Thursday, December 10, 2009

Arriving home and everything after

For all of you out there nervously biting your fingernails in agony over whether or not Suzanne ever arrived home safely, never fear. I arrived in Salt Lake with nary a snag. But I'm pretty sure December 1 lasted over 40 hours. It literally was the longest day of my life. I got on a plane at 2 in the morning, flew for 9 hours, waited for 2 hours, flew for another 9 hours, chilled in Chicago for 7 hours (and ate delicious pizza), flew for 3 more hours, drove for 4, and arrived home at 11 pm of the same day. So does this mean when it is my birthday it will actually be 366 days after my last one? Do I get to celebrate a day early? Do I get to celebrate my birthday twice? What does this mean for Christmas?

Aislin and her two beautiful daughters were here to welcome me, and we got to spend 3 wonderful, too short days together. Gwen, Cecily, and I, I should say Captain Gwen, One-eyed Cecily, and Suzanne the Fierce, had a fantastic time playing pirates. We sailed the 7 seas, discovered buried treasure, reburied the treasure, attacked Grandpa, held Aislin for ransom, raided the pantry, and ate our cheese and cracker mess in the galley. Gwen and Cecily are natural pirates - they "Arrr" and "Land ho!" like they've been doing it all their lives. When Cecily, who is nearing 3 years old, declared "Arrr! We be pirates!" with one of my scarves tied around her waist and foam sword in hand, I almost died in delight.

Aislin, Erica, and I also whipped up semi-authentic chicken biryani, raita, cilantro sauce, and lassi. Turns out I'm slightly in rice withdrawals rather than being glad I don't eat in for two meals every day.

My family enjoyed the presents I brought back for them, and I've been converting my sisters to Indian music and Bollywood films. I now catch Erica watching dance numbers on Youtube. I also wear my Ali Baba pants whenever I can. Future roommates, I promise I will be better adjusted by the time January rolls around.

Other than that, I've been to my eye specialist, my doctor, been hanging out at home, helping my mom make quilts, cleaning, baking delicious treats, and avoiding going outside at all costs. It's very quiet, but as my mom pointed out, this is really the first chance I've had to relax and take things slow probably since sometime in the middle of high school. I tend to go all-cylinders burning, but this last little while has been nice. Very nice.

Notice I didn't say I'm busy working on transcribing my interviews? Yeah, that's because I haven't started doing that yet. I've really got to get going on those...

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Sianara, India.

I’m leaving tomorrow. I’mleavingtomorrow. Tomorrow, I am leaving. I’m leaving. Tomorrow. Yep, no matter how many times I say it, it still feels unreal. India has become the norm for me. I live here. Na uru Vizag, as we say in these parts. India has become a part of me, and I hope I have left a small mark on India.

Not least of all, I have been affected by the people I have lived with. Yep, I saw the same 10 – 15 people every day, and you had better believe I picked up on their mannerisms – like a raspy, heckling old man laugh that we all do. And the nasally “Aaaa” head jiggle from my fish village widows. Family, I am going to be weird when I get home. And smell. But that’s another story.

A story I will tell right now: So cumin is in just about everything we eat here, and, according to Wikipedia, it is causes people who eat it frequently to smell distinctly. It will lend me distinction. And I eat curry powder. And turmeric. And garlic. And I’m pretty sure my teeth have been stained by the curry. So family, you’ll have a smelly, yellow-toothed, slightly tanned, henna-ed, baggy-clothing-wearing daughter home in a few days. Excited yet?

But I am also a better person. Now I don’t really know, because this is the first time I’ve ever left the US, but I think that every time you travel somewhere you project your expectations and needs onto a landscape, a people, who then reply, respond to those parts of you and show you yourself in a whole new way. I had to relearn patience and refine my understanding of respect and communication. I learned that there are things that I can do without no problem, and there are things I need in order to be content – surprisingly fewer than I knew. Like a sink. I don’t need a sink. Or an overhead shower. Or a toilet that flushes. Or a table to eat on. Or couches. Or arch support. Or cold milk. I have been perfectly content without them. Though I’m beginning to really crave that cold milk.

I’ve also confronted true poverty for the first time. People who truly have nothing and no self respect anymore as a result of constantly having to debase themselves for money. I’ve been chased down by men missing legs and been watched by women carrying small children, helpless and too weak to anything but silently ask. It is so hard to see them and not help – we’ve been told its not wise to give money to them. But John taught me a way to help a little – you give them food instead of money. Sometimes they angrily refuse, but other times they humbly accept the stack of biscuits you offer – so humbly it almost hurts to see.

But I’ve also been accosted by professional beggars – and there are such things. For instance, there is a tribe of young boys who are painted silver like the moving statues in San Francisco and dressed up as Gandhi – kind of like a modern day band of Fagan’s boys – who walk around Vizag and bang their walking sticks at people and called after you, “Amma! Amma!” I don’t know if they planned it or not, but you certainly feel like mud when Gandhiji bangs his stick at you. Even a silver Gandhi.

But smells and souvenirs aren’t the only things I’ve acquired here; I’ve become the proud owner of quite a few valuable skills as well. For instance, I can bargain an auto driver down from 40 rupees to 15 and a saffron seller from Rs. 200 to 120. Also, ladies in my branch only perform minimal changes to my sari wrapping anymore. One woman even asked where I bought mine. Success. And, not least of all, I can understand and, moreover, speak Indian English. That could put my grammar in trouble when I go home and try and write this paper.

Telugu has also crept into my vocabulary. Into all of ours. We say things like chesara, kooncham, challa and chappundi all of the time – when they make sense and when they don’t. We’ve also adopted phrases that I can only describe as coping mechanisms. Like “kooncham little smoky” which is an adjective phrase or anything small or anything we feel like putting it before. “Chunst” for having a ghee belly and “chapped” for being angry or frustrated and others like “cocoa curmudgeon” and “platty lips” filling in the conversation.

I discovered new loves, too. Like pineapple and papaya. And coconut chutney. And shiny, metallic cloth. Who knew that I would one day be the proud owner of a shiny, silver sari and gold pants? I do own them, and I am proud.

But the biggest love I discovered was the whole country of India. The whole width and breadth of it. I love the crazy, crowded, busy cities and the pastoral, quiet, exotic, ancient countryside. I love the palm trees, the flowering trees, the zig-zag stairways, the power outages, the camp stove kitchens, the open air markets, the jewelry shops every 10 yards, the banana leaf plates, and on and on and on.

I will not say good bye, because I am coming back here as often as I can afford to. And I’m willing to do without a lot in order to afford to. So, see you later, India. I’m glad we could be friends.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving is Rescheduled

This is a public service announcement:

The American holiday of Thanksgiving, that time of year when friends and family mix and mingle and eat way more cranberry sauce and cheese ball than they should, has been rescheduled only in the country of India. The merrymaking will instead be held on Friday, November 27th. More information is to follow. Thank you.

Because really, if Auburn University can reschedule Halloween because it interferes with a home football game, I think we can play around a little with Thanksgiving. Christmas, however, is sacrosanct. No one is allowed to tough Christmas. Heck, they stopped a war to observe Christmas - it is that important.

But really, we have decided to move our Thanksgiving feast because November 26th is the one year anniversary of the Mumbai terrorist attacks, and our neighbors may not take kindly to Americans carousing next door when they're in mourning. Hence the date change.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Cooking Lessons

Last night John and I headed over to one of his Muslim contact's house. A house I can only describe as palatial. It was a Roman villa hidden by large walls and an attack dog, set back in a manicured lawn in the middle of Vizag. It had marble pillars and vaulted ceilings for crying out loud. Marble pillars and vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows done in the most elegant and tasteful way by a hand long used to refinement and class. We were supposed to be joined by Michelle, but she fell sick that afternoon.

We were invited to come over and use their oven to make pie for Thanksgiving. I was to teach the wife, Karija, how to make pie, and they would feed us dinner in return. John and I had decided to go over and do a test run first to see if we even could make pies in India and to be able to leave some with the family - really, just an excuse to eat more pie.

Earlier that afternoon I had caught a bus into town to look for ingredients for the pie. Pumpkin and pecan were on the docket for the night and I had to go see if I could hunt up brown sugar and pecans. I had picked up a nice pumpkin a few days earlier from the vegetable market in Old City when I was in that part of town, but I was having a tricky time finding the other ingredients. I found a rough, brown-coloured sugar used for desserts that substituted nicely for brown sugar and instead of pecans we used a combination of cashews and almonds and butter instead of shortening for the crust. Corn syrup is also MIA in India, so I found a recipe that used honey as a base instead for the pecan pie. Making it up as I go along? Yep, pretty much.

That evening John and I walked up Beach Road well-laden with our ingredients and were ushered into the mansion by a kind, gracious women of about 50. A kind, gracious women who scolded us for not letting her buy all of the ingredients for us. Her kitchen boasted real flour, a blender, egg beaters, a full gas range, glass bowls, and marble counter tops, so I think she fulfilled her end of the deal quite nicely. The measuring cups and spoons floored me. Oh the joys of real kitchen tools!

For the next 2 hours I played head chef and John my sous as I orchestrated two pies, two maids, two sons, Karija, and myself and I tried to remember the tricks to pie making. John and the two sons concentrated on cutting the pumpkin and making that pie while Karija and I made the crusts and the nut medley one. It was hilarious to listen to John and the 14 year old boy work:
Okay, Captain, we need cinnamon.
Cinnamon, check. Okay, Captain, what next?
Karija had definitely seen her fair share of cooking shows and knew her way around a Western kitchen - so much so that at times I wondered why I was in charge. I guess it was the altitude and humidity, but the crust dough was much wetter than usual, and the pies took almost twice as long to bake.

As the pies cooked we sat down to a family dinner - a Muslim family dinner which meant there was plenty of quality meet. John had spent time with this family before and made himself at home - to the great delight of the family.

I guess I became part of the family, too. As we ate pie and vanilla ice cream on their outdoor patio, the husband, Manivar, was very approving. He said it was a pity we were meeting each other so late in my time here - I could have come over twice a week and we would have taken turns sharing and teaching cultural cooking secrets. Gosh I would have loved that.

He went farther than that, too. He said if I ever needed help finding a husband, he would find me one in his community.
"But I thought you could only marry in your community?"
"Well, with the delicious food you have made, I'll use my influence. It will be no problem."
"Oh, okay. I will definitely remember that."

And John and he proceeded to play matchmaker for the next 15 minutes.

Karija couldn't get over using pumpkin in a dessert. "Finally, pumpkin has a use!" Manivar said. Overall, I had a hilarious, delicious, and wonderful time with the family. And I'm going back on Thursday.

My grandmother would be proud to know that her pie crust recipe is beloved by Indians as well as family members, and they promise to make it often.

Old Fashioned Honey Pecan Pie
1 c. honey
3 eggs, beaten
3 T. butter
1 t. vanilla
1 c. chopped pecans
1 pinch nutmeg
1 recipe for 9 inch single crust pie
In a saucepan bring the honey to a boil. Cool slightly and quickly beat the eggs into the honey. Add butter, vanilla, nuts, and nutmeg. Pour into the pie shell. Bake at 325 degrees F (165 degrees C) for 25 minutes or until set.

Traditional Pumpkin Pie
3 eggs
1 egg yolk
1/2 c. white sugar
1/2 c. brown sugar
1 t. salt
1/2 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. nutmeg
1/2 t. ginger
1/4 t. ground cloves
1 1/2 c. milk
1/2 c. heavy cream
2 c. pumpkin puree
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F (220 degrees C). In a large bowl, combine eggs, egg yolk, white sugar and brown sugar. Add salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and cloves. Gradually stir in milk and cream. Stir in pumpkin. Pour filling into pie shell. Bake for ten minutes in preheated oven. Reduce heat to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C), and bake for an additional 40 - 45 minutes, or until filling is set.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Useful Tip #34

If you are ever on the beach in India and leery-peery men keep coming up to you and wanting to know which country you are from or wanting you to take pictures for them or take pictures with them, and you pretend to only speak French, they will leave you alone.

Indians, you see, while tri- or even quadralingual, do not speak French.

Except maybe in Pondicherry. It used to be a French colony. I wouldn't try it there.

Adventures in sari wearing


On Sunday I took the bold, and possibly foolish, leap and decided to wear a sari to church. I have 3 saris and am running out of time to wear them here, so I'll take whatever opportunities come my way. I may have also wanted to fit in in Relief Society.

A sari consists of a short, fitted blouse, an underskirt they call a petticoat, and then 8 yards of colorful fabric that is wrapped around your waist, pleated, and thrown over your left shoulder - all held together with two safety pins and a couple of tucks. Very secure. It makes me feel like I'm 10 again and playing in the bed sheets on Saturday morning. But unlike bedsheet-toga wearing, sari wrapping (drapping, they call it) is a precise science. A science I have not mastered.
I wrapped my sari as best I could Sunday morning (it definitely looked better than some of my attempts) and went over to the program house looking for Durga so she could rewrap me, but she wasn't there. Durga is our head cook and friend. Her saris are always immaculate. Mine wasn't. But I decided just to brave it and leave my sari the way it was and head to church. One of the ladies there would pull me aside and fix it for me anyway.
Durga.
Me, in one of my saris. If you couldn't tell.
Traditional dressing-it up
Only they didn't. Not a single sister in the branch pulled me into an empty classroom and redressed me. They usually have no compunction against it, so I assumed my sari really was alright. Oh yeah!

Until Relief Society. I was talking to the first counselor before we got started, and she said she she liked my sari (success!) but that I wore it very badly. oh. ouch. They let me wear it all Sunday like that?! If you can't count on your branch sisters to redress you because you're culturally incompetent, what can you count on? But then the universe righted itself when during the middle of the RS lesson, I felt a pull on the back of my shoulder and I see one of the ladies sitting behind me deftly unpin my shoulder drape, repleat it, and pin it again to my blouse. Ah, things as they should be.

Monday, November 9, 2009

And you, why are you not married?

This is a question that I have been asked many times over while in India. BYU does not have a monopoly on the preoccupation with matrimony by a long shot.

This question has been posed to me by every single widow I have interviewed.
And you? Are you married? Why not? Do you want to get married? When do you want to get married? How can you expect to get married when you are traveling all over the world like this?

No. My parents (I) haven't found the right man yet. Yes. Oh, within two years I would like to be. I am only traveling for a few months and then going back home.

These answers, which I kind of make up on the spot, seem to mostly satisfy them. The Muslim women I met through John were suprised when I told them yes, yes I would like to be married. They said that that was odd for an American, and that India must be rubbing off on me.

The latest question came not from a woman, but from a Kashmiri jewelry merchant I made friends with while I was in Puttaparti - a small town in the south of Andhra Pradesh completely given over to Satya Sai Baba - the reincarnated god in the flesh - the avatar - and catering to his rich and foreign devotees. And the Kashmiri jeweler asked the question.

Setting: sitting on cushioned stools at the glass counter of a tucked-away shop full of loose semi - and precious stones, set stones, earrings, necklaces, pendants fit for a Mayan priest, and Kashmir scarves and wall hangings.
Time: mid-afternoon.
Actors: a young, vivacious anthropologist (your's truly) and a 40-something Kashmiri merchant with an august nose and flattering disposition. The young cloth merchant who shares store space is conspicuous in his absence.

Prologue: I had met the said dealer in gems and jewelry on Tuesday while I was out with some of the other girls from the program. They oohed and awed over the jewelry while I concentrated on the textiles and on convincing the charismatic salesman that, no, I did not want 5, 6, 7, 10 scarves and 3 large wall hangings.
The next day I was back with John who was looking for loose aquamarines. This time I talked with the jeweler personally, and while John also fell under the attraction of "thousand, thousand scarves. See, I have all colors. Hand wash, machine wash, no problem. This one, two colors. Wear on Sunday then switch over and wear on Monday. No one knows." I had quite the conversation with the jeweler.
"Ma'am, come back over here, please."
"Oh, no thank you, I do not want to buy."
"Not for buying and selling. For making friendship only."
"Just friendship? Okay."
And leaning over several thousand dollars worth of jewelry, the man asked me to tea the next day.
"Oh, but I only drink herbal tea."
"No problem. What kind is your favorite? I bring. You must come."
"Ah, rose tea? I will try, but I am not sure I can."
"Come, you must come."

Well, I ended up not going, partly because I was tired, partly because Meghan kept telling me about her friends who were drugged into buying very expensive rugs in Turkey after they drank tea with shop owners, and partly because in India, no one gets upset if you don't keep appointments. You may not believe me, but it is true. They mostly don't expect you to show up anyway.

Friday was our last day in the town, and so after finishing up some errands and before our train left, I stopped into his shop once more to say goodbye.
"Ah you came! You came! Sit down, sit down. We make friendship."
"Oh I can only stay for a short time because our train is leaving soon." Ha, a ironclad excuse.
"Ah! Why must you leave?! You are coming back to Puttaparti?"
"No, in a few weeks I am going back to America."
"Ah, an angel comes into your lives, and then she must leave." Yes, the angel must leave. Especially since suspicion is creeping in.
So we talked about his shop and my family for a few minutes.
"Your sisters, are they all married?"
"No, only one is. One is finishing up at university and the others are too young."
"And you? Are you married?"
"No."
"And why not?"
"I guess I just haven't met the right man yet." Oh no! Wrong thing to say! Wrong! Ah!
"What about me?"
"Are you married?" Deliberately misunderstand!
"No I am not." And he decides to make it clearer. "Why don't you marry me?"

At least I didn't drink any drugged tea.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

You can fly! You can fly! You can fly!

After several weeks of not knowing how I was to get home from India, I now have my return plans finalized! I am flying out of India on November 30th and getting in to Salt Lake City on December 1st at 8:15 pm, flight US 7211.

What?! you say. Suzanne left for India without a return ticket? Was that wise?

No, sillies, of course I had a return ticket - scheduled for December 6. My program ends on December 1, though.

What? you say. Why would Suzanne extend her stay in India a mere 5 days? And then choose to come home earlier?

Well, you see, when I was scheduling my plane ticket, I was certain I would want to spend as much time in India as possible, and I momentarily forgot about money and Indian geography and thought that I would just jaunt up to New Delhi for a few days and talk to one Dr. Mohini Giri who runs a national NGO to help widowed women. But you see, 5 days isn't enough to do anything but bum around Vizag. A Vizag that no longer has room and board reserved for me. As of December 1, our leases on our apartments end and the program ceases to pay for our cooks.

And to cap it all off, my wonderful sister and her family (who live a less-than-wonderful long distance away) will be in Idaho the first week of December and fly home to Alabama on the 5th. That's right, a day before I would leave India. And seeing as how my sister is pregnant with the first darling little nephew of the family and has no idea when she would next be able to come see us.

So with all of these factors in my head, for three weeks I made phone calls, rode around to different offices and to the Vizag airport on a motorcycle, admitted defeat in the realm of do-it-yourself-dom, emailed BYU travel, paid $200, and just the other day received an email with the subject line reading: NEW RETURN ETICKET ITINERARY.

Hooray. And hello Salt Lake City on December 1st!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Confounded Kitchen

Saturday night four of us were out on the balcony enjoying the breeze and playing a few rounds of rummy when Lalita and Vijaya, two of our cooks, called for me from in the kitchen. I went to see what they wanted and found them holding a box of walnuts.

"Suzanne cooking walnut curry, yes?"
"I'm cooking?"
"Yes."
"Yes? Oh, okay. When am I cooking? Tomorrow?"
"Tomorrow? Ah, no. Monday."
"Lunch or dinner?"
"Your choice."
"Ah, no. Your choice."
"Hmmm...dinner."
"Dinner? Okay. What time should I come?"
"Ask Durga [the head cook]."

Any one picking up on the fact that no one really knows what's going on? Yeah, for all of my anthropological intuition I didn't see that one coming. I assumed that for whatever lucky reason I had been picked to be taught how to cook - maybe because I cook for myself more often than the others. Later I found Durga who told me to come around 5:30 or six Monday evening.

Monday evening rolls around and I come freshly scrubbed and beaming, ready to learn the secrets of Indian cooking only to find Vijaya in the kitchen cleaning up after finishing cooking the fish we were to eat that night. I pull down the box of walnuts and ask her what to do first.

"Oh, I do not know." Ah, this must be some specialty of Durga's.
"Where is Durga?"
"I don't know." Hmmm, things are going down hill fast.
"Walnut curry?" I'm grasping at straws.
"Yes, you making for dinner." Do they really thing I know how to make walnut curry? We're in trouble.
"Ah, ah, yes. I make for dinner." They have left a hole in the meal reserved for my curry. My curry? I've never made curry in my life. This is supposed to be for everyone - students, servants, everybody. Shoot.

So, being the calm, collected chef of the 21st century that I am and knowing that I am working in a kitchen that, while primitive, is fully stalked with spices, I googled "walnut curry". Walnut curry as far as the vast reaches of cyberspace are concerned does not exist. I found a peanut curry and a walnut curry-esque stuffing for pork chops and decided to improvise.

Chopping. Yes, chopping would be a good idea. Chopping walnuts is always a good start. Think while chopping. Aware that the clock was fast ticking towards dinner time, I hastily grapped a plate, a knife, poured out the nuts and began cutting. Just then, Durga walks in. Thank heavens! Saved! She will know what to do.

"Durga! Hello! Walnut curry?"
"Aaahhh, yes," giving the nuts a glance and me one of those ambivalent head shakes that means yes, acceptance, or anything you want it to in India. Her eyebrows and voice were raised, enthusiastic but concerned.
This, I though, this was the voice of experience.
"You need mixie?" Was that a question?
"Yes? Yes, I need the mixie." Sure, why not? And Durga pulls out and sets up the food processor for me. After an expectant pause on both sides, I galantly scooped up half of my chopped almonds and dumped them in the mixie, looking to her for affirmation. Durga closed the lid and flipped the switch, grinding my nuts into dust.
"Ah, powder."
"Yes, powder."
"Other half, too?"
"Ah, yes?" I realized at this point that I was the one giving directions. The panic returned.
"Oh! paste. Sorry, sister." We had let the walnuts grind for a little too long and they became more paste than powder.
"Oh, that is no problem. It is fine. No problem." I sincerely hoped so. I apparently sounded expert enough that soon Durga left me to return to her room. Durga is pregnant for the first time and is having to deal with the heat, her full-time job, and morning sickness. Funnily enough, she finds it hard to have energy sometimes.

Alone once more, I let the panic show as I feverishly reopened the web pages. Cumin, coriander, garlic, chili powder, salt, pepper, curry powder, curry leaves: they were all listed between the various recipes I looked through. Right. I turned to John, the other self-styled chef in residence, for help. He had never made curry either. He just laughed and wished me good luck. Right.

I heated oil in a pan and put the walnut powder and chopped garlic to toast. Powder doesn't toast very well, but I had reduced my entire stock to dust when I thought Durga was in charge. Toasting. Add chili powder. Add salt and pepper and cumin. Add coriander. We don't have coriander. Add more cumin. Durga came in at this point to have a look around. It smelled pretty nice at this point.

"Ah, nice. Your mother teach you?" Oh gosh, they really do think I am a walnut curry expert. Wanting to keep my mother's repution clear away from whatever this mess might turn into, I replied in the negative.
"Um, no. I, ah, I found it myself." She then saw the computer screen open on the counter and laughed.
"It is there?" Durga doesn't use recipes. Durga just knows how to make delicious curries.
"Yes, yes, it is there." Maybe I was a little defensive.
"I need to help?"
"No, no, it is very simple. I will be fine." I didn't want her to see the very apparent improvisation that was going on.
"Okay, I go to my room."

Add milk. Make it a thick liquid - please, please make it look like curry. That seemed to work pretty well. Add more milk.

John came in to see how I was doing, and I made him taste it. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't good - it had no direction or distinction. It was brown mush. He suggested more salt, more chili powder, and tumeric. Tumeric? Sure, why not.

It all went into the pot. And so did a chopped onion. Which should have gone in at the very beginning with the garlic. Oh well. Add a little more milk. Add a little water. Oh, quick, keep it from burning. More chili powder. More pepper. Just call it done. It looks like poop. It's done.

I announced to the waiting cooks that it was finished - I felt finished - and I left the house to go run to an appointment with a lady in our branch. She had invited me over on Sunday, and I didn't feel like I could break the engagement. I never did find her house, but that is another story. I never did taste how the chutney-esque creation was with rice. Everyone claimed it was good. Lova said, "Your curry, super." I think she was being nice. Meghan had some on toast later - "See, see - voluntary consumption!"

Even now, I am completely baffled by the chain of events that led up to me being abandoned in the kitchen holding a box of nuts. Where did they get the idea I wanted to make dinner? Where did they get the idea that I knew how to make walnut curry? That such a thing as walnut curry existed? And where did that box of nuts come from? The world may never know.

Friday, October 23, 2009

I forgot something

So in all of my writings on my life in India, I somehow left out the whole reason why I am here - what exactly I spend my time and energy doing. I would like to introduce you, Gentle Reader, to my Jalaripeta widows.

The two women in the front are Enkamma and Pidamma. They're sisters-in-law (maybe sisters, too - things are vague on this point) and both widows with young children. Pidamma's husband died 3 months ago and it is socially unacceptable to go outside her house or work for another two months. The other women live nearby. Jalaris tend to jump into whatever picture is being taken.

This is where all of the widows were gathered when I first met them. I believe it is used as a sort of cooking hut. It is on the corner by Pantiya's house and near to where all of the widows live. I've done several interviews here.

This is Desuma coming home from the fish market. She eloped with her husband when she was 20 - a late marriage, but she had turned down all of the other men that asked for her hand. Her parents were furious and came and yelled at her husband, but she refused to go home.

Other women of the Jalaripeta. The women here are the ones that sell the fish that their husbands catch. You can tell which are widows by whether they are wearing a bindi and glass bangles or not. Several days after her husband's death, a woman will be blindfolded and taken down to the coast where her marriage thread will be burned, her bangles smashed, and bindi removed. They never wear these markers again.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Why is it that...

I think my next anthropological research project will be on the mystical connection between Indians, computers, and paperwork. India has the largest telecommunications customer service-employed population in the history of the world. So why does it take 3 days, 2 documents signed in triplicate, 20 phone calls, 6 emails, 1 trip by motorcycle to the airport, and way too many rupees in order to get my flight changed? Why is it impossible for the Air India desk at the local airport to change, or even check on, my ticket? Why is that possible only in Hyderabad? And why did no else know this or tell me this in my lengthy association with airplane personnel?

As you can see, all of these are fascinating questions which I am sure will yeild vast amounts of scholarly work to the inquisitive researcher.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Speak softly and carry loud speakers

Indians love noise. They are a very sensual people - very aware of the senses. Food is spicy, colors are bright, and music is played very, very loudly. Which is ironic since most Indians I've met speak quite softly. Too softly.

For example, most cars here have backup music. When they are put into reverse, a lively, electronic tune starts playing. This is no beep, beep of the construction vehicles of yore, the music ranges anywhere from classical symphonies to the latest Bollywood soundtrack.

Everyone has a cell phone. And no cell phone is ever put on silent. Sacrament meeting is usually no exception despite the repeated entreaties from the pulpit to turn them off. One time Tiffany and I swore we heard one ringing with I'm Bringing Home a Baby Bumblebee. The phone belonged to a stately older gentleman. Giggles ensued.

Our Godavari River trip further highlighted this when two huge speakers were lifted out of the boat's windows and on to the roof as we pulled away from shore. Telugu music blared out of them from for the next 12 hours. Around mid-day when everyone was taking a little siesta (Indians are also great nappers), I swear the captain turned the speakers on even louder - perhaps thinking it was getting too quiet onboard. Not one of the recumbent Indians seemed to mind at all. They continued to slumber peacefully. Our cooks regularly fall asleep to Telugu music at night. Loud Telugu music. John has to sneak in and turn it down later if he hopes to get any rest.

Diwali is no exception to this trend. On Saturday we celebrated the Festival of Lights by joining with the local Muslim community that John is studying for dinner, games, and fire crackers. Now, Indian fire crackers are not like American fireworks. Ours look positively wimpy compared to their pyrotechnics. Indians have two different categories: ones valued for their retina-searing lights, others for their ear-shattering noise. By far the local favorite is the bombs. That is what they call them because that is what they are. Minus the fire and shrapnel. For days now it's sounded like London being shelled by the Germans. And I mean days. India's loose conception of time is also applied to celebrating festivals: they begin when they want, and if they don't want to be done by the end of festival day or week, well, then they just keep letting off bombs.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

My dear, you're truly scrumptious

And now for an exclusive, never-before-seen sneak-peak at how Rajamundry kaja and all of your other favorite Indian sweets are made. This man has mad skill with a knife.



video

Living, Rajamundry style

Last Thursday we traveled to Rajamundry, Krishnayya's home town and river-side ancient wonder of the East Godavari District. We had a ball being fed by Krishnayya's brother, and listening to Krishnayya say, "Hey, man, this is my place." Years of associating with American college students have certainly left their mark. He took us to see shop-owner friends who gave us great deals on coral, silver, and cloth. We also got to experience the most amazing fried street food and Artos - the first soda brand in Andhra Pradesh, only found in East Godavari, and Krishnayya's personal favorite.

The next day was a long odyssey of a car trip filled with 12th century temples, goddess temples, the actual Artos factory, coconut harvests, our driver's home village, and a shrine to a modern-day saint who, starting at the age of nine, locked himself up in a room and did not eat or sleep, but meditated nonstop. He would unlock the door once a year and meet and greet his devotees. Apparently word gets out when you lock yourself up in a room, and devotees naturally follow. The trip out ended with the Bay of Bengal where we spent a few minutes wading around before getting back in the car for the bumpy, lumpy, tossy, turvy, looooong ride home.

That is Lalita and Lova, our hired help/friends pictured that came with us for the trip. They're standing on the first bridge/dam built on the Godavari by Sir Arthur Cotton during colonial days. He is revered as something of a demigod around this parts. There are statues everywhere. Apparently he foretold that it would last for 100 years and then it would fail. And it did. 112 years almost to the day. Big flood, big mayhem, and god-like status conferred.

Rajamundry kaja. Persians brought baklava over, it mixed with Indian culture, and this flaky, crunchy, drippy perfect pastry is the result.

Artos bottling factory. Their flagship flavor tastes a lot like cream soda.

Saturday we spent traipsing around Rajamundry proper looking at an archaeology museum, a stone-cutting shop that makes icons, and the cloth district. Yes, please.

Sunday we arrived at the river at 5:30 in the morning for our boat trip. All of the other passengers showed up at 6:30. We spent a lazy, cool morning watching the scenery float past and visiting several riverside temples. Breakfast and lunch were served onboard. Curious to see how they cooked on the ship, Viiraju wandered to the kitchen and discovered an innovative, if ill-advised, method of heating water. Namely, hauling up buckets of (brown) river water, running it through the engine to "sterilize" and heat it up, and then cooking with it. Hmmm...I wonder why I'm feeling a bit off color today....

The afternoon got a bit more exciting when we were asked by the captain to hide below deck until we passed a certain village. Apparently they have a new law out that says that any foreigner traveling through the area is charged Rs. 400. How that's legitimate I do not know. The police spotted two of us, but Rs. 800 is a sight better than the 3600 we should have been charged. The trip was very enjoyable over all, but loooong. And having to choose between sitting on uneven wooden plank benches on the main level or corregated metal on the top gets old after 13 hours on a boat.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

And then they all went bananas

Yesterday we took a little jaunt over to Vizianagaram for the Pidatalli festival call sirimanu, or prosperous tree. It's huge. 500,000 people huge. And yet the journalists still managed to find us.

History lesson:
Once upon a time, there was a war between the kingdoms of Vizianagaram (backed by the British) and Bobbili (backed - one could say egged on -by the French). It was all over a cock fight. Or a water dispute. Or two colonial powers using the local pawns to do their dirty work for them as they sought to out-maneuver each other in the global chess match that was 1700's international politics (at least, that's what I get out of it). V. completely routed B. and took a well-deserved break before heading back victorious. Well, 4 B. soldiers were a little miffed at the results of the day's work and took matters into their own hands. As V. sat well sauced by the victory wine that night (I'm extrapolating here), they snuck over to the V. king's tent, and while 2 kept watch, the other 2 went in and killed the poor devil.

Back at V, the king's teenage sister suddenly got a premonition that something terrible had happened to her brother. Sending for the Vizier, because that is what you do when these things happen, she had him investigate how the war was doing, not aware that her brother had just won it. He assured her that all was well, but she didn't believe him, as people who send for their viziers never do. She set out with her retinue to go find her brother and received word of his murder en route to Bobbili. Overcome with grief, she jumped into the local lake and drowned.

Some months later, after the local fishermen dregged the lake and brought up her body, she appeared to a relative saying she had been turned into a goddess and they should worship her. They would find a stone statue of her in the lake as proof. Well, find the statue they did, worship her they did, and today hundreds of thousands of people come out to celebrate her by means of a pole 60 feet tall.

The video is of the procession that goes from the temple to Vizianagaram fort 3 times. The technicolor net with the fish on top is being held up by Jalaris - the local fishing caste - to represent the people who pulled the princess's body out of the lake. The man perched on top of the sirimanu is a priest and descendent of the royal family. He is dressed as a king and sits possessed by the goddess. I think that possession is the only way to get anyone up there. Note the bananas being chucked at the priest. It is an age-old custom that some say represent fish of the lake. Others say that bananas and coconuts are offered to the gods during puja, and it's really not a good idea to throw coconuts at a man sitting on a pole 60 feet in the air. The bananas must hurt enough as is. Either way, all I know is that I sat on a roof for several hours and watched thousands of bananas being thrown by thousands of people at a priest dressed as a king possessed by a goddess who happens to be sitting on a pole being hauled through the streets by a local gang and the military.

India: there really is nothing like it.

video

Friday, October 2, 2009

In case you were wondering,

I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.

And I hate my futon.

That is all.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Nannu Hyderabadki velundi vachanu – pt.1

Which means, I think, I went to Hyderabad and came back. See, I am grasping Telugu.

Adivarumu Somavarum (Sunday and Monday)

We left for the capital of Andhra Pradesh Sunday night. It is a 12 hour ride by train, and I got to experience my first sleeper car. One of the girls with us kept singing “Snow! Snow! Snow! Snow!” from the scene in White Christmas where they’re riding in the train toward New Hampshire. Indians turn in early so we were forced to also make an early night of it – a good thing it turned out considering our activities the next few days. At about 10:00 we curled up under our blankets (Blankets! We had a justifiable excuse to use blankets for the first time in 2 months!) and were gently lulled to sleep by the rocking of the moving train.

Oh wait – that’s what should have happened. As it turns out, the part of the train where my friend John and I had our berths was also occupied by the wettest of wet snorers. He managed to fall asleep before us and we were stuck listening to the unrhythmic guttural exhalations of a very large Indian man. The headphones quickly came out. We got some slight respite when he listed portside. I have no idea how that man was getting enough oxygen.

After disembarking, we split up – the girls to go check into our hotel and John and Dan to go to the church to wait for their ride as they were staying with an RM that John served with. After we checked in and availed ourselves of the free (delicious, Indian) continental breakfast, we headed down to the Old City to have a look around, anxious to start our adventure in earnest.

Now a little history of Hyderabad is in order. It is the largest city in AP, and as the name suggests, it’s largely Muslim in a largely Hindu state. It was ruled by Moguls, Shahs, and Nizams for hundreds of years and was one of the richest princely states in all of the subcontinent right up to independence in 1949. Because of this, it is a place unlike any other in Andhra Pradesh. The culture, the architecture, and the food are all completely distinct and renowned.

The Old City is the Muslim-est Muslim part of the city and is full of mosques, megalithic structures, and little nook-and-cranny shops selling pearls, pearls, perfume, rugs, pearls, and copies of the sayings of the prophet Mohammed.

However, Monday was Eid – the end of Ramadan (or Ramzan as it is called here) and so the vast majority of shops were closed and Charminar square was packed with Muslim men in white caps and white qurtas. And reporters who wanted us to go do a meet and greet with the people on their way to the mosque – the perfect photo op. We said no and dived into one of the pearl shops that actually was open.

This is the square after the crowds mysteriously died down.


As our luck would have it, the owner of this shop was the most fantastic bear of a man with a perfectly manicured beard, a twinkle in his eye, and eloquent honeyed words dripping from his lips in 5 different languages as he plied us with ornate necklaces and earrings. I was entranced. With the eye out for profit and the kingly benevolence of a desert sheik, he let us ooh and awe and whispered sotto voce to each and every one of us that we were getting the deal of a century. And he made us feel that we really were receiving special treatment. We watched in admiration as he deftly created our necklaces out of loose strands of pearls in front of our eyes, put the chosen clasps at the ends, signed certificates of authenticity, and carefully nestled our treasures in cloth zip-up bags. It was the most inspiring shopping experiences I have ever had. Until then, I didn’t even know shopping could be inspirational.

We wandered around a little more and then squished into an auto (we really are becoming expert at that) and headed back for lunch and to meet up with John, Dan, and their host at Lumbini Park. The park is connected to the natural lake in the middle of the city, and in the middle of the lake is a massive stone statue of the Buddha. The Indian Buddha is thin, as compared to the Chinese happy, rotund figure, and is at times depicted as standing up straight versus the well-known lotus meditative position. Some of our group headed chartered a boat to take them out to the island for a closer view while the rest of us relaxed in the shade and enjoyed the breeze coming in off the water.



Hyderabad is a good 10 degrees cooler than Vizag and about 50 million times less humid. We actually could wander around in the middle of the afternoon without sweating­. And we had hot water and real toast in our hotel. Which has nothing to do with not sweating, but is linked in my mind to the overall pleasant-ness that blanketed the entire experience. We almost didn’t know what to do with the hot water.

After that we walked up to Billa temple set on a hill near to the park. This Hindu temple is made completely out of white marble, is something like a thousand years old, and overlooks the entire city. It is one of the most beautiful ones I have been to.

When we came down from the temple, John and his friend left to go see some members in the area while the rest of us hit up an Indian bookstore in the middle of town that had beautiful handmade paper and journals and a nice collection of Oscar Wilde plays. All of us on the trip are overzealous bibliophiles and spent way too long in there pouring over books.

Dinner consisted of vegetarian biryani, chicken kababs, and romali roti to go from the Paradise Restaurant. More on all of this later. We ate in our hotel room, skipped over to Baskin Robbins right next door for dessert, admired our purchases, planned the next day, and fell asleep amidst the decadence of sheets, blankets, real pillows, A/C, and sleeping 4 people to a bed.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Indian-American Deep Dish

Last night I taught a wonderfully sweet middle-age Indian man how to make pizza. He is the dearest of dear souls, may be a mob boss, and clucks over us like a mother hen. His name is Viirazu and definitely deserves his own post here in the next few days.

On an unrelated note, tomorrow evening 9 of us are boarding a train (3rd class A/C sleeper car) and traveling 12 hours to Hyderabad for a few days of excitement and adventure. We are leaving our handlers/tour guides/caretakers behind in Vizag and hoofing it with our guidebook in tow. We are staying in a horribly touristy hotel, but refuse to look or act like tourists. We are the Corps of Discovery. Hyderbad is a beautiful, old, rich city full of Muslims and pearls. And they are known for their silver, perfume, and cuisine unlike any in Andhra Pradesh. Yes, please.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Feeling Alive

Tonight we went out to dinner at an Indian restaurant and ate wonderful naan and spinach curry. And I ate flan.

But that is not why I am feeling so alive. Before and after dinner I rode on Mohan's motorbike while everyone else took the bus or auto. I love riding on motorbikes. Especially when they go fast. Driving in India is enough to make you very aware of how alive you are - because you come so close to dying so many times. I love it. On the way home, sated on flan, I was grinning and enjoying the cool air, the night lights in the city, the good conversation with and extravagent compliments from Mohan, and couldn't fully express my feelings by sitting normally.

So, flying through the dark city and along Beach Road I pulled a City of Angels - my head tilted back, my arms raised high over my head, eyes closed. At one point I grabbed my scarf around my neck, held it in both hands, and felt like the Winged Victory of Triumph. Soaring through the night, I rejoiced once again in being in India and being alive. What a blessing! What a miracle! What an adventure!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A toast!

This post is dedicated to just a few things that have made living here in India a dream. I apologize in advance for the stock photos.
1. Boost

Taken hot or cold, this vanilla malt "energy" drink is wonderful. We often drink it in the mornings, in the late afternoon, while playing gin on Sunday nights...anytime we can get our cooks to whip us up some since they won't let us do it ourselves. Durga makes the best Boost. We sip it it in diminutive tea cups.

2. Limca

This lime 'n lemon soda is incredibly refreshing. Citrus-y enough to quench any thirst, we buy it at little road side stalls or Baba Bazaar's.

3. Maaza

First of all, I have no idea why there is a 'z' in the word since there is no 'z' in Telugu. Hence why my name is "Sujaan" here. But once you get past that discrepency, the creamy mango drink will ship you right off to moksha (nirvana). Also incredible after it has been frozen in the freezer and converted into a mango slushy. A.Ma.Zing.

4. Parle-G's
I am completely obsessed. These biscuits of wafer-y goodness remind me of Nilla Wafers but ten times better. They come in three sizes: "small snack", "car ride munchy", and "the best idea you've ever had". Or at least that is what I think of them as. The last is a massive package that requires at least 3 other people to eat them since they tend to go soft in the humidity in about an hour. Let's just say it's a good thing the mid-size pack is only Rs. 10.
Oh, and speaking of which, one of the things I do miss is toast. And scrambled eggs.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Pussycat, pussycat where have you been?

I've been to Bobbili to see the king.
Pussycat, pussycat what did you there?
Almost fell asleep upon my chair.

This last weekend the group traveled by air conditioned car (hooray!) to Vizianagaram and Bobbili - two cities that used to be the capitals of ancient kingdoms before independence and nationalism happened. We had been invited to meet with both maharajas and quickly accepted the offer.
Maharaja means "great king" and these men's ancestors fully lived up to their titles. For a great many political reasons, the maharaja of Vizianagaram is still allowed to fly his flag along with the Indian national flag. His father was the last crowned king, and his family gave up all of their massive landholdings at independence. His fort has been converted into a college and he sits on the board of several universities that his family founded. He himself lives in a modest, for a maharaja, manor home and keeps a small staff. We wore saris in honor of the occasion and had an informal talk with him, lunch, and were invited back sometime. This is the maharaja who got us into the Samachalam temple and his chief physician and astrologer has been a great help on a few of the projects we're working on.

The king himself was an older man, probably in his sixties, but I have never met a more regal, genteel man in all my life. Taller and broader than your average Indian, he is definitely descended from a line of warriors. One girl compared his voice to James Earl Jones's. Though sitting comfortably in his lounge chair in button-up shirt and slacks, I could easily envision him in turban, jewels, silk, and sword presiding over a court or riding an elephant.

We met the next maharaja on Saturday. This man was a younger and still resided in his ancestral fort in the middle of the city. He has a retinue. And two life-size full body portraits of himself on the wall. There were also tiger skins, antelope, boar, and leapard heads mounted on the walls, and a museum-worthy collection of spears, swords, and rifles. Wandering among the battlements in Indian dress, I felt very regal and politely waved to the commoners peddling their wares on the street below.

But I am more than slightly embarrassed by the fact that while we were meeting with this man I was nodding off! I was falling asleep in the company of a maharaja! Who does that?! He was interesting, I had slept well the night before, the couch was confortable but not overly so...I have no idea what was wrong with me. Maybe I'm just that comfortable around royalty?

I love my sari! And i am completely incapable of draping it myself. My cook and friend, Durga, helps me.

The first fort at Vizianagaram.

Visiting an old Hindu Temple - the building of which is associated with the story of the Mahabharata.

At the 2nd century A.D. Buddhist ruins we visited.

We also stopped by a village completely dedicated to weaving cloth. It was incredible to see them start from goat and sheep wool and produce beautiful, elaborate cloth. I just wish they made more money doing it.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

A band of Bedouins delayed the post

So, it's been awhile since I've given an update on my expedition. At least it feels like awhile since everyday I have a new story to tell - so much happens here! Cliffnotes version (as far as I am capable):

Awhile ago we went to the Samachalam Temple with the chief physician and astrologer to the maharaja of Vizanagram. The maharaja is still the president of the temple so was able to make a nice little phone call and get us all the way inside to the deity and see all of the temple - something that would have been completely impossible or horrendously expensive for us Westerners otherwise. We were able to participate in a wonderful puja (ritual worship) service and experience a unique darshan (seeing the god as he sees you.) Questions arise here of worshiping false gods and not eating food offered to idols - both solid Old Testament rules, but I chalk it up under participant observation and respect for others' beliefs, and leave it at that.
We also got to embrace the Wishing Column and make a wish. Most couples come to ask for increased fertility. I did not.

The temple itself was built in the 14th century and I dare any European cathedral to compete with it for beauty or intricacy of detail. Pictures of same:



Indian Independence Day was on the 15th. We went to the school in the Jalaripet village for a short program and to watch some games. We got our hands henna'd for the occasion, too.

Monday-Wednesday we spent at JNTU - an engineering college about 4 hours from here. We toured classrooms, sang the only Telugu song we know 20 billion times, gave speeches, listened to speeches, and danced the Macarena and a cobbled-together EFY line dance in front of local dignitaries and the entire student body. And then to ice the cake as it were, yours truly was somehow wrangled to participate in an impromptu dance off on stage with another member of my group...okay, so it really wasn't that hard to convince me. I just kind of forgot that there was a news camera there as I jumped and jived and, yes, did the worm. I maybe got a little carried away...but does that surprise anyone? The next morning it was on the national news. 40 million+ people saw me. Dr. Nuckolls is still getting comments from people about it. I may be able to get away with saying a goddess possessed me and made me dance like that.

Tonight we were also privilaged to have the temple musicians come down from Samachalam and perform at the Krishna Temple just down the street. Dr. Nuckolls assures us that we have earned great merit in the next life for sponsoring this event. A video will be forthcoming.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Amazing Adventures of Reptile Woman!* Vol. 32:5

We join our heroine on yet another of her adventures into uncharted territory in the Mysterious East. Followed by her loyal crew, she starts off on anthropological endeavors guaranteed to make her name in the academic world and bring added prestige to her already prestigious university. Unknown by the others on the trip, though, bookish, friendly Suzanne Powell moonlights at REPTILE WOMAN - the scaly savior of the down-trodden, excluded, and inconvenienced.

The expedition begins at the crowded Visakhapatanam railroad station where Suzanne and her university colleagues are being subject to curious stares from locals and requests for pictures. They graciously accept and pose, though Suzanne is saddened by all of the pleas for money she forces herself to ignore. Unfortunately the beggars do need to be ignored but, Suzanne vows, one day she will come back and right these wrongs!

The trains begins boarding and Suzanne notices a problem. There are way too many people that need to get on and not nearly enough seats. How are we ever going to fit? she asks herself. Problem solving mode!

Chikchika! Zing!

All of a sudden Suzanne and two of her companions are sitting on top of the luggage rack above the seats. A flash of her discolored ankle as she moves to cross her legs causes Suzanne to recall how she came to possess her unnaturally high I.Q., quick reflexes, and tendency to have more energy the hotter it gets.

It was a (social) science experiment gone horribly wrong. Suzanne, and independent university student, confident in her ability to handle anything that could come her way and headed off for parts unknown for some hands-on, real-world experience. Over the course of her travels she noticed a growing prickly heat rash on her legs and arms. Too busy to pay it any attention, she had foolishly believed that her body would be able to take care of itself. Little did she know, her body was already undergoing changes too big to deal with or fully understand.

Toweling off after a bucket shower one day, Suzanne noticed the rash was gone. In its place were scales! Panicking, she fled to the mirror and, sure enough, there were scales on her arms, on her back, and running all down her legs! She had mutated into a lizard! The next few weeks were a confused haze as SUzanne tried creams, tried powders, mets with doctors under fake names, all to no avail. In time, she had come to accept the changes, accept the ability to climb walls and trees with no available handholds, accept the strange cravings for insects. Only lately had she realized how this curse really was a blessing, a gift that enabled her to go further in her chosen profession and to help those around her.

The train swam back into view as Suzanne's memory-clouded eyes cleared. They were pulling into a station in a small town surrounded by luscious vegetation and anthropological oddities waiting to be researched.


Unloading, the corps of scientists and explorers tramp off along the now deserted train traacks into the jungle's depths. Before long, the warning call of a tribe of monkeys reaches their ears. The racket grows louder and louder crescendo-ing into a cacophony of panicked birds and screeching primates until, stepping into a clearing, Suzanne and her team see the mouth of an ancient, vine-covered cave, The surrounding trees suddenly become unnaturally still. Swallowing, glancing for confirmation from her fellow researchers, Suzanne moves cautiously towards and into the cave.



A timeless scene of glass-calm pools, awe-inspiring stalactites and towering stalagmites meet their eyes as tthey slowly adjust to the gloom. Dripping water and the quiet scratching of bats overhead seemed to echo throughout the enormous cavity. They move further and further in, carefully training their electric torches pn the groun in front of them and then sweeping up to view the rocky walls. There seems to be no end to the cavernous depths. They folloe natural steps, down, down until they reach a dead-end and then, moving to make the ascent back up, Suzanne's reptilian eyes, glowing faintly with reflected light from the torches, catches sight of stairs, carefully blended in with the rest of the surrounding rock, but showing tell-tale signs of human craftsmanship.


Intrigued, she signals the rest of her team to wait for her as she climbs the steep, narrow steps. Higher and higher she foes, her scaly limbs giving her the endurance to keep going where normal, human legs would have been uncontrollably shaking from the exersion. A whiff of sandalwood on the still air grows stronfer, and Suzanne knows she is reaching the end of her climb, whatever the end may be. Noticing lights up ahead, she switches off her torch and finishes the last few steps in semidarkness. Rounding the corner, she halts in her tracks, surprised.
It's a shrine. A shrine in the middle of a mountain. A shrine which, after cursory examination, appears to be dedicated to Vishne and his consort Lakshmi. Removing her shoes out of respect, she moves closer. The votive candles are burning brightly and the incense was recently lit. But who had lit them? Suzanne glanced around for hidden alcoves and dust on the ground for another set of foot prints. Nothing. No clue as to who the mysterious devotee was. Checking once more and with one last look at the shrine, Suzanne turns and, replacing her shoes, begins the long descent.

Emerging from the cave with the rest of the group, Suzanne fills them in on everything she had seen. It was now late in the afternoon, so rendezvousing with the Jeeps they had arranges to meet at the check point, the team rumbles down a mountain path to the next village.
Once there, however, they receive word from their local contact, village gossip Kiliash Giri, that the train has been delayed for at least the next four hours. From his network all up and down the mountainside, Giri was also able to inform them that the Maoist Separatist guerillas were currently active in that part of the countryside, the local police having just foiled one of their plots the day before to blow up the local post office. It was imperative that the Americans leave the village that night, the sooner the better, since their presence put them and the rest of the village in great risk.

Stunned by this latest bit of news, Suzanne and her compatriots move to the bus depot hoping transportation will come by soon to take them and their guides back to safety. As dusk moves in, they begin darting furtive glances into the shadows and down alleyways. What would happen if they were caught by the red rebels?
Night comes and still no luck finding a ride. Suddenly, a set of headlights appears up the road winding towards them. A bus had found them! As it pulls up, the excitement and sighs of relief die unexpressed. The bus is packed. There is no way there will be room for all of them. Despite their protests, Suzanne and her team convince their guides and friends to get on board and head back to safety. As the bus pulls away, the gamely waving hands of Suzanne and her colleagues falter and fall. Gloom descends. What were they to do now? Well, thought Suzanne, if there was a time for Reptile WOman, it would be now. Problem solving mode!

Whiziwhizi! Bang!

By her reptilian sixth sense, Suzanne senses that one of the Indians waiting with them is from nearby. A quick bit of bargaining, and in a very short bit for the second time that night headlights cut through the dark, and the SUV belonging to them pull in front of the weary explorers. As they pile in and start off, loud, brash Indian dance music bursts from the dashboard. Unknowlingly, they had happened upon the fabled Indian Techno Dance Party of Awesomeness. And they jived and shimmied all the way home.


Stay tuned for the next chapter in which Reptile Woman braves student protests, the yellow press, and gets one step closer to publishing her thesis!

*Inspired by actual events