Monthly Archives: November 2011

Let the Visits Begin!

On Friday night I welcomed my first visitor, my friend Nakita, to my current home turf in New Delhi. Nakita is from Trinidad and Tobago, we studied together at St. Ben’s, and now she is doing her Masters in Environmental Management in Australia. She decided to spend her three months summer break exploring southeast Asia sans Lonely Planet and India is her first stop! We hadn’t seen each other since summer 2010 so it was a very happy and surreal reunion at the airport. I was so happy to see her bright smile after more than a year and was amazed by the fact that we were meeting on the other side of the globe.

We slept in on Saturday, had a simple breakfast, and then headed out around noon to roam the giant pavilions of the International Trade Fair that was going on at the Delhi Exhibition Hall – it is an annual two week event in which most of the states of India set up a huge pavilion full of handicrafts, food, and cultural demonstrations. We took an auto to the metro and found a spot in the ladies-only car (in case I haven’t mentioned this, there are separate security lines for men and women when entering the metro and the first car of every train is ladies only, a luxury I greatly appreciate especially on a packed metro). Our train became increasingly crowded as we neared the station closest to the exhibition grounds. A wave of passengers exited the train at our destination and we joined the throng of excited Delhiites heading toward the trade fair. Nakita is one of the most laid back and easygoing people I know but I was still amazed by her ability to laugh and stay cool as we were pushed out of the metro station in a sea of people like a herd sheep. We quickly assessed that it could take an hour or more to enter the actual fair grounds so we opted out and instead walked around the perimeter of the grounds, people watching, and commenting on the sights, sounds, and smells of the street.

Once we had our fill of the crowds we headed to Khan Market for lunch at Turtle Cafe. We walked around the market and Nakita got a great looking kurta at Fabindia. We decided to continue shopping so we took an auto to explore INA market, a large neighborhood market which sells beautiful fabrics and just about everything else, and Dili Haat, a government run market with crafts and products from all over India. Dili Haat was a smaller and less chaotic version of the trade fair, so we thought it would be a great alternative.

We arrived in the evening and headed to dinner at the students’ restaurant near the East Gate of JNU. This restaurant, called Secular House by some, and Mezban by others, is one of those places that doesn’t look like anything from the outside, lacks atmosphere on the inside, but serves some of the best (and cheapest) Indian food I have had in all my time here. I invited a large group of friends and we ended up with a table of fifteen people representing ten different countries. I invited friends from JNU, Rotary, and a very random movie audition. There were varying degrees of separation between us and I was Kevin Bacon. Emrys described it as “Anna is the wheel and we are the spokes”.

We ordered family style and had a great time passing the delicious dishes, roti, naan, and chilly potatoes around the table, eating until we were stuffed, sharing conversation, and enjoying coffee and tea. I felt so happy and warm to be surrounded by many of the great friends I have made during my time here so far. Nakita was smiling and telling me she was not surprised that I had already acquired such an international group of friends. It was really great to introduce someone from my life “before India” to the friends and places I have gotten to know so well here. It was a strong affirmation that I am in the right place and growing.

On Sunday morning Nakita and I visited the Baha’i House of Worship, better known as the Lotus Temple. It is a beautiful structure, reminiscent of the Sydney Opera House, and the environment inside the temple is serene and peaceful. It is meant to be a space where people of all faiths can come to pray or meditate. Our visit to the information center was an enlightening experience for both of us as we learned about the Baha’i faith. Established in 1844, the main tenet of Baha’i is the unity of the human family. I was deeply touched by each of the quotes we read as we walked around the exhibit. I bought a book, an introduction to Baha’i faith, so I will no doubt take up this subject for further discussion in a future post. I would strongly encourage anyone visiting Delhi to make sure you visit the Lotus Temple and learn more about this unique and beautiful community.

We headed to Little Tibet for a delicious lunch of thanthuk soup, beef momos, chow mein, garlic chicken, veggies, and apple beer at Tee Dee Restaurant. Emrys joined us and helped with our overly ambitious food order. Nakita and I walked off our food coma by exploring the peaceful alleyways of Little Tibet. Our walk led us to this beautiful grove of trees which was completely covered in prayer flags.

We walked further and found ourselves at the edge of a village in the middle of the city at the edge of the river (Yamuna, I believe), complete with reed huts and verdant vegetable patches. Delhi is full of unexpected treasures like this.

Nakita will spend the next 15 days exploring the colorful state of Rajasthan on a group tour before we meet up again in Bangalore for a few days there and four days in the southernmost state of Kerala. I dropped her off to the tour on Sunday evening and joined the group for dinner. It seems like she has a fun group. I told them that Rajasthan is where I fell in love with India. I’ll look forward to pictures and stories from her tour. In the meantime I will finish my semester in Delhi and then jet set to the northeast to explore Darjeeling and Sikkim with Emrys to speak at a few Rotary clubs and drink plenty of tea!

In addition to spending much overdue time with Nakita, the entire weekend was a fun opportunity for me to experience Delhi all over again through new eyes. I was amazed to realize how much I have gotten used to, things I never thought I’d adjust to such as the horns and noise of traffic or the universal disregard for driving in the lanes. This adventure has been such a gift so far. I look forward to unwrapping whatever is in store for me next.

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Shalom Shalom, Salaam Salaam

Winter is the time when Delhiites turn off their fans and AC and turn out in droves for the season’s numerous festivals, fairs, and activities. During the first two weeks of November the city hosted the 5th annual Delhi International Art Festival which boasted an impressive slate of live performances and exhibitions from all corners of India and the world.

I took advantage of the cooler weather to get out and see a number of performances including a dynamic flamenco performance (Spain), concerts by world famous Noa (Israel), Akasha (a fusion group from Malaysia), the Sufi Gospel Project (India), Caravan 2011 (Indo-Canada), a group of Sri Lankan dancers, an exhibit by Swiss artist Nesa Gschwend, and an opera (my first) featuring Italian soloists, an Indian chorus, and a blended orchestra of Indian and Italian youth directed by an Indian conductor.

I was impressed by the caliber of the performances, the settings of each venue, and the care and intention taken by the Indian hosts to describe the power and importance of international exchange through film, voice, movement, color, and play.

The performance that touched me the most was that of Noa and her ensemble, guitarist Gil Dor et al. Ena and I ventured to the India Habitat Center for her performance and there met some of my classmates from JNU. We got to see Noa and three other groups perform in the intimate setting of the outdoor amphitheater. Besides Noa, a group of nomadic musicians from Rajasthan performed wonderfully bizarre fusion music with two boys from Canada. The Sufi Gospel Project mixed traditional Gospel hymns with mystic Sufi poetry and set it afloat over the rhythms and melody of traditional Indian instruments. After the scheduled performances a spunky group of Danish youngsters took the stage and performed a few acoustic numbers for the dwindling audience who was nonetheless wowed by the soulful and commanding vocals of the female lead. Ena and I finished the night over beers and greasy food at the American Diner, a surreal red vinyl and chrome restaurant housed inside the Habitat Center.

Noa’s family is originally from Yemen. She was born in Israel and raised in New York City until she returned to Israel alone at the age of 17. She has dedicated much of her life to the the peace process through performance and frequently collaborates with Arab and Palestinian artists. Her song Shalom Shalom is the perfect embodiment of the power of music to bring about peace between peoples, a power I spoke of in a previous post on dance party diplomacy. Her performance had us clapping and singing in our seats. Here is a video of her singing the song with well known Arab Israeli singer Mira Awad.

Noa sang a powerful encore which brought tears to my eyes. She and Gil Dor performed this song, their version of the Ave Maria, at the Vatican in 1994. They were the first Jewish artists invited to perform inside the Vatican. I believe this is a song that speaks to us all.

The Delhi International Arts Festival was a strong testament to India’s keen awareness of its director’s chair and front row seat in a globalized world. The Indians I have met are some of the most politically and culturally aware people I know. It is so exciting to be living in such a cosmopolitan city in a country that is so alive with its own vibrant culture and history and so welcoming of the teeming colors and cultures of other nations. I look forward to the continuation of this festival season and the sights, sounds, and senses it will bring!

Shalom, Salaam, Peace.

India, I think I love you.

On Saturday I celebrated my four month anniversary with India. I celebrated it by attending the Garden City Rotary Club’s annual charity ball with my Rotary host. I finally wore my saree (draping courtesy of my wonderful flatmate Priti) and spent the evening chatting, eating, and dancing with Rotarians to the Beatles, ABBA, and Bollywood hits. I’m tellin’ ya folks, it doesn’t get much better than that! The ball was hosted at the Brazilian ambassador’s residence which is beautiful. I was kicking myself the second I walked in for not bringing my camera (because it’s bulky and the flash isn’t working at the moment and well, frankly, my camera bag clashes with my saree).

The ambassador’s house is a white mansion. I can’t find a picture online for obvious reasons, and my architectural knowledge is nowhere broad enough to tell you what style it is, so just believe me when I say it is stunning. The event was hosted outside on the perfectly kept back lawn. As we entered there was a wall of delicate oil lamps set up to our left, their warm glow setting the tone for a classy event. Next after the registration table came the amazing silent auction items – glittering jewelry and beautiful paintings. I grabbed a glass of white wine and chatted with the ambassador of Iceland and his date while soaking in the ambiance of the evening.

We took our seats at reserved tables under a large tent while a Brazilian musical group entertained us on stage along with a group of traditional Indian dancers and musicians. Each group played a number of pieces on their own and then did a couple fusion pieces. Indian dancers moving to a Brazilian melody backed by an Indian beat. As dinner started a performer from Mumbai took the stage in a stunning evening gown and platform heels. She got the crowd up and dancing to rock-n-roll classics and Bollywood hits.

The festivities did not end there. Gobind dropped me off at my apartment after dinner and my friend Ena came over to get ready for the next event of the night. I changed into jeans and a nice shirt – my attire for the after party of the Marine Ball hosted earlier that night at the U.S. Embassy. The after was at a house close to my neighborhood. I can say honestly that I had the best time I have had so far in Delhi, made obvious by the fact that Ena and I got back to my apartment around 5:30am on Sunday. The crowd at the party was made up of American embassy staff, Marines, Canadian embassy staff, Fulbright scholars, friends, and randoms. We were some of the lucky randoms, now (I would venture to say) friends. Everyone was incredibly kind, inviting, and interesting. We shared experiences from our varied time in India. I have been surprised by how few Americans I have met in India so far, so I was really happy to connect with so many in one place.

The evening was the perfect India-U.S. medley. I told folks it was my “four month anniversary” in India, explaining that ‘it’s been up and down, we’ve had our rough patches but we’re really getting along now…I think it might be love’. And it is. I have fallen in love with India. I think 3.5-4 months is the magic number to get adjusted to a new place. I have adjusted, found my groove, and I am loving it here!

I send love and warm wishes to you all as you prepare for the Thanksgiving holiday (if you are in the States or American elsewhere, or just like turkey and have adopted the holiday!) I am so thankful for my family and friends, for these four months, and for the adventure that lies ahead.

Namaste,
Anna

Diwali, the festival of lights

Hello, Dear Readers!

I cannot believe another month – my third in India – has come and gone and that it is already November. I have been doing some serious travel since the last time I posted. As I mentioned earlier, the month of October is jam packed with holidays here in India. And November hasn’t disappointed so far either. I took advantage of the holidays to get out of Delhi and continue exploring this incredible and incredibly large country. I spent the few days before Diwali (October 26) in Gujarat and Rajasthan with my roommates Lesly and Priti. Priti is from Ahmedabad, Gujarat so we traveled home with her for the holiday and learned about the Gujarati way of life.

Diwali is the Festival of Lights in India and also marks the beginning of a new year in the Hindu calendar. Diyas, or lights, light up homes for the entire week of Diwali. Families light candles and string electric lights on their homes. Like New Years in some parts of the United States the celebrations also involve fireworks, firecrackers, and just generally a lot of noise.  It is the most important holiday in India and non-Hindus also participate in the spectacle. For Hindus the celebration begins in the home with a pooja, or ceremony. We got to participate in the pooja with Priti. Most Indian homes have a space for a small temple or even a small room specifically for the purpose of being a temple in the home. Hinduism is a very family-centric religion and devotees practice daily in their homes with prayer, pooja, and blessings. Diwali actually lasts for a number of days with the main pooja and celebration of the new year on the fifth day – which this year was October 26th but it changes every year as the Hindu calendar is lunar. On the 25th Lesly and I helped Priti light candles around the house for the pooja. We placed candles and incense in the entryways, the yard, and entryway to her home. The house was decorated with garlands of leaves and flowers. Priti offered flowers, milk, and prayers to the Lord Krishna who is represented in statue in her small temple room. When we had prepared everything the three of us sat in her front yard/garden and soaked in the serenity of it all. It was really nice.

In addition to learning more about the Diwali holiday and Hinduism we did some sightseeing, relaxing, and plenty of eating over the few days we were there. Gujarati hospitality is second to none and we felt like part of the family from moment we arrived. Our activities included a weekend road trip to Mount Abu, a mountain lake right across the border in Rajasthan about 4 hours from Ahmedabad. We had an evening tour of historic Ahmedabad, saw a Bollywood movie in the theater on opening day, visited the historic palace of the King of Bikaner, ate delicious home cooked food, had dinner with the finance minister of Gujarat (a relative of Priti’s boyfriend’s business partner), ate a traditional Gujarati dinner on the rooftop of one of the nicest hotels in Gujarat, and shot off some (tons) of fireworks of our own.

The end of our trip turned out to be one of the most impressive parts of the entire excursion. Because we had to be back for classes at the end of the week we ended up flying back to New Delhi on the day of Diwali which meant we got to see the fireworks from the air. On Diwali almost every family in India lights off fireworks or firecrackers in parks, parking lots, from terraces, on the streets and in the alleys. The country erupts with noise and light. I am fairly certain you need a license in the US to get the sort of fireworks that are easily available during this season in India. We left the Ahmedabad airport at 9pm to an incredible pyrotechnic display. When we took off over the city the whole plane ooo’ed and aah’ed looking at the gold and glittering sea of lights below. Halfway into our flight we were again transfixed by a stunning light show below us. The golden lights of a medium-sized city were sparkling red, blue, green, and white. We were flying over Jaipur, Rajasthan. Delhi welcomed us with an especially impressive firework display. As we were landing the three of us agreed that we just had the best seats to the most incredible fireworks display any of us had ever seen. I don’t even know how to explain what a whole city lighting fireworks looks like from the sky – awesome, stunning, breathtaking, spectacular, are just some of the words that come to mind.

The trip was amazing from beginning to end. I extend a huge Thank You to Priti and her friends for so kindly welcoming us into their lives for those days and assuring we had an amazing experience in the great state of Gujarat. I’ll be back again.

More pictures coming soon!