Sunday, April 30, 2006

Death stalks Mt. Hermon

Thursday night my housemate Ethan discovered a renegade rat in his room. And then proceeded to bludgeon it to death with my walking stick. I may never recover and I didn’t even witness the event.

Brian, Laura, Joanna, Courtney and I were all minding our own business in the kitchen when Ethan charged into the room to announce the presence of the intruder. Brian immediately joined him in the chase and from the kitchen we could hear thumps, bangs, and masculine hunting noises (such as the occasional primal grunt). Courtney had gone with to watch and encourage, and ran back and forth between the apartment and the kitchen with reports – “it jumped into his bed!” “They’ve got it cornered!” etc. Eventually all was quiet. Then, because boys really never do grow up, Ethan decided to bring his treasure into the kitchen to show us all. Thank you, Ethan.

But wait! The story doesn’t end there. Last night there was another rat execution at Mt. Hermon. This time the nasty little bugger made an appearance at a Farewell Courtney (heading back to the States to recover from Typhoid Fever) dinner party we were having. It was a warm evening so we had all the food on the table in the sunroom and we were sitting outside on the porch. Suddenly, Joe looked up and nonchalantly commented “hey, look at the little mouse.” Little mouse? Little mouse? Yeah right. Big honking rat racing across the floor and eyeing the table of goodies with his beady little eyes.

Ethan was off somewhere so it was up to Brian and Joe to dispatch the rodent (the ladies of the group being otherwise occupied standing on chairs and screaming). Brian grabbed the walking stick. Joe grabbed a paintbrush. I’m not making this up—the closest thing at hand was a large paintbrush that he brandished ferociously as he charged into the fray. They cornered the rat behind a potted plant and Brian got in a lucky whack with the stick. Good bye rat.

Except that after they had heaved the carcass over the back fence, Brian got an attack of conscience revolving around whether it was really dead. What if it was only wounded and therefore suffering? So, in the dark, he climbed over and around our barbed wire fence to find the rat and put it out of its misery.

As funny as these stories are in hindsight, I am getting really sick of the whole rat situation. I spent three hours on Saturday cleaning and rat-proofing the kitchen as much as I could. I bleached the counters, washed everything we ever even think of eating off of and put all items of food in plastic containers. But there’s still an enormous hole to the outside behind the refrigerator and inevitably there are crumbs and whatnot for rat snacking. Sigh. I’m counting the days till June.

Thursday, April 27, 2006


Well, my decision not to eat dessert at school anymore (part of the larger "no one likes a pudgy bride" campaign) was justified thoroughly this noon when my dining companion bit down on something crunchy in her apple crumble. The crunchy item in question turned out to be a cockroach, baked into the dish. Anyone want seconds?

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

On Modesty

Perhaps one of the most interesting cultural phenomena to observe while traveling is the concept of modesty. What body parts are deemed to be too sexy to be seen? What kind of outfits are considered racy? What is “appropriate attire?” It varies wildly the world over and figuring out what’s what is an important step to fitting in to your host culture.

Yesterday I was wearing a funky long, purple and gold tunic that covered my bum and sported a modest neckline. I was also wearing a shawl, despite the warm weather, because the shirt was sleeveless and showing bare shoulders is not acceptable at Woodstock (or Mussoorie generally—in a big city like Delhi the rules change). And yet on Friday I will don a sari that will expose massive swaths of my lower back and tummy to the world—and that’s no problem. Stomach display is considered perfectly normal and nothing to think twice about, whereas in the US (though the category of “unacceptable dress” is shrinking daily) that kind of midriff baring would probably raise some eyebrows, particularly in a school setting. But Americans don’t bat an eye at naked shoulders. That’s fine.

Perhaps what makes these differences so interesting is that really there’s no “reason” for any of the cultural fashion mandates. There is nothing inherently more sexy—or even sexy at all—about a shoulder, or a stomach, or an ankle. It’s just that particular societies have deemed some body parts titillating and others not. I’d love to find out how or why these cultural norms came about but I suspect the answers are lost to history.

Full Circle

Today I am wearing a lovely pink and orange tie-dyed dupatta with little shells tied on in place of fringe. It's gorgeous and I'm getting lots of compliments on it -- "It's so Rajasthani!" they all exclaim.

Well, yes, it probably is. But it was purchased at Target in the good old US of A. My housemate's mom saw it, thought it was funny that it was made in India and sent it to her. I fell in love with it and have confiscated it. So it's made a full circle. India to the US to India. The world is a funny place.

Sunday, April 23, 2006


Proverb for the Day:

She who lies outside reading for hours will sunburn the backs of her knees.

Reflection for the Day:

Having sun-burnt knees sucks.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Sari magic

Friday night in Delhi we went to the Indian Habitat Center for an art exhibition opening. But not just any art exhibition—it was the first solo event done by our colleague and friend, Joe Demetro. Joe is the wacky High School art teacher that everyone loves. He works primarily in abstract painting as well as sculpture and I often don’t “get” his work, so I was a little nervous about the show but definitely wanted to be there to show my support.

My fellow Delhi-goers and I decided if we were going to an art gallery we were doing it right—suits for the men-folk and saris or dresses for the ladies. So we swanked out and spent about 5 hours at the gallery, listening to Joe give lectures, nibbling on elegant snacks, and gaining an increasing appreciation for the art. At the start of the evening, it was all pretty bewildering to me and while visually interesting, I couldn’t really say that I “liked” any of it particularly. But after hearing Joe explain some of the pieces, and after gazing at them for numerous hours, they grew on me until, by the end of the night, I was exclaiming over how much I loved “The Army” and how I wanted it for my house. Go figure.

As fun as the show was, the most memorable part of the evening was the responses Anne and I got from Indian men to our saris. Good heavens. Around Mussoorie, most everyone is used to Westerners in Indian clothing and so we don’t really get much attention at all when we wear salwar kameez or even saris. Apparently in Delhi, this is not the case. I was wearing a bright orange sari and Anne (blond and blue-eyed) was dressed in green and we attracted a truly astounding amount of attention. Some of it was very positive and affirming—as when one very proper and polite waiter at the restaurant we went to for dinner stepped forward as we were leaving to quietly announce “I just had to tell you how great you two look in your saris,” accompanied by enthusiastic head-nodding from the other waiters.

Some of it was weird, though. We got stared at a lot at the Habitat Center and seemed to be having a particularly strong effect on a certain Indian math professor who was wandering around the exhibit. We met him early into the evening, he complimented our outfits, and I thought that was that. Little did I know that he was keeping tabs on Anne and me all night and repeatedly approached another friend of ours to rave about our outfits as well as our decorum. “Oh, don’t they look lovely in their saris.” “And such demure ladies! See how they haven’t touched a drop of alcohol all night!” etc. etc. ad nauseum.

And then, toward the end of the night (after consuming a fair quantity of alcohol, we suspect) he once again cornered Anne and me to continue his review. We were informed that we were “ideal Indian ladies” and that we fully and brilliantly fulfilled his mental image of what an Indian woman should be. Okay, fine. A little strange and socially inept, but fine.

But then it became clear that he seemed to think that this miraculous state of Indian femininity had been achieved through our living in India. He commented on what a positive influence Indian culture must have had on us to cause us to be so refined and lovely! By this point I was tired of him and somewhat pissed off by the implied criticism of my own culture and we bid him a somewhat curt adieu.

I love my saris and I shall not be deterred from wearing them by the fact that some men are overly fond of the look. However, I think I would be uncomfortable in one if I was ever out and about alone and will stick to group events.

PS – As a fun postscript, as I was writing this blog, I got a call from the guard at the school gate to inform me that my tailor had arrived with, you guessed it, more saris for me. BRIGHT pink chiffon with matching pink blouse and a gorgeous red cotton sari that was purchased by my great-grandmother over fifty years ago. I’m so excited! My friends and I have declared Fridays “sari” days and dress accordingly. Fun!

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Delhi Again!

This weekend was Quarter Break and we got a long weekend free so I headed for Delhi with five buddies for a weekend of eating and shopping. And not just any shopping, as it turned out—it was actually out-of-control-impulse-shopping-gone-wild. In fact, the only plausible explanation that I can offer for my current state of financial destitution is that I was possessed by an evil spirit which caused me to mistake rupees for Monopoly money and therefore spend with wild abandon.

It was fantastic. We browsed saris, haggled over salwar kameez, tried on dozens of sparkly shoes (I managed only to buy three), reveled in the abundance of produce and foreign cheese and generally had a fabulous time bouncing all over the city. I swear we hit most of the major neighborhoods and markets: Khan Market, GK1, INA, Dilli Haat, Pahar Gange, South Extension, Connaught Place, Janput Street, Nehru Place—you name it, we probably spent money there.

And the food! Ah, the blissful experiences of slurping a real milkshake (i.e. made with ice cream and not watery milk), chowing down on sun-dried tomato pasta in cream sauce, and even having a bacon cheeseburger. Yes, I got to eat beef. We went to the restaurant at the American Embassy on our last night in Delhi and splurged on super nachos, burgers, steaks and anything else we could think of to eat.

Anne, Joe and I even made an effort to be cultural on our trip, via a trip to Humayan’s Tomb. It’s a lovely site, with well-kept lawns and beautiful Moghul architecture for the tomb itself. The tomb area is so calm and serene that it’s hard to remember you’re in the middle of an overcrowded, polluted, sweaty third-world city.

So I’m broke but energized and ready to hit the last two months of my stay. Hard to believe, but two months from today I will have left Mussoorie for the last time and will be on my final few days in India. Time flies!

Monday, April 10, 2006

The Changing Times

In response to a query from one of my loyal readers: the Health Center now uses empty film canisters for collecting "samples" from ill patients. Talk about gross. Plus then you have to bring it in! I wrap mine in a paper bag and slink inside the office. But everyone knows why you're there when they see the little bag. And of course, for those of you who don't know Woodstock, the staff tea lounge is directly next to the Health Center so there's always an array of colleagues sitting outside and sipping tea as you march in to the nurses to present your little package. Bleah.

On Illness

When you live in India, illness is a fact of life. The water can make you sick. The food can make you sick. Your roommates can make you sick. If you can think of it, it can probably upset your stomach. The prevalence of all this illness has brought with it a certain degree of comfort in discussing discomforts that I had not experienced in the US and which, to be perfectly honest, I’d rather not experience here. My friends and co-workers aren’t at all hesitant to talk about intestinal parasites and stool samples over lunch. The latest symptoms and diagnoses are the subject of much tea-time talk and a few weeks ago, when I confessed to not feeling entirely well to a high school girl I barely know, she casually asked—without the slightest hint of embarrassment—“diarrhea?” I can barely bring myself to type that word, much less utter it aloud to a virtual stranger! I was mortified.

Luckily, even though we get sick regularly, most everything is curable today. We take antibiotics for the bacteria, “flagelle” for the amoebas, bed rest for typhoid, lactobacil (the “good” bacteria) for pretty much everything, and hope to hell we're not doing permanent damage to our systems with all the drugs we're ingesting. The younger crowd tends to get sick more than the seasoned veterans. I think this is due in large part to the fact that we can’t bring ourselves to swear off of “Bazaar food” as many old-timers have long ago. The rational part of our brains realizes that the restaurants in the Bazaar are dirty, gross and would make a US hygiene inspector go into cardiac arrest. But it’s yummy food and so when the school cafeteria deals us a particularly unkind blow, we find ourselves chowing down on questionable food off dirty plates and imagining we can already feel our insides roiling. Pass the salt and hand me the antibiotics.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Science Fair

Today is the middle school science fair. I somehow can’t remember ever taking part in such an event, although I do have vague recollections of trying to build a carton that would protect an egg dropped from a considerable height and of putting great effort into constructing a gorgeous volcano that really spewed. I just can’t connect these memories with a specific, juried event.

My deprived childhood aside, what a fun thing! I spent a very enjoyable half an hour wandering through the school cafeteria which has been transformed into a staging ground for serious scientific experiment and is now overflowing with posters, beakers, burners, potted plants, magnets, basketballs, diapers, boom boxes, and other paraphernalia in addition to an array of small children eager to tell you about their discoveries. One smartly-attired sixth grader (complete with red tie) informed me that listening to a fast song inevitably increases your heart-rate, although listening to a slow song does not guarantee a decreased heart rate. Another pair gravely avowed that the reason girls had higher blood pressure than boys was probably because they worried more about things like diet and clothing. They also determined that “older people” (i.e. eighth graders) had higher blood pressure than “younger people” (i.e. seventh graders) again perhaps because of stress—contemplating high school can make anyone nervous.

I also learned several scientific tidbits applicable to everyday life. For example, a team of boys (!) discovered that an Indian brand of diapers called Baby Soft outperformed both Huggies and Pampers in a carefully controlled soak-age test. This is information everyone needs to have! And my suspicions that coca-cola is not the best liquid for watering plants were confirmed. Apparently mango juice isn’t very good either, but bottled water is fantastic. Even the tap water produced zero germination in the seeds (which is sort of funny considering all the interesting things tap water can make grow in one’s small intestines).

I came away feeling proud and even, perhaps, a bit smarter.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Why caution is necessary when using e-mail

We use Microsoft Outlook as out school e-mail system and overall I really like it. One of the nice features is that when you get a new message, a little balloon pops up in the corner of your screen, showing who sent the message, the subject and the first line or so of the note. Ordinarily this is a very handy thing. But there can be occasional problems.

For example, yesterday, after receiving some annoying news I e-mailed my school friends a quick note with the subject of “Damn.” It just so happened that my housemate Ethan was showing a movie to his class of 8th graders via his computer so his computer screen was largely projected onto the classroom wall for all to see. And then, into the corner of the movie, comes an e-mail popup that says “damn.” Isn’t technology great?

Keeper of the Zoo

Woodstock is broadly divided into two main schools—the High School and the Quad School, which encompasses both elementary and middle school. I work primarily in the High School and never really spent much time in the Ankle-Biting and Pre-Pubescent Sector. Until now. There is only one librarian in the Quad School library and her brother is getting married so, in true Indian style, she’ll be gone for two weeks (that is some party!). So I am filling in as the sole controlling agent amidst the chaotic ebb and flow of small children in search of reading material.

It really can be alarming. I’ve gotten somewhat used to the insanity of the High School. They’re loud and obnoxious but I can relate to them and usually control them with a mixture of humor and sarcasm. I’m not quite sure what to do with smaller kids. I brace myself each time a tidal wave of pint-sized people pours into the library, shrieking – “where are the Wally books?” “How many books do I have checked out?” “Can I go back to my locker? – and leaving a wreckage of shredded paper, forgotten belongings and un-shelved books in their wake.

But of course it’s not as bad as I make it sound. Many periods are very quiet with only a handful of library frequenters. And even when it’s busy, little kids are adorable and the ones who are just learning to read with confidence are my favorite. They come in, faces alight with the joy of accomplishment, and proudly return a just-finished book before prancing off to find another.

Someone came up with the truly brilliant project of Reading Around the World. We’ve pulled aside a number of books, fiction and non-fiction, from or about the 7 continents and each participating child is responsible for reading one book from each area. When they finish a book, they come racing into the library because we put a sticker on that continent on a large wall-map. Once they’ve completed all 7 continents, they get a prize. Much enthusiasm abounds, although minor altercations do occasionally break out, stemming from a general dearth of books on Antarctica in our collection. The ones we do possess are in hot demand.

So overall I’m having a grand time as Quad Librarian/Zoo Keeper. And if there’s mayhem, at least it’s amusing—it’s hard to take yourself too seriously when a large part of the job consists of saying things like: “Tristan, please stop body-slamming the stuffed gorilla.”