"Keep working on a plan. Make no little plans. Make the biggest you can think of, and spend the rest of your life carrying it out." Harry S. Truman

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Body language

OK, let's start this post with a confession - and believe you me, I'm not proud of that : I have not learned to speak Hindi (or Telugu, or Urdu, or Sanskrit). I have some excuses, I suppose. Never did we imagine we'd end up spending six years in India, and counting. Also, when we first arrived, I had a six-weeks old baby, so on top of all the adjustments of the first year's culture shock, not to mention work, and writing, I was kind of busy with the little one, and with the big one, who also had to adjust to living in a new country, going to a new school, etc, AND having a new, very noisy, and demanding little person in the family. Plus, which one of the above-mentioned languages to learn ?

Of course, after all this time, I've actually integrated a lot of everyday words into my vocabulary. I no longer ask for flour, I ask for maida. I don't use a broom, I use a jhaadu, etc. But I'll be honest : that's about it.

One thing I've learned, though, is the South Indian body language. So much so that before going home, last summer, I imagined my friends and family would laugh themselves silly just looking at me.

One of the things that strike foreigners when they arrive in this part of the world is the way people use their head. Nodding to say "yes," and head-shaking to say "no" is pretty universal. But Indians have invented a third way, with the head wobbling from right to left, the right ear going a bit closer to the right shoulder, and then the left ear closer to the left shoulder, to be repeated once or twice. What does it mean? Well, it depends. Basically, that the person agrees with you. But, you see, as it is considered rude to say "no" in India, people have come up with the solution of not saying "no" or "maybe" or "highly unlikely, but who knows? " without officially saying "yes." Brilliant, right ?

Yesterday, I parked the car to go to an ATM machine, but as I went up the steps to the small room next to the bank, I saw that the metal shutter was halfway down. I looked at the security guard sitting on a chair outside the door and rotated my hand from right to left, palm open, fingers spread, as if to say "not open?" The man said "Close," and we both wobbled our heads, secure in the fact that even though we do not speak a common language, we understood each other perfectly.  If you see me going to the shops, or talking to people (locals or expats) in India, you'll see me doing the head-wobbling thing, and lots of hand gestures. But the funny thing is, as soon as I land in another country, or deal with people who have nothing to do with India, the head-wobbling, and hand-rotating stop, and I go back to my boring pre-India body language. I guess it's a similar process to the one that made my children know, practically from the moment they could speak a few words, that I, their father, or the family in France or Haiti were to be spoken to in French, and everyone else around in English.

Here is a short video to illustrate the Yes or No head-wobbling dilemma that foreigners encounter when they first arrive in India. And just to put that poor guy's mind at rest : the young man is saying "yes," but that doesn't mean it will not turn out to have been a "no" all along.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

My Tuesday picture of Haiti : Smile

This picture was taken on a beach outside of Jacmel. This young boy was walking around in the July heat with that Christmas hat on. I don't know where he'd found it, but he was obviously very pleased with it.

One thing we don't read much about in the news about Haiti is how its people are gifted with an indomitable sense of humor, and a profound joy for life.

A friend who is a doctor, and loves photography, took the picture below and posted it on his Facebook wall, a couple of days ago. (Merci, Jean-Robert.) It's the entrance of the camp that now covers the grounds of the Institution Saint Louis de Gonzague (where my husband did all his schooling.) in Port au Prince. "Welcome to Las Vegas," indeed.

Six weeks since the earthquake in Haiti, and the rains have come. Basic survival needs like water, food, shelter, medical care, sanitation and waste management continue to be at the forefront of the relief effort. But I also worry about the trauma suffered by so many people, especially children and teenagers. This organization Operation Safe (here) seems to have found a way to deal with that issue. I particularly liked the page on their website titled Eight Specific Ways to Pray for Haiti, (with a link to an update posted three weeks later), and the clear, practical, and informed way in which they approach the problems at hand.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Our Life in India : Seeking Enlightenment in the Land of Spirituality

I'm not a religious person. Neither am I guru groupie material ! I was born and grew up in the land of Descartes, who said, among other things : "I think, therefore I am." In other words, rational thinking is everything, forget about God! I distanced myself from my Catholic upbringing (my mother is Spanish: need I say more?) as soon as I was able to articulate my own opinion (as opposed to going with the flow of the education I had received) and declared myself an atheist. I didn't know any alternative at the time, and being an atheist seemed the closest match to my state of mind.

Then, I travelled throughout South East Asia, and met someone who told me about the Buddhist Silent Meditation retreat at Suan Mokkh. It starts on the first day of each month, which happened to be the following day, and what do you know, I jumped in a bus, and soon found myself sitting on a tiny cushion listening to Thai Buddhist monks mumbling in barely understandable English. Complete silence was the rule, we ate two vegetarian meals a day, and spent the rest of the time meditating (sitting, standing, walking, chanting meditation.) Only, I could not meditate, and sitting cross-legged on that hard floor for hours on end was sheer torture. I couldn't sleep on the concrete bed of my tiny, Spartan (mm, Spartan or Buddhist?) cell, not to mention the throngs of mosquitoes buzzing around my mosquito net, and the tiny insects that passed through and landed on my face, my mouth... Agh! I lasted 5 days out of the 10, only because I found the talks each morning incredibly profound and thought provoking. So much so that I copied them in my traveling journal. So, when the talk on the sixth morning failed to inspire me, I went back to my cell, packed my bag, and hitch-hiked to Surathani, where I got into a ferry to Koh Samui to do a diving course.

Over the years, the Buddha's teachings always stayed with me, though. I love Buddha. And then, I went to live in New York, where I discovered the New Age movement. Suddenly, it dawned on me that organized religion and spirituality are not the same thing. I didn't need to practice a particular religion to feel a connexion with a Higher Power. Wow! That was a major breakthrough for me.

Fast-forward. For the past few years, we have lived in India, and witnessed, recorded, and sometimes partaken in Hindu celebrations. I'm continuously reading and learning about all the Hindu festivals and the many gods in the Hindu pantheon. And all the while, I have continued my own personal journey. So, when a local friend called to tell me about a meditation workshop happening in Hyderabad, I decided to give it a try, even though it meant being away from home and the kids for four entire days, including a week-end, from 9 am until 9 pm.

And ???

Well, I remain French in the sense that I cannot totally surrender, ever, to... anything or anyone, including a guru, however brilliant and inspiring he may be. That said, anyone who has the opportunity of listening and/or participating in a workshop with Paramahansa Nithyananda (Nithya means eternal in Sanskrit, and Ananda means bliss) should just drop everything else, and DO it ! (Be prepared to waste some time ; this workshop lasted 12/13 hours each day, but it could have easily been made shorter by at least 3 or 4 hours on practically every day, time that we wasted waiting for people to be all seated, coming back from extensively long lunch breaks, napping, having tea breaks, or waiting for Swamiji to read all the questions dropped in a box, even  though many of them were the same. Also, be prepared to overlook some of the statistics that he comes up with, as I didn't always find them very convincing. Finally, go there with a sincerely open mind. It is a leap of faith, and going with a mind set on criticizing, and finding fault will most certainly result in a total waste of money and time.)

Swamiji (the Hindu honorific title that everyone uses when talking about him or addressing him) is intensely bright - good thing for an enlightened Master, I know, but I, the writer, am having a hard time finding the right word to describe his acute intelligence, his clarity, and his gift for coming up with striking metaphors. Not only that, but he has a unique way of blending a decidedly traditional approach with a most modern mindset. He's very straightforward, in a way that is rarely seen or heard in India.

Examples: during one of the Q and A sessions, he told us that when a man comes to him during darshan (a blessing ceremony) asking for his blessing so his wife gives birth to a boy, he tells him to "get lost." He will give his blessing to someone who wants a child, not someone who wants a boy. Also, traditionally, women are banned from entering temples when they're menstruating. He doesn't believe in that. His take is that such rule may have been created to allow women to rest during those days when they are easily tired. He also feels that "tolerance" about other religions is not enough : there should be "mutual respect" between people of all faiths. Etc, etc.

One metaphor has stayed with me. He used it on the last day, as he explained to us the need to "un-clutch," or let go. In Northern India, they use a very simple device to catch birds. A rope is tied in the middle of a stick, and both ends of the rope attached to the branches of a tree. When a bird perches on one side of the stick, its weight makes it flip, and the bird finds itself head down. It seems that the bird then freezes. Because it is in a destabilizing position, a situation unknown to him, he clings to the stick for dear life, forgetting that it can simply fly away. The hunter only needs to come, and catches the bird. Whenever our comfort zone is disturbed, whenever we feel threatened, or unsure, we all tend to grip onto things, thoughts, people. That's our mind playing tricks on us, and telling us that if we let go, we will fall - like that bird. We don't realize that we only need to un-clutch, and we'll be able to fly.

A lot of what he says is common sense, based on the Vedic Culture. His meditation techniques are quite powerful, and he has a radiating presence. We were told repeatedly that he has healing powers. I wouldn't know about that. (My take would be, rather, that he has a way of helping people connect with their own positive energies so that they heal themselves, or rather, they stop destroying themselves.) But I did have my own intense experience with him, during the first darshan, and I have to admit that his reaction (our interaction lasted but one minute - there were 900 hundred people in that hall) had a strong impact on me. He made me think, he made me laugh, and he made me cry. He also managed to make me sit on a cotton mattress for hours on end, and even to meditate for more than one hour at a time!

Overall, a great experience !

Below are the few pictures that I took when I first arrived. Good thing, because after that, we were requested to not take any more photographs.

All the shoes left outside. I did worry about my sandals disappearing. The conference hall was inside a huge compound called Shilparamam and open to the public. I'm pleased to report that I always found them exactly where I'd left them.

Below: The conference hall. This was still early, so it's not full.

The workshop kit :
- An eye band used to cover our eyes during meditation. I confess that I peeked underneath from time to time. Come on !
- Two notebooks that were used to record all our engraved memories (physical, mental, and emotional pains, desires, guilt, etc.) On the last day, we ripped these pages and threw them away, along with an offering of flowers and some seeds which name I've forgotten. All these pages were supposed to be burned at the ashram, later. I would have liked to be able to throw them myself into the fire, but I can understand that it was not the most practical thing to organize.

Nithyanandam !

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

My Tuesday picture of Haiti : Canapé Vert

Canapé Vert is a neighborhood of Port au Prince, and this picture taken by my husband in the summer of 2008 shows how people built a slum on the side of the hill.

I searched the Internet, and found this picture of Canapé Vert taken after the earthquake, here. Rubbles and piles of concrete. More rubbles, and more piles of concrete. One of my sisters-in-law lives at the top at that hill, in a Catholic community. Their compound was destroyed almost completely (it seems that only the small chapelle did not suffer any damage.) They have been living outside for the past four weeks, along with some 3000 people.

A friend of mine in New York, told me how their community has been organizing charity events to raise money to send to a priest who opened a school in Port au Prince, a few years back.  My immediate concern was : please, tell them to not start building a concrete school with that money. Building with concrete in areas susceptible to earthquakes (and studies clearly indicate that there will be more) will only mean more deaths - provided that the Haitian people, after what they just went through, accept to actually enter and live in concrete buildings. My husband tells me that people have taken to sleeping in the streets. Rich or poor, when the sun sets, people take out mattresses and settle down in the streets for the night.

So, forget about concrete. It is possible to use bamboo to build houses and schools and basically anything : bamboo resists better to earthquakes, and it is environmentally friendly. When he left India, my husband had already gotten in touch with a company that built houses and schools in the Andaman islands, after the earthquake in 2002, and they said they could provide 10 000 schools within the next six months. Let's see if this gets implemented. Of course, this also means planting more and more bamboos in Haiti. It will take time. But it would also help with the deforestation problem (as seen here.)

In the meantime, people need food, water, shelter and medical care... Many of the refugee camps have no management, no help coming their way (and that includes the camp in Canapé Vert). So many people are working seven days a week, there, in really difficult conditions, but the magnitude of what needs to be done is such...

... and it's now been five weeks since the earthquake.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Our Life in India : A visit to the Sri Chilkuru Balaji Temple...

... also called The Visa Temple, because it seems that people who go there and pray Balaji with their open eyes see their wish of getting a visa granted... In which case you are to return to the temple to thank Balaji, and walk around 108 times (why 108 times, I do not know and was unable to find out.)
Outside the temple, these young men sold us pretty cloth bags (no plastic, which is good, and too rare) containing two coconuts and two flower garlands, for 34 Rupees each (a little less than a dollar, at the current exchange rate.)

We then went in, and broke our first coconut.

You have to hit it hard against the edge of a long concrete sink and one half of the coconut usually falls on the other side, and you keep the second half. Of course, I got coconut water all over my clothes... Some people drink the water left in their half of the coconut. I ask my friend if there was a significance, but she just laughed and said : "No, they must be thirsty."

Once inside the temple, you see throngs of people walking around and around. Many carry a small piece of paper containing a grid of numbers, and each time they complete a tour, they either check the number on their paper, or punch a hole in it.

I always feel a bit awkward visiting places of worship as a "tourist," however interested, sincere, and respectful I may be. There is a discrepancy between the people around me, and my wide-eyed self, camera at the ready, looking everywhere, trying to make sense of what I see, asking questions (when I can), noticing things that amuse, puzzle or impress me.

When I came out, my first thought was that I would like to come back, so I can renew this experience in a different way. I would no longer be distracted by everything around me, and may then be able to experience the moment in a more meaningful way.

Anyway, one of the things I noticed, as I walked around and around (we did not do it 108 times, by the way. This will be in case my wish comes true) were the signs.

This last sign is interesting. In Sanskrit, the word "darshan" means "the sight", "the vision." In other words : do not close your eyes while you are looking. Of course, there is a deeper meaning to this. The Balaji God in this temple has a peculiarity: His eyes are open. Usually, people tend to close their eyes while praying or wishing for something. So, here, we are asked to keep our eyes open.

We went inside the small temple, left one of the flower garlands as an offering to the God, and a priest marked our foreheads with kumkuma (red powder) and recited something after we told him the names of the members of our family. I did look at the eyes of the God, but it all went very fast, and I was trying to make sure I did everything the way I was supposed to, so it's all a bit blurry, now.

We then broke our second coconut in the second temple, this one to the God Krishna, and our friend told us to sit and reflect. Here we are, afterwards.

Finally, we took a tour of the small market outside the temple with its usual choice of bangles, little trinkets, bindis, devotional images, CDs, and statues - notice the rows of laughing Buddhas - etc, etc.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Many Black Girls Still Say White Dolls Are Prettier

Almost two years ago, I wrote a post, here, about Kiri Davis' high school project, A Girl Like Me, which recreated the ground-breaking experiment conducted in the fifties by psychologist Kenneth B. Clark. The test was conducted again in 2009, and it seems there is a little progress, at least where boys are concerned. But the majority of girls continues, sadly, to thing that pretty is white...

      In GMA Test Many Black Girls Still Say White Dolls Are Prettier - Dolls - Jezebel - Watch more Videos at Vodpod.

Thanks to Lee and Low Books's blog for bringing that new experiment to our attention.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

My Haiti Picture for today : Tap-Tap

The tap-tap is the most commonly used means of public transportation in Haiti. It could be a bus or a pick-up truck, they operate on a fixed route, and depart only when full. When you've reached your destination, you tap whatever surface available (ceiling, or side wall) to let the driver know that you want to get off.

To add a cheerful and artistic touch, their owners usually decorate them with bright paintings.  Here, we see the Haitian flag on the right, but also the American flag on the left. They often carry religious slogans or sayings. "L'Eternel est ma Lumière" says this one, which means : The Eternal is my Light.

I always say that no-one can pretend they have really visited a country if they never used at least one of the public transportations available. Moving from air-conditioned taxi to air-conditioned bus full of other tourists is no way to visit a country. One needs to travel with the locals. Yes, it's not always comfortable, but the experience is always interesting, and sometimes really fun. I remember one such trip in Northern Vietnam ; I was sitting next to an old gentleman who spent the entire trip telling me the most extraordinary jokes and stories in impeccable French.

During my first two trips to Haiti, I regularly hopped on tap-taps to take me around. And I'll never forget a tap-tap ride from the northern city of Cap-Haïtien to the village of Moustique, with so many people crowded on the benches of the pick-up truck as well as in the space meant for the legs in the middle that I actually had several kids sitting on my lap. Everyone was cheerful, and laughter bounced around - sometimes probably at my expense, as my Creole was extremely basic. No matter. It remains one of my most vivid memories of Haiti.

Four weeks since the earthquake.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Follow up on my Skype visit at Bradenton Prep, in Dubai.

One of the beauties of being published is the feedback we receive from the children who read us. Yes, we write because we don't really have a choice. Writers write the way they breathe - sometimes easily, sometimes with some difficulty, but it's not something they can live without. And yes, we dream, hope, and work very hard so our writing can be published. And when it happens, it's an amazing high. But the best part is still to come : the children's reactions, their questions, thoughts, comments, and praise. As a follow-up on my visit to Bradenton Prep Academy, in Dubai, the teachers asked the 4th and 5th graders to write me a short letter. I discovered them in my mailbox this morning. What a treat !

A few excerpts about the virtual visit :

"I liked the skype interview. I thought it was cool. I liked the book a lot it was one of the best books I have ever read. I liked how you replied to all of my class mate's." 

"I really enjoyed the Skype interview!! It was very cool the way we got to see the original illustrations for Amadi's snowman. I really enjoyed the way you told us how it started and why you wrote it. I had a great time listening to all the interesting questions and all your answers. I also noticed during the interview that you have seemed to live in a lot of places. I also really enjoyed the book Amadi's Snowman."

"It was great to see you on skype the other day. I enjoyed listening to the story of Amadi and the snowman. It is very important to be able to read and write and this book reminds us about how lucky we are because we have lots of schools in dubai. [...]"

"Thanks for your time and information during our skype interview! It was very interesting and I learned a lot about an authors' work. I hope I will be able to write a book myself in the future."

"I loved the Skype talk that we had a couple of days ago, it was fun. I really liked the part in Amadis Snowman where Amadi finds out that his mum has the book. That was probably my favourite part. I liked the way you only put one sentence at the end of the book.  I thought that is was a really good book to read and it was great and very  interesting to meet an author on skype."

And a couple more - because I can't resist sharing some comments and showing the little graphics that accompany them :

"I really loved your book in so many ways. I loved the man that sells the books. Why? I love the way he says get out of here now! You had so much description. I love how a boy wants to do something new because most boys say no I don't want to read or reading is boring. But this boy wants to read, he's not like the other boys. I love how he's all around signs he can't read. Why does he want to be a businessman? You have to know how to read to be a businessman. I love how his mom encouraged Amadi to want to read. I just have one more thing to ask you. Is this how you started to read like Amadi? If not how did you start? Did you go to school? Did you go to a book store and you saw a cool book?

"I loved the book. I think it was great! My favorite part was the end cause it was fun to read a page that has ony one sentence. My favorite charachter is Amadi. You must like writing right? your book was awsome!!!!"

"I really enjoyed your book! It inspired me to think that reading gets you into stuff. 

I mean, you learn spelling from reading,but also you learn reading from knowing how to spell words!" 

Thanks again to the 4th and 5th Graders at Bradenton Prep, and their teachers. I will never forget my first school visit in Dubai - even though I never set foot there. 
Keep reading !!!