Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year!

The Novel Adventurers are taking a short break to ring in the new year with friends and family. We will be back on Monday with more adventures from around the world and we hope you will return to read all about them.

Have a happy, healthy, successful 2011!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Grand Bazaar

I’ve never been much of a shopper and never lasted long in a mall. Within an hour my eyes would glaze over; after all, Macy’s, JCPenny, and Nordstrom offered the same merchandise, slightly varied by quality, style, and price. Shopping has never been my favorite activity.

Until I found myself in Kapali Çarsi – Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar.

Many guide books claim the Grand Bazaar to be the world's largest covered structure, with over 75 acres of indoor space. In comparison, the Pentagon in Washington DC boasts only 34 acres and the Giza Pyramid in Egypt occupies a meager 13. Kapali Çarsi, or Covered Market, is the world's oldest shopping mall, with over 25,000 merchants, 4,400 shops, 3000 firms, 2,200 rooms, 40 hans (inns), 22 gates, over a dozen restaurants, 4 fountains, 2 mosques, 1 police stations, and 1 old Hamam (bathhouse), all co-existing in 65 covered streets, each of which has a name and is reflected on a map. And while being an absolute shopper’s paradise, it is also a token of human creativity. Everything is bought and sold in the Grand Bazaar, starting from the unlimited variety of the Turkish carpets to glazed tiles and pottery, and from unique authentic jewelry to leather apparel of all styles, sizes, and colors.

Originally founded by Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror, who took Constantinople in 1453 and made it the new capital city of the Turkish Empire, the bazaar grew during the reign of Suleyman the First and became a small city in itself. Since then, it has survived three earthquakes and close to a dozen fires, each time rising from the ashes like an Ottoman Phoenix. Kapali Çarsi consists of several bedestens (buildings) and multipl hans (inns where specific type of products are sold and often made right on premises.) The best and most expensive jewelry was and still is traded in the Old Bedesten, the first bazaar building raised, while the Sandal Bedesten, a lofty 16th century hall of twenty domes resting on twelve stone piers, held various auctions in the past. In 1880, the bazaar also included 16 designated drinking-water posts, 8 wells for the use of fire-pumps, 10 “houses of prayer," 12 “strongrooms” for “keeping objects of high value,” and even a school. To this day, members of the same trade set up their shops in the same area, which is still reflected in the street names: tassel makers, purse makers, belt makers, skullcap makers, and so on.

I fell in love with Kapali Çarsi the first time I visited Turkey. I admired its churning sea of humanity, with merchandise as diverse as life itself, and its traders as warm and welcoming as only Middle Easterners can be. They would bargain with you to death, but they would let you leave their shop with a smile as long you would smile back – even if you didn’t buy a thing. And they would treat you as royalty if you purchased a nugget. They would order you coffee and tea on the house while you browsed through their merchandise, they would tell you their family stories and listen to yours while you made your choices and they would custom-make your item while you waited sipping your tea. It was unforgettable and somehow inspiring, and as much as I resisted the tourist’s urge to go on a shopping spree, I had to – for the sake of memories.

I’ve known women who wanted to be taken to famous restaurants and designer boutiques on their birthdays and anniversaries. When I was about to cross into yet another decade, I decided I wanted to go shopping in the Grand Bazaar on my birthday. That, of course, meant we had to travel to Turkey again, but it was worth the trip.

It still remains my birthday wish, year after year. Alas, it doesn't get granted every time I get older.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Where The Wild Things Are

In the opening scene of my novel, Vestige, Tess Garibaldi stumbles through the Amazon with an enigmatic and oh-so-sexy guide at her side. Nature forces her to confront a myriad of challenges, but she pushes on, shedding her city-girl persona and transforming into an Indiana Jones in heels. 

The old adage “write what you know” comes in handy when creating the types of stories I write. I can pull from my travel experiences, face my own phobias (from a safe distance), and relive thrilling adventures. Not only does doing this make my settings more authentic, it brings back memories of favorite places I’ve travelled to. And one that is on my top five list is Manu National Park, in Peru.

Manu National Park is situated north of the tourist capital of Cuzco (the stepping-off point for trips to Machu Picchu). A recognized UNESCO World Heritage Site, Manu covers an area of 18,811 square kilometres (11,688 square miles). According to scientists, the park has over 15,000 species of plants, and up to 250 varieties of trees can be found in every hectare. Birdwatchers from all over the world travel to Manu to study the 1,000 plus species of birds. The only humans allowed to permanently live in the park are those in the “cultural zone”—several small tribal communities of the Matsigenga Amazonian group. The centre of the park is restricted to scientific and educational professionals who are invited by the indigenous communities. 

When I lived in Cuzco, I had the chance to join a tour at the last minute. Individuals aren’t allowed into the restricted areas unless they are with a certified tour group, so I filled the final spot, packed my bags, and jumped on a bus. We bounced in and out of potholes along narrow roads that hugged the mountainside. I did my best not to gaze into the bottomless canyons only a few feet from where I sat, gripping my seat of the speeding bus. Along the way we visited a cluster of Chullpas—burial chambers that date back to pre-Inca times. Plunging into the swirling mist of the cloud forest, we eventually arrived at a river and transferred by dug-out canoe to arrive at Manu National Park proper.

For ten days, we paddled, walked, climbed, and swam. Nights were full of strange bird calls and howler monkeys screeching overhead. More than once I heard rustling and sniffing outside my tent. And unlike my heroine, Tess, I did not leave the tent to investigate. One of the most memorable mornings started off with our usual early rise (when monkeys chatter above your tent at five in the morning there’s not much choice, really) and a visit to the Macaw Salt Lick. Travelling by boat, we sat underneath a camouflage and stared in awe at the wall of red, blue, yellow, orange and green feathered friends perched happily on the high banks of the river, licking salt from the clay walls. The only place in the world this happens is in the western Amazon where the birds can fill their dietary need for salt.

Our travels took us to Oxbow Lake and our search for the Giant Otter. Once close to extinction, the otters are the world’s largest fresh-water carnivores and are now only found in Manu. Paddling quietly along the lake, my eyes strained to find the tiniest ripple or air bubble on the surface to indicate an otter was nearby. Just as I had given up hope, I spotted one sitting on a fallen log, eating a huge fish. Oblivious to our presence, the otter devoured its meal, slid into the water and dived under, disappearing from view but forever etched in my memory. 

I braved tarantulas (I can’t even begin to tell you how arachnophobic I am), avoided fire ants, got bitten from head to toe by invisible insects and endured heat so intense it makes me sweat thinking about it now. But I survived. And I loved every second of it. Would I do it again? Absolutely! I’ve been to many jungles in the world now, but I’ll never forget my first love, Manu National Park.

So when my heroine Tess is swinging from vines and crossing treacherous rivers, I imagine being in her shoes. The rotting undergrowth makes my nose twitch, the sun burns my skin and I experience the thrill of the unfamiliar, knowing I’ll be a changed person as a result.

Has visiting a particular destination changed you and, if so, how?

Monday, December 27, 2010

Tehran’s Gateway to the Mountains

Many travel guides to Iran offer this advice when it comes to Tehran: Get out of town as soon as you can. Seek out the prettier spots the country has to offer.

Bad advice, in my opinion. Sure, Tehran is humongous, overcrowded, and noisy. The air is practically unbreathable. Crossing the chaotic streets requires nerves of steel and a strong sense of calculated risk. (Drivers don’t stop just because a pedestrian happens to stand in the way). But Tehran offers a fascinating blend of tradition and modernity, from the chic European-style boutiques on Vanak Square to the traditional (and fragrant) spice markets in the bazaars.

The Tehran neighborhood that best represents this blend of old and new is Darband. Once a separate village, whose name means “closed gate,” this district has long since been incorporated into the metropolis. It is a maze of narrow streets, snack shops, and restaurants wedged tightly between the city proper and the Alborz Mountains. A tourist paradise, Darband is also a popular destination for the locals, particularly the young, hip crowd. But watch out for the enterprising shopkeepers who try to charge for premium curbside parking spots. The fact that the streets are public doesn’t stop them from trying to make an extra, not strictly legitimate profit.

The higher reaches of this sloping neighborhood mark the starting point of a popular hiking trail that winds up the side of Mount Tochal, crossing streams and bordering deep ravines. Tehranis are big on exercise in the fresh air, and nowhere in the city is the air clearer and cleaner than in Darband. Tehran is the only city I know of where you can walk straight from the city into the mountains without driving long distances into the countryside.

Lower down, the trail is lined with restaurants that the locals call ghaveh-khaneh sonnati, or traditional coffee shops. Don’t be fooled by the name; you’re more likely to find tea than coffee served here. The tables, known as takhts, have no chairs, and you sit right on a carpet spread over the top (shoes off, please). Tea arrives on round trays and comes with saffron-scented nabat (rock candy on a stick), and a side of fresh, syrupy dates.

My favorite time to visit Darband is at night, when the lights of the coffee shops on the mountain twinkle far above your head and the air is filled with the crackling of charcoal fires and the smoky aromas of grilling lamb and chicken kebabs. The glow of lamplight from snack shop doorways, where tables are piled high with jars of brined fresh walnuts and dried berries glistening in a bright red syrup, adds a festive spark.

I like to find a takht next to the stream that runs beside the trail and engage in my favorite hobby: people watching. The flow of humanity along the trail is a cross-section of Tehran society: conservative women in black chadors, who amazingly manage to avoid tripping over the hems of their voluminous cloaks and go tumbling into the stream. The young and hip also manage to negotiate the rough path safely in stylish heels, brightly colored headscarves, and clingy, thigh-length tunics—just barely within the parameters of Islamic modesty laws. The lovers at the next table hold hands and feed each other sticky dates (a no-no in an Islamic society where dating is officially banned, and yet couples  routinely ignore that particular rule). Nearby, a group of friends, men and women mixed, share an apple-scented smoke from a ghalyan, or hookah, which is also banned, yet readily available for rent from any teahouse. Rules can be flexible in this part of Tehran.

On a recent trip to Darband, I saw a sight that expressed everything this neighborhood means to me. A donkey, staggering under the burden on its back, stood outside a small refreshment shop. A man was busy unloading its cargo of plastic water bottles for sale in the store, necessary refreshment for those hikers off on a trek into the mountains. It was winter and the mountain trail covered with snow, but I yearned to grab a few supplies, shoulder my day pack, and head for the hills.

Do you know a favorite spot that perfectly reflects the character of a particular city or region?

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Winter Magic: Frosty and Snow Maiden

To me, this will never be a Christmas Tree. Neither do I refer to it as a Chanukah Bush. I will forever call it a New Year Yolka because my father and I used to put it up and decorate it on December 31st, the same as every other Soviet family – to say goodbye to the passing year and welcome the new one.

At midnight, as the last chime of the Kremlin bells died away, Grandpa Frost (Santa’s Russian counterpart) dropped by and left gifts underneath the yolka. Frosty wore a long fur coat and an ushanka – a hat with two earflaps. His beard wasn’t nicely trimmed but was rather long and a bit messy. He didn’t ride sleigh driven by reindeer but bravely walked through the woods, blizzards, and snow piles to deliver his often meager gifts. When he couldn’t get through by foot, he skied along, never losing his big over-the-shoulder tote. He traveled with his granddaughter, Snow Maiden, who was beautiful and delicate. She couldn’t stand any warmth whatsoever, so the two never stayed indoors for long. Since the majority of the Soviet population lived in apartments, plopping down the chimney was not an option, so the duo made their way in through the brick walls and the tightly sealed windows that didn’t allow any cold air leaks. It was magic. And it was wonderful.

New Year was my favorite holiday even though it took place in winter. It was too cold and I had to stay home a lot, but it was the one and only time in the whole year when adults agreed with children that magic existed. Every other time, they refused to even listen to any make-belief talk, but not on the last day of December. Miracles were allowed to happen. Imaginary characters were permitted to exist. Moreover, they were expected to visit!

School break lasted from January 1st to the 14th, and it was the time to have fun, inside or outside, if the weather permitted. Schools and theaters did New Year Carnivals for the kids that invariably included a horovod around the yolka: holding hands, we walked around a twinkling tree in circles, singing songs, and calling upon Frosty to arrive. Usually we were supervised by Snow Maiden, which made sense to me if the tree was out in the open, and a bit confusing if indoors. I wanted to stay true to the fact that Snow Maiden couldn’t last long at room temperature – but perhaps she wore ice packs underneath her fur coat. Summoning Grandpa Frost eventually worked – he would arrive halfway through the performance, not with a “Ho-ho-ho,” but a cheerful roar and a question: “Who’s calling upon me?” “Us!” we would shout back, eyeing his sack and bouncing in excitement. We had to wait for the coveted gifts: first there were word games, then came guessing game ,and sometimes even a few preliminary sports activities. When Frosty ran out of tricks, he’d toss his heavy tote on the floor, and we would crowd around it, trying to peek inside.

Frosty’s gifts didn’t differ much from one year to another: every kid got a paper bag of sweets, nuts, and occasional fruit, usually an apple or an orange. We pretty much knew what we would get, but we still had to peek inside the tote. At home, we all had similar nuts, caramel candy, and apples, but somehow Frosty’s tasted better. The sweet-toothed kids gobbled up the contents of their bags on the way home.

I saved Frosty’s sweets for a long time. Sometimes I kept them for months, hiding them in my dresser or even under my pillow. That way the magic stayed with me longer. Until the summer came, the snow melted, and I could run around the garden barefoot and climb the trees on which the apples were growing and ripening, slowly turning red like the ones in Frosty’s paper tote. Frosty must’ve had a huge apple garden, I mused. He needed a lot of apples for his paper bags.

I loved believing in magic, and I never understood why people couldn’t see it and sometimes deliberately ignored it. My whole city began to look like an enchanted winter wonderland at the end of December. A peculiar quietness settled upon it: maybe it was the special silence that the slowly twirling snow brought down onto the earth, maybe it was the white lacey blanket enveloping the buildings, or the icicles on roofs and windows that reflected the holiday lights, but by New Year’s Eve, every street glistened and glowed – from the garlands stretched overhead to the twinkles of frozen ice patches underneath our boots. It was as if my world was clothed in a diamond mesh, inside which magic could now blossom. I could see it in every snowflake that landed on my arm – a creation so perfect, only magic could do it.

Since those days I always tend to write stories about Frosty’s and Santa’s magic. Click here to read my most recent one in Beat to a Pulp.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Sibling Sacraments

Like clockwork every year for the past couple decades, two of my husband’s cousins mail him elegant, gold-embroidered raakhis, collections of threads woven together in different patterns and designs to form slim, colorful wristbands. Along with each, come their messages of love and blessings for his continued success, happiness, and well being.

The age-old tradition of sistersfor female cousins are considered sisterstying the raakhi around their brother’s wrist is known as Raksha Bandhan, literally meaning “bond of protection.” In return, brothersincluding cousin-brothers and often good friendsare supposed to shower their sisters with gifts and promise to protect them. This filial custom is observed by Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs in India, and to a lesser extent, in Nepal and parts of Pakistan.

The raakhis themselves are like little pieces of jewelry, from ornate to simple, colorful and plain, made from simple cotton threads to elaborate ones, sometimes with mirrored, sequined, or bejeweled pendants. They can be handmade or purchased in nearly any Indian shop the world over at a certain time of year. The festival itself takes place on the full moon day of the Hindu calendar month of Shravan, which falls sometime around the last part of August.

There are various interesting accounts of this tradition:

  • When the Hindu god Krishna lived on earth as a man, he became injured in a legendary battle recorded in the epic story of the Mahabharata. Draupadi, the wife of his friends (side note, she was married to five men, the Pandava brothers), tore off a piece of her sari and wrapped it as a bandage around his wrist to staunch the bleeding. Legend has it that Krishna was so touched by her concern and affection that he became devoted to her as a brother to his sister and spent years trying to pay back the debt. Historians have confirmed that this battle took place in 3,067 B.C., so if this bit about Krishna and Draupadi is true, the Rakhsa Bandhan custom is truly ancient.
  • When Alexander the Great invaded India in 326 B.C., his wife Roxana (Roshanak) sent a raakhi to one of Alexander’s nemeses, King Porus, asking him not to harm her husband in battle. Supposedly, when Porus was about to deliver the final blow to Alexander on the battlefield, he saw the raakhi on his wrist (his own wrist) and ultimately restrained himself from killing Alexander. (You have to wonder how that decision went over with his troops.)
  • In the 15th century, as the Portuguese were expanding their empire in India, the various medieval kingdoms of the Rajputs, Mughals, and Sultans fought numerous regional skirmishes to protect their territories and gain others. At one point, the widowed queen of the Rajput kingdom of Chittor sent a raakhi to the Mughal Emperor Humayun when she realized she could not fend off an invasion by the Sultan of Gujarat. The emperor was so touched by her gesture, he abandoned a military campaign to come to her rescue.
  • During India’s independence movement in the 1930s and 1940s, people of either gender tied raakhis to each other in a show of unity.

Other legends documenting the raakhi through history abound, and the custom has taken on countless regional names and variations depending on where it’s practiced.

There’s another similar tradition called bhai dooj or bhaubiz. It occurs during Diwali, the festival of lights, which takes place around late October or early November. On that particular day (either the second or fifth day of Diwali, depending on region), brothers are supposed to visit their sisters, who perform small prayer ceremonies so that their brothers lead long, healthy lives. Women who do not have brothers are supposed to worship the moon god instead.

They may not know it, but my husband’s sisters have been carrying on a 5,000-year-old custom passed down from gods and royalty. Not a bad legacy.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Feliz Navidad

I spent my first Christmas away from Australia in South America. I had figured it wouldn’t be dissimilar from the Land of the Long Weekend. After all, South America was in the same hemisphere, and experiencing 40 degrees C on Christmas Day wasn’t unheard of at home either. Catholicism was common in Australia, as in South America, so really, how different could things be? You’ve got it—our traditions were poles apart. I was living in Peru at the time and had the pleasure of celebrating with friends from various parts of the globe, including many South American countries. We decided to group together our Christmas traditions and make it one big cultural mash-up. And here’s what I learnt:

Colombia: The nativity scene is made of clay figures, known as pesebres. The Mary and Joseph figurines wear traditional Colombian attire, such as a poncho, fedora hat and shawl. El Dia de las Velitas (Day of the Candles) is held on the seventh of December and that’s when Advent prayers start. On 16th December is the start of La Novena de Aguinaldos, a prayer that is said over nine successive days up until Christmas Eve. These prayers tell what happened during the nine month pregnancy of Mary and Joseph. This Colombian tradition dates back to the 1700’s and little has changed since the first prayer was said.

Peru: Nativity scenes are called retablos. Historically, priests carried small altars from house to house with a nativity scene similar to the one in Colombia. Nowadays priests use portable boxes instead (I guess their muscles got tired). Dances and plays are put on throughout the festive season and traditional Peruvian food is served during these celebrations. As an act of good will, churches and generous people make choclotadas (cups of hot chocolate) and give gifts to those to the less fortunate.

Venezuela: On December 16, families display their pesebres. (They’re called the same in Colombia.) At dawn, church bells chime and firecrackers explode to wake up all the worshippers on Christmas Eve. On the 5th of January, children leave out hay and water for the camels of the Magi (the wise men) and in the morning they find their offerings are replaced by gifts. If the children wake up and have a black smudge on their cheek, they believe that Balthazar, King of the Ethiopians, kissed them while they were asleep.

Ecuador: Children write letters to baby Jesus and place their shoes on their windowsill on Christmas Eve. The next morning, the children usually awake to find noise-making toys in their footwear. Firecrackers, brass bands, and dancing in the streets are popular and most families attend Midnight Mass.

Brazil: Christmas is influenced by the Jesuit monks. But, over the years, Brazil has adapted many North American traditions, which means the old traditions are falling by the wayside.

In South America, the commercialism of Christmas is no way near the frantic extent it is in other parts of the world, and to be honest, it was a welcome relief. The focus was on family, friends and celebrating beliefs, which at times, are a combination of modern-day religion and the traditions of their ancestors. Santa and presents is not the be all and end all. For me, I found the true spirit of Christmas in South America.

The mother of my “adopted” family in Peru did a great deal of volunteer work for the children’s hospital and a psychiatric home for children in Lima. On Christmas morning, she invited me to join her in her own Christmas Day tradition—handing out presents to children at the hospital and psychiatric home who either had no family or were so poor their family couldn’t afford gifts. Armed with sweets and books we set off. I had no idea this particular morning would be the one that changed my whole view of Christmas. Previously I had thought it was one commercial rip-off. But in that moment, when I was surrounded by children who just wanted a hug and were happy to see someone show them some love, I finally got what it was all about.

How about you? Through learning about another culture have you changed the way you view a familiar tradition?

Monday, December 20, 2010

Festival of Pomegranates and Watermelon

Tomorrow is the winter solstice, an event that Iranians call Shabeh Yalda (or the night of the sun god’s birth). The roots of Yalda go back thousands of years to Mithraism and this ancient religion’s belief in the struggle of good against evil. The longest night of the year was said to belong to the forces of evil, and it was the time when the sun god Mithra (also known as Mehr) emerged into the world to fight the dark powers of Ahriman.

Centuries later, the Zoroastrians refined the tradition and turned it into a two-day ritual. The solstice, with its long hours of darkness, belonged to Ahriman, who manifested his evil by creating chaos in the world. So on this day, the ancient Persians turned their society inside out: servants lorded it over their masters, children had authority over their parents, and the king would dress in plain white robes and mingle with his subjects. I see this as a kind of baiting game. If Mithra thinks that Ahriman is winning, won’t he fight all the harder?

The second day of Yalda, known as khoreh rooz, or day of the sun, belonged to Mithra/Mehr, and the fact that it arrived at all was proof that light had vanquished the dark.

The religious meaning of Yalda has been lost in modern times, but it’s still a good excuse for a party. People get together with friends to celebrate and dance through the night. But like everything else in Persian culture, the symbolism of the tradition lives on.

People eat fresh fruit , especially watermelon and pomegranates, as a reminder that the cold, bleak days of winter will pass and bring summer around again. Tradition also has it that consuming watermelon on the winter solstice will keep illness away. Pomegranates represent the crimson color of dawn, a prediction that light will banish the dark, and the days are growing longer. Ajil, a mixture of nuts and dried fruit, symbolizes prosperity and holds winter famine at bay.

My husband has childhood memories of his family sitting around the corsi, a low table covered in blankets with a brazier burning underneath. They’d eat the auspicious foods, read poetry, especially the work of the 14th century Iranian poet Hafez, and tell stories all through the long night.

So while everyone around me gears up for Christmas, I’ve been busy gathering the season’s bounty for Shabeh Yalda—and feeling like a squirrel collecting my winter’s hoard. I like to mix up the seasons, so my fruit bowl has watermelon, pears, apples, oranges, persimmons, and pomegranates. I’ve liberated the last of our Iranian pistachios from their hiding place (pistachios from Iran last a nanosecond around here). These I’ve tossed with California almonds, Iranian walnuts, dried mulberries, black raisins, and a handful of cranberries for color.

I like to mix up traditions, too. So a plate of German Christmas Stollen and the last roses from the garden go on the table next to the fruit bowl. And lastly, for a Zoroastrian touch, I add two candles and a small bowl of rosewater to reflect the candlelight.

I’ve taken our copy of Hafez’s Divan down from the shelf and placed it with the fruit arranged on the table. On Shabeh Yalda, we’ll get together with a few friends, munch on the fruit and nuts, and read Hafez. And we’ll tell stories throughout the long night.

What about you? Do you celebrate the winter solstice, and if so, what traditions do you practice?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Off the Beaten Track: Finding the Right Words

This week’s featured guest is author Sujata Banerjee Massey, who recently ended her fabulous Rei Shimura mystery series with the tenth and final installment, Shimura Trouble. Along the way, Sujata has collected numerous mystery award nominations, including the Edgar and Anthony, won the Agatha and Macavity awards, traveled often to Japan for research, and saw her books published in 18 countries. She is currently writing a new standalone novel with the working title, The Sleeping Dictionary. It's a historical thriller that tells the story of India's struggle for independence through a young Bengali woman's point of view.

When I was invited to write for this blog, I was delighted. In my opinion, there are not enough books published showing us the world. To wit: when I was getting ready to send out The Salaryman’s Wife, I attended a conference at which a famous mystery editor opined that mysteries in foreign countries don’t sell – except if the location was England! I swallowed hard, because my unpublished manuscript was set in Japan. And what made the situation all the harder was my inner worry that I didn’t have the right to write about Japan.

Yes, I had lived there for two years and had made extended trips to continue research and fact checking. I spoke a little bit of the language. But I could not read kanji characters; I could not understand sophisticated conversation and nonverbal cues; I had not grown up in a household with Japanese traditions. By blood, I was Indian and German. Not Japanese!

What makes someone of another nationality race to capture a different country on paper? I have found myself examining this, years later. In my case, I fell in love with Japan: its proud traditions, modern gadgets, and kind people. All of it gave me the drive to start my first novel whilst living in Hayama, and to finish it four years later in Baltimore.

The young narrator I created for my book was a “foreigner,” so it was possible to explain foods, objects, and rituals without seeming awkward. Much harder was making the Japan-born characters’ speech and actions authentic. The solution turned out to be a rather lengthy one. I started a Japanese immersion class at the Yokohama YMCA, and after building a base of nouns, learning simple conversation patterns, and exploring the many permutations of verbs, I began to learn Japanese idioms. Now my manuscript began to include expressions like “grinding her sesame seeds” (pandering to a someone above you) or Shigata ga nai, “It can’t be helped.” These are the things that made not only the language, but the story, take flight.

I had enough proverbs and idioms to write ten books set in Japan. So I did. But then, something funny happened. Another country came calling: India, specifically the city of Calcutta, my father’s hometown. I had been to India several times since childhood, but never felt brave enough to write about it. Further restricting me was the fact that I didn’t speak an Indian language. I felt like I really needed Bengali for this historical novel set at the end of British rule in India. Finding a Bengali class in Minneapolis was impossible, so I enrolled in a regular daily undergraduate Hindi course at the University of Minnesota, which I dutifully attended for a year. I was soon reading, writing, speaking, and loving this language and its linguistic brother, Urdu. However, to be fond doesn’t mean to know. After the year of study was over, most of what I learned for tests fled my memory, because I wasn’t living in an environment where I would use my newly acquired vocabulary. Anyone out there who studied French in high school may understand the situation.

Researching the backstory 
of the Indian independence
struggle, Sujata sifted through
stacks of old periodicals in the

National Library's Newspaper
Reading Room in Kolkata.
So, my India book is almost done. I can understand Hindi better than before, but not hold a real conversation. However, I have also retained some sense of word order, grammar, and word choices that helped with dialog. There are also many varieties of English spoken by Indians that fascinate, from educated, old-fashioned British school English to the pidgin-style language of servants to their masters. And of course, there are metaphors and similes and proverbs that translate quite interestingly. For Bengalis, the mark of a thief is overwhelming respect. If someone’s terrified, her hands jump into her stomach, and if things really get bad, it’s like pouring ghee on the fire. Bang!

As I work on this new book with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, I still think about the long-ago editor’s comment about foreign-set books being underachievers. In hindsight, I feel that the sorry situation has arisen because of the American education system. Most U.S.-born people cannot identify foreign countries or their leaders, let alone speak a second language. Without ever having learned words in another tongue, it is difficult to imagine another kind of place. It’s intimidating to buy a book that is about something foreign: will I really like a book about a detective in Botswana, a journalist in Sweden, or an art dealer in Italy?

By painstakingly working to make a foreign language come alive, we can perhaps reach that reader.

Thursday, December 16, 2010


I’ve always loved words. Never being a physically strong child, I preferred reading to running and contemplating the power of verbs, nouns, and adjectives to frolicking with my schoolmates. Words could encourage or scare, engage or estrange, make one feel loved or miserable. Words could heal, and words could hurt. Words could empower, and words could destroy. Words could make me live lives I would have never been able to experience otherwise.

Words made me curious. I liked playing with them, stringing them into sentences and rhyming them into poems. Even as a child, I realized Russian was made for poetry, much like Italian. The sounds rhymed effortlessly and fell into an easy cadence. Sometimes when I came across an especially beautifully sentence or a flawless verse, I’d stare at it and re-read it over and over, trying to decipher its mystery. Often I couldn’t quite tell what its secret was – but I could instinctively feel it.

While Russian was the primary language of my childhood, I was also exposed to Tatar, which is very similar to Turkish, and Yiddish which is akin to German. My two best childhood friends spoke Tatar and I picked up bits and pieces of it while we played together. My parents used Yiddish as their code lingo when they didn’t want my brother and me to know something, so I inevitably had to learn what they were hiding. While I never became fluent and can’t converse in either language, the linguistic enlightening periodically dawns on me when I visit foreign lands. In Istanbul, having spotted a store sign “Kitaplar,” I immediately knew it was a bookstore: kitap means book and the suffix —lar made it plural. In a Vienna bistro, I heard a familiar word a young mom admonished her boy with – Essen! It brought back childhood memories. Nicht essen my grandmother used to complain to my parents about my fastidious eating habits. “She doesn’t eat!”

While I love to travel, so can words. Words wander from one language to another and from one dialect to the next, sometimes changing the spelling or shifting their meaning. The German butterbrot (butterbread, or bread with butter) transformed into the Russian –
“бутерброд” – a sandwich that could be made with any ingredient such as bologna or cheese. While looking for an air tram on Montmartre, I knew I was heading in the right direction once I saw the sign that read “Funikuler,” which is фуникулёр in Russian. (Interestingly enough, my husband knew the English word funicular, but the different spelling totally threw him off!) The Turkish kaftan – which originated from the Persian خفتان for the cloak buttoned down the front, with full sleeves, reaching to the ankles –  came to describe a loose Russian cardigan worn by men at the beginning of the last century. And on my trip to Jordan, I was absolutely surprised to find out that the name of Petra’s treasury, Al Khazne, was homophonic to the Russian казна – which translates as a tsar’s assets. 

But perhaps the most interesting transformation happened to the German word blatt when it found its way to the Soviet Union. Literally, blatt means paper, a piece of paper, or an official document one needs to produce to prove or receive something. During hard economic times in Russia, food and goods were rationed so that in order to get extras, people needed official papers given either for exceptional achievements or due to personal connections, often improper. Eventually, the word blatt took on the meaning of those special personal connections that got one more than an average citizen could hope for: better food, fancier clothes, access to special stores, and even trips abroad. “They have blatt,” would be said of a family that managed to get a vacation in a fashionable Black Sea resort. If someone suddenly popped up on the top of an apartment waiting list, people would gossip, “He’s got blatt in the Building Department.” At sixteen, I spoke to my parents about a potential medical degree to hear them say, “You can’t get into medical school without blatt.”

The most intense and expansive linguistic effort I ever made was my two-month study for the GRE. I had to learn close to 3,000 words, many of which I’d never heard before or didn’t know their less common meanings. I went through the list diligently, typing the words, definitions, and examples onto index cards. I memorized 50 to 100 words a day, adding them to the collection. Twice a week, I went through the entire stack, shuffling and dealing it like a croupier (a French word that originated from “croupe” or “croup,” means “rider on the croup of a horse”). Some words got burnt into my gray matter, some vanished as if I forgot to press the “save” button, but I vowed to deal my linguistic pack once a month, to keep it as current as I could. The writing power it gave me was too indulging to lose. Words can be addictive. Did you know that?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Secret Language Decoded

My daughters, ages five and eight, often speak in a secret language only the two of them know so we grownups won’t understand what mischief they’re up to. I don’t have permission to tell you its name (that’s classified), but it’s a real language. So they say. When we try to isolate them individually and see if the terminology really matches up (it never does), they insist that there are just too many dialects for them to keep track of. Yeah. What. Ever.

It’s okay. My husband and I have our own secret language. We use it in front of the kids and most everyone else we know outside of our extended family. But ours is a real spoken language called Konkani (kōnk-er-nee"). It’s also the name of our community, which, funny, but has many nuanced dialects that sometimes don’t sound much like each other. None of them has an actual script, although some borrow the script of whatever local, majority languages they write in.

Now, if you’ve ever been in a public place where people are speaking a foreign language and you’re dying to know what they’re saying, you’ll hate this. But we can speak Konkani, our secret language, even in front of most Indian people without them quite knowing what we’re talking about. That’s because Konkani overlaps only a little here and there with other major Indian languages. Talk about secret. I can barely even understand other Konkani dialects. It works in reverse too, unfortunately. I can’t watch a Bollywood movie without subtitles, for example.

Surely I’ll be excommunicated for this, but what follows are some of my favorite Konkani words for which there are really no proper English translations:

Saadhook: I love this word, and others like it, even though I can think of very few instances where I could use them. Sadhook is the word for how my father and father in-law are related to each other. Can you think of a single word to describe that relationship in any other language? I don’t know of any, yet Konkani has a many such linguistic brainteasers. We have multiple words for sister in-law, depending on whether it’s your brother’s wife or sister’s husband’s sister (and so on). And for female cousin, be it your mother’s sister’s daughter, mother’s brother’s daughter, father’s sister’s daughter, or father’s brother’s daughter. Same thing for male cousin. Talk about precise, right? We don’t have a script, but we have eight different words to explain our first cousins.

Ushtaa: The meaning and sound of this word are both pretty lowbrow, so if any word will have me excommunicated, it’s probably this one. Ushtaa means saliva but also, and here’s the fun part, the word for any object (a glass or spoon, for example) that one person’s eaten or drunk from so that another person knows they’re not the first to eat or drink from it. It does not mean contagious or germy, only previously tasted … or something like that. I don’t know any translation for this concept that doesn’t require more than this one word, so talk about useful. My kids use “ushtaa” all the time (especially when someone’s sick), but since we speak English almost exclusively at home, my five-year-old still doesn’t believe this word is not English. Uh-oh.

Ul-sheekh: Another embarrassing word. In fact, it means something like embarrassing, only far, far worse. Awfully humiliating. To the nth degree. It’s very extreme and, as it turns out, quite handy.

Dristhi: This unique word has a universal meaning and plenty of counterparts, in almost every language and culture. In Hindi, it’s nazar. In Bengali, nojor. In Farsi, it’s cheshme bad or nazar zadan (notice the similarity with Hindi). In Hebrew, eyna hara. In Italian, malocchio. In Spanish, mal de ojo or mirada torva. In English, it’s the evil eye or jinx. Dristhi keeps us cautious, modest, and ever-watchful. (Exactly why I shouldn’t be sharing these secrets. On the Internet.)

So there you have it – Konkani secrets unveiled. Now it’s your turn. What interesting, unusual words can you share with us? Don’t worry, your secret’s safe with us.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

You Say "Che!" I Say "Huh?"

At school, I could never understand the need to learn another language. English was spoken at my house, and the city I lived in had migrants but a majority spoke some form of English. At school I learnt German, Indonesian, and French. I didn’t study but still passed with flying colors. I look back now and can see I had a talent for languages but had absolutely no clues about my ability or what being bilingual or multilingual could do for me. Ah, hindsight, what a frustrating thing.

On my first few trips out of Oz, I had my trusty phrasebook with me. In places like Nepal and India, I bumbled along, frustrated at not being able to find the right word or phrase in those dodgy little language books. To get my message across, I usually ended up drawing stick figures or conducting mime sessions that would make Marcel Marceau proud.

It wasn’t until I hit the shores of South America for the first time that I realized I needed to formally learn a language. A tiny book with phrases like “more beer, please” just wasn’t going to cut it anymore. I wanted to converse with the locals and talk about more interesting things other than how to find the bus station. So off to language school I went.

I enrolled at a local one upon my return to Australia and learnt the basics. My Argentine friends sent me a heap of pop CD’s in Spanish. This included, Shakira, Los Piojos and Los Fabulosos Cadillacs. I translated the CD booklets into English so I knew what I was singing about. My poor neighbors were subjected to my (very bad) singing but hey, it was fun and I got a workout from dancing around the house (the curtains were drawn). I obsessively went to weekly Spanish classes, and by then it was time to get out of the classroom and put my skills to the test. I failed miserably.

The teacher I had in Australia came from Spain. She spoke beautiful Castilian which was almost useless in Argentina, especially in Buenos Aires. It didn’t take long before I realized I needed to learn everything again – this time with an Argentine accent and the Spanish commonly used in Argentina known as lunfardo.

For all intents and purposes, lunfardo is unintelligible to the average Spanish-speaker who wasn’t brought up in Argentina. Since the 1970’s the Argentines have debated if the slang of Buenos Aires actually qualifies as lunfardo. Traditionalists say lunfardo has to have a link to the argot of the old underworld, tango lyrics or racetrack slang. But others maintain the colloquial language of current day Buenos Aires is lunfardo. I’m no linguist, but I do use the term lunfardo to describe the language of the Argentines.

My discovery of this language started a lifelong delight in learning new words and phrases that the locals use. Unfortunately, lunfardo is dying out. The younger Argentines are steering away from it and creating their own version of Spanish, but many of my older Argentine friends still enjoy using this language spoken by the Porteños (people from Buenos Aires) for many generations.

If you listen closely, you’ll notice a slight Italian twang when an Argentine speaks Spanish. In the early part of the 20th century, millions of Italians immigrated and spoke mostly in their local dialects (mainly Neapolitan, Sicilian and Genoan). The Argentine accent is influenced by the Italian immigrants and some of their words are used in Argentina today.

Many South Americans have said my Spanish is a mixture of Buenos Aires Spanish and the sing-song lilt of the women from Miraflores, a beach suburb of Lima, Peru. I smile and say “gracias” and silently thank my Spanish-speaking pop-stars for helping me along the road to fluency.

And of course, I couldn’t end this post without sharing some examples. Happy practicing!

Che! – Hey!
Chabón – lad
Chirola – small change
Cobani/Grey Hair (pronounced in English) – police
Macanudo – used in a positive response to an invitation (“all good”)
Mango – not to have any money (“I don’t have a mango”)
Minga – not to have something, nothing
Pilcha – clothes
Pucho – cigarette

Monday, December 13, 2010

How Many Syllables Are in That Word?

When most Americans see Arabic script, the first thing that comes to mind is Islam, the Koran and perhaps those blue and gold postage stamps commemorating the holy month of Ramadan.

I, on the other hand, think of a former linguistics professor who once gave our class an unusual exercise. She put a big sheet of Arabic writing on the wall and asked us to describe what we saw. The lines reminded me of a time when, as a small child not yet able to read, I used to draw pictures and scribble squiggly lines underneath, my first crude attempts at writing a story. The Arabic looked a lot like those scribbles. Only prettier.

No matter how hard I squinted at the script on the classroom wall, I couldn’t tell where one word ended and the next began. There were dots everywhere, but nothing that resembled punctuation. For the first time in decades, I felt illiterate.

Fifteen years later, my Iranian husband’s parents came to live with us, and in a few months I had acquired rudimentary Farsi conversation skills. But the language uses the Arabic script so I still couldn’t read or write a single word. Unacceptable.

My husband patiently wrote out the Farsi version of the Arabic alphabet for me, all thirty-two letters (four more than in Arabic), then showed me how to form them. I tackled the problem much the way I’d learned to write the Latin alphabet, taking each letter in order and practicing its various forms. I had vague memories of first grade and lines of letters marching across the page: Aa, Bb, Cc and on to Zz. So I tried creating similar lines of آ to ى.

Unfortunately, the Arabic script doesn’t work like the Latin one. For one thing, it’s written in cursive style from right to left, except for the numbers which go from left to right. Then there are four forms to most letters, not just two, depending on where they occur in a word: beginning, middle, end or sitting all lonesome on their own. And here’s the clincher: even after breaking the words down into individual letters, the script still looks like bewildering squiggles, each symbol distinguished from its sisters only by the number and placement of the associated dots.

So is jim (prounounced like the man’s name) the one with the dot in the middle of the loop (ج) or above the letter (خ)? Is the ت with two dots above the line pronounced like a T, or is that the one with a single dot below the line? Nope, ب sounds like a B.

I was nearly at my wit’s end, figuring I’d never learn to read Farsi, when a cousin in Iran came to the rescue. She sent me a set of first-grade primers with pictures. Bingo! Turns out, Iranian kids don’t learn their letters by memorizing the alphabet from alef to ye. Instead the letters are presented in sets, so you learn these together: ب ت ث, and then these: ح ج خ . So much easier to remember where the dots are supposed to go this way.

I know the Arabic script now, but that doesn’t mean I can read the language with ease. That’s because Farsi has one more bewildering quirk: you don’t write the vowels! Vowel symbols do exist, but no literate person would be caught dead using them in written form.

So how do you sound out an unfamiliar word? Simple answer: you don’t. When all I’ve got are two or three consonants to work with, I can’t even tell how many syllables the word contains.

Over time, I’ve gotten a better feel for Farsi and its linguistic patterns, which makes reading easier as well. Sometimes I can even correctly guess those unfamiliar words. One thing is certain: practice makes perfect, and the more Farsi I read, the easier it becomes.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Off the Beaten Track: A Cruise into Tasmania's Western Wilderness

Photographer Gerhard Bock is back this week with more beautiful photos and a travelogue about his recent trip to Australia. To learn more about Gerhard and read his advice on taking better photos, check out his post from last week: Off the Beaten Track: Travel Photography 101. Gerhard’s photos and writing can also be found at The Photo Continuum, and

For many people, Tasmania is in the same category as Timbuktu: They don't really know where it is, but just the name conjures up visions of a place far away, near the end of the world. Well, they're right. Tasmania is at the very edge of the world.

That point is brought home by a comment the captain of our tour boat makes as we approach the mouth of Macquarie Harbour, a large inlet on the west coast near the town of Strahan. “The waves that hit that lighthouse there,” he says in a broad Strine accent, “come all the way from Argentina because there's nothing but water between here and there.” Nothing defines geographical isolation more than 7,000 miles of open ocean.

After turning around at the lighthouse, we proceed to head up the Gordon River, which empties into Macquarie Harbour. One of largest rivers in Tasmania, the Gordon River cuts through a vast stretch of uninhabited wilderness located in the heart of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, which itself encompasses 20% of all of Tasmania. Trees grow right down the water which looks like weak tea because of the tannins leaching from the roots of the buttongrass that lines the shore.

Aside from trees, water, and sky, there isn't much to see, and yet these three elements are so all-encompassing that I stand on the upper deck of our catamaran utterly transfixed by the tableau in front of me. The wind is blowing strong, drowning out the sounds of other passengers talking and laughing, and I manage to lose myself in this primal world as the minutes tick by without meaning.

The shrill sound of the boat horn brings me back to the here and now. We're docking at Heritage Landing, the farthest up the river that commercial boat tours are allowed to go. We walk through a pristine cold-climate rain forest with trees older than any of us by hundreds of years, luxuriously draped with moss. We're not allowed to leave the boardwalk because the ecosystem is fragile, but what we see gives us a good idea of what the remaining 99.99% of this endless wilderness must be like.

After an hour we leave Heritage Landing and turn around to head back down the Gordon River. The final stop on our cruise is Sarah Island, by many accounts the most hellish of the British penal colonies in Australia. “Sarah Island is remembered only as a place of degradation, depravity, and woe,” newspaperman John West wrote in 1842. The punishments meted out to the prisoners bore no relation to the offenses committed, all part of the British strategy to "reform" these poor souls.

Precious little remains of those days—just a few ruins and foundations scattered throughout the island, all meticulously labeled. It's hard for me trying to imagine this place as the Tasmanian equivalent of Dante's inferno. It is just too stunning. But maybe it's this aching beauty that made Sarah Island so terrible for the convicts. It's as if nature thumbs its nose at your plight instead of commiserating with you.

Dusk begins to fall as our boat returns to its home base in Strahan. With less than 700 souls, this is a tiny town, but the cluster of buildings along the harbor seems gaudy and frivolous to me after seeing nothing but untamed nature for the past six hours. But I imagine that the permanent residents of Strahan know full well how precarious their perch is, right there at the edge of the world.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Menora, Matryoshka, and Me

It seemed I was destined to live in diasporas. In Russia, it was a Jewish diaspora. In New York, it became more of a Russian one. I thought it funny that Americans perceived me as a Russian – perhaps because of my blondish hair. However, in Russia, I looked anything but. Ethnically, I didn’t blend. Amongst Slavonic faces, I stuck out like a sore thumb.

Growing up in my hometown of Kazan, a bicultural mêlée of Russian and Tatar, I looked very different from the Slavic girls in my class. I had a straight nose while theirs were roundish and upturned. My eyes were too big, and my hair back then was black, while their braids were of various shades of blond. If anything, I passed for a Tatar because of my dark mane, even though my eyes weren’t almond-shaped. On the streets, the old grandmas with Asian facial features addressed me by the Tatar’s endearing “kizim” – daughter. My two best childhood friends were Tatars too, so I knew enough vocabulary to be able to answer back. The Jewish community in Kazan was tiny: about 6,000 Ashkenazi in a city with a population over a million. It was barely acknowledged, if at all. In school, we learned about Russian history and traditions, broached some Tatar topics, and never touched upon Judaic subjects. Back then, I felt a very strong connection to my Semitic roots. I feared my nation was becoming extinct, so I wanted to be Jewish with all the good and bad that came with it in a country where my people were not a particularly welcomed ethnic minority. Coming to New York, I looked forward to embracing Judaica.

It didn’t happen. In America, being Jewish meant being of Jewish faith, and raised in a Communist country, I remained a devout atheist. Going through the available Judaic sects – Hasidic, conservative, reformed – I realized I didn’t belong anywhere. And they didn’t recognize me as one of their own either. Being tagged as a Russian, I felt offended. I tried to argue that I was still Jewish even if I didn’t speak a word of Hebrew and didn’t pray, even on high holidays. Eventually, I accepted the fact that I sort of fell somewhere in between the two diasporas – a curious place where a menorah and a Matryoshka met. The Soviet emigration of the end of the last century created a new branch of diaspora and a new nationality: the Russian Jew.

About 10 years ago, I took a train from Manhattan to Brighton Beach, home to New York’s largest Russian community. On the way, I became aware of strange phenomena: my fellow Russian Jews no longer accosted me in their native language! The elderly émigré ladies laboriously pulled their accented English sentences together to ask me for directions instead of stating their questions in the easy Russian chatter. When I answered in their native tongue, they were surprised. I walked into a store – which by the way, sold both the painted wooden dolls and the Chanukah candelabras – and looked at myself in the mirror, wondering what part of me had changed so drastically. I couldn’t tell, but it seemed that I no longer belonged to any diaspora. Yet, I wouldn’t quite call myself an American either.

Luckily, I can always pass for a New Yorker. And I no longer care that I couldn’t find the right ethnic niche, because I found my home. I love and blend into this humongous diverse metropolis, in which any liberal-minded person can easily belong. There are about a half a dozen menorahs and a bunch of Matryoshkas in my mother’s house. There’s one of each in mine. I don’t think I’ve given any of my American friends a menorah for their birthdays, but I’ve certainly given many Matryoshkas, which is why I am now down to only one.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Sino The Times

A few years ago, relatives of mine visited a family-owned Chinese restaurant in north Jersey. They arrived before the dinner rush and happened to be the only customers in the joint. As they perused the menu, the waiter tepidly asked if they were Indian and, when they said they were, he asked if they might be interested in seeing “their Indian menu.” Turns out the proprietors were Indian Chinese.

With a large number of ethnic Chinese living in India, the fabulous, spicy fusion cuisine known as Indian-Chinese has caught on, blending typical Indian staples such as ginger, garlic, and spicy chilis with Chinese ingredients such as soy sauce, scallions, and cornstarch, along with a variety of sweet and tangy sauces. Hakka noodles and Chicken Manchurian are two of this cuisine’s popular signature dishes. (Click on the links to see sample recipes.) It used to be hard to find Indian-Chinese food outside big metro areas in India, but nowadays, such restaurants are cropping up all over the world, with at least a few dozen in New Jersey alone. Traditional Indian restaurants are now adding these popular dishes to their regular menus. (Ever seen Chicken 65 on an Indian menu? That’s supposedly a Chinese dish.)

How did this fusion take place? After the Jews, the Chinese and Indians are the next two largest diasporas. Naturally, as they hail from two of the world’s largest nations. But as neighboring countries, one democratic, the other communist, they also share a long, uneasy border. In some areas, near Tibet for instance, they have long-standing disputes over contested territory. In 1962, they fought a war against each other (the Sino-Indian War). Like the Japanese in the States during the world wars, the Chinese in North India were interred in prison camps for a time during the 1960s. It took many years before either country allowed immigrants from the other to be eligible for citizenship in their new homelands.

But today, that’s changing. A good number of ethnic Chinese live in India, and from what I can tell on my visits, they straddle all walks of life. Many run beauty parlors or work at restaurants. Calcutta boasts the country’s only real Chinatown, with many ethnic Chinese working as carpenters and shoe-shop owners. What’s more, Indian Chinese occupy nearly every profession and are visible in politics and the entertainment industry.

In East Asia, particularly Malaysia, and to a lesser extent Singapore and Hong Kong, intermarriage between overseas Chinese and Indians is fairly common – in some areas, roughly one in 10 of all marriages. Their Chinese-Indian offspring are commonly known as Chindian; according to the stats, they typically have Indian fathers and Chinese mothers.

I have a fascinating book, Sons of the Yellow Emperor, which traces the Chinese diaspora throughout history and to most parts of the world. Oddly, this exhaustive tome leaves out its Indian connections. Not sure why, but someday, when they eventually update this exciting, colorful history, food will have to be a major footnote.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Like A Candle In The Wind

Growing up in a country that is part of the Commonwealth, it was normal for me to see photos and hear stories about English monarchs. But when I walked through the doors of a tea house in Gaiman, Argentina, I hadn’t expected the Princess of Wales would be staring straight back at me.

Set in Argentina’s Patagonia region, Gaiman is home to the descendents of Welsh immigrants who arrived on these windswept plains in 1865. Back then, the Welsh were looking for a way to protect their lifestyle that had become endangered by the English. The Argentine government wanted to promote immigration to Argentina and offered the Welsh 100 square miles of land along the Chubut River in southern Patagonia. In exchange, the Welsh made a deal that the Argentines would respect their language, religion, and traditions. Who knew that years later, the Argentines would have their own issues with the English when it came to the Falkland Islands (or las Islas Malvinas, as the Argentines call it)?

The settlers arrived on a converted tea-clipper and found they had been given false promises. The supposed fertile land was arid, and little food was available. Floods washed away their crops and hampered construction of towns. The Argentine government introduced conscription and insisted the Welsh men drill on Sundays, even though it went against the Christian principles of the settlers. A wide rift grew between the Welsh and the Argentine government, but it wasn’t enough to stop more Welshmen from travelling to Argentina over the next 50 years. By the time immigration stopped just before World War I, approximately 2,300 Welsh had arrived.

As I strolled through the streets of Gaiman back in 2000, it was difficult to remember this was an Argentine town. The concrete block buildings found in Argentine suburbia weren’t common in this quaint town. Instead, Gaiman’s streets were lined with weatherboard houses with white shutters, lush gardens were in full bloom, and the air sagged with the scent of roses. Tea houses surrounded the settlement and Welsh tea, accompanied by pastries, cakes, and other delectable delights were on the menu.

In a hallway of the Ty Te Caerdydd tea house, Princess Diana of Wales is honored at a shrine of sorts. A large photo of the former princess in royal regalia is framed by bunches of roses and the original tea set she drank from when she visited the establishment sits under her picture. The day Diana visited, a children’s choir sang in Welsh, and she shook the hands of each child. She drank tea and ate pastries and when she left, despite being forbidden to accept flowers for security reasons (!!), she took a red rose from a bouquet.

On the 31st of August every year, the anniversary of her death, the Welsh descendants gather to pay their respects to the Princess of the People. The Argentine Welsh have an undying love for an English woman, which is ironic, given they once had such contempt for the English. Maybe their adoration for Diana was a result of her charm, or perhaps it was because she appeared to be a thorn in the side of the “real” royals.

The Eisteddfod, a Welsh tradition, is held every year and plays an important role in Patagonian heritage. Choir singing, poetry, and dancing competitions are held during the Eisteddfod, and keep the Welsh tradition alive. The water channels the Welsh built were Argentina’s first man-made irrigation system and are now used all over the country. It is one of the reasons Argentina has thrived in the farming arena for so many years.

I’ve often wondered why my connection to Argentina has always been strong. When I discovered my own Welsh heritage and its connection to Argentina, everything fell into place. No wonder this invisible umbilical cord that attaches me to Argentina feels like it could never be severed.

How about you? Have you ever travelled somewhere and realized the bond with the place is because of your ancestry?