A Year of Dreams

Jumping for the joy of it? Or simply returning from a flight?

Cynicism is easy; dreams are hard.  Stephen Colbert once said cynicism is self-imposed blindness.

It’s effortless to sit in an armchair and lob stinging barbs at the world, call oneself satisfied, cloak fear and hurt in the folds of wisdom.

We suffocate inklings of faraway adventures or new selves, leaving such idleness to children, holding our adult ideals in a death grip.

And that makes me sad.  Because dreams form the fabric of our lives, can be discovered in the doodles of our notebooks, our computer wallpaper or what we tune into on television.  Literally, imaginings of who we should be are everywhere.

You just have to look.

As I gaze forward after launching Nomadic Chick a year ago, this site may be new, but my dreams were germinating seeds in my mother’s womb.  As old as the wind.

Next year rests on swampland, could sink downward any second, but I float above untouched, because no matter what transpires I am encased in gold.  A Fort Knox of memories, that were realities, that were tossed away as once unreachable make me a helium balloon.  Weightless and uninhibited.

Clocking the steady lines of the prairies on the Greyhound from Calgary to Moosejaw. The night I hobbled with sore feet through Manhattan and witnessed Times Square come alive under an electrician’s wand. Riding an elegantly designed train from Copenhagen Airport and disembarking into a Carl Nielsen concerto. København stilled my breath. Giddy with laughter every time I flashed a press badge at The World Travel Market, feeling like a science nerd crashing a jock party. Lighting sandalwood incense at the village temple as a black dog sleeps at my bare feet.  I close my eyes and hear silence. Then rouse to sound the bell and leave.

I gather those yards of fabric and wrap them around myself like a sari, wear my year of dreams eagerly, flicking cynicism to the ground.

This isn’t magic, or guru mutterings, just a woman who refused to see the possible.  Someone who once viewed dreams as foreign now embraces boundless potential.

In these skeptical times of government scandals, narcissistic Facebook status messages, and bite-sized journalism, remember that dreaming can be comfortable; the world is still an alchemy of exotic and wonder.

Remove that coat of cynicism; next year could be your best.  And the year after, and the year after that.

You just have to believe.

Photo: Janet McQueen

By |December 31st, 2010 |Categories: Life |31 Comments

Christmas at Child Haven

After Santa made an exclusive, VIP appearance, the festivities got started on the evening of December 24th.  Child Haven’s tradition is to decorate the towering “evergreen” tree and place candles underneath it at midnight.

This year we did it a little earlier.

Prakesh handing out candles

Waiting with our candles

Kids excited (and cold)!

Placing candles

Burning dreams of Christmas

Kavita telling a story in Marathi

Then little Santa dropped by to delight the children.

Bhimrao all decked out

Distributing sweets

Christmas Day began with dancing.  I tell you, Indians know how to set up a killer sound system with floor speakers and an audio mixer.

Showing their moves

Dancing with verve seems to be a cultural stamp. Enthusiasm is not the only piece, but a penchant for storytelling, a flavor for drama that is missing from dancing back home.  Unless you count hip hop, I suppose.

As the day progressed, I captured more shots.

Bhimrao with puppy, Chapati

Samonay and Kajal by tree

The kids pulled at the camera begging, “Auntie, me photo?  Me?”

Garishma and Supriya

The girls love to dress up on a holiday!

A bunch of us dressed to bring in the yuletide

The joyous chorus of “Happy Christmas” turned into familial purgatory for some children.  A queer sense of duality struck as I watched a few children standing normally in the yard suddenly burst into silent, inconsolable tears.

Lalita - pensive and sad

I feared asking Kavita why, but my intuition knew they were gripped by loss.  Most of the children have at least one living parent.  The crying children were dejected that their one parent did not bother to visit on a day marketed towards family unity.

Kaja went from laughing to this

Ambica’s mother did visit, but only came to borrow a dancing outfit for another girl.  Her presence clocked in at 10 minutes max.  I observed poor Ambica circling the fence, seemingly attracted to its magnetic pull.  The main attraction being her mother and brother waiting for an auto-rickshaw.  Any attention she sought came in trickles, if any.

Ambica. Her mother is in green & that's her brother at the fence

Please excuse the photos, my intention is not to invoke sensationalism, but the tears threw me off kilter.  What I saw in their disappointed faces, I saw in myself.  Christmas stopped being enjoyable for me at about age 11.  My father was off gallivanting with another woman and my mother’s will to maintain stability crumbled.  It reached a point when we stopped purchasing or decorating a tree.

I lived through my trials, and know these kids will, so I did my college best to crack smiles.  Not to mention more dancing.  An American hip-hop song circulated on a loop and I gyrated like a go-go monkey to giggles and heckling.  Kavita also stepped into her dancing sari.

Hoofing with the girls

I also had a special surprise for the kids.

Making noodles!

I was delighted to find Asian style noodles in the nearby town, Pen.  While I slaved in the kitchen, we could hear the children jockeying to grab their plates, the metal clanging against each other with excitement when word got out that Auntie Jeannie was making something tasty.

Chopping onions and garlic

My dutiful helpers, Prakesh and Kavita

Finished product: cilantro, carrots, tomatoes, masala, the works!

Come serving time, Jeannie does her duty.

Lining up to get Christmas grub

Dishing out my hard work

Dessert!

Final tally of vittles

Geting ready to dig in

We ended the evening with prayer and thanks for the bountiful food and company.  All in all, a stellar Christmas.

You know what this says

Tell me, how did you spend yours?

By |December 29th, 2010 |Categories: Savarsai |16 Comments

Find a Hotel with Hotel Calculator

I usually book accommodations through CouchSurfing or Hostel Bookers, so when I was asked to review a site called Hotel Calculator I was delighted.

See, my plan is to book a semi-swanky hotel after volunteering, treat myself to a few nights of pampering and an intense body scrubbing.  Trust, I will need it.

Hotel Calculator is hotel comparison website that grabs hotel prices from various reservation sites and merges them into a single source.

Instead of checking 15 different reservation sites, you can check one.  Not bad, I thought.  Let’s give this a twirl.

Layout

When I’m under the gun at an Internet café, I prefer simplicity when it comes to web surfing.  Hotel Calculator has a clear, white background and it’s easy to identify anything from the hotel search widget to their social networking icons.

Navigation

Once you’re ready to search, just type in the city you’re interested in or use the drop down menu to select by alphabetical order.

A neat option I liked is being able to visually see how many countries Hotel Calculator covers.  Scroll till you get here:

Then click “see all”.  A new window opens and a list appears with flag icons. For some stupid reason that delighted me.  The world at my fingertips?  Super cool.

Normally I type in the city, it’s easier, quicker.

Hotel Choices

I was interested in finding something snazzy in Mumbai, so I popped that into my search and the results loaded:

Again, I’m partial to the clean layout.  The left column allows you to narrow your search, we’ll get to that in a second.  The main column is easily readable offering a picture of the hotel, address, star rating, and price.

The left column is where you can refine the search by quite a few parameters: price, amenities, even name if you are so ambitious to have that on hand.  The price range toggle took a second to figure out, but once I did, it’s easy.

Pricing

The first hotel I selected was UniContinental.

The price surprised me!

In this window, you can scroll down to see a gallery of the hotel or suite.

Off to the left are the important particulars and even an option to view more hotels.

My go-to is always “guest ratings”.  I won’t bother investigating a room further unless the ratings are generally positive.  However, when I clicked on it no ratings were available and the window asked me to post one instead.

This is where the site confused me.  There was little indication on how to get ratings.  It wasn’t until I actually selected the booking engine, in this case Booking.com, that ratings appeared:

After I figured that out, it was time to play.  My next search brought up the Sahara Star.

$207 per night is chump change, right?

The range and types of hotels were surprising and impressive.  Hotel Calculator seems to fit every budget.

The Verdict

How does Hotel Calculator stack up against similar sites like Hotwire or Hostel World?

For one, you can plan an entire trip with Hotwire by checking hotels, flights and rental cars.  Which is great for one- stop shopping.  However, I prefer to compare and the hotel search engine in Hotwire is not user friendly.  Instead of multiple windows that sometimes don’t work like Hotwire, Hotel Calculator provides one window of searches and it’s only when you want to book does it forward you to the reservation site.

Hostel World is straightforward from it’s moniker, normally providing searches for budget priced accommodations.  If you’re looking for both: a little bit of luxury or some budget options Hostel World won’t do.

Overall, Hotel Calculator is a decent, basic source for hotel searches.  It reminded me a lot of Momondo, which I’ve switched to as my main flight search engine.  You save time and money, two things I like.

In keeping with the times, Hotel Calculator also has an iPhone app.  Grab it here: Hotel Calculator app.

I always remember something my former boss said, “Always use K.I.S.S.”  Keep it simple, stupid.  And that’s what Hotel Calculator does.

By |December 27th, 2010 |Categories: Travel Tips |4 Comments
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Christmas Came Early to India!

With so many religions swimming around India like Hinduism, Muslim and Buddhism one could assume Christianity is a small percentage.  Wrong!  In fact, there are 24 million Christians in India and it is the third largest religion here.

At Child Haven, all the children’s religions are respected and Christmas Day is celebrated with fanfare.

Thanks to a Mumbai based epilepsy centre Santa made an early appearance!  The kids were over the moon.

Santa resting his sore North Pole feet

He adapts to the environment

Getting ready to hand out gifts

And a gift goes to Saraswati

Mahesh, from the epilepsy centre assisted Santa

Christmas loot, snacks!

Chocolate and a plastic Santa. Does this guy know how to brand or what?

Priya checking out her booty

Merry Christmas, everyone!

That includes from me.  Have a great holiday!

Welcome, Auntie Jeannie

You might have a singular vision of volunteer work overseas.

Some sanctimonious fantasy that you are going to swoop in with your Western ideals of equality and love for all God’s children. And gosh darnit, I’m going to be the one who will affect change, bring hope.

That’s what I believed.  At first.

In truth, I hated the first two weeks.

Don’t pat me on the head and chalk it up to culture shock.  I dived into eating with my right hand with gusto, relearned squat toilet etiquette from my first foray into Asia, and even adjusted to my bare feet touching where others have walked before.

It seemed I wasn’t so much fighting culture, but the elements.  Or purpose.

On my first official day all the kids gathered in front of me. I sat in a plastic patio chair as 42 pairs of eyes stared at me.  I stared back.

Then Suraj jumped up with a ukulele, launching into a song.  All the children joined in.

“We welcome you, we welcome you, you are welcome to Chiild Haaaven!!’

I clapped in delight, so charmed with my third world charges.

Garishma, very pretty, with chocolate skin and shining eyes approached with a silver tray.  A small candle burned on the tray alongside a pile of red powder and a finger bowl with a liquid resembling oil.  She dipped the end of her index finger in the bowl first to wet it, then dabbed a bit of red powder to create a paste.  I flinched with excitement as she bent down to press the substance to my forehead.

I just received my first tikka.  Blessings.

A surge of hope quelled in me.   So ready to change their world.

So, it began.

The first few days were engulfed with learning the setup.  There is 1 cook, 1 matron, 1 gardener, Kavita and Prakesh.  Then me.  The hanger-on.  Every staff member seemed to have a set routine, while I drifted, frankly, sometimes bored out of my head.

Their insistent hospitality rendered me a coddled queen.  Everything was brought to me in the food or drink realm.

It was only at night I was left to my own devices.

With 42 kids whirling around the complex, every age group is placed in different schools.  Some are in Marathi medium or primary, some are in what’s called English Medium (main language: English), some are in high school, and only 2 girls are in college.  This heady bit of information means revolving school schedules.

They are clothed, so I didn’t have to replace rags.

They are fed, so I didn’t have to cook feasts.

Kavita is the constant force in their lives, so “den mother” is not my role.

I quickly discovered that only after homework and during play did I become useful to the kids.

They are a repetitive mob that encircled me, barking questions or orders, pawing me with their hands.

“Auntie, your name?”

“Auntie, mine!”

“Auntie, come!!’

They pulled my ears, poked my skin.  Grabbed my watch and twisted it around. They gawked at me like a newly captured zoo animal.  Sometimes I am the reincarnation of Joseph Merrick.  I tried to say hello, speak meager Marathi – they giggled.

At times I had to retreat to my room and breathe.

Reading the intern manual inside and out did not prepare me for this.

After days full of this, nights left me frustrated fighting mosquitoes, bugs of an unknown lethal level (it’s the big, black scorpions you got to worry about, not the tiny red ones) or ant swarms.

I washed my clothes, bra, rubbed tea tree oil on my neck and ears, washed my feet swollen from too much inaction until I fell exhausted into a bed that creaked like an Alcatraz prison cot.

Not to mention the twice a day power outages.

Yet, I would rise the next day to reenact it all over again.  I kept wondering why when my purpose felt buried.  Something forced me to keep going.

I wondered if it would be better if I had come for a particular reason.  Teach writing.  Hold formal English classes instead of the casual lessons held outdoors daily.  Erect a proper home with a real mother and father in place.

I knew they would never run up to me excited and breathless to reveal a makeshift craft they created, like they do with Kavita.

On the dawn of my third week I found Sanghvi crying.  It was almost her third week too, being a new intake into Child Haven.

She carried around the same silent confusion as I did since arriving, making me feel connected to her, as though we communicated telepathically.  Spilling our woes through our eyes and gestures.

She’s a very bright girl, tall for her 10 years, and has the most beautiful hair, streaming past her waist.

That day her face crumpled with sadness and tears.

She looked up to me and said, “My mother is not coming.  She doesn’t help me.”

That nearly broke my heart, I choked back my own tears.  All I could say was I’m sure your mother loves you, the false tone ringing in my ears.

I told her to not be sad, caressed her cheek.  She perked up – dancing and singing for me. We broke out into song together and she showed me the moves for Prayer Dance.  Other girls joined, until an entire chorus line formed.

That’s when I knew.  You don’t affect them, they affect you.

I felt hopeful again, accepting that I won’t solve all the social ills of Child Haven.  But, to gain a child’s attention for 5 minutes or see their faces light up when I hand out cardboard tubes of finished toilet paper is enough.  Even when they swarm, demanding two at once, multiple hands out in want.

Why not give it to them?  It’s the small pleasures.  I take them with glee.

Editor’s note: I found out later that Sanghvi’s mother claimed she was a widow, when in fact she wanted to dump Sanghvi and her brother Simon and run back to her husband.  The mother has never once visited her children since I’ve been at the home.  Isn’t that awful?

Secret Photos of India Police Station!

Strange as it may seem, I had to pay for a 1 year employment visa to volunteer with Child Haven.

Any foreigner with said visa must register at a designated office within 14 days of arrival or you could be detained when leaving India.

Most major cities have special registration offices, but since my location is rural, I had to do mine at the district police office in Alibag.

I risked life and limb to snap these photos, some were taken in a hurried state as my palms sweat not knowing what would happen if an officer noticed me clicking away.  On top of that, they had to pry my passport from my hands and held it for several hours.

In truth, they probably would have happily posed with me and offered me chai in the process!

Outside view of police compound:

A police scooter (?) with horse in background:

Close-up of horse.  Notice it’s not fenced in.  I kept wondering, do they ride it RCMP style?

Bit blurry, but you get the idea.  Out of all the rooms we were in I saw 2 women in uniform.  The clerical staff wear saris.  You can see they share one computer between them in the main reception area:

Prakesh at left in white shirt (assistant manager of Savarsai home) talking to a plain clothes policeman about my registration.  In total, we spent 4 hours waiting around for forms to be completed!

A paper copier box recycled into a book cover.  I was kind of impressed with their creativity:

Interior.  Notice the large folder sitting on the desk where the officer is standing.  I observed a clerk “filing” papers in those large, cumbersome folders.  Computers are several years old:

Indian bureaucracy sure love their stamps, and not the electronic kind:

Office of the assistant police chief.  He asked why my passport said “Brazil”.  I said,”I visited there 2 years ago.  It’s a visa, like the one I have for India?”  Clearly there was a lapse in communication.  The office is empty as he tried to take my file to his boss for review.

They sure know how to make a foreigner feel welcome.  I am “Form A”:

After spending a nervous 4 hours worried about the life of my passport, we were ushered into the police chief’s office, which was vast.  There was no doubt he was the boss.  A ceiling fan whirred above as the assistant chief explained what I am doing here.  Volunteering?  With Children?  The big chief gave me a once over.  I forced a bright smile to show how harmless I am.   We exchanged no words.  Only Prakesh conversed with him in Marathi.

It occurred to me they could reject my registration, and the thought gripped fiercely as the minutes ticked by in his office.  I gave an internal sigh when he finally reached for my file.

The culmination of all that waiting transpired into a measly stamp:

The ins and outs of registration:

  1. Here’s a list of foreigner registration offices: FRRO’s.  If you are not near any of these offices, you will have to go to the nearest police district office.
  2. Any foreigner spending more than 180 days in India must register.  This includes students, employment, Missionary, medical, etc.
  3. Registration should cost nothing, but it’s not uncommon for police officers to ask for a bribe.  Unbeknownst to me, Prakesh paid 100 rupees.  Other interns at Child Haven paid 300 rupees.  I recommend you refuse to pay.  As much as they attempt to scare you, it is free.
  4. An employment visa runs about $200!  Expensive compared to a tourist visa which is approximately $69 CDN.  Would I do this again?  Probably not.  The plus side is my visa is multiple entry.
  5. Be prepared to provide 4 copies of passport photos, application forms and copies of your passport.  You can do this fairly cheaply in India.  Passport photos were 8 in a set for 60 to 80 rupees, photocopies and prints were 1 to 5 rupees each, and Internet is 20 rupees per hour.
  6. When leaving the country, you have to present your registration to an immigration officer.

For  full instructions on how to complete registration visit the Indian Bureau of Immigration and download the application form.

Be forewarned, they will change things up with no notice.  The officer wouldn’t even accept my initial forms and created his own, asking for 4 more passport photos.  I was lucky to have 4 left.

Ahh, this is India!

By |December 13th, 2010 |Categories: Savarsai |30 Comments