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


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


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.