Happy Women’s Day!

To all my wonderful women friends, I wish you an absolutely wonderful day filled with special moments and endearing memories!

To be honest, I didn’t even know it was Women’s Day until this morning, when I was on my way to work.  I saw a ‘parade’ of women wearing the traditional Kerala sari of crème-colored cotton with gold edging (real gold I’m told, woven into the fabric) walking along the road with umbrellas to shield against the sun. They were following an open lorry with music playing from the back. My driver, Shaji, said, “They are walking in honor of Women’s Day.”

Women's Day March

Women’s Day March

I arrived at the office to find several young men and four or five women standing around the security desk where I sign in everyday. This was not usual, since typically, I come in at an odd time and no one is EVER standing by the security desk, except of course the security guards. In my usual fashion, I took in the scene, made a determination that they were engaged in some sort of photo shoot (someone had a camera) and began stepping aside, moving back, basically doing everything I could to avoid them.

They were all looking at me, which is not unusual, and then the young men started coming toward me.  One of them handed me a rose and said, “Happy Women’s Day!” while another took a photo. I replied, “WOW, this is pretty cool; thank you!” It turned out that the women were waiting around while they unwrapped a box containing chocolate bars that they were also handing out.

As I walked into the office, all the men that I saw said, “Happy Women’s Day” and they actually truly meant it! One of our team members came in and quite sincerely said he was really happy that I could be here for Women’s Day and he wished me all the best. Extraordinary!

One of my colleagues explained that in India they see women in the form of power. In the temples there are a number of very important devis (goddesses). He mentioned three Hindu goddesses, Saraswati (goddess of knowledge, music, arts and science), Lakshmi (goddess of wealth, prosperity (material and spiritual), fortune and the embodiment of beauty) and Prithvi (the mother goddess, in Sanskrit meaning earth). Prithvi and Lakshmi are both wives of Lord Vishnu.

When I looked these up, I found that two are part of what is called the triplet goddesses of Hinduism. Brahma is creator, so he needs knowledge or goddess Saraswati to create. Vishnu is observer, so he needs the goddess of wealth and prosperity, Lakshmi. And finally, Shiva is destroyer and re-creator, so he needs the goddess Kali (aka Parvati or Durga) for power.

My Hindu colleagues have mentioned 330 million deities. I’ve asked if they know them all, and I get very interesting answers.

The firm sponsored 100 of our women employees to attend a session and High Tea at the Crown Plaza from 2:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. (They were all dressed up for the occasion!) A presentation of 100 key women in history was included (our creative team put it together) and I understand they did other empowerment kinds of things.

Several of us decided it was a good day to not actually do any work … and then we all laughed and went back to work!! But later, we went outside for photos; here are a couple.

Gidget, Asha, Neelima, me skipping work

Gidget, Asha, Neelima, me skipping work

Gidget, Asha, me having a coffee

Gidget, Asha, me having a coffee

And so the day was bright with acknowledgement and you could tell that the men of India were happy to have such wonderful women around!

[Post Script: I was telling a friend about the High Tea at the Crown Plaza and said it was at the Crown Royal. After our laughter subsided, I said “I haven’t had a drink since I’ve been here and clearly I’m in need of one.” And then we laughed some more.]

Kodenad Elephant Kraal

When I was here last August, my UK colleague, Scott, told me about this place. He showed me some amazing photos of the elephants getting bathed in the river and recommended that I add it to my list for my return. So, when Marion, my US colleague who was here for several weeks, said, “What shall we do this weekend?” I immediately thought of this.

Along with several other teammates, we met at the Holiday Inn and in two cars, started off toward the sanctuary, which lies 45 km northeast of Cochin. The drive was quite beautiful as we passed through small towns alongside rivers with lovely mountain views in the distance. As is the case with travel in India, the traffic and road conditions meant that the approximately 28 miles took us about an hour and a half.

In days gone by, Kodenad was one of the largest elephant capturing and training centres in Southern India. In 1977 (not so long ago, really), the capture of elephants became illegal, but the elephant kraal and training centre still exists as a reserve and sanctuary for these remarkable animals.

The energy of the darkened wooden training ‘building’ was heavy with the echoes of the past. The thick wood and ghostly interior was rather frightening. But right next to it stood a couple of babies covered with thick, prickly hair that made them look like baby mammoths. Very cute they were!

The edge of the kraal

An edge of the training centre

Baby

Baby

Several of us were fortunate enough to take a ride on one of the six very large elephants set up with ‘saddles’ to carry passengers. One of our group saw the elephant being led away, presumably for lunch, and ran up to ask if we could have a ride. So back they came and three of us walked up the metal stairs and climbed on board. I tried to envision riding on one of these immense creatures for endless miles across India in days gone by. The heat, the shifting and exaggerated rocking, the slow, deliberate movements was not something I would have wanted to do for long distances, but the experience was tremendously exciting.

Ready to board

Ready to board

The elephant is the state animal of Kerala and they are used quite frequently, particularly in temple festivals. There’s actually a famous Elephant Palace, the only one in the world, near the Guruvayur temple in Punnathurkotta, that houses the temple’s 60+ elephants. There are also famous elephants, many made famous by the numbers of people they trample … go figure! I was told by my Indian banker that if you search for famous Indian elephants, you will find many reports of the famous and not so famous. So I did, and found this interesting site: Colors of India. They should probably reconsider their choice of color used in their text, but it does provide some interesting facts.

While I was staying in the hotel, I was fortunate enough to see a Temple Festival parade that included two very large, male Indian elephants robed in glittering gold with bells and lavish necklaces. People holding tinseled silk parasols and peacock feathered fans swayed back and forth as the elephants moved slowly forward to the beating of large drums. At one point, fireworks went off, but the elephants didn’t blink, clearly used to it (although I nearly fell out of the window).

So, back to the Kodenad. If you get up really early and get to the sanctuary in the morning, you can actually help bathe the elephants as they are taken to the river and brushed and washed by their handlers (called mahouts or pappan in Malayalam, the language of Kerala). We, of course, were lucky to make it by lunch. But we had a lovely time and, what can I say … I got to ride an elephant!!

Riding an elephant

Riding an elephant

Moving week

After moving from the Le Meridien (no more rooms available) to the Holiday Inn (in retrospect, a nicer hotel, but no Starwood points 8-), I moved into my flat this week.

It’s located on the backwaters with Bolgatty Island the only piece of land separating me from the sea. I can see the Port of Cochin from my balcony and the massive ships that come in regularly. One such ‘cargo carrier’ moves back and forth all day and night from the Port to the North side of Bolgatty island on the backwater side. It’s carrying containers that have been off-loaded from ships that can’t travel the more shallow waters of the backwater. Now that there’s a new road that connects Bolgatty Island with the city, the containers can be lifted from the carrier to trucks that will take them to their final destinations.

Barge carrying containers

Barge carrying containers

Behind my building is a bird sanctuary, so lots of green, but I can only see a portion of it from the ladies health club on the 14th floor. Next to the sanctuary is the fisheries department and the National Institute of Oceanography.

Indian Pond Heron

Indian Pond Heron

The flat is not in the building I originally looked at last August, as none were available. While this one is on the same road, the other was closer to shops and within walking distance of restaurants and markets. There’s a walkway out front that runs by the water that should be completed in the next month or so. It will connect the walkway that started in front of the previous building, so I’m hoping I’ll be able to walk down to the shopping area at some point. I’ve been told that it would be unsafe for me to walk along the road, and so, I’m trusting my colleagues’ instincts and use my driver when I have a need to go somewhere.

The building I’m in is fairly new and the space is pretty large. It has three bedrooms, three bathrooms, a half bath off the dining room for guests and a half bath off the laundry room for the help. I have a washer, but no dryer, only lines strung across the laundry room (Val would feel right at home).

As colleagues arrived this week from the US, it took me until Friday to find the time to go shopping for some of the things that weren’t included in the furnished flat. Things I needed were towels (I had one), dishes, flatware, kitchen knives and other cooking utensils, frying and sauté pans (a couple of pots were left), glasses, coffee pot, tea kettle and hairdryer. To be honest, the two biggest things were the hairdryer and coffee pot, although I’ve been drinking mostly tea since I’ve been here. And, it’s a good thing I had my hair cut really short, so it didn’t look too terrible!

I also bought some food, so now I can start packing my lunch and actually having breakfast before heading off to work.

Technology has been a real issue, as I don’t have internet connectivity, so therefore, no WiFi at my flat. I met with an internet provider this week and they are starting to work on that. Fingers crossed!

So, I’m settling in, and will be figuring out ways to put my own personal touches on the place. I need to buy a Kerala cookbook so I can begin my training in the fine art of India food.

Sunset view

Sunset view

Upon arrival: Remembered first impressions of India

My flight from Singapore to the Cochin International Airport was an hour late and I arrived after 11:00 pm. I gathered my checked baggage … oh, my, I can hear you saying, “You actually checked baggage?” Yes, for my six months to a year, I needed to take too many liquids over three ounces. So, I decided since I was checking one bag, I’d go ahead and check two. So I didn’t carry much onto the plane this time, which was really nice! I can now see why people check bags! Except of course, when you get on the other end and have to wait … and wait … and wait! But arrive they did, for which I was truly grateful. (You all know how bad my baggage karma is!).

My driver was waiting and even though I got into the car totally exhausted, I spent the time looking through the darkness getting glimpses of things along the roadways I had forgotten.

For example, I was reminded of the buildings with rows of small lights draped over them, similar to Christmas lights, but not limited just to December.

I saw people, including children, walking at this very late hour, very close to the road, their backs to the oncoming traffic, completely oblivious and totally unconcerned about the cars passing very close by.

I remembered the billboards, all different sizes and shapes; really large ones with faces of people looming out of the night sky. And smaller rectangular ones, all colorful with messages in interesting and beautifully written languages that I couldn’t even begin to grasp the meaning of. Signage here overwhelms the senses, blocks the views and hangs from fences, poles and even trees. The environment is colored by flowers, greenery and overwhelmed with signs vying for your attention! There’s certainly no such thing as Post no bills here.

Fairly organized signs

Fairly organized signs

I recalled a time in the US when many more billboards and signs dotted the landscape, grabbing your attention and clouding the beauty of the land. It made me realize how grateful I am to Lady Bird Johnson for her Beautification Campaign.

I got to the hotel after midnight and went to bed about 2:30 am. I didn’t wake until 1:00 pm and I couldn’t believe my eyes when I looked at the clock and it read 1300. So, it was a really good thing I came on the weekend.

Onam celebration

A big festival and holiday scheduled for 29 August had everyone excited and many people at the office planning vacations.

Onam is a popular harvest festival of Kerala, which honors the annual homecoming of a legendary king, Mahabali. Ten days of revelry, including carnivals, floral decorations, games and traditional banquets, mark the festival, which falls on the first month of the Malayalam calendar.

At our office celebration, everyone dressed in native apparel with most of the women wearing typical crème colored saris banded in gold, blue or green.

Activities included competitions, performances of the ‘thiruvathirakali’ dance form, ‘athapookalam’ (a customary arrangement of flower petals on the floor or ground) and someone in typical king attire (very authentic looking and colorful).

The King

The King

The pookalam reminds me of mandalas as the flower petals are arranged in circular patterns and designs using many colors. They are typically arranged in an entry way or outside near the door to a shop. They are meant as a welcome for the return of the king.

A pookalam competition was held with the winner displaying a beautiful design with a snake boat in the center. Offerings are also presented at the top of the design.

Winning pooklam

Winning pooklam

A tug of war was held and was very funny and enjoyable to watch. The judge was so intense! It took an amazing amount of time to get everything set up properly, with the exact center of the rope above the exact center of the ground; the teams standing at the precise locations, all under the scrutiny of the judge. Standing around in the beating sun and pressing heat for the few minutes it took for the ‘war’ to be won would have been exigent if not for the laughter and faces of the participants and those watching. After several ‘wars’ were waged, the winning team won bunches of bananas. One of our visiting colleagues from London commented that he would have an easier time as a manager if his UK team would get this excited over a bunch of bananas as a reward.

To the victors

To the victors

There was also a pin the tail on the donkey-type of game, where participants were blindfolded, spun in a circle and had to place a bindi on a poster of a person, as close to the ‘third eye’ as possible. That winner received a very large bag of dried bananas … are you seeing a theme here?

Following the dancing and competitions, we attended a celebratory lunch banquet with Kerala rice, sambar, a variety of curries and other great tasting food all served on a large banana leaf. No silverware was available, although they asked me and my UK colleague if we wanted some, but we said no … we want to go native. I always did like eating with my hands!

The entire day was fun-filled and entertaining, with work in between events. I’m leaving on Saturday night, so I’ll miss the actual day of Onam, but our work events gave me a slice of the celebratory flavor and excitement surrounding this popular Kerala holiday.

 

The crazy driving …

So, here I am winding down my initial India trip and wanted to fill you in on the driving madness here.

I can see why our firm doesn’t want us to drive. Jacob (a colleague in India) told us that the line in the middle of the road is “merely a suggestion.” People pass each other, using their horns frequently, while drivers are coming straight toward them. They squeak by, sometimes five abreast, four going one direction taking up most of the road and forcing the one coming the other direction to drive off the edge. Buses and trucks have writing on the backs of them that read: Sound Horn. I’m sure there’s a specific language associated with it; but I haven’t figured it out.

School bus in the middle

School bus in the middle

Our drivers have been VERY focused and so strangely enough, I haven’t been nervous when riding in this craziness.

‘Drivers’ can be driving camel carts, ox carts, horse carts, rickshaw-type carts, bicycle carts as well as just plain bicycles, buses, lorries, cars (mostly small), motorcycles (tons of these) and lots of Autos (Tuk Tuks), which are the small, three wheeled taxis (for those of you who saw The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, you know what I’m talking about). We saw one of them with 17 people in and on it (our driver counted). Several people were riding on top and we were amazed that they didn’t bounce right off given the road conditions.

Busy street

Busy street

We saw five people on a motorcycle – two small children up front, the driver (presumably the father) with the mother on the back riding side-saddle in her sari and holding a baby. We’ve seen many with three people onboard and some with four, but this one surprised both Tracy and I when our driver pointed it out. Oh, and most don’t wear helmets. Oh, and our driver said 70% of the motorcyclists don’t have licenses.

You might see buses with people riding on top and squashed inside. We saw trucks that are open in the back (like pick-up trucks with wooden slats on the sides) that will just stop and pick people up (apparently people pay a small fee to ride in these). We also saw a ‘handmade truck’ with the wooden slats on the back, but when we passed it, there was no cab in front, simply a wooden slab with a steering mechanism and an engine underneath.

Bus with roof travelers

Bus with roof travelers

Coming back from Agra, it got dark and then it was really scary with many trucks having no rear tail lights. We passed one such truck on the right only to get stopped by cows in the road. Or sometimes the cars will turn off their headlights in deference to the drivers heading toward them. I told the driver that it must be really difficult on the back roads in the dark.

At one point, we were stopped at one of the very few stop lights and police officers were walking by and having all the stopped drivers breathe into a device to check for alcohol levels. Apparently they can’t just stop you, but if you’re already stopped, they can just make you take this ‘test.’ Interesting!

As in England, they drive on the other side of the road. People are walking everywhere with motorized and other vehicles sort of crossing every which way. There are also motorcycles and Autos driving on the side of the road, generally trying to cross, but basically coming at you from the wrong direction.

Someone asked me where the traffic police were and when I asked my driver, Majesh, he just laughed. On the way to work the other morning, we saw a guy come out of a bar and get on his motorcycle. He was weaving all over the place and nearly collided with several oncoming vehicles before turning off the road. Majesh was just shaking his head and staying as far away as possible!

This morning there was a bright yellow Lamborghini parked in front of my hotel. Majesh said it would be very sad to drive a car like that in India with all the traffic, congestion and road conditions!

So after this, I can’t imagine you’d be wondering, but just in case you are, I will definitely NOT be driving while in India.

Our last night in Gurgaon

We spent a wonderful day at the office getting to know one of our key managers, who also put together an impromptu lunch with her team. It was great to get to know them and also a little amusing because they had a complement of vegetarian as well as non-vegetarian food. And as it turned out, all the women ate at one end (the vegetarians) and all the men ate at the other. Tracy, having been ‘mostly vegetarian’ since arriving, ate with the men that day.

After work, we had a really great dinner at the Seasonal restaurant in the Westin; a buffet of Chinese, Indian, kabobs, everything you can imagine. We had the restaurant’s version of street food, which Indians refer to as small plates of savory snacks called chaat. We had the most amazing papdi chaat that included the papdis (fried flour crispies made of chickpeas, potatoes and pakoris (fried black gram fritters)) broken up as a base with everything piled on top from some type of seed, small chunks of potatoes and tomatoes, chick peas, generous portions of curd (yogurt), mint and tamarind sauces, all topped with pomegranate. The flavors were AMAZING!

So, we were so blown away by the great taste that the waiter (remember this was a buffet) brought us some pani puri, fried crispy shells filled with potato that you add either sweet or salty liquid (chili or tamarind) to and pop them in your mouth. Really interesting! The staff were fabulous and kept bringing us interesting things to eat … I guess they were intrigued because we would try anything and exclaim wildly!!

pani puri

pani puri

The dinner was terrific and then Tracy left for the airport to fly to Singapore and back to the US.

I spent the morning on Saturday at the Heavenly Spa, where I scheduled a pedicure and was quickly talked into a massage and a facial. How could I not? The total for all three was Rs 6,500 ($116 US).

I left for Kochi and arrived at Le Meridien where I spent the evening trying to get myself organized. I ended up in a room on the 5th floor, just down from the Fitness Center and I can’t wait to tell my sister that I actually spent an hour there this afternoon! (I have to work off all this food we ate over the past two weeks!)

So it’s off to work tomorrow (Monday, 6 August) where I’ll be spending some serious time over the next few weeks, so it may be awhile before my next update and frankly, it may not be quite as exciting … BUT I promise to tell you about the driving, honestly!