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Stranger in a strange land…

I wake up at 5 AM, I’m used to that at Udayan, that’s when the girls awoke and the sound of their morning ministrations and singing was my alarm clock.  I have bags to unpack and I am now very hungry.  Making my way to the kitchen I am confronted with the huge refrigerator and lots of prepared foods – frozen, boxed nothing like what I’ve had for sometime.  In India, marketing is a must each day or things spoil so the luxury of freshly prepared foods is going to a challenge.  I make a note to get over to my organic market today and make some vegetarian dishes for the family.   I am really feeling lost – there is just so much in this kitchen to deal with. The microwave is remarkable to me as is the freezer -all these gadgets – it’s as though I’ve been away for years, not months.

modern conveniences, or kitchen culture shock!

I take Jacques for a walk and notice a can of soda someone has tossed on the ground, it looks so out of place, everything is so quiet, too quiet and so pristine. I scoop to pick it up and throw it out and then it hits me – in Kolkata I never would have done this, there would be too much to clear away!  The streets here look so beautiful, especially after the newly fallen snow. Yet it is lonely, impersonal, there is no sign of life, no people, no music wafting in the air no scent of spices cooking. Unused and overlooked.  The solitude and insular nature of this life is a stark contrast to life in Kolkata. I am missing the daily dialogue and the interest in the life going on around us. You may be walking alone, but you are never alone. The entire city is one family, very communal. Here it is segregated into your job, family; one may be part of the same village but living in a different area is as though you lived in a different part of the state.   In Kolkata it all meshed and in one day whatever you did your world merged  –  many of the same faces appeared, and even strangers reached out to help.  Work, play the daily chores all bring (it seems) the communal nature of life in India into the fore.  I felt like I lived with the whole world, everything was interwoven like the  colorful intricate tapestries they create.

some of the younger gang

a side street in Kolkata

My body is in this world but my mind is split in two worlds.  The constant blare of the TV, invasive and jarring is a reminder of  the lack of natural environment.  In Kolkata, especially at Udayan, I was one with nature and the elements in India, totally immersed in the children, art and the culture. It feels very artificial here – air conditioning and heat   are like barriers- I want to open the window all the time, even in the snow, rain and cold to let life in.  I have all the conveniences, yet it is like living in an Ivory Tower.

My cell phone rings jolting me out of my musings about the nature of my two worlds. It is my sister, just in for a few days from California.  Will I come into New York and meet her for dinner?  Of course I say, I haven’t seen her in 3 months and we always make time for each other, even if it is for just an hour or two.

Waiting for Metro North I observe that no one on the train platform makes eye contact, I see bored, stressed and depressed faces, no smiles, no interaction. Then the train comes rumbling in and the crowd exclaims that it is just “so crowded!” I chuckle to myself, I definitely have a new perspective on little things, having taken the trains in Kolkata, this one seems nearly empty…the fact that there are seats available, that no one is leaning, sitting or sleeping on me – wow- even the bathroom (which I never would have thought of using before my time in India) looks sparkling clean.

As I ride the taxi uptown to my meet my sister I am marveling at how perfect and serene the streets of Madison Avenue look, with buildings gleaming, and how orderly the traffic is . Even though I traveled to and from the same destination while working at Udayan so many times, we couldn’t go a mile without asking for directions on many a street corner. Street signs were not to be counted on and sometimes the only way I knew where I was going was by landmarks – the same fruit stands, or the way a street curved, or the stream beside the road – these were my road signs.

A landmark to the road towards Udayan

Outside New Market in Kolkata

After dinner we walk back to Grand Central together and then we say goodbye, but even though it is only 10 PM  on Saturday night – the height of travel  at the station on a weekend, I ask Cindy to stay with me.  I actually feel unsafe – this place seems sketchy. Cindy is incredulous – “are you serious” she asks.  Yeah, I am and I never felt this way in Kolkata – even though I was traveling alone, I felt safe and at home.

When I am finally seated on the train, I close my eyes while listening to my Bengali music and I can see the faces of the class 10 boys as they sang on the bus, or the beatific face of the musician who gave a concert in Jaipor.

posing at sunset

my musician friend from Jaipor

I must keep the fire burning in my heart with my music and the photographs of the children, so I can bring myself back to the special place I have just left.  And I will continue to write as I did in India and create some of my own collages – after all I’ve had the best teacher, the children of Udayan and their bright smiling souls.

Always ready for the camera!

"my girls" and dorm-mates for two months

These are the greatest teachers I’ve had in my career, and I hope my work will          be as inspired as these are. Namaskar…..



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Flying through the air in a chair…..

I head for the airport in Kolkata after a full day visiting friends and saying goodbye, one of Shamlu’s staff has accompanied me as it is the middle of the night .  The air is hot and very humid even though it is now midnight, and I am wearing my sandals.  We say our final farewell and I am off to the lounge to wait for the flight to Frankfurt.

Farewell party

I am thinking about what a friend of mine said long before I left for Kolkata. “Stacey, be aware of your reaction as you board the plane to return to the US”. I thought he meant that I would be grateful for the amenities but I was very wrong.  As I boarded the plane I felt like a visitor from another planet.  First there was the issue of my sandals, not exactly travel gear when heading home to winter.  I make a note to change into the pair of sneakers I’ve stashed in my carryon, then attempt to settle into my seat.

The gentleman seated next to me has already put on his traveling socks, adjusted his seat and is almost asleep – that is until I try to work to remote for my seat and end up with my legs and head going in two different directions. I can’t get the hang of all this technology and resolve to put my reading glasses on to consult the manuel to figure out the myriad of various seat adjustments.  This goes on for awhile and I’m almost ready to sit upright for the duration of the flight to Frankfurt when a hand reaches over and grabs the controller from me. With one swift thumb move, I am laying flat and my feet are where they’re supposed to be. My seat mate has taken pity on me (or more likely wishes to have a night’s rest) and done the deed for me.

I feel slightly stupid but I am tired so I gratefully fall asleep – until the meal is served and I can’t get the seat upright. On with the reading glasses and out with the manual, I am studying it seriously, I feel this must be an intelligence test until the flight attendant swoops down, does the thumb trick and there I am whipped to seated position for the meal. It is lovely, but there are too many utensils for me to deal with, all this silverware  – I’m used to a fork at most and my right hand.  Everyone else has turned on their personal entertainment devices – forget that – there’s no way I’ll get the hang of the video menu, my music on my trusty iPod will have to do. Besides, I haven’t seen television in two months, what’s another 16 hours?  Then I remember Ron’s little warning – “note  your reaction to the plane as you embark …..”  I realize then that he wasn’t saying I would be grateful to have all this technology and luxury, he knew I would be bewildered – a fish out of water, and he is correct.   I have such a different mindset and I wish to remain in this lovely trance of simplicity. I am most definitely overwhelmed.

Cuddly bear, waiting to lick me for a giant welcome home

We land in New York and it is reverse culture shock.  I am relieved to see my husband, all smiles and am excited to head home to see my kids and Jacques, my wonderful dog.    As we load the car I walk to the left side of the front seat and he asks me if I’m going to drive – NO! I say, then realize that that’s the driver’s side, we aren’t in India anymore and we drive on the right. Ah…think I’ll avoid driving for a while.

As we head home I am in awe at  how orderly everyone is on the road,  there are traffic signs which everyone (almost) obeys.  I am used to going with the flow in Kolkata , not always knowing what street I’m on, this is so… easy.  Hmmm, I never felt that way before while driving home from the airport.

Everyone is waiting for me, I plop down as soon as I’m inside the house to allow my dog to lick me until I am fully slathered, my kids coming in one by one, looking at my clothes and me like I’m an alien.  I kind of feel that way – there’s snow outside, tons of it, something I haven’t seen in over a year, and all this furniture. I sit on the floor for a while and chat with them.  This is going to take some time for sure.  I move the luggage upstairs and once again am jolted by the sight of my bedroom (huge by my current standards) and bathroom – aya baba – the shower is as large as my bathroom had been at Udayan. Rick says “I know you’re tired, you must be in another world”, how true, how true….. I am exhausted and fall asleep forgoing dinner.

Snow! Jacques and I are ready to play...

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Life, a painter’s palette…of course the journey continues!

Having returned to the States one week ago, feeling a little out of place, many friends and viewers asked me to continue writing and I can’t argue. In fact, it grounds me to continue this blog, I feel as though I am taking Kolkata, Udayan and the children home with me and then I can close my eyes and feel India, smell the spices, hear the music I so miss.

As an artist and teacher, while working in the art room, I sensed the presence of something very powerful – spiritual electricity I think, inspired by the students and the act of creation.  A creative alliance I suppose, and the feeling of a higher power guiding us all.  And so, I would like to post the photos of the children’s work today, as an introduction to the next phase of my journey.

” Every blade of grass has its Angel that bends over it and whispers, “Grow, grow” ‘…..The Talmud

Enjoy these, and if you would like, some are still available for purchase.  All proceeds go to the funding of Udayan , a welfare and rehabilitation school for the children of leprosy patients.  And, stay tuned as I continue to write and hopefully return to the path of creativity the children have inspired.




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One last word….

I’ve been packing and seeing friends today as I will leave at 11 PM for the airport. Hanging out in “my” room, I finish the last few uploads of my blog.   Antara comes in to chat and say goodbye and she presents me with a gift – a beautiful choker necklace which I will cherish.  She is my good friend, always there every step of the way on this journey and even before I arrived in India. We had emailed each other for many months about supplies – but more than that, we have laughed and discussed life, politics, just about everything – she is a bundle of special energy and sparks my day each time I see her.   I tearfully say my goodbye to her – I promise I will return as soon as I can.

We are taking photos of Shamlu and me and the staff when Bobo comes bounding out of his room – he knows I’m off to somewhere and that his friend won’t be here to play for a while, so the journey ends as it began, with a large black dog.

Family portrait

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Jaipor and the tears of an elephant…

Jaipor as I enter the city

Ah Jaipor, the pink city of palaces, rich in culture and beauty.  This drive is a very pleasant one, and as we get closer to Jaipor, the barren land gives way to lush mountainous scenery – we are in the foothills of the Himalayas.  I can hardly contain myself as I now see the beginnings of the wall surrounding the city, the Amber Fort. I is an improbable sight as the walls wind around the high mountainous region of the city and can be reached by elephant or on foot, but you’d have to be hardy as it reaches thousands of feet high. It was built over 400 years ago and provided security from the opposing tribes and armies.  I ask the driver to stop so I can take a few pictures and then am happily greeted by a line of decoratively painted elephants returning from their days work at the fort, carting tourists up and down the steep winding pathways to the upper palace area.  This is so different from the way I felt in Delhi, I am anxious to get to the hotel

Choki Dhani

and then go off to explore at Chokhi Dhani, an ethnic Rajasthani village.

young musicians and dancers at the village

The village is a a working one with a miniature version of the entire area of Jaipor. Families perform dances and music, magic, palm reading and  there is a shopping area lit by torches,each “shop” is beautifully painted with typical Rajasthani art. The people of this region are rich in culture and their royal heritage. their dress is colorful and ornate and their dances defy gravity and coordination. I am delighted. As one enters the village you are showered with flower petals, your forehead is painted with the ethnic colors of red and yellow.  The visit includes an entire evening of entertainment and dinner t a choice of original restaurants serving Rajasthani food in the traditional way – large chairs, lavish cutlery and serving practices. I feel like royalty and settle down to a great meal, watching the musicians and dancers perform. Then I wander through the village, I can take a camel or elephant ride (no thank you), shop for ethnic spices and clothing, weaving or just sit under the moonlit sky in a huge rocking chair built for a queen.  As I walk around the villagers ask me “mem sab” (honored one or beautiful lady – depending on who says it – to join their dance, play an instrument , and many ask to take my picture. They are beautiful people both physically and soulfully, and I enjoy my time there until the driver appears and we head to the hotel to rest up for the tons of sightseeing tomorrow.

I join in the festivities

After meeting my guide,  a very charming and knowledgeable man we drive to the Hawa Mahal for pictures, then on to the Amber Fort to see the wall and the palace buildings and to photograph the elephants .  We climb the steps to the fort since I refuse to ride the poor elephants, overworked by thousands of tourist rides all day long, and marvel at the breathtaking views from the top, overlooking the entire city. This fort is a wonder and looks a little like the Great Wall of China it has been compared to. It was built in the 16th century and is indeed amber in color.

Hawa Mahal

elephants at Amber Fort

I walk down to the court to see the majestic elephants in all their glory and stop to stroke the trunk of one who has no riders on top. She looks at me sorrowfully  and I can’t believe my eyes but she is crying. I then hear a terrific thud and see a man beat another elephant over the head with an iron rod, the noise is so loud everyone turns and I impulsively scream NO!!! . My guide tells me not to get involved, that there are animal rights activists trying to stop the use of elephants and camels for tourism. And yes he says, that elephant was crying as she was tired, hot and frightened.  These 150 majestic creatures of God must work all day carrying tens of thousands of tourists to the top of the fort and bottom. I ask if they are at least well cared for since the visitors each pay 700 rupees for a 10 minute ride and he responds that no, they are mistreated. I would think the opposite since this is their livelihood, but I am mistaken. I tell my guide I want to leave as soon as possible, my heart is aching and I can’t take another minute of watching this abuse.

the top of the fort

I can’t speak for a while and wander off to shoot some photos of the natural surroundings and then return to the car to see the City Palace, which is still home to the royal family of Jaipor. This is a remarkable building so well planned that even 400 years ago they recycled the water and even invented an “air conditioning” system for the heat and the cold weather. The place has 4 main gates, each representing a different aspect of the earth and the wildlife. My favorite is the peacock gate, with crushed gems and vegetable coloring to decorate the ornate doors and wall with images of peacocks. The summer part of the palace has vents for sunlight to come into the building but it is then deflected to avoid getting too hot. There are terraces where the Maharani and maharaja sat at night to watch the moon and constellations and listen to their court musicians perform. Water from fountains was used as a mist mixed with jasmine and rose petals to cool the rooms, the scent must have been amazing and so romantic!  Across from this end of the palace is the “winter” quarters where hundreds of jewel like mirrors have been geometrically cut in such a way that when a fire is lit inside the room, the heat is retained and there was no need for blankets. This engineering was introduced from Belgium and is both practical and gorgeous.

winter palace mirrored walls

close up of the jeweled walls

The maharani lived there until her death one year ago at the age of 94. She was said to have been the most beautiful maharani ever, and from the pictures I think tat is an accurate description. She is more beautiful than Ingrid Bergman in her heyday or even Grace Kelly. She was also a great benefactress and let out all the buildings to the families of the original artisans so that their craft of weaving and art, jewelry making will continue to be passed down to each generation.

After speaking to one of the artists there, I find out that all of the family members of these royal artisans are given the studios for free to show their wars and work in them. The maharaja also used the funds from tourism and the selling of crafts to start and maintain several schools and homes for girls.  She was much admired and in all of India, this is one principality that has remained at their original palace and are still revered.

Observatory and the sun dial

Next stop is the Mantar Observatory and museum  which is a completely natural observatory containing a sundial that is accurate within 27 seconds. It is in the Guinness Book of World records . The sundial isn’t all though, there are other instruments that tell the phases of the moon and the constellations as well as astrological timings. When a child was born they were brought to the observatory to determine the astrological aspects of the timing of the birth. If I had the time, I could have had my entire chart completed just using the outdoor instruments, no computers as we use today.

another view of all the equipment at the observatory

nearby market in Jaipor

I then ask if we can just walk to a temple and a park to get a feel for the area that is “shop free” and my wish is granted. All over Jaipor there are gorgeous and well maintained parks and gardens as the Rajasthani people took their health very seriously and believed in fresh air and sun in tier daily life of prayer, work play and the practice of outdoor yoga.  I can relax and stop thinking about the elephants for a bit.

Jol Palace (floating in the water)

The day is almost complete and I have changed my flight  – I will leave in the early morning instead of staying another full day. I am homesick for Udayan and want to get back to see the children for one more afternoon.

After a lively dinner at an authentic dinner which includes entertainment by young Rajasthani musicians singing lyrical songs in beautiful voices along with two girls dressed in traditional colorful and gorgeous scarves and jewels who twirl with pottery on their heads and dance on swords (ouch), I am off to sleep so I can make the flight at 7 AM.

Rajasthani princess NOT!

sunset in the oasis of beauty

I fly into Kolkata and go straight from the airport to Udayan for one last goodbye. As I arrive the kids scream and shout my name, surrounding me with hugs and kisses. They ask me to stay for lunch and I am called in and asked to be seated in the front of the dining hall. There I am presented with a giant garland of marigolds and a brass statue of the god Shiva. I thank them trying not to cry and ask that my words be translated a bit so the real meaning is understood. I tell them that it is they who should be thanked for allowing me the honor of working with them and for the way in which I was welcomed into the Udayan family.  I am , forever there in spirit and they will always be in my heart.

My tenure is over and I return to Kolkata  to pack up and get ready for my late night flight on Saturday. One last party Shamlu says, so off we go again – isn’t this how it all started?

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Agra and the Seventh wonder of the World

Her Majesty

Early morning we set off for what is supposed to be a 4 hour trip to see the Taj Mahal but ends up being an 8 hour trip!  I keep reminding myself that I am here to see this 7th wonder of the world and sleep for much of the ride.  We arrive very late and are greeted by our guide rushing to get as much time in as possible.  There are  no fuel operated cars in the area of the Taj Mahal due to the effects of pollution, so we board an electric bus and are off!  I can hardly contain myself. Stepping off the bus I have a glimpse of the majestic building and gasp, it is unbelievable!  We must now cover our shoes with special socks so that the marble is not destroyed by so many visitors.  Stepping through the gates I am not prepared for my reaction and nearly cry as I see the Taj Mahal, I pinch myself – I’m really here!  I think most of the time my mouth is open in a half smile, half gasp, looking all around I listen to the story of this majesty before me but can’t stop looking everywhere as the guide tells us the background of the building, it is a story of intrigue, great unending love, tragedy and betrayal. Sort of a Shakespearean play.

guest quarters

The Taj Mahal was built as one of three last wishes of the Maharani as she was on her deathbed. She was the third wife of the great Maharaja but his favorite and reported to be the most beautiful.  The Maharaja rushed to her side and she asked him to do three things: one to never remarry, two, to always take care of her 14 children and third, to build a large and beautiful palace as a tribute to his love for her.  She died shortly after he agreed to these wishes and spent many years at the side of her tomb, never leaving her side, not socializing and in mourning for a very long time until his daughter begged him to remember her last wish  – build the Taj Mahal. Work began and as it was nearing the finish he began to build a “black palace” for himself, but was imprisoned by the third son of his other wife who wished to prevent him from passing his empire onto his older brother.  And so, the great Maharaja spent the remainder of his very long life inside the walls of another building able to only gaze at the breathtaking creation his had built for his beloved wife.

servant's quarters

The Taj Mahal defies words, as it is too beautiful to describe, but  will try. It is made of a very special marble produced in Agra that is translucent and is cut in many ways similar to a diamond in order to achieve the perfect reflection of light, thus the changing colors at different times of the day.   Diamonds and gold used to be in the cuts of the ceilings and arches of the gates, but they were removed by the British during the war of independence. The flowers gracing in perfect symmetry are actually inlaid intricately hand cut semi precious gems found in Agra. Each piece of lapis, tiger’s eye, mother of pearl and carnelian is shaved and cut into a myriad of pieces to make the flowers. Each of the four entrances and inside the building these flowers grace the walls. In addition, the marble is hand carved to make beautiful shapes along all the walls of the inside and outside.  At each of the four entrances, the Koran is carved as well and inside a specific chapter is carved around the entire main room which contains the tomb of the Maharaji  – this is in perfect symmetry to the four walls and faces West towards the mecca of Islam. One thing is unsymmetrical and that is the tomb which lies next to hers – that of the great Maharaji who died and was laid to rest beside his one true love.  It is a love story, but is also a tragedy, his “black palace” is seen in the distance, never completed and used now as a park area.

We leave the Taj, I am walking backwards to savor every last minute of this amazing place and go onward to a workshop to see the ancient way the carving of the temple and gem cutting that was used to make the decorative designs of the Taj Mahal. It is wonderful and I can’t imagine how anyone could be patient enough to do this painstaking and creative work.

One last look

It is getting late and for reasons I may never understand, we must return to Delhi, instead of continuing on to Jaipor – which would have been the logical thing to do. Instead we are traveling another 8 hours (!) only to wake early tomorrow to head to Jaipor.  We have spent 16 hours in the car for a 2 hour journey back in time to the days of majesty.  It was totally worth the hassle, but I would suggest another route to anyone desiring to visit the ‘golden triangle”.

Arriving at midnight, I am to tired to eat and crash with my clothes on. I can’t wait to get out of Delhi and visit Jaipor.

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