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Sports Day at TRINS

Not just your ordinary field day

Ever since seeing Sports Day on the Trivandrum International School calendar (on either its original or its rescheduled date), I simply assumed it was what we call back home "field day" - you know, 50 yard dash, three-legged race, softball throw, that sort of thing. Well I once again underestimated the scale of an event at TRINS. The day long sports event was a mini-Olympics, complete with opening and closing ceremonies, parade of nations (school houses, actually), and medal ceremonies. The preparations for this event were as fascinating as the event itself. In about 36 hours, a frequently used but largely neglected athletic field was transformed into a sports venue worthy of the cover of a TRINS promotional catalog. I'm seeing a pattern emerge that characterizes the staging of special events not only at the school but in India in general. Firstly, for special events like Sports Day or the TRINSfest earlier this year, organizers go all out to make the event as grand and as impressive as possible. The amount of work that goes into staging and organizing is amazing but often is usally undertaken in an atmosphere of apparent chaos. I stress the word apparent because order doesn't usually emerge from chaos, yet it does here. Preparations began on Wednesday afternoon for Friday's Sports Day.
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From what we've seen, large events requiring shelter of some sort always involve the construction of structures from metal staging materials and sheets of corregated plastic roofing. Construction of these structures is very labor intensive but there is plenty of labor around. I wonder if tents will ever make it here...
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Lena helps out with the scrubbing of the basketball hoop stands
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They even brought out the lawnmower for the week.

The competition for Sports Day was both for individual glory and for the glory of your student house. Every student at TRINS belongs to one of four "houses" though their groupings are hardly as important to the TRINS students as say Gryffindor or Slytherin are to Hogwarts. In fact, I had heard little mention of houses by the students until the day of the event. On the morning of the event, students assembled in the main building by house, each with a house color shirt usually worn for gym.
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Mari belonged to Jalam house (Water) - can you find her in the crowd?
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The sorting hat dropped Elena into Prithvi (Earth) house.

The parade of houses proceded to the playing field and assembled for what I thought was the first event of the day - tropical sun endurance contest. It took quite a while to get everyone lined up and all of the pieces in place for the opening ceremonies, but once it all started, the program was nicely done and full of the sort of ceremony and tradition that a lot of American kids might snicker at but which the Indian kids respect and honor.
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Prithvi house lining up
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Jalam house gets ready
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The release of the balloons during the opening ceremony.

Each of the houses had a representative come forward with the house flag and the flags were held together while the sportsmanship pledge was recited - very ceremonial and almost moving. Have a look:

Once the ceremonies were concluded, the competition got underway
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The winner's spoils
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The coveted house cup
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For outstanding athlet
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Some of my students from Vayu house
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Central command
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The bus drivers look on
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Mari putting the shot
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Lena on the relay team
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Lena in the high jump
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Mari showing her house spirit

I have some wonderful colleagues here at TRINS - they are very friendly, supportive, and committed to their students. I caught most of my male colleagues hanging out together near the first aid shelter. Each one sports a grooming feature nearly universal among Keralite men - can you figure it out?
Most of my male colleagues

Most of my male colleagues

I'm not the only non-Indian teacher at this school. From France comes Patrick who teaches French and from Germany comes Barbara who teaches, you guessed it, German.
The other two non-Indian teachers

The other two non-Indian teachers

After lunch came one of the whole team competitions - the house cheer. I like these videos because they highlight the role the upperclassmen play in providing leadership for the younger students. I'm posting the entries for Mari and Elena's house. First, the Jalam team:

Next came Prithyi with someone you know playing a prominent role

Hoping to get the parents involved, a number of events were offered in which a parent could participate. The first was a faculty vs. parents tug of war competition. I figured this would be a quick one until I watched them uncoil a 15 foot long rope on the ground. Then it was explained that the tugs would be one on one! A bit awkward, but even better was the fact that if you won, you got to compete (alone) against two (or three if you wanted) opponents! I'm still trying to determine the logic in this scheme. However, the real spectacle was provided by the active partication of both female teachers and parents in their beautiful, colorful sarees, most in some sort of sandals. More often than not, one or the other ended up on their face or back in the dirt and grass laughing and smiling all the way. Great sports, all of them, but I never got used to the sight.
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I lost...quickly

I thought I had a chance of winning the bowling contest - I'm pretty good at mowing down the pins. As the event began, I witnessed numerous intense fathers taking a cricket ball and heaving it straight-armed towards the cricket wicket about 30 feet away. No pins to be seen. I was allowed to wind up and chuck a fast ball but didn't come close. So much for bowling.
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Jenn got in on the action too with her participation in the apple bob and the balloon burst. She won three events!
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The long day of festivities came to a close with numerous medal ceremonies.
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Closing ceremonies included, in true Olympic fashion, cultural entertainment provided by the host country, in this case, the junior schoolers. See if you can find Lena:

Sports Day ended up being much more than I anticipated and offered yet another glimpse into the values shared both by the students at TRINS as well as the Indians of Kerala.

Posted by SteveJenn 07:54 Comments (1)

Escape to the hills

A new perspective on our kitchen spice rack

After our recent odyssey to the backwaters, we were ready for a get-away that didn't involve any long road trips. Also of interest was a journey into the Ghats, a spine of mountains that divides southern India and where numerous high elevation hill stations or villages are scattered, many associated with tea plantations. Shortly after our arrival in August at an open house for parents, we were invited to be guests by one of my student's parents to a resort that she owned near a hill station called Ponmundi. The resort is called Duke's Forest Lodge and advertised a quiet, relaxing stay in the beautiful wooded rubber tree plantation situated at the base of the 18 km road that switch-backed its way up to Ponmundi. The timing seemed right for such a get-away, so after the closing ceremonies of Friday's Sports Day, we loaded into a taxi (Jenn organized the transport for this trip) and we headed for the hills. This time we hired an Ambassador, "the king of Indian roads" since it's introduction in 1958 because of it decent suspension over the country's many tortured roadways. It hasn't changed a whole lot in 50 years and these diesel beasts definitely ride a whole lot better than the little Tata Indicas we've frequently used.
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The view of the cock-pit - most drivers seem to prefer driving barefooted.

Google maps pegged the trip at about an hour and we arrived shortly after dark within this time frame. The long, rocky, pot-holed dirt road through the plantation on the way to the lodge left me wondering what we were in for. However, I'm learning in India never to judge a place by the road that leads to it. Even in the dark, it was obvious to us that we had found a wonderful natural escape from everything else. The complex includes six cottages and a main building where the reception, restaurant, meeting area, and four rooms are located. Perched just uphill from a very clean, fast-moving river (the first we've seen so far), the small resort in nestled seamlessly into a grove of rubber trees that are among the more than 200,000 trees on the plantation. All of the buildings are constructed in traditional Kerala style - many of the architectural elements reminded us of our visit some time ago to the Padmanabhapuram Palace.
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Upper restaurant
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Having dinner in the open air restaurant downstairs
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Steps down to the river
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Courtyard in typical Kerala style.
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Our little cottage

Each cottage has a large porch facing the river, where we spent a lot of free time reading, and a
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jacuzzi, though the fact that it was not heated took a little of the excitement out of it
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Elena reading by candlelight, not because she had to but because she wanted to.

It was very restful night - the only sounds were the those of the insects and night creatures - no traffic, no blaring political campaign speakers, no amplified mosque calls - only the sounds of nature lightly smoothed over by the soothing babble of the river below. It was divine.

A drive up to Ponmundi provided the main program for Saturday . We made the decision to keep our driver, Sebu, for the weekend since if we hadn't, we would have had to pay for him to return to Trivandrum and then pay to have him come out to get us on Sunday plus we would have had to hire a car to bring us the 18 km distance up to Ponmundi and back again. We crunched the numbers - keeping him around cost us an extra 400 rupees (about 8 dollars). The cost for the car and driver for the whole weekend was $82.00. As drivers frequently do here, Sebu gladly slept in his car.

The road up to Ponmundi was in relatively good shape and featured 22 switchbacks and A LOT of horn honking.
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The higher, cooler elevations were prime tea growing climate and the road wound its way through an abundance of tea plants and other crops. With a road cut into the mountainside one can expect an occasional rock slide - apparently, if there's room to get around it, there's no hurry to clean it up.
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Making our way towards the top, we could see the Ponmundi visitor's center high on the hill ahead
The road ends in a saddle between two prominent outcrops where a parking lot holds the vehicles carrying many other tourists, mostly from Trivandrum. The views in every direction were spectacular and the relatively cool air was refreshing - it was the first time since being in India that I might have worn a light jacket (air conditioned rooms and cars excluded).
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The girls chatting up the drivers.

As the clouds moved in and obscured the view, we decided to stop by the Ponmundi tourist center for lunch at a restaurant advertising a full international menu. We should have known better by now - the place served one dish - chicken biriyani (chicken and rice) and it wasn't looking very appetizing. Just for kicks, we went over to the other restaurant, which was veg and affiliated with the attached rental guest rooms to see what they were serving. The menu offered a couple of options and included local specialties such as massive amount of mold growing on the walls.
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Here's the front side of the restaurant which was also a welcome center at some point.
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The whole Ponmundi tourist village is a sad example of what we've seen on numerous occasions in India. Buildings that seem as though they were nice facilities upon their completion are then simply neglected and not maintained until they go to ruin. Surely there is a financial aspect to this but still, but how hard would it have been for someone working at the restaurant to grab some bleach and a wire brush and clean the wall? I can only imagine what the tourist rooms on the lower floor were like. It's perplexing - we just can't relate to a mindset that tolerates such squallor. When it comes to religious ceremonies and holiday celebrations, the people here demonstrate an acute appreciation for aesthetics with elaborate decorations, costumes, and beautiful rituals. However, when it comes to day to day stewardship of their facilities, it just doesn't seem a priority. The finishing touch to this short detour was this sign near the door of the police station
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If everyone actually followed this advice, the income for many of the police would be reduced significantly.

What comes up must go down - join us for a bit of a ride on the Ambassador rollercoaster. Unfortunately, the actually grade of the road can't be fully appreciated on the video - it's steeper than it looks. (To be fair, Sebu was a very good driver and we felt safe throughout the trip.)

After some casual lounging and another great night of sleep, we were treated on Sunday morning to an hour long walking tour of the rubber plantation which turned out to be growing a whole lot more than rubber trees. We'll start with the stars of the show.
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Rubber plantations have replaced many banana plantations for purely economical reasons - a banana tree will only fruit once, then it starts to die. Rubber trees can be tapped for 9-10 months a year for a 40 year period providing a constant flow of cash to the farmer.
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Rubber tapping involves cutting a slanting vertical gash into the outer bark and collecting the liquid rubber as the tree "bleeds". The rubber flows along the gash and eventually drips into a cup (which used to be half a coconut shell but are now plastic) where it is collected in the wee hours of the morning. After a few hours, the gash "heals up" and the liquid rubber solidifies to seal the wound. The next day, the rubber collector reopens the wound by slicing off a very thin peel along the existing gash and the rubber flows again.

After collection, it is brought to a processing plant where the collected rubber slugs are sorted by grade and then mixed with formic acid in large pans where they sit for a day or two firming up.
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The next step is to run the molded rubber blocks through a pressing machine which flattens them into sheets.

To prevent fungus from attacking the rubber sheets, they are hung in a smoke house for several days to be dried out and preserved
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From there, the rubber is off to market to supply manufacturers of various rubber products. Once last image related to the rubber operation - what good is a pond on a rubber plantation without a rubber boat?
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As fascinating as the rubber operation was, were just as interested in all of the other crops being grown here. We'll look at our spice rack in a completely different way from now on.
I always enjoy vanilla bean ice cream, but I never gave the term "vanilla bean" much thought until seeing these vanilla vines creeping up the side of an adjoining tree.
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We've encountered a lot of white pepper in India which takes away the visual clue as which container is the salt shaker. What we didn't know was that both types of pepper come from the same plant as is explained here:

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The pepper plant
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Mari and the pepper seeds
One of the big surprises was our first encounter with the cocoa plant, source of chocolate. It was not what I expected - the large grapefruit sized fruits grow not off the smaller branches but develop attached to the main trunk and branches of the tree.
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The fruit itself is very gourd-like until you break it open and see the surprise inside.
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The cavity has almond sized nuts coated with a white, fleshy fruit that is slightly sweet to suck on. Let Lena show you.

The nut itself is the source of the chocolate and it needs to be fermented and dried before the transformation to edible chocolate can occur. The cocoa nuts are actually very bitter - the sweetness of chocolate comes entirely from the added sugar.

Next surprise was nutmeg - here's cracked open pod from the nutmeg tree, the brown seed that you grind for nutmeg fits inside and the bright red feathery covering is the mace.
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Hanging above us in a number of places were bunches of bulbous papaya fruit waiting to let go on some unsuspecting tourist on a walking tour.
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With all of these other tropical treats growing here, the plantation would be incomplete without some coffee and they were growing two kinds:
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Native coffee
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Brazillian coffee

Bamboo is grown here as well - it's a truly amazing plant when considering how fast it grows and how dense is its wood.
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Amazing palms everywhere.

Not all of the plantation's wonders are plants. Check out this beauty - it's no camera trick - this thing could easily wrap around your clenched fist, if it wasn't busy catching birds in its web.
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Some of a farmer's best friends are bees - homemade bee hives
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We walked off the tour and into our car for a relatively short trip back to Trivandrum. A couple of weekends ago, high expectations for a spectacular backwaters boat tour came up a little short. This weekend, we traveled with relatively few expectations and were tremendously surprised and satisfied with our experience. We've been reminded of an important lesson about the proper place of expectations before setting out on a journey.

Posted by SteveJenn 20:24 Comments (2)

The Natives Were Restless...

Tribes Day comes to TRINS

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Last Thursday was the TRINS Junior and Middle Schools’ opportunity to stage a large scale production in the form of Tribes Day, the culmination of an exploratory learning unit during which classes in the Junior (elementary) school and Middle School were paired and assigned a particular tribe of people to investigate and explore. The cross curriculum project involved all subjects as students learned about their tribe’s location, customs, history, dances, songs, and other aspects of the their culture. In PE, the students spent weeks rehearsing dances that were performed for parents and guests at the Tribes Day event.

As has become a familiar pattern to us by now, the days preceding the event were busy with the construction of elaborate props and staging, this time lashed bamboo huts with grass roofs, an arching gateway announcing the entrance to the exhibition area, and a palm frond covered staging area where the dances were held. All of this construction was undertaken by a few weathered, kind of gnarly-looking local laborers who built most of the facilities with some poles, rope, and fallen fronds.
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Construction of the dancing stage underway
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Each tribe had their own exhibition hut

I really appreciated the teacher’s investment in thematic learning and was impressed with the level of engagement seen in the kids. One of the classes took a weekend trip to Munnar to visit some of the Kerala tribal people living there. Unfortunately, this sort of approach to learning usually ends upon entering the Senior School when the curriculum becomes slave to the almighty board exams.

Elena was a member of the New Zealand Maori tribe while Mariana belonged to the famous Zulus of Africa. Each student was expected to construct (or rather have constructed) a realistic tribal costume, not a problem for many of the households having servants with sewing skills and access to sewing resources. About five weeks ago, a barely legible black and white photocopy of a person sporting their particular tribal wear was sent home with a note which basically said “make this”. This was around the time we went into Trivandrum for the weekend to stay at Sreeja’s house. So after a side trip to the book store, we made our way to Parthas, an immense clothing and fabric store where Jenn had a long shopping list of school clothing items requested by numerous hostel students as well as the need to acquire the fabric for Mari and Lena's costumes. We had been to Parthas previously to get school uniforms so we knew our way around the place. It was comforting to find another TRINS parent and child also looking for Zulu materials in the same mound of fabric bolts. It took a while, but success was had. I mention this trip to Parthas only because it provides an opportunity to share the Indian shopping experience with you. Here's how it goes, step by step...
1) Find a sales person on the floor with expertise in the item you are seeking.

2) Work through repeated explanations and language difficulties until you finally get what you want.
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Partas is like Jo-Ann Fabrics on steroids

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No end to the options!

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Come to a verdict on that new saree in the trial room

3) The clerk takes the items for you to the billing window where each item is individually inspected and scanned and an itemized bill is generated.
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At the billing window - no shirt, no problem

4) Next you have to find another counter where the items are double checked against the bill and payment is made.

5) At this point, the items are carried by someone to a doorway accessible only to the workers - the items are off to the delivery counter.

6) You head down to the ground floor and cue up in the delivery line. Upon reaching the counter, you hand over the paid receipt and the items are found among the piles of other items awaiting delivery after having made their miraculous journey from upstairs. The delivery clerk and his assistant once again inspect each item, cross-checks it on the bill, then stamps the label on each and every item. The items are once again checked against the bill before the packaging process begins.

7) Packaging - Jenn took some video of this process - the process was well underway by the time the cameras started rolling

Total count of people directly involved in the complete transaction? We counted 8 this time. That's the way it works. I asked a friend why stores use such an elaborate and complex process for operating. He replied that the stores have trouble with shoplifting and theft among both customers and employees - the numerous checks are intended to deter this. What about calling the police and prosecuting? I was told what I have heard many times before - the police are corrupt and can not be relied on. If the person being charged with stealing has a relative in some position of power, a simple phone call could result in future problems for the store. In other words, the stores are on their own.

So with fabric in hand, Jenn worked her motherly magic and with minimal equipment managed to wardrobe our little natives in some very respectable costumes. They both played their roles successfully – we were particularly pleased with how Mari handled the whole scene. As awkward as she felt, she seemed to finally be persuaded by us that the best way to handle it was to chuckle at the absurdity of this unexpected turn in her young life where she has been dropped into an Indian school and asked to dress up and dance around like a Zulu…and just roll with, which she did. We were very proud of her.

So, we'll let the the pictures and video offer a peak as native tribals from around the world make their appearances for a few hours last week.
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Though we missed Halloween, the girls got to dress up after all

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Straight from New Zealand

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Our little Zulu

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Some were sweet...

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Some were fierce...

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Bullock cart rides were a hit!

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One of the Malayalam teachers getting into character

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He never misses!

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No doubt about it - pureblooded Maori !

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Tribal foods from around the world were offered.

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Amazing what you can do with a couple of palm fronds

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African tribal music was performed by professional musicians

Here's a panorama of the action

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Parents eagerly await their children's performance

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This tribe lives in Kerala - the mustaches give it away

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Let the dancing begin!

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Some classes sang tribal songs

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And everyone's favorite Zulu princess...

And now for the grand finale, everyone's favorite Maori maiden...

Posted by SteveJenn 18:07 Comments (0)

Paradise Found

Our rediscovery of Varkala

Way back in August, we arrived at TRINS at a time when no one else was here, so for something to do, we arranged for a short trip up to Varkala Beach, about a half an hour from here. Our guide from the school brought us right to the sandy beach on an overcast, windy day when the surf was extremely rough - no swimming was allowed - and rain threatened continuously. We had heard great things about Varkala Beach yet when we arrived, the experience was a bit underwelming. There was sand, surf, and a few trinket shops, but nothing scenically noteworthy. While we were there, we watched as a number of people brought the ashes of their deceased for short ceremonies before tossing the remains into the surf, a moving ritual to observe. Otherwise, a sudden downpour chased us back to our car and we returned to school hoping that other recommended destinations lived up to their hype a little better.large_DSCN3410.jpg
The pilgrimage beach, site of our earlier visit. Many people bring the ashes of their deceased here to be released into the sea.

Our rediscovery of Varkala almost didn’t happen. We were seeking a weekend getaway near a beach for a change and Jenn found a few small guest houses on the beach about 12 km from here, quite close to where Patrick, a French teacher here at TRINS, lives. Jenn located a place with great reviews from TripAdvisor and we booked in, a move that should have occurred after getting Patrick’s first-hand account, not before. He wasn’t high on the place so Jenn snagged a TRINS driver for an hour and went to check it out. Verdict – it was very “eh’. In a follow-up conversation with Patrick, he mentioned that he takes his kids up to a nice resort in Varkala that they all really enjoy. There it was again, another song of praise for Varkala and this time from someone who's opinion we trusted. Before the conversation ended, we were all headed north for the weekend – Jenn and the girls by taxi, Patrick and his kids by motorcycle, and me by train (I went into town the night before to play golf on Friday morning with Sreeja's uncle but we got rained off the course).

This time things were different. We discovered that we had previously visited the pilgrimage beach at Varaka while the resort area was just up the coast high on the top of a long cliff, not very visible from where we had been before. Varkala beach has a long history as a fishing village and as a pilgrimage destination. More recently, it’s been discovered by travelers, first the hippie crowd in the 60’s and 70’s but now by anyone with the money to make the trip. It is truly a spectacular location. Two narrow sandy beaches about ½ mile apart are separated by a steadily rising cliff face of reddish brown laterite. Erosion eats into the hillside in some places more than others creating a serpentine edge across the top. Along this cliff top runs a narrow road that separates the sudden edge of the cliff from a long line of restaurants, gift shops, and resorts of all shapes and sizes. Every restaurant has a view past the cliff edge to the sea beyond – in the evening, the music and atmospheric lighting and the generally mellow vibe to the whole place makes the Varkala Cliffs a very cool and fun place to be.
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You are never very far from the cliff. At night, walking the path is particularly exciting
A panoramic sweep of the cliffs:

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Cutting through one of the numerous large resorts springing up here - for good or for bad, Varkala has been "discovered"

One could spend a week in Varkala simply trying out restaurants and as one might expect, fresh seafood is abundant and inexpensive. Jenn had a huge piece of barracuda with sides and all for just 250 rupees or about $5.00.
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Take your pick!
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Fish love carrots
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The junior table
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Our friend Patrick, Jenn, and Steve
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The aftermath

Adding to the atmosphere on this particular evening were the lights and sparklers set out to celebrate Diwali, the Indian festival of lights. Diwali is a very big deal in the north of India - many schools go on break for a week or more. In Kerala, it's not as big a deal though in Trivandrum last night, the locals were having a riotous time with incredibly loud firecrackers. Here at Varkala Cliffs, small tea lights, floral mats, and some sparklers are enough.
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Lighting the Diwali candles

Toddlers love fireworks, so it's good to get them real close...

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Constructing floral offerings

The beach to the north of the cliffs, Black Beach, presents a thin belt of dry sand but the water remains no more than thigh deep for a hundred feet or so offshore. The warm water and crashing waves made our first full fledged ocean swim in India a lot of fun. With a multitude of shops offering everything an early adolescent could possibly want, the girls were in heaven.
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North beach - narrow, but great swimming
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Mussel men
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Chillin' pooch

Adding to the fun for the kids was the company of siblings sister Amrita and brother Angith, Patrick’s adopted Malayali children. Amrita’s English is coming along well but Angith is taking longer. They are such sweet, sweet kids and so very fortunate that a person as compassionate and caring as Patrick has come into their lives. Patrick met them near his house and was taken by their friendliness and curious about their circumstances. Neither child could speak English at first and Patrick’s Malayalam is just a little better than mine. Still, he found a way to communicate with them and learned of their difficult home life – very poor and living with their grandmother because of a mentally ill mother. Patrick and the children were quite taken with one another and at this point, he is a father and guardian to them. He sees the kids a couple of times during the week and spends much of his weekends with them. Patrick, who is a bachelor in his 50s, would like to legally adopt the children if not for the Indian bureaucratic odyssey he’d have to undertake leading to an uncertain outcome. So while the kids don’t live with Patrick, it’s clear that they love him dearly and he treats them as though they were his very own children which, which outside of the court system, they really are.
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Teaching Angith numbers in English by playing Go Fish

People come to Kerala from around the world for all-natural ayurvedic treatments of every kind. Our hotel offered a variety of ayurvedic massage treatments that all involved getting completely covered in oil from head to toe. Jenn went first and had the basic oil rubdown; I went for a relaxation treatment during which for about 45 minutes a stream of warm oil was continuously poured back and forth across my forehead. Yes, it was relaxing and a unique experience on a number of levels.
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Very nice pool at our resort, except when the neighbors were burning brush next door...
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Our little bungalow

On Sunday morning, Jenn and I walked down to the beach to watch the fishermen haul in the night's catch in fishing nets set hundreds of feet offshore. Two sets of men pull from shore on long ropes attached to the nets while some in boats and a few in the surf managed the deceptively challenging task of hauling in the massive nets without losing the catch or damaging the equipment. Passionate arguments and harsh negotiations ensued with the sale of the fish – many highly animated discussions seemed ready to resort to blows but we were not surprised when they didn’t. This whole daily ritual has been happening for hundreds of years – as chaotic as it seems to the uninitiated observer, there is an order here. It’s a recurring theme in this country.

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The nets are set hundreds of meters offshore and take a long time to haul in

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Teams on two sides of the net work in synch
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Getting closer...
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The buyers await
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A shimmering silver mound

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A smaller operation

So, how nice was Varkala Beach? So nice that Jenn has decided to stay for the week. Since arriving in India, Jenn had envisioned her time here as an opportunity to take some classes in local design or yoga or cooking or something engaging along these lines. However, because of our somewhat isolated location at the school and the lack of these opportunities in Trivandrum, she’s really not been able to pursue these interests. Until now. Varkala is a perfect place to hang out for a week and relax, read, take a week long yoga course, maybe a cooking class or two, have some Ayurvedic treatments, meet interesting people, and just have some time for yourself. So while we’ll miss her here on the home front, I couldn’t be happier that she’s finally going to pursue some of her long delayed interests here in India. And the rest of us will be back soon as well - maybe next weekend!
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Posted by SteveJenn 01:56 Comments (1)

A Memorable Weekend in Ahmedabad

A trip to Gujarat to reunite with the US Fulbright Exchange Teachers in India

It had been a long time since we had been very far out of Kerala. Aside from my 24 hour trip to Chennai which is in the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu, we really haven’t strayed from Kerala since arriving in August. So it was with great anticipation that we boarded our plane on Thursday for the first of two flights that landed us in Ahmedabad, the largest city and former capital of the state of Gujarat. Metropolitan Ahmedabad has just over 5 million people and is the fastest growing city in India and the third fastest growing city on the planet. The place makes our little Thiruvanathapuram feel like a village.
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You know you are in India when your aircraft instruction card looks like this...
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The purpose of our journey was to attend a weekend meeting and conference of the US Fulbright Exchange Teachers living in India, a group that includes seven of us in total. In addition to my placement in Trivandrum, Kerala, Tracy Groom from Oregon and Mary Stanton from Minnesota are teaching in Delhi, Laura Telep from San Francisco teaches in Gwalior, Jason Cervenac from Ohio is up in Mumbai, Beth Wilkins from Chicago is in Surat (which is also in Gujarat), and Steve Tomb from upstate New York teaches in Ahmedabad and was the major catalyst in making the meeting happen because it almost didn’t.

Normally, the United States India Education Foundation (USIEF), the group that administers the Fulbright programs in India, organizes a conference for the teacher to allow for sharing and discussion about our experiences. This year, however, we received an email in October basically saying “Sorry, there will be no conference this year” with no reason given. To make a long story short, Laura and Steve Tomb designed a program for our own conference and convinced the US Fulbright program to fund it. So our family enjoyed a wonderful weekend in Ahmedabad.

Our day on Thursday didn’t start out very promising – as I sipped my tea and munched my toast, a text message came over the phone from Air India informing us that our flight that afternoon had been cancelled. Given that the second leg of our journey was on a different airline, that was particularly bad news. However, Jenn called Air India and an hour later and was told that our flight was back on again. Anyone having dealt with Air India before would not be surprised by this sort of thing.

When we arrived in Ahmedabad we were picked up by one of four vehicles employed for us for the weekend and brought to the Rajpath Club, a huge private health club / function facility where we met up with the other teachers and their families who had arrived earlier. It was great to see everyone – our little cohort connected with each other quite well during orientations in Washington and Delhi and we have been keeping in touch via our Google group and Skype, but it was fun to be together again in person. It was particularly enjoyable for the kids – Laura has nine year old twin girls and Steve has ten year old triplet boys, so among us we have a group of seven kids between the ages of nine and eleven and they have quite a raucous good time together.
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Living it up at the Rajpath Club.
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Enjoying fondue for dessert.

We set some time aside on Friday morning to share what our teaching and living experiences were like. To no one’s surprise, each of us has had a very unique experience in India. After hearing about the others’ experiences, all of which have been mostly positive, the conversation confirmed what I had suspected about my own assignment – frankly, I have a comparatively “cushy” gig down here in “God’s Own Country”, as the Kerala tourist board likes to refer to our state. I’ll get into that more in another entry on teaching at the Trivandrum International School.
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Tracy, Steve T, Mary, Steve S, Jason, Laura and Beth

At midday, we headed over to Ahmedabad International School (AIS) to meet the administrators and some teachers and to sit in on some classes, something I have been eager to do. I observed an 8th grade science class on soils and an 11th grade genetics lesson, both of which provided a great insight into some of the differences in Indian teaching styles.

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We were greeted by students from AIS with a blessing and a necklace of flowers.
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The AIS welcoming committee
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A meeting with the AIS administrators
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The school chemistry lab taken while being given a tour.
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11th graders in a genetics class
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Sex-linkage genetic inheritance explained
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The courtyard at AIS

We left the school and joined the families for a little field trip to a structure called the Step Well, an amazing bit of subterranean architecture built over 500 years ago. Basically, it’s a very deep well with an ornate stair well leading down to the water and a series of stacked balconies lining the walls of the well shaft itself. A truly amazing structure to explore. Take a look.

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Read about the step well
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Entering the well
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A 3-D architectural wonder

Inside the step well
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Many nervous moments for the parents
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Fantastic stone carvings everywhere
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Outside the step well, Jenn was making a new friend. Near the entrance to the well, a bustling little market was going on. Even in the cities, people get their food mostly from these outdoor markets rather than food stores

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The kids got their own car complete with videos.

The evening’s activity offered one of the more surreal experiences we’ve had since arriving in India. Our drivers dropped us off at the starting point for our “Hijacked” bus tour. That was the name of the company – no kidding. The bus itself was a massive luxury bus with an open air second floor where tables were set up and a full dinner was served. The downstairs offered a large screen TV playing videos and disco-type light show for those inclined to boogie. The waiters were dressed up, of course, as hijackers. So there we were, slowly driving around Ahmedabad in this colossal mobile restaurant (live music was performed after dessert), gathering odd stares and feeling more than a little bit conspicuous. Looking out from my hijacked perch while enjoying my dessert, I could see dozens of makeshift squatter tents and shacks off to my left while on my right were a number of immense, ultra modern shopping malls brightly lit in Vegas-style. The contrast was both fascinating and unsettling – I wondered what India will look like 50 years from now with its middle class and impovished lower class both exploding in numbers. I also wondered in how many American cities this scene might be repeated.
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Our hijackers have just arrived.

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The Fulbright kids approved...Check out some of these moves

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The whole evening was as bizarre as a dream can be.
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Our hijackers were actually quite nice to us
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No hijacked double decker travelling restaurant is complete without live music
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The bus - note the light show taking place on the first floor.

Returning to the Rajpath Club, we had the opportunity to see the full glory of a Gujarati wedding underway – the fireworks as we approached the Club were the first tipoff. A walled off grassy area larger than a soccer field served as the setting for the event hosting hundreds of attendees and very loud, thumping music to entertain the guests.
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Preparing the floral arrangements prior to the event
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Wedding guests settling in.
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Something going on on the main stage - notice the ornate headwear on the men - a Gujarati style. Here's some music from the wedding band.

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The Rajpath Club at night
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Other curious spectators checking things out - big brother is in charge

While some women were enjoying the festivities in the Rajpath Club, other women were still at work in the parking lot while children looked after the babies.
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India in general seems to suffer from a general lack of tools. Perhaps it's cheaper to pay these women a few rupees an hour than to invest in a decent wheelbarrow

On Saturday night, we were invited into a party being thrown for members and families of the local plastics trade group and were seated in the front row for a rousing concert of Gujarati folk and contemporary music. We were asked by the one of the officers of the organization to tell everyone back in the US that plastics don’t pollute. I’m guessing he was using the same logic used in the “guns don’t kill, people do” argument, but as a party crashing guest, I decided not to encourage the conversation and changed the subject. Here's a little taste of the entertainment.

Saturday was conference day. After a guest speaker delivered an address to about 100 Indian teachers in attendance, each of the American teachers offered 30 minute workshops on various teaching practices and strategies. I presented a program on how to engage all of the students in a class no matter how big it was and as I expected, the program drew a lot of interest from the many teachers standing in front of crowded classrooms. The conference lasted most of the day and was very well received both on the day of the event and in feedback collected since.
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The Fulbright presenters
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Steve Tomb opens the conference with a greeting.
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Over 100 Indian teachers attended the sessions that were presented
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Tea time at the conference

After a quick stop to change and freshen up, we were all off to visit Gandhi’s ashram, his home for many years before leaving and pledging not to return to it until India was free. An excellent museum offered a more intimate introduction to the man with an iconic image symbolizing non-violent resistance to oppression. I learned a lot about the man – I’ve borrowed his autobiography from the school library to find out more.
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The history of the ashram
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A truly iconic figure in world history
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Gandhi's home near the river.

Dinner on Saturday night brought us to the rooftop terrace of a recently remodeled heritage hotel for a candlelight Gujarati thali dinner, an assortment of different breads, sauces, chutneys, and local specialties served under the stars. A very memorable meal both for its content and for its setting.
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A few appetizers while we awaited our table.
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Perfect atmosphere, perfect company, perfect evening
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Some of the foods that comprised our dinner - the different foods just kept coming

The next morning our plane to return to Kerala departed at 12:30 pm, so in the spirit of maximizing every opportunity explore a new place, most of our group took a 1.5 hour “heritage walk” through some of the old neighborhoods and backstreets of Ahmedabad. As interesting as the various temples, mosques, and architectural oddities were, the chance to stroll through the old neighborhoods with everyday people going about their business was both fascinating and memorable.
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A view of the building where our heritage tour started. Note the location of the person in the red shirt in the high window
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Elena in the same window
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A view of a neighboring temple - being the last day of Diwali, things were happening in there but we couldn't really tell what.
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Notice the life size wire car art work hanging over the street.
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Street vendors
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This man was preparing kite string for the upcoming international kite festival that takes over Ahmedabad each January. We were told that during the festival, literally thousands of kites fill the Ahmedabad sky, many connected to their master by this specialized pink twine which has been coated with tiny glass shards so that the owner's kite can take out the other kites around it. All in good fun, of course.
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Winding our way through the neighborhood
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One of numerous neighborhood bird feeders - feeding the animals is a blessing in the Hindu religion
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Finally, our own vehicle.
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Time for laundry
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Feeding the neighborhood dogs
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Just part of the Ahmedabad cityscape
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The Fulbright kids
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It's very real...
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Wondering what all of the strangers are looking at
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Cricket can be played anywhere
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Neighborhood coffee stall
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Catching a snooze in comfort
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Preparing street side delicacies
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Lena counts her blessings by feeding the cows. A continuous stream of people paid a few rupees to feed the cows gathered on the corner of the square - they arrive right on time every day.
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A colorful spice stand
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Kettles cook up a feast for a neighborhood wedding later in the day - not everyone marries at the Rajpath Club.
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The ingredients are ready to go
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Life in the old neighborhoods of Ahmedabad. I was told that many of the people living in this rather rundown area could afford to live elsewhere. However, the social bonds among the people of these neighborhoods are so strong that families stay for generations. We finished up at a large mosque.

We left the tour and went straight to the airport for an uneventful return trip to Kerala. The weekend offered the perfect mix of professional exchange, conversation among friends, and sightseeing. Given our geographic distribution across the US, it was also likely the last time the seven of us would be together, so we made the best of it and will carry fond memories

Posted by SteveJenn 10:08 Comments (1)

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