Saturday, February 27, 2010

Just got back from the Westin Hotel (newly opened) in Koregaon Park, Pune. Since I've been here I'd noticed this monstrocity of a hotel in it's contruction phase. Massive gray modern building along the river near Kalyani Nagar. I'd drive by it almost every day wondering when it's completion date would arrive. opened about two months ago, and only now have Remi and I gotten the opporunity to try it out.

Fantastic architecture! Very sleek, perhaps a tad cold, exterior, the inside however is much warmer. Tight security (Mary likey in light of the recent bombing event here in Pune), modern art lining the lobby, the elevators saturate your eyes with a shiny metallic golden floral wall decor, and the restaurants...OMG, must be like five or so just within the hotel itself.

The restaurant we ate at was called "Seasonal Tastes" (pictured above) and it was buffet style (came highly recommended to us by Remi's collegues). We went with our friends Charlotte and Guillaume, who happened to have two friends visiting from France.

The food was wonderful (for a buffet) included a lot of Asian foods, ahem, SUSHI!!!! Woot! We were thoroughly stuffed by dessert time. Desserts (which anyone who knows me knows is my FAVORITE course) were plentiful, along with an extensive cheese selection (which the French loved) they had ice creams, crème brulee, tiramisu, trifle, beetroot cake, fruit tarts, pistaschio bars, apple crumble, chocolate gateaux, mousses, Indian puddings, cookies, chocolates, plus every fruit under the sun drizzled with your choice of chocolate syrup or caramel. It was a relative dessert-lovers heaven.

After a massive overload of sweets + wine I was yawning and ready to pass out. They did bring us some coffee, which I managed to gulp down to waken myself back up.

In total, the buffet was 800 rupees per person (around $18.00)! Though this is still cheap for this class of buffet, still a tad pricey by Indian standards.

Oh, and my only complaint...the drinks took FOREVER. Just bringing us a glass of wine (which was overpriced) took around 20 minutes. I don't know why this was, but they could have made lot more money off of us if they were a bit more attentive with the alcohol. I mean, I ended up having 1 Bellini and 1 glass of wine (and the wine was all my own effort in flagging him down), but had the waiter been around more to offer a refill in a timely manner, I probably would have had 3-4 glasses easy.

Either way, Remi and I love this place and we will be back to try out the other restaurants. They have an Italian one (a bit pricey) which had waiters dressed up as Italian clowns (complete with face makeup, no joke), it was truly bizarre.

Owie, OK my tummy is too full to sit in this chair anymore, time to lay down...

Monday, February 22, 2010

Foamy Mouth = Bad Doggy.

"India has been reported as having the highest rate of human rabies in the world, primarily because of stray dogs." -Wikipedia
Glad I had my rabies vaccine before coming here. We have like 11 stray dogs -plus puppies- living on campus. These aren't the same strays you see in the states, oh hells no. We're talking like WILD dogs here. Like Animal Planet, Discovery Channel type wild. Occasionally in town you find some semi-friendly, but for the most part they're very scared of humans, and rightfully so. Most people consider them pests and will beat on them and chase them away. But at night they tend to gather together and form packs, these packs can be quite dangerous. I've seen a pack chase a little girl on a bike before...she got away unharmed, but was scary to witness. It's for this reason I know my Mom would never like India. She's an animal lover and it would kill here to see all the animals in pain here. It's quite shocking to see and very very VERY hard to ignore.

(*1 lakh = 100k)

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Yoga in India.

I've started a creative writing class and yoga class. Both started last week. I picked up some new yoga mats for both Remi and I, yep it's true, Remi is taking his first yoga class ever!

The yoga was fantastic, I've felt like such a bump on a log lately, it really was needed. The teacher was great, a true yoga master. Unlike all the ones I found in San Francisco who have morphed their classes to suit Americans. Many teachers in San Francisco use yoga as almost an aerobics class, moving from pose to pose too quickly just to make sweat and feel like you "got your moneys worth". I found it hard to perfect my poses and really notice my breathing in any of those classes. I find relaxing yoga much more satisfying for me physically and mentally. Our teacher here was seriously into aryuveda, and after class taught us a little about the main principles. Aryuveda doesn't really interest me much, I don't think classifying peoples bodies into only three categories is very accurate. But he was a great teacher, he took his time to watch his students and align poses that were flawed. He stressed the importance of not straining your body, not to pull muscles, to listen to your body. A belief that is quite opposite in the U.S., where if your not pushing your limits your not learning, so to speak. I always hated that belief! I really liked this style of yoga, focusing more on breathing, and holding poses for longer periods of time. Though I couldn't help but giggle at a lot of his mantras converted to English, especially at the end of class during "meditative sleep", he was trying to relax our minds by giving us soothing relaxing words. His accent was so hilarious though I really had to focus to keep from smiling.

"Tink of your body...*long pause*... as a gatevay to da mind.

I wasn't the only one, I peered over at Remi and he was smiling. Remi was really glad he came, he's has had a lot of back problems lately from working too long in front of the computer. Also, he has really bad posture, he is always hunkered over. I told him yoga would really help with his back, and he did feel a lot better afterwards. He has zero flexibility, I've never seen anyone as rigid as Remi before. I think he will benefit greatly from this class.

The class had such an effect on a lot of us here on campus that we had trouble sleeping that night. Some say they think it was because the class gave them so much energy, but other people heard that yoga can release toxins in your body and that they can agitate, preventing sleep. Who knows, but I'm really excited for round two!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Shaniwar Wada, Pune

"Shaniwarwada (Marathi: शनिवारवाडा) is a palace fort in the city of Pune in western Maharashtra, India. It covers six and a quarter acres in central Pune. It was constructed in 1732 as the seat of the Peshwa(prime ministers of the Maratha Empire), and remained the political capital of the Empire until its annihilation. The fort itself was largely destroyed in 1828 by an unexplained fire, but the surviving structures are now maintained as a tourist and archaeological site." -Wikipedia
Remi and I visited this fort for the first time a few weeks ago, it's located in the heart of Pune. We haven't seen much in Pune actually, surprising I know. Aside from this fort and a Ganesh Temple on the outskirts of Pune, we've pretty much worked every day since we've been here. Not that we don't want to do a little sight-seeing, because we really do. It's just that Remi is so busy with school and it's hard to arrange it all. We're definitely putting forth more of an effort to see stuff every weekend. I have been putting a lot of effort into our upcoming vacation to Nepal. Remi really wants to add Tibet to our vacation, I'm trying to squeeze it in but it's a heck of a lot more hassle to go from Kathmandu to Tibet. Not only is Tibet surprisingly expensive, but you require a tourist Visa to enter China, which means even though you can take a bus from Nepal to Lhasa, they will check your passport at the border. So basically it's a lot more money if we decide to go to Tibet as well. However Remi looks at this as a golden opportunity, if we're in Nepal anyway, might as well check out Tibet too? Either way, we really need to get out of our apartment more and start exploring, we've been here half a year already and we've barely seen a thing! That is all about to change though!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Pune Terror Attack.

It feels a little weird to be writing about this since never in my life have I experienced something hitting this close to home.

Just last night around 7:30pm a bomb went off at the German Bakery (pictured here pre-attack) in Koregaon Park here in Pune. It's strange on so many levels, but mostly because everyone knows this bakery. It's not just a bakery, they serve coffee, chai, and organic health food. It's famous in Pune, it's right next to the Osho Ashram and is always filled with foreigners in their maroon robes. This was the first place I met Julia (the AIC on-site Director), faculty from campus and students go here to hangout, it's a hot spot that's been in Pune for years. We heard the news last night, Tom (colleague of Remi's here on campus) called us to make sure we were OK, he was in town and saw all the streets closed off and fire trucks. Luckily, no one from school or AIC were involved.

The weirdest thing though was the fact Remi and I were there today, only a mere two hours prior to the blast. We were in town running errands, had some lunch at Hard Rock Cafe, then before we headed home we'd ask our driver where we could go to get an extra key made for our apartment. He took us to a vendor on the street, right on the corner of the German Bakery, near the Osho Ashram. Lots of vendors sell stuff here since there is a lot of tourists. We sat in the car waiting for the key to be made, I made a comment while staring at the Bakery, "That place is always packed with Osho people." We watched as so many of them walked by us in their prayer robes.

Once Tom called us I turned on the news channel, both Remi and I were silent for about 5 minutes while our eyes were glued to the news coverage. The reporters saying it was targeted because of it's "popularity with foreigners". The bakery sign, which we'd seen only few hours ago was completely destroyed, the building was unrecognisable, and we were at a loss for words...we just kept saying "We were just there...we were just there..."

I'm not sure if internally I am being too calm about this or blowing it out of proportion. If this was a place I'd never been to or heard of I suppose my reaction would be somewhat different. But this just hits too close to home, and the fact that we're living on an "International Campus" filled with foreigners makes us feel even more like we have a target on our back. I know you have to keep living your life, you can't be afraid of everything, but at the same time I don't want to be naive either.

This whole thing is just fucked up I tell you (sorry for the language).

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Neighborhood Rascals.

This is a picture of the front yard of the AIC residential house. Whenever I pull up, Ramu is often the first one I see sitting in the yard, usually talking to himself. Since he is not old enough for school yet he stays home and finds ways of entertaining himself.

On this day I had stayed out front to have a little chat with him and within seconds the neighborhood kids appeared out of no where, "Didi! Didi! Hi! Hiiiiii Didi!" The gate is shut but they just climb over it. Ramu is pretty good friends with the girls and the come over regularly to play with him. They're such a bunch of rascals though, with all of them together I am quickly overrun! They immediately all want to (not just hold) but use my camera. Which is actually Remi's and it's not just a camera, it's an expensive camera. I agree to let them each take one picture though, I keep the straps around my neck and hold the base with my hands, this way I know they won't drop it. I show them where the button is to take the picture but with their tiny little hands they all have problems pushing it. They start to get a little too crazy and pushy so I shout "Tanba!", which in Marathi means "Stop!". (Though, I am not sure if my spelling is correct, could be spelt 'tamba' the N and M sounds are similar sometimes). It's always nice to know some command words in the native tongue, the kids will most likely listen better than if you had said it in English.

We have to be careful with the neighborhood kids in the yard though, they will sometimes steal our kids' toys. Most of the residential kids keep all their outdoor toys hidden so the neighborhood kids can't steal them. I don't know if the kids are really stealing or if they just run off with it accidentally. Kajal says they do it on purpose, she gets pretty peeved when she seems them in the yard without permission. Either way I pick up toys I see in the yard now, better to be safe than sorry I guess.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Magic of Electricity.

I tell you what, electricity is truly a wonder. Every day in the modern world people take it for granted. You go throughout your daily lives never giving it a moments thought. Unlike me, who (not by choice) thinks about it multiple times per day.

This picture is of our AC plug. Since we moved in here, on occasion I've heard crackling noises from this outlet and even seen some sparks, but I never thought this would happen. How scary does that look? It completely melted the outlet from the inside! I don't know what's scarier, the meltdown or the fact that if it had caught fire there is no fire extinguishers in the entire building. No joke, this is a brand new campus with not one functioning extinguisher. Of course Remi sent this email to the head of the school, so we'll see what happens from there.

I spend a lot of time in India praying to the god of electricity, (jokingly, and yet not). With a minimum of four electrical outages per day, it's important to make sure you give thanks for the times you do have it. And yes, I am totally serious.

Outages are annoying. A movie you were watching is interrupted, an email you were typing is gone, your laundry is now sitting in soapy water for the next 3 hours. Of course, not all of the outages lasts for hours, in fact most are just 5-10 minutes, but it's just enough to annoy you and remind you of how much you truly LOVE electricity. I mean really...we love it, we need it, and we don't ever really say it.

So lets all give a big thanks to electricity, be grateful you get uninterrupted service, be thankful for safety codes and building inspectors (that cannot be bribed), and the genuine feeling of trust and carefree security that comes with the flick of a light switch. For that is a truly wonderful thing to have.

*Update: Good news! After another reminder from Remi the school sent over an electrician to fix our plugs. In light of this problem, Umesh (the school director) is having a meeting with all the heads of departments to discuss the plans for evacuations in case of emergencies, where new fire extinguishers will be located, and also to schedule a walk-through of all the apartments on campus to test the outlets. Wowie!!

I meant to write this sooner regarding our weekend. But I've had issues uploading the photos and I really wanted to post a slide show of Lonavala. The internet here is such poop, we have no issues downloading, but uploading even just three pictures can take twenty minutes! ><;

The weekend began as a surprise from Remi, I didn't know where we were going until the day before which was so exciting! We both just wanted to get out of Pune for awhile, it was time. He'd heard about a hotel called Dukes Retreat in Khandala that was recommended by colleagues. It sits high on a cliff in the countryside, has aryurvedic massages, swimming pool, and a tasty restaurant. To give you an idea of where these places are on a map, Lonavala and Khandala are inbetween Mumbai and Pune.

The hotel was nice, was not as fancy as we'd thought it would be, and perhaps a tad too rustic for my tastes. Also, I was SO excited to be able to swim! I was majorly disappointed to see the pool located in the most precarious spot, right in front of the outside dining area to the hotel restaurant. So while you swim you're on display to all the patrons eating lunch. Which, in any other country I couldn't care less. India is a different story, I suffer from non-stop stare-a-thons, and when wearing a bikini it just feels weird to be gawked at endlessly. Plus we were the only foreigners at the hotel and there were no women in the pool. I told Remi I couldn't do it, and he understood. We instead decided to sunbath on our private outdoor porch, which sadly still had a gardener who was ogling me the entire time. I tolerated it, *sigh* story of my life here.

Aside from sunbathing everyday, we did visit a lot of the popular tourist attractions. I want to mention this first though, Lonavala gave me renewed energy and actually let me see a different side to India. For the most part it was clean, which is a huge contrast to Mumbai or Pune. The difference is evident the minute to pull off the Mumabi express way, clean stores, clean streets, and less beggars. The people here care about their town, you could see it. Aside from the cleanliness of it, I couldn't put my finger one what exactly made me feel so good here, why I felt so darn happy. On my second day I realized it, less people. You haven't seen a crowd till you've seen India. People are everywhere, all the time, in your face. Which you might not think is a big deal at first, I mean...I didn't even realize how much I didn't like it until I was in Lonavala. Just long stretches of empty country road with nothing but a mahout and his elephant. I was glowing entire trip. It was so peaceful and rejuvenating that I didn't want to leave.

I also got to see my first wild monkeys in India! Yes, it's true! We came upon a fort atop this giant cliff, and all around us were monkeys! It took me awhile to realize we were surrounded, they were in the trees, on the ground, and even chilling in park benches. Since monkeys are revered in India (Thanks to Hanuman the Hindu monkey god) people come to pay respects and feed them treats like coconuts, corn, and the occasional beer. I kid you not, they drink beer. Whether by accident or on purpose, these monkeys do drink beer, Remi even snagged a picture of one holding an empty Kingfisher can. The trip was already awesome, but seeing those makaks at the end of the trip totally made my day.

So with all the lovely dovey stuff aside. I have only a few gripes.

The picture I attached above is of Karla Caves in Khandala (close to Lonavala). The whole cave is covered with Buddhist carvings, dating back to around 160 B.C. They were beautiful. However, the ugliest part of the whole ordeal was the vandalism, ancient caves like these should be preserved, but lots of statues had peoples names carved into them, can you believe it?! It royally ticked me off to see that. Oh on top of that - A Hindu temple was built recently right in front of the cave entrance...literally IN front of it. (see photo of cave enterance) Tourists come to see the Buddhist carvings dating back to B.C., and instead are forced to walk around this garish temple that looks completely out of place amongst such antiquity. They call it "encroachment" here and it's apparently common practice to place Hindu objects in front ancient Buddhist temples or statues. I find it kinda rude if you ask me.

New ad campaign by India to discourage mistreatment of it's historical monuments, I literally saw this commercial right after I wrote this, which prompted me to find it on YouTube and post it with my entry.

My last gripe I swear...

The whole "white" entrance fee thing, which for Karala Caves was 100 rupees ($2.15) versus the Indian price of 5 rupees(10cents), which is also common here. It is completely racist if you ask me. I know of no other country that can get away with having signs in front of tourist attractions labelling different prices like that. In India's desire to make money off of tourists (who are already IN the country spending their money anyway) they do nothing but hurt their image in my opinion, it bothers me every time I see those frickin' signs and I know I'm not the only ones who finds this offensive.

You may say, "But Mary, everything in India is so cheap anyway, what difference is 100 rupees to you? Who cares?" That's not the point, whether I can pay the price or not, it's that I am in India and I should have the same price as any one else here. You might also think, "But perhaps it's a good thing, it makes the attractions more affordable to regular Indians so they can appreciate museums and art too." It's not that they make the price more affordable, that is the price, I am the only one paying ten times that. It would be like posting a sign in front of Disneyland saying "$5 for U.S. citizens, $50 for foreigners" and most tourists are Indian here anyway. Remi and I were the only white people at the caves the day we went, the only ones who had to pay the special price.

I know it sounds silly to be annoyed about that, but when you live here your perspective is different than that of a carefree traveller on fun Indian vacation. I have to deal with this inequality everywhere I go here. Trust me, it gets old.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

I know this is a tad off subject since I am in India and this is my "India blog." But in researching India, I find many blogs or sites claiming their unwavering love for India. Many of them calling India their "soul culture".

Which got me thinking, there is only one place (so far) in the world where I feel that way, and it's Japan. When I go to Japan I feel like I am coming home. I feel a happiness, a tranquillity, and a genuine love. When returning home to California, I also feel happy, but it doesn't compare to the comfort Japan brings me. In fact, my old roommate in SF once told me, "Mary, deep down inside I picture you a teenage Japanese girl." I laughed, because it's so true!

Before you read my list, I want to say this: I'm not going to go into details on all the BAD things Japan has done. I am not taking into account government policies or decisions made in the past. I am talking in a general sense, my personal experiences, human to human, place to place.

Top 5

1) The people. Japanese people are wonderful, polite, conscientious, and compassionate. I would dare say they have probably the highest integrity you'll find out of any culture. We're talking the same society that produced the samurai here, they have a deep rooted desire to follow a code of conduct for the soul. So often I have been helped when looking confused in the subways of Tokyo and many Japanese people will go out of their way to guide you in the right direction...without even being asked. This type of kindness can be found everywhere, even at lower level jobs. A clerk running a AMPM Store will offer you high quality service, he will smile and remain professional. In Japanese culture, you're encouraged to take pride in your work, it is a reflection of your inner self. For them, it's not what job you have but how you do it that earns respect.

2) Cleanliness. Again, this comes back to the people. They care and respect their environment, their homes, and their cities. These are reflections of them as well. Every day you'll see little old ladies washing their shop windows or sweeping their front steps. Even the younger generation doesn't drop trash on the ground, you will rarely find litter anywhere in Japan, even their largest cities are almost spotless. They don't tag their subways with permanent markers, nor do they scratch their names on the windows. Their subway rides are peaceful with most people sitting quietly reading or texting. I love this, I truly do. Though most people may find the colorful rides of the Muni in San Francisco fun and exciting, after taking the 19 every day to work with crackheads, I would have given anything for even just one peaceful ride like the ones in Tokyo. To be able to read a book or listen to music without being harassed, heck...I'd love to have one ride without the rancid smells.

3) Future Tech. Well, not much needs to be said in this regard except that any country that as a whole, cares about the latest Square Enix release is the country for me! They immerse themselves in it. Posting ads in every subway station, dominating the Tokyo skyscrapers with enormous posters, even selling a popular drink named after it. Japan understands where the future is headed because they're the ones dragging everyone else (sometimes kicking and screaming) behind them. Video games in Japan are looked at as they should be...not just some toy for kids, geeks, or teenage males, but the very future of entertainment as we know it.

4) Food. I once had an Indian driver tell me he had a man he was driving offer to take him to a sushi restaurant. I would say it's safe to assume 90% of India has never had Japanese food, so to him it was a big deal. I asked him how he liked it, he scoffed and said "Oh it was so bad! The taste was so boring! I did not like it." In India, where nothing is even tasted unless it burns your lips for a good while afterwards, I can understand why he would feel this way. To those not accustomed to Japanese food, they may feel the same with their first sushi encounter. For me, coming from San Francisco where sushi is on every corner, it's important to remember not everyone has this luxury. Sushi is a subtle flavor, it is an art form to make, and when you begin to distinguish the flavors you begin to understand it better. Sushi is only the beginning though, there are so many flavors of Japan, it's many different regions, specialities, and ancestry are what make their food so amazing. Again it comes back in taking pride in preparations, the use of high quality ingredients, and never cutting corners.

5) The cutness factor. Last but not least, the cuteness. Japan's culture embraces without fear everything that is cute. Charms on your cellphone, collectable toys, hair clips, purses, shoes, T-shirts, earrings, necklaces, dog leashes, shoe laces, fake nails, sun glasses, hoodies with animal name it and they have it cute x1000. Even their musicians are done up to be either sexy or cute, or cute-sexy. The songs may even on occasion be about cute things. Their ads are cute, with cute logos of animals or a cute little song. Their children's cartoons are oozing with cuteness that as an adult you can't help but sometimes watch. Most television shows include cute stuff, talk shows or game shows are filled with something that makes you gasp "Awww, that's so cute!" Heck, even their subway warning signs ("Do not lean against the door") are done up with a cute mascot.

If that doesn't sell you on Japan, I don't know what will. :)

Now, you might look at some of the things I have mentioned as a little material or downright silly but that is ME, Japan fits me, it's where I belong, and I would live there if they'd let me!

Perhaps westerners who fall in love with India are more spiritual than me, I don't know. India is hard, and it can break your heart every day if you let it. I am very sensitive, seeing all these issues and knowing that politicians here pocket most of the money meant for city improvements is disheartening. Though India is growing up fast, they're still stuck in ancient ways, too many taboos, too much corruption, and way too much communalism which holds them back. They can keep building malls and setting up Prada stores all they want...but they aren't fixing the real issues here, and that bothers me.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Maps are not toys!

Occasionally when homework is completed early some of the kids begin what can only be described as "crazy time." Running around chasing each other, bothering kids still studying, finding something to play with that they're not supposed too. This craziness is short lived, volunteers quickly assemble activities to focus them and hopefully get some more learning in (sneaky style of course).

During one such moment I caught Ashish running around like a mad man with a map of Pune he'd found (who knows where). I managed to snag him as he bolted by me and I took the map back. I sat him down and laid the map out on the floor, and I asked him if he knew where we were in Pune. I was surprised at how quickly he focused and began reading every English word on the map to himself in an attempt to find Yerwada (where the center is located). He actually knew we were in Yerwada, which amazed me. He couldn't have been but six years old and there are hundreds of neighborhoods on this map. I felt a little bad when I finally found us on the map, spelt Yarvoeda. I knew Ashish wouldn't be able to find us, signs here in India call this area Yerwada, but English maps sometimes spell things differently. After some time went by I eventually pointed it out and we began going over other things of interest on the map. The golf courses, down town Pune, Koregaon Park, nearby schools, temples, etc. A crowd quickly formed around us as they all took an interest in the map of their home. When it was finally time to go, Ashish picked up the map and folded it gently together. He handed it to me and asked if I could hang it up in the classroom, I smiled and told him I would.

In a mere 10 minutes I had turned what was once a meaningless giant piece of toy paper into something of great importance and significance to them. Which just further proves what I've already learned here, it's all about the little moments.


Mary's Travels (so far!)