I just got back from India!
This post is a long one, so I'll put most of it behind a cut. Some of my recent reading has been in preparation for the trip; the titles I most enjoyed were:
CLIMBING THE MANGO TREES, by Madhur Jaffrey. Memoir by the accomplished actress and food writer. Delicious.
CITY OF DJINNS, by William Dalrymple. Adult nonfiction, depiction of Delhi and its history.
MONSOON DIARY, by Shoba Narayan. Another food-based memoir.
SARASWATI'S WAY, by Monika Schroder. Middle-grade fiction ARC. A young boy surviving on the streets of Delhi. I'll be doing a more complete entry on this book closer to its pub date.
And now, for an account of my trip:
India diary: My visit to the American Embassy School in New Delhi
Day One, Monday, April 5
Flight from Newark to New Delhi in the evening. The Continental 777 had individual TVs in the seat backs, with more than 200 movies and television shows to choose from. And, hallelujah, I had the whole row to myself! I watched two and a half movies (“Gandhi,” which seemed terribly appropriate, “Sense and Sensibility”, and half of “X-Men”, as well as “Inside the Actors’ Studio” with Ricky Gervais). Two meals plus a snack, each with an Indian vegetarian option. I had the first of many curries with rice (paneer cheese, to which I got addicted); the snack was a wrap of chick peas in a chapati. So even in the air, I had that not-in-Kansas-anymore feeling.
Arrival in Delhi Tuesday night. A smiling man with a moustache met my flight. It was Arjun, one of the drivers employed by the school. Arjun would become our ‘rock’ while we were in India, answering our endless questions and accommodating our many requests.
By ‘our’, I mean me and the other two authors participating in AES’s Authors Week. Author-illustrator Ed Young and author David Schwarz were my companions on this adventure. Ed brought his 12-year-old daughter Ananda, and David his partner Andrea. I was the only one who went stag. ;-) However, Ed and David were presenting only at the elementary school, whereas I was doing two days at the middle school as well. So I arrived a few days before they did.
Arjun brought me to the hotel, Le Meridien. A beautiful five-star tower. Although I was too travel-dazed to notice much about it at the time, the next morning I was able to appreciate its elegance. By luck or design, I don’t know which, I was given a suite for the first phase of my stay there!
The view of New Delhi from my hotel room window.
Complimentary fruit and wine each evening...
...and what a bathtub!
The first morning, I ate breakfast in the ground-floor restaurant, which had a staggering buffet of both western and Indian choices. I had muesli to start, then paneer cheese curry over iddli (a rice cake). Mmmmm…. Later I would discover the smaller lounge-restaurant on the top floor—quieter and more elegant, but no Indian food.
Tropical fruit display: guava (left) and dragonfruit, which tastes a little like kiwi.
The juice bar. Ananda and I were partial to the fresh watermelon juice.
Arjun was waiting to take me to the school, about a 15-minute drive away. We passed through the center of town where the government buildings are located. This area was designed by the architect Edwin Lutyens for the British Raj. I was bemused by the presence of English-cottage-garden-style flowers like hollyhocks and petunias, which looked self-consciously out of place here and clearly needed lots of watering and TLC to survive. Why, I wondered, when there were masses of bougainvillea and other tropical flowers thriving, both cultivated and wild?
In good British fashion, there are roundabouts at the major intersections. The interior of each roundabout--including the very big and busy ones--is a little park with trees, flowers, benches, paths. They're very popular--you see lots of people hanging out in the roundabouts, especially during the cooler evening hours. It was weird to see with all that traffic whizzing around, but I really like it, a great use of public space. If only they could use clean fuel in their cars.... (A heavy layer of smaze covers the city, worse in winter when wood fires burn everywhere.)
The AES campus looks like a small college—beautiful stone buildings amid landscaped grounds (with those English flowers again…). On arrival, I met librarians Monika Schroder from the elementary school, chief architect of Authors’ Week (more—much more!—on Monika later), and Melinda Kehe from the middle school, who would be my host for the next two days.
The school days all followed a similar pattern: three or four presentations each day to students grouped by grade; lunch in the middle of the day; and then, after school ended, sightseeing or shopping. The kids and teachers were terrific. They had been preparing for our visit for months—at times I felt like the students knew more about my books than I did! Wherever I walked on campus, I would see the kids pointing at me and exclaiming, “Linda Sue Park! There’s Linda Sue Park!” As Monika said, we authors were rock stars that week.
The first day, after school was over, I went back to the hotel and had a massage! It was an Indian herbal massage—two women flagellated me with hot compresses filled with herbs. It was heavenly. After that, an Ayurvedic oil treatment: warm oil was dripped onto my forehead. Drip. Drip. Drip. For a whole hour. I wish I knew more about this treatment, because in my ignorance I found it incredibly boring and kept wishing for it to be over with, which I’m sure was undoing all the good it was supposed to be doing me.
Room service dinner: butter chicken tikka, which looked quite familiar and tasted out of this world. I couldn’t quite say what was different about it—maybe the spices were fresher and their use more refined? In any case it was the BEST butter chicken I’ve ever had by about a hundredfold.
On the way to school, I spotted my first cow. Cows are sacred to Hindus, and there are many on the streets of Delhi, usually sitting placidly by the side of the road—even the biggest roads. My exchange with Arjun went like this:
Me: A cow! Look at that cow!
Arjun (polite chuckle): No, not a cow. That’s a bull.
Oh. Well. Ahem.
A bull (not a cow).
This became a running joke throughout my stay, me attempting to identify the gender of the livestock and Arjun correcting me when I was wrong. At one point I spotted a large bird and shouted, “A peacock! I just saw a peacock! But it was a girl peacock.” David Schwarz, our science maven, pointed out that this would be a peahen, and in light of my earlier blunders, we decided to christen it a ‘peacow.’
After school, dinner with Melinda and several middle-school teachers. We went to Fez, a Middle Eastern restaurant, and had a wonderful mezze meal. Also pomegranate mojitos, which may have contributed to the merry and convivial atmosphere. The conversation hopped happily about, from travel tips (international school teachers are a well-traveled bunch) to favorite authors (M.T. Anderson and Laurie Halse Anderson, were your ears burning?).
Day Four, Friday
David and Ed arrived the night before. The festivities began at the elementary school. Two opening assemblies, with students displaying their talents in everything from Bollywood dancing to traditional Indian drumming (tabor). Each of the authors received a tikka (dot on the forehead) and a garland of marigolds to officially welcome us, and we lit oil lamps as a traditional Indian way of opening a celebration.
(from left) David Schwarz, me, Monika, Ed Young.
In this and everything else about Authors Week, Monika was prepared down to the last detail—and beyond. Nothing was too much trouble: Whatever we requested, she made every effort to procure it or make it happen. It was truly mind-boggling, the trouble she went to on our behalf. I spent my whole time in India both honored and humbled by her thoughtfulness and will never be able to thank her adequately.
In the afternoon, we had a tour of Old Delhi by pedicab! One of the most fascinating parts of my visit. We were taken to a neighborhood called Chadni Chowk, a maze of streets that specialize in specific wares: a street of shops just for sarees, another for spectacles, for jewelry, for shoes…. We also visited the Jami Masjid mosque and Humayun’s tomb, both magnificent edifices erected during the Mughal era.
At right, David and Andrea in the pedicab in front of mine.
Sari Street series.
Doorway in Chadni Chowk. The artisans who did much of the work on the Taj Mahal supposedly lived and worked in this street.
Entrance to the Jami Masjid mosque.
Women are required to be fully covered when inside the mosque, so gowns are provided for visitors. Here's Ananda (with her dad) in her elegant garb.
Humayun's Tomb, one of the architectural inspirations for the Taj Mahal. Humayun was the second Mughal emperor.
Ananda poses in front of the tomb.
Days Five-Six: a weekend in Agra
Saturday morning began with the school’s annual Pancake Breakfast. The teachers were the chefs, students and parents the diners. The authors signed books—lots of them! The AES families were such enthusiastic book-buyers that many titles sold out, and Monika ordered a rush shipment of more.
At the booksigning.
Several Korean students had copies of the Korean editions of my books.
We had checked out of the hotel earlier, and after breakfast, we all clambered into the van for the four-hour drive to Agra. The first couple of hours were on a toll road, a very modern highway. Then we turned off onto a much smaller track and passed through many small villages.
At one point, the road flanked by fields of grain being harvested, Ed told me a story about his years growing up in China (he was born and raised in Shanghai). Out in the countryside during those years, the farmers had very little machinery. At harvest time, they would spread sheaves of wheat right on the road and wait for the traffic to pass. The wheels of the vehicles would ‘thresh’ the wheat, separating the grain from the straw. I loved this depiction of human ingenuity and culture clash.
Ed had literally just finished telling this story when our van ran over several piles of wheat: The farmers here in India were doing the exact same thing!
First stop: Fatehpur Sikri.
Fatehpur Sikri is a palace and a mosque, both built by the Mughal emperor Akbar in the 1500s. The story goes that the palace was built to house Akbar’s three wives, one Christian, one Muslim, and one Hindu. For several years, none of the three were able to conceive a child. Then a Muslim sufi gave a blessing, and the Hindu wife gave birth to a son, Jahangir. Upon the sufi’s death, Akbar built a magnificent mosque to serve as the sufi’s tomb, and the palace adjacent to the tomb.
In addition to his three official wives, Akbar had hundreds of unofficial wives. One open courtyard within the palace served as a giant parchisi board, with the harem women in the role of the ‘markers’.
Our guide’s English was excellent, if heavily accented. He described the living parchisi game, and what I heard him say was something like: “…and the king played the game using women of different races.”
Whoa—he sorted them out by race to use them as game pieces??
Of course I immediately expressed astonishment at this, and it was David who came to my rescue. “Not different ‘races,’” he said, “different dresses.”
Oh. Dresses. In different colors. Okay, I get it.
The palace took years to build and in the end, was never lived in! After completion, it was discovered that there was insufficient water in the area to supply a palace household. (Lucky for Akbar he wasn’t an elected official…)
The palace's five-story pavilion...
...and some of the architectural details. I love the pomegranate frieze.
We spent the night at a lovely hotel in Agra. The next morning, we were up bright and early, to beat the crowds and the heat at the Taj Mahal.
The Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (son of Jahangir) built the Taj in memory of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. She bore him fourteen children, and died in childbirth with the last. Designed by a Turkish architect, the Taj took twenty-two years to complete. Both Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan are buried beneath the Taj.
There have been times when I’ve seen an iconic structure in person for the first time, and felt a teeny tiny bit disappointed. Not so with the Taj Mahal. Perhaps it’s the romance of the story, or the building’s beautiful proportions—it’s big, but not monstrous—whatever the reason, my first glimpse of it through the entry gateway truly took my breath away.
Almost everyone stops at this bench to have their photo taken.
My favorite Taj moment: Look closely at this photo of the main dome. See the little iron hooks? During World War II, the government draped the entire building in black cloth to disguise it from potential bombings.
Our Taj guide Muza.
Inside the tomb, you can either go barefoot or wear shoe covers.
Marble inlay work, with semi-precious stones. This was outside the tomb. Photography is not permitted inside the tomb chamber, where the inlay is much more intricate and delicate.
After our tour of the Taj Mahal, we did some shopping—I bought a set of marble coasters. Then I asked Muza if it would be possible to see an elephant. Not many elephants in Agra, he said—you have to go to Jaipur for that. But maybe…
He gave Arjun driving directions, and within five minutes—
After I got back into the van, the mahout (elephant keeper) climbed onto the elephant by walking up its trunk. I wish I'd tried that....
We returned to Delhi and checked back into Le Meridien (this time, I had an ordinary room. But still quite nice). Then we met up with Monika and her husband Todd for dinner at an Italian restaurant, where I had a delicious pumpkin risotto. Not very Indian, but very very good.
Days Seven-Eleven, Monday-Friday, at the elementary school:
Each day I gave three or four presentations to groups of well-prepared and enthusiastic students. It was so much fun! On Monday night, we had a delicious Indian dinner in the school's garden and heard a concert of Indian-fusion music. More shopping; dinners with the second-grade teachers and the school reading specialist Kathy Zabinski and her lovely family (husband Jan, who teaches economics at the high school, and delightful daughter Michelle); lots of cricket on television at the hotel (with Arjun patiently answering my cricket questions every morning).
Then on Thursday afternoon, we had a tour of the jhuggi—the slum neighborhood directly across the street from the school.
The jhuggi came into existence during the building of the school in the 1980s. It started as sort of a camp for the workers doing the construction, and eventually became a full-fledged village.
Lal Singh grew up in the jhuggi and now works as a tech admin at the school. Here he's standing in front of the house he lived in as a child.
In the jhuggi, people brighten their homes with paintwork...
...and everywhere we went, children wanted their photos taken:
The relationship between the jhuggi and the school continues: Every Thursday afternoon, the Reach Out program takes place. The children from the jhuggi are invited to the campus where they can see the doctor, take a shower, play in the gym, and use many of the school's facilities. The high-school students, along with teachers, assist and mentor the kids from the jhuggi. Lal participated in Reach Out as a child, and told me, "For the jhuggi kids, this school is like Disneyland..."
* * *
Random impressions: cows and bulls in the big city. Monkeys on the street corners, babies clinging to their mums’ undersides as they loped across the road. Peacocks in the fields, flocks of them! Parrots in the trees. Women in saris on the backs of motorcycles. Games of cricket everywhere—in the streets, in the fields, anywhere there was enough space. Tak-taks: little three-wheeled vehicles that serve as taxis. Women wearing bangles from wrist to elbow on both arms. Diligent street-sweepers using twig besoms.
I was transfixed by the sight of women riding on the backs of motorcycles. After a windy, bumpy, dusty ride, they would dismount with their saris still perfectly arranged!
This woman had a child on her lap, protected from the wind and dust by a fold of her sari.
Shopping for bangles with Ananda.
This sign had a sibling: "LEFT TURN NOT FREE." When we first saw it, we wondered what it meant--did you have to pay to turn left?? Arjun had a good laugh at that. No, 'left turn not free' is the same as our 'no right on red.'
Arjun: driver, cricket mentor, question-answerer, rock.
--jackfruit curry (for lunch in the teachers’ cafeteria)
--paneer (at every opportunity!). A mild white cheese, served cubed in all kinds of savory sauces.
--that divine pumpkin risotto
--sticky black rice at a ‘Mediterranean fusion’ restaurant called Olive Beach, and the chocolate-mud dessert flavored with hazelnuts
--lassi, a yoghurt drink. I liked the salty version.
--fresh watermelon juice
--dim sum at a restaurant called ‘Side Wok’ (groan, I know, but the food was great!)
--a yoghurt and vegetable salad which Monika made for a lunch at her home
--lentils at every Indian meal. I love lentils!
--traditional block-printed tablecloth and napkins (although the merchant was flummoxed by the fact that I wanted eight different napkins, none of which were to match the tablecloth)
--a sari! In a beautiful purple printed silk chiffon.
--bangles and other jewelry, for gifts.
--carved marble eggs (receptacles for tea lights) and an elephant inside an elephant inside an elephant, sculpted from a single piece of marble.
--an iron goat (at least I think it’s a goat, it has curly horns) made by tribal artisans from central India, again to hold tea lights. Indians seem to love candles and little twinkling lights; Arjun said I have to come visit again during Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights.
--a handmade wall hanging, patchwork and sequins
This, my first trip to India, was a very ‘cushioned’ experience: first-class accommodations with many helpful people to guide me along. India can be overwhelming—too hot, too spicy, too dusty and crowded and sweaty and strange. I was so fortunate in this visit in that I gained wonderful first impressions and now feel prepared for a more adventurous second time around.
At the end of my visit, Melinda and Monika gave me lovely gifts. From Melinda, a set of tiffins—the wonderful containers that stack together and are closed firmly with a handle, for picnics! And from Monika, a beautiful set of handmade paper and cards (she overheard me saying that I love paper goods). Monika also gave us all the finest Darjeeling tea, which is given by the Indian President to visiting heads of state!
The middle-school library staff. Anita brought in a sari and taught me how to put it on:
A proud moment: walking several steps without tripping. (I did not, however, attempt the ultimate sari feat: going to the bathroom while wearing one...)
With Melinda Kehe, middle-school librarian.
With Ed and the elementary-school library staff.
With Mr. Kartik, another staffer. He fixed my flash drive when it fell apart!
With Monika. The observant among you may have noticed that one of the books at the top of this post was authored by a Monika Schroder. Yes, the very same. As if being a crack librarian and Authors' Week Wonderwoman weren't enough, Monika is also an author herself. Check out her website here!
* * *
Even the flight home was charmed: The ash cloud over Europe could have posed major problems. But departure was only delayed by an hour, and the plane rerouted over the North Pole (!) so as to avoid the affected area.
And I slept nearly the whole way, dreaming about my magical time in India.