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Holiday Greetings From Udaipur

Wishing All A Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year

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Warmest Christmas wishes from India. So many of you have been following our adventures for the last few months from our blog posts, but in case you are just tuning in, we are here through the Fulbright Teacher Exchange Program, living at the Trivandrum International School in the Southern Indian state of Kerala where I (Steve) am teaching biology from August until late January. Both Mariana and Elena are students at the school and Jenn has been busy trip planning, helping the school with design work, and doing a lot of reading. A few minutes of flipping through the blog entries will catch you up with what we’ve been up to since our mid-August arrival.

It’s ten days away from Christmas as we sit on the rooftop terrace restaurant of our Udaipur hotel overlooking some island palaces which appear to float in the middle of a beautiful lake. As we enjoy the views of the old havelis and temples from this hot, sunny terrace I’m thinking of a photo posted on Facebook by the husband of my exchange partner, Sreeja Rajan, in which he standing on about a half inch of Lake Attitash ice in Amesbury. Watching a tourist boat ply the warm lake waters below, the New England winter couldn’t seem further away for us. This sense of separation from our home lives has been a dominant feeling since arriving in India – there’s so little here to remind us of our lives back home. We’ve had a wonderful, fascinating experience, and India never ceases to surprise us.

From the start, the thought of being away for Christmas has been difficult for the girls, so we considered our best options and booked the five days surrounding Christmas in Goa, a former Portuguese colony and home to many Christians as well as hordes of other western tourists making merry for the holidays. The light colored sand of the Goan beaches will supply our “white Christmas” this year. We’ll spend New Year’s Eve with friends we met on our honeymoon 14 years ago, who live in Mumbai with their two daughters. We will be glad to return to Trivandrum on Jan 2 after living out of our suitcases for 26 days. Then just three more weeks of teaching at TRINS, and my part of our teaching exchange will conclude when we return home on January 24.

Though we are enjoying a remarkable experience here, we will be ready when the time comes to “re-enter” our lives among the family and friends who enrich our everyday lives at home. We look forward to reconnecting with you soon in the New Year. May each of you be blessed with love, laughter, adventure, and peace.

Steve, Jenn, Mariana, and Elena
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Posted by SteveJenn 04:15 Comments (2)

Discovering the Charm of Udaipur

Enjoying a Visit to the City of Lakes

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Breakfast on the roof of our hotel.

After leaving the students behind in Bangalore, we stayed near the airport and caught an early flight the next morning to Udaipur. Udaipur is a very cool place. The old city is a labyrinth of narrow winding roads built hundreds of years ago around the city palace which was first located here on the shore of Lake Pichola in 16th century. The area around the lake is framed by the Aravalli Mountains, a major reason that King Udai Singh II moved the capital of his kingdom here in order to hold off the attacks of the Mughars, a strategy that ultimately worked.
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Our hotel
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When we checked in, we all agreed that the hotel manager looked very familiar - then we figured it out - he was the Indian Mr. Bean.
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A small Jain shrine
Immediately upon checking in, the drumming began next door just in case we needed a reminder of what country we were in. A Muslim festival was taking place next door and when I peered out the window to check it out, I viewed a rush of young men and boys pouring into the square and beginning to run in bunches with long poles and swords down one of the streets. I wondered where they were going so I joined the parade and followed the throng of celebrants through the streets toward some unknown destination.
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Some of the pole bearers
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Women on low roofs added flowers to the to top of the bamboo poles
Some groups were holding long bamboo poles that had a sort of cross piece at the top from which hung one or two small dangling swords and bunches of flowers. They ran these poles horizontally through the streets until all of the pole carriers were gathered in one place, there they raise the poles and marched forward attempting to avoid striking any of the web of over head wires with the swaying metal swords. I was left wondering what kind of electrical conductor bamboo was. I followed the parade for about 20 minutes away from the center of the old city where they came to a small square, stopped, kind of looked around at each other a bit, then turned around and started back the way they came. Maybe I missed something…

By tagging along, I got a chance to see the other side of the lake and explore a bit – it’s easy to see why Udaipur is on most travelers’ list of favorite places in India to visit. The hilly terrain and jigsaw of old and interesting buildings offers plenty to look at. The lake as a focal point is also unique – bodies of water don’t usually serve as a focal point for many Indian cities. The horizon is also dominated by a 360 degree circumference of hills and peaks that provided the appeal to the Udai kings as a place that would be difficult to attack. Mountains, lakes, palaces, great shopping and restaurants – Udaipur has it all.
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A beggar on the bridge with his assistants
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Townies

The old city is a real tourist center with handicrafts and artwork, along with the accompanying aggressive touts that manage them, lining the streets. Our hotel provided a beautiful view of the lake including it two large water palaces appearing to float out in the middle of the water. Also in plain view several miles away and perched high atop a steep angular mountain is the monsoon palace, a retreat built by one of the Udai kings in order to watch the arrival of the monsoons from an observatory there. When it was discovered that it was impossible to pump water up to the palace, the place was abandoned, not the first time we’ve visited a historical site ultimately discarded due to water problems.

With so many shopping opportunities available, the girls have been quite busy checking out all sorts of items of clothing, crafts, and artwork. We’ve been trying hard to share our past experiences of having brought home souvenirs from our travels that looked great in the shops only to have them collect dust in our closets until some later yard sale. So far, grudging restraint has been shown – it helps when the parents control the cash flow.
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Many streets in Udaipur are crowded with shops and shoppers
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The girls never tire of shopping
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The beauty of Udaipur is best seen from a boat ride on the lake, so we caught the sunset cruise and got to see both the city and the lake palaces in the warm light of the setting sun. We were surprised by how cool it is here in the evening – definitely jacket weather.
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One of the two lake palaces
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The palace complex from the water
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The main attraction of the area is the city palace and we hired a guide to give us a informative tour through the part of the palace complex that has been opened for public viewing. The property is still owned by the maharna of the former princely state of Mewar who would be the king if the state had not been incorporated into the modern state of India. He lives in another part of the complex and is a descendent of a line of rulers who have lived in the palaces for over 300 years. It’s fun to imagine how elegant the place must have been in it’s day – the views over the lake were spectacular.
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One of the inner courtyards
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Great views from the palace
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Also on the must see list the towering Jagdish temple built in 1652 but recently cleaned to reveal hundreds of stone carvings adorning the exterior and an interior hosting numerous chanting faithful in the presence of a sacred Hindu holy place. On the long steep steps that lift one from the traffic below to the shine above, we encountered numerous characters, ascetics supposedly, who were quite willing to swap a pose for my camera for a 10 rupee note.
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After a week on the road, our dirty clothes bag was over flowing, so we dropped our clothes off to a stall were a confused, non-English speaking older lady had us write down how many of each type of item we were dropping off on a ragged old notepad. It was one of those situations in India when you take a complete leap of faith that there’s a system in place that has worked for generations and will work again despite the apparent chaos and lack of organization.
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I did say "good-bye" when we dropped off our clothes...
When I returned 24 hours later, a different old lady sat stoically on the floor of the little closet of a shop wrapped in a blanket and seemingly ignoring my requests for my laundry. After some help from some local women there to drop some stuff off, all of our items were located after an extensive search from among the mounds of unlabelled clothes and then we had to find the order slip from among the many in the little notepad. When all was said and done, our clothes were completely cleaned (where they were washed, I don’t want to know) and pressed for about $10.00, about a third of what the hotel was charging.
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Cordless iron - just add coals
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Perhaps our laundry suffered the same thrashing?

On our second and last evening here, we visited on of the numerous backpacker restaurants advertising nightly showings of the James Bond movie “Octopussy” filmed here around the same time I was graduating from high school. It was the first Bond movie the girls had seen and all had a few laughs seeing how unrealistic many of the scenes were such as when Bond visits the Monsoon Palace where the bad guy lives in regal splendor when we know the place has been empty and abandoned a century ago. Then there was the lake palace occupied only by a colony of exotic women… The main bad guy was a Soviet general, a plot device requiring a quick history lesson for the girls who don’t attach much meaning to the acronym USSR.

We’ve enjoyed Udaipur – we have a long drive ahead to Jodhpur where we’ll depart for our desert camel trek.

Posted by SteveJenn 10:35 Comments (1)

On the Road to Jodhpur

Amazed by the Scale and Beauty of the Jain Temple at Ranakpur

Mohinder Singh picked us up this morning at our hotel after having driven down from Jodhpur – arriving at 8:30 am in Udiapur meant that in order to carry us the six-hour journey back to his starting point, he left Jodhpur at 2:30 am. Today was our only long car trip of our journey but worthwhile for it gave us the chance to catch a glimpse of the Rajasthan people going about their lives in this somewhat arid but beautiful landscape. Our route carried us partly on highways and partly on secondary roads through crowded village centers and town squares. The roads here, regardless of their size, are used by all for very kind of vehicle or animal. The poor conditions of the roads in some places keeps speeds low which also probably keeps the fatalities lower as well.
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For the first couple of hours, the road took us through some beautiful mountain areas covered with low lying grasses and a scattering of trees. The people of the this area are fascinating to watch – especially the older people who possess dark, weathered faces but who are cloaked in vibrantly colored turbans or iridescently colored skirts and veils. The clothing provides brilliant flashes of color against a landscape dominated by earth tones of browns and dark greens.

Agriculture is the dominant industry for most though cement and stone quarrying are also common. A predominant activity, especially among the women, was the gathering of firewood which was bundled in massive bunches and carried on their heads home. Tending to herds of goats, sheep, and cows also occupied the hours of many.

Our driver called our attention to some roosting trees for a couple of hundred fruit bats hanging in the sun, enveloped in their shiny black wings like long dangling chrysalises with auburn heads jutting out the bottom. Not sure why they chose these particular trees – they hang over the road and are among the people. It’s an amazing sight to see so many of these huge bats in one place.
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A little further down the road, we pulled over to take a look at an oxen-powered irrigation system. Two cows, encouraged by a woman riding along on the apparatus, steadily plodded the circumference of a circle attached to a lever and gear set that rotated a waterwheel constructed of buckets that scooped water from low and emptied it into the through that led to the fields. Elegantly simplistic and seemingly quite effective.
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Here's the pump in action

The highlight of a drive was our stop at the massive Jain temple at Ranakpur. I had to pause for a minute to adjust my American time scale of historical reference while considering the fact that the temple was completed in 1439. As impressive as it is on the outside, the marble interior is truly breathtaking. Legend has it that the design for the temple came in a vision to a local farmer having no previous architectural design experience. It was quite a vision – the interior of the temple includes 1440 individually carved pillars, five high vaulted intricately carved domes, and tens of thousands carvings adorning most of the structures surfaces.
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Jainism is supposedly the second oldest religion in the world after Buddhism. It’s not a derivative of Hinduism – they don’t believe in all of the Hindu gods but instead honor 24 sacred prophets. The number 72 is significant to Jains being the age at which the author of their teachings, Mahavira, attained enlightenment. Accordingly, the temple is built on a pedestal measuring 72 square yards and contains 20x72 pillars, and ornately carved shrines within. The Jains firmly believe in “live and let live” and strive toward complete non-violence and the sanctity of all life. No leather products were allowed in the temple – my belt remained in the car. We were given a tour by one of the high priests of the temple, a young man who is the 14th generation of his family to serve in that role. It was a truly memorable visit. It's the kind of place where no matter how many attempts are made to capture the place with a camera, it couldn't be done. Here are a few of our attempts.
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The remaining hours were spent on the road as the landscape flattened out and we wove in and out among the many trucks travelling one of the major east-west highway routes in the north of India. We arrived in Jodhpur around 7:30 pm and have settled in nicely to our B+B for the night. It’s off to the desert tomorrow. A few scenes from the road.
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Indians are masters of maximizing their cargo loads

Posted by SteveJenn 04:53 Comments (1)

Experiencing the Thar Desert

Camel Riding and Rural Life in Rajastan

One of the parts of our December journey that we had been most looking forward to was our short excursion into the Thar Desert of Rajastan on the backs of one of nature’s more peculiar creatures, the camel. Camel trekking in this part of India is a common element of the tourist agenda and the hub for these excursions is a city called Jaisalmar, one of the last cities of any significant size before the desert becomes a completely rural environment up to the western buffer zone with Pakistan where no one is allowed to live.

Due diligence is necessary when choosing an outfit to take you out into the desert – there’s a wide range of quality in the companies running tours. Jenn came across a tour company on the TripAdvisor website who had received absolutely rave reviews from many people because of the personality of the man who ran it, his emphasis on sustainable practices and developing opportunities for others in his village, and his focus on offering an authentic rural experience. Additionally, he operated from his village that was located less than an hour outside of Jodhpur thus saving the need to travel a couple of hundred more kilometers to get to Jaisalmer. So we booked with Gemar Singh for our short desert excursion and we can unequivocally add our names to the long list of past clients who have raved about the quality and enjoyment of their experience. Our trip was truly unique and memorable adventure.

We were picked up at the Jodhpur fort by Gemar in his cool little jeep and driven about an hour out into an increasingly less inhabited area. The jeep took a right turn off the main highway and carried us along a long, straight road into the heart of the rural Thar Desert area.
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Lena's feeling a little road weary
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Gemar, our guide
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Road into the desert
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A few more turns on increasingly smaller and bumpier roads and the jeep pulled over for what I thought was a lunch stop. In fact, it was a lunch stop but it was also the starting point for our trip
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Walking out to the camel farm. followed by a new friend

All of our communication for this trip was through Gemar, but we soon discovered that he is primary role is as the coordinator of these treks. We were dropped off a small farm where our camels lived - there were three of them there, all males since they are stronger than the females and are preferred for carrying and pulling. We sat out in the yard while a simple lunch of bread and a couple of simple local dishes were offered for lunch. The children were very curious and enjoyed saying and writing English alphabet letters with the girls
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Lunch at the camel farm
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Practicing English letters
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Our luggage is loaded and ready to go

Because it was getting late in the day, the plan was for us to ride the camels for a couple of hours out to a campsite on the top of a huge sand dune where we would set camp for the night. Our one family suitcase along with auxillary bags were heaved onto an old old wooden cart and soon a camel was being backed into and hitched to it. Jenn and I jumped onto the cart while girls got their first experience on the back of Hero, their ride to the campsite.

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It took a little while to simply get accustomed to being in the presence of the camels given their peculiar appearance and unusual assortment of grunts, groans, and gurgles but they were really quite endearing, very gentle creatures. The view from the top of the camel is superb - the height of the ride offers a great panorama of all around you. The ride from the cart is nice as well although the view provided by the camel was not as superb.

The girls quickly grew comfortable on the back of these long-legged, docile beasts and it wasn't long before they were breaking out in song

It also wasn't too long before the hard realities of life in the saddle began to set in and the novelty of the experience quickly wore off as the sensitive areas inside of the thighs began to resent the rhythmic rocking provided by the slow plod of the camel.
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Mari was the first to abandon the camel for the cart but it wasn't too long before our slow trudge up the moderate grade of a large dune brought us to the top where a large flat area was to serve as our home for the night. About 20 minutes after our arrival on the dune, Gemar and his driver arrived in the jeep loaded with tents, food, and heavy cloth sleeping mats and quilts. He quickly set up a kitchen as the iridescent orange sun slowly set and the stars slowly flicked on in the rapidly darkening sky.

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Setting up camp
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The camels lounged a lot like lazy dogs.

It didn't take long for us to realize what a special person Gemar is. In a makeshift kitchen set up under the camel cart, he was teaching two of his helpers how to prepare the aloo gobi (potato and cauliflower) dish that was to be our main course. Gemar, a university graduate, spoke English fluently and while showing his young helpers how to cook, he was also working to help them pick up a couple of words of English here or there. It was quite chilly after the sun set and we used our rain coats and our scarves to fight the chill. We ate by the light of a nearly full moon that was on the rise.
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Making chapattis from flour and water
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The desert kitchen
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Our home for the night.
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Dusk

Gemar told us that he had started his business about 10 years previously and it had grow steadily in people from around the world finding him on the TripAdvisor web site. He is quite committed to growing his business not only for himself but also for the other people in his village who could benefit including the camel farmers and the guides in training. He was clearly motivated by an interest sharing the benefits of his business and he described an upcoming affiliation with an organization called villageways.com which directs people seeking authentic rural travel experiences to people like Gemar who are equipped to provide them. He also expressed the great enjoyment he gets from offering people these experiences and that he could not imagine a life as a farmer as were other members of his family. He found his passion and found a way to make a living doing it, an approach to life that I've not seen expressed by many people in India - occupations and jobs are often imposed here by family and circumstances.

After a yummy dinner, a long tiring day and the cool night air persuaded us to bury ourselves in the warmth of the quilts until morning.
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I awoke to watch the desert wake up as the sun rose. The most noticeable thing about being on the dune at this time is at absolute quiet and peace of the place, such a rare thing in India, a country where the people seem to thrive on high volume sound.
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Unfortunately, Mari woke up saying she was not feeling well and shortly thereafter spent a lot of time by herself on the backside of the dune. She had some kind of GI bug that was really making her ill. She felt a little better once things settled a bit but she was not feeling excited about the prospect of a day on the hump, so a nice padded throne was constructed on the cart for her and anyone else wanting a ride. After breakfast, the camels reappeared (they had gone home for the night) and we packed up to set off for our journey of 3-4 hours to Gemar's home where we were to spend the next night.
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A local farmer wandered into our campsite int he morning just checking things out
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Mari, not feeling all that well, surveys the desert from the cart
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There's something not right about carrying a suitcase into the desert...

Strolling through the Thar Desert quickly dispels some of the stereotypes I carried of life in the desert. Though they are spread out over a wide area, there are quite a few people living here sustained by the farming their families have carried out for generations. The earth is a mixture of rocks and sand but scraggly thorn-covered plants are abundant.
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Lena handing out pencils to one of the local kids
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We didn't go unnoticed as we made our way through the villages - the kids were particularly curious to check out the unusual people on the camels.

Along the way, we watched local people going about their daily tasks, many very labor intensive and usually without the use of electricity or running water.
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A homestead in the Thar desert is most commonly two to four small, round huts made of brick or stone and capped with a thatched roof. Often, these huts are arranged in a circle opening into a central open space and spaces between the buildings are filled in with vertical cut stone "planks" set side by side. Stone columns are the equivalent of wooden fence posts it and are used in most structures.

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We also had a chance to see a couple of local government and private schools as we snaked through the paths and backroads of these villages. As a teacher in an affluent community in a developed country, it was incredible to me how little one needs in this area to build a school - three walls, a roof, and a chalkboard seem to be the only requirements - no desks, no chairs, no computers. I was just reading how the State of Massachusetts agreed to fund a large part of new 45 million dollar elementary school in Andover and seeing some of these schools here in rural Rajastan really forces one to confront the amazing inequity that exists in the world.
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Gemar has been doing this long enough to know how much camel riding is too much camel riding, at least for a typical family of four from the West, so by mid afternoon, we had arrived at his small nondescript little homestead at the end of a sandy path, no electrical wires lining the way, and dismounted from the camels for the last time. Gemar had built a couple of small round huts, nearly identical to the ones making up his own home, for guests like us to come and spend a night. He was quite proud of offering his guests what they sought which was an authentic experience in rural living. When we arrived, Gemar was with other clients elsewhere but his friendly wife met us and in her very limited English invited us into their courtyard for lunch.
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Lunch in the courtyard - Mari still hadn't gotten her appetite back
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Lazy camels - they didn't walk that far...
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The girls relax
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Gemar's family homestead
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Inside our little hut for the night - the same size as our host's.

After lunch, I took a look around at their home and was taken by the simplicity of their possessions - they had a few basic things to meet their basic needs. As I said, no electricity which means no refrigerator - everything is fresh and most people here are vegetarians.
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The main living quarters
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The kitchen

We spent most of the remaining daylight hours playing with Rahul, Gemar's son and simply soaking in the tranquility of the place. Unlike many tourist facilities back home, our accommodations here were truly authentic, not recreations for atmospheric effect. The only bit of technology I could see in Gemar's home was a solar panel needed to power his laptop used to arrange bookings and communicate with clients. He returned at dusk and helped his wife prepare our dinner meal on a gas stove and a small fireplace while we sat on the floor in the middle of the kitchen hut. There were no counters, tables, or even chairs for that matter and I was fascinated to watch them operate in the very dim light of the room. The experience reminded both Jenn and I of going camping which is really just the daily life for Gemar's family and the thousands of other families living in the desert. Before dinner, he took Elena and I out to the dunes to watch the sunset.
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Gemar's son, Rahul
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The sun sets on a memorable day
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Some of the local boys came to check us out and ask some questions.
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Dinner in the kitchen
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Making chapattis, a staple of every meal

The following morning, we slept in a bit until awoken by a half a dozen tiny sparrows visiting through the thatched roof above us. We loaded up jeep after breakfast and headed back toward the city taking with us images and memories of a very unique and beautiful place in the world.

Posted by SteveJenn 08:40 Comments (1)

Home Sweet Home

Happy to be back in Kerala

The circle of our long December journey closed this morning when we touched down in Trivandrum. The experience of returning to Kerala after being away for close to a month was a bit striking to me. Back in late August, we took a similar flight from from Mumbai to Trivandrum and I remember the excitement, anxiety, and uncertainty that accompanied our first arrival here. As we broke below the cloud ceiling and viewed the vast explosion of green palms and lush vegetation, we felt as if we were landing on a different planet. On our initial journey from the airport, we were terrified by the inane driving, noted how the the clothing was so different, shocked by the noise and litter and tropical foliage, and distracted by ever present question "how are we going to do here" resonating in our minds.

This morning, we once again flew from Mumbai over the same view but the emotions were completely different. We experienced a sense of relief, a feeling of homecoming, a return to what was familiar and comfortable. Last August, we had a small taste of the north of India and had nothing yet with which to compare the experience. This time, we consumed a banquet's worth of the north and came away grateful for all that we saw and did over the past few weeks but perhaps even more so, grateful that fate landed us in Kerala as our place to live for six months. I used to snicker a bit at the motto of the Kerala tourist board for Kerala as "God's Own Country", but I'm not snickering any more. Physical environment aside, the month we spent away from our apartment at TRINS allowed me to realize how much of a home Kerala has become. Stepping into the airport, I was so in tune to the laid back pace of things, being able to hire a cab knowing the appropriate fare and not having to wonder how much we were being ripped off this time, the ability to stop in a local supermarket we use on the way home to quickly pick up a few food items without having to search high and low, people we know smiling and waving as we pulled into the school - these are the little things we had taken for granted. Kerala is still India and has many maddening ways of operating and not operating, but what has been long suspected has been definitively confirmed - we are quite fortunate to have had this India experience in this unique part of the country.

More postings will follow related to some of the interesting experiences we've had over the last few weeks as I sort through the multitude of photos and video and draw out images that might be interesting to readers as well as to ourselves. This blog serves not only to share our experiences with family, friends, and other readers, but it also serves us as a lasting chronicle of our experience for ourselves, a hybrid photo/journal that won't gather dust in an old picture album but can be reviewed at any moment from anywhere. Putting together these entries is time consuming and a bit laborious, but it's a fine alternative to piecing together photo albums at home after the experience has ended and faded some in memory and our busy regular lives at home resume. I have boxes of photos from previous trips that never made it to an album and have never been shared with those who might be interested - it will be nice not to face that situation in a few weeks.

With our whirlwind journey behind complete, it is fair to say that the attention of each of us has turned to the three weeks we have remaining in India and to reunions with friends and family as well as reintegration into our "normal" lives back home in America. How we'll view our home, our family, our community, our schools, and our daily existence in our first world country after having been in India remains to be seen. If our return to our home in Kerala after being in the north is any indication of the impact of living in contrasting worlds, our reintegration into our lives in the US should prove quite interesting. It will be important to keep our minds present here - three weeks will pass quickly and there is much more to experience if we are able to stay in the game and not conclude our experience before it is actually over.

Posted by SteveJenn 07:56 Comments (0)

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