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Friday, May 25, 2012

We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto!

You know you are in India, when you see this sign before you enter the ladies’ room:

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And no, you don’t have to wear a saree to use the facilities!

Come to think of it, it’s quite difficult to use the facilities while wearing 6 meters of fancy fabric wrapped intricately around you, in my not very experienced opinion. Perhaps there’s a trick there that I need to learn, so if you know something like that, do share.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Shifting

That’s what Indians say when they move homes. Shifting. And that’s what we did yesterday. We shifted from our temporary apartment in Vasant Vihar to our permanent (for two years, anyhow) townhouse on the Embassy Enclave (aka the Compound).

I know you guys are curious, so here are pictures of our new digs. Please excuse the shoddy photos and note that they were taken as we were moving in, so none of that stuff is ours. We have yet to get our stuff (household effects or HHE).

Starting on the first floor we have the kitchen. The cabinets are not new but the countertops are granite and that’s nice. There’s a window by the sink and I for some reason love that. Makes doing dishes almost fun. There’s also a freezer, which we are excited about. We look forward to freezing some mangos and other seasonal fruit, so we can use them when not in season (not a lot of frozen fruit in the stores here). It’s not an enormous kitchen but it’s twice the size of the one we had in our temporary place and has much more natural light than the windowless one we had in Falls Church, so we like it.

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The living room is actually a living-dining combo, like in the temporary apartment but more spacious. Although the same couches and the same coffee table, which we may end up owning but that’s a topic for another post. Since we don’t yet have our HHE, we also get a small TV from the Embassy (not pictured here because they hadn’t “shifted” it yet). I think I am going to return the two armchairs and the little round table because they are very easily tippable by someone cute and naughty, who climbs everywhere these days. I’ll see if I can replace them with something more stable.

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The dining room has a large dining table (with an extra leaf) and a matching hutch/china cabinet. I am not much of a hutch person as I don’t have fancy china to display in it, so I may send that back too rather than keep it empty.

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The laundry/half bath is a little strange. It’s directly to the right as you enter the home and feels like a mud room except it’s not really because it houses the only bathroom on the first floor (behind the door). So, if you have dinner guests, you either have them use that bathroom in the laundry room (not ideal) or go upstairs (also not great) but it’s not the end of the world.

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Upstairs there are three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a den. The master bedroom has a private bath.

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The two other bedrooms and the den (below) share another bath.

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There are no closets per se but the bedrooms and the den have built in wardrobes. There’s also a little storage area under the staircase and a bigger, though not air-conditioned one outside. 

There’s also a small garden with a picnic table and some banana and papayas plants. This morning I asked our gardener if we can start a small vegetable garden. He said for 50 rupees (about $1) he’d get some seeds and get some things (that should be planted around this time) planted. If all works according to plan, we can eat our own veggies too. How cool would that be?!

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So there you have it, a tour of our new home. It’s nice to be someplace where we are going to stay for a while, although, as soon as I am done unpacking our stuff (suitcases and UAB) I have to pack again as the kids and I are leaving for Bulgaria to visit my family exactly a week from today. But that’s OK – we look forward to it and it will be a good way to escape the crazy heat here (today the temperature was 108 F /42 C). By the time we come back, it should be monsoon season, which we are told is somewhat cooler but very humid.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Red Fort

Wow, it’s been a couple of weeks since we went to the Red Fort. I’ve been meaning to write about it here but things keep cropping up and I haven’t had a chance to do that. So before I forget again or something else bumps it off my plate, here’s a quick description of the fort and our visit.

Red Fort is located in Old Delhi and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It gets its name from the red sandstone used in its construction. It was built between 1638 and 1648 by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (the same one that had the Taj Mahal built for his favorite wife) when he decided to move his capital from Agra to a new city called (very creatively) Shahjahanabad (present-day Old Delhi). Inside the fort there are a covered bazaar, a mosque, residences for the emperor and his wives and mistresses as well as a couple of audience halls – one for regular folks (Diwan-i-Aam) to have their problems heard by the emperor and another one (Diwan-i-Khas) where the emperor entertained his relatives, courtiers and state guests. The latter is also where the famous Peacock Throne, studded with Koh-i-Noor (a famous, large diamond) and other precious stones, used to be before it was stolen by the Persians in 1783.

The architecture is really amazing with lots of marble and floral marble inlays, scalloped and non-scalloped (for lack of a better term) arches, lattice windows typical of Mughal architecture. The buildings are surrounded by lavish Mughal gardens. Gardens were a favorite pastime for Mughal emperors and they believed their gardens to be paradise on earth, so they refined their design into an art adhering to geometrical design rules and featuring canals, pools and fountains. In the Red Fort, Shah Jahan created a night garden filled with night blooming jasmine and other pale flowers, which together with the marble buildings would glow in the moonlight. 

Today, the Red Fort is the site from which the Prime Minister addresses the nation each August 15, India’s Independence Day. There is also a sound and light show at the fort at night and we are planning on going back to see it.

Some of us (Paul and I) had more fun than others (Nia) at the fort mostly because it was incredibly hot. May and June are the hottest months in Delhi and it’s been consistently above 100 F (40 C). The heat just makes our sight-seeing trips less-than-perfect because we are not used to 100+ F weather and Nia, especially, doesn’t enjoy anything when it’s this hot. We have gone on a couple of other sight-seeing trips and after each one we keep telling ourselves we won’t do any more until the weather cools off (Octoberish). But it’s so hard when we know we live in this amazing city and its wonders are a short car ride away beckoning us to go out and explore. Surprisingly, Chutney doesn’t complain about the heat. He seems so interested in this new world around him that he refuses to nap when we are out. It seems like he doesn’t want to miss anything.
 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Going Native (Part 2)

Today it was Chutney’s turn to get outfitted with Indian clothes. I went shopping with our housekeeper and I thought I’d check what they have for little boys. They had some cute stuff. Apparently, the whole blue-is-for-boys, pink-is-for-girls thing doesn’t work here because the sellers were pushing a bunch of boys clothes in pink (and purple). Now, to be honest, I do like a man who is brave enough to wear a pink or purple shirt but I was not going to get my baby boy a pink Indian outfit. It just didn’t seem right. So, I was looking at some outfits in blue and in white. I was kinda torn between the two colors but ended up getting him an all white kurta (shirt) with white churidar (skinny leg pants). I bought the outfit a little big with the hope that it’ll fit him for a couple of years.

An interesting cultural/linguistic tidbit: The name of the pants comes from the word churi, which means bangle in Hindi. They are called churidar because they are intentionally made longer than the leg, which makes them slouch in folds at the bottom and look like bangles resting on the ankle. Churidar are worn by both men and women. They are very comfortable because they are bias cut so there is some give in the narrow bottom part and the top is usually quite roomy and tightened with a drawstring at the waist. But I digress…

Back to my little man. Doesn’t he look dashing in his new outfit? He was so excited when I put it on him. He usually doesn’t like costume changes but he seemed to really enjoy this outfit. He was giving me all kinds of big grins and totally posing for the camera.

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Sunday, May 13, 2012

Nia Meets Secretary Clinton

Secretary Clinton was in Delhi last week and as part of her visit there was a Meet and Greet with her for Embassy families and children. It was at the Ambassador’s residence but due to space constraints they could only admit a limited number of people, so they gave away 250 tickets to the first people that requested them. Nia, Max and I were among the lucky ones that got tickets. Paul also got a ticket but ended up giving it up because he was “working” the Secretary’s visit and couldn’t be at the Meet and Greet.

Meeting the Secretary was a big deal for Nia. Paul and I got to see the Secretary speak at an event at FSI a few months ago and Nia was really bummed out that she couldn’t come. Shortly after that, Nia’s school in Virginia held an event, at which the kids got to pick a famous person, do research on their life and accomplishments, dress up as them and present their story. Nia picked the Secretary. She read a book about her and did a little write-up about the Secretary that she presented on the day of the event. Here’s a picture of Nia as young Hillary earlier this year:

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So when we heard that the Secretary was going to do a Meet and Greet we immediately jumped on it. Nia was thrilled! We got her out of school, so she could attend the Meet and Greet. There were a bunch of other kids at the event and the Secretary very graciously spend some time with them and shook hands with as many as she could, including Nia.

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Chutney was also there but by the time the Secretary arrived he was in desperate need of a nap and threw a mega tantrum, so I had to step back and calm him down. The Secretary was delayed, which is not at all unusual, and we ended up waiting for 4+ hours for her arrival. Because the space was limited, they didn’t allow strollers and it was a standing-room-only affair, so try as I might I couldn’t get him to nap even though he was very tired. So he was there but didn’t make it in the official pictures. As I was stepping back to calm him down, a very nice stranger lady asked me if I wanted her to take our picture with the Secretary and the Ambassador in the background. I wouldn’t have thought of it otherwise but thanks to her he too has a picture of the event. It’s not a great picture as it is backlit and I look downright scary but I am not complaining. Thank you stranger lady for being so sweet and thoughtful!

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Thursday, May 10, 2012

Marketing

That’s what they call going to the market here.

And here’s what our housekeeper brought after marketing today, to Chutney’s utter delight:

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      • a watermelon
      • four mangos
      • a kilo of apples
      • two kilos of tomatoes
      • a kilo of green beans
      • six little lemons
      • garlic
      • ginger
      • mint
      • green coriander

All for 460 rupees (about $8.60) – not too shabby!

In other news, we were recently told that our permanent housing will be on the Embassy Enclave (aka the Compound). I know it’s like living in a fishbowl and that’s not for everyone but we are really excited and can’t wait to move into our new digs, which happen to be a two-story townhome with a small yard and a carport. Our tentative move-in date is May 23, so stay tuned for pictures.

Also, I bought tickets to Bulgaria, so it’s official, the kids and I will be spending the better part of June in BG. We will be flying Aeroflot Russian Airlines, which makes me a just a wee bit nervous  but we’ll be in BG right smack in the middle of cherry season and that makes me very happy. We will be eating cherries until our tummies hurt. Is it June yet?

Last but not least, it seems like my security clearance for the Foreign Service has gone through and now I need to get a physical check up (even though my medical clearance is current because I had to update it before coming to India) before I can move to the next phase in the long process of becoming a Foreign Service Officer – the suitability review. I am not sure how long that step takes but am happy to be moving along.

There’s a lot more news to report like buying an Indian car, hiring help in India, shopping for fabrics and looking for a tailor, visiting the Red Fort and shaking hands with Secretary Clinton at her recent visit here in New Delhi but I’ll have to table those topics for future posts.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Qutub Minar

Last weekend, we decided to take advantage of the fact that we live in Delhi and play tourists. There’s so much to see and do in the area that it was difficult to decide where to go. There have been 8 distinct settlements in the area through the centuries and in many occasions things were built on top of things from the previous settlement, often using construction materials from the previous settlement, so there are numerous forts, temples, monuments, ruins and a whole bunch more sites worth seeing. We knew that we couldn’t wander for hours because the kids would lose interest quickly, so we settled on Qutub Minar, which is relatively close to where we live.

It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and you can read more about it here but it is basically a victory tower built out of red sandstone and marble at the beginning of Islamic rule in India. At 72.5 m (237.5 ft), it is the tallest minaret in India and the tallest brick minaret in the world. Its construction started in 1193 by Qutub-ud-din Aibak, the first ruler of the Delhi Sultanate, after his defeat of the last Hindu kingdom in Delhi. It’s an example of early Afghan architecture and has five stories, each marked by a projecting balcony. Qutub-ud-din ruled for just four years (1206 and 1210) and was only able to build the first story before he died (playing polo in Lahore), so it was completed by his successors.

The tower has a tilt (kinda like the leaning tower of Pisa) but otherwise has weathered the centuries remarkably well. Tourists used to be able to climb all the way to the top for a gorgeous view but according to our cab driver, there was an accident in the 1980s where a bunch of kids died or were injured in a stampede to get out of the stairwell in an electricity outage, so now you can’t go up.

There are several other buildings/ruins nearby and it’s actually a complex not just a stand alone minaret but the minaret is the focal point. At the foot of the minaret is the Might of Islam Mosque, the first mosque built in India. It used the foundations of a Hindu temple and many of the elements in the mosque’s construction indicate their Hindu or Jain origins. According to the Persian inscriptions, 27 Hindu and Jain temples were destroyed and materials from them were reused to build the mosque and minaret.

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The decorative inscriptions on the tower were unbelievably intricate and beautiful:

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Within the complex is also a 7-m-tall pillar made of iron of exceptional purity. On it there is a Sanskrit inscription indicating that it was initially erected outside a Hindu Vishnu temple in memory of Chandragupta II, who ruled from AD 375 to 413. Though not exceptionally tall, the pillar is considered a world metallurgical curiosity because it has not rusted for almost 2000 years and scientists have yet to figure out how the iron was cast using the technology available at the time. The tower is surrounded by colonnades on three sides and by arches on the fourth.

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There were more ruins but one that I found intriguing is the beginning of another minaret called Alai Minar. It was started by Ala-ud-din Khilji who ruled between 1296 and 1316 AD. He wanted to build a second victory tower just like Qutub Minar, this one in memory of his successful campaign in the Deccan, except twice as tall. Unfortunately, he too died before he could finish it. His successors must not have been as ambitious because the second tower sits unfinished to this day at 25 m (80 ft):

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More of amazing decorative inscriptions:

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And finally, gratuitous pictures of us with random strangers who insisted on taking our picture or being in the pictures we were taking. Because who doesn’t want to take a picture with pale strangers, especially chubby little ones? Chutney was a super star! Many people would ask if they could take his picture, which we were OK with. Others would do it without asking but then there were the ones that insisted on touching him. On the face, no less. Not only that but one lady, who seemed nice at first, tried to, without asking, take Chutney out of his stroller and pick him up or something. I gave her a stern “Excuse me!!!” in Hindi and my meanest “What the what???” stare, which made her run off. I guess it’s one of those cultural difference things but I would never even dream of touching a stranger’s child without permission. I draw the line there and have been politely but firmly trying discourage the practice.

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Anyway, other than the baby-touching strangers, we had a great time and everyone else was very nice.

 
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