Thursday, July 31, 2008

A Walk Down the Alley

While exploring my neighborhood, I came across an alley. Perhaps this would lead me to the nearby river. Shortly into the narrow path, I met a woman carrying a baby and two other women. Noticing my Digital SLR camera around my neck, they asked if I could take their photo, to which I happily obliged. Immediately a grey-haired woman appeared, also wanting to be in the picture. Showing them the photos, they thanked me and then I moved on.

Reaching the first “intersection,” I immediately realized that I was in a slum area – so close to my nice apartment! Homes were small, trash abounded, and kids were running around scantily clothed. Daily chores were being carried out in the dirt street. I felt a bit uncomfortable, as if I was invading an area that should be closed off from the public. Perhaps seeing my look of surprise, a local helpfully directed me in English which turn to take. That street was a bit cleaner, and I could see a larger main road in the distance, with its vehicles whizzing by. Several times I was approached, each asking if I could take their photo, sometimes requested in English and other times through gestures. All too eager to see the photos, they were excited when the display would finally show the images. One boy requested a photo with his dog, tied up on a short rope near his house. Picking up the dog, the boy proudly smiled has he struggled to hold on to his pet. As I walked along, some of the kids began following me, jumping into subsequent photo poses.

I was pleasantly surprised by the eagerness of the people to have their photo taken. For some, it may have been the first photo they saw of themselves. If this openness continues, I will have many opportunities to get some wonderful shots of the locals. Since I can’t “hide” or blend in, I might as well utilize my foreignness and capture the local people when they are willing. When I get my shipment, I plan on printing photos and giving them to the respective people.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

My neighborhood of Gandhi Nagar, Adyar - part 2

In the morning I saw many children walking to school wearing school uniforms, some looking slightly more Western and others as identically-colored salwar kemeez (loose-fitting pajama type pants with a long length shirt/dress) and matching scarf. Women also wear these salwar kemeez or the more traditional sari, formed from long lengths of beautiful cloth. They happily chat amongst each other, smiling at me and offering a simple greeting in English. Flip flops or sandals are the footwear of choice for both men and women.

Hearing a few children recite something in a formal manner, I peer through the bar openings in the wall. It is a local elementary school. A sea of black heads with pink & blue uniforms fills the courtyard along with a teacher in a cream-colored salwar. The four young presenters are on a concrete stage with a rooftop. In India, education is seen as very important, a sense of family honor and prosperity.

I can hear the sounds of a bell ringing – not from a church but from a nearby temple. Chennai has a larger percentage of Christians than other areas, but the majority are Hindu. While walking around I see several temples of bright colors, nestled in between the shops and apartments. One is even in the “island” of a road, with traffic splitting and whizzing by. The smell of incense permeates the air.

Occasionally a breeze will offer relief from the humidity and heat. Chennai is along the Bay of Bengal, but I am closer to the Adyar River. Thankfully the skies have been more overcast, also keeping the temperatures down a bit. Rains can happen suddenly, causing a brief but heavy downpour. I am fortunate that I have not gotten caught in it so far!

Monday, July 28, 2008

My neighborhood of Gandhi Nagar, Adyar

Today I was going to write about our trip to the Ideal Beach resort, but I decided instead to write a bit about my neighborhood. This morning before the school bus picked us up, I went for a walk around the immediate neighborhood in hopes of beginning to get acclimated to my surroundings. Then after we were dropped off in the afternoon, I did the same. I didn’t reach one of my destinations I was thinking of perhaps reaching, but I had a memorable experience nonetheless.

My neighborhood is rather residential. As I walk outside the open gate to the apartment entrance, I see the kolam (a decorative symmetrical design made from rice flour) on the freshly cleaned driveway. This symbol of prosperity looks different than the one I saw outside my apartment neighbor’s door, and I look forward to seeing if more variety occurs. (I will talk more about the kolam in another entry, as I think it deserves more attention).

Motorized rickshaws, called tuk-tuks, putter by and sputter, narrowly missing each other. Bicycles, mopeds & motorbikes also fight for space with the smaller cars, many of which are Korean brands and made in Chennai. The sound of a variety of horn toots and honks punctuate the air, each standing for something different – “I see you, get out of the way, I’m going to make a move, ….” Some of the bike/motorcycle drivers are wearing the required helmets, which makes it harder to talk on the cell phone – a good thing considering the dangerousness of the common practice. Many bikes and motorcycles carry several riders, sometimes an entire family. In between this seeming chaos and defensive driving are the pedestrians. One man carries a few knives and a special wheel, calling out something in Tamil which I surmise is an announcement that he is there to sharpen knives. Street dogs of medium size can be found on most streets, but they seem rather passive so far. Although the roads are paved, they are not in top condition. The occasional pothole, cow, speed bump, or darting pedestrian slows down traffic a bit.

Continued tomorrow...

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Arrival, Melissa's apartment in Chennai

Today is now my second day in Chennai. I arrived yesterday morning - EARLY morning, about 2 am. Temperature: 82°F (28°C) and humid. When my two bags finally appeared on the conveyor belt, I noticed that my blue suitcase was taped up, since it too now had its zipper broken. Alas, another victim of baggage handlers. An hour later, I was greeted by a school staff member and he led me past the eager taxi drivers to where the school van was parked. After being given a mini-tour of the apartment and a few tips (i.e. to make an outlet work, you need to turn on a "light switch" next to it), I unpacked a few things and went to bed. I wanted to catch a few hours of sleep before the bus picked us up the next morning at 7:30 for a day trip to a beach resort. (See tomorrow's posting of the Ideal Beach Resort.)

Below are some photos of the interior of my apartment. I was planing to take some photos of the outside, but it decided to rain and then it got dark at about 6:15 (day and night are fairly equal, since Chennai is only about 15° above the equator). My apartment is in the section of Chennai called Adyar, further broken down as Gandhi Nagar. This area is more residential and slightly quieter than other parts. Palm trees line the edge of the wall surround the apartment building. Curved balconies, many with plants, accent each level of the newish building. The ground level is mostly exposed, serving as a protected parking area for cars and mopeds. An elevator is useful for those heavier loads in the 5 story building.

My apartment is on the 2nd floor (2 floors above ground floor) and the entryway opens out to three apartments, each with different doors. My apartment has 3 bedrooms, one of which is empty and will be my art studio. There are three bathrooms, each with Western toilets, a sink, and a recessed tiled area for the shower (no curtains). Each bedroom and the living room have an air conditioner, as well as a celing fan (which I prefer to run). The matress definitely is not Western quality, but I will have to get used to it. The kitchen has a new gas stove/oven, a fairly new refrigerator, a new microwave, and a drinking water dispenser. A door leads to a smaller balcony where the washing machine and clothesline (suspended from the ceiling) are. A larger balcony with French doors opens out from the living room. From here I have a nice view of the apartment building next to me. Knowing how important the Internet is for teachers, they already had DSL up and running - very nice since I could immediately email family letting them know I arrived safely. The school also thoughtfully had some fruit, bread, Corn Flakes, a few place settings, and some other food necessities purchased, carrying me through a few days until I can go to the store.

Since my shipment hasn't arrived, the apartment is rather bare, void of most personal items including my paintings. I have already met one of the neighbor ladies on my level, an Indian who spends part of the year in Chennai and the other in San Francisco with her grown children who work for IT companies. I also met the two fellows who are the "gatekeepers," as well as a young cleaning lady who was sweeping the grounds with a wisk broom. She spoke now English but one of the gatekeepers could speak a few words. I ca't wait until my shipment comes so I can bake them some chocolate chip cookies.

Hopefully tomorrow afternoon when we get done with school obligations I can take a little walk around the neighborhood. The neighbor lady offered to show me where a few stores are. Stay tuned!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

India - Think Diverse

  • India is the second most culturally, linguistically and genetically diverse geographical entity after the African continent.
  • Literacy rate is around 64% (53.7% for females, 75.3% for males)
  • While English is the most important language of commerce and Hindi is the national language (spoken by 30% of the population), there are 21 other official languages and around 844 dialects.
  • Religous makeup: Hindu 80.5%, Muslim 13.4%, Christian 2.3%, Sikh 1.9%, other 1.8%. Four of these (Hinduism, Sikkhism, Jainism, and Buddhism) originated here.
  • There are over 300 million middle class residents and over 400 million cows - one for every 2 people.
  • Over 1/3 of the income is earned by 10% of people; by contrast, 25% live in poverty (less than $0.40 a day). The median age is 25 and life expectancy is around 69 years.

Friday, July 11, 2008

India - Think Big

While doing some reading for my upcoming move to India, I came across these "big" statistics.
  • India is the 7th largest country in the world - about the size of Europe combined and 1/3 the size of the US
  • India is the 2nd most populous country in the world, with over 1 billion people (1,147,000 – 2008 estimate). This includes a birth every 1.2 seconds
  • While it has the 2nd largest growing economy and is 4th largest in purchasing power, it still suffers from large numbers of malnutrition, poverty and illiteracy.
  • It is the world's largest tea producer, 3rd for milk and tobacco, 4th for wheat, coal, nitrogen fertilizers
  • There are 95 peaks above 24,600 feet (7,500 meters)
  • It has the wettest place on earth (Mawsynram), with over 467 inches (11,873 mm) of rain each year - 10x more than New York and 20x more than London
  • By contrast, the Thar Desert is about twice the size of Bangladesh.
  • India is the world's largest democracy
Photo: Creative Commons license

Monday, July 07, 2008

San Antonio River Walk

One of the major attractions of San Antonio is its River Walk. Initially constructed in 1939 as a WPA project, the network of over 17,000 linear feet of walkways and 20 bridges continues to be expanded. Lining the edge of the shallow river were bars, shops, hotels, and restaurants. Pedestrians strolled past full cafés. Guides led boat passengers through portions of the river, revealing a bit of the history and attractions. Water birds paused along the beautifully indigenous landscaped shores. On the opposite side of the narrow river, a flamenco concert was held at an outdoor theatre. Interspersed were a few small waterfalls, adding to the ambience. With the exception of some areas where cafés were right up to the river, railing was absent. This made everything more attractive, but I wonder if people falling in the river has been a problem.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo

Having already seen the Alamo, I wanted to further explore San Antonio’s missions. Since my time was limited and the other missions spread a few miles apart from each other, I selected to go to the San José Mission that was on the public bus line and had a visitor’s center. Founded just 2 years after the first mission, San Antonio de Valero (the Alamo), Mission San José once housed up to 350 Indians in 84 2-room apartments. Although rather simple, the apartments were a huge change for the nomadic Indians.
Amidst the mesquite honey trees were remains of workshops and other unidentified buildings. Because no documentation existed on these buildings in the central courtyard, they were not reconstructed.

Limestone Church
Near the far end of the wall was the limestone church, one of the best examples of Spanish colonial Baroque architecture. Built in 1768 at the height of the mission’s development, the church contains a rich collection of statues of the Holy Family and several saints on its façade, a replica of the original richly carved wooden door, and an arched back entrance with carved animals. Pomegranates, a symbol of unity, appeared throughout the relief carvings, much as grape vines did on other churches I’ve seen. The interior of the church, still in use and under the direction of the Catholic Church was much simpler in its decoration, particularly for a Baroque church. Once completely adorned in bold patterns and primary colors, only a small portion of the exterior painting remained. Next to a small tower partially held together by old wooden stairs was the Rose Window. Perhaps the best example of Spanish Colonial ornamentation in America, this richly decorated non-circular window opening remains a mystery as to its sculptor and significance. Next to the church was the Convento, a residence for the missionaries and a place of lodging for visitors. Remnants of a few rooms and the many arches (including a few incorrectly restored as pointed arches by the Benedictine monks) remained.

Just beyond the walls of the structure was the gristmill, which ground wheat to accommodate the residents’ new diet. A park ranger was there to demonstrate the process, increasing the flow of water to the wooden wheel below, which also sped up the grinding. Periodically the church bells rang out, much like they summoned the mission residents to worship three times a day. Back inside the walls, I visited the exhibits and a spacious granary with a barrel-vaulted ceiling.
In the 104 years that San José was a mission, over 2,000 Indians were baptized. Even today, some of the church worshippers can trace their lineage back to the mission Indians.

The Missions of San Antonio

The chain of missions located along the San Antonio River in the 18th century were one of Spain’s most successful attempts to extend the Spanish kingdom northward and establish a concentrated area in which to spread the Catholic faith. In this way, the Franciscans helped expand the Spanish Empire against the encroaching French colonialists and focus on the spiritual conversion of the Native Americans of the region, supported financially by the Spanish Crown and the Catholic Church. Flourishing between 1747 and 1775, these missions also provided food, shelter and protection for the Coahuiltecan Indians. In return, these hunters and gatherers had to give up their nomadic way of life, language, clothing, names, and spiritual beliefs. In addition, they had to learn Latin and Spanish, as well as new jobs. Although European diseases such as smallpox did eventually ravage the mission and others chose to return to their former way of life, the San Antonio missions were considered a success and chartered the spiritual and cultural outcome of the region.

San Antonio de Valero (The Alamo)

Located in the heart of today’s downtown San Antonio and just off the famous River Walk, the Alamo was the first mission on the San Antonio River. Established in 1718, the Alamo was once a walled community constructed out limestone and built under the direction of skilled craftsmen recruited from New Spain (present-day Mexico).

Today little remains other than the small iconic church whose façade we associate with the Alamo. After mission activity began to wane at the end of the 18th century, the Alamo was abandoned and used as a fortress by the Mexican army. Plaques, illuminated in the early night sky, told of the historic struggle of the outnumbered Texas defenders against the advance of the Mexican army in 1835. Now a national historic landmark, the Alamo continues to draw visitors and influence local architecture.