Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Celebrity Status

"Ugh, life as a celebrity!" I groan as I close down a half-written email and head out for yet another interview. I'm only half joking; in my rural Indian village existence, being white and foreign is enough to grant me full celebrity status. By this evening, Liza and I were written up in several newspaper articles and receiving calls from friends who were watching us on TV. This recent bout of paparazzi attacks started yesterday afternoon when the teacher in charge of PR told us to cancel our class, put on our saris, and report to the main hall. It turns out he had called in a Hyderabad news channel to cover RDF school's Ugadi (the Telugu New Year) celebrations and our presence as the local Americans was a must. Unknown to us this film footage would be turned into a one hour Ugadi special starring yours truly and shared with TV channels all over Hyderabad!

Our first saris, which had been ordered especially for Ugadi, were still at the tailor so we ran to pick them up and asked one of the teachers to help us tie them, a process that took about ten minutes each. Then we joined the primary students and teachers in the main hall where the Ugadi food and drink specialty were being made. We both joined in and Liza learned how to make
bakshalu (sweet lentil-filled fried chiapattis) while I helped prepare bracelets to be tied on friends and family for good luck. The film crew covered the activities before arranging us around an Ugadi offering and beginning the interview. They asked the usual questions, we were fed the bakshalu and petchari (a drink made from ingredients representing the six different flavours of life: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, spicy, and a 6th we haven't found the right word for!), and the crowning moment was the closing message that I announced in Telugu: "To the viewers of I-News, I wish you a very happy Ugadi!"

Friday, March 12, 2010

A Little Kallu Goes a Long Way

Kallu is is palm wine collected by "toddy tappers" and either drunk fresh or allowed to ferment and become alcoholic. The fermented kallu is absolutely rank and when I tried it with my family while they visited Kalleda, we were unable to drink more than a few small swallows. Coming from myself who has drunk more than my fair share of baijiu and other Asian liquors, and my father who even drank fenni (cashew liquor) in Goa, this refusal of fermented kallu is quite a statement! Fresh kallu, however, is another story all together and I am developing quite a taste for it . . .

Toddy tapper is a caste of workers who climb the very high palm trees and gather the palm wine that has collected in pots. They use a strap that looks like an inner tube and is looped around themselves and the tree (I always think of Moulin twisting the straps of weights together and climbing the pole to get the arrow at the top, and yes, I am referencing a Disney movie!). When they reach the top they brace their feet against the tree and lean back against the strap while they collect the wine. The process at the top of the tree takes about ten minutes so they also tie a strap around their feet to keep them from slipping apart. Each toddy tapper monitors about eight trees and they climb each one three times a day. That's 24 climbs a day with ten minutes at the top each time!

So the fermented kallu is disgusting and also potentially dangerous in an unsafe alcohol, moonshine, kind of way. But the fresh stuff is much better tasting (even though when strong it takes on the flavor of sour, old socks) and is not technically alcoholic, although I think it packs a little natural buzz. The freshest way to drink it is to wait under the tree and when the tapper reaches ground he pours the "white water" straight into a large leaf which you fold and hold over your mouth like a bowl/funnel. In the evening you can see groups of men squatting at the side of the road under toddy trees, leaves in hand, ready for their evening cocktail. Otherwise, you can request a toddy tapper to your house.

I am currently making friends with the owner of the house I live in over semi-regular evening kallu. I have met his friends, his workers, his favorite local toddy tapper, chatted to his daughter in America on the phone, been invited to visit his farm, and given access to his kitchen along with an offer of cooking lessons from his "Mrs". All of this over a few cups of kallu! If nothing else, the socializing possibilities and resulting opportunities make it more than worthwhile to develop a liking for kallu. And of course the hidden agenda of befriending a toddy tapper who will kit me up with one of those hot leather minis (really, that's what they wear) and a rubber strap so I can tap some toddy for myself!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Birthday, Village Style

Last night Liza and I moved our mats onto the roof so I could turn 26 under the stars. It was a beautiful start to the year. I fell asleep to the sound of palm fronds rustling in the breeze and woke up to the sound of the cockrel crowing. First order of the day was morning yoga and meditation. Then on to breakfast and a busy schedule at school, rounding out the work day by leading my first English class for the teachers. In a good mood and looking for a little celebration, I skipped my evening run and Liza took me out for a fresh, cold bottle of Sprite in the village. Quite the birthday treat! We then bought two cones of henna, returned to the roof for sunset, and submitted each other to our first attempts at henna designs. Later, as I was leaving dinner at the Junior College, I walked down the outside corrider where the girls who live in the hostel study at night. As I reached the middle, the girls all stood up on cue and sang me an Indian version of Happy Birthday. It was a really lovely surprise and a great end to the day. This birthday was a far cry from recent celebrations at a "Dress like you did when you were 8" birthday bash in Seattle last year, dancing till dawn at the Full Moon party in Thailand on my 23rd birthday weekend, a full week of celebrations spread between the two Williamstown bars for my 21st, etc. But this birthday was perfect for the moment. I hope that I can take the balanced lifestyle, intimate relationship with the beauty of my surroundings, and appreciation of the small joys as a theme for this coming year. Thank you for the love and birthday wishes sent from all over the world!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


This morning when I left the house I noticed a goat tethered to a tree in the yard. A little strange, yes, but given the cockrel crowing in the morning, mokey wearing my underwear, spiders the size of my hand, bees the size of birds, bats the size of hawks (seriously vampiresque), ant colonies moving into my room, lizards on the walls, cranes on the lake, water buffalo in the lane, etc. I generally feel like I am living on the Nature Channel. So, in the big picture, a goat in the backyard is not that weird. Returning home after breakfast to a goat in the house was a little weirder, but again, not out of the norm. I do, however, note the fact that he is being led into the Puja (prayer) room. I leave for a meeting and by the time I get back the mistress of the house is sweeping red water out the door and the man stops me in the hall and invites me to lunch. Ahh, now it's all beginning to make sense! Turns out every two years the extended family gathers together to worship Ilema, a local goddess with a penchant for blood. It was our good fortune to be here on the right year and we spent the afternoon socializing with the family and munching fresh goat curry and mutton biryani. Delicious!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Holy Holi!

For anyone that has heard my Thai stories, Holi is like Songkran with colors, a whole new level of insanity! Apparently Holi is sometimes referred to as the "Spring Festival," but as far as I can tell spring doesn't exist in Andhra Pradesh where it's already hit 40C. There are three seasons: wet, hot, and cold; Holi marks the end of winter and the beginning of the hot, summer season. Bright orange flowers are plucked from trees that recently bloomed, dried, ground up, and mixed with huge buckets of water to produce the most common colour of Holi. This Festival of Colors is much more celebrated in North India where people wear brand new white clothes and sandals. Down here everyone wears old clothes but since I haven't been here long enough to have anything old I turned my orange kurta inside out. We celebrated at the Junior College (JC) with the students who live there and the women who work in the kitchen. Within a few minutes of arriving I was soaking wet, dripping orange water, smeared with tumeric powder and successively finger painted purple, blue, and red. Fortunately, I managed to avoid the eggs that were being smashed into people's hair and the engine oil smeared on some faces! The holiday was incredibly happy and good natured with everyone joining in, sharing the water, passing out colored powders, and setting up friendly attacks. As far as I could tell there was not much focus on the history or legends behind Holi, which didn't really matter, it was so nice to take a few hours out with the sole intent of relaxing and laughing with the people around us.