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Yesterday marked the beginning of Diwali, the festival of lights!

It is one of the most important Hindu festivals and reminds me of Christmas in many ways. One of the original Diwali traditions was to light many tiny oil lamps, which is where the word Diwali comes from. Today, we can certainly see many oil lamps, but, more frequently, we have been seeing many strands of tiny lights, which I would tend to refer to as Christmas lights.

The light display that I am standing by below happens to be oil lamps, but I think that you can still imagine how they would conjure images of Christmas for me. In addition to displays like this one, there are lights strung all over many homes, buildings, streets, and almost anywhere one can imagine.

This light phenomenon extends to fireworks as well, which are certainly not in short supply. As early as Tuesday night, Diwali celebrations were well underway and it was almost impossible for me to conduct phone calls from my apartment because of the volume and frequency of the explosions.

When Chris arrived home, late Tuesday night, I should not have been surprised that he was armed with fireworks of his own. I think he had  pretty good time buying them because in addition to being  significantly less expensive than at home, the selection was far superior. India seems to be a big proponent of Darwinism. Fireworks are no exception to that policy.

I didn’t get to see Chris’ pyrotechnic display, he set them off with Sentil, our driver, but his recap of the event made it sound quite spectacular. Something to the effect of “Brit, you know when you go to a fireworks show? Like big fireworks? Yeah, that’s what I bought.”

Fortunately, Sentil is always looking out for Chris and, other than a minor burn, Chris returned unharmed.

Another parallel that my mind draws between Christmas and Diwali is that it seems to be a big shopping season. All of the stores have Diwali sales and specials and, right in line with Christmas, there is a tradition of exchanging sweets and gifts for Diwali. Chris brought me a box of sweets, but I didn’t end up eating any. We both agreed that I would be happier to share them with our driver and the building security guard.

My other Diwali gift was a beautiful sari. You can see it folded up in its box in the lower left corner of the picture above. It is two toned, so from one angle you see the color shown and from the other angle it is a light green. Pretty cool stuff. I haven’t had a chance to try it on, or, let’s be realistic, figure out how to put it on, but I will be sure to post some pictures when I do. I will need to get the shirt that goes underneath it tailored first, which may or may not be possible given that I am pregnant right now.

I didn’t go shopping for Diwali, as I did not realize that we were celebrating, so Chris took the liberty to select his own Diwali gift, a traditional Indian mens’s outfit consisting of a dhoti and a Mandarin collared shirt. It makes perfect sense that Chris would like a dhoti, because it has a very similar wrap around style to his ie lavalavas. I will also be sure to post pictures of Chris in his new clothes when he gets around to trying them on.

I am so thankful that we have had the chance to witness so many Hindu holidays because while I can draw some parallels between Diwali and Christmas, many of the traditions are so far different from anything I have ever experienced, like Ganesh Chaturthi for example, that there is no way that I could ever understand without actually seeing them.

Last night when Chris finally left work around 8:30 PM, I expected that he would be home within an hour or so. I headed to bed by 9:00 because I live a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle and stay up super late like that. When I woke up at 10:00 and still hadn’t seen Chris, I began to worry. Where was he anyway?

It turns out that it was raining, a fact which I was blissfully oblivious to, and that rain slows down his commute considerably. This morning I woke up to find out that it took him over 2.5 hours to drive each way due to semi-flooded roads. Keep in mind that his commute is only 15 kilometers, about 9.3 miles.

Absolutely crazy. I could run there significantly faster than that.

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Unfortunately, I don’t think things are going to get much better for Chris in the foreseeable future. According to his co-workers, “The monsoon has settled over Chennai.” I’m not quite sure what to make of that statement, but it doesn’t sound like a particularly good thing for Chris and his commute. Lucky for me, I only have about 16 days that I will actually be in Chennai before heading back to the US in December. Chris, unfortunately, has many more than 16 days of work remaining here in Chennai.

In other exciting weather news, you might notice that the daily high temperature has become much more reasonable. Don’t let it fool you, the humidity is a staggering 94% creating a heat index of between 100 and 120 degrees!

I still can’t believe that I brought three different pairs of running shoes here thinking that I might find a nice park to run outside in. Haha. Not this heat/humidity wimp. In more exciting running news, we are headed to Kathmandu in the morning where I am expecting far more reasonable temperatures and am contemplating getting in a run or two. Um, assuming that the altitude doesn’t make me wimp out.

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Off to charge my Garmin!

This morning I was all set to write a post about our trip to Singapore over the weekend. I had a blast. I loved Singapore and it is a place that I would be thrilled to visit again. Unfortunately, I have another topic that is at the front of my mind, so Singapore will have to wait.

I think that our cleaning dude has been coming into our apartment uninvited. I considered not writing this post because I don’t want anyone to worry about me **seriously don’t worry about me**, but it is one of those topics that just makes my blood boil and I need to talk about it if nothing else, just for the therapeutic value of doing so.

When we first moved in here and filled out our rental paperwork, I was sure to indicate on the form that I did not want Cleaning Dude to have a key. Sounded straightforward enough.

Since then, I have been somewhat aware of the fact that in spite of this rule he had been coming in to clean when we were gone. Not a huge deal, right? He seemed innocent enough and it probably was not worth the hassle of explaining to him that he should only clean while I am here. After all, with his English language ability, this would be a long and confusing conversation. In fact, it would probably be more than one long, confusing conversation.

In the beginning, I purposely left a few rupees lying around here and there to see if they walked. Not one rupee missing. I’m an untrusting jerk. I know.

Fast forward to last week. Chris was off in Japan doing that work thing and I was here in Chennai on a conference call, also trying to do that work thing.

There was a knock on the door. I didn’t answer, after all, I was talking on a call for work and I knew who it was. Cleaning Dude is the only person who comes to our door unless we order pizza.

[I should add that Cleaning Dude does not understand that I have a job and that when I have a headset glued to my head that it is probably because I am working and that he should not speak to me. In the past I have had trouble with him trying to interrupt me while I was on calls.]

I hear another knock on the door. I am even more entrenched in the discussion that I am having on the phone and I am certainly not going to jeopardize this opportunity that I have to work remotely by being distracted by details such as Cleaning Dude knocking on the door.

[Did I mention that it was evening? Cleaning Dude cleans at noon each day, so our apartment had been clean for hours.]

He knocks yet again. I almost gave in and answered, but it was a really inconvenient time for me to interrupt my call.

Silence for several minutes. Suddenly Cleaning Dude is face to face with me in my living room loudly yammering something in broken English. I had no choice but to interrupt my meeting and firmly explain to him that a) he was not to enter my apartment unless I let him in and that b) he needed to vacate immediately.

Cleaning Dude left. I resumed my call feeling annoyed, shaken, and somewhat unable to concentrate.

The following day I was somewhat cold to Cleaning Dude. I purposely didn’t answer the door right away when he arrived at noon to clean. I wanted to test him. I’m a jerk like that. He knocked and knocked and finally, ten minutes later, I answered the door.

Chris and I spent the weekend in Singapore, far away from Cleaning Dude. After I had a few days to chill out and step away from the Cleaning Dude situation, we talked about how we need to discontinue his services. Today, that became even more apparent than ever before.

As I sat on the sofa this morning drinking tea and catching up on some news, I thought “Man, I smell horrible.” I was surprised that I smelled quite that bad, but I decided that it was plausible. After all, I slept on a plane for half of the night before tumbling into bed at home to catch the rest of my Z’s and I was wearing a sweatshirt that I may or may not have worn a few times already since its last washing.

I decided to open the blinds on our front and back balconies to let some light in. There was a red and white checkered apron wadded up on the floor of the back balcony. It didn’t look particularly clean, but for some reason I thought: “That is exactly why I don’t hang my clothes outside to dry.” I looked all around to see where it might have come from, but I couldn’t see any reasonable apron source.

After showering and putting on clean clothes, that smell still seemed to linger, but only when I was seated on the sofa. “Chris, come smell the sofa. Is it just me or does it reek of BO?” Chris confirmed my suspicions. It wasn’t me. Whew. I didn’t think that I could smell that bad. Ever.

[At the last minute, the Indian government declared a day off from work today because of elections.]

Suddenly things started to add up. Extra garments on our back balcony, the smelly sofa, Cleaning Dude knocking a billion times before randomly entering. I think that he is hanging out in our apartment when we are not home.

Chris confronted him today in a way that nobody except for Chris can, but I don’t think it made a difference. Cleaning Dude just kept telling Chris that he would clean the sofa cushions. Chris not so politely explained, repeatedly, that he did not care one bit about the sofa, he cared that someone was in here on our sofa when we were not here.

[I tried to retrieve the checkered apron from the balcony as evidence, but it was miraculously gone.]

Cleaning Dude either didn’t get it or was playing dumb. I’m guessing the latter. We have had a message in with the apartment management since early last week, but they seem to be responding to us on India time.

For now, I am doing my best to cope with the situation and not get too fired up about it. Tough to do as it makes me feel incredibly violated to have pretty good reason to think that Cleaning Dude is living in our apartment when we are gone. I sure hope he is not sleeping in my bed. I might break out my sleep sack until I know that he is gone for good.

Once again, please, nobody worry about us. Cleaning Dude is not a harmful guy. He is not going to bother me (or Chris, haha) or even steal our stuff. I am pretty sure that his offenses are limited to partying in our apartment when we are gone and that is only if our suspicions are true. Which I think they are.

When we first moved into our apartment here, I was stunned to discover that we had no oven. I was even more surprised to learn that many Indian kitchens do not have ovens. This caught me off guard big time. After all, I am the girl who brought yeast over here in bulk thinking that I would bake my own bread.

Yeah, not so much. This whole no oven thing led to a complete overhaul of my cooking repertoire.

For several months I walked past the cake mix aisle of the grocery store without giving it a second thought, then, a few days ago, it suddenly struck me as odd.

Wait a minute. How are those cakes being baked anyway?

Upon further examination:

They are not being baked at all.

The microwave cake sounds horrible in my opinion, like something I might have experimented with in my dorm room in college. The cooker cake, on the other hand, has some potential. I bet it ends up being a fairly moist cake. If I had a pressure cooker, I would probably give that one a try. Maybe I’ll see a rice cooker cake mix that I can try. Well, as long as it is eggless, I can’t bring myself to buy or eat the room temperature eggs that are sold here.

An aside: Notice the green dots at the upper right hand corner of each box. All food in India is clearly labeled as either vegetarian or not using a red or green dot. This type of notation is fairly common on restaurant menus as well. Pretty handy in a country where such a high percentage of the population is vegetarian!

Tonight I’m headed to Singapore which I am fairly excited about except for dealing with the airport in Chennai. I’m not a huge fan of flights that leave at 12:45 AM to begin with, nor am I a fan of standing in line at the ticket window in the Chennai Airport as it is usually more of a mob of people fighting to get in front than it is an actual line, and, to make things worse, I can still vividly picture toe-nail cutter guy from my last trip to the airport.

Blech.

So not feeling it.

Right. Of course.

Figures.

It is still puzzling to me how, in a city where I see so many scenes like these, it is exorbitantly expensive to join a gym and I can routinely see crazy expensive cars like this driving down the street.

Considering the erratic traffic patterns in India, this person not only has enough money to buy a Lamborghini, but also enough money that he is not worried about it getting totally trashed. Even brand new cars here seem to have scratches, dents, and dings almost immediately.

Good for him, I suppose!

Personally, I wouldn’t drive here period. The rules of the road are not routinely followed and their enforcement is even more sporadic and supposedly subject to interpretation. Usually when there is an accident, everyone just keeps on driving. That is, of course, unless one party thinks that they can extort money from the other. You can see an example of that in one of the episodes of IRT: Deadliest Roads when one of the drivers gets into an accident.

So, instead of driving in India, Chris and I are required by his job to have a driver. I haven’t talked about it too much on here, because I feel really weird about it. After all, who am I to tell some dude to drive me around all day? Back in the real world, I feel much more like the person who should be the driver than the one who would have one.

In reality, he doesn’t drive me around all day. In fact, having a driver is a major source of white girl problems. Oh really? Primarily, it is a problem that we went from being a two driver, three car household to being a one driver, one car household overnight.

Sharing a car? You’ve got to be kidding me. Tragic, I know. We have a history of less than harmonious car sharing. It does help immensely that this is for a finite period of time and that I am working from home anyway; I am not supposed to be leaving the house a whole lot.

Lucky for me, Chris is headed to Japan tonight, so I get the car all to myself for the rest of the week. Now for thinking up places to go. Maybe I can find a treadmill that I can pay to run on. I predict that this would come to mind for about half of you. The rest can’t imagine why I would choose that out of all of the activities potentially available to me.

I’m cool like that.

After his early morning surf, Chris was craving a burger big time, so we headed out to find one. Easier said than done here in Chennai. After driving by two, now closed, burger joints, we decided to take our chances at a resto-bar across town that had pretty good reviews. Although they didn’t serve burgers, they did have beef on the menu as well as a variety of interesting pizzas, one of which I am declaring the best pizza in the Eastern Hemisphere. It seemed like a pretty reasonable backup plan.

20111008-184955.jpgWhen we first arrived, it looked like a pretty cool place. It was one part trendy bar, one part extremely budget-friendly restaurant. They had good music playing and we immediately decided that unless the food was horrible that we would go back for sure.

A few minutes later it became obvious that the scene wasn’t as perfect as we had initially thought. We could barely hear each other speak over the din of the restaurant. As a troupe of kids raced by our table in a blur of arms, legs, and enviable ponytails, it was suddenly apparent where all of the commotion was coming from.

Over the past few months, I have noticed a really interesting trend when it comes to Indian parenting. It seems that many families take the less is more approach when it comes to keeping kids under control in public. From restaurants, to the zoo, Indian kids are running wild and I’m not quite sure what to make of it.

20111008-185006.jpgInitially, I was appalled by the lack of restraint. Then I began to notice that the older kids were perfectly well behaved, especially compared to many American children.

What gives?

The typical parenting schema here seems to be, let kids run free until they are maybe eight years old, then suddenly they will transform into perfect dinner guests. As counterintuitive as it sounds to my typical American sensibilities, it seems to work.

So are you and Chris going to go that route?

Nah. I don’t think that either of us has the patience to watch our child(ren) run the show for that long. Nevertheless, I am totally intrigued by the parenting norm here and it’s apparent success!

Tuesday night Chris had to work late. Not a big surprise as he has regularly been pulling super long hours since we arrived in India. While he was burning the midnight oil, I was busy entertaining our visitors with an amazing dinner at one of my favorite Chennai restaurants. When we finally arrived home, Chris was holed up in one of our spare bedrooms on a conference call and our kitchen table was filled with stuff.

At first glance, I saw this huge bouquet of flowers, a box of Belgian chocolate, and a package of Indian sweets.

My immediate reaction: “Chris is so sweet, he remembered that our anniversary is tomorrow!”

As I began to inspect the loot further, it started to become suspect. Why did he get me fruit, Indian snack mix, puffed rice cereal, and a bottle of whiskey?

I can’t drink whiskey and he knows that I don’t even like it in the first place. [Where did he get whiskey anyway? It is somewhat difficult to procure alcohol in Tamil Nadu.]

Chris eventually emerged from the spare bedroom and I could finally get to the bottom of this. Had he really remembered our anniversary? Usually his friend Bryan has to remind him.

I can’t say if Chris remembered or not, but I can say that these were Chris’ gifts, not mine. The plant he is working in gave him all of these goodie in celebration of Ayutha Pooja. Pretty awesome! I have never gotten gifts this significant from a job before. Lucky for me, Chris was happy to share the chocolates and the Indian sweets.

So what is Ayutha Pooja anyway?

Upon leaving the house Wednesday morning, I began to fully understand. It is a Hindu holiday where equipment such as tools, machinery, vehicles, and weapons are carefully cleaned, adorned with decoration, and worshiped. The streets were filled with vendors selling decorations such as flower garlands and banana leaves. Nearly every car and scooter was decked out for the occasion. It was quite a sight.

I still can’t get over how many holidays there are in India. Perhaps it just seems like a lot because I am unfamiliar with them. As far as I know, the next big festival is Diwali later this month. From what I have heard Diwali is kind of a big deal, so I’m very excited to see what it is all about!

 

This is a tough topic for me to approach because somehow it makes me feel guilty for bringing it up, but I have decided to jump in and tackle it anyway.

Here goes: Chennai and the surrounding cities that I have visited are really dirty.

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Dirty can mean a lot of things, what I am referring to is abundant trash on the ground. I think this picture says it all. The very sign asking citizens to take pride in their town and keep it clean is surrounded by trash. Not a stray water bottle or soda can, not that even those are ok, but a significant amount of trash.

Sadly, the complete disregard for proper trash disposal extends beyond the city streets even causing the closure of our nearest national park.

As an enthusiastic patron of US National Parks, I was very excited when Chris told me that we had an Indian National Park just kilometers from our house. I imagined heading over each morning for a run in the park with Chris and maybe some hikes or picnic lunches on weekends.

Reality hit hard when our relocation coordinator told us that the park was closed to all guests. Figuring that she couldn’t be serious, I went and checked for myself. She was right. The reason? People were destroying the environment of the park by littering.

I wasn’t around back in the ’70’s during the big environmental movement in the US, but I have to imagine that the trash problem that sparked it did not even compare with what I commonly see on the streets of India today. The sign above tells me that some citizens are concerned, but I seriously question whether there is enough backing for this initiative to have success. My impression of the national psyche here is that it is ok to litter and without a general stigma against throwing trash on the ground, I doubt that there will be enough momentum behind these green campaigns for them to take root.

I’m not really sure what the point of this post is. I suppose I am just expressing that the garbage on the side of the road made me really sad and frustrated as I played tourist today. Hopefully young leaders in India today will choose to incite some change and enable a cleaner India tomorrow.

This week we have guests in town, so we played tourist in Chennai once again today. Although I often feel like I have seen it all, Chennai keeps surprising me. After trying out a Greek restaurant that I had been eyeing for a while, we gave a mini tour of the city.

Another visit to Marina Beach was in order. It was far less busy than it was when I last visited during Ganesh Chartuthi. As I have mentioned before, Indians do not seem to use the beach the same way that Americans do.

After visiting Marina Beach, we wound through some less travelled streets heading towards a few other notable sights. This drive through the less travelled city streets was by far my most favorite part of the day. I ended up manning my Dad’s camera and captured some really awesome street scenes.

This is one of the first times that I have had a chance to take candid shots in the street here. I often leave my camera home thinking that I am just looking at “normal” things, but fail to recognize that they are not typical for home or something that I will see forever.

When I took the above picture of these little boys in the street, I didn’t realize what they were doing. I was pretty far away and we drove by fast enough that I didn’t comprehend that they were using the outdoor bathroom until after Chris pointed it out. It is a scene that he sees all too often during his morning commute.

As we drove through the streets today, I reflected on this opportunity that I have been given and how special it is to have this experience. In the past few days I have had mixed feelings about Chennai. On one hand, as I prepared to leave China, I was happy to be returning to Chennai, if anything for the security of being “home”. Odd considering that just days before I was pretty jealous of Chris for being “home”.

In the end, I think it is difficult to say what home is in the first place. For me, it is come combination of people, comfort foods, familiar routines, and maybe a few favorite things. Somewhat unexpectedly, I am realizing that, as odd as this may sound, home has almost nothing to do with a specific location.

All of that said, I’m pretty excited to be home for Christmas!