31 December 2008

Another Year Rolls Away!

I am sure 2008 will not be a year that merges with the others and becomes a blurry memory. Oh no. Too much has happened. Each month has been way too unique in my life's experiences. So let me take it month by month.

JANUARY

The year began for me in South Africa at Pam's beautiful home in Hillcrest, Durban where the entire family was together recovering from hard partying the night before. Then the next day I flew east and landed in hot, muggy, gleaming Singapore. After an interesting couple of days of exploring airconditioned state of the art shopping malls, I landed in frenetic India. Sure seems like a long time ago now. In India I felt like I had temporarily left our planet. Everything around me was so, so exotic. But in the evenings, in my hotel room, I'd watch what went on in the'real' world. The primaries had begun and it was looking good for Hillary to win the nomination.

FEBRUARY

Relaxing, enjoyable days in exciting Sydney, Australia. I enjoyed bonding with Fabian and hanging out in the Darling Harbor area. Sydney in its summer months is one heck of a terrific city. Meanwhile, the primaries in the US where taking an exciting turn. Barrack Obama won Iowa and on super Tuesday neither candidate came out the outright winner. Everyone was on pins and needles. Hillary was getting negative press and Obama became the darling of the mainstream media.

MARCH

I explored the north island of New Zealand. I came to the conclusion that NZ was like a promising movie with no plot. You keep waiting for something to happen but NOTHING does! Definitely worth a visit, though. Then I returned to Santa Barbara after eight months of living abroad. Election excitement was high. My main concerns were to promote my teen fiction book htat had come out a few months before and to make progress on my writing projects.

APRIL

Glorious springtime in California. We killed our lawn and made raised vegetable beds and planted tomatoes, basil, and arugula. I did author visits and signings and did some writing.

MAY

At this point it was pretty obvious that Barack Obama was going to win the nomination. We were all very excited about this.

JUNE

Italy. Tuscany. Indulged in wine, truffles, funghi porcini, and more time with Fabian and his mother Julia. The day I flew back I managed to be in four countries. I flew out of Pisa, Italy and landed in Paris, France. After two hours I flew into London. Then from there I flew into LA. Later in the month I signed my book at the big BEA fair and met my publishers. At the end of June Pam and family descended.

JULY

The main news was the GAP fire. Big fire near us- we had to evacuate. Most of the month was spent enjoying and entertaining Pam and family. We had a very hot summer with almost no fog. I went to the pool practically every morning. Another big event for me was going to the LA SCBWI writer's conference. I had fun getting to spend time with Caroline Hatten and also to be among other writers.

AUGUST

Vacation comes to an end. A frantic attempt to revise a manuscript to submit to an editor I met at the conference. Then I had to face the harsh world of work and teaching again.

SEPTEMBER

School. Teaching. And an addiction to the news, after all it's a historical election year.

OCTOBER

The world as we knew it came to an end. Financial institutions left, right, and center were collapsing, declaring bankruptcy. Job losses, soaring oil prices, the economy in free fall. Everyone's panicking. Obama takes a commanding lead in the polls.

NOVEMBER

A miracle has happened. America votes for a black man to lead the country. We're in ecstasy. The holidays are approaching and the weather has turned cold. I get grumpy.

DECEMBER

San Francisco. We do a house swap with a family who have this amazing, huge, modern house right in the city of San Francisco. We go to many different, expensive restaurants in the city. Our two favorites - Greens and Dosa (South Indian) - get multiple visits from us. We went to the new planetarium in the Golden Gate Park. The place was crowded and we had to wait in long lines for everything. The big attraction is a simulated journey through space to visit the planets. It was quite wonderful. The museum has a pretty nice aquarium and rain forest theme 'park' as well.
We walked on the Golden Gate Bridge on Christmas Day and ate Chinese food at an all veggie place called Shangri - La. I loved being unconventional and of course, not cooking.
Among the fun things we did in SF was meandering through the ferry building on the embarcedero. Here, there are gourmet food places that carry truffles, wild mushrooms, caviar, etc. There's also a farmer's market with a huge selection of fresh produce. SF is definitely food paradise.

And now, I'm going to spend some time thinking about whether to make New Year's resolutions.

Happy New Year everyone.

22 December 2008

Winter Holidays

Finally, a day to relax. It's Monday, midday, a few days before Christmas. I'm in San Francisco, where despite a crispness, the weather is acceptable. Yesterday, when we arrived from Santa Barbara it was raining heavily. We are doing a house swap with a family. They have an amazing house in the Pacific Heights neighborhood. The house - one of those original Victorian houses - has an uber-modern interior. Three levels - open plan - practically no interior walls with wooden and bamboo floors and leather, chrome, glass furniture. Everything here is state of the art. When you enter through huge, old world style double doors you come into an enormous entry hall which is visible from all parts of the house. A huge skylight above keeps the interior bright and airy. We are thrilled to have this place for a week. We hope the family isn't too disappointed to put up with our simple abode back in Santa Barbara.

The last weeks of teaching were bloody draining. I had my students perform a play called SANTA CLAUS FOR PRESIDENT. It turned out to be a lot more work than I expected. But they enjoyed making posters and flags and various little props for their performance. So it was worth it. Another big project I was forced to do on account of it being a tradition at the school was gingerbread houses. Using graham crackers, frosting,a nd the most ghastly candy imaginable, the kids created little alpine like houses. They had fun, but my big thrill came when it was all over and every tiny morsel of candy was cleared out of the classroom.
Christmas in the northern hemisphere is definitely not my favorite. Perhaps it's because when we are in South Africa it's so much fun. Warm weather, beaches, pools, tropical fruit salads, sipping cold beer on a terrace watching giant waves crashing, and being with the family. How can a cold, gloomy, grey Christmas compete with that?
But while we are here in San Francisco we are going to live it up.
We started out by going to Greens Restaurant for dinner. This veggie place is famous and upscale with the best view of the Golden Gate Bridge in the city. They always have unusual, innovate dishes on the menu. I've never eaten anything there that wasn't superb in every way.
This morning I walked out to California Street and found a few gourmet markets. I bought chanterelle, portobello, and shitake mushrooms. I also got freshly ravioli stuffed with porcini. So tonight's meal is going to be top notch.
I hope to get a lot of reading and writing done in the next two weeks.

I wish everyone an enjoyable festive season.

27 November 2008

Thanksgiving Day!

I find the winter holidays in the US strangely depressing. Thanksgiving and Christmas demand the kind of attention that disturbs my routine quite obnoxiously. I don't want to make huge meals and hang out with people. What a waste of a day.Let's not even talk about all those millions of unsuspecting turkeys callously murdered for the sake of some ridiculous tradition.

Admittedly, it was nice not to have to go to work yesterday (Wednesday) and today. It rained most of yesterday - a nice, steady drizzle quenching our parched grounds. I spent most of the day by the fire rereading Obama's DREAMS FROM MY FATHER. This morning the sun shone brightly and the sky was blue and cloudless. I started the day by reading the blogs on Huffpost I enjoyed Jamie Lee Curtis and Erica Jong expressing what they are thankful for. It helped lift me out of my depression. Paul Krugman's article defending Obama's choice of economic advisers was a good read too. I'm so glad he wrote this. It's so weird that folks on the left are being so critical. As Obama himself pointed out yesterday at a news conference, with the current economic crisis, experienced advisors are necessary. He cannot risk hiring all new people under these extraordinary circumstances.
Last Tuesday I went with some friends to a talk by Maureen Dowd who is a columnist for the NYT. I have mixed feelings about Dowd. I used to enjoy her clever, insightful criticisms of Bush, et al. but during the primaries she turned me off with her constant and consistent cattiness and pettiness toward Hillary Clinton. So I wasn't sure if I would enjoy listening to her. The talk turned out to be quite enjoyable. Maureen Dowd seems very gung ho about Obama. She was part of the press crew who accompanied him on his trip to Europe and Israel in the summer. When someone in the audience asked what she thought of Obama's appointees she expressed support. She thought it was wise to hire people with diverse ideas. She also mentioned that a lot of the people from the Clinton administration that Obama is hiring are the best and brightest who hadn't been able to do the work they hoped to do under Clinton. They now had another opportunity to use their talents. After the talk I decided I liked Maureen Dowd after all!

We spent Thanksgiving with our friends, Premi and Sri. We prepared tofurkey (tofu turkey), roast potatoes, brussels sprouts, and other veggies. Premi prepared roast leg of lamb, shrimp and crab, and a rice dish. Earlier in the day we took advantage of the gorgeous weather and went for a walk on the beach. It was fabulous. The air after a good rain is so exhilarating.

And now it's evening and I'm glad for it all to be over. But starting tomorrow I'll have to endure godawful Christmas music and jingling bells and flickering lights and stupid snowmen and Santa decorations. Is there anyone out there who would like to join me in petitioning to abolish this ghastly holiday?

14 November 2008

Another Big Fire!

Friends,

Just wanted to assure you that we are safe. The fire is about 10 miles from us so we aren't in any danger. This fire that started yesterday (Thursday evening) grew rapidly and destroyed about a 100 homes in the wealthier part of our area. My school, Roosevelt Elementary, is closed and is in an evacuation warning area. So all my students live fairly close to the fire and many of them could be evacuated before the day is over.
We are still recovering from the July fire so it's frustrating to deal with a huge fire again.

11 November 2008

Post-election elation

It's Tuesday morning, Veteran's Day, and I'm home taking things easy. I'm listening to amy Goodman's "Democracy Now". Her guest is Alice Walker, who just read out her letter to Barack Obama - an open letter which she has posted on the WEB. It's a sort of "mother giving son advice" letter. She's a passionate supporter of Obama. During a short break in the program Amy played Miriam Makeba's "Click" song. I'm very saddened by Makeba's death. I have all her albums and listen to them frequently. I'm so addicted to her voice and music that I go through withdrawal if I hadn't listened to her for a while.

Today I feel I can finally breathe again. I feel like I've been holding my breath for two years and now I can turn my attention to mundane matters. I'm about to go into my garden and check on the broccoli and chard I've recently planted. The sun is shining, the sky is deep blue. There's a chill in the air. Winter is definitely on its way.

04 November 2008

Woohoo!

It's late. I'm tired. But, what joy! O-ba-ma! O-ba-ma! We are happy. So, so happy. We hung out with our friends Adrienne and Bisi and a few others and watched with increasing excitement as the results came in. and exactly when the polls closed in California at 8:00 an Obama victory was declared. Bisi opened up a bottle of fine champagne and we celebrated.

I'm still worried about how things turned out in California though - especially Proposition 8 - banning gay marriage. Tomorrow we'll know the final results. But tonight I will go to bed with a great big smile.

02 November 2008

Just 2 more days!

Two more days. Long, long days. It's beginning to look like nothing's going to jinx things. But we always remember '04 and '00. So we stifle/suppress/compress our optimism. Should we buy champagne and expect to be celebrating? And if things go badly how on earth are we going to face the world on Wednesday?

For Halloween this year I was Joe the Plumber. When I asked my 3rd graders if they knew who he was someone said "Obama's vice-president?" I was going to make my sign "Joe the Dumber" but you know, got to be professional and all.
It's the first day of standard time when darkness descends at the ungodly hour of 5:00. I hate it. At 6:00 it feels like midnight. Jeez I find this depressing. The weather's been amazing, though. It's still warm and I'm still in my summer wardrobe. We haven't had to turn on the heating yet. But it is November and any day now the air will turn chilly.

Meanwhile, we prepare for Tuesday. Signs all over the place announce who and how to vote. Obama/Biden bumper stickers far outnumber the other out here in California. We are a solidly blue state. But we have some nasty measures on our ballots that could go the wrong way. Proposition 8 to my mind is the worst - banning gay marriage. Hopefully the number of sensible people will outnumber the dummies.

18 October 2008

Last Weeks before Election

We are all so excited. Should I be even thinking this? I should wait just in case the bad luck gods are listening. Okay, I'll wait until November 5 to jump for joy!
Meanwhile, we are sailing along, embracing fall, bravely saying goodbye to oh, beautiful, beautiful summer. Last week we went to listen to Paul Theroux give a hugely disappointing talk. What a downer to discover that somebody you've 'known' for years - in his personal narrative style books he has a way of making the reader feel like you and he are real good pals - is actually boring on the stage. He seemed to go off on tangents A LOT and the audience was left wondering if he actually spent any time preparing his talk. I do recommend his books, though. I loved SIR VIDIA'S SHADOW and MY SECRET HISTORY.

We also went to a few local concerts recently. Jennifer Terran is a local singer/songwriter and performs for a select audience at her home in a converted barn. She has loads of talent and the atmosphere at her place is warm and friendly. Another concert we went to was at a cafe - Muddy Waters. We saw Scott Ray, the brother of our friend, Vickie Ray, a professional pianist. Scott does this slide guitar thing and creates very interesting, whimsical music. He happens to be married to someone from Durban! Vickie is married to Shaun, who grew up in Ladysmith! What a world of coincidences we live in!

Oh, another big event was me being a guest author at a local event called "Breakfast with the Authors". This is organized by the school county library and it's an opportunity for educators to meet and interact with local writers of children's books. Each author had to give a two minute talk so I tried my best to sound impressive and worldly.

With two months of teaching behind me already I have to say I'm really enjoying it all. Mostly because the students I have are really sweet and are very highly motivated. It's such a pleasure to go to school everyday and see their smiles and feed their brains. They are good, and I see them lapping up knowledge like hungry kittens.

05 October 2008

Sunday Thoughts

Yesterday, Saturday, all of us in Santa Barbara were walking around with big smiles. The reason: it was a grey, drizzly day! The last time it rained here was in late February. so we were delighted. Trees and shrubs in our gardens are still covered with ash from the big July fire so we welcomed a downpour to rinse off the air and the plants and make it all clean again. By mid-afternoon the clouds had pretty much disappeared and the sun made its appearance. Today we woke up to blue skies and warm temperatures.

This past week we had a string of sweltering days. Not terribly unusual for us. It's as if summer is making a last burst of effort. You can tell it's all just a show, though. Kinda like Sarah Palin pretending to know stuff. Fall signs are all over the place. Am I ready for short days and crisp evenings? Never!

As I made my Sunday rounds - pool, hot tub, then market - I thought about delightful Sundays I experienced in other places. In the fall of 2004 we were on Sabbatical in Barcelona and there we used to start the day by going to the local bakery and buying breakfast pastries and a yummy cake for dessert in the evening. Often we chose 'The Opera', a layered chocolate cake. Then we'd pick up a newspaper - The Observer - overpriced, but we craved news from the English speaking world - and spent the mornings relaxing with coffee, pastry, and the paper. I would then go to the gym across the road and do my 'spa' routine - pool, hot tub, sauna. Around midday Daryl and I would take the metro into the city and have lunch at Maoz Falafels. This tiny place - right on the Ramblas was always crowded. They made terrific falafels and you got to stuff your pita pocket with an enormous selection of great fillings. A truly satisfying meal. Then we would head out to a cafe we discovered just past the market for coffee and a chocolate dessert. This was sinful indulgence. We would spend the afternoon sightseeing and afterwards head out to an atmospheric square for a glass of wine. Back home we'd prepare a dinner with the amazingly wonderful produce and mushrooms, etc we found so easily in Barcelona, and end the day with the delicious cake we purchased in the morning.

Other fun Sundays - like the ones in Cape Town and the ones in Oxford - scrolled through my mind too. But, Santa Barbara is such an uplifting city that I didn't find myself longing to be elsewhere.

Even though I feel resentful about not owning my time anymore, I can't say that my days are awful. I'm enjoying teaching third grade. The kids are so delightfully motivated and so full of heartwarming innocence. They love to read and would keep their books on their laps to sneak a quick read whenever they can. They are also so thrilled that their teacher is an author. One of my students checked out UNDER THE AFRICAN SUN from our school library. The kid who sits next to her looked at her other book and said to her, "Did Ms Moodley make this book too?" Cute, or what!!

And so life has slipped back into the 'normal' state. The university is back in session and so downtown is busier and grocery shopping at Trader Joe's on Sunday afternoons is impossible.

A month from now we'll know exactly how racist America is. The whole world knows who we should pick for a president, but will it happen? I think so!!

21 September 2008

What a Week!

Forget all the stuff going on with the financial markets. I'm blown away by all the news going on in South Africa. First there was the Jacob Zuma stuff - charges dropped against him. (Dang! And I was hoping he would be found guilty and therefore be unable to inherit the presidency.) Then there was the fiasco surrounding cartoonist Zapiro with his cartoon in the Sunday Times last week depicting Zuma unzipping his pants and about to rape the justice system. (Poor taste, Zapiro! Rape is a sensitive issue in SA - not something that should be used for laughs!). And then, as if all that wasn't riveting enough, we hear today that Thabo Mbeki rang out his farewell message to the nation. Well, well, well. I have to say the man showed gentlemanly dignity in this. Thank you for showing the world that African leaders aren't all power hungry, autocratic, insane dictators. Now the country has to brace itself for a Zuma leadership. Is there any way out of this? I am kinda hoping that with all the internal problems the ANC has been experiencing that a split in the party might occur. This would be really healthy for South Africa to strengthen its democracy. A viable opposition party to keep the ANC on their toes is what the country needs really badly.

It's Sunday afternoon - perfect as September days tend to be in Santa Barbara. Tomorrow summer offically ends and this makes me sad. Soon I won't be able to do what I love doing best on Sundays. I start the day with strong latte and homemade muffins or pancakes or croissant (thanks to Trader Joe's ready dough), then peruse the paper. Around 9:00 I go to the pool and swim for about half an hour. This is followed by a soak in the jacuzzi and then relaxing in the steam room. After a shower, I go to the farmer's market and buy organic produce for the week. Then it's off to Trader Joe's for groceries. Back home I get house and garden chores done and then there's the afternoon to catch up on emails, phone calls, visiting friends, reading, cooking ambitious meals like biryanis, etc., and catching up with the weeks news. I listen to podcasts of WAIT, WAIT, DON'T TELL ME, and the Mail and Guardian from South Africa. As the afternoon progresses to evening I get that heavy feeling. Time again to think about the work week.

08 September 2008

Another Birthday

Even though I still feel like I'm in my twenties it's taken me two decades to realize I have truly left that period behind! I did, however, have a fun weekend which worked superbly to keep me from certain depression that I'm another year older. On Saturday Daryl and I met up with friends at an Ethiopian restaurant on Fairfax in LA. Shaun Naidoo, a music professor and composer, grew up in Ladysmith. His father, a most unusual and somewhat arrogant man, was my high school principal. Vicki is also a music professor, and an accomplished pianist. Shaun and Vicki are incredibly lovely and it was really special to share a communal style meal with them at tastefully decorated Rahel's.

In the evening we went to see Il Trittico at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. I wore a sari for the first time in public and I think if anyone who knows about saris had seen me they might have been mortified! As it was the opening night at Chandler everyone got a glass of free champagne. Last time we did this a few years ago we arrived early enough to see dignitaries stepping off limos and getting on to the red carpet at the entrance.
Il Trittico by Puccini is three one act operas. The performance at Chandler was stellar. The third act was a Woody Allen production. It was supposed to be a farce and Allen did a fantastic job with working that to the max. yet maintaining good taste. I enjoyed every minute of it.
After the opera we didn't have to drive back to Santa Barbara, because we decided to stay over in LA at a hotel. A birthday treat. Our hotel was right in the Golden Mile area near LACMA. A really cool location. We walked to La Brea Bakery the next morning and gorged on exquisite fresh baked pastries and satisfying strong coffee. After that we walked around the neighborhood a bit. Then we wandered around the shopping area called The Grove and then the Farmer's Market. We lunched at the Singapore restaurant - a tasty curry served on a banana leaf. We drove back to Santa Barbara after lunch and had a quiet, relaxing evening at home.
And now I begin a new year.

31 August 2008

Summer ends

It's Sunday, and on this last day of August it is quite beautiful in Santa Barbara. What a glorious summer we've had! Sorry, dear family and friends in England! Two years of wet summers just ain't fair, I know. So the school year has started and now I'm relearning the routine as a regular working person in the real world. I've had a pretty decent first week of teaching. I think it's going to be a good year. My students, 3rd graders, are sweet, responsive, with a healthy level of motivation.

Today, Sunday, I made blueberry muffins for breakfast, then went to the pool for a swim. I dropped by at the farmer's market and bought organic produce. I felt good about life this morning. At the pool, while swimming, my mind was filled with pleasant memories of the last months. I thought about Fabian wanting to go up the Leaning Tower in Pisa and Kimi picking tomatoes from our garden and popping them in her mouth and Keayen teaching us the South African word for a zipline - a foo-fee. So I was smiling in the pool.

I think my good mood stems from the way the Democratic National Convention went. Obama electrified the country with his speech. The other speakers were great too. There is no way the RNC can match this. Hurricane Gustav is taking the wind out of their sails already! And jeez, isn't their VP choice hysterical?

Last night we went to see a play - Moliere's "The Imaginary Invalid" at the Solvang Open Air theatre. Our friends, Premi and Sri, went along. We had a terrific picnic dinner on the lawn before the performance. The play was OK, but not the best acting we've seen from PCPA. But, it was fun though. The stage and costumes were great and I enjoyed sitting under the stars listening to Moliere's jabs at society.

And now I've got to be bold and double click on my manuscript!!!

25 August 2008

Back to School

Today was my first day back in the classroom after a year's leave of absence. The first day of a teaching year is always a bit weird. I'm always a bit nervous about hanging out with a bunch of strangers for the day. And I'm anxious to see what kind of class I have. I can pretty much tell from the way the kids behave on the first day what my year will be like. Well behaved kids make a huge difference. It can make the year an absolute dream.

Twenty one third graders walked into the room just before 8 o'clock and seemed bright eyed and eager to get the year rolling. By lunchtime I felt optimistic about the year. The kids all seemed motivated and worked pretty independently most of the time. The last time I taught 3rd grade was 8 years ago so I'd forgotten the importance of modeling instructions as much as possible. I remembered later in the day that I needed to show more examples, and it was then that I realized what a capable group of kids I had. Cool!I have a student from Taiwan who seems to be a math wiz. To my surprise he could read and write really well. But his oral language skills are definitely lacking. I think everyone else will be fine.

I'm not thrilled to be back in the classroom. For one thing I love summer. And the start of school signals the end of summer and the approach of fall. And for another, being a teacher is such a consuming job that I feel I'm only half living when I'm teaching. And then, there are two unfinished manuscripts that I'm anxious to polish up. I find it really difficult to switch from classroom mode to writing mode.

And on a completely different topic, what did you think of Michelle Obama's speech at the DNC? I thought it was fab. She sounded so damn sincere and boy, what a speaker she is!

17 August 2008

Year of Magic Ends ... Sob! Sob!

In Santa Barbara the school year is about to start and it's time for me to get my bohemian, undisciplined behind plugged back into 'the system'. Ah, such is the life I've chosen. But, boy, what a year it's been!
Last night me and my pal Premi attended an event at the Global Institute in Santa Barbara. A 21 year old student had just returned from a stint in India and gave a slide show presentation about it. She had spent some time on Vandana Shiva's farm in Rajasthan learning how to harvest rain and run a sustainable farm. She also talked about her travels through Tamil Nadu and Kerala so it was fun for me to hear her perspectives on places I'd been to. Later, when I chatted with other folks, I was surprised at my impressive knowledge of India. Before my trip there I hardly knew the names of Indian provinces and towns. And now I can talk about South India with incredible ease. I realized last night that the month I'd spent in India was truly a special time. Yes, there were many challenges that made every act a chore, but there was so much to feast your senses on too. I'm so glad I finally made it to the motherland. When I returned from India I read Michael Wood's book THE SMILE OF MURUGAN. This is a guy with a deep passion for Tamil Nadu and in his book he gushes about the temples - most of which I had visited. He gives tons of wellresearched information about each temple in an endearing style. I wished I'd had the book while visiting those temples. The book gave me a whole new appreciation for the Tamil culture.

We are having one heck of a terrific summer in Santa Barbara this year. It's been a long one too, since spring was warmer than usual. It's been fun hanging out at home most of the time. We actually got to eat most of our fruit. Each week something new is ready for picking. Right now, our yellow peaches, big and juicy, are ready. I seem to spend a lot of my days dealing with summer produce. I hate making jam. Who wants to be in the kitchen sterilizing jars in a big pot of water when it's sweltering outside? We've made tarts, pies, and sauces with our fruit and they are in the freezer awaiting the winter months!

I'm definitely not ready to enter the real world again. I've got manuscripts that need loads of work and I hate to have to put them aside. Don't get me wrong. I enjoy being a teacher. I am committed to stimulating young minds. If I didn't have to do idiot things dreamt up by bureaucrats, I'd love my job. Tbh I'm a little nervous about resuming my job. I fear that my year of travel and writing has turned me into a radical. We'll have to wait and see ..

08 August 2008

Triple 8 Date: 08/08/08

I feel like we need to celebrate today's date. I mean, just think, none of us on earth will be around the next time it happens. Well, maybe the start of the Olympics is a sort of acknowledgement ...
Everyone out there - do something special. Kiss a stranger, climb a tree, eat goji berries, whatever ... Just do something you've never done before and then you'll always remember today!

I guess it's a good time to reflect on what I'm enjoying this summer.

1. Number one on the list would have to be harvesting cool stuff like basil and heirloom tomatoes from our new raised vegetable beds.
2. The gloriously warm, sunny days and going to the pool just about every morning.
3. The beautiful evenings - sitting out in the garden and sipping icy beer.
4. Seeing a great production of RAGTIME at the Solvang Theatre last night. What a wonderful setting with the stars above and talented actors taking us into early 20th century America. Daryl's ex-graduate students, Kelly and Jason who now live in Buffalo, NY, are visiting us and they went along as well. We had a picnic dinner out on the lawn before the play.
5. Spending a few days in LA at a writer's conference and getting inspired to polish up works in progress. (I was shocked to see that the editors there were young, sexy, and glamorous.)
6. Entertaining sister, Pam, and family and showing them a little of California.
7. Cooking meals with summer produce.
8. Having time to write.

Speaking of which, I need to go!!

01 August 2008

LA Writer's Conference

This year I made the bold move to spend the dough (ouch!) on the big SCBWI LA conference. Everyone always raves about it so I thought it was time to give it a shot. Caroline Hatton, author of NIGHT OLYMPIC TEAM, among other books, has become a good buddy and has offered to have me stay at her place in Culver City. So that makes it a tad more affordable and more interesting too. Today is the first day of the conference and already I've met some very interesting people. I had dinner last night with an illustrator from Louisianna and this morning I had breakfast at a gourmet bakery at the Westfield Shopping Plaza with an Irish writer of middle grade fiction. It's great fun to be in a place where there's such a concentration of people in the same field as me. This morning Bruce Coville opened the conference with an inspiring talk on writing for the child. He has a great sense of humor and a true passion for the art of writing. A terrific speaker!
I'm about to attend a workshop on writing historical fiction.

31 July 2008

Summer Days



As you can tell from the picture we had a blast with Pam and family. We/They did crammed a ton of things in three weeks. They didn't think they would have the nerve to drive on the other side of the road, but with the help of our genius "Tom'Tom" sat. nav, they actually drove from Santa Barbara to Disneyland with no mishaps whatsoever! So they did the Southern Cal thing for their holiday out here: Universal Studios, Disneyland, Venice Beach, Santa Monica Pier, La Brea Tarpits, the beaches in Santa Barbara. And then they sampled a bit of what lies north of us. We took them on their very first camping trip. Indrasen and Pam are pukka city folks. Their idea of fun is shopping malls and noisy cafes. But the kids were bursting with excitement about sleeping in a tent among giant redwoods. So their parents co-operated without even a squeak of protest. We camped out at Big Basin State Park near Santa Cruz. It's a gorgeous place forested with towering redwoods. The weather was perfect - sunny and warm. We went on a few hikes and cooked a hearty meal. Everything went well until the next morning when we decided to go on one last hike. Indrasen, for whom the whole hiking out in the woods deal is completely foreign, got attacked by a swarm of bees. Poor guy! His first camping trip and a rare walk into the forest and those nasty beasts punish him! Aiyaiyai! Seven ugly stings in total.

From Santa Cruz we went into San Francisco where we showed the highlights - the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman's Wharf, Pier 39, the exploratorium, etc. We discovered an excellent South Indian restaurant called Dosa south of Market Street. It was one of those yuppified Indian restaurants where everything is presented in an artistic way, but the food was splendid. Daryl and I also had a meal at Greens, our favorite place in the city. Greens is near the marina at Fort Mason, exclusively vegetarian and has the best view of the Golden Gate Bridge in the entire city. After San Francisco we spent a few quiet days in Santa Barbara and then it was time for Pam and family to return to South Africa.

Now, I'm trying to return to a writing routine. But first I go to LA for a conference. This is a huge, annual shindig where everyone in the children's books industry get together.

09 July 2008

Sanity Returns


It's been a week of chaos and worry. When the Gap fire broke out -- really close to us - we saw the smoke and flames within an hour of it starting- we were issued a warning that same night. We had to pack up our valuables and irreplaceable items and be prepared to evacuate. Thank heavens for our amazing and wonderful friends in Santa Barbara. They reached out, calling us constantly and opened their homes to us when we did have to evacuate on Thursday evening. What a spooky evening it turned out to be. The fire had grown rapidly. The mountains near us were covered with columns of smoke and enormous flames. Before the evacuation order I decided to take my relatives visiting from South Africa away from the smoke and ash. We went into downtown Santa Barbara where things looked saner. However, the sky was grey and the sun was an orange ball. We had a pleasant hour or two walking along State Street. Just as we sat down to dinner at Pascucci's - a popular Italian restaurant in town - Daryl called me on my cell and gave the awful news. We had been evacuated and I wouldn't be able to drive back home. We would be spending the night at the home of our friends, Premi and Sri, who happen to live less than a mile from our place. Adrenalin kicked in. Our house could burn down. Did we really take everything that we really treasured? What a weird feeling! All the energy and effort we put into making our home special and it could all disappear. I instructed Daryl to grab as many CD's as he could before leaving the house. He had already taken our most treasured books and photos and things to his office the previous day. Driving back into Goleta turned out to be a challenge. First, as entered the city limits it was like entering a new planet. It was completely black from a power cut plus thick smoke which seemed to blanket the whole area. The freeway exit we needed was closed so we had to drive on. I didn't know if we would be allowed into the neighborhood north of the freeway. We managed to take the next exit, but Fairview Ave was closed. Luckily I was able to take smaller roads and finally found our way to Premi's. Phew!!

Premi and Sri made us very comfortable. The next morning 4th of July -Daryl and I walked into our neighborhood. We noticed the fire had moved away. The mountains above our house were charred, but there was no longer any smoke there. At that point I was pretty sure our house was safe. The worry more or less disappeared. Now we had to deal with the inconvenience of being away from home. But our truly amazing friends did everything possible to make it all pleasant for us. We went to a 4th of July BBQ at Adrienne's and Bisi's place. The kids played in the pool and there was plenty of good beer and food and great company for the adults. Our friend, Anil, gave us the use of his entire apartment for that night. So, once again, we were pampered. "The evacuation order was lifted the next day (July 5) - thank heavens! And so we were able to return home and being cleaning up and unpacking!

The fire has been such big news that my other big news item seems small in comparison.
On Saturday, June 28, there was an ALA (American Library Association) convention in Anaheim. This annual event is an opportunity for librarians from all over the country to see what books are out there. Publishers showcase their current releases and offer great discounts. I was invited by my publisher to sign PATH TO MY AFRICAN EYES at the convention. I got to meet my editor as well as the owners of Just Us. They were really nice and treated me like one of their family. Actually, even better. They treated me to a delicious lunch at the restaurant of the Hilton Hotel. Lots of folks bought my book and chatted with me. It was quite a fun day.

22 June 2008

California has turned into an oven!




Another day of roasting temperatures - 86ºF/32ºC - here in California. Ever since we've been back from Italy we have had day after day of record breaking heat. This never happens on the coast. Usually after two or three hot days you can guarantee the fog will roll in. We wilt in the daytime, lifeless, lethargic, and stupefied by it all.

And on the topic of mystifying phenomena, would you believe I lost weight in Italy? I'm serious. Daryl is equally astonished at his lack of weight gain, considering how we totally pigged out for the 17 days we were there. We had been so disciplined about healthy eating and exercise over the last months and consciously decided to indulge while in Italy. In Tuscany we sampled different types of homemade pasta. Pici - a thick macaroni type pasta - was the a regional specialty which we had frequently with either fresh funghi porcini or truffles or pesto sauce. I especially enjoyed the ravioli - loaded with veggies - and you could taste the freshness. We had gelato practically everyday. We had rich desserts - panna cotta, zuccoto, tarts, etc. We had lots of lekker cheeses, especially fresh mozzarella made with buffalo milk. Hmm, soft, creamy, yummy mozzarella. Almost a reason unto itself to go to Italy! And of course, we couldn't help but chug down gallons of wine. We were, after all, in a wine producing region. We sampled Chianti Classicos, Montepulciano Nobiles, and Brunellos. We ate pretty darn well the entire time. Then when it was all over and we were driving home from LAX Daryl said something about going on a crash diet. I was all for the idea. "Oh yes. Fruit for breakfast, a green salad for lunch, and something light for dinner." We felt a bit depressed about the prospect of certain weight gain from our sinful indulgence. So imagine my utter bewilderment when I stood on the bathroom scale back home! It showed a pound less than the last time I had stood on that scale. Daryl got on the scale. He couldn't believe it. No change from three weeks ago. Is it the air in Italy?

Hey, do you know what I found out about olive oil in Italy? What does extra virgin olive oil mean to you? I always assumed it meant the first cold pressing of the olives. Well, guess what, the term has nothing at all to do with which pressing the oil came from. It has to do with acidity level. So regardless of the process of extracting oil from the olives, if the oil has less than 1% acidity it can be labelled "extra virgin"! I also learned that California has stricter standards so the local olive oil is of far superior quality to the Italian and Greek oils at Trader Joe's. In Italy, the folks who take their olive oil seriously buy directly from farmers who use the cold pressing methods. Depressing, hey!

In case you are wondering, our time in Tuscany was delightful. The weather was a tad cool and it rained a fair amount (most unusual for the time of year), but that didn't matter much. Daryl and I met up with my sister-in-law, Julia, and her son, Fabian (my nephew) and a friend Katie, and her two year old son, Tom. So, we filled up the old stone house that we rented. We were out in the countryside near Siena in the area called the Crete. The name has to do with the special clay soil of the region. We spent our days visiting Tuscan hill towns like Pienza, Cortona, Montelcino, and Montepulciano. We did allow a day each for Florence and Siena. In the evenings at our agriturismo, we prepared great meals which we had out in the garden from where we had gorgeous views of the Tuscan countryside. The two two year olds kept us busy. For Fabian, an inner city Sydneysider, running around in the countryside where there weren't cars and buildings, but lots of fresh air and trees, was a new experience. He loved it. He worked up quite an appetite, opening his tiny mouth for pasta with pesto with gusto. Julia thinks that there must be some Italian in his genes. In Sydney meal times are a challenge, but in Italy, he couldn't get enough.

We spent the last day in Pisa from where we were all flying back to our homes. When Fabian saw the Leaning Tower, he looked up and then pulled me to the entrance. "Up, up," he demanded, trying to get past the ticket ladies. He loves climbing, but I didn't think I could get him to go all the way up. So I tried to explain that we'd do it when he was older. Then I distracted him with a gelato. It worked.

So, back in Santa Barbara, where everyone's plum trees are laden with ripe plums. Everyone's plums in the whole entire city are ready this minute. You can't walk two meters without encountering a conversation about plums. We filled two huge bowls from our tree. Daryl has plans to make jam. For my part, I made a sorbet, and also ate as many as I could.
I think I'll head now to the kitchen and gobble a few more!

Happy summer! Or winter! Oops, that doesn't work. I'll just stick with "Happy summer".

05 June 2008

Tuscan dining

Thursday, June 5, 2008

You know those Italian meals you hear about? The ones that go on forever, course after course, accompanied by rivers of wine and then more stuff? Well, we had one of those last night. And miraculously I didn’t die. In fact I’m awake enough at 9:00 in the morning to tell about it! No hangover. No headache! I do believe in miracles.
So yesterday (Wednesday) was a conference outing day. There were about 50 of us – maybe 44 mathematicians, 5 spouses, and a lovely tour guide called Laura. We spent a big part of the day in Lucca which is separated from Pisa by mountains (Monte Pisano). We learned about the great rivalry between the folks of Lucca and those of Pisa. Pisans hate everyone, we were informed. In Lucca we walked along the city walls – a 4 km stretch with great views and lots of greenery, but we only did about a km. Then we entered the old city and took in the highlights. Narrow streets, beautiful piazzas, towers, Roman and medieval architecture and Renaissance churches make this little town really charming. It’s also the birthplace of Puccini which excited me and this year it’s the 150th anniversary of his birth. There were cafes with names like Turandot and Tosca.

We spent the late afternoon in a little village called Montecarlo which is perched on the slopes of a mountain. From here there are sweeping views down to the plains. We got a tour of the imposing fort which is now someone’s private home.

Then, at 6:30 we got taken to a wine farm just outside Montecarlo. This was where we were booked for a prepaid dinner. Again, views from the farm were quite stupendous. Lush fields (it’s been raining a lot), vineyards, olive groves, wildflowers like broom and red poppies. The air was heavily scented with star jasmin, white lavender, and a special lemony mint bush which seemed to grow everywhere.
At the farm we were seated at long wooden tables in a ‘cave’. At each table of about 15 people there were 8 bottles of wine – whites and reds – produced right at this farm. We were invited to do a ‘tasting’. So we dove into it with gusto, having been hard at work sightseeing all day. Plates of antipasto arrived – bread accompanied by cold-pressed olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar, bruscetta, sundried tomatoes, olives, prosciutto, and slices of cheese. After this came a Tuscan soup – ribolleto – delicately flavored and delicious. This hearty soup is made with cabbage and lots of veggies, and thickened with white bread. I was now on my 4th wine – the 1st red – and loving it. After the emptied soup bowls were taken away, the primi piatti – pasta course - arrived. Of course it was home-made pasta – parpadelle – with a light tomato sauce for the vegetarians. Heavenly as would be expectd. I tried to get through as many of the reds left to sample through this course. A robust red was on its way for the main course!! The company around me was getting increasingly animated. They seemed to have no trouble chugging down the wine. The main course arrived – a mushroom terrine (I think - it was brown and tasted meaty, but we were assured it was vegetarian!) for the vegetarians. Meats of various kinds for the carnivores. The robust red – a pure Merlot – arrived. It was quite special – dry, a little smoky, with hints of blackberry on the nose. Excellent food, and bloody good wine.

At this point me and the folks at my table were engaged in a long discussion about Obama and Hillary. Sitting beside me were a German mathematician living in Illinois (Champagne-Urbana) and a woman mathematician from New York who was an ardent Hillary supporter. Across from us were three young male mathematicians - a Polish, a Belgian, and a German from Berlin. I can’t remember anyone’s name. The woman was pissed that Hillary lost. She was convinced it was because of sexism. When I pointed out that Obama had trouble clinching the nomination because of racism, she denied this. “Oh no. Hillary had a lot of supporters, that’s why the race was so close.”
“But, look who voted for her, and look who voted for Obama?” I pointed out.
She wasn’t budging.

The three Europeans were quite intrigued by the whole affair. They related stories of meeting Americans who claimed not to be racist, but said to them, “I can’t bring myself to vote for a black man.” They laughed. “Americans don’t even know when they are being racist!”
But, clearly, this exciting period in American politics is causing a lot of excitement in Europe.

By now my tummy felt like a lump of lead. The main course dishes were cleared away. Bottles of Vin Santo - a dessert wine – and plates of biscotti for dipping in the wine arrived at our tables. We obliged. And just as we were about to collapse the grappa arrived. We were told that grappa is a digestif – necessary after a meal of heavy eating and drinking. So, of course, we gulped down the grappa. Finally, shots of espresso came around. Not for me – I don’t do caffeine at night. A meal that started at 6:30 and ended at 10:30!

Now here’s the funny thing. I had no trouble standing up and walking to the bus. I didn’t feel tipsy. My speech was still fine. And I don’t have a hangover this morning. Go figure!

Photos of the trip will be on Facebook. If you aren't my "friend" yet, you may ask to be invited!

Ciao!

03 June 2008

Italy

June 2008

Ciao from Italie! Yeah, yeah, I know. I see the shock on your face. You’re thinking, “But, didn’t she just get back home after traveling for eight months?” Hey, it ain’t my fault. My good fella that I sleep with got me the ticket – free – using frequent flyer miles – while I was still in New Zealand. I was, of course, unable to protest – even for appearances sake. So, here I am, in delightful Pisa, the dutiful wife, accompanying her husband on a math conference trip. We’ll be in Italy for just over two weeks. After Pisa we’ll go into the Tuscan countryside south of Siena, where we are renting – no, not a villa – one of those agriturismo thingies - a holiday house. We’ll be joined by two mums and bubs. More on that later.

Anyhoo – Italy – well, anything I say about it won’t be original …
We are staying at a charming hotel – the Hotel Victoria – a historical landmark – right beside the River Arno and plop in the middle of the historical center. Just around the corner is Piazza Garibaldi where you can find the best gelato place in Pisa – La Bottega – which we had discovered when we were here six years ago. You might think it’s luck, but I’m suspicious. Tbh my belief is that the only role luck plays in this is that Daryl booked us at the hotel closest to this gelateria and it just so happened to be a great hotel!

In the last two days we chugged down calories like it’s nobody’s business. How can we not indulge in bubbly, smoky pizzas and creamy gelatos and Chianti Classico? We tried to burn as many of those calories as we could circling the leaning tower and the Duomo and marching along the Arno.

If you have to spend a week in an Italian city you can do worse than Pisa. It’s got a terrific historical center and a vibrant café scene. Ah, the delightful cafes of Europe. I’m so lucky that I get to nip out to Europe every summer for a few weeks and ‘do’ the café thing.

Yesterday – Sunday – was Republic Day – and we thought we should go to some interesting nearby place for the day. Lucca would have been the obvious choice, except for the fact that the conference organizers have set aside a day for this gem of a town. We consulted our guide book and the description of Livorno was good so we took a bus out there. It was when we got off the bus that we realized the guide book we had was a disappointment. In the last 4 or 5 years I’ve been using Rick Steves' guides. He was great on France, especially Provence and the Cote d’Azur. He was also fine on Eastern Europe. But the last couple trips Daryl complained a lot, so this trip we decided to get something different – Hunter Travel Guides. I should also mention that I was beginning to get irritated that Rick Steves had such a monopoly on European travel guides. Everywhere in Europe I’d been to in the last few years most of the travelers were using, you got it, Rick Steves.

In Livorno when we got off the bus, we couldn’t quite figure out where we were. Rick Steve’s guide would have had a map of the city center that would have worked to get you to a TI and to the main tourist sites – as well as to his recommended hotels and restaurants. Anyway, we found a TI after meandering around a bit. With a map we explored Livorno, which has quite a large, active port, but we could find nothing charming or interesting. A series of canals run through the center and flanking them are Renaissance buildings. Nothing much was going on and we couldn’t even find a decent café. Rick Steve would have told you whether a place was worth visiting or should be skipped! He isn’t always right, though. Last time in Italy we ignored his advice on skipping Bologna – thankfully. We loved it – and it has some of Italy’s best restaurants. But Livorno does not deserve a visit – nor even the amount of time I’m spending writing about it! So Hunter Travel Guides suck!

Regarding costs and the ‘bifocal’ dollar (you can buy *f* all with a dollar) we have been surprised to find Italy less expensive than we expected. A veg pizza for one person at a decent restaurant is around 5 euros (in Santa Barbara it will be $10 or more). Gelato is 1.50, a glass of wine at a café sitting outdoors is 3 euros (in SB it would be $5 - $8). Cappuccinos are a bit pricy – 3 euros a cup. Gas is $10 a gallon – ouch!

That’s it for now. Stay tuned.

Ciao Bella!

27 May 2008

Memorial Day Weekend

On Memorial Day me and my liberal buddies sipped Fat Tire beer out in the garden while our organic veggies that we bought from the local farmer's market were grilling on the barbecue. We mused giddily about a post-Bush Obama presidency and about an America we can soon be proud of for the first time in our lives. Yes, we are unashamedly Obama's voter base. We don't notice race or gender. We are graduates of top colleges. We drink fair trade coffee (note: we are not the Starbucks' crowd!). We eat fair trade dark chocolate. We pay attention to food miles. We drive small Japanese cars. We wake up to NPR's morning edition. We love Jon Stewart. We hate Monsanto, Rupert Murdoch, people with bumper stickers that say "God Bless America", and WalMart.

How optimistic are we? It's hard to say. We know that this is the year for the Democratic Party. It's a no-brainer. Yet, we fear the racists. If Obama loses the election, what a shameful day it will be for America. Oh, how could we then be proud of a country that proves how little progress it's made? How painful to know that something as superficial as a few pigments would have determined a disastrous outcome. Yes, race isn't just color, I know. But in Obama's case it is. He is culturally white, having grown up in a white home. He sought out, consciously to develop a black identity later in his life. So, he is truly biracial. What better candidate to unify a country as diverse as ours?

So me and my buddies soaked up the California sun and ate delicious food. The scent of jasmin filled the air and the humming birds and monarch butterflies fluttered about among rock roses. It was the kind of atmosphere that made you feel good and optimistic. I smiled with pride as I pictured Barack Obama taking the oath of office.

21 May 2008

Have you read my book yet?


I need a break! Wait, wasn't this spring supposed to be a break? Heck, you might think that once your baby (aka book) has found a home, your nurturing of it is over! Oh no! Once that baby hits the bookshelves, your work has only just begun. Sigh! If only they told me this before I became a writer. Oh well, I like my target audience - young teens. So, it's been fun going to schools and telling them about PATH TO MY AFRICAN EYES. Juggling my time between school visits, writing, gardening, and home projects, it's been one heck of a busy spring.
One of the most shocking revelations to me as I go from class to class is how few kids have heard the name Nelson Mandela. Then again, considering that many of them tell me that Martin Luther King, Jr. freed the slaves, I guess it isn't that surprising. What is happening to our kids? I blame it on eight years of GW. No child left behind, indeed! LOL.


I've had some pretty enthusiastic audiences who were pretty jazzed to have an author talk to them. They were full of questions.
Heres a sample of a question and answer session:

*What inspired you to write this book?

I grew up in South Africa, which is very much a western country. For a long time we had a white government which practised a system of racism called apartheid. After South Africa became free, black people had access to economic opportunities, resulting in a growing black middle class population. In recent visits to the country of my birth I observed that the kids of these wealthier black families are now attending formerly white school. These kids are becoming culturally 'white'. They seem to reject the traditions of their tribal relatives. It got me thinking about how confusing it must be for these kids. I, myself, as an Indian, growing up in a white dominated country, but surrounded by Africans, experienced quite a bit of confusion about my identity. The theme of identity confusion seemed like an interesting topic to explore.







*Is the book autobiographical?

Oh no. Thandi grew up in post-apartheid South Africa. She's had a privileged upbringing and a secure family life. I grew up under apartheid and all through my childhood I believed I was inferior. My parents still feel they are inferior to whites. It took me a long time to figure out the absurdity of this. But a lot of the struggles and challenges Thandi faces in a white dominated society are familiar to me too. So, in the book, I have used personal experiences, but the story is complete fiction.

*How do you go about writing a novel?

When I have an idea for a book I spend a long time thinking about my main character. My stories tend to be character driven rather than plot driven. I think of a character in particular circumstances and then it's easy to give him/her a problem to wrestle with. Once I've got my character and his/her problem nailed I draft out an outline in a notebook. I write down what the main idea for each chapter will be. I get together with my writing buddies and we have a brainstorming session. This leads to more ideas. Then I start my first draft. Once I've got a chapter written down my brain begins to churn out new ideas to add. I usually think about the story all the time - when I'm gardening, cooking, driving - so, when it's time to write the next chapter I'm ready to go. Getting feedback and being in a critique group is really important to me at this stage. My writing buddies tell me whether my ideas are working or not. You see, it's very hard to be objective - for me anyway - about my own writing. With each new chapter the story keeps developing. By the time I've reached the midpoint the rest of the chapters flow easily. In other words I know what the big idea for each subsequent chapter should be. Actually constructing the sentences may sometimes become challenging. Sometimes I think about all the lovely things I could be doing instead of sitting in front of the computer. When I'm really having trouble I get a hold of books that are similar to what I'm writing. I look for writing styles I admire and read them for inspiration. Good books with strong characters and clever language always fire me up again.

After a completed first draft, I usually go through several revisions before I feel the manuscript is ready for an editor to look at it.

Yes, yes.
Writing. Why do we do it?

24 April 2008

Book Talks

In the last couple weeks I've been going to schools to spread the word about my cool book PATH TO MY AFRICAN EYES. My first visit was to Anacapa School in Santa Barbara where I was a guest at their Breakfast Club. I addressed the entire school - from 6th grade to 12th grade - as well as the staff. Boy, was I nervous! But the audience was so fantastic. I could tell from their faces that they were enjoying what I had to say. They responded, asked questions, and requested a reading. I read for about 8 - 10 minutes after which they gave me hearty applause. They certainly made me feel like a celebrity. What an awesome school!

The next school I visited was Solvang School. I did four talks there in 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th grade classes. The kids were great and I do love discussing with them the craft of writing. So I started out by asking them what they knew about South Africa. I said, "Write down whatever it is that comes to your mind." Here is a list of typical responses: animals, hot, desert, jungle, villages, tribes. Needless to say, I had to work really hard to make them understand the kind of life the book's main character had led as a middle class child in Cape Town. After explaining to them that Thandi's everyday life wasn't much different to theirs, I asked what problems they thought she would encounter on her first days at a California school. I was very impressed with the responses I got. Almost all of them felt that Thandi would encounter racism. "You really think that we still have racism right here at our schools?" I asked. They nodded, much to my surprise. "You think people would make her feel bad about her color right to her face?" They hesitated on this one. "Well, maybe they would gossip about it," some kid said.
Even after I described what Cape Town is like - a modern, world class city - they still had a certain stereotypic 'African' image of Thandi. They imagined that on the first day of school she would have dressed in traditional clothes that other kids would make fun of. They also felt she would have difficulty with academics. So I said, "Why? Do we have the best schools here in America?" Silence. So I said, "Be honest now. I'm a writer and I want to know what you really think. Who thinks America has the best schools in the world?" Nobody raised hands.
Anyway, it was a lot of fun for me to interact with the audience for whom I wrote the book. It is depressing how little American teens know about the African continent. And hopefully books like PATH TO MY AFRICAN EYES will help enlighten them!

07 April 2008

An Author I Are!



Well, guess how I spent my Friday evening? Like so many folks the world over, I too was at the Border's Bookstore near me. But I was sitting at a table near the front of the store signing my book. And my books were actually put on a visible display case. Of course I'm not kidding. Take a look at the photos. Now ain't that the coolest thing? Everyone at the store was fussing over me and customers were delighted at meeting and talking to a real author. So I smiled a WHOLE LOT and chatted and DIDN'T CRINGE at the ignorance that exists out there (Cape Town is a not like Karachi!) . I keep wondering why I write and does the world really need another book, etc. But when I realize how little people know I not only want to write, I want to shout out what I write!!! Lordy lordy lord. I'll never be able to change the world. Do I look famous or what!!

New topic: Zimbabwe.
Hey, I was wondering, isn't this a golden opportunity for Mbeki? So Mugabe seems to be having trouble manipulating the election results in Zim this time around. Clearly, the people have spoken. So why isn't there any intervention from the outside world? Mbeki is the best positioned leader to bring about some sanity in Zim. Imagine how much respect he will gain from all over the world. Right now his popularity ratings are abysmal. It's so bad that even the Women's League supported Jacob Zuma for leader of the ANC. Mbeki is in his home stretch now as leader and he can leave with his head held high if he stepped in and solved the election crisis in Zim.

02 April 2008

Africa on my mind

Current mood: Irritated. Lynne Duke, in her book MANDELA, MOBUTU, AND ME pisses me off, okay! Another self-righteous westerner condemning the African continent. And she's a black sister too. Well, high yeller actually. Duke spent four years (1994- 1999) living in Johannesburg as the Washington Post's bureau chief and covered the years when South Africa transitioned into democracy under Mandela. She wrote a book describing her experiences and observations. I found that while she nailed many issues quite accurately, her harsh criticisms and cynical analyses of Mandela and the TRC quite shocking. It was as if she hadn't fully comprehended what Mandela had inherited. She hadn't fully grasped the consequences of the apartheid government. In fact, I doubt she really understood apartheid, a policy far more damaging than the segregation that existed in the American South. Her musings are in stark contrast to Donald Woods' RAINBOW NATION REVISITED. After reading Duke the reader is left depressed with the feeling that Africa is a lost cause. Don't waste your time holding your breath. African leaders can't lead and the people just don't have what it takes for a successful society. That's how this sister makes you feel when you read her book. Donald Woods on the other hand, makes you feel quite the opposite.
South African society and politics is so complex and yes, there are many, many problems. The incidence of violent crime and the high level of tension under which people live is quite a downer. Politicians don't seem to have their priorities straightened out and the nouveau riche don't seem to feel a need to reach out and help their fellow citizens. It would be easy to dwell on the negative aspects and get depressed over it. However, when I think back to my two months in the country at the end of '07 I recall delightful days. Warm, hospitable people, gorgeous scenery and landscape, beautiful parks and gardens, outstanding cuisine, first class service, and solid infrastructure. I saw signs of improvement everywhere. Despite the bleak newspaper articles, the country is moving forward. For example, whereas in the past blacks were denied a basic education, today the universities are full of black students who will soon be part of the workforce and live mainstream middle class lives. I feel optimistic about South Africa's future. I see your shocked faces. But what about Jacob Zuma, the new ANC leader, you ask? Yes, I know. I'm afraid things might get worse before they get better. But they will get better. I know this because each time I travel back to the country I notice changes for the better.

24 March 2008

Home - relearning the routine!


Hi Blogreaders,

So what is it like to be back home in the unreal world of Santa Barbara? I'm a bit in culture shock at this ultra-sanitized, germs obsessed world where public loos are always clean with an abundant supply of seat covers and flush automatically and antibacterial handgel is available all over the city wherever you might touch something others have touched. Life is so absurdly easy here. It's almost scary.

Spring has arrived - way too early - and along the roadsides are carpets of purple lupines and clumps of golden California poppies. My garden is thick with the fragrance of jasmin, wisteria, and fruit blossoms. The daffodils are already spent and the roses are just about to open up. It's good to be back and enjoy the emergence of spring. when I unpacked our winter coats I smiled, so pleased that I wouldn't have to use them for quite a while.

While away In India I was so insulated from the goings on in the west. India demands all of your concentration and the issues that absorb our daily lives back home fade from your consciousness. But now that I'm back, the obsessions of the news media have successfully drawn me in. I read with interest the Obama/Clinton contest. I'm amused that all the liberal media - The NYT, the Huffington Post, The Daily Show, etc. - are hot for Obama. I'm hot for Obama too. During the last couple weeks the NYT carried several pro-Obama news items and gave very little coverage to Clinton and McCain. I remember back in 1999 when this same newspaper gave Bush, before he even won the Republican nomination, a huge amount of attention. It used to be sickening to see his picture on the front page so frequently. It seems like they've got it right this time! I only hope the voters in the remaining states who still need to hold their primaries get it right.

05 March 2008

End of The Great Escapade


Friends,
It's my last night abroad since I started my round the world journey. I haven't been blogging much during my last month of travel, the main reason being A LACK OF TIME! But tonight I felt I should write some thoughts as it all comes to an end. I just read my first entry - the one I wrote just before leaving - and I was surprised that my thoughts had been so centered around school. School? The furthest thing from my mind in the past months. I can't believe how something that consumes my normal, everyday working life in Santa Barbara can get tossed so far away from my mind! Weird! Anyway, how do I feel about the end of this most exciting trip? I guess the honest answer is: Great! I am definitely looking forward to being back in my home - sleeping on my bed, getting woken up by NPR's Morning Edition, reading the New York Times, listening to Amy Goodman's Democracy Now, having Daryl make me my morning latte, making home made meals, .... I missed Jon Stewart's Daily Show, Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me, shopping at Trader Joe's and at the farmer's markets, my jacuzzi, my friends, ... yes, a lot of reasons to feel great about returning home.

Spending time with family in Sydney was very special. Sydney in the summer is such a great city. So much to do, such a lot of great food, excellent bars/pubs, superb coffee, and some great walks, especially the Bondi Beach to Coogee - I highly recommend it.

I've had a pretty enjoyable time in New Zealand. I have to say it's not the most exciting country I've visited. Sure, it has fantastic scenery (I haven't been to the South Island which is supposed to be spectacular) and friendly people and its cities are clean and safe and everything works and the food isn't too awful and the coffee pretty decent and the wine and beer quite special, but it feels like there's something missing. I spent a few days in Wellington which sits along a pretty harbor and is surrounded by green hills. After walking through the botanical gardens and the downtown streets, and then the harbor area, I felt I was done with my visit of the city! New Zealand seems to go move at a slower pace than just about anywhere else I've been. I think what it needs to do is to open its doors to the lively people of hte world - people from Africa who have color and great music, people from India, Latin America, Asia. Maybe that's what's lacking. It ain't cosmopolitan!

So tomorrow when I fly out it will be late Thursday evening. I'll cross the date line and will start Thursday all over again!

29 February 2008

New Zealand

It's a gray, drizzly day in Rotorua. The kind of day that makes you feel you can use the Polynesian Spa with its many thermal pools guiltfree! In Rotorua you smell sulphur everywhere. There's a lot of geothermal activity here. You walk around the town and suddenly you see curls of steam coming out of the earth. Bubbling mud pools, thermal lakes, geysers, hot pools - they are all over the place. I went to a a themed Maori village called Te Puia where I saw Maori crafts - woodmaking and weaving - and a lively musical performance. The 'village' is set in a geothermally active area where you can see two active geysers and numerous bubbling mudpools. Afterwoods I walked back through a pine and redwood forest (yes, California redwoods, in case you are wondering) until I got to the large lake which forms the northern border of the city. It was all quite pleasant.

I'm enjoying Kiwi hospitality and some hearty meals.

21 February 2008

Last Days in India

During my last days in India I wasn't well and was unable to keep my blog current. So, here's an entry of Pondicherry and then Chennai. I remember wandering the streets of Pondi on a steamy, but wonderful Sunday morning. In India Sundays are very atmospheric. You can feel an energy in the air. The temples become active early in the morning with devotional songs playing through loudspeakers. Temple music in the mornings and evenings is such a characteristic element of India's soundscape. On Sundays large numbers of families go to do their puja. The shops get quite busy and restaurants are full of welldressed Indian families. The women in bright, silk saris or long kurtas with scarves thrown over their shoulders and fragrant jasmin threaded into their hair and the children, bright eyed with glowing skins in their Sunday best. It’s great to walk around Indian towns on Sundays and just absorb the vibrancy. In Pondicherry, the main business street – the MG Street – is closed to traffic on Sundays. Vendors line the street selling a whole assortment of goods – like a flea market. I had a lot of fun browsing at the stalls – DVD’s, used books, electrical stuff, clothes - while snacking on papaya slices. I left the MG Street and headed down Nehru Street which has fantastic stores carrying artisanal crafts and beautiful clothes. (Between Pondy and Chennai along the coast are several artists’ colonies). At the bottom of the street I slaked my thirst on a coconut juice. You can find a hill of coconuts and an eager vendor ready with a machete just about everywhere in South India. I rested a bit at a leafy, beautifully landscaped park (where a policeman warned me to throw my empty coconut in a bin!) before going out onto the promenade that runs along the seafront.

Pondi is right on the coast about 150 km south of Chennai. It’s quite an unusual Indian city. It has wide, nicely paved roads arranged in a grid and there are actual sidewalks for pedestrians to walk on. You don’t see mounds of litter everywhere which I’ve come to accept as part of the Indian landscape. In fact, it was the first Indian city where I saw trash cans along the sidewalks which people actually use. Everywhere else I had to keep my trash in my backpack and usually the first trash can I’d find would be in my hotel room.The traffic in Pondy isn’t horrendous and many of the roads are actually very quiet. This city used to be French controlled until the 1950’s. Many of the locals speak French and needless to say most of the tourists are French. There are pretty colonial buildings around the city and lots of French food available at restaurants. You really have to see this city to believe it. It’s undoubtedly Indian with Tamil spoken everywhere and locals going about their usual business of making flower garlands or sipping chai on the street or cooking chapattis on their street griddles, yet the usual chaos and clamor and clutter of India is absent. Pondi is also home to a popular ashram – the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. Earlier in my trip I had thought I might sample ashram life when I got to Pondi. But along my journey when I’d spoken to people who’d spent time at ashrams and found out about their days, I came to the conclusion that ashram life would bore me. I guess I’m not the spiritual type!

I went on my last bus ride in India when I left Pondi for Chennai. It’s been quite an adventure traveling around from city to city by train or bus. India is well set up for intercity travel. South India has a great rail network and I found it quite easy to buy tickets and use the trains. The buses are mostly good too. The problem is that most of India’s roads are in such bad condition that bus rides can be very bumpy. The bus from Pondi to Chennai was pretty decent – not old and bettered – and not overcrowded, so the ride up was quite pleasant. We drove through fertile plains and a delta area. There was a lot of farming activity and I found it quite heartbreaking to see people - men and women - laboring in teh fileds. Skinny women in saris were bundling hay and carrying the bundles on their heads. Fields were ploughed by oxen drawn carts. Men in dhotis were digging trenches with pickaxes. TYhe sun shone mercilessly and ebony skinned folks slogged away. The months would only get warmer culminating in monsoon rains in May. In India you are constantly aware of how hard people have t work to keep alive.
On the ride I was a little tense (a usual state for me enroute to a new place) wondering if things would go smoothly once I got off the busin the enormous metropolis of Chennai. But one reassuring thing you learn in India is that as long as there are autorickshaws – those yellow and black three wheelers that buzz about like bees – you can never be lost. Despite this I always gave myself some reason to worry and at that moment my concern was that the autorick driver might not know where the Gandhi Nagar Club would be – that was where I was booked to stay for two nights. However, with the kind of hospitality and warmth I constantly received in Tamil Nadu, my safety was never an issue. The bus driver and the lady seated next to me told me where to get off and just as I stepped onto the pavement, an autorick appeared. I told the driver where I had to go, he nodded, and off we went. I was deposited at the door of the Club in less than ten minutes. The Club was away from the city center, in an upmarket looking southern suburb of Chennai.

On my first day in Chennai, Padmini (cousin of my Santa Barbara friend, Sri) took me to her home in central Chennai where I had an interesting conversation with her grandmother. This woman who looked like she was in her late ‘70’s – maybe older – spoke English like a native speaker and had many interesting opinions. When she found out I was from South Africa she informed me that her grandfather was responsible for the first Indian high school there, Sastri College. She mentioned the many hurdles he had to negotiate in order to get permission and see the whole process through. As other high schools emerged Sastri College developed into a prestigious school, admitting only the best Indian boys. My father happened to be one of those! The grandmother asked me about post apartheid South Africa and how Indians in SA were affected. She was curious about the relationship between Indians and blacks in SA. She knew about the hostility that led to racial riots in the 1950’s and wondered about its cause. She said that everywhere else in the world in her experience blacks have been very warm toward Indians, viewing them as partners in the fight against white supremacy. I told her that I found Indians in SA to be very racist – both in the past and the present – and I believed that this was the cause of the hostility. She considered this and then nodded and said, “Yes, the white government used a divide and conquer strategy so that there will be resentment among all the colored people. Quite a party (Tamil word for granny), that old woman!

My last days in India were somewhat sedate. Largely because of my low energy and diarrhoea.
Now, as I sit at my brother’s home in Darling Harbor in downtown Sydney, so far away from it all, the expressions, the radiant faces of the people I met all over the state of Tamil Nadu are still so fresh in my mind. I’ll never, ever forget the love I felt from the people.

19 February 2008

Path to My African Eyes Reviews

Friends,

I thought you might be interested in what the reviewers are saying about PATH. Oh, and remember to buy local. Chaucer's is the place to get your copy if you live in Santa Barbara. I will be doing a book signing there in the very near future.

Here's Review Number One:

Gr 6–9—Newly arrived in California where her father will be teaching at a university, 14-year-old Thandi is embarrassed by her South African background and her black features. The Africa her classmates know and sometimes put down is not her modern Cape Town world. She resents her mother's insistence on natural hair and her teacher's assignment of a report on ancestral roots. She is torn between new "cool" friends and a geeky boy who'd like to be a boyfriend and who shares her interest in scientific invention. Uncomfortable with parts of black American culture, she doesn't know where she fits. Although the message is somewhat obvious, and the language too literary for a high school freshman, the author, herself a South African immigrant, has clearly delineated issues facing young African students in this country as well as those of any teen entering a new school in the middle of the year. Many girls will recognize Thandi's conflicts with her parents and her longing to fit in, and celebrate her progress.—Kathleen Isaacs, Towson University, MD


2007 American Library Association

Path to My African Eyes. By Ermila Moodley. 2007. 173p. Just Us, $15.95 (9781933491097). Gr. 6-9.


And here's review #2 published in Booklist, November 2007


"What are they thinking? That my home is a jungle?" Complex identity issues of race, class, color, and nationality drive the plot in this lively contemporary story of Thandi Sobukwe, 14, from Cape Town, South Africa, who comes with her academic parents to Buena Vista, California, and finds friends and enemies as she tries to work out who she is. Furious at the taunts and stupid questions directed at her about "Africa," as if the whole continent is one primitive place, she is still not sure about becoming "a true California babe," and she is ashamed when she succumbs to peer pressure to get her hair relaxed. Moodley, now a teacher in California, was part of the Black Consciousness resistance movement in South Africa, and she writes with subtlety and depth about growing up black in both countries. The book is more message than action, but the peer-pressure scenarios will grab teens, who will want to talk about Thandi's surprising turnaround as, yes, she embraces her Xhosa roots.--Hazel Rochman

15 February 2008

Down Under!

It's been a week and a half since I left India, and as I spend easy, relaxing days with family in Sydney and Brisbane I try to relive my days in India. I don't want to forget the impressions and the thoughts evoked by what I saw as I journeyed around. A strong, pervasive impression is the warmth of the people in Tamil Nadu. As I traveled from city to city in this state I was constantly struck by how wonderful the people were. In buses, on trains, at stores, restaurants, on the streets I'd be greeted by smiles and in the faces of the locals I saw acceptance and a desire to be helpful, I often felt like the people of Tamil Nadu behaved as if they were a large, extended family, and I was just automatically accepted as a member of that family. It was weird to feel as if you were one of them, yet at the same time they were so utterly foreign to you. It drove home to me how displaced us foreign born Indians are, especially those of us who go back a few generations. No wonder we are so conflicted about our identities. In the west we feel we don't really belong because, well, we're Indian. But in India we realize how much of our Indianness we've lost. In the end we have to accept that we are eternal foreigners.

In South India, and especially Tamil Nadu, I felt safe, secure wherever I was because I knew I could count on the locals to help me if I needed it. I remember when I first saw people wobble their heads from side to side I found it comical. But within a couple of days when I understood the warmth expressed by this head movement I found it exremely touching. On my last day in India, as I was being driven to the airport, my heart felt heavy. How could you not feel sad to leave behind the most beautiful people you have ever met?

Yesterday I explored Brisbane. It's a modern city with sleek skyscrapers and a wide river which has pretty parks and restaurants and towering apartment buildings alongside it. After India I couldn't get excited about the clean, ordinary, wealthy, white character of the city. I kept thinking back to what a typical Indian street scene would be like. Now in India the streets were so full of entertainment. I can just see it when I close my eyes - the carts full of different varieties of bananas, the coconut man beside a mound of coconuts, ready with his machete to get you a coconut drink, the yellow and black three wheel autorickshaws running up and down the streets, groups of people sipping chai in front of the chai stand, somebody frying puris on a roadside burner, the sari shops, the small, dark cafes, the inevitable Saravana Bhava vegetarian restaurants, little 'convenience' shops where you buy things over a counter, fresh juice vendors, and people, people engaged in all manner of activities, and the noise, and, ..... oh, what can I say. India is one of those places that leaves a deep, deep impression. It's a country that intrigues and frustrates at the same time. Every experience seems to come with a pair of contradictions. Never before has travel in a foreign country evoked so many emotions and thoughts in me.
Stay tuned for more of my musings!

06 February 2008

Chennai

The rason I haven't blogged for a while is that I have been pretty unwell for the past five or six days. It's been quite frustrating. I really wanted to go to see the temple at Thiruvanemallai, but my body decided it needed to take things easy. The worst thing is that I cannot eat spicy food. Any hint of it results in diarrhoea. So, I've had to work hard to find places where I could order sandwiches with cheese or egg fillings. So, I'm not thrilled.
It's my last afternoon in India. In a few hours I will be on an airplane to Sydney (via Singapore). I spent a somewhat luxurious couple days in Chennai (formerly Madras). A dear friend of mine from Santa Barbara has relatives in Chennai and arranged for me to meet his cousin, Padmini. Padmini lives right in the city's center in a beautiful, spacious colonial style house. She arranged for me to stay in a southern suburb at the guest house of a club. The suburb, Gandhi Nagar, is quite upmarket with wide, treelined roads and many lovely houses and big, new apartment buildings. Nearby is an IIT (Indian Institute of Technology). Unlike in all the other places where I stayed centrally amid the frenzy, here in Gandhi Nagar I got to see what it would be like in a neighborhood. Okay, an upper middle class neighborhood. And I found it to be rather pleasant - laidback, tidy, sane.
When Padmini asked what I wanted to do I said, "Well, I've spent the last four weeks sightseeing. I think it's time for me to do some shopping."
So she sent her driver (he works for her full time) to the guest house with instructions to take me to five or six shopping venues. I spent all day yesterday chauffered around in a nice, new airconditioned car to Chennai's classiest shopping places. I had great fun checking out the latest fashions by India's top designers. I'm not fond of the traditional kurta style dresses and tops and was pleased to find a few styles with cuts I liked.
As I got chauffered around I saw a fair amount of Chennai. I was quite surprised to see how modern it is. Many high rise gleaming buildings and shopping centers with stores resembling those in the west. This city definitely shows a rapidly changing India. There are billboards everywhere advertising the latest in technology. Unlike Bangalore, Chennai's infrastructure is pretty decent. The roads are wider and better maintained and the buildings are in pretty good condition. Since I haven't actually walked around the central part I can't say I know Chennai the way I got to know other places I'd been to.
Padmini's driver took me to Marina Beach (her instructions) when I was done with my shopping. This is Chennai's most central beach and it is the biggest beach I've ever seen. Many, many people were around and a line of vendors stretch from the car park to the water selling food and other knick knacks. Quite atmospheric.

Well, I would like to blog about my stay in Pondicherry, but I'll do that when I'm in Australia.
Meanwhile, I'm still a bit shocked that California chose Hillary over Obama.

31 January 2008

Tangore

What a delightful city. Tangore, aka Thanjavur, is small and easy to get to know. There's a laidback atmosphere here, yet I see many signs of a progressive city. First of all, very few men are in dhotis! The roads are wide and not choked like other cities. in fact most of the traffic seems to be two wheelers - bicycles and motor bikes. I walked around quite a bit and wasn't hassled even once! This city is full of dignified, respectful, warm people. I wonder if it's because of their stunning temple! The Brahadeeshwahar Temple is 1000 years old, built during the Chola Dynasty. The Cholas revered the arts and much bronze scultpture was created during their reign. The temple's facade is a beautiful light orange sandstone. Of course, there are carvings of the gods and goddesses and there is a huge Nandi (the bull) carved out of a single black rock. Inside the temple, in the sanctum is an enormous lingum that worshippers pay their respects to. The lingum is a phallic symbol celebrating human fertility. Given that this is exactly the cause of India's problems and indeed the world's problems, I don't get it! Exploring the temple which is set in beautiful landscaped grounds is peaceful because there aren't thousands of visitors. This isn't a pilgrimage center so there aren't the huge bus loads of devotees from all over India.
Tomorrow I'll be in Pondicherry, my penultimate stop. I wonder what awaits me there!

30 January 2008

Trichy

Just a quick post. I spent a full day sightseeing and as I'm not fully recovered I feel quite exhausted. One thing I observed about both Madurai and Trichy is that they are cities that are both modern and old. Madurai used to be a walled city and a ring of roads still defines the wall perimeter. The 'old city' is withing the perimeter and in its center is the magnificent temple. Outside the old city limits is a very modern, prosperous 21st century city. Madurai also has a terrific train station which is extremely user friendly. Trichy is quite spread out and so are its three main temples. This turned out to be a good thing because it got me to see different parts of the city. The first temple I saw - the Rock Fort Temple - is up high on a hill, built into a rock. From up there you have great views of the city. The main temple - the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple - is quite impressive. Similar in style to the Sri Meenakshi with the colorful carvings on the gopurams, it is older, bigger, and has a more interesting history. Going through these temple towns you become aware of the great Tamil Classical age which began about 200 B.C. and went on for a few hundred years. The Dravidians, the first people of this region, were part of the Indus civilization that migrated out south. The Dravidians revered the arts and there is a treasure of Tamil literature by the great poets like Theyagarja and Thiruvur. Anyway, I'm happy I made it to Trichy. Not quite sure what happens tomorrow - except that I will definitely be leaving Trichy!

28 January 2008

Tamil Nadu

The stress of traveling in India by myself caught up with me. I spent the last couple of days in bed in Madurai fighting a flu bug. I’m much better today – my temperature feels almost normal and my energy level vastly improved. Thank goodness! When I started getting feverish I was worried that I might have caught something far more exotic than the flu!

Anyway, it’s time to catch up with my blogging. I’ve been in Tamil Nadu for the past week. This is the state from where my forefathers came. Back in the late-ish 1800’s they accepted the offer to work as indentured laborers in Natal, South Africa to escape famine. When I see the squalor in which the poor live here in Tamil Nadu I think, that’s how my great-great grandparents lived. I bought a red banana from an old vendor woman who carried her basket on her head. It made me think about my paternal grandmother (who died before I was born). She too was a fruit vendor - in Ladysmith. It’s hard for me to believe that these folks I see are ‘my people’. Their lives, their culture, seem so alien to me. Everyone here is very religious. That, of course, immediately distances me from them. In the mornings you see white ash on their foreheads which indicates that they’d started their day with a puja.
One funny thing is that I can read Tamil! When I was a little girl I was sent to Tamil school when I got home from regular school. In Tamil school they taught us to read and write, but not to speak! How idiotic is that! So I became quite literate in the language, but had no clue what I was reading and writing. Anway, decades later, here I am in Tamil Nadu and find myself reading the signs on stores and roadsides and everywhere. Sometimes I’ll sound something out and it turns out to be an English word – electric, wine, store – very funny indeed. But this ability has been helpful, eg, in finding the right bus!

After a night in Kanyakumari I came to Madurai, home of the famous Sri Meenakshi Temple. Madurai is a big city, very built up, with high rise hotels. The temple is absolutely magnificent. It’s spread over six acres and consists of twelve intricately carved towers (gopurams). I have a view of the towers (50m high) from my hotel room. As I approached the temple from the west I was spellbound by the colorful carvings of the Indian gods and goddesses on the wall. Before entering the temple grounds there are vendors selling flower garlands, plates of coconut and fruits, and other offerings for worshippers. Then you enter the grounds and at once the chaos of India disappears. You look up at the towers which range in height and you wonder how you could take it all in. Each carving with its own story. This style of walls covered with colorful carvings of the gods and goddesses and other symbols from Hindu scriptures is typical of Dravidian architecture. The beauty of this temple really does take your breath away.
You walk through long corridors which are crammed with people and enter the inner sanctums where you see gold topped deities. So many people – ten thousand visitors a day! – and yet the atmosphere is serene. Hindus offer their respects to the deities, bowing and holding their hands together over their heads. There’s an enormous line for “free darshan” – where they get blessed by a swami.
A museum is attached to the temple. An interesting place – a hall with 1000 pillars! Here I saw some painted friezes and a good display of deities.

As I walked out toward the exit I saw an interesting sight. Sitting on a large rectangular lawn were lines of women (dressed in beautiful saris with strings of jasmin flowers pinned in their hair) decorating brass lamps. At one end was a stage where a group of people were singing, accompanied by an assortment of instruments. It was wonderful to watch this for a while.

In Madurai the best places for dinner I found were the rooftop restaurants of the hotels. You get good views of the temple, but it gets dark by 6:45 so all you see are the lights. On my first evening in Madurai a group of English ‘bikers’ invited me join them for dinner. This group of around 15 people are exploring South India on bikes! They were a fun bunch, superfriendly, and kept me entertained with their stories.

The next morning I got an email from my Mysore travel buddies – Sandy and Anita – and found out that they were in Madurai at a hotel near mine! So we got together and did some catching up. They had been hoping to do volunteer work in Kanchipuram, but it hadn’t worked out. So they are hoping to find volunteer opportunities here. Anyway, it turned out that they were planning to go to Rameswaram the next day which coincidentally was what I was going to do. Rameswaram is a detour. It’s at the end of a narrow peninsula going east and it would mean returning to Madurai to resume my route toward Chennai from where I’ll fly out.

Thank heavens I had company to Rameswaram! First of all, why would one go to this town? We had two reasons. One was its famous temple, and two, its geographical location. The town is actually on an island. You go on this very narrow peninsula where you can see the sea on either side of the road, then cross the famous Indira Gandhi Bridge to get to the town. Sri Lanka is just across the water – 33km away. Well, when we got off the bus and headed for our hotel we were instantly disappointed. The town had not even a shred of charm. It was just a jumble of chaos. Even our hotel was a disappointment. But, there were no upscale hotels or upscale anything here for that matter. We found ourselves looking at our watches, wondering how to fill the time. It’s hard to believe that this town has such a rich history. Lord Rama left from here to go to Lanka to rescue Sita from Ravana. And after killing Ravana, when Rama returned to India he performed a puja at a temple a few kilometers from Rameswaram.

The Ramanathaswamy temple in Rameswaram – also an example of Dravidian architecture – is quite special. It has four corridors lined with pillars that have amazing carvings. The most interesting thing about this temple is that it has 22 theerthams (tanks) which devotees believe have special powers. In fact for Hindus who are Shaivites (worshippers of Shiva) and Vaishnavaites (worshippers of Vishnu) this temple is one of the most important pilgrimage centers. They come from all over India – rich and poor – and bathe in the theerthums, then go for ‘dharshan’.

After visiting the temple Sandy, Anita, and I went for a walk along the coast. We were surprised to find a ‘promenade’ which led to a jetty with lots of boats. Sandy had heard that these boats were part of the Tsunami donations and previously small, flat wooden boats used to be used by the fishermen. We returned to town, had an early dinner at the ‘classiest’ restaurant we could find, and returned to our hotel. We spent the evening sharing our photos of India.

The next day we were up early and made a beeline for the bus to Madurai. In Madurai I spent the afternoon figuring out my train and hotel for my next destination – Trichy. But by the evening I began to feel awful. I got to bed early but got the chills and couldn’t get warm. My body was hot and I was miserable. I spent all day yesterday in bed. I couldn’t do much of anything. It made me terribly homesick. I longed for my home. I longed for Daryl’s comfort and coffee and butternut squash soup – mild. I couldn’t tolerate anything spicy. In fact I had no appetite. I knew I had to eat so I forced myself out of bed and went out to get bananas and water. Out on the street everything about India grated on me. I was extra sensitive to the blaring horns and the odors of rotting trash and the gross personal habits of the locals. The effort of going outside exhausted me. I got back in bed and slept all day. I was worried that if I got worse I might need to see a doctor. But thank heavens I had a good sleep and this morning felt considerably better. I went outside this morning to see if I could find Anita and Sandy and I didn’t hate India like I did yesterday!


I have one more week in this country. I plan to go to Trichy tomorrow ( Wednesday), then to Pondicherry for two, maybe three days, then Tiruvanemallai, and then to Chennai (Madras).