Thursday, January 10, 2008


Sailing through the Sunderbans 12/21 to 12/23/07

We were supposed to be up early for our ride to the boat launch for the Sunderbans, which is the largest mangrove forest in the world and the home of the legendary Bengal Tigers. Let’s just say that we woke up when the car arrived after our late night.

After cramming us and all of our stuff in the minivan, we set off through the streets of Calcutta! We were first told the trip would take 3 hours, then 2 1/2 ….it ended up taking about 2 hours. We had yet another “ambitious” driver who took bumps fast enough to launch us airborne. We were so fast…that when we got to the boat launch, there was no boat and we ended up waiting about an hour for the boat to show up. The good news was that it was yet another beautiful day and I enjoyed sitting in the sun, working on my vitamin D intake. Something you can’t do in December in Chicago!:)

Our boat finally came and we were relieved to see that we had our own private boat with a staff of 8 to take care of us (4 adults and a baby). Xochi had a staff of 3 to herself and was immediately plucked from Aileen’s arms. It is wonderful to see how much the men in India seem to LOVE babies. At one point on the boat, Xochi’s main fan was holding her while no less than 6 other men jumped around dancing, making faces, and sang to entertain her. Let’s just say she was the hit of the boat.

We set off and immediately asked for breakfast, which we were supposed to have already had, but seemed to have been forgotten. They served us breakfast and then lunch about 30 minutes later. You have never seen so much food. We were the first “westerners” they had worked with and were on their best behavior for us. We were handed a napkin before AND after meals and ceremoniously presented with two forks for each meal. There was one man in charge of serving and we were not allowed to touch any of the plates of food, he needed to put on his plastic gloves before serving us each individually. We later found out that “all westerns ate with two forks at every meal”….some of the information was CLEARLY not quite correct!:) The food ranged from eggplant, to cauliflower, to crab, fish, roti (pita), veggies, salad, and LOTS and LOTS of water. Every time someone came to see us, or give us food, they gave us at least another 2 bottles of water, which then ended up needing to be corralled as they bounced around on the boat and tried to roll off into the river.

We chugged down stream and first stopped at the Sunderbans Tiger center where we saw animals in pens while our guides got our “passes”. Crocodiles, water monitors, and “wild beer” (deer) as one of our guides called them. I responded with “TACKLE IT…QUICK!” and put them all in hysterics once they figured out what was going on. The quote of the entire weekend went to Amy when she saw a “six pack of beer” at one of our stops.

For the rest of the day, along with boatloads of other tourists, we chugged around islands, stopped at “tiger observation points” (HA!) and did our best to spot crocodiles and cranes along the water. It was very relaxing and we all enjoyed the clean air and quiet time. The “tiger observation points” appeared to be giant concrete platforms on the edge of the water, surrounded by fences and staffed by Indian officials wearing wife beaters and khaki pants. There was clearly no hope of seeing a tiger as one would have to be stupid enough to wander up to a concrete platform full of loud and obnoxious tourists during daylight.

Aileen had told us that we were being “totally overcharged” and should “expect the worst” after our bookings had been made. We were super excited to see that our “lodge”, the Mangrove Re-Treat (treat yourself again and again?) was very nice, with indoor plumbing (this had been questionable). We were also happy to see that although, there was not running hot water, they brought us huge buckets of boiling water every morning, that you mixed with cold water and them dumped over yourself to take a “bucket shower”. They were also extremely happy to do ANYTHING we asked including bring Rahul “bed tea” every night and morning. Unfortunately, I was still sick for most of the trip and did not eat much, which was greatly upsetting to them. At one point I asked for a banana, and the gut took off at what could only be described as a dead sprint with a smile on his face, he was so happy I had asked for something.

Poor Rahul, as the only Bengali speaker, he was relegated to asking question, after question, after question that the three of us women came up with. “Are you married?”, “Where do you live?”, “What do you study?”, “How long have you been doing this?”, “Have you ever seen a tiger?”. He was terribly embarrassed most of the time by our nosiness but it ended up getting us a tour of the village on Sunday morning which was a highlight.

We set off with our “handlers” and had a lovely morning walking through the village where we met people threshing, hulling and storing rice, children who loved seeing themselves on my digital camera, and an old man with a fist full of beautiful flowers. He was planning to eat them but was happy to pose for a picture and then grabbed my butt (I honestly think by mistake) while looking at the picture and laughing happily. The children were thrilled to show us their beehive, honey is an export, and accompany us around our tour. We, Xochi, and even the stroller were fascinating. You could hear them thinking, “Are westerners to lazy to carry their own children?”.
We arrived back from the Sunderbans in time to attend a party across the hall. They had key lime pie, fish sticks, samosas, cookies, and EGG NOG! (Boiled of course). I think the egg nog finally put me in the mood for Christmas. Amy and I talked to a hysterical woman named Debbie who regaled us with stories about haggling over a Christmas tree in a market with an Indian dwarf dressed in a Santa hat. See? These are the things you miss when you buy your tree from a church bazaar or Home Depot.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Getting to India and Calcutta! (12/14 to 12/20)

Welcome to India: 12/14/07-12/16/07

Hi Everyone,
I am writing from the floor of the Delhi domestic airline terminal at 4:00 am. So far my trip has been pretty uneventful, if not long. I am surprisingly awake at this point despite starting my trip about 20 hours before after a busy day in Chicago.

I flew from Chicago to Zurich on Swiss Air. I was super excited to see that each seat had a screen with a remote control and a nice selection of movies. I watched “No Reservations” and was half way through (and enjoying) “Stardust” when all the screens went blank and every light in the airplane went off. I guess the flight attendants were sick of dealing with passengers and decided that we all needed to sleep (and leave them alone). Of course, I was not tired and read magazines for the next few hours with my handy dandy pocket light. I was also lucky enough to be able to listen in on the thrash metal the guy sitting next to me was killing his eardrums with…

I did a mad dash through the Zurich Airport and picked up some duty free liqueur for Rahul’s parents. The Swiss Air flight from Zurich to Delhi was not very full, I think some of the connecting flights did not make it and I was able to get two seats together to stretch out!:) Yeah!

Delhi has been fun. I arrived, made it through immigration, customs, and baggage claim and promptly went out the wrong exit looking for the free bus to the domestic terminal. I was immediately accosted by several taxi drivers who all pointed out my error and directed me to the correct location, (back inside past security) once they realized that they were not going to sell me a ride. Even the security guards were nice enough to let me enter in a “no re-entry” zone to get to the “transport lounge”.

I waited about 30 minutes to get mashed on a bus with everyone else and took the (pretty long) bus ride to the domestic terminal where I waited again for the Jet Airways area to open at 3:00am, had my luggage x-rayed, waited again for the ticketing counters to open up at 3:30am and am now killing time till my 6:15 flight. The ticket attendant was “POORNITA”, I wanted to ask about her name but realized that maybe 3:45am was not the time to poke fun at anyone’s name. I was a little over on my weight allowance and did not want to end up sitting on top of the airplane or paying $50 for my 3 extra kilos of weight.

I hope my energy level continues since I want to stay up as long as possible in an attempt to minimize jetlag. I just bought what has turned out to be and awesome cappuccino and a bottle of water so am flying high at this point.

Patience has been my virtue so far on this trip. Lots of waiting in lines, waiting for counters to open, etc. The good news is that I am not in a hurry and have had plenty of time to make my connections, which has helped me hang out through the waiting.

I have also noticed that, in India, the concept of the “cart corral” has not yet caught on in airports. Everyone had their luggage on carts to get to the buses, rolled them right up to the door, loaded their baggage, and left the carts blocking the bus door. The same thing happened again when checking in to Jet Airways, people just turned and walked away from their carts once they had checked in. It seems like there is even someone whose job it is to “corral the carts”. Can you imagine that on your resume?:) There do seem to be a lot of carts everywhere (people have lots of luggage) and I am living in fear that someone is going to ram into my ankles and maim me 20 hours into my trip!

Aileen met me at the airport in Calcutta and we made it back home to her place uneventfully. It was great to see Xochi again, she is so big and almost walking! It took a nap, we had lunch at the “country club” and then headed to the “spa” for our treatments. I had a weird massage, a good facial and my toes look like they were painted by a four year old. I guess sometimes you get what you pay for!:) Trying to stay up for a few more hours before collapsing!

We had a great dinner that night at home and I crashed at about 9:30….kudos to me for staying up so late!

When I arrived in India, Aileen said, “Gloria Steinem is speaking at The American Center tomorrow”. How bizarre to come to India and see “America’s most revered, eloquent, and outspoken feminist icon”. It was a very interesting presentation with Gloria Steinem and the founder of Apne Ap, Ruchira Gupta speaking on prostitution, slavery and human trafficking. Ruchira had started out as a journalist and won an Emmy for her documentary human trafficking. This started her on what sounds like a huge life journey to fight human trafficking. Obviously, this is a huge issue in India and it is both horrifying and interesting to hear so much about the topic. Horrifying to realize that humans are the third most smuggled commodities after drugs and arms and interesting that for syndicates and organizations, it is such a moneymaking business.

After Gloria Steinem, we went to lunch with Aileen at a Tibetan “moon” place and ate our fill of dumplings. Aileen tried to order one of each type (6 types, 36 dumplings total), which really confused the waiter. He came back to confirm our order and only mentioned four types, then he actually brought three dishes to the table. I think he was trying to tell us that we need to lose weight! Aileen also tried to order a specific type of noodles and when asked to describe a dish he described it as “dry noodles with bland and uninteresting gravy” at which point Amy said, “NO, we want chili-garlic noodles”. Everything ended up being super yummy.

Amy and I then headed off to “New Market” which is a giant warren of stalls selling everything under the sun. As Aileen had said, a man with a basked attached himself to us at the entrance and served as our “guide”. We first went to the “Jewish Bakery” where we made some very bad pastry choices and then headed off the to the silver store where I did some damage. At this point, our “guide” decided he needed to make a commission and took us to several stores he thought we should shop at and was clearly disappointed when we did not take the bait and buy lots of “high quality silk pashmina”.

After New Market, we attempted to find a street mentioned in the rough guide where you could have shoes custom made to fit. Unfortunately, it was a long car ride in traffic and a total bust. We ended up back at the American Center to pick up Aileen and head home.

Dinner was at a yummy Chinese restaurant where I ate too much and was completely exhausted. I was so tired I was slaphappy and when Aileen mentioning that “American Style Fried Rice” probably had “Twinkie bits” in it, I went over the edge into hysterics. I completely crashed when we got home.

Traffic and driving in Calcutta is something to behold. I totally understand why people HAVE to hire divers. You must be born to it, have nerves of steel, great visual special skills, and a steady horn finger to function on the roads. It is a mix of cars, bikes, motorcycles, people wandering across the street, dogs, cows and the occasional horse. I love how in India (or Calcutta at least) everyone takes their time doing everything and there seems to be no hurry to get anywhere… until you get in the car at which point it becomes imperative to get wherever you need to go as soon and as fast as humanly possible! What a contrast!:)


Today was my day with Karuna Singh from the American Center who had put together an all day schedule as I ended up being a “Target of Opportunity” in Calcutta. Let’s just say I am earning every penny of this tax write off.

This morning, I visited the Indian Institute for Cerebral Palsy and had a tour of the facility followed by and hour-long presentation. I loved the facility and was only disappointed that I did not have more opportunity to interact with the children. ! I*think* my presentation was a hit, they were dumbfounded when I ended my presentation on feeding and how to elicit oral motor patterns necessary for eating with water in cups (which I made them swallow several different ways) and then candy to show them how to promote tongue strength and range of motion and bolus control.

The Indian Institute for Cerebral Palsy had beautiful cards and gift bags which were all homemade. I bought a bunch but am mentally working on how to bring more back to the states and sell them, sending all the money back to the IICP. I figure I’ll foot the bill for the original purchase and shipping and then people will know all the money they are giving will go straight back to the institute… warned people….I am going to be hawking gift bags and greeting cards.

Now back at Aileen’s office. We were supposed to do lunch before my 3:00 informal meeting with a several speech therapists and two government officials who work with hearing impaired children. Should be interesting. I need to take a nap. Unfortunately, I have “Calcutta Belly” and am not feeling so great. The good news is that I am fairly sure I going to make it through the day, which was not a sure thing this morning. Today could best be called the “barfing tour of Calcutta”…ugh.

My meeting with the different professionals was great. There was a really interesting woman who was working with Autistic children who was most interested in knowing “what was up with autism” in the US. She was happy to hear that she has been on the right track. There were several professionals in the hearing impaired profession. Two were very interesting but the third was most interested in telling me how great India was in their programs for assisting hearing impaired individuals and the school he ran. He also tried to strong arm me into visiting his school the next day and told me that it was “only an hour away!”. I was trying to politely refuse by saying that I had other commitments and that I needed to consult with my hosts but he was insistent and told me that it was my “professional responsibility”. Even the other panel members started sticking up for me after a while. Thankfully, I escaped without the commitment.

I had heard about the “India is Great” and “India is Shining” phenomenon, but this was my first experience with it face to face.

Tuesday night, Aileen and Rahul were having people over for a get together but I was so exhausted that I slept through the entire thing (and through most of the night) that I did not get to meet any of their interesting friends!:(

Wednesday 12/19/07

Amy, Rupu (Rahul’s cousin) and I all set off for a day of tourism. First stop was the Kali temple. Prakesh (the driver) insisted that we leave our shoes in the car since he said they would be stolen if we left them in the shoe slots at the front of the temple. He also made us promise not to give ANY money (apparently some friends visiting a few months ago were completely conned into donating about $50). We entered the temple, which was crowded and crazy. The temple guys saw that I was blond and tall and before I knew what was happening, they yanked me out of the crowd, over the donation plate and pretty much face to face with the Kali Goddess. It was cool but I did not know how do get out, was afraid of falling on the goddess (and being killed for disrespect). They then demanded money, but I did not have any so they pretty much threw me back over the offering plate (3 feet diameter filled with candles and money) and back into the crowd. The bummer was that they learned their lesson with me and did not give Amy or Rupu the same treatment. I am just glad that we visited during the morning since in the afternoon they sacrifice goats for Kali (and no shoes are allowed in the temple).

After my near miss with Kali, we were off the Mother House, which is a memorial to Mother Theresa and her mission in Calcutta. Considering I knew NOTHING about her other than that she was a nun and worked with Calcutta’s poorest population, it was a very interesting tour. I learned that she was born in Albania and started her devotional life in Ireland before traveling to India where God spoke to her and told her to work with the poor. The most interesting part was that she always felt the joy and light of God’s love until she started working with the poor, and then felt the darkest of despair until she found God’s love there as well (11 years later). I imagine it must have been very difficult to continue her work feeling as depressed as she described for so many years.

We next headed off to the Forum Shops, an upscale mall in Calcutta. Aileen had asked us to stop by and buy her a shirt she has seen previously. Unfortunately, they were sold out of her size. On to LUNCH!

We were told to go to Kewpies, which is an authentic Bengali restaurant. Aileen told us that it was straight out of the Forum Mall, down an alley. Unfortunately, we went the wrong exit and managed to perfect our “asking directions while looking stupid” skills. Poor Rupu, we kept making her ask for directions but her Bengali was not that great and people would laugh at her. We finally found the restaurant and had a great lunch, learning to eat “Bengali style” with our fingers.

That afternoon, we went to the Victoria Memorial, which was not finished till 20 years after her death. It was filed with some pretty fun statues of Victoria, George V (who almost looked like he was dressed in drag) and his wife Mary. There was a huge exhibit of photos of Calcutta and also a wing telling the history of Calcutta. It was so informative it was overwhelming, but by skimming, we were able to pick up some interesting facts and the story of Calcutta.

That night, we went to a very uninteresting Thai restaurant, Soi 19…I did not eat much and Aileen and I ended up leaving early so Lily (the nanny) could go home and sleep.

Another day of tourism! We started the day attempting to see the Marble Palace, which was, unfortunately, closed on Thursdays. We then headed off to Tagore’s House. Tagore was India’s greatest modern poet and universalist philosopher. His house was beautiful, wrapped around his courtyard and his travel schedule far outmatched mine, even without modern transportation. I acquired an “admirer” in Tagore’s house and spent much of the time dodging in and out of rooms in an attempt to avoid him

Unfortunately, by the time we left Tagore’s house, the Jain temples were closed so the rest of the day was pretty much gone. We did end up meeting Aileen for lunch and made a quick dash through Music World so Rupu could buy some Bollywood DVD’s.

We were off to the Park Hotel that night and had Japanese food at Zen restaurant then danced at Roxy nightclub. It was an eclectic mix of 60’s, 70’s, 80’,s Kanye West and Hindipop. I was exhausted by the time we went home but refused to be the first person to want to leave. I think we were out till about 1:30am.