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I’ve been dreading (and avoiding) writing this final blog entry.

How can I possibly summarize and give finality to a year that has so altered my life? When Daniel and I decided to move to India it was a leap of faith – a leap to a place where I’d never been; a leap to leave my job and take an unconventional turn; a leap to live in a place where everyone I loved would be thousands and thousands of miles away.

I’ve always been a person who benefited most from taking the road less traveled. It’s been a bit of a life motto really: Go forth.  But India is different – it grabs hold of you and changes you, taking grasp of every sense and every notion you ever had and turning it upside-down.

I’m most grateful that we got to live in India at this particular moment in time.  Mumbai in the 21st century is old and new all at once. I got to spend time with women in slums whose experiences are shockingly medieval. On the other hand, I got to see some of the same women fighting for rights like women in the West did a generation ago.  I saw corruption and caste influence situations right alongside technology and entrepreneurialism and a hunger for change.  Skyscrapers and highways brush up against bungalows and rickshaws and slums. It’s a fascinating era to experience – it’s all changing so rapidly that we got to see it as it was and as it will be.  There’s no better time to be in India and I’m a bit shocked by how quickly the time went by.

It all went so fast that it’s hard now to even remember what it felt like to arrive; I’m a bit in awe over how normal it all became. The insanity of the roads, the glaring disparities, the tropical vegetation, the color, the otherness and the dirt all somehow started eventually seeming normal. That’s the joy of living somewhere new – even the strangest and most opposite place in the world can feel like home. We made incredible friends and met the most wonderful and bizarre and entertaining group of people I could have encountered in a year, both in Mumbai and out.

So there’s no point summarizing. And luckily, I have this blog and I’ll never have to.  But if the blog has to end and if I am indeed back in the US (it keeps feeling like I’m about to board a plane from this short vacation and return to my “home” in India), then I guess I can impart one piece of advice to the wonderful people who have read this blog and commented and shared in my ups and downs: take your own leap.  No one ever regrets the things they did. You might only regret the gora tax you paid on your Alphonso mangos. It’s worth it.

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Sometimes words are not enough.

That’s how I feel about the last 24 hours – after all the excitement, all the buildup and all the anticipation India won the Cricket World Cup right here at home in Mumbai. The city exploded. Fans flooded into the streets. Cheers could be heard until the morning. Bollywood’s biggest star, Shahrukh Khan came out in his car and Bandra was suddenly an excitable mob scene.

The next day, we happened to walk into the Taj Hotel for tea and lo and behold – the entire cricket team was leaving. It was pure chaos – fans shrieked and shouted and pushed and shoved just for a chance to touch their team and their god, Sachin Tendulkar, holding the cricket world cup. And we got it all on video. Incredible.

What a case of the right place at the right time. The right city for the world’s biggest event of the moment. The right hotel to actually see the players. And only photos and videos to even begin to explain it. Go India!:

Shahruk Khan waving the flag

Waving flags on Carter road

People standing on a public bus

The ecstatic crowd at the Taj as the players left

Sachin Tendulkar with the actual World Cup

Daniel and I with our very own India shirts

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Hide and Seek

There are today more tigers living in captivity than in the wild. It is common and easy to go to a zoo and gaze at one of the world’s most beguiling creatures. But the wild is a whole other game.

Not only are there few places to actually spot one of the planet’s 2,500 – 3,500 remaining wild tigers (including the 1,400 that live in India), a tiger is also a master of camouflage. So if you do go to tiger country you are often disappointed.

Sunset at Bandavgarh national park

It is with all this in mind that I became mildly obsessed with spotting a tiger in the wild. Having grown up in a room painted by my mother where a tiger peeked out at me from the bushes, I knew I could not live in India and never try to play hide and seek with its most famous animal.

Everyone I asked told me that despite the many national parks here that hold (or claim to hold) tigers, there was only one place to go: Bandavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh. The saying goes: at other parks you are lucky to see a tiger; at Bandavgarh you are unlucky if you don’t. It boasts the world’s densest population of tigers and that sounded to me like as good a shot at seeing a tiger that I would get.

A baby spotted deer in Bandavgarh

So we drove the long distance to Bandavgarh (it is truly in the middle of nowhere; as far from a major city as it could possibly be) and staked out a place at the Treehouse Hideaway, an incredible hotel that places each room up in a separate tree. We were inhabiting nature and ready to see tigers.

On our first safari – which began bright and early at 6am – we were filled with excitement and anticipation. Our hotel’s quiet but very knowledgeable naturalist, Banu, assured us we had a very good chance to see tigers over the next few days, but insisted we keep patience. I had a million questions – did the tigers ever do this or that? Did they go to this or that place? Do they come out at this or that time? Banu calmly answered almost every question with, “Sometimes,” as if trying to underscore the unpredictability of these gargantuan cats. He explained that we would know if a tiger were around by the alarm calls of the forest’s ubiquitous spotted deer and monkeys.

Adult male spotted deer and monkey in Bandavgarh

We drove along in our jeep, slowing down at watering holes and other known spots where the tigers lived. I sat with my eyes peeled at every moment despite Banu’s insistence that he would know when a tiger was near. I wasn’t taking a chance – I stared into the brush and scanned every inch I could, hoping I’d perhaps see a flash of orange. But it was to no avail. We didn’t even hear an alarm call. We came back after four and a half hours of searching feeling a little less sure of the tigers’ presence.

But by our second safari, later that afternoon, we were once again excited. Banu tried to explain to us that even though the safaris start at 3pm, we wouldn’t see a tiger until at least 4:45pm. None had been spotted sleeping in the open (and in this heat they rarely do anyway) so we’d only get lucky once they woke up later and perhaps started moving around looking for water. I still kept my eyes active looking at every potential spot below a tree or amidst the brush where a tiger could be napping.

Tiger scratches on a tree

We marveled at tiger scratches up on trees that reached twice as high as any human hand could. We passed the time by enjoying the forest’s other magnificent animals – bright birds, playful monkeys and even a rare jungle cat. But as we continued to drive in we saw a few other jeeps parked at a clearing. We all stood up, hoping this would be our glimpse of a tiger. But a forest ranger informed us that we couldn’t see them – a mother and her cubs (and by ‘cubs’ I mean two year old tigers as large as their mothers) were sleeping around the river bend. Tourists are (understandably) not allowed to ever get out of their jeep at Bandavgarh, so we would have to wait and hope they would come out. It was only 4:15pm.

Looking for tigers that never came

All the waiting jeeps

We waited as more and more jeeps stopped and waited with us – there are no radios in Bandavgarh so if one jeep sees a tiger its only luck of the drive as to whether others see it. But usually once one car is stopped a whole gaggle will stop as well. And by 4:45 about a dozen cars were waiting – we felt lucky we had arrived early and had a prime spot. But it wasn’t meant to be, once again. The tigers did not emerge and we had to get out of the park by 6:15 – a time that greatly frustrated Banu because he believed the tigers would emerge around sundown. We were a full day in and had seen no tigers.

A beautiful flying Indian Roller

On our second morning we groggily met our tranquil leader Banu who, though still subdued, seemed more excited than usual.

A fresh tiger pawprint

Tiger tracks had been spotted earlier that morning in the Zone we were assigned to (each jeep is randomly assigned a route to take so that the cars are distributed evenly). Banu informed us that the tracks were from earlier in the morning and would help us know exactly where the tigers were. We drove in and quickly spotted the tracks – we drove along the tracks to the spot where they led into the forest. We heard alarm calls – this seemed to be the moment. We waited, but nothing stirred. As the day wore on we moved around, tracking more alarm calls, but it appeared we were waiting in vain – the forest hid the tigers and they were not coming out.

A peacock in Bandavgarh

By that afternoon, for our fourth safari I had begun to feel nervous. We only could do one more safari after this one and it was starting to seem like after hours upon hours in a jeep we were not going to find any of the tigers. It felt like a mirage – were these tigers even here? My optimism was clouded. We started driving and once again, Banu said there wasn’t a chance until later – and that we should keep our hopes tempered because our Zone held very shy tigers who did not come out regularly. So we slowly drove around, Banu searching half-heartedly, as we killed time. We saw new species – Sambar deer and a jackal – and I was beginning to accept that maybe this wasn’t my time to see a tiger in the wild.

Tiger sitting up

But as the sun set and we started to drive back towards a watering hole, we saw a crowd of jeeps in the distance – Banu stepped on the gas and we stood up in anticipation. We parked as everyone took pictures, but I couldn’t see it. I suddenly realized that all my scanning had been absurd. A tiger was sitting at the watering hole, but it took quite a bit of energy to see him even in the open – his orange striped coat was an impeccable camouflage. I couldn’t have seen him quickly driving past. But there he was now – a two-year-old male cub, enjoying the late-afternoon sun and undisturbed by all the faces watching him. He was as magnificent as I had imagined and seeing him after all that time searching truly put into perspective the amount of territory tigers cover and their unpredictable wildness. As he stood up to walk away it was incredible just to see him move.

Tiger standing up

We thought that was it, but a few moments later we heard more alarm calls and sure enough, a different tiger came up to perch.

Tiger lying down

This one was from the same batch of cubs, but a female. Banu mentioned how lucky we were – in a few months, when these cubs at two-and-a-half, they will fight over territory and then most will leave the area to begin their adult lives. We were catching them in their last season. We sat and watched as she lay down, yawned and relished in the day. When she got up to move on I felt incredibly lucky that we’d had such a clear and varied sighting. Many people are lucky just to see a tiger through the trees, when they see them at all. Here we’d had two fully open tigers moving around and standing in plain view.

It was the perfect ending to our safaris – we’d played hide and go seek but the tigers had always remained in control. We’d only found them when they let themselves be found, a testament to their control over the land they have inhabited for innumerable generations before jeeps started searching for them. We’d come to Bandavgarh and avoided being among the unlucky.

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Happy Holidays

It’s very bizarre, after months of living in India, to land in the Brussels airport and see a sign that says: “Brussels: Welcoming. European. Efficient.” I walked through the bright, crisp, orderly terminal until I found a cafe and ordered a tomato, mozzarella and parma ham sandwhich. In my groggy, jet-lagged state I felt a little bit like I was in some weird dream alternate universe – I knew these things existed but they barely seem real. Can I really eat that tomato without knowing how they washed it? Is it really possible that there is good baguette and mozerrella in the world? Where is the trash? Why is no one pushing me?  But also: why does it seem so sterile and colorless?

Yes, after my hazy and jarring layover in Brussels I landed back in New York for 2 weeks to see family and friends. There’s so much to love about being back and yet so much to miss about India (let’s start with the weather…). I’m not going to blog while I’m here, so I hope everyone enjoys their holidays and I will write again once I return to India for New Years!

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Sign Me Up

I’ve been wanting for awhile to add an extra page to my blog extolling the virtues of India’s signs. And I finally have.

You see, a lot of the things I see here deserve one simple posting. But the signs are one of my favorite parts of India. They run the gamut- they’re politically incorrect. They’re gramatically incorrect. They remind you of crazy scenarios that don’t exist in other countries. And sometimes they just have their own charm about them that makes you shake your head and say, ‘this is India.’

So I’ve made a page (click here to go) and I’ll keep adding more photos as I see them. But for today: thank you advertisers of India, you keep me constantly amused.

A few of my favorites:

There’s a whole slew of signs like this one. In America you’d have luxury brands with taglines like “Now everyone can have this item.” Here it’s always “You can have this if you’re incredibly elite. Nothing reminds you of the caste system like a sign that extols the extremely un-American value of all men NOT being born equal (and then making sure that the point has been made by adding “So True”).

Why would God not approve? Why must we invoke God into our littering campaigns?

I love the mangled English and the implication that a ‘fresh’ graduate is akin to a lemon or lime. The real question is: when do we go rotten?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just here?

 

 

 

 

This is one that’s funny because its so Mumbai and  so unintentional. The Mumbai bus service is called ‘BEST’ (whatever that stands for. Like MTA in New York). But, of course, anyone without that know-how would assume this sign just means that you’re about to get on the very best bus in a very special lane. It made me laugh when I first saw it and even after it was explained to me, I still like the idea that no one seems to have caught on to the joke.

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I’ve been here long enough that I take a lot of India’s quirkiness for granted at this point. I hate that I’ve become a bit used to some of the things that used to wow me. But it was nothing that a horse-drawn amphibious carriage couldn’t fix.

Daniel’s week had consisted of bouncing from one city across India to the next for work without getting much sleep. Mine had continued to go downhill: Bank of America forgot I lived in India and shut off my card; my internet stopped working again; my driver and housekeeper decided they hated each other for a little while and wanted to yell about it (long story…). So on Friday Daniel announced that we both needed some time to ourselves to just relax. I couldn’t have agreed more.

We decided to go to Alibaug, which is a beach town about two and a half hours outside of Mumbai. I loved driving out – its calming to watch as the crazy dirty chaos of Mumbai turns into quiet high-rises and then morphs into craggy hills, as though one of the world’s major cities wasn’t just a stones throw away. We got to the hotel and spent the first day just zoning out- reading, eating and sitting were the main criteria.

But for the second day in Alibaug we wanted to experience the beach and the Kolaba fort, an 18th century fort on an island about a kilometer from the beach. It was a gray and misty day but, as always, it was still plenty hot. And as we walked up towards the pier, I noticed there was something a little different about this particular beach.

Alibaug Beach with Kolaba Fort in the distance

The tide was out so far that half of the beach was just wet sand. The fort stood in the distance with water surrounding it, but we watched as people waded their way up to it. The water was so low that all you needed to do was hike your pants up and start walking for about half an hour from the beach and you’d reach it – no swimming required

But there was an even more curious spectacle to take in as we got to the beach’s edge. Strangely rigged horse-drawn carriages were at the ready to take tourists across the shallow shores. Instead of regular wheels they had the kinds you would normally see on a dune buggy. They were equipped for sand, water and the weight of whatever number of people wanted to cram into their chariot.

We came up to one and asked the driver how much. “Teen-saw”, he responded. 300 rupees, or a little less than $7. This was not going to be like the $50 carriages in Central Park. I still had to haggle, just to save myself a little respect.

The view from our horse

“Doe-saw?” I replied (200). The man nodded and waved us in. I realized that while our carriage ride was going to be less than $5, based on his easy acceptance of my offer, I probably was overpaying by at least half.

With that, we trotted off. It seemed like we were in some weird dream sequence. We looked out onto gray skies and black sand on our way to an eroding imposing structure in the distance – I felt like a character in a fairy tale. The horse hit the water and kept going. The carriage – all wood and metal, with paint flaking off every plank – teetered and tottered but we got there eventually. Our transport waited and we went for a stroll around the abandoned fort.

Kolaba Fort

Daniel commented that it was easy to imagine this place as it must have been. It was true – there weren’t a lot of people around and perhaps it was the clouds that darkened everything but it seemed like we were in some sort of abandoned piece of history.

Daniel and our chariot

We made our way back and I watched as ‘land’ started coming closer and closer. Our horses decided to make a sprint for it at the end. The whole thing was fun and weird all at the same time. And it had cost us around $4.50. Only in India. I’m glad we got away to be reminded that there’s so much more we can continue to be amazed by.

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Thank You

View of the mountains in Iran from the plane window

Sitting on a plane with the in-flight map telling me I was somewhere between Semnan and Mashad, Iran, I looked out the window and saw something amazing. Sand-colored mountains swept out in front of me, and at their base was a swirling mass of desert. I’d never seen anything like it before. So I just stared and watched as this remote part of the world went by. No people could live there, probably only a few plane passengers ever happened to look out the window and see it. And it was beautiful.

I’m in awe of the world. At 37,000 feet and 6,000 miles from New York it feels like there are an infinIte number of places and things to experience.

I normally don’t get overly personal on this blog, but i want to thank the person who helped plant the seed for that awe of the world- my grandmother. It was for her funeral that I needed to leave Mumbai and go back to the US this week. And I already miss her with all my heart. But I’m just so grateful that I got that love of the world from her.

She and my grandfather travelled all over the world at a time when few did. When Daniel and I went to Kuala Lumpur in June she had told me all about the ‘small rural city’ I was about to visit. She told me she could still picture the faces of children bathing in the river. She was amused when I relayed to her that her small rural city was nowhere to be found and had been overtaken by a bustling metropolis.

She had never been to India but she still loved all the stories. When my mom recently went to visit her she had all my blogs printed out, paper clipped together in order, and the topic of each one written out at the top in what I assume was her beautiful distinctive handwriting.

I was thankful this week for the perspective even a few months in India had given me. Every small difference stood out- some welcome (cleanliness, urban planning, my beloved bagels) and some moments of India missed (the color, the vibrancy, the equally beloved Indian food). It was reverse culture shock, being reminded of the different lives everyone is living simultaneously throughout the world.

These are such different, unique worlds. My world at home, my current world in my little patch of Mumbai, and even the worlds I flew over and could only see at a distance. But how incredible that we live in a time where we can aspire to experience it all.

I am going to keep writing and hope that she’s still reading. I am going to keep looking out windows hoping to catch a glimpse of something new. And I am going to feel lucky to be back in India.

The swirling deserts without the mountains

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