Category Archives: thirst for learning

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…..



1 Comment

Filed under art, art students, artists, Bengali, celebrations, commuity, creativity, dancing, Delhi, Agra & Jaipor travel, food, homeward bound, India, India social life, modern kitchen conveniences, music, student painted paper collages, teaching, the children, thirst for learning, travel, volunteering globally, world service

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under a little hstory, Delhi, Agra & Jaipor travel, India, Photography, thirst for learning, travel

Small wonders make a big impression.. (the gift)

The day until I leave Udayan is nearing now, and I now savor every moment, rising early to see the sunrise, listening for the foxes with their daily song, greeting the resident puppies a they scamper about and vie for my attention and most of all, the morning greetings as I leave the girls dorm to start art class. As I walk past the garden of flowers and vegetables I see they have grown so tall, it is a mark of time and I can’t slow down the clock.

“Good morning auntie” is a song to my ears and finding 10 girls just listening for my alarm so they may knock on the door to say hello and pick out my outfit for the day makes me smile.   As I head for the dining hall for tea and then run off to open the art room, the little ones (3 and 4 years old) chirp “auntie, painting class today?” When I say yes, they jump and squeal with delight.  Ah, I feel this is my second home and these children have welcomed me as family. It is though I am a surrogate mother and relish all that goes with it. Tears, cuts and exam questions, just ‘hanging out” in the room and the constant requests to see my children and my home and to hear stories of America are the start and the end of each day.

As I walk to the green, the boys greet me with a chorus of “how are you Auntie”, may we come to finish just one more piece?”  Of course I always say yes, and usually have my hands full with so many students in such a small space but we manage and enjoy our time.

Most of the supplies are depleted and this is a good sign, they have been prolific in their work. If nothing else, this opportunity has awakened a part of their souls and the creativity within every one of them. They never cease to amaze me, every day a new “artist” is born.  Today as the class leaves and the room has been tidied, several boys wait (as usual) to talk I assume, but this time they are waiting with a gift. Tarak has secretly been hoarding some paper and has made a gorgeous (really) small paper collage for me as a gift. I can’t help it, I break down as I say thank you, it is such a wonderful and beautiful gesture of how much they appreciate the time we have spent together.   I try to get the words out to tell them how much they have changed my life and touched my soul, but my tears deceive me and flow anyway. Soon, we are all hugging and crying, even the boys. We all hug, dry our tears and they wait as I lock up. Many of the other boys are waiting (word gets around fast here) and they joke with me and give me candy to cheer me up. I try to explain that I am happy and these are tears of gratitude and happiness. I am so honored to have had them in my life, and vow to come back for an extended teaching tenure when my three children are away at their colleges.  I know I will return, India and Udayan are in my blood now and forever.

We walk out to the playing field and chat some more until the mosquitoes chase us away and I head for the girls dorm. They are waiting too – as I said, there may be 300 students but they must have a pipeline. The girls have food and tea and tissues, they insist I splash water on my face. I am not crying but my eyes are red. They then watch me like mother hens to ensure I am okay, then they ask for music and we dance in the room until we are exhausted and laughing. This is my day, and I couldn’t ask for anything else. Tarak’s one small gift has brought all this to life. I feel very privileged to have had this day.

1 Comment

Filed under art students, dancing, music, teaching, the children, thirst for learning, world service