Wednesday, August 31

spiders and monkeys and frogs, oh my!

So besides being scared of the palm-sized spiders in my room and the frogs that stick to the wall, curl up to look like bats (WAH) and sleep in the crevices of my bathroom, I have a new fear: monkeys. Since I've been here, I've only seen one. Granted they may look precious, but from my research (clearly a necessary Google) I learned that they can be quite vicious and carry an array of diseases I'm not interested in contracting

Yesterday, I was sitting outside (sweating profusely) trying to get a semi-decent internet connection when I saw three monkey friends jump the fence and head straight towards the door to the building that my room is in. One came closer to me so that we were just merely a couple feet away from each other and just sat there. We stared into each others' eyes for probably 20 seconds until I winced (totally creeped out), so the monkey jumped and I ran away shrieking. I stepped a few more feet away from the building and noticed there wasn't just three monkeys but an entire family of monkeys. It was really and truly like a scene from a movie or something. They went in the building, were swinging from the upstairs windows and throwing things around (from what I could tell from my safe position in the field). Finally, they got bored with the building and all ran away (and at this point I noticed a little baby monkey, who could have made a fabulous pet).

Though it was a funny sight to see, I now have another thing to be afraid of when making the seemingly long and treacherous walk from my room to the main building for dinner at night. The walk may be comparable to the freshmen year Maher-Valley walk (for all my USD folk). Pitch darkness, hiding behind your tall roommate (thanks for the protection, Kelly) with only the light from your cell phone to guide the way, all the while hoping and praying that you don't stumble upon a raccoon. That's kind of how I feel here these days... except I'm hoping to not run into this monkey family (or a palm sized spider or a bat-looking frog). Oh the risks I take, living on an Indian farm/forest (har-dee-har-har).

Side Note: Tomorrow there's a festival in town honoring the god Ganesh (remover of obstacles if I'm not mistaken?) and I really hope I get to go and experience it! Apparently the whole town and especially the temples are decorated nicely and there's all sorts of things going on. I will let you know if I make it!

Other Side Note: My fifth graders' test results were fabulous! Last test, I had maybe two grades to cheer about and this time, I have SEVEN! Of course I was hoping for an overwhelming 100% from each nugget in the class but hey, any improvement is worth getting excited over.

Friday, August 26

playing catch up

1. First and foremost, I am so proud of my students! Up until last week, I really didn't feel like I was making much progress, but it seems that I have proved myself wrong. Every month they have exams. Last month, their test results were a little disappointing. But this month, to prepare, we've been giving them quizzes so that they know what to expect on the test (English test is tomorrow). Last month, only one or two kids per class were getting a SEMI DECENT grade on these "pre-test quizzes." But this month, already, I've had 12 to 15 in EACH CLASS getting an almost perfect score!! So there has definitely been an improvement and I could not be more pleased. To reward them, I've been handing out candy and making 'diplomas,' they seemed to dig it.

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Needless to say I have high hopes for this round of exams. If their quizzes are any indication, I think their test scores will be much better!

2. I also received a flower this week from my brightest 4th grader, Nirmala, another great sign that I'm not completely failing as a teacher.

3. I learned how to write my name in Hindi, Tamil and Telagu.
 

4. It was the anniversary (or something...)/feast day for the sisters here, so the entire day was filled with special guests (the bishop) and lots of delicious food (PASTA AND COCA COLA). I got up realllly early and spent two hours solely chopping onions (yes my hands STILL smell like onion) and then I went to mass, my first one since being here. Thankfully it was in English, and of course, as the Catholic masses are, it was exactly the same as the one in the U.S. Some of the little girls dressed as angels/butterflies and did a little dance in the middle of the service. It was pretty much the cutest thing ever.
 

5. I went for a nice long walk with Sister Hilda (one of my faves) and she showed me some new sites of this beautiful town... namely, the lake, which kind of dried up.

We walked passed the 'wealthy' area of town and one of the houses had this pretty drawing on their drive way.
  

6. There was a spider the size of my palm on the ceiling of my room. After squealing for a couple of minutes alone in my room, I attacked it with my Raid bug killer (thanks Mom), and put him in the trash. A couple hours later when I returned to my room, he was back in action (I checked the trash and everything, I swear he rose from the dead). So I resorted to more violent means and murdered him (I think I'll add 'proficient in bug killing' to my resume).
 

7. I've averaged reading a book a night for the past few days, rereading some of my favorites during high school (Sloppy Firsts, anyone?) and also some new ones (The Perks of Being a Wall Flower) and currently reading Everything Is Illuminated (I loved the film and the author's middle name is Safran...weirdddddd). Any recommendations? Let me know, I'm kinda on a roll!

8. This is the current nugget of the week! He comes running across the field whenever he sees me "miss miss!" just to say hello or give me a hug (and he refuses to call me Allie). Super precious nonetheless.
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9. With the help of Jillian Michaels (she may be a weirdo but she knows her stuff), I have created my very own 'at home' gym
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(On the left, the "weights" are laundry soap bars tied together.)
'Tis all for now, I'll post again after the test results are in!

Friday, August 19

a quickie

Well, my computer charger bit the dust and my Internet is officially a goner... but I have a random wifi signal and decided to update from my phone with one quick story from the week. As you all know, I was away from the orphanage for longer than expected (thanks to my visa). When I returned, I was chatting with the head master and she told me a boy's mother had come in to her office to talk to her. Apparently, her son came home from school one day, crying because he thought I had left permanently. Something so small, but so cute. That, if nothing else, will keep me going for a while. Lots of love from India!!

Tuesday, August 16

food for thought: bangkok

First things first, I apologize for the insane amount of tense and other grammatical errors in that last post… I was obviously writing in a heat of emotion…oops! 

Thai food has definitely always been a favorite of mine, though as a creature of habit I usually only order vegetable fried rice and spring rolls and maybe, when I'm feeling really adventurous, pad thai. Senior year of college, my friends and I probably ordered Thai take-out on a weekly    basis (and then on a bi-weekly basis when we discovered one of our favorite places delivered... Ra-Ka-De-Ka in Pacific Beach... you gotta try it). I didn't think that Thai food could get much better than this, until, of course, I reached Thailand. My first "real" Thai food experience was from our hotel's room service menu: chicken satay and, shockingly, vegetable fried rice. It was good, but it wasn't until our dinner and a show experience at our hotel's Thai restaurant, Maya, where we were served 13 courses (and even for the bottomless pit that is my stomach, it was a lot of food) and the cooking class my mother and I took at the Silom Thai Cooking School, that I really understood and appreciated all that Thai food had to offer.

At Maya, we were served 13 courses (and even for the bottomless pit that is my stomach, it was a lot of food). To be fair, they were in tapas portions, but all of those tapas added up and my parents and I were bursting through our pants by the end of this meal. A few of my favorite courses during this feast included the following:

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The first course, a shrimp surrounded by crispy, fried noodles (despite my adversity to shrimp, this one was good).

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The tenth course, braised pork belly (my former vegetarian self wanted to gag, but it was just too good) in the most amazing sauce that was both sweet and savory at the same time and perhaps containing hints of cinnamon.

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Finally, the eleventh course, a classic green curry with chicken.

For 1000 bahts per person ($33), we enjoyed all of these courses in a laid back and relaxing atmosphere, while Thai performers danced around us, showing off different dances and music from all the different cities in Thailand. Besides being way too full, it was an unforgettable evening.

The most impressive Thai meal, however, is surprisingly one I cooked myself (with instruction from the Silom Thai Cooking School). Our morning started with a tour of a typical Thai market, where our instructor explained the ingredients we would be using to create our four course meal. My mom was a little grossed out by the market, but after being in India for the past two months, to me, the market seemed more than sanitary, you know, minus the puppy hanging out amidst the different curry powders. After the market tour, we headed back to the school and were split into two groups. Lucky Mom was in the group enlisted to devein the shrimp, while I was on vegetable washing and chopping duty. After this, we all sat down and made coconut milk, using coconut meat and warm water to extract the milk. Finally, we were shown to our stoves and began our first dish: tom kha yum. I wasn't thrilled to be making a soup, first off because of the brutal heat outside and second because the soup's base was the coconut milk. I had seen this dish on almost every Thai menu and always passed it up, the milk part just didn't sound good to me. But after melding all the spices together and adding the vegetables and chicken, I realized I had been missing out for quite some time. This soup instantly became my new favorite food. It was the perfect amount of spicy, which was complemented by the coconut milk and turned out pretty excellent, if I do say so myself.

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Tom Kha Yum

The rest of the dishes were equally amazing and included:

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 Pad Thai

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Chicken Salad

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Green Curry with Chicken

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Fabulous day with Mom!

The last notable meal we had was not Thai, but was way too good to not discuss. After diligently searching Trip Advisor for a good Italian restaurant in Bangkok, I settled on Opus Italian Wine Bar and Restaurant, first because "wine bar" was in the name and second because of the reviews.

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Our first attempt to get to Opus was unfortunately not successful. We set out by cab (which is the most inefficient way to get anywhere in Bangkok) and were stuck in traffic so bad that we opted to walk and ultimately gave up when we unable to find the restaurant after an hour of searching. Determined to get my Italian food fix, we attempted again the next day, only this time MapQuesting detailed directions from our hotel to the restaurant...which was a success. Upon arrival, we were greeted by a friendly Thai hostess and sat at a quiet table in the back. The restaurant wasn't too busy yet, so the chef, Christian, came over to chat with us and offered us some complimentary champagne (which of course we graciously accepted). He went over some of his favorites on the menu (in his precious Italian accent) and since they weren't busy, offered to make us an appetizer platter, with samples of all of the best starters. As soon as I heard the word "burrata" as one of the items, I quickly answered for all of us and said an appetizer platter would be just lovely. It arrived and we were not disappointed. The burrata in the middle was just as good as the burrata at my favorite restaurant in San Diego (maybe in the world), the steak skewers (my first steak in three years) were tender and cut like butter and the bruschetta was garlicy and delicious, just as it should be.

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We complimented his amazing skills and asked him how he ended up in Bangkok. He told us his story about how he had been a chef in Paris, but a woman broke his heart and a friend wanted to open up a restaurant in Bangkok, so he decided to give it a try and is now the executive chef at Opus. He said that his dream, though, is to own a restaurant in New York City... I told him I had a similar dream (although probably on the west coast) and he said we could do it together (“blush”).

After being just slightly distracted by his good looks and perfect accent, we finally ordered our main courses: tenderloin, four cheese gnocchi and truffle oil risotto.

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The tenderloin was cooked in a merlot reduction sauce that seemed to seep into the entire piece of meat. Let’s just say my first steak in three years did not let me down.

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The four cheese gnocchi (still not as good as Enoteca Adriano) was really good and the sauce was cheesy and creamy, but not too heavy.

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The truffle oil risotto, holy cow. Incredibly rich but nonetheless, perfect.

All in all, this was a meal I will remember for a long time. The service at the restaurant was unbeatable, Christian even ended the evening with complimentary glasses of lemoncello, which he made himself, and the food…oh the food…could not have been better.

Thursday, August 11

bangkok'd

(props to my father who came up with that title)

So as it always is, traveling is an adventure (to say the least). Before I discuss the amazing culinary, cultural and shopping experiences in Bangkok, I want to fast forward just a tad to the present, the departure and return to India, since it's fresh on my mind and at this point, becoming kind of amusing (only kind of).

Like I mentioned, the trip to Bangkok was fantastic. If you haven't been, I highly suggest it. The city is easy to navigate with the SkyTrain and the river taxis (although actual taxis and tuk tuks aren't always worth it because of the insane traffic) and the Thai people are maybe the nicest I have ever ever met (hospitable, helpful, grateful and just incredibly kind).

Anyways, Saturday was the day of departure. My parents had to leave the hotel at 2 a.m. to catch a flight while I would leave around 6 a.m. The ride to the airport went smoothly and the Jet Airways' check-in counter didn't even have a line when I arrived. Unfortunately, this just meant the bad news was going to hit me sooner than I would have liked. As I presented my passport and flight itinerary to the agent, he shook his head and said that he wasn't authorized to issue my ticket. "Huh?" "Wah." and "Are you kidding me?" were the first things to come out of my mouth. He made some calls and then confirmed that I would definitely not be getting on this flight. He explained that the type of visa I had (although it says MULTIPLE ENTRIES on the visa) allowed only one entry to India, and that it required a two month "wait" period before re-entering India (it was written on my passport, to be fair, but it was smeared and not legible). Immediately, I panicked since my parents were already en route to Tokyo and wouldn't be accessible by phone for hours. I sat down to rationalize (which if you know me doesn't usually work) and then decided to call the master travel planner, Barbara. We decided the only thing I could do was wait in Bangkok until Monday, when the Indian embassy opened, and beg them for a re-entry visa.

Now I love Bangkok. It's up there on my favorite cities list. But I was a mess and nothing Bangkok or anyone could do would make me feel better. I hadn't slept the night before, sad to say goodbye to my parents and nervous about flying. So I made my way to the new hotel by 8 a.m. and was informed I couldn't check in to my room until noon. Of course this prompted more tears and in addition, I was a sweaty mess and just wanted a shower and bed. Luckily, the hotel was located just blocks from an INSANE mall. I waited until 10 a.m. when the mall opened and explored the high end designer stores that I'd never be able to afford and ultimately found a Starbucks (venti BTL, no sweetner, check!) and plopped there to chill out. There was a movie theater in the mall as well, so I decided to treat myself to a movie (Larry Crowne... wasn't the best) later. I stopped in a very overpriced bookstore and splurged on both Something Borrowed and Something Blue by Emily Giffin. I read these years ago but didn't quite remember them. It's really amazing how books, even more so than movies, can whisk you away into a completely different world where it seems like nothing can touch you. Just reading these books helped take my mind off of the fact that I just might not be returning to India.

Of course, being the super researcher/googler that I am, I found an internet cafe and began frantically googling "re entry to India." I read others' stories, similar to mine, and the conclusion I came to was that there really was no rhyme or reason to the re-entry visa. The embassy would just have to be in a good enough mood to let you back in. So my chances were looking pretty 50/50. A million things ran through my head: "My little nuggets! They're going to think I abandoned them! How will they understand that it wasn't my fault but the visa?" to "Oh my god I'm going back to the USA? I don't have a job! What will I do?" to "Why am I alone? Why does this HAVE to happen when I'm alone?! I can't do it, I'm going home, I cannot do this!" (Yes, overreacting, one of my specialties).

After a good night's sleep, I woke up semi more in control of my emotions and explored more of Bangkok (I consider myself a professional when it comes to this city if ANYONE ever needs any tips). I got some gifts for my parents who dished out a pretty good amount of money to fund my 4 extra nights in Bangkok, stopped at the Hard Rock Cafe for some nachos and made more than one trip to 7-11 for beer (Chang beer... a life saver). Monday morning when the embassy opened, I mapped out how I'd get there via SkyTrain and set out at 8 a.m. since it opened at 8:30 a.m. Of course it looked easy to get to on the map, but it wasn't. I tried asking for directions at the Starbucks I came across (correct, another venti BTL, no sweetener) and some American hotels and no one could tell me when the Indian Embassy was or if I was close. I stopped a few cab drivers, who also didn't know, and then realized I really was just walking around aimlessly and wasting time. After a couple more rejections from cab drivers, one finally knew what I was talking about and took me to the Indian Visa Services center, not exactly the embassy but I was getting warmer.

I darted to the elevator and barged into the office, frantically explaining my situation. The woman opened my passport, turned to my Indian visa, pointed and said,"You can't re-enter for two months." Okay... DUH. I'm sorry, but I already knew that lady, 'tis why I'm here in a frenzy. I explained that I HAD to re-enter. "Where was the embassy, who could I talk to?" She again, told me, I had to go back to my home country. No no no NO! I countered, asking how I could apply for re-entry, what could I do to get back in? She handed me a paper and sent me on my way. Not convinced, I tried to find the embassy, again. By this time, it was about 11 a.m. (remember I started out at 8 a.m. and this place was just BLOCKS from my hotel). I found the embassy 30 minutes later, where I had to sign in, surrender my phone and wait in a queue of a million people (apparently I'm not the only one trying to get into India). I decided this just was not going to work, so I went straight to the counter and explained my situation. Luckily, the receptionist had pity on me, probably because I was profusely sweating, crying, grumpy (probably a little rude) and looked like a complete train wreck, and she sent down a man to hear my situation. I explained it to him and he said no problem, fill out the form, turn it into the visa services place and I should hear by the end of the day.

I thought, okay, now we'ere getting somewhere. I stopped at another hotel, begged to use their copy machine to make copies of my passport and visa, filled out the form and headed back to the visa services center, where they told me it would take three days to process my request. THREE DAYS. I don't have money or mental capacity to stay in Bangkok for three more days, plus the guy at the Embassy told me I'd know by the end of the day. I fought a little with her and she said to call at 4 p.m. I was then, again, put into another line (and forced to surrender my extra large Coke Zero from Subway that I was sipping on to keep me from blowing a gasket) and waited there for about 15 minutes. When it was finally my turn, I was informed I had to pay 800 Baht ($25ish). Furious, I stormed out and to the ATM, went back up and paid. He told me to call at 4 p.m. for the results.

By 1 p.m., I was out of there and drinking a Chang by the pool. When 4 p.m. rolled around, I called and was hung up on... twice. I called again and they said it wasn't ready, that it'd be ready at 4:30 p.m. I asked when they closed, they laughed and said 4:30 p.m. Okay, not helpful. They tell me to check online and when I check it says record not found. Fine.

I ordered room service and fell asleep. When I woke up Tuesday morning, I began calling again. "It's not ready." "Okay, when will it be ready?" "A few days." "NO NO NO NO! It was supposed to be ready yesterday at 4 p.m. Now it is today, at 12 p.m., I'm coming to pick up my passport at 4 p.m., regardless, please have it ready." At this point, my dad and I decided there was nothing else I could do. I couldn't continue to sit in Bangkok, hoping for re-entry and spending money on hotels and food. So at 3, I went to the lobby of the hotel to withdraw cash and head to the visa center. This is when I realized, my ATM card was gone. In the midst of my tizzy, it disappeared, or rather I probably lost it. Ready to give up, I made the phone call to my dad, who was less than thrilled to be woken up with more bad news, but understood because of the stress I'd been under. It just seemed to be one thing after another. Thankfully, the hotel allowed me to take money from my credit card and I then went back down to the visa center, waited for two hours and was finally given my passport with re-entry permission.

The next morning, I headed to the airport for round two and was able to board the flight to Mumabi. After a very nauseating flight, I reached Mumbai and went through immigration, where I was questioned to the bone (couldn't they just see the stamp I spent four days getting)? And was finally allowed through. I got to Chennai, the hotel picked me up with no problem and I had a very relaxing night, watching movies and taking a bath. I was unfortunately woken up at 7 a.m. by my driver who was supposed to take me four hours to the orphanage, telling me he had to cancel.

At this point, I felt like someone, up there, or somewhere, was trying to tell me something. Nothing seemed to be going right and my nerves were shot. I tried to book a train, but they wouldn't accept my American credit card. I went to the hotel concierge for help and together we spent two more hours trying to book the train, until finally my only train option was to go to the station four hours in advance and try to figure it out (I didn't exactly understand why). I made the executive decision to look into a hotel driver, which strangely did not cost much more than the train + driver to the orphanage option, so I said to hell with it and booked a driver from the hotel.

Currently, I'm attempting to calm down, pack up my things and get ready to leave for the orphanage. I know I can't give up, but a part of me just wanted to get on the next flight to the USA, anywhere, in the USA, but I can't bail on the kids or the nuns that have become a kind of family to me. My journey is nearly half way complete; I will be leaving the orphanage November 1 to travel to northern India and then to Madrid and then, finally, home to the USA. Although my emotions change on an hourly basis, I'm telling myself that I can do this, and that I will do this, despite the barriers that have been thrown in my direction.

Finally, I'm starting to really believe what everyone has been telling me all along: this experience will change you and if you can do this, you can do anything.

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'Til next time...