31 December 2012


. . . being a bi-weekly report on self-imposed unemployment, scholarship, and vocational exploration . . .

Twelve weeks, but not three months. One week shy of a quarter. But with this bi-weekly, I draw these reports to a close. Yesterday, December 30, was a milestone on several levels, and tomorrow begins a new year. The adventure continues!

The past two weeks have been mostly free of academic engagement. I sat for a final exam on the 18th, attended a final class session on the 19th, and that afternoon tidied up and organized my newly set up study area. Notes organized and put away for easy retrieval, book shelves restocked, and the extra computer monitor turned so I can watch videos from my winter bicycle trainer!

Then it was all Christmas all the time. A couple of social engagements, grown kids returning home, and all the comfortable aspects of a King family Christmas. (And no, we are not that King family. While growing up, that was a common joke question. And a fair one, given the roster in my childhood home.)

The bike went up on the trainer the day I took my exam. I am back on the bike. Over the past few weeks in various conversations I was asked if I was riding and running a lot, since - you know, I'm not working. My reply - that no, in fact, I haven't been on the bike at all to speak of, and the running has also stopped - each time evoked a physical response of surprise. Interesting. Peoples' mouths have gone agape (this really happens; it's unexpected, like when someone is literally stopped in their tracks), a couple of people flinched. A few found words to probe. This was all instructive to me, and I finally had to admit that all things considered, the dropping of my best "hobby" was probably a function of some low-grade depression. So . . . back on the bike, albeit indoors, and with a winter goal to hit. I also have a running goal, which of course as always will properly take a second place to the bike. But there we are. Balance, we are about to be restored.

Grown children come with their own sense of adventure, and they increase the awesomeness of our adventure. Sometimes scary, sometimes hilarious, and often just nice. We had a long Christmas weekend with all but our Army Captain with us. And he joined us on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning via Skype. Nice technology, that. On Christmas morning we had him on with us for nearly three hours, "in the circle" and taking his turns giving and receiving gifts. He had sent everyone's to our home, and we had all sent his to him. As a way to celebrate a family Christmas, it was a distant second to having him home. But he could not get leave because he had to "hold down the fort" while the soldiers going back to A'stan got leave. OK, well, given the alternative - that is, since this means he won't be going back - we were content. Karen and I got down to see him this past weekend, thankful for a posting that is within a day's drive.

As my Christmas break continues for a couple of weeks, I will be finalizing the description of my thesis, and expect to submit the formal proposal in January. There are also a couple of writing projects that I need to set my hand to. A recent flap in the Chicago Tribune, where the movie critic dared to pan "Les Miz" on cinematographic grounds, highlighted the whack aesthetic of popular culture. In short, the complaints to and about the critic amount to this: "How could you pan this movie? It made me cry, and at the end people stood up and cheered." Well, my friend, if you don't think this mindset is troubling church life and liturgy and music, stay tuned . . .

Meanwhile, life returns to "normal" for me and my Karen. I'll be looking for some part time work to help pay the bills during my last 6 months of studies, and we'll also be asking in earnest: "So, God, what is next, anyway?"

17 December 2012

Ten weeks

. . . being a bi-weekly report on self-imposed unemployment, scholarship, and vocational exploration . . .

Here I sit, in a study space that finally came together hours after I handed in the project that concluded one of my courses. Oh well, it has proved to be an effective space in which to prepare for the final exam in my other course.

We ordered the bookcases online to complete my study area. The desk is a huge bit of quarter-sawn oak that we found for an amazing low price when we lived in Minnesota. It was too large a desk for that house and it is too large for our present house. We often wonder if we shouldn't get rid of it, but just can't bring ourselves to let it go. When this current adventure began, it was fairly obvious that finally this expansive surface would be the place for me to study, and (God willing) to write a thesis.

We ordered the pine bookshelves from an outfit out East, then waited. And waited. And got the credit card bill, but still waited. We called and waited. The semester plodded along. The desk was set up for a work space, with boxes of shelf-destined books stacked to approximate the final project. At some point, it was apparent that the new ideal delivery date had to be after my term paper was completed. That day, last Tuesday, I said to Karen on her way to work, "In my dreams, I come home from classes today, find the shelves delivered, and get them set up before supper." Well, that didn't happen.

Instead, they arrived before I left for class. I dragged them indoors, finished printing the paper and dressing for my class presentation, and left with a shot of adrenaline that I badly needed to make a public presentation on less than 4 hours of sleep. (And yes, I am too old for that.)

I'm not great with my hands. I'm not even good with my hands. Building things is not something I do. Wood and I tend not to get along. So I wasn't as excited as I might otherwise have been, to take delivery of these boxes and realize that their proportions had to mean that these shelves were going to have to be put together. Well, to my very great pleasure, this turned out to be the best "kit" project of all time for me. It went together fairly easily, with good directions and extremely well made materials. The first unit took just under 1.5 hours, and the second in just over 30 minutes. By the time Karen got home from work on Tuesday, the shelves were up on a bare desk, and they met with approval. And mmm . . . they smelled good too! Fresh pine, unstained and unpainted. Love that.

The next day I unpacked the books that have been waiting to go on shelves, and there it was - a semester late, but with plenty more time ahead to enjoy it. I am now diligently using it to prepare for a final I will take in this space, online, Tuesday morning. Onward!

I still have not been on my bike or out for a run. But I have a plan, see, and this mild Chicago December makes it seem realistic. Studying is my job right now, and the exercise I miss will have to kick in during the semester break. But in such a way that I can keep it up when school begins again. One piece of that is definitely having my road bike on a trainer, just to the right of my desk. Yeah, like that won't be distracting. 

02 December 2012

Hurtling through Two Months

. . . being a bi-weekly report on self-imposed unemployment, scholarship, and vocational exploration . . .

Eight weeks. The first Sunday of December marks two full months of the adventure of uncertainty. Only it doesn't exactly feel like uncertainty, and if I was looking for adventure, this was a poor plan to find it.

As for "uncertainty," my day-to-day is filled with plenty of immediate and significant things to be done: reading, writing, practicing, and the normal stuff of being a homeowner and a husband. I have concrete deadlines for school, personal goals for music, and a commitment to not be preoccupied with either when Karen gets home from work.

And adventure? Funny thing. This adventure feels a lot like working, a little like worrying, and almost nothing like - oh, say, a bike trip!

Students are hurtling toward the end of the fall semester. As I round that corner, I have only two grades outstanding: a final paper in one course, and a final exam in the other. And yes, each will account for 40% of my final course grades. I like to think I know how this is all going to come together. If I'm right, I will find that I can make some progress on other important matters that should be settled before Christmas. If I've misjudged how these next two weeks will work, then I may get that scary sense of "adventure" after all.

One nice coincidence in the past couple of weeks: earlier this month I was given for my birthday the excellent recording (CD and DVD) of Osvaldo Golijov "La Pasion segun San Marcos." Try to hear it if you can. Hey, try to see it if you can. Picture the baroque passion tradition, reworked in 21st century Latin America. Can't do it, can you? Then check this out.

Well, I also was tapped to make a presentation on liberation theology and the Trinity. It provided my first opportunity to do a little cross-discipline, multi-media presentation in the context of my theology studies. So, that was fun. And pretty well received, as things turned out.

Karen and I decided to be wild, crazy, and irresponsible this weekend. We drove to Minnesota to attend the St. Olaf College Christmas Festival. This century-long tradition is something we have long held as the standard of Christmas programming for the church or the academy. What a joy to get there for this, our 4th or 5th experience of the Festival in situ. Need some rich sacred music in your Christmas? Count on St. Olaf! (And consider streaming the rebroadcast from Minnesota Public Radio.)

This quick round trip was made all it should be, by providing visits with some of our Minnesota friends. And we look forward to more of the season enriched by our Wheaton friends. Adventually.

20 November 2012

Almost like a kid

Yesterday I hopped on my bike, and took an easy ride to nowhere.

I didn't change into cycling clothes. I didn't take my asthmatic precaution. I wasn't trying to get anywhere in particular, or by a certain time, or to reach a self-imposed goal. And when I got home I didn't write the ride down in  a cycling log.

It wasn't as much fun as when I was in school, before I got my license, and rode from town out to friends in the country. I'd go out to Jeff's place after school to ride horses and shoot squirrels. Then I'd ride home before supper. Those were the days. And I'm pretty sure that's where my love for cycling began (though as an obsession it lay dormant for a couple of decades).

Reflecting recently on my current relationship with exercise, I realized that a big part of my avoidance of the bike (yes, I'll stick with that word, avoidance) was partly wrapped up in the mechanics of preparing for a ride. Without going into a lot of detail (actually, a post in itself sometime if I don't mind revealing my compulsions), I'll just say that I just loved getting on a bike and riding. Without folderol.

My friend Neal and I don't get together nearly often enough. When we do, we often swap cycling books. We both love travel writing, and both love to ride, so we usually have some book that takes in one or both, usually both. My latest on loan from Neal is Just Ride: A radically practical guide to riding your bicycle. It is by Grant Peterson, the founder of Rivendell bikes. (It says so, right on the cover!) Peterson's main point - his only point, really, illustrated in dozens of ways - is that most of us aren't professional cyclists, or even racers, so why do we think we have to conform to the racing bike-style?

Freeing. Absolutely freeing. Now, I enjoy vigorous, challenging, fast group riding. And I'm not going to give that up. (If I did, I'd pretty much have to go back to riding solo all the time.) But yesterday's ride was a direct purposeful response to this common sense wisdom . .  and it also met my need to just get out and ride, for cryin' out loud.

19 November 2012

Fortified Fortnight

. . . being a bi-weekly report on self-imposed unemployment, scholarship, and vocational exploration . . .

Yesterday marked another fortnight on the precipice. Winter's coming - though the warmth of this Thanksgiving week in the Midwest makes that a little hard to believe - and with it a run of special services that I am going to miss being a part of. I mean, of course, Advent and Christmas. I have to admit that I felt I was getting away with something this weekend, having breakfast with my brother, Ron, on Saturday while the choir (I can no longer say "my choir" - more on that another time) had a rehearsal for seasonal music. Getting away with something . . . and missing something. That is going to mark this season, I know.

The past two weeks have been packed with school work. For the most part, I am settling into the reading, the assignments, the long-range planning required to succeed as a student. I am engaging a bit more in class discussions (without feeling like a total doofus). I've been really jazzed finding resources for a research paper in the Trinity course. This weekend I charted out the days from now till that paper is due. Then, I tried not to freak out.

A friend offered me a little musical gig, playing congas for one item in his choir's Christmas concert. When my Karen and I talked about this, she said, "Gee, if we'd known you'd get the random monthly gig we could have made this change years ago." She can be so sardonic. Still, she has always supported the pent-up percussionist in me, and I think she is secretly delighted. Or maybe she is just happy to have me out of the house and earning something!

We've been confronted in multiple ways, these past 2 weeks, with the realities of a limited income. Yes, we counted the cost, and yes, I've known all along that after the fall weeks, I'll need to take some kind of part-time job. But it's in the spontaneous, in the unexpected, that the reality of our belt-tightening hits us. Son Andrew will not make it home for Christmas - he will be tied to his post (oh, now that's a funny double meaning!). Instinct: "Let's rent a vacation home and move our Christmas to Kentucky." Reality: Oh, right, that's what the discretionary part of our income used to do for us. Which presses the point: discretionary spending aside, I really need to earn some income during my next semester.

I've been indolent in the exercise arena, and reflected on that. Why am I "OK" with not cycling or running these days? Am I just super engaged with creative studies, or am I in a funk? Good questions. And characteristically, I won't take time now to sort that out.

We're still here on the precipice, and winter is coming. Thankfully that means that Thanksgiving is upon us, and with it a long weekend with our grown kids. Andrew won't be with us on the day (that post he's tied to) but we'll drive to see him and spend some time after Thursday. Karen and I will get to St. Olaf College for their iconic Christmas Festival. (We can, you see, find a reason to spend some "discretionary" money!) Andrew will get home for a few days of leave. And I'll write a long term paper. Then, before we know it, it will be Christmas. And after that, a new year.

We are eager to see what that new year will bring.

16 November 2012

Unemployed in exercise

Two funny comments people have made, hearing about this stage of my life:
"What is it like to be retired?"
"Will you get a lot more time for cycling now?"

Don't even get me started on the retirement question. Either people have a really outrageous idea of how much church workers make, or they think I'm a lot older than I am. (My gray hair notwithstanding.)

The second question at least has the prospect of reality in it. It does make sense that, having cast off the daily office routine and getting "weekends" in my life, I would find time for more cycling.

When asked about that on my way out the church door, I would say that my recent sabbatical demonstrated that being a full-time student is every bit as time-consuming as the job I had. However, I did manage to train for and run a marathon during that sabbatical, so maybe it was a reasonable question. Would I ride and/or run more, in this period of life?

And the answer it: "no." For reasons which are different and similar to my work life, and certainly because this is unfolding in the autumn months, I haven't been cycling at all and my running has pretty much wound down to nothing. Having a cold recently didn't help the running. And today, when I had planned all day to get in a short, 3 mile run, when it came down to it I couldn't bring myself to "suit up" for it, and treated myself to a power walk instead.

While out, I reflected on this. Nothing new here - I have to admit that the running, at least, and probably the obsession with cycling too, has been a form of compensation for a work life in which I was less challenged/engaged/empowered, or whatever. The exercise was one way to keep me pressing on in one arena - to push myself to accomplishments I could record and look back on with some pride.

Don't get me wrong. There is a lot of that satisfaction in the work I've done and hope to do again. This is just a slice of reflection here, not the whole picture.

Not to mention, that this kind of exercise is kind of essential for keeping my weight down. (Some readers know that I was . . . let us say, plump, until my senior year of college, and have fought weight issues since then.

Now I am busy with school, and when I do have time I feel I must give it to the details of home ownership. And then when we're both home, trying to be a good husband. So the running and cycling? If they're on the back burner, there's barely a flame under them. And the surprising thing is, that I'm OK with that. I'm just busy enough to keep my weight where it should be. (And I'm trying to eat according to my reduced exercise, too. That's the part I miss :~) And I'm more than engaged enough in creative and challenging studies to keep my mind otherwise occupied.

Having said that, this weekend I will bring my road bike into the basement, and put it on the trainer for the winter. Because, after all, this is my physical thing, and spring will return, and when it does I want to be ready for it.

04 November 2012

Following Fortnight of Folly

. . . being a bi-weekly report on self-imposed unemployment, scholarship, and vocational exploration . . .

 Four weeks ago today was my final Sunday as pastor for worship and music at College Church in Wheaton. The first two weeks away were marked by travel, some school-related panic, and something that tasted a little like grief. These past two have brought a more realistic sense of what we may expect of this transitional phase.

We're calling it a "transitional phase." I think of it as a "self-funded sabbatical." My Karen's take is more like "unemployment." I have to take her appraisal very, very seriously. We did the math before stepping into the abyss. We know how to live in want, and we well remember from the lean years that just because a budget doesn't work on paper, doesn't mean our needs won't be met. So far, so good. How we feel about that in January will tell the real story. Paul Simon's song, "Getting Ready for Christmas Day," has a little bit of edge to it for me this year:
From early in November till the last day of December,
I've got money matters weighing me down . . . 
I know Santa Claus is coming to town.

These past couple of weeks have brought me into the last half of the fall semester. In Wheaton's odd pattern, that has meant a course change in my Historical Theology sequence, but the continuation of my Trinity course. I've got by OK in both, but this past week I had to admit that in spite of what I have tried to tell myself, grades really do matter to me! More to the point, I'm concerned that "decent" grades might be a reflection that I lack "originality" or that academic  je ne sais quois. I guess that is OK so long as I don't have doctoral aspirations.

I don't.

Reading has been exciting. I can't get enough of it. Nothing new there. It is a love for reading that created a "pastor's bookcase" that is now jockeying for space in our home. 27 years of keeping a personal library in church offices, come home to roost. Literally. Karen has made one really creative alteration to accommodate about 18 linear feet of shelves, under our sun-porch window sills. They can double as seating, and a week ago we had a group in and proved that it works. We are waiting on another simple bookcase that will serve as a desktop bookcase. I really hope this will meet our needs. I don't like Karen giving up more space or repurposing one more piece of furniture to accommodate this "transition." Happily, yesterday I was able to put most of my deep storage books away without requiring more work or ingenuity on Karen's part.

One week ago, I had the pleasure of being a substitute director at a friend's church. It was a joy to walk in, work someone else's plan, conduct choir and brass, and get a feel for a different church. I don't know whether or how much this could happen in the coming weeks or months, but that was a gift. It was our first Sunday in town since October 7. Today we drove into Chicago to attend an historic church where (due to the obvious conflict) we had never been for services. Interesting experience at every level, and it has me thinking again about "what I want to do next." I wrote a little  about that earlier this week. I have to say, from both of these church experiences: I really value good preaching. I refuse to concede that a church has to have either good music or good preaching.

Oops, but now I've slipped over into the work of my other blog: Te decet hymnus.

My journal has been a good resource, but not something I am hung up on writing in daily. But now as we head toward Thanksgiving, along with my grown children I've committed myself to naming, listing, writing each day about Three Things for which I am Thankful. Thankfulness, too, is an adventure. And it is coloring this one.

22 October 2012

Eye Heart San Francisco

How does an unemployed graduate student score a weekend in San Francisco?

First, he has to have been employed, and in that state gotten used to some flexibility and freedom to travel. Then, he has to have some kind of relationship to an airline; something that will provide him with travel funds. Importantly, he will need a wife who is a whiz at tracking said funds, organizing life, and a fun travel companion. Oh, and it also helps to have a free place to stay, and a child with a car.

All that came together for my Karen and me when, the first weekend of my unemployment-for-studies, we headed off to San Francisco. Since my work for 3 decades has involved Sundays, we haven't exactly had the freedom to take weekend trips. But over the years we have enjoyed some of the perks of Southwest Airline; notably, for this trip, their policy of letting customers cancel a flight without penalty, and holding those funds for use at a later date. That date was to expire this month, and here we were with an open weekend which to go away for did not require making substitute arrangements for Sunday morning. Off we went!

Son Chris planned a delightful two days for us. We landed mid-evening Friday and settled in at his condo, anticipating a full Saturday in the sun. That included a leisurely stroll at Coyote Point Park, along the Bay, lunch with niece Jennifer Dew, Jose de Castro, Isadora and her friend Sweden. (Yes, a California teenager named Sweden.) This was my first Indian meal since India, and it was nostalgic to slowly work the excellent buffet table.

Jennifer recommended a visit to Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, at Moss Beach, on the ocean side of the peninsula. We thought we'd get that in after a hike along the peninsular ridge. Traffic on the beautiful windy road across was bumper-to-bumper, and it soon became apparent that we wouldn't have time for the hike and the tidal pools, so we just pressed on.

Many people know Half Moon Bay by name, if not by reputation. It is a destination along the coast. We almost always just drive through it on our way to someplace else. It turns out the traffic jam that turned a 20-minute drive into 2-hours wasn't traffic or construction related, just people getting to HMB for the pumpkin festival. Man, that was kind of annoying. But - wow - were there a lot of pumpkins in town! We just kept rolling, now north along Hwy 1 to Moss Beach.

Sunday found us at our go-to church when we are in the Bay: City Church San Francisco. (more on this at Te decet hymnus) Chris had arranged for us to take an architectural walking tour in the afternoon. We had some time between church and the tour, so we did some walking on our own, with the kind of people-watching that one gets so well in San Francisco.

The tour was fantastic, and deserving of its own post. Here I'll just give a shout-out to guide Rick at San Francisco Architecture Walking Tour. And um, Rick is that organization. Excellent and most highly recommended. Not to mention that we had a picture perfect afternoon for our leisurely, artistic, informative walk in the financial district.

It's hard to get enough of San Francisco on foot, so we walked even more - along the Embarcadero and through the Ferry Building - before catching BART to head home. It was two beautiful days in a place that is not Chicago but could be home. If only.

21 October 2012

First Fortnight of Folly

. . . beginning a bi-weekly report on self-imposed unemployment, scholarship, and vocational exploration . . .

Two weeks ago was my last day as pastor for worship and music at College Church in Wheaton. The morning service plan was not out of the ordinary for the church, but the services were fraught with significance for me, my Karen, and not a few of the musicians. Quite unexpectedly, and spontaneously, this video was made. I am proud of it not for its recognition of me (not to say I don't appreciate it - I do!), but for the beautiful singing of the choir.

Karen, for her part, noted wryly that the last word she sang in the choir at College Church was: “death.”

And these weeks have been a kind of death. Not to be melodramatic about it. This morning, walking on the Atlantic beach before “tuning in” our church on the internet, our conversation turned to reflection not unlike the “what ifs” that accompany one of the stages of grief. Grief. It’s not an inappropriate term for it.

We’ve had a couple of busy weeks since the congregation bid us a warm and thankful good-by in the evening service and reception. At that point, I was 6 weeks into the fall semester, and already behind by one week in a course I added the day after I submitted my resignation. I had a lot of catching up to do. We took a hastily planned weekend trip to visit son Chris in San Francisco; which was necessary and right in every respect, but which also put me two days behind in my studies. I returned to a week with 3 short papers due, and at the end of which I would take a 2-hour final exam online. That test was at the end of our first day of a long-planned vacation to Florida. (“Fall break” is after all a perquisite of being a student again!)

And after that exam, I was at the same time relieved at having survived the week, and confronted with the reality that here I sit unemployed, with a rightfully and reasonably concerned wife, facing months of un- or under-employment, and no known prospect of full time vocational work to follow this potentially hare-brained  educational scheme.

I began a journal today.

08 October 2012

Down the road we go

Look at that
Look at this
Drop a stone in the abyss
Then walk away and know that anything can happen
Just like that
Just like this

My Karen and I have been standing with our toes at the edge of a precipice for weeks now. And prior to that, edging toward this place. Today we have finally dropped the stone into the abyss. Anything can happen.

This adventure begins on a path that is pretty clearly marked: finish my theology degree. But then it sort of peters out. At the moment there's no clear map, and while I have a compass it can only tell me where true north is. As there is no specific destination, I guess we're just going north for now.

Ask somebody to love you, takes a lot of nerve. 

No way I'd take this first step without my Karen. Just to be clear, she's the one with nerve.

Come awake, come alive
Common sense, we survive
Then hey, hey, down the road we go
You might learn something
Yeah, you never know
But anyway, you’ve got to go

Thankful today for being awake, being alive with this girl at this time of life. And it's true, we might learn something, you never know. But in any case we're not alone, here on the road or standing at the abyss.

Jesus, still lead on, till our rest is won,
Heavenly leader, still direct us,
Still support, console, protect us,
Till we safely land in our fatherland.

"Look at That" by Paul Simon, (c) 1999
"Jesus Still Lead On" by Nicholas L. von Zinzendorf (1721)

10 September 2012

An awesome, adventuresome team

Well, there's so much more I could write about India. The "program" still runs in the background, and bumping the mouse or hitting just the right combination of keystrokes makes India pop up on my screen. Probably more posts will surface, but this will be the last in the series processing this most amazing trip.

And it is way past time to identify the "we" of this trip.

"We" were 8 high school students from a church in the west suburbs of Chicago, plus 3 adults. More than 60 other students from our church were also involved in overseas trips, also connecting with Christian workers, in the Caribbean, Central America, and Europe. I am not selling those other teams and trips short when I say that our students had the most Awesome Adventure of all of them. And it goes without saying that they were the most awesomely adventuresome.

Aged 16 - 18 years old, only two of the eight had graduated from high school. They were 5 young women and 3 young men. Because they are in the same youth group, and most of them have been in this church from the nursery on, they were not "strangers." Nor, by and large, were they a close-knit group of friends signing up for this trip. They each had their own interest in the challenge, and they committed to a 6-month preparation period. During that preparation we could see them become closer.

We studied things together - about cultures, about traveling cross-culturally, language, handling stress, how to talk about faith. The students paired up to design and make games, crafts, or projects to help out with the health and hygiene clinic we presented at an Indian school in Varanasi. We raised funds to make this expensive trip. We wrote lots of letters to people who were eager to see the team succeed. This was definitely not a pleasure trip, and the students took all that preparation seriously. When they arrived at their baggage weigh-in 2 days before departure, they were as ready as we could all be.

And it was fun, in transit, to see how much this group had bonded in 6 months. Adults? What adults? I think these kids could have managed this trip alone! They were confident in airports, unflappable in the streets, cheerful at the breakfast table, and thoughtful in our evening study and debrief times. Inquisitive, humorous, thoughtful . . . you may think I am exaggerating, but I could go on. What a team!

  • There is the young woman who, our 3rd night in India, our 1st in Varanasi, asked, "Did the church know this trip would be so dangerous?" but who the next morning was as eager for the day as anyone else.
  • There is the young man who, 5 or 6 days into the trip, became seriously ill (and missed much of what the team did for a few days), and patiently bore with the less-than-ideal en suite room he shared with the other guys.
  • There is the young man who recognized, as I think few 17 year old guys would, that the women were oppressed by their vulnerability in that culture, and made sure that we did all we could to help them feel secure and safe.
  • There is the young woman who absorbed as much Hindi language as people would share with her, and kept asking for more.
  • The young woman who left the U.S. eager for India and only became more and more smitten with this extraordinary country and culture.
  • The young woman who patiently bore with her nausea while stuck in a 4-hour traffic jam.
  • The other who patiently sat in the shade, ill and getting iller, while the rest of the team walked through the Taj.
  • The quiet young man who often had profound insight in our study time, and who often made us laugh by his unexpected humor.
Travel and service bind people in special ways. This group of young people will always be uniquely friends with each other - through service and travel, with the special context of the challenges and glories of India.

27 August 2012


I like to travel. And I'd like to think I'm kind of adventurous. I tried to pick up a little French when I went there, and Italian for Italy. And having learned a little, I like to try to use it. Anywhere I have gone, English has been in fairly common use, so I've never had to rely solely on what I can learn of the host language. Shame on me.

So, finally, a little late in the game, it dawned on me that I had done almost nothing to prepare for the trip to India. Hardly any reading, and no language study on my own. Dr. Laurel gave us language and culture lessons during our 6-months of preparation - and these came in quite handy. But just weeks before our July departure, I finally got my hands on the Pimsleur introduction to Hindi.

Pimspleur is a system of learning strictly by sound (nothing in print), and is designed for conversation especially around travel matters. (Directions, meals, etc.Maybe they advance to more sophisticated conversation and I just haven't stuck with it long enough. But it's been enough for my short trips.) Surprisingly, neither my excellent local library, nor the College library had Hindi language learning on CD. Audio tapes? Who learns a language on audio tape anymore? So for the first time I bought my Pimsleur guide, and charged through 10 introductory 30-minute lessons before our July 9 departure. It was nearly enough to start getting some of the sounds in my ears. And boy, was I wrong about what I thought I knew.

But thas wasn't the source of my highest anxiety in India. Not knowing Hindi was the heart of it. But I never expected to actually need the language. We would be with 3 - 5 Hindi speakers at any given time throughout the 2 weeks. And as we began to navigate Varanasi, in multiple auto rickshaws or walking groups, it was a rule: each group must have a Hindi speaker and an adult male. There were enough of each to go around.

On our Saturday night in Varanasi, we headed out to the apartment of our host, James, for pizza (Domino's! Goat meat!) and a movie (Bollywood! "Three Idiots!"). We piled into 3 rickshaws - each with an adult male and a Hindi speaker - and just before roaring off, Jane (the bilingual in my rickshaw) was moved to another vehicle. This left me in front with the driver, and 3 American teenaged girls in the back. Annoying, but not  yet anxiety producing.

We were the 3rd of the rickshaws, and the one in front of us had a distinctive marking. It was easy to track in the complicated, fast traffic. I saw it go around a traffic circle, then continue straight on in the same direction. Our driver, however, was clearly not going to complete the circle, but turned left out of it. I pointed and waved, "to that way," but he waved me off and stayed left. Well, I thought, presumably all the drivers have the address, and he knows another way.

This fantasy lasted a while, until I realized that the streets had fewer and fewer rickshaws, that I was seeing traffic signs that were not in English, that the streets were less well lit. I started to scan the streets for sign of policemen. I wondered whether I should tell the girls, "I think this guy is lost - or worse? Pray!" I racked my brain for the little bit of Hindi I tried to learn to see if we could make any sense of each other.

Finally, I asked - I'm sure in very poor Hindi - Do you speak English? Well, no, not so much. He knew enough English to tell me that he doesnt' know much English. We were equally matched; that was pretty much all I knew of Hindi.

Eventually, asked the driver to take us back to Assi Ghat. This is a place close enough to our guest house that  I knew how to get back there. I reasoned - if we're really separated from the rest of the group, at least we'll be safe at the guest house. And the others would be able to find us there.

Did I mention that we didn't have a phone with us? That's another story.

Anyway, when I asked him to take us back, our driver stopped. At a poorly lit intersection. In a very lonely street. He got on his phone, and talked to who knows whom? One of the girls asked, "why are we stopped?" I explained that I was pretty sure our driver was lost. And that I didn't know who he was talking to. And that now would be an excellent time to pray.

The driver took off again, and within a couple of minutes, I saw we were being waved into an even smaller alley. OK, I thought, this is not good. But as we made the turn, there was another of our team's rickshaws, with people just piling out. Whew! And - Thank you, Lord!

The other vehicles had gotten bogged down in one of the pilgrim parades that went through Varanasi every night. They had no idea that ours was on a completely different route. They confirmed that no, the driver did not have the address to where we were headed. And - may I say, this was annoying - no one seemed to udnerstand why I was so upset! "Don't you ever let that happen again! Every group must have a Hindi speaker!"

In the end I calmed down enough to eat goat meat pizza (ha!) and enjoy a Bollywood movie. The poor driver was paid 50 rupees less because he "scared his passengers." And/But we never had another Hindi-free small group!

I've been out on my own in cities in other countries. I've had the occasion to try out German, French, and Italian in places where it may or may not have been needed. But this trip to India proved that I am not the adventurous traveler I like to think I am. Something about the very foreign language. About Asia. Or maybe it was just about being an adult with responsibility for students. Whatever it was, my high anxiety was highly informative.

25 August 2012

Bicycles! (and yet)

News this weekend about Lance Armstrong, multi-year Tour de France champion, along with my most recent post, prompts this brief addendum.

In Bicycles! I noted the stretch it is for me to imagine professional bicycle road races in India. That stands, if for no other reason than I've been too busy to research whether, in fact, it is true.

But what I should have observed is that the Tour de France was in high gear (pun intended) while we were in India. In fact, it concluded on our last Sunday there. And what I found fascinating is that the Hindustani Times (an English language Indian daily newspaper) had much better coverage of the Tour than I expect to find in the Chicago Tribune. Daily reports were given a quarter-page in the sport section, with a color photograph, human interest, race reportage, results and standings.

It was one of the biggest, most delightful surprises for me.

In other sport-related surprises: I kept my phone with me on this trip to use as a camera, and for wi-fi access. Once it "knew" I was in India, the news feed drew from Indian sources, then from other Commonwealth sources. So, the Sports news feed gave me Tour de France news, football (soccer), but most delightfully, cricket news and scores. I never see this on my phone in the west 'burbs of Chicago!

21 August 2012


I like to ride my bicycle. If India is what brought you to Awesome Adventures, then you may not know this about me. Here's a good place to get a glimpse. This past weekend I enjoyed a couple of specially fine days on my bikes - a leisurely 40 miles in Wheaton and on the Prairie Path; and, well a lot longer on the road with some friends. A lot longer . . . like, 3x as far.

Anyway, naturally during those rides I was thinking about India. It's what my mind does these days.

We saw bikes everywhere, all the time, in India. They were on the downtown streets of Delhi. They were in the narrow lanes of Varanasi. They were Delhi, and on the Indian National Highway out to Agra.

Cycles are used for personal transportation, for "mass transit," and for cargo. Sometimes they function as 2-wheeled "carts," pushed by the vendor or delivery man. Not once did a bicycle appear to be recreational. None could have been ridden fast.

Because all the bikes I saw, at least, were built like tanks. They appeared to be identical, and if I'm not mistaken I'm pretty sure I was told they are all made by the same company. Which, you know, seems unlikely from our U.S. perspective, but is plausible from theirs.

If there's anything like Indian road cycling races, I'd like to hear about it. In fact, I'd like to see the roads on which racing would even be feasible. Roubaix, sure:
File:Paris-Roubaix, Secteur pavé de Capelle – Buat.jpg
 Cyclocross, definitely.
 Time trials on a short course, maybe.
Multi-stage long-distance road racing? Wow, I'd sure like to hear about that!

Bikes are used for personal transport:

And for mass transportation:

For cargo:

But not always ridden. I can't find a picture online of something I frequently saw, but did not photograph: a 2-wheeled cargo bike, fully loaded, and pushed along because it couldn't be ridden.

And sometimes, if the bicycle is one's source of income, it is also a home:

In fact, this (though again, I need to say, none of these photos are mine; all are from Google images) was my first close-up of bicycles in Delhi. We arrived at our hotel around 9:30pm. We had seen many cyclistst on roads that I wouldn't dream of riding in the daytime. But when we left our hotel to find some hot food at around 11pm, just down the street from the hotel entrance was a string of rickshaw operators, asleep in the dark, on their bikes. Surrounded by sleeping dogs. All unmolested from the many people walking at that late, late hour. Day One.

And my last day, finally, I got to ride in a bike rickshaw. Of the entire team on this trip, only 3 or 4 of us actually had this very cool experience. My ride was with Brad, the other adult leader from Wheaton, and Philip, our expat host in Delhi. We got off the Metro in Old Delhi, and Philip found a guy willing to take us to the old red mosque - our first stop for the day - for a price Philip thought was fair. This very slight man set off with three adult American men behind him.

Now, none of us are what would be considered large men; but we are all full-grown, and as Americans tend to be, larger than the average Indian. Not to be prurient or weird, but as a cyclist I would have wanted to see this guy's calves. He was working it, and we had to be quite a burden for him. And to think, he does this all day long, day after day. If what we saw was any indication of "normal," he would rarely have a single passenger. He could never really open up and get some speed (and some momentum, which one would want with weighty loads); could never really relax into the effort. I've done a little bicycle touring, and now I have determined that I'll stop whining about the weight of a fully loaded touring bike!

15 August 2012


Today was my turn to provide treats for the weekly all-staff break. It was a chance to "re-live" some of the India experience, to share it with the nice people I work with. There is no more hospitable offering to honor friends and guests than chai. And so . . .

Our first 2 nights (and so, first 2 mornings) in India were in a very nice hotel in New Delhi, not far from the New Delhi train station. Busy part of town, not a great introduction (maybe) to the city. But a nice hotel, with a good breakfast buffet spread in the top-floor (literally, top floor; also, good) restaurant. Being a fancier of the English way of taking tea, it was a delight to serve myself a cup, beginning with warm milk, adding a tea bag, and (since we were in India) sprinkling in what I took to be chai spices. Funny, though, they weren't all that distinctly spicy.

Um . . . that was because it wasn't a bowl of spice, but a bowl of Nescafe. Yep, my first 2 cups of tea were spiked with regular coffee. OK, so that works at a couple of levels, but failed to be either English style tea or chai. But it was  great pick-me-up first thing in the morning!

So, our first chai came upon our arrival, on the 3rd day, our 1st in Varanasi, at the Kedar Guest House. And that was a revelation. This was our first Indian chai, and our first greeting with chai. Paying guests, we were also honored guests. We had piled into our rooms after a harrowing trip to this oasis, probably (I see now, in retrospect) ignoring the nicety of allowing our host to linger with us in the entry "hall." Crude Americans, I guess. We would later see how it was meant to be, when we arrived at our final hotel, in New Delhi.

Chai alone made me want to get up early and head up to the covered (roofed but open) dining area. There our cook, Lalmuni (I don't really know how her name is spelled, sorry), would  bring me a cup of chai while I read. And would bring a cup out to everyone as they arrived, whether singly or en masse just at the breakfast call time.

Chai was available at restaurants and cafes, but its availability first thing in the morning and at breakfast, and its offering as a welcome, captured not only my taste buds but my heart. I am a pretty committed coffee drinker. But - as noted above - in a place where most coffee is Nescafe, chai was a drink with integrity. And, tasty!

Two nights ago, here in Wheaton, our India team met for the first time since we returned on July 24. Item #1 on the agenda was Dr. Laurel teaching us how to make real chai.This is what I tried to make today for the staff break.

RECIPE (per cup)
* 2 Tsp tea leaves
* 1 Cup water
* 1/2 Cup evaporated milk
* 1 1/2 - 2 Tsp Sugar (or artificial sweetener)
* Spices (experiment with amounts, but probably not more than 1 Tsp per spice per cup)
First caveat based on my own experience today - Don't even put a tablespoon measure on the table; leave it in the drawer! Because NO INGREDIENT IN THIS RECIPE requires this amount. (Oops!)
Second caveat based on my limited experience - Limit your spices to 2 for any chai choice. Especially if one of those spices is cloves. (You will taste the cloves, and not the other spices. Sorry!)
Some spice options: cardamon; ginger; cloves; peppercorn. I guess nutmeg isn't necessarily used in India, but personally it's a taste I like in chai.
Third bit of counsel - you may want to lightly sweeten your chai for guests, and let them decide for themselves to add more. Just sayin'. (But if you are serving it to guests as they arrive, that is not practicable. Personally I like it a bit less sweet. But sweet is mmm mmm good.)

BOIL the tea leaves and water until caramel colored. Make sure you are using a pot/pan large enough to add the milk! Because, later, this is going to bubble up and is likely to spill onto the stove. (Trust me on this.) Add the spice(s) at this point.
ADD the evaporated milk and continue to boil until smooth. Give this some time - but watch for that potential boil-over! - and let the consistency get smooth and somewhat viscous. It is ideally a little bit creamy.
STRAIN You've already begun to wonder about all this stuff in the brew. You'll need a strainer of some kind. For small servings, this will be a cup-sized implement, and you'll ladle the chai into that. It will catch the tea leaves, spices, and any anxiety you might have spilled in there. For a larger container out of which you will pour multiple cups, just get a larger strainer - and a bigger ladle.

I'm looking for a chance to make a smaller batch of chai than I did today. Today's staff break called for 16 cups of sugar-sweetened, and 8 of Splenda-sweetened. Also, I think I'd like to use the coarser brown sugar, both in the preparation and as additional sweetening.Maybe the next time it is cool enough for my Karen's morning cup to be served up hot.

Finally, speaking of chai and hospitality, we were greeted at our final hotel, Shanti Home, in New Delhi. First the garland and the welcoming dot on the forehead, then the chai. And everything that followed in this lovely hotel lived up to the greeting. Namaste!
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13 August 2012


"So, how was the food?" This is a common question when people hear I've been to India.

I have liked Indian food from my first bite. That was in London, January 1996. My Karen and I were there for a church music symposium, and a couple from our church flew over (airline personnel) to meet us and spend 3 days after the event. They were more experienced and adventurous travelers, and they introduced us to Indian food. That restaurant was dimly lit; we could hardly see the dinner sampler tray laid out for us. But - mmm - could we taste it! I had discovered a new cuisine to enjoy. Karen, not so much.

Wheaton has an Indian restaurant that I like to visit. I'm not there often, but always enjoy it. Our India team had a very nice Sunday afternoon dinner at a different place, and it was also very good. One of the students asked, "Is this pretty authentic, or Americanized?" The response was, "Look around you. Who is eating here?" We were the only all-Caucasian table. Most tables were all Indians. Yep, good food, highly recommended.

So, anticipating the food in India was rather pleasant. And we (or, OK, most of us) were not disappointed!

Mostly, though, what people are asking is, did we get sick? The main thing was we had to be careful and thoughtful about what we were being offered. Was it thoroughly cooked? That is, was everything in any given item/dish cooked and still hot? Then it was considered safe. This did leave most of us increasingly hungry for fresh vegetables and fruits. I planned by the end of the first week, to buy a green salad from any vendor in the Newark Airport as soon as we got through Customs . . . at 4:30 in the morning!

Not that we were stuck without fresh: mangoes were in season mid-July, and as they were washed, peeled and cut by our own cook, under a trained eye, with filtered water we ate them without fear and without abandon. Mmmm ... mango. Lalmuni (our cook) also occasionally served up "salad" - fresh cucumber, carrot, and radish, peeled and sliced and nicely presented on a platter. OK, so maybe the adults enjoyed this more than the students. It was refreshing.

Every other place, though, fruit and vegetables were off limits. We were warned to be as suspicious of a 5-star restaurant as we would be of a street vendor. Unfortunately, on our last weekend, some of us forgot that, and came home with a stomach bug. Which kept me, in the end, from getting that early morning green salad in Newark!

Spices: I wonder if Indian food is so spicy because they mask the rather challenging, prevalent livestock odor. Others suggest that the spices may serve to counteract bacteria. Whatever the reason, I love the spicy food, including the spices that aren't hot. If it can be served spicy, I'll take that option.

Lentils: "dal" is a staple in the meals we had. Lentils, served up with quite a bit of variety. Our Varanasi guest house is a vegetarian home, so our meals were necessarily without meat. (Eggs were obviously OK, and we enjoyed quite a few breakfasts with eggs: hard-boiled, scrambled, or omelets.) Lentils were a good protein source, and a tasty part of every meal. "Dal" can be a simple street vendor option, a mild breakfast side dish, or an expensive restaurant entree.

My last dal was ayuverdic: I had found my way up to the restaurant (roof-top) on our last Sunday, having been stuck in the room all day with a tiresome lower intestine. Hungry (when am I not hungry?) and alone, but I knew my options were limited. I asked the waiter for plain steamed rice. He doubted me. I explained why. He offered me an Indian solution, what Indians eat to settle an upset stomach. An ugly American would certainly have pushed back. I rarely push back on anything, and in any case here I was in Delhi on my last full day, and mourning that I had already (under the circumstances) eaten my last Indian meal. I agreed to take Kitchari instead: it is rice and lentils, steamed together, with an herb(s) providing taste but not heat. It is served fully cooked (yea!) with natural yogurt. It is very smooth, comfortingly tasty, and gentle. I ate it without bread, and that was my only disappointment.

Because whatever else I am, I am a bread-eater! I dare say my bread-eating is legendary. Seriously, when I was in high school and friends were at our family meals, jaws dropped to see how much bread I ate. Of course, much of that bread was fresh-baked by my mother. Who was probably still baking for a family of 11, even though by then there were only 5 or 6 of us around at any given time. And granted, I had the weight and girth to prove my title as champion bread eater.

Our first night in Delhi, after the students and adult women were retired to their hotel rooms, the men - 2 suburbanites, and 2 expatriates - hit the street for some vendor food. When we found just the right place (a conversation worked out between the 2 expats, based on their dietary needs and preferences) we sat under a noisy fan in a hot corner and watched the naan being made. You really must see this video to appreciate the experience. I can't swear that none of this footage is from where we ate . . . it might as well be!

Naan, Roti, Chapati - I guess there are distinctions. All I know is that they are all flat, all come hot (ideally), and I believe I can still outeat any teenaged boy when it comes to this bread. At least, I know I did! The main thing about these breads is that for most meals throughout our two weeks . . . the bread was also the only eating utensil. Man, that is some eating - when your bread has to last till the very end of a meal it can hardly be wrong to keep asking for more!

Lots more to say about the food, but now I've made myself hungry so I'd better stop.

07 August 2012

The drum

Perhaps a natural follow-on to yesterday's post, as the shop where I bought my souvenir drum was run by Sikhs! But let me not get ahead of myself.

I wanted to go to India because I admire the workers we would see there. I was glad the powers that be let me part of the team. Then, once that was settled, I thought, "you know, what I'd like to bring back from India is a tabla. [Warning - when you type "tabla" in an auto-correcting word processor, it will insist on making it "table." You just have to be persistent!] I have been intrigued with the sound of the tabla since the Beatles introduced Indian influences into their songs. Many reading this will know the sound, even if they can't name it. (Click here, and at least hang in there until the 25 second mark. If you're like me, you can't stop there. But you'll know the sound when it comes in then.)

So, anyway, that would be cool, to come back with this fabulous drum. (Technically, it is 2 drums.) It is very much a classical instrument in Indian music. As a practical matter, though, for me, it is probably a stretch to think I could learn to play this well enough to justify bringing one home.

And there is this other drum, which while more a folk drum nevertheless is ubiquitous and crosses over musical styles and venues. We saw it in play with temple musicians (part of the front line of this ensemble; I took this photo at Benares National University).

We saw it and tried to sing along in a Christian worship service. I am given to understand that if there is a drum in an Indian ensemble, it is likely to be the dholak.  (In this photo, the tabla player is front and center, with the dholak to his right, or on the front left of the photo. Other instruments include the harmonium - front right in the frame; the guy there is the leader of the group, and the primary singer. Back row, far left in the frame, is a kind of dulcimer, then 2 western keyboards, and finally what appears to be an electronic version of a traditional instrument . . . possibly the "drone" associated with the music.)

After sitting in a music shop, in the New Delhi Railway street bazaar, our second day in India, it was already obvious that maybe the tabla was not going to be my instrument. Later, as I learned that it is the entry-level Indian drum, and the most commonly used, my decision was made. To put it way too simply, this drum ismore or less the tabla, with both the high and the low drum combined, rather than separate. The smaller head plays the high, faster beats, while the larger head plays the lower, steady beats. As with the tabla, the bass head can be manipulated with the heel of the hand to raise the pitch, giving it that "bent" sound. So, on our final day in country, Philip took me to Old Delhi, to the music row, to shop for and buy my souvenir!

We stopped first in a western style music shop - think Guitar Center with one room designated for Indian instruments. There Philip and the room attendant played through an array of dholaks and then demonstrated many other instruments, from the sitar to the harmonium. We then wandered through the more western departments before hitting the street and its line of adjacent, smaller, more explicitly Indian instrument shops. By the 4th shop I had a good idea of what I was listening for and what look I wanted. And this shop had the right price as well. Mission accomplished!

Mine has metal turnbuckles instead of the rope - which would have been a nice touch but I decided would be too dicey for me to maintain. The heads are goat skin, and I bought replacements there so I wouldn't have to shop for them back in the States someday. They threw in a carry bag, and I had my personal carry-on item for the trip home that evening!

So now it sits in my house, and I have YouTube queued up for the next of the free dholak lessons by some guy who at least seems to know what he is doing, and is working a pedagogical plan. I'm eager to learn the pitch-bending technique - I could never get it in the stores, where it seemed like everyone else was able to demonstrate it! I may be the only one who will ever hear me play this, but it is a fun and treasured addition to my private collection of odd-ball small instruments I'm learning to play.

06 August 2012

Sikh tragedy

I was going to start putting a more personal touch on my India reflections. But I didn't think it would get this personal. Yesterday's tragic shooting at a Sikh temple in Milwaukee drives me directly to a brief, spontaneous visit to a Sikh temple in Old Delhi.

We were on a mission in old Delhi: to buy a drum, my one personal souvenir of the trip. (More on that another time!) But as the three of us were the only ones going to the old city, Philip our guide made sure we saw more than just music row. We walked through the old mosque (India's largest; this link is NOT my video), found my drum, ate a South Indian lunch, walked through Green Park, and then - just before we slipped onto the Metro, the temple.

The temples are called "Gudwara," and are a surprising change from idol-filled Hindu temples. We were told that the Sikh religion was a reform movement trying to bridge Hindu and Muslim religious conflicts. I - wrongly - assumed that meant they are an image-free form of Hinduism. No, they are a monotheistic religion, and so fit broadly into the family of world religions that includes Judaism and Islam. In their own words . . . "Idol worship, religious rituals, and superstitions are discouraged." The Gudwara is a place for gathering and teaching.

The Sikhs under attack on Sunday, Aug. 5, in Milwaukee, were apparently celebrating birthdays in the "temple."

Since 9/11, Sikhs in the U.S. have been under suspicion, harassment, and domestic terrorism threats, because ignorant people confuse them with Muslims. But then, it is ignorant people who suspect, harass, and threaten American Muslims, too. Sikhs are the Indians whose men wear those cool turbans and leave their hair and beards uncut. Not to be paternalistic, but it is so cute - we saw this in India - to see young boys and young men in the early turban phase. (photo from an online source)

A recent flap got more attention in India than in the U.S., when a prominent Sikh man was forced by the TSA to remove his turban to go through airport security. This was an affront and an embarrassment, and a diplomatic travesty. (Seriously? With all our scanning technology? What was up with that?)

Still, all that aside, here's a nice thing to read, hopefully reflective of our true American character.

And, I'd like to think that this news item would have touched me, even if I hadn't gone to India, even if I hadn't had my brief introduction to Sikhism and its places of worship. But I'll say it again: nothing like travel to make you feel the world's pain.

02 August 2012


One doesn't have to leave the U.S. to find varying public attitudes to animals. My Karen and I have noted with delight the weat coast openness to dogs on beaches and shopping streets. And in 1998 on my first trip to France I was thrilled to see well-dressed women with dogs at their feet under tables in nice restaurants. I don't know, maybe the Midwestern U.S. is a peculiarly uptight region when it comes to public dogs. (Or maybe any region where dogs "work" - that is, farm and hunting dogs - tends to keep them out of public spaces?)

It is a cliche that in India "cows are sacred" and so are allowed to roam at will. I have no basis on which to comment on that.

But I will note that in Varanasi especially, cattle and dogs are everywhere. Also, water buffalo; and goats. And pigs, though we did not see pigs in the streets so much. The cattle are the characteristic breed that I call (incorrectly?) Brahmin:
I only had my cell phone for a camera, and both it and I are slow on the draw, so I didn't take a lot of quick, candid photos. (Today's photos are from Google images.) The photo op I most regret, animal wise speaking, was this scene which I shall try to describe verbally. It was, I think, on our drive into Varanasi. The scene is this: Storefront with a broad glass window and an open door; 2 poured concrete steps from street level to the shop threshhold; one cow and one dog, standing still with their forefeet on the top step, calmly gazing into the shop. What were they thinking? Whom were they waiting for? Why this shop and not the next one? It was a story begging to be told. Symbiosis?
Again this is not my photo, but I enjoyed seeing so many cattle and dogs.

Now, the dogs do not appear to belong to anyone, anywhere. They are not ferocious or intimidating. It's just hot, and they're . . . well, in the dog days, I guess. The only dogs we heard bark were the (apparently rare) ones behind house-gates, protecting private property.

The cattle were everywhere, in and along streets of all sizes and busy-ness. Here's another picture I could have snapped, but didn't. I guess I didn't need to:

Cows may be "sacred" (that's for others to explain), but they don't seem particularly "clean" (in the western nor in the biblical sense).

All this free range livestock creates the obvious and expected in the streets. So, walking was never casual or careless. We were in sandals, after all, not in boots. And it made the customs declaration sort of complicated: "Are you bringing with you . . . (d) soil, or have you visited a farm/ranch/pasture outside the U.S.?" Well, technically, no. Functionally? I just left my response at the technical level, though I was still wearing those sandals. I grew up in farming country, and am not squeamish about barnyards. But those sandals never made it through the garage into the house upon my return.

Finally, while we did not see an elephant in India (this alone might be a reason to return; or maybe just to head over to Brookfield Zoo), we did see camels! And this is my own photo!

[All other photos found through Google images, searching "cow and dog together India"]

01 August 2012


More stories about the blackout(s) in India this week. Look here for a story from the Telegraph, and note especially the map showing the states affected.

Varanasi is in Uttar Pradesh state, an hour's flight from Delhi International, and 12-hours by train. (Don't get me started about the trains. It is one form of transport we did not use, and that I really wanted to experience!) In point of fact, part of the Delhi Metro system is in UP state, as is Agra. Most of our drive to see the Taj Mahal was in UP state. I invite you to take a look at that map again. This is the most populous, and the fastest growing state in India.We were told that if UP were to separate from India, it would be the 5th most populous country in the world. (But, frankly, today I'm too lazy to actually do the work to verify that. I'm content to say, "wow, there are a LOT of people there!")

I think most of us realize that India is a vast country with a rich and varied history and culture. Africa, Middle East, and Central Asia all feature into its early occupants and its storied past. So, we intuitively know that "not all Indians look alike." Still, I was pleasantly surprised to note the variety and interest of so many faces in Varanasi. Differences in stature, facial structure, and color. For some reason I thought that since our trip would be limited to this one city (discounting for the moment Delhi as our entry and exit city), the populace would be more uniform in appearance.

But, consider that it is after all the center of Hinduism; that people from all over the country - indeed, the world - make pilrimage there; and that it is considered a blessing to die there. So, yes (duh) it will be a city with diversity. We saw that in the faces of the children we worked with in a school there. And well . . . what random group of children won't have a delightful diversity of expression? And what laughter will not speak across diversity? And don't hugs and games break down supposed differences anyway?

Some other interesting manifestations of universality:
Humor: we drove by a set of "shops" each day, and noticed the various posters plastered above them. One had a photo of a beautiful Bollywood actress (sorry, I don't remember her name). On one of these posters the photo had a tooth blacked out and a mustache drawn on. Yes, the best humor works across cultures.
Smart-alecks: I sat in a Christian worship service, near the musicians (of course) where one of the older boys recognized me as someone who had been at the school and would be back the next day. He knew enough English to talk to me, and to help me learn the Hindi words for the various instruments. Only at the school did I realize that this kid was a real smart-aleck. Not even the funny kind . . . just a trouble maker. You just can't get away from that.
On the playground: girls and boys will play differently, separately, and with some level of disapprobation for the other gender's mode of being. And when they get beyond that (say, playing chain-tag with western foreigners) they have a blast.
Hospitality: OK, so it might be argued that vis-a-vis the West, hospitality is hardly a universal value or practice. But I do know richly hospitable Americans, and we all know genuine love and hospitality when we experience it. Language is no barrier to the truly hospitable; nor to the truly thankful recipient.

Bottom line, best expressed in this cut from classic American cinema