Tag Archives: geotagged

Discovering India

I’m not just a high school PE teacher.  I also serve as the coordinator for the school’s Discover India program.  This is the school’s week-without-walls experience where all high school students (there are also middle school trips but I’m not charged with them) go on one of over a dozen week-long experiences throughout India.  Last year we had trips that rode on and slept in camel-pulled carts, rafting and kayaking trips on the Ganges river, diving experiences off the Andaman Islands, biking the Himalayan foothills… In short, a great collection of trips that celebrate the diversity of the country.

I went on “The Utimate Atali Experience” which I picked because it had climbing, ropes course, and rafting.  Three teachers and 18 students flew to Dehli and then on to Dehradun.  Then we took a two hour bus ride to Rishikesh and on to the hotel we’d stay in.  It turns out that we stayed in one of Condé Nast Traveler magazine’s 50 Best New Hotels In The World 2013.  When we arrived at the hotel they had hot tea made from a local flower.  We all had a bit of a hike up to our rooms from the “lobby” but the facility was incredible.

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Of course, we were not there just to hang out at a hotel.  We worked with Aquaterra to provide us with the adventure components of the trip.  We had a couple of days of rafting on the Ganges River.  One of the days they let us hop out of the boats and float in the water through some low class rapids.  we had to hold on to the rope around the edge of the raft and while I was rolling from my back to my  front in the water and slipping my fingers from the rope I felt and watched as my titanium wedding band popped off of my finger, floated in air like a slow motion scene from a movie, and disappeared into the murky, frothy waters of the Ganges River.

Pepper was amused when she found out.

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We also spent time on a hike and an afternoon helping repaint a local school.

This Sunday, Jordan and I depart for our trip for this year.  We’ll spend three full days rafting the Mahakali River expedition style.  The Mahakali is a river that borders India and Nepal.  Our travel just to the put-in is a flight to New Delhi, an overnight train, then a six hour bus ride into the mountains.

I can’t wait to get on our way for the trip.  Aside from Jordan there are another dozen great students and a coworker that I look forward to getting to know better, discovering India, and finding a little more out about ourselves.

Ganesh Chaturthi in Chennai

A few months ago we went to the beach to experience the “washing” of Ganesh statues.  This is part of a festival celebrating the rebirth of Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu God.  The idols are creates out of clay, paper-mache, or plaster of paris.  Police are ever present to keep citizens back from the waters – many people here can’t swim.  This was one of our best experiences in Chennai.  The parade of statues, the cheering, drumming, and milling crowds…

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Vendanthangal bird sanctuary in Tamil Nadu, India

On Saturday morning, Pepper and I woke at 5 to get up and moving to join a small group of teachers and their kids for a trip to Vendanthangal bird sanctuary.  We brought some cheese and crackers, cut veggies, water bottles, sunscreen, hats, our bird guide and camera.  We met at the school at 6 in the morning but trickled in for a while after that.  It was about a 2 hour bus ride there and we arrived at quarter after 8.  We paid 5 rupees each to enter the sanctuary and an additional 25 rupees for having a camera (35 rupees for the two of us comes to about 57 cents).   Inside was an amazing collection of pelican, stork, cormorant, ibis and heron nests and roosts.  The locals have been protecting the area for centuries when they realized that the bird droppings in the water added nutrients that made the fields that were irrigated nearby more fruitful.

I added a number of species to my life list on the trip: Grey Pelican, Paddyfield Pipit (I think), Eurasian Spoonbill, Glossy Ibis, Black-headed Ibis and perhaps a few others that I have yet to identify.  I use the Helm Field Guide Birds of the Indian Subcontinent which Pepper gave to me a few months ago.

Buddha’s birthday in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

On May 25th, a group of us gathered to participate in the official celebration of Buddha’s birthday in Ulaanbaatar.  We walked to the stadium and waited in line with our tickets.  Eventually they started admitting people from a few gates and we were ushered in and urged to get to close to the front and center.  We were a little skeptical because we were not sure what we were doing.  It appeared that everyone was sitting behind a single candle mounted on a post in the ground – presumably a thousand of them.

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After well over an hour of prayers, chants, and speeches (no disrespect intended but nothing was in English so we were not too sure of what was going on), we were able to light the candles and then wait some more.  The temperature had been dropping and while it was late May that meant that it would be getting pretty cool.  Fortunately we all had little fires to use for some warmth now.

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Finally the attendants started handing out the paper lanterns.  We each expected one since we each had a candle but it turns out that there was about one for every 4 people.  The lanterns were unfurled and stretched out over the flames to catch the fuel packet alight.

The rest of the evening was paper lanterns drifting off into the air.

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(Well, a few moments of panic when people let go of the lanterns too soon and they drift horizontally toward people instead of the sky!)

 

Tamil Nadu sights

The part of India we live in is not a highlight according to the guide books.  Nevertheless, we spent a few days of our fall break hitting some of the highlights of our region.  Just about an hour south of us is Mahabalipuram which contains a number of sites that collectively are a Unesco world heritage site.  We had already gone there once but didn’t have time to see all of the historical sites.

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We then went to Pondicherry which is less than 2 hours south of us.  Pondicherry is a different jurisdiction than our state of Tamil Nadu and has a French heritage.  So liquor is more available, restaurants are more diverse and even the architecture is different (to a degree).  We spent quite a bit of time just perusing the antique shops, relaxing, reading and decompressing.  then when we left the area we drove inland instead of heading straight back to Chennai.  We drove to the city of Tiruvannamalai where in the following days over  a million pilgrims walk around the mountain near the city and temple that is part of Hindu mythology.

We realized that there is enough to do within just a few hours from each spot to actually have a significant cultural and historical experience right here in the state we’re in.

 

Rochester and San Francisco

Pepper and I arrived in Rochester, NY late on Sunday.  We took the cats to my parent’s home and crashed.  Over the next few days we did some relaxing, introduced the cats to their extended feline family, took care of some cat transport issues, helped my dad set up some workshop tools, and started to celebrate our anniversary.  Started.  Then suddenly I had to fly to San Francisco.  We hadn’t even been in Fairport for three full days.

We were becoming increasingly concerned about our lack of a visa for India.  Pepper sent a note about it to the personnel director of our school and she told us to immediately go to San Francisco to deal with it in person – they would pay.  Three hours later I was on a flight from Rochester to San Francisco.  We bought a one way ticket – not knowing how long I might be there.  I brought clothes for three days.

While on the ground in DC for my connection to San Francisco, I made a few calls using Skype to track down a hotel.  This sudden trip was going to be expensive.  The cab to the hotel was almost $50.  I hunkered down at the hotel – arriving pretty late – and mapped out my walk to the visa processing office.

I need to back up.

We tried to apply for our visas in Mongolia.  The Indian embassy in Ulaanbaatar was nice, there was no line, we got in to see someone right away.  But he said he couldn’t help us because we hadn’t lived in Mongolia for at least two full years.  We were a few months short.  So we had our documents ready to mail out as soon as we arrived in the US.  The Indian consulate contracts out for all visa pre-screening.  Because of the US requiring that a US-owned company be contracted to do a similar service in India, the Indian government required an Indian-owned company to do their processing.  And the shift happened just as we arrived in the US.  So our applications were among the first to arrive at the new company.  It arrived in San Francisco on July 1st.  We had tried the phone lines for contacting the company for days and the few times we got through we were told that our case would be elevated and that we would be contacted in 24-48 hours.  In short, there was a new company processing visas before they went to the embassy and they had call centers in India that had no idea what was going on.

So 50 minutes before the BLS office in San Francisco opened on that Thursday, I was standing in a line with 9 other people with similar woes.  None had appointments.  (You could make appointments for in-person applications but the first available time was a week and a half away.)  People traded stories about the problems they had.  One woman in front of me had been there 8 days earlier and still wasn’t sure if she was going to get her visa.

By the time they opened their doors, we had over 20 people ready to find out what was going on.  One of the first people in had been there the previous day and kept us organized.  She had us line up in the chairs in the waiting room in order so we could be served in the order we arrived.  BLS threw a wrench in that orderly approach when one guy announced that “absolutely no walk-ins would be seen.  Appointments only.”  Chaos slowly erupted as people realized that they might not be seen.  People with appointments got numbers which were called.  Others tried everything possible to get numbers.  A few people skipped the number system and just went up to the counters.  That ended up being the best option for people like me with different needs.  I got to the front of that line and gave them my tracking number and the arrival date.  A half hour later someone pulled our envelope and went through it.  She said we needed a letter from the school for Jordan’s application and his application also needed our signatures on it along with copies of our passports with our signatures on those pages.  So I popped into a cafe, grabbed a breakfast and sent a message to the school that we needed an acceptance letter for Jordan.  Then I trompsed up five blocks and finally got a SIM card for my phone… there were other staff that also were having hangups with their visas and I offered to act on their behalf in San Francisco.  There was a FedEx store just another block away from AT&T so I printed out the passport copies and the letter for Jordan (our school can move really quickly!)

I got the papers together, found a place to work on the signatures and got everything ready to resubmit.  I went back to BLS to submit the new materials and after a while had someone else flip through my application.  She found a few other problems – primarily that I listed my parent’s address in NY as our current address and not our Alaska address (which was listed as our permanent address).  I explained to her that we were currently in NY visiting family but she said the Indian consulate in San Francisco wouldn’t process our applications with an address listed that was out of their jurisdiction.  She said if I had the materials in to them by 2 PM that they could get them in by first thing in the morning.  that was only 40 minutes away.  I ran the six blocks uphill to the FedEx place and had to enter entirely new visa applications for all three of us with the correct address (and details about the countries we had visited in the last 5 years, contacts in the US and India, employment/school information and our passport numbers, birthdays and other information).  I sprinted back down the hill, pausing every now and then to sign our applications.  I made it with just minutes to spare.

They looked over my application and noted that our money order was for too much money – by a few dollars.  I told them it didn’t matter.  Then they told me that the expedited processing system at the embassy was down.  I asked if it might be up by the next day and they said if I checked by 10 that I could pay for the faster service.  I asked about a couple of the other applications that were held up.  But they closed before I was able to find out what was going on with them.

I went back the next day.  Nope.  Just regular “3-5 business day” processing.  I was recognized about the other applications and one was brought to the top of the pile.  The other they couldn’t find.  That wasn’t a fun call to make to my future co-worker.  I told her I would try again on Monday.

I spent the rest of that afternoon down in the dock area at the Instructables headquarters and checking out the Exploratorium.  I ate out.  I drank beer.  I walked all over San Francisco.  I then imposed on my cousin and her husband.  I hadn’t seen Rachel in 8 or 9 years.  I hadn’t ever met her husband, Brian.  I had to try and relax over the weekend.  There wasn’t anything I could do about the applications but wait and hope we were on the 3 day and not 5 day end of the timeline.

Monday came and I went to the BLS office.  I was able to check on my coworker’s progress.  Another employee had popped up with a snag.  I did what I could.  I wandered San Francisco more.  I went to Betabrand.  Days seemed to crawl by with me compulsively stopping by the office and checking the website for updates on our applications.  The school rebooked our flights from Newark to India.  Finally the site said mine was available.  I rushed there and picked up mine.  Pepper’s was ready too.  Jordan’s had a problem.  They needed his biological dad’s signature on his application – not mine.

I rushed up to FedEx again and printed out the divorce documents showing Pepper having custody.  They accepted them but said they needed a court order.  I got it back the next day – the divorce documents were not good enough.  Jordan’s dad got a notarized letter to us granting permission for Jordan to leave.  I resubmitted.  another weekend went by.  I went to movies.  I went to thrift stores.  I shopped at Betabrand.  I walked part of the Golden Gate Bridge.  Monday came and the application was rejected again – this time we were informed via a phone call directly to me from the embassy.  Pepper’s signature on Jordan’s application wasn’t good enough.  Pepper emailed a document to the embassy within 30 minutes of us being contacted.  I picked up Jordan’s passport the next afternoon.  I went straight to the airport, bought a ticket there and headed back to Rochester.

Dad, Mom, Pepper, Jordan and the cats picked me up at the airport where we immediately drove the 5 hours to Newark.  It saved us, and in turn the school, money but more importantly I had five more hours with my parents.  I missed out on a planned trip to Pennsylvania.  I missed a week with my parents.  We missed all of the new teacher orientation.  We missed a lot.

But we made it.

When we arrived in Newark we checked in, paid for the cats, got through security and then made it to the gate with about 20 minutes to spare for our  six plus hour flight to Frankfurt where we connected to our more than 9 hour flight to Chennai.

It all worked out.  Not the way we wanted, but it worked.

Buddha’s birthday in Mongolia

Buddhism in Mongolia is very closely aligned with that of Nepal and Tibet.  On the full moon of May they celebrate Buddha’s birthday which also coincides with his enlightenment and death.  Last year, we caught a glimpse of it from afar when a massive collection of paper lanterns drifted off into the sky.  This year we were more proactive and got to participate in the event.

Buddha birthday prayer lanterns

Tickets were 12,000 tugrik (about $8.25) and I think only 3,000 were available. At about 6:30 we arrived at the Naadam Stadium (where the annual wrestling and archery competitions take place) and found ourselves in line with our tickets in hand. We really had no idea what to expect. After getting through the gate we were each situated next to a brazier on a wooden post. For the next two hours we listened to prayers, chants, and instructions entirely in Mongolian. A chill and slight breeze cooled us as we sat on the ground. Eventually it was time to light our fires. Then another 15 minutes of prayer. Soon the helpers pulled out large paper lanterns and small groups of people affixed stickers with prayer requests to them before lighting the wax rings below to inflate them with hot air. Then the sky was full of paper lanterns…

Our excitement grows about our move to India

Last weekend we were sent photos of housing in Chennai, India.  The school we’ll be working for wanted to know if we wanted this place…

This place has a lot going for it.  Four bedrooms, four baths.  We have two bedrooms and one bathroom now.  A small yard.  We have a park outside our apartment here but it is sometimes dirty and has people combing through trash in a pile, sometimes squatting in the park (squatting to use the bathroom even), or burning trash to heat a scavenged lunch.  Right now, we have six flights of stairs to climb.  This place has an attractive stairwell up to the bedrooms but just one step to get into the house.  We have an enclosed porch in Jordan’s room but it is on the shady side of our building.  The India house has a rooftop patio.  Top this list of improvements from our current housing off with it being just a few hundred yards from the beach and ocean.

 

Retro Auto – Listvyanka, Russia

Auto Retro

One great little side visit if you’re ever in Listvyanka, Russia is to hit the St. Nickolas Church. I didn’t get any good pictures of the church. But one of the reasons we wanted to go there was to see the obscure Retro Auto museum that is just a few minute walk from the church. If you go out the front of the church and cross over the ditch, turn left down the dirt road (ok, path) and just follow the signs.

The creator of this collection of vintage soviet vehicles and sculptures welcomes people into his yard to check out his creations.  Leave a donation to support his creativity!