No, not so far as Peru where alpacas are native, but just to Shelburne, Mass., there to visit Wheel-View Farm. At Wheel-View, John & Carolyn Wheeler raise Belted Galloway cattle fed only on grass. This is better for the pasture, better for the surrounding environment and (to my taste) makes for better tasting beef. Back in 2011 before I departed for India we had been buying beef from Wheel-View. This was our first chance to get back and re-stock. Tomorrow it is grass-fed beefsteak on the grill.
On our way back we encountered alpacas – not ranging about wild but on a small farm. There were 5 or 6, all recently shorn. These animals are a source of amazing natural fiber; some years back Kim has made me an knitted alpaca hat:
The warming power of this hat is beyond description – suffice to say should I be called upon to visit the South Pole I am more than provided for, hat-wise. Anyway searching about I find at least 16 alpaca ranchers in Massachusetts. Alpacas have been farmed in the US since 1984, and today give access to a beneficial but complicated set of tax incentives.
Nonetheless, don’t expect to be seeing any alpacas here in Arlington anytime soon. For now I’m happy to be an end-user, not a producer, where animal products are concerned.
Sorry for no posts for some time. I returned to USA three weeks ago on 18 July. My first week back I spent getting over jet-lag, doing some unpacking, and keeping caught up with work. My real “reintegration” back into things here started the week after, when Kim and I spent a week in North Truro at the Topmast Resort, our long-time summer vacation getaway. We played some golf, saw some sights here and there, but mostly we sat on the beach, swam, read, kayaked a bit. Going to the Cape is for us a bit of a family ritual, and the familiarity of the place we’ve been visiting 15+ years helped bring my mind back here and away from the other side of the world.
Since coming back friends and acquaintances of course are asking, “What was it like?” I still don’t have a proper answer. The time in India was enriching, since I saw so much that was new; yet is was also disheartening in that much of what I saw was very sad. The time was stimulating and satisfying, since I met so many new colleagues and friends, and (I think) we did great stuff together; but at the same time it was disappointing in that I feel I could have done much more. Finally the time was rejuvenating, in that it was an opportunity to look at my lifestyle and make changes, for the better I hope; and then it was exhausting in that it is hard work living in a place that is so different and where you are always on display.
I guess another sort of hard work now awaits me here at home, more unpacking:
Above is the shipment of our India goods: kitchen items, books, clothes, rugs, mementos, etc. Also shown is our chair, which Kim now needs to have re-upholstered using some fabrics we brought back. Since I am greatly against clutter, we have to reorganize and/or dispose of lots of old things about the home, to make space for the new. I foresee it will be some weeks until our living room is navigable again.
Finally to add to the mix, yours truly has a new job. Well, not 100% new. My job was Chief Architect for IBM Sametime; there my priority was the technical strategy for the product line, though I also had to do a lot to promote, explain and sell the product. Now my job is Director of Product Management for IBM Sametime – and IBM Docs – where I have ownership for the overall Sametime business, which means leading the development of the roadmap, negotiating budgets and investment, forging partnerships, and lots of evangelizing to customers. So to paraphrase Pete Townshend, it’s a bit of “meet the new job, same as the old job” – but I’m sure a lot will be totally new, some of which I hope to share in these pages.
So, I’m back. India is not out of my blood yet, but I don’t think it ever will be, not totally. Yesterday with our grilled lamb I asked Kim to make a spicy cabbage dish we oftentimes had during our time in Pune, very similar to this recipe or to this one. I guess once a Punekar always a Punekar.
Till next time.
When Kent speaks this line at the end of King Lear, he has a truly final journey in mind, but the journey ahead of me now is just as all-encompassing as his. For 22 months I’ve been half a world away from my home. Now in less than 4 weeks I return there, and I‘m filled with a sense of unreality. You know, I can’t say for certain if my USA home even exists. Logically of course I know it does – daughter Alex lives there and Kim was there only a month ago. Yet, the feeling remains. Given enough physical and cultural distance, we become disconnected, floating. Having seen up close how big the world is, how strange to suppose I shall float back exactly to where I started.
Writing this post and thinking about journeys, the picture above occurred to me. This bullock cart is a common kind here; it is used for carrying long things, like bamboo poles, which would jut out 2 or 3 meters off the back end. What struck me was the driver’s concentration: keeping his balance, watching the bullocks, heading back to a precise and (for him) important destination. A humble journey to be sure, but how many of us can say we go from one place to the next with such certainty?
One thing I should tell anyone considering a long expat experience is this: Make sure you are comfortable being alone with yourself. In my time here I’ve made new friendships, and deepened existing ones, but the fact is here, me and my family are different. Wherever we go we are noted, many times stared at. This isolates you; you will never be a regular guy, one of the crowd. In the precincts of high-tech companies here in India, the effect is less – my colleagues at IBM work with Westerners constantly – but still there is a barrier. Even in the lifts at work (see, I now say ‘lift’ and not elevator) it’s there. Who is this guy? I can almost hear people thinking. Does he know where he’s going? Maybe he’s lost …
This quote I found captures the feeling quite nicely:
The loneliness of the expatriate is of an odd and complicated kind, for it is inseparable from the feeling of being free, of having escaped.
— Adam Gopnik (Paris to the Moon)
The family and I, just 2 weeks ago, did have a great experience of not feeling isolated when our driver Rupesh invited us to his family’s village home. About 100 kms south of Pune, we left on a bright Sunday morning and reached in a little over 2 hours. Here’s Morgan and Kim (wearing kameez, no less) with Rupesh, Rupesh’ Dad, and Rupesh little boy in front.
This was just beside a backyard garden where I had just invoked much astonishment among the children by eating some chilies right off the plant.
Soon after we had one of the greatest meals I have yet had in India. I’ve written before on Indian hospitality. Here, if you come into someone’s home you will be given the best of everything and the food, I guarantee, will be there in such quantity even the heartiest eater will be challenged. We had mutton curry, potato curry, dry-braised ribs and bones of mutton, two kinds of rotis, salad, rice and chutneys … but the star of the lunch was freshwater crab curry. The gravy was amazing. Rupesh told us his Mum would take the claw meat from the crabs – which were not big, the bodies were about 4 inches across – and lightly pound it till it was a flaky paste. The claw meat then goes into the gravy and thickens it and flavors it. The gravy was more of a soup – the richest, most intense crab flavor I have ever had. Now, I have had Lobster Bisque at some good restaurants, “five star” as they say here in India. This crab gravy put any such soup I have ever had to cringing shame.
After the meal we relaxed a bit, and then I prevailed upon Rupesh to walk us around the village:
Here’s the village school, with hills in the distance; some chilies drying in the sun; and, an old bullock cart, the ancient uncle of the one we saw on the road. The village is a modest place and the pace there now is slow; farmers await the coming of the monsoon before starting the next planting. It is a time for maintaining tools, cleaning the sheds and, mostly, sitting in the shade and talking.
A wonderful afternoon. Children played outside with their friends, and many relatives were visiting. They were there to see the famous Salazars (other than aid workers the first Westerners to ever come to this place) but we were not on display, everything was welcoming and easy-going. The ladies worked furiously in the kitchen and invited Kim in for some impromptu roti-making lessons. One young cousin of Rupesh asked us many questions about USA. He told us science and history were his favorite subjects, and that he hoped to go to an American university. May it be so.
Then, it was time to leave and as guests we cannot go without gifts. For me was a nice shawl, such as Indian men might wear to keep out the chill of winter evenings. But Kim got a unique gift:
This rolling pin and board – a belan and chakla – were made by hand, by Rupesh’ Dad. The wood is smooth and heavy; a hundred years from now I expect our descendants will still be using them.
I know that, in time, the village will become as unreal to me as my own home now seems to be. But for the moment the image of it is very clear: A good place, where there are many challenges and obstacles, but also achievements and celebrations. We should all have so much in our own homes.
And so the start of the next journey draws near. In the weeks I have remaining I hope to make some posts on the good, and the bad, I have seen here. Take care till then.
Ok, maybe not totally wild, but the “life” part still applies.
My last post on our Kerala trip starts with this pic of Kim and Morgan riding on Sundari the elephant. Elephants are extremely important in Kerala culture, and all festivals there will feature elephants. Our hotel was easily able to direct us to a place where they kept some festival elephants so we could see and ride on these amazing beasts.
The ride that the girls took was short but still incredibly memorable. At one point Sundari, being led by her mahout balked at continuing the walk. After unsuccessfully trying to cajole the beast forward, the mahout called over another of his colleagues – this fellow gently talked the elephant into proceeding, as Kim related, much as a patient parent might talk to a small child.
I like to think everything worked out well for Sundari, for after the short stroll she had a snack of 3 kgs of bananas that our driver providentially recommended we bring:
The dexterity of the elephant trunk is amazing. Sundari had no problem taking from our hands a single banana, or picking one up from the ground. I’m sure she could have picked up a pencil or a coin with equal ease. All 3 kgs of bananas – peels and all – were gone in about a minute.
Another place we visited was Ponnumthuruth Island – in English, Golden Island. The name comes from a local legend that princesses of the Travancore Kingdom hid their golden jewelry there. Certainly all of India is mad over gold, but the fever seems to burn hottest in Kerala – with only 3% of India’s population, Kerala nonetheless yearly acquires 20% of the country’s gold. In 2012, the wedding of the daughter of the CEO of Muthoot Finance Co. (one of Kerala’s biggest banks) made headlines for the 5 kg of gold – over Rs. 1,47,50,000 (1.5 crore) or about $250,000 at current prices – worn by the bride. Then in a recent headline we see smugglers attempting to bring 1.8 kg of gold into Kerala from Singapore, hidden in printer cartridges, roller-suitcase axles, and other apparently not-so-clever means.
But we really were not interested in gold at Golden Island. We wanted to glimpse Kerala’s famous backwaters, the intracoastal network of lakes and canals that runs all up and down the Arabian Sea coast. Golden Island is in the middle of one such lake, and the way you get there is by boat, poled by a boatman:
This is a place where the jungle habitat of Kerala expresses itself clearly. All around are coconut palms, cashew trees, and other tropical flora. The water of the lake is salt and in it we saw numerous jellyfish:
On the actual island the main thing to do is visit the temples. There are three: for Lord Ganesh, Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu. Pictures were forbidden, but we did observe a puja being made by the Brahmin for Lord Vishnu. Also just outside the temple walls were two shrines for snake-gods, one pair of gods devoted to Lord Shiva and another pair devoted to Lord Ganesh. A man was guiding us about these temples so I asked him, “In the north where we stay there are many temples for Lord Shiva and Lord Ganesh, but few for Lord Vishnu. Why is that?” He told me quite plainly: “In the north they are Aryans, light people, and here in the south we are Dravidians, dark people. That is why.” That I suppose is as good a capsule of the complexities of Hinduism you are likely to hear.
Then we spent another 30-40 mins just roaming the small forest of Golden Island. As I mentioned, cashew trees are everywhere, here is a small sample that we saw:
That curved sort of bud in the center of the picture is the actual cashew. It is inside a tough and caustic husk and, when mature, the green pod above will ripen into a large, orange-red fruit. We tasted such a fruit growing wild there at Golden Island – the flavor was tart but not unpleasant, like cashew-flavored lemon drink.
Then it was time to return and our boatman poled us back. On the way I managed to get a picture of a hawk or eagle-like bird:
Not all of Kerala is jungle of course. As we traveled about, mostly on small roads, we saw many colorfully painted, large bungalows, like this one I snapped as our driver barreled down the road at speed:
I asked our driver, Who owns these nice houses? His answer came quickly: Overseas money. 2.5 million or more Keralaites work overseas, primarily in Persian Gulf states like UAE, Kuwait or Qatar; in fact when we visited London over end of year holiday, one of the managers at our hotel was from Kerala. With extremely high literacy and education rates, Kerala is in an excellent position to supply valued workers. Remittances from these workers are estimated about 49,700 crore (about $8B !) for 2011 – this is about %30 of the entire domestic product of all Kerala. The majority of these emigrants are Muslims. They follow a centuries old pattern of Arabian traders moving back and forth to India – it is called the Arabian Sea, after all. But nowadays, with laws changing both in India and abroad, emigration from Kerala seems to be on the decline.
And this brings me to politics. I don’t have much to say on this, philosophically, but I will say politics is everywhere visible in Kerala:
Political posters cover any and all exposed spaces. Also it seems that householders allow different parties to paint or put posters on the walls surrounding their bungalow, I assume sometimes for a fee. All of these posters include the symbols of the respective party: The hammer and sickle for CPI (Communist Party of India), the raised-hand for UDF (United Democratic Front), and – most rarely seen in our Kerala travels – the lotus blossom symbol of the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), the extremely conservative, Hindu-nationalistic party that is making a fair run at breaking the decades-long dominance of the leftist Congress party for rule of India
I think folks from the USA are often amazed to hear of successful communist political parties in other nations – it is part of the 20th century American narrative that we led the fight against communism, and that we won it too, making the world safe for capitalistic purveying of nifty consumer goods like smartphones and TVs which due to the self-created efficiencies of global markets are built in countries like China that just happen to be … communist?
I said I would not be philosophical … sorry, almost done. I guess seeing all these unexpected symbols on our trip brought back to my mind that India has its own national narrative, that for modern, independent India starts with Gandhi and his vision of agrarian socialism. The founders of this largest democracy in the world were socialists – capitalism in the form we see in India today is a relatively recent thing, dating to 1991 and the introduction of new, liberal trade policies under then finance-minister, now prime minister, Manmohan Singh. But for all the magic powers of capitalism and markets, Kerala seems to be doing fine with socialism; they have highest literacy and education rates of any Indian state, and in 2010 a UN study ranked Kerala highest of any Indian state on its human development index, an aggregate score combining per-capita income, life expectancy, education, and income distribution. It is little wonder Kerala has small interest in the “Modi miracle”, as BJP top candidate Narendra Modi styles his achievements in his home state of Gujarat.
Nothing deflates a discussion or a blog post so much as politics so I’ll stop all that now. Here are some final images from Kerala: Morgan on our boat ride back from Golden Island; Kim and Morgan beneath a very large cashew tree at the elephant compound; and, fishing boats slowing working their way north along the coastline at Varkala Beach.
The world is big and there’s much to see and so I can’t say I expect to be back to any of these places. I believe the images will stay with us. Only time and mind will tell.
Till next time.
My last post told you about our trip to Papanasum Beach in Varkala, state of Kerala. Herewith a few closing odds and ends about this most delightful trip. I’ll begin with a dog-bites-man (almost!) story.
At Varkala Beach, like everywhere in India, there are wild dogs – though like everywhere else, there are not wild-wild, they are in a kind of symbiosis with people. The first day on the beach one of these dogs sauntered over to where we were, gave Kim, Morgan and me a quick look, then settled in for a snooze in the shade of my chair. This dog, in the left pic above, Morgan named “Sanchez” (sand-chaise, get it?) Two days later a similar dog came and snuggled up next to a couple sitting close to us on the sand; same time, a whitish dog came and sat in the shade of my chair.
These dogs seemed really mild; you can pat them, scratch them, or just leave them be and they are content. They will take food if you give it, but they don’t go rooting through your stuff looking for snacks. Just nice dogs.
Anyway, all of us are sitting all peaceful-like with our doggy brothers and sisters when into the vicinity comes an Indian guy hawking leaflets of some kind. There’s various such people off by the shops and restaurants, but they are not very welcome on the beach itself. I take note of this guy, and maybe 50 yards away he offers a leaflet to someone. Then he takes a step in our direction …
It was that instant the doggy Delta Force leapt into action. Both my dog and the other couple’s dog tore off at top speed at this hawker, barking like Ravana himself had arrived from Sri Lanka. The hawker scooted away and the dogs came to a stop. Hawker gingerly steps in original direction – dogs launch themselves, nipping at his heels, very nearly getting a healthy portion of hawker-calf. The dogs stood sentinel a few moments more then, satisfied they had properly defended what needed defending, they return back to the shade to sleep.
Not a single other person did they treat this way. Either the dogs have a refined sense of beach propriety – no hawkers allowed! – or they know this particular guy. As the hawker stood out of range, other people drew away from him, either having no interest in leaflets and/or not wanting to get caught in a canine crossfire.
Final tally: Beach dogs 1, hawker, 0. Go, beach dogs!
On to other matters … next, food! Along the edge of the beach is a cliff, and at the top of this cliff is a path of 1-2 kms where there are many shops and restaurants:
Varkala is on the Arabian Sea, and seafood of all kinds is abundant; each night we saw many lights out to sea that seemed to be a fishing “fleet”, but my camera could not well capture them.
But there’s no difficulty in capturing the spoils of these fish hunters. Every restaurant along the cliff displays a big table of ice and fresh seafood, intended to entice the hungry diner. Our favorite was the Sea Queen:
Red grouper, red and yellow snapper (but a different sort than we get in the Atlantic), dorado, crab, prawn, squid and octopus … and on other days they had some kind of sword-fish, kingfish, and one specimen a restaurant-tout assured us was barracuda – but they are salesmen and not ichthyologists, so we learned not to put too much confidence in those guys’ fish identification.
But the taste spoke for itself:
In order, fried calamari, a snapper done in the tandoor, then octopus (just barely sautéed in butter/garlic, perfect tenderness!), and last – our dinner from a different night – a platter of 2 fish, more calamari, prawns, chips and salad. I have to say this was all the best seafood we have yet had in India.
Well, there’s more to say about our trip, but that’s for yet-another post. I’ll leave you with this, sunset over the Arabian Sea:
Till next time …
Our vacation in Kerala is done and an excellent time it was. As you can see from these pix of Papanasam Beach, where we were, there were clear skies and ample beach with soft sand … just the thing for relaxation, by Salazar tastes. It was also a great time to see a slice of South India, in many ways the same but in other ways, quite different from the north, such as Pune in Maharashtra where we live.
For one thing, men everywhere much more are in traditional dress, specifically the lungi, or mundu, a long rectangle of cloth wrapped around the waist to make a skirt:
A pretty versatile garment, there’s several ways to go about in your lungi. You might let it drape down, which gives a cool, slightly formal look. Or, you might hold one corner, maybe as our airport-goer on the right is doing; this keeps the folds from binding your knees if you want to walk quickly – in fact many men sort of lightly flap their lungi with a kind of jaunty motion as they walk. Finally, you can grab both edges, fold them up, and knot them in front, as our beach-walker is doing – this is the way for walking fast or doing work.
I thought about trying the lungi myself. In the end, despite the clear comfort – it’s the tropics, after all – I decided against it. I think we westerners often look comical in Indian dress, and with the possibility of wardrobe malfunction from an improperly secured lungi, I decided to hold off, perhaps till another visit.
On to the beach itself. As I said in my previous post, Papanasam Beach is a holy place for Hindus. They go there to make a special puja, called karkidaka vavu. These prayers offer food for the dead, and also cleanse the sins from the living as well as the departed. A key part of the puja is to place an offering of food, spices and other items in a banana leaf, place it on your head, then go down into the sacred water, as this man is doing:
Once the water is reached, they will turn around and drop the offering behind. Then they will rinse themselves all over with the water.
It is late in the season and by talking to some locals we understood there were few people making offerings. In January there would be 100s of supplicants, and on a special day typically in August, 1000s of people will come to the beach. Still every morning there were 20-30 parties preparing for their prayers on the beach:
Which brings me to one of the most interesting aspects of the whole trip. Papanasam is indeed a holy place, but it is also a great beach, a place where tourists want to come and spend money. We saw many Indian couples on the beach like this:
So, there are two kinds of visitors: first the Indians coming to pray and/or relax, and then the foreigners, who come for many reasons, including praying, but also a great many non-prayerful things like drinking, shopping, swimming and sunning. On this beach everywhere you look you see this contradiction, like here:
Western women in bikinis, and Indian men in long-sleeve shirts and lungis and Indian women in saris or kameez. At Varkala both sides peacefully coexist, but the divide between the two worlds is as constantly glaring as the tropical sun itself.
As to the beach: Fantastic! Not at all crowded; it is the tail-end of the season after all. The sand was soft, and at both high and low tides there was ample gently sloping beach. The swells of the Arabian Sea really were modest, but as in the pic on the left, some of the breakers are head-high or more and if you’re standing right at the break-line, you can get knocked over and scraped along the sand:
The waves in fact support surfing; there’s a surf school and we saw some successful surfers:
The last thing I’ll say in this post is about the cliffs. The beach is about 1.5 km south to north, and to the east is all a high cliff of about 20 meters:
Atop these cliffs are guest houses, shops and restaurants. You can reach them from the beach via stairs – somewhat eroded and without rails for some places, the stairs are tricky to navigate in the dark.
Here I’ll end my first post about Varkala. Next time: Elephants, Waterways, Communists, some of the greatest seafood we have ever ate, and the Attack of the Keralan Beach Dog! Till then …
Here’s the last pics of our London trip (and warning, there are a LOT of pics) from the Victoria & Albert where we spent a good 5 hours. Like the British Museum there are many antiquities here, but the emphasis on the V & A is more the decorative than the historical or archeological. (NOTE: If you are interested, I have made as many of these pictures as I can links to the V & A or other reference on the work.)
An interesting example is one of the first works you see at the museum:
This work, Peach Blossom Spring, appears as a large example of Eastern calligraphy but on closer examination, the characters are Roman; the work presents an English translation of the famous Chinese fable, the Peach Blossom Spring. (In the inset I think you can see ‘All Of A’…) This same theme is the subject of a wonderful outside garden:
There were a great many old Asian works, such as these from Japan (a favorite place and era of Kim and myself):
And India, Nepal & Pakistan:
Very dramatic is the Sculpture Hall, with examples from many times and places, but mostly from the great days of the British Empire:
From our SCA days and still today, Kim and I are much interested in Medieval Europe. The V&A is a treasure trove – no, treasure hoard – of such articles:
Lastly, the V & A has an unmatched collection of fabric arts of all kinds, a particular passion of Kim’s. These articles are challenging to capture in photos, especially encased in glass as they all are. I’ll start with some medieval examples, all priestly wear:
Three later period examples; the piece on the right was done by Mary, Queen of Scots:
Now, Kim’s great favorite of all needlework is blackwork, of which there were some tantalizing exhibits:
I know that’s a great many pictures … I hope if nothing else this conveys the immense breadth of what’s to be seen at the V & A. I took over 250 shots there, and daughter Alex took many more as well. Things we could show you include: Richard Burton’s costume from his Stratford-on-Avon Henry V (1951); The Valkyrie costume from The Producers (2004); the amazing “castings gallery”, where architectural works, some stories high, have been re-created in plaster; the ironworks collection; the 20th century design hall, including the Garden Egg chair; the Montefiore Centerpiece, 37 kg of sterling silver with as baroque a rendition of Moses, Ezra and David as you could imagine; plus paintings, jewelry, fabrics and every-day items beyond counting.
Pre-Raphaelite that he was, Rossetti was also a poet. For this painting he composed a verse of 14 lines, which ends:
Lo! Toward deep skies, not deeper than her look,
She dreams; till now on her forgotten book
Drops the forgotten blossom from her hand.
The thing museums make me wonder more than anything else is: Are we – people, humanity, all of us – different now than we were before? Does the sentiment of Rossetti, or the devotion of the embroiderers or chasuble makers, or the vision of the sculptors who chose gods as their subjects, does any of that still exist? Or have we become over-fond of the “realistic”, the cynical, the clever, the – frankly – small? If you tell me Rossetti’s painting is puerile, contrived, and shallow, I know what you mean. But I still like it, and I wonder what Rossetti really thought when he painted it.
Thus, finally, ends the chronicle of our London trip. I hope to get back to more India postings soon, such as the planning for our end of month trip to Kerala. Namastē.