fit in a quick something else, and sitting through commercials.
  • cut the cord that is connecting me to that extra pair of sandals and three pair of pants instead of two and the jean jacket that I might just need, even though it's in the 80s and humid as all get out in southern India. At present, all non-essential items are piled on top of the semi-packed suitcase, waiting (at least something in this house is waiting) for me to gather the gumption to put them back in the closet and go without.
  • see above, regarding the Ace bandage, two types of sunblock, Benedryl in tablet and cream form, gauze squares, tape for the squares, one of those instant cold packs, and facial wipes. I never use this stuff at home, but what if I need it and I can't get it in India? Number of times that I've used an Ace bandage to date: zero. Yet, the advice regarding first aid kits is to take all of this stuff and more.
  • choose a knitting project and stick to my decision. So far, I have piled up in the maybe stack: Socks that Rock yarn in Walking on the Wild Tide and a size 1 circular for Magic Looping socks; Silk Garden in three different colorways, originally destined for the Noro scarf from the Brooklyn Tweed blog (mindless, easy knitting with color changes to keep me happy while I'm waiting between patients) but now possibly going to be used for Turn a Square hats for the colleagues in my yoga therapy training who took me up on the offer to knit them a hat; a skein of Misti Alpaca hand painted sock yarn, full of bright pinks and red and greens but I haven't found the right size needle or project to use it for; a skein of Malabrigo in blues and greens to make a hat; and a half-finished Peddler's Shawl in Brooks Farm Solo Silk, a yarn that is lovely to work with but since I'm done with the garter stitch part and am ready to work the lace edging, it may not be the right project for the kind of knitting I'm envisioning doing while I'm waiting. Oh, and a skein of Rovings Polworth wool-silk in a beautiful soft brown. I love this yarn and made a Swallowtail Shawl out of my last skein, but having just zoomed through the Noro Taiyo yarn and also having allowed myself to get totally off-track by starting Juliet in the leftovers of the Cascade Eco Wool, I'm not sure (see above, yet again) that I have the patience for lace-weight right now. And my beloved Bryspun circular is in the city at the hospital where I volunteered this summer, and driving in and parking would be far more costly than just buying a new one, and yet, I can't even decide to do that. EEk. See what I mean about focus?
  • last ditch solution: eat chocolate, ice cream, and other comforting foods while watching Dancing with the Stars, Stylista, Survivor and The Amazing Race (this Sunday's view of India? not nearly as scary as the last time, when everyone was crushed together on the train and getting somewhat mauled), because clearly the knitting is not going to offer much solace at the moment, and hope that the clothes that I do pack will still fit when I arrive in India.
  • oh, yes, and please don't forget to vote tomorrow, no matter how long the lines and no matter how little patience you have. I promise that I will, even if I have to arm myself with two projects and a book to get myself to stand still long enough to get into the precinct and cast my vote.