The end of a crazy year

So I left Canada on September 18, 2011… and I’ve just booked my flight back to Canada from India on September 27, 2012.  Apart from 7 very short weeks visiting Canada in the summer, about a year away from home.  It’s flown by in some ways, and in other ways it feels like a lifetime.  Though it’s been very tough at some points, all in all I’m very happy I made the decision to take on this job and take a year of working and travelling abroad.

Some things I have realized this year…

  • I barely scratched the surface of India as a country and a culture, but I feel incredibly lucky just to have had some exposure. One thing that has really stood out for me is just how frank and straightforward Indian folks tend to be – read, brutally honest.  Case in point: while colleagues were visiting Delhi from offices in different parts of India, I was asked whether I`d gained 5 kilograms, how much I was paid, and  whether and why I was not married.  In the latter example, I was also told asked whether I was aware that boyfriends are not really allowed in India and whether I knew that I was quite old not to be married.  My polite Canadian sensibilities have been quite shocked at first, but I am frankly also enjoying the flipside.  Like how the Indian culture seems to be less messed up when it comes to weight issues – it seems like most women would rather be thin, but there seems to be less judgment involved with being bigger. Indian clothes – saris, kurtas, etc – are all rich and colourful and look beautiful on every body type.  Even better, I`ve been told that it`s expected that when a couple gets together, the woman should gain some weight because she`s all happy and celebratory. Maybe this is why the man had this big smile on his face while telling me I looked fatter than last time I saw him.  Similarly, the flipside of being told I was an old maid was that I felt completely within my rights to ask when she was married, and her own opinion of arranged marriages. I`ve also had some great conversations with work colleagues involving an honesty about religious and spiritual beliefs that you would probably never hear in Canada.
  • Capacity building is hard.  I kind of assumed I`d be brilliant at it, and have spent a lot of time being humbled.  Not that I`m bad, but I certainly have a lot still to learn. I`m still at a stage that I`m figuring out the best way to do evaluation, so trying to guide others is challenging.  One has to be pretty self-aware to figure out what advice to give, how much to push, which battles to choose. My colleagues, lord love them, are smart, often busy with other work, and very clear on some parts of research and evaluation and very new to others. They are also as stubborn as hell and notorious for interrupting while you are trying to share nuggets of wisdom that should be blowing their mind.  I`m very slowly learning to listen as much as I can before giving advice, to offer as much support as I can, and then to listen some more.
  • I don`t really like travelling. Ha ha, ridiculous, right? Not that I don’t like seeing the world, I actually love that. But I’m no longer interested in running around for weeks on end with a backpack on my back unsure of where I’m staying that night. A few weeks, sure. A few more weeks with places and plans pre-booked, that’s okay too.  But I if I reflect back over the parts of this year that I’ve had the most every day contentment, it’s been really settling into my flat in Delhi… the last few weeks have been all about mornings with a good cup of strong assam tea and breakfast with my roommate on our lush garden patio.  Spending weekends popping out and seeing this amazing megacity, then popping right back to a calm and air-conditioned home to sip some beer and watch movies. I think I’m getting old.  That being said, I recently had an absolutely brilliant trip to Leh, which is in the Ladakh region of the state of Jammu Kashmir. Check out my facebook album:

http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10152146299920574.910857.655905573&type=1&l=09d1978362

  • More than anything, I love the people in my life. I’ve missed so many people from home and ached for a feeling of community. In fact, I’ve come to realize that’s what it’s all about. When I feel like I’m searching, it’s usually for that. Very much looking forward to being at home for a while and enjoying my friends, my family – and my band!!  I also truly cherish the new friends I’ve made this year, many from here in India and many from the UK or elsewhere and hope to stay in touch with everyone once I return home.
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Sweet Kerala

We have just left Kerala, and not without a bit of sadness. I daresay it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen in my life, and it’s not without reason that they refer to it here in India as “God’s Own Country”. As my friend in Delhi told me, “South India is green… really green, not these dusty plants like we have here”.  So I apologize in advance for the length of this post…

We started by picking up my 16-year-old sister, Kylie, from the Bangalore airport. We arrived around 4am, on a flight from Rajasthan that involved a terrible 6 hour layover in the Mumbai airport. Kylie arrived about an hour later, then we waited another 5 hours to board a flight to Kochi, and took a 1.5 hour cab ride from the airport to Fort Kochi. Exhaustion!  We enjoyed our time quite a bit despite skipping most of the sights due to severe “heatardism” (as coined by Jeff, i.e., being rendered stupid as a result of high heat and humidity). The first day, we took an auto rickshaw tour for a few hours and saw a neat old spice factory, beautiful temples, and a big area in which all the hotels in the area contract people to do laundry.

 

 

 

 

We ate some lovely food, then dragged poor jet lagged Kylie out to a concert of probably the most sleep inducing music out there: sitar and tabla. Very enjoyable for Jeff and I, though – the two men had never played together, and did some amazing jamming with traditional patterns and beats.

The next day, we returned to the same interesting centre to see some Kathakali dance, a traditional form from this area with crazy makeup and a lot of exaggerated facial movements (ha ha, face dancing). Kylie had done a school project on the dance, so it was neat to see it in person.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After Kochi, we headed to Munnar. Jeff found a great tour operator on TripAdvisor, and he did not disappoint (for anyone going here, definitely look up Stanley Wilson in Kochi!). On the way, we stopped to see some elephants being bathed, to ride an elephant, and to see a spice and medicinal herb garden.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Munnar area was an extremely welcome respite from the heat due to its higher altitudes, and is one of the more beautiful places in the state because the hills are covered with spice and tea plantations. The residence we stayed in was amazing – built into the hill in the middle of nowhere, with spectacular views of the vivid green hills and valleys. We met great people, ate like kings, and relaxed our arses off.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While in the area, we drove up to top station, the highest point in the Western Ghats (a group of mountains in Southern India), and visited the Tata tea museum. As I have a deep running passion for a strong cup of flavourful tea, I loved this part. We learned how tea is grown and processed, sampled an amazing masala chai, and learned about the cooperative that was formed when the tea company was sold to its workers and is now run from the bottom up.

 

 

On the way back to Kochi, we stopped to buy Kylie a saree, her current plan for her grade 12 graduation outfit. She found one that looked stunning, and was waited on by heaps of doting and excitable staff. I have a picture, but I think Kylie would rather I didn’t post it…

Next was the crowning glory of Kerala: the backwaters. Ahhhhhhh. Only this could compete with the beauty of Munnar. We booked the trip through the same tour operator as Munnar, and it was quality all the way. We were on one of only two boats in the area aside from local fishing and transport boats, and our boats were propelled by two men with long bamboo sticks rather than by motors (which made  us feel like lazy asses). These two days were a whole lot of drinking in the sights of palm trees and slow river life, using the beaten up copy of “birds of India” to attempt to identify some majestic feathered friends (kingfishers and eagles for sure), and more relaxing and eating like kings.  Cheap beer, fresh fish, coconut-infused Keralan-curry, the works. After one night on the boat, we also spent another beside the backwaters at a farmstay.

From there, we hopped a train (Kylie’s first!) to Varkala, a coastal town perched on beautiful red cliffs. We planned on a few nights here and then another few nights in another beach town nearby, but ended up with 8 gloriously lazy days in Varkala. We had a nice hotel with AC (much needed at this time of year) and a sea view, and had been told about a nice restaurant that we ended up visiting at least once per day for organic salads, fresh juice, good coffee, and no curry. I love curry, but was quite excited for the variety. This was a pretty touristy place, but nice for the availability of yoga classes, shopping for hippie goods, massages and pedicures, and swimming and boogie boarding in the massive waves. We all ended up with some injuries – boogie board rope burn, stomach bruising with possible internal bleeding, nipple pain…

A Varkala  highlight for me was playing a show at the “Rock and Roll Café”. It went really well, I think people even came in to hear the music, despite the borrowed guitar that refused to stay in tune. We ended this night by joining a small jam down the street, with great people who were also great musicians.

 

 

 

 

Our final two days were spent in Bangalore, but I can’t say that we really got to know this city well. We wandered down a few market and shopping streets but didn’t do much “touristing”. Instead, we saw a Bollywood take on the Bond franchise: Agent Vinod was highly entertaining, even though it was mostly in Hindi and we didn’t always know what was going on. Kylie got to do some international mall shopping for her birthday, finding some incredibly cute clothes to take back to Canada. We ended with a great Kylie’s 17th-birthday dinner at a recommended restaurant – and the wait for the curry was worth it J

On the road again…

After 7 more weeks of work in Delhi in January and February, Jeff and I are travelling again. I’m really appreciating my work schedule, since my second work shift was so much shorter than the first of 11 weeks Work has been interesting, and as always I’m learning a lot and love being immersed in the world of evaluation.  On the other hand, it’s hard being in a supportive role -the movement of the projects is totally dependent on others, who do not always have the time, willingness, or ability to take things further. So again, it’s about patience, doing everything you can, but standing back and letting people take things in in their own way. I’m happy, as long as my days remain full.

And then… Rajasthan. What a magical place: palaces and forts, camels and elephants, vibrant music and dancing, women wrapped in the most colourful sarees imaginable, and men sporting bright turbans and huge moustaches.

Right up until the eleventh hour we had a plane ticket booked forGoa, the chilled-out beaches in the Southwest. At 1am the night our flight was supposed to leave, we decided we just could not miss the chance to see Holi in Northern India, where it is really celebrated. So we cancelled the flight and found ourselves in Jaipur that evening.  We stayed in a great hotel with a little pool and garden area, away from the hustle-bustle of the city. They offered a pre-Holi celebration with music, puppets and traditional dance, and we also went to an elephant parade nearby. Highly touristy, but still fun.

On the big day, we “played Holi” with the staff of our hotel and the staff and guests of surrounding places.  Which basically involves throwing a lot of coloured powder paint on each other, yelling “happy Holi!”, dancing around to Indian drum beats, and trying not to let the Indian teenaged boys get too friendly when they hug.  Lots of fun.

Jaipur is a fun and vibrant city, with an amazing palace, a beautiful walled in old city full of pink sandstone, and insane amounts of shopping to be done. We have a box of bedspreads and other textiles waiting for us when we get home. From there, we went to Ranthambore National Park.  Our attempts to see a tiger were in vain, but we did see lots of peacocks, deer and their larger cousin the sambar, monkeys, crocodiles and many birds.  Other run ins with nature included getting head-butted by a cow at the train station – or “gored” as Jeff likes to say. Unfortunately, we lost most of our pictures of this part of the trip 😦

Next, we went back to Jaipur and splashed out on a private car tour of some major stops of Rajasthan – Jaisalmer, the golden city; Jodhpur, the blue city or sun city; and Udaipur, the lake city. We felt a bit indulgent, but soon learned that many people travel the area this way, due to reasonable taxi prices, long distances between towns, and some very cool scenery on the drive. Unfortunately, I was 0 for 2 against the animal kingdom, when we took a camel safari in Jaisalmer and mine tried to throw me off, resulting in major anxiety and some rope burns. Watching the sunset from a crowded but beautiful sand dune made up for it.

Unfortunately, the rest of this leg of the trip was dominated by an awful ear infection, which brought stabbing pain to one ear, a fever, and partial deafness.  I visited an ENT specialist and paid about $5 for a consultation and a ton of medications – the pain and fever have mostly abated, but I’m still quite deaf.

We are now in Kerala, in Southern India… more on that next time, and some more rajasthan pictures to follow at some point.

Highlights from Thailand and Vietnam

I took a bit of a break from my computer last month, while travelling around Thailand and Vietnam. I met up with my man Jeff and his brother Jesse, as well as some other friends and family along the way. We started in Koh Samui on the Southeast coast of Thailand, headed a bit north to Koh Tao, made our way by boat and plane to Saigon in Vietnam (aka Ho Chi Minh City), with a few days in Mui Ne, flew to Danang and Hoi An in time for Christmas, then farther North to Hue, Hanoi, Sapa, Bac Ha and Halong Bay.  We saw some great things, and had some good times.   We were all learning to use Jeff’s new Canon G12 camera –I’m still sorting through a couple thousand pictures.  I’ve linked to the first album in facebook, along with descriptions of the trip…

Facebook album southeast asia

Here are some highlights:

  • Amazing cheap massages right on the beach in Koh Samui.
  • Dancing all night at the full moon party … after a few too many buckets.
  • A very rough ride from Koh Samui to Koh Tao on a speedboat… roughly half of the boat tossed their cookies. Jesse and I barely made it out unscathed, Jeff did not.
  • Learning to dive in Koh Tao, doing some underwater chicken dancing with Jesse, meeting great new friends like James and Caroline, and watching it all on video once we got certified – there`s a copy waiting for me at home that I paid way too much for. I was drunkenly talking about how I`m rich now and need to be a `benefactor of the arts`.
  • Yummmmmy Thai food – including pad thai for a buck.
  • Watching the visual symphony that is thousands upon thousands of motorcycles on the streets of Saigon… with many of the riders or their kids dressed as Santa.
  • Meeting up with Roy, Hawa, Alicia, Sam, Archer, Onion/Boris, and Clay in Mui Ne.  Loved spending time with the rambunctious kids who are all smart as a whip, eating great seafood with Vietnamese flavours, and seeking out near-daily massages. Boris` surgery and the resulting video are a standout. Another stand out is the night in the crazy Vietnamese club… think strobe lights, mind-blowingly loud music, bottle service, and plenty of enthusiastic locals.
  • Vietnam in general… what a great country. The food, the funny and friendly people, and the beauty. Jesse, and eventually Jeff  and I as well, made a lot of friends by making a big effort to learn Vietnamese… it made for a lot of laughs, and we got pretty good after a while!  We also referred to Vietnam as the “cute factory“, because everywhere you looked were the cutest kids you have ever seen. We could barely contain ourselves.
  • Though we spent some of our time in Hoi An wandering the streets lined with beautiful old French-inspired buildings, over half was spent Hoi An in B’Lan’s tailor shop, and being adopted by our tailor and her family as a result! They let us stay in their guesthouse for free – Jeff and Jesse are there now, on the tail end of the Tet celebrations. The karaoke night was the best part – both B’Lan and her husband are brilliant singers. And our rendition of “Sweet Caroline” wasn’t too bad either.
  • New Years in Hue… everyone was ambivalent about going out, but we ended up at the “Brown Eyed Bar”, met some great people and did some dancing to cheesy tunes.
  • A motorcycle tour in Hue – what a great way to travel in Vietnam, especially being on the back and not having to worry too much about the other crazy drivers. Saw beautiful pagodas, tombs, and a covered Japanese bridge.
  • Shivering under our blankets and enjoying some serious HBO time in Sapa – I know I’m Canadian, and tend to exaggerate, but I swear that is the coldest I’ve ever felt.
  • Running away from the pushy lady trying to push her tribal crafts on us, who always seemed to be waiting outside of her hotel, and starting cackling madly as she chased us.
  •  When we weren’t shivering in Sapa, joining our guide Sonny on a tour down the mountain into the hill tribe villages for some views of classic rice terraces. The best was that he was armed with plenty of candy, and would call out to the kids in the villages as we passed by to come and get some – these kids went crazy for it, and we got to feel like we won their heart. Sonny also managed to save us from other pushy ladies selling things.
  • Though tainted by tourism and souvenirs, the market in Bac Ha had many corners that were still pretty `legit` (as Jesse would say). Jeff got some great pics of a water buffalo deal going down, and Jesse got some homemade knives for camping. Jeff made friends with a six year old, who was quite enthralled with his beard, and also pointed back and forth from Jeff`s chest hair to the monkey on his shirt, showing the comparison.
  • More great friends in Hanoi, especially our friend Dao, who worked in our hotel and is the kindest, sweetest soul you ever met.
  • Kayaking through Halong Bay, including going through some caves.
  • Sitting in the bar by the pool of the gorgeous Metropole hotel feeling rich and beautiful…

In 5 weeks, I`ll be travelling around India, with Jeff and my 16-year-old sister Kylie. In the meantime, starting to see some good blog-worthy results at work. Till next time…