Friday, October 22, 2010

Blog Oct. 22:

Home. It's overwhelming to be here. There is so much of everything. I find myself appreciating so many things I took for granted before going to India. Food everywhere, anytime you want it. Extravagance. Calm, orderly Toronto driving (seriously- it's all relative). So many places and ways to spend money. And so much money everywhere. Fancy shops, fancy cars, fancy houses. Even my own house (we rented a cute little bungalow two months before I left for India) is extra adorable. I love being home. It had truly made me grateful for the beautiful country I live in and also super aware that the majority of world doesn't have half of the luxury we accept as our own every day. We, the lucky, are a minority.

There were times in India when I was hungry. The food there, delicious as it was, did not agree with my system and I was basically living on cereal, nuts and juice for the last month and a half before coming home. I lost a lot of weight (hooray! but it wasn't the healthiest way of doing so). So, there was a morning when we drove into Chennai as everyone was on the road heading for work. What a mix of people. Villagers walking, carrying baskets on their heads, driving ox-carts, riding motorcycles, or non-villagers driving in cars, all down a dirt road in Tamil Nadu at 8am. It became apparent how not hungry I really was as, from inside our air-conditioned car, I watched a man who probably lived in a mud hut (let's hope not) with a walking stick supporting his emaciated frame.... walking to work. There's hungry, and then there's hungry. And he had a job to go to. There's hungry and then there's hungry... and then there's hungrier beggars on the street. The people who beg on the streets in Toronto may be hungry but the "untouchable" beggars on the streets of India are truly hungry. It really puts hunger into perspective. If I had been truly starving, I would have eaten the food that was making me sick with no hesitation. It makes you think before declaring that you're "starving" before heading to a meal.

After taking off from Chennai at 5:30 am, I actually got a little teary when the British Airways stewardess brought our breakfast. Airplane food (omelette, fried tomato, hash browns) has never tasted so good. During my layover at Heathrow I nearly kissed the ground. Instead I had a Starbucks coffee and sandwich. Yum! And seeing my beautiful country emerge from under the clouds, glowing in the autumn sunset as we descended into Pearson Airport was extremely moving. (It was kind of embarrassing to be so teary but the moment was pretty epic. And I hadn't slept for like a day or something.) But seeing my amazing boyfriend again at the airport was the best moment of all.

One thing I've realized being back in the west is how much of a media break I had while I was in India. T.V. commercials hit me like a brick. Burger and pizza cravings are slyly implanted in my subconscious before I know what's happening. It's crazy. I'm observing myself contemplating buying things and realizing that I just saw a commercial for that product a minute ago. T.V. is dangerous!

Another thing is the patience I suddenly have. I've always been a very impatient driver, TTC rider and crowd navigator. Now, it's like I'm on I.S.T. time still (India Stretchable Time). We'll see how long it lasts- hopefully a good long while because this is great for my blood pressure!

The jet lag is slowly dissipating and the fog is clearing. Now I'm left with the question "What next?"... Well, my amazing boyfriend asked me to marry him the moment we got home and I said yes! So... there's that!! We've got a wedding to plan. I've got an original music project to continue working on. Gigs to book. People to play music with and catch up with. Since this isn't a travel blog anymore, I'll be writing more about these upcoming projects and events. I'm still getting myself organized and figuring out where to start. But it's wonderful to be home and have all these things to explore next.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Post: Oct. 9

It's hard to believe that there is only one more sleep until my flight home. It's been an incredible adventure here. I think yesterday was the best day I've had in India this entire time.

The faculty (Manu Koch, Steve Jenkins, David Anderson and Jovol Bell) spent the day with Manu's sister, Julia, in Auroville and Pondicherry. Julia lives in Auroville (it's very random that he came to work only an hour away from Auroville). Auroville is a very special place. It's very beautiful with lots of open spaces and trees and wildlife. The air smells heavenly. If you want to read more about what makes Auroville so unique, check out We started out at the Matrimandir, a huge golden globe-like building surrounded by beautiful grounds. From a distance the building is reminiscient of Epcot Center but as you get closer you realize how unique it is. The place is a spiritual center and you can't take pictures inside the Matrmandir grounds, so words will have to suffice to describe it. The building is a sphere made up of gold (real gold) discs/panels. It hovers above the ground, supported by some amazing architectural engineering. The grounds are beautiful and peaceful. Right beside the globe there is an enormous and incredible banyan tree. These trees grow roots back into the ground from their enormously spread out branches so it looks like there are many trunks supporting the branches. It is very quiet as there is no talking allowed on the grounds, inside or out. At the entrance to the building we were asked to removed our shoes and put on some white socks that they supplied. To get to the top inner chamber of the Matrimandir, you ascend a winding marble staircase that eventually becomes a plushly carpeted winding path, the carpet probably there to muffle footfalls as you get closer to the inner chamber. There are four pillars (that match the compass points exactly) that support the globe from the inside. As we ascended the winding path we passed several small waterfalls trickling down the golden walls beneath panes of glass.

Finally, we reached the inner chamber. It's primarily a meditation room, with the four pillars surrounding an enormous crystal ball in the middle of the room (or at least I think it was crysal- or a very high quality glass). Above the crystal ball is a small, circular opening in the ceiling where a shaft of light comes down and passes through the ball all the way through the building to meet another smaller glass ball in a pond below the building. The room is completely white. As soon as we walked in I actually got a little emotional. it was unexpected- we had rushed our way to get there on time for the brief half hour visitors were allowed in, and suddenly there was this hushed peacefulness in this beautiful room with beautiful light and this subliminally tingling energy. It was the most silent I've heard India be, but it also spoke to me in the loudest way. We sat down on some cushions and I spent the next twenty minutes (which flew by) gazing at that shaft of light illuminating the crystal ball. The spirituality of the room was ambiguous- there is no fixed religion to Auroville (it is called "The City in Quest of Truth"). But it was so soothing and extremely peaceful- a well needed "zen" moment. After our time was up the lights flicked on and off as our cue to exit. I visited the banyan tree on the way out of the grounds. It was the first time I could walk around unharassed and enjoy the surrounding beauty.

Visitor's Center Cafe in Auroville

After that, we went for coffee at the visitor's center and I explored some of the shops nearby the cafe while Julia and the guys chilled out. The shops had beautiful handmade crafts, textiles, jewellery, soaps and many more things, all locally made in Auroville. Then we got our driver and headed just outside of Auroville with Julia leading the way on her motorcycle. There were some more shops there where I was able to do some more successful bargaining (thrilling/exhilarating/addictive!). Then we went for lunch at a pizzeria called Pronto's nearby the shops. I had my second exciting experience of the day in getting to the restaurant. While I was caught up in bargaining in a shop the guys headed over to the pizza place in the car. Julia came in as I was handing the cash to the shopkeeper and told me she had a surprise for me outside. The surprise turned out to be that we both would ride her motorcycle up the street to meet the guys. I was a little nervous but agreed to get on the back of the two-wheeler. It was actually really fun! I've been on the back of a friend's scooter in Toronto before but this was much different- driving down a dirt road in India, surrounded by jungle! Anyway, it was like a two-minute ride and then we were there. Had a nice meal, soaked in an India moment when an ox-cart went jangling by our patio, and then headed back out to the East Coast Road towards Pondicherry (this time I was in the car).

We did a bit more shopping in Pondicherry. What a contrast to peaceful, sweet-smelling Auroville! Honking cars, autorickshaws, two-wheelers, exhaust fumes, stench of the fish market assailed our senses as we got out of the car. We met up with Julia again once our shopping was done and all headed out on foot to the temple. I had seen on Manu's facebook photos that he had already been to the temple and was very excited to meet the temple elephant I had seen in his pictures. And suddenly, there was an elephant, right there in front of a huge temple. These temple elephants are common in major cities. If you give them a rupee, they'll bless you with their trunk. A great idea, in theory. Standing in front of him/her, all of the sudden the elephant seemed really, really big. It took me some time to screw up my courage and walk up to the elephant. This Asian elephant was adorned with bells and decorated with Hindu markings on his/her face. He/she regarded me and held out her/his trunk to put the coin inside. I dropped it in, cringing as the real scary part was coming. The elephant tried to brush the top of my head with her/his trunk but I involuntarily backed away and the trunk missed my head. That wouldn't do. So I tried again. I swear, this elephant knew I was scared and had compassion for me. It took my rupee and (I concentrated on standing my ground) very gently touched the top of my head with his/her trunk. And that was it. A very wise animal. Although I felt sad for that elephant- it must be a strange and boring existence to stand in one place all day and bless them. It was still amazing to witness and experience though. I watched as an elderly Indian woman in her sari walking through the street touched her/his trunk as she passed in a familiar yet reverent way. A true India experience.

Getting blessed by the temple elephant.

Exhilarated but incredibly hot, we walked down to the waterfront promenade and sat down on the rocks, watching the waves come in and enjoying the ocean breeze. We hung out there for some time, just talking or watching the waves in silence. The tide was coming in and the waves became quite spectacular. Sitting by the water is one of my favourite things to do, and the smell of the sea is one of my favourite smells. So it was blissful to be there, surrounded by good company.

We had dinner at the nearby Promenade Hotel for the last time and headed home. It was satisfying to end this whole experience with such a beautiful day. Tomorrow we leave for Chennai and then we fly home! I'm really looking forward to coming back to the fall colours and Thanksgiving dinner (my family is having ours next weekend- yay! thanks, family!!). I think this is my last entry written while in India. Crazy. Anyway, I'm grateful to have come and had this experience, to have met the people I've met and to have shared in the music here.

More soon...

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Post: Oct. 7

Yikes, I haven't posted in 17 days! Sorry sorry sorry. We moved into the campus form Tapovan on Sep. 26 and things have been crazy busy since then. Here's the synopsis:

Last week on Sep. 29, the inauguration of the campus was celebrated by a brilliant performance by the SAM students. We, the faculty, were extremely proud of them- they totally rocked the formal black tie event. The ceremony/performance took place on SAM's rooftop terrace and the starlit atmosphere (with goats bleating away in the distance) made the occasion all the more special. The next day we travelled into Chennai to perform a faculty/student concert at the Egmore Museum Theatre. The theatre had this lovely musty smell that reminded me of old books and libraries. It was a circular theatre similar to University of Toronto's Convocation Hall, but on a smaller scale. A very cool venue. What made it cooler was the bat that flew in during soundcheck and stayed for the entire performance, gobbling up mosquitoes as it circled above us. The performance was a lot of fun and a great way to finish up the semester. The students performed really well for the second night in a row. I'll say again how proud I am to have watched them grow a develop into real musicians over the past two and a half months. That night felt like the unofficial end of the semester because over the next five days we would be teaching a five day workshop at SAM that would include 20 new students from all over India. Before telling that story, let me first describe the great food we had the day of the concert. We ate lunch at an American-style diner called "Sparky's". The owner and chef is from Orange County, California and he cooked us the best North American food I've ever had (or at least it tasted that way to our dhal-saturated palattes!) It was surreal to be in there, surrounded by lots of other foreigners. This place is the only restaurant of its kind in Chennai, so it attracts us westerners. The waiter knew what we were about to ask when we started asking if the water and ice cubes were filtered! I had a chicken burger with fries that truly melted in your mouth- I still can't stop thinking about it! So we played the concert with happy bellies, only to head out to the best vegetarian restaurant in Chennai after the performance. I can't remember the name, but it's the only restaurant in the city open past 11pm. I had a delicious crispy dosa with mint and coconut chutney and sambah on the side, plus the best mango lassi I've had in India. It was a great day- I headed back to the campus on a high.

We had the next day off before the workshop began on Saturday morning. The workshop was really for students who couldn't commit to a six month program due to work, school, etc.. It ran from Saturday to Wednesday (yesterday). It was really nice to meet and hear the new students- more great talent emerging from this country! It was even cooler to see the old crew of SAM students step up and re-affirm their musicianship skills beside the new crew. The faculty each taught two ensembles over the course of the workshop. Both my ensembles rocked, if I may say so with a slight personal bias. I taught my first group a song called "In Your Wild Garden", written by one of my favourite singers/composers, Josefine Cronholm. It's a deceptively difficult tune as it only contains three chords but is played in a straight eighth 5/4 time going to a 3/4 swing over the bridge. They loved the song and really pulled it off in performance. My second group did a song written by our singer, Maalavika Manoj, called "Deceptive". It was awesome to watch them perform it and rock out, and Maalavika (who is only sixteen years old and a natural talent) totally owned the stage while the rest of the band rocked out. Our vice-president, Shyam Rao, supported the students on the drums which was an even greater treat.

After last night's student performance, it was time to say goodbye to the students and many of the SAM employees that we've gotten to know and will truly miss. Thank goodness for things like facebook where we can easily keep in touch with friends halfway across the world. I'm sure that I'll be seeing some of these students under bright stage lights in the not-too-distant future.

Our last day of teaching being yesterday, last night I had multiple nightmares about packing and missing my flight home. We're leaving for Chennai plenty early on Sunday afternoon (my flight home isn't until 5:30 on Monday morning!). In the meantime, we're heading to Pondicherry and Auroville tomorrow to do some shopping and probably have a nice meal at Sat Sanga or the Promenade Hotel. Saturday will be packing day and Sunday will bring more goodbyes with my amazing faculty colleagues. We're all flying out of Chennai airport to our separate destinations in the wee hours of Monday morning. It has been an honour and privilege to perform and teach alongside these guys. I'm grateful to have had this experience, with all its ups and downs. I am, however, very much looking forward to coming back to the land of the silver birch, home of the Canadian bacon and cheeseburger.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Post: Sep. 20

This weekend was awesome.

On Saturday the faculty travelled into Chennai (in style, I might add, with plush seating and AC! No banana bus this time...). It was Steve's birthday. (Steve Jenkins is the bass faculty at SAM.) We had been invited to a lunch along with the semi-finalists from the Chennai Live Band Hunt competition at a 5 star hotel in the city. When we arrived it became apparent that we weren't eating in the hotel restaurant but rather the hotel club where a buffet was being prepared. While we waited for the buffet food to be served, Steve and I explored the hotel in hopes of finding coffee. We ended up sitting down in the restaurant for a cup, and my first Indian coffee was so worth the search. Indian coffee is almost like a cappuccino (foamy, milky coffee) but the taste is entirely unique to India. Really good coffee. Afterwards we went back to the club where some excellent briyani was waiting for us. Briyani is a delicious rice dish usually served on special occasions. It was the best briyani I'd had in India so far, and was spicy in a way that brought out the flavour without being too spicy.

After that function was over we headed over to the City Centre mall which had been recommended to us as being a comfortable, westernized mall. It was both strange and wonderful to smell that department store smell when we walked inside (and usually I can't stand department store smell!). We wandered around, found another coffee place that was kind of like a Second Cup inside a department store, and I had my first iced coffee over here. Not as good as home, but it was nice to have it all the same. The mall had about four or five levels, and at the top level we discovered a nice view over the city towards the harbour. There was a spire in the distance that I suspect was either Fort St. George or a train station. I took a few pictures but quite soon had a mall security guard come up and tell us "no photos". He was nice enough about it though, as it was pretty apparent we were tourists and he was just doing his job.

After the mall, we hit up Nilgiris on the way out of town, and then stopped for dinner at a beautiful Italian restaurant called Bella Ciao. It's right across from the beach and is also next door to Waterina, the place where we watched the lightning storm up on the rooftop restaurant (see my blog post from July 31). Anyway, this place was great. The excellent food was complimented with really unique decor and ambiance. We sat outdoors under the stars on the sprawling patio which stretched across a huge lawn space. The inside was basically a big old house converted into small rooms with little sitting nooks and tables set up just like anybody's dining room. I had a tasty mushroom ravioli stuffed with ricotta cheese. All in all, a day of good food and good company.

On Sunday I went at last to Mahabalipuram, a touristy town about a half hour's drive away from Tapovan. I can't believe I waited so long to go there. Rhea and Tanisha, who are the daughters of one of the SAM employees, came with me and we had a great girls day out (especially refreshing because all the other days have been boys days!). We ate lunch at a place called Moonrakers, which is a total tourist/backpackers joint but with pretty good food. I had vegetarian briyani again.

Rhea and Tanisha at Moonrakers

Then we wandered around the streets, looking around in the shops. The main street we walked along was for the tourists so it was pretty clean and safe. One of my main objectives yesterday was to try bargaining for the first time. When bargaining, it's best if you don't display too much interest right away so I didn't buy anything at that point in the day. Instead we walked down our street which led right to the beach. It was a very hot and sunny day so the ocean breeze was very welcome. With the breeze came one of my favourite smells- the briny smell of the sea. The appearance of the beach was not what I would have expected before coming to India. I had pictured all the beaches here to be pristine and tropical with lots of sunbathers and swimmers. You kind of see that at beach resorts, but usually I've seen Indian beaches like this:

On our left, the beach stretched along pretty far with fishing boats and restaurants bordering the sand. Then, I turned my head to the right and, beyond the fishing boats and garbage-eating cows, I saw this:

In the distance was a vision of ancient India, hovering on the horizon. What a contrast! We started walking towards the temple, wishfully thinking there would be an entrance off the beach or some sort of shortcut. Wrong. The fenced-in temple area was on an outcrop of land and rock that jutted out and interrupted the beach on either side of it. We ended up having to walk about half an hour along the rocks and paths that lay between the temple and the sea. It was a good hike, albeit a sweaty one. It would have been faster and easier to go back up through the town, but I'll never forget the memory of climbing over those rocks (with flip flops on) to get to the sand on the other side of the temple while leering men loitering on the rocks heckled us. (I'm glad I didn't know what they were saying.) Anyway, we made it to the beach on the other side of the rocks where the real party was happening. There were crowds of people strolling amidst the ice cream sellers, carnival games, a man running around on a horse offering rides, people selling trinkets (very insistently), and, past that, some stalls selling cheap souvenirs and toys. After navigating through all of this we finally found the entrance to the temple area.

A view of the beach facing north from the top of the rocks.

But at the entrance there was even more chaos. This was where the tour buses dropped off their passengers and where the pushy souvenir/trinket sellers are ready and waiting. They do not take "no" for an answer! We wove our way over to the ticket booth. For Rhea and Tanisha, who are Indian citizens, it cost 10 rupees to get in. For foreigners, it cost 250 rupees. It's not that bad though. To put it into perspective, 10 rupees is about 25 cents Canadian, and 250 rupees is maybe $5 or $6. (And the ticket sellers know this all too well.) Once we were inside the temple area, it was much calmer- no souvenir sellers in there! The sights became more and more incredible as we neared the temple. The Shore Temple is spectacular enough on its own. It's carved right out of the bedrock and was built around the 7th century.

Mahabalipuram was once a major seaport in ancient times, before its name was Mahabalipuram. While standing in front of that temple with the ocean waves crashing behind you and the smell of the sea in the air you could imagine for a moment what it was like once. The really cool thing about the Shore Temple is that for centuries there were legends of seven other sister temples that also used to stand along on the shore and that had since been swallowed by the sea. However, there was never any archaelogical proof of their existence. Fishermen would tell stories of seeing ruins under the water, but other than words spoken over the centuries, no one knew for sure if those temples were simply legend. Then the 2004 tsunami sucked back the sea and revealed some of the structures before devastating the coastline. (The waters came right up to the East Coast Road that we travel on all the time.) The thought of those temples submerged like some sort of Atlantis beneath the waves crashing not too far away from where we stood under the shadow of the Shore Temple... that was the coolest part.

Then reality snapped back into place.

Suddenly, as we sat looking up at the temple, we were swarmed by about 50 schoolchildren. It was the strangest thing. They were there with their teacher (on a Sunday?) and they all wanted to introduce themselves to me and shake my hand. They were maybe ten or eleven years old. We were just sitting there, overwhelmed, as they stood crowding us in. A few of them started kissing my hand after they shook it, which was stranger still and made me feel really uncomfortable. They were really sweet but I just didn't understand what the big thing was about shaking my hand! After a few minutes, Rhea, Tanisha and I made the move, "Let's get out of here...", but I must have shook hands with every single one of them. As we walked away, we couldn't fathom what had just happened!

By then we were pretty much done for the day but I wanted to go back to one of the shops that we had visited after lunch. As we looked for our driver in the tourist parking lot we saw some people selling necklaces and bangles spread out on a cloth on the sidewalk. Apparently it's okay to buy things from people selling on the sidewalk, but not the trinket sellers that follow people around harassing them to buy. I could see those people gathering around us like birds of prey as we looked at the necklaces, but I was too caught up in the moment when I achieved my first bargain! They said 70 rupees, I said 50, and then they agreed to my utmost surprise and delight! So I bought two. Then we went back to that shop I wanted to check out again, decided that they weren't selling the greatest quality stuff for the price they were asking, walked into another place a few stores down and got a great deal (mostly thanks to Rhea's excellent bargaining skills) on some gifts. It was exhilarating. Happy, hot and exhausted, we left Mahabalipuram... until the next visit. I missed seeing Arjuna's Penance, which apparently is an amazing relief carving out of stonework, so I'm sure the shopkeepers will get another visit soon.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Post: Sep. 10

On Tuesday morning I travelled into Chennai for the second day in a row to judge a battle of the bands competition held by a local radio station, Chennai 104.8FM. They wanted a reality T.V. kind of vibe. It was me, the sponsor company's C.E.O. and a radio d.j. doing the judging. It was pretty fun. The bands were mostly rock, pop and metal. I actually despise reality T.V. and completely disagree with those judges who tell people condescendingly they're better off sticking with their day job. As a judge I had to be blunt sometimes but tried as much as possible to give all the bands constructive criticism from a music educator's standpoint. It was tricky though. There was one band comprised of some fifteen year old school students whom I had to ask to stop playing to tune their guitar, which they tried to do but not very successfully. But whether or not they played well or were nervous or made mistakes or didn't win, it was a great opportunity for performance practice. Competitions are an excellent way to deal with performance hiccups. You will never come away empty handed from any kind of performance practice as, at the end of the day, you've won yourself another growing experience.

A butterfly hanging out on my doorstep yesterday...

I had a lovely experience with a frog last night. There are two sets of sliding doors in my room and for a while they've been inhabited by two rather large frogs. Two nights ago one of them came out to say hello. This was the first time either of them had come out of their hiding places. I called the manager and he sent two houseboys (who were totally laughing at me) to extract said frog and put him back in his natural environment. One of them took my garbage pail and caught the frog inside it. As he carried it out, the frog perched himself regally on the edge of the pail as if he was on parade. The minute he passed the threshold of my door he made an enormous jump to freedom. So, one down, one still ribbiting away in the other windowsill. Last night, I came back to my room after dinner to find Frog Number Two on the wall right by the door. I felt ridiculous calling for a frog extraction two nights in a row, so I took a deep breath (mind over matter!), grabbed my pail and tried to catch him against the wall. He moved so quickly all I could do was shriek like a little girl (and the door was open for everyone to hear) as he dramatically leaped over my head and landed on the chair about two metres away. From there, he quickly leaped onto the curtain and waddled his way down and back behind it. He's still hiding back in the windowsill as I type. Frog = 1, Me = 0. (But points for bravery?)

Right now I'm reading a really great book called "The Inscrutable Americans" by Anurag Mathur. It was recommended to me by one of the students here (thanks, Anand!). The story follows a 21 year old man from a small village in India as he travels to America to study chemical engineering at a college for one year. It's quite a humourous book but has some serious parts as well. Everything about the cultural differences the protaganist observes and experiences is bang on the mark. The main character is completely endearing. I highly recommend it, especially to anyone interested in seeing the cultural differences between America and India demonstrated by a very well-written story.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Post: Sep. 8- Picture Book

A picture says a thousand words. Here are some glimpses into life at Tapovan and around:

I think this is some sort of parrot. This tree was only a couple metres away from our dining table at lunch two days ago.

This cow was hanging around our dining area last week. She wasn't shy of us as we came quite close. The cows run loose all over the place at Tapovan and on the roadsides, fields, and cities.

A tree-lined avenue at Tapovan.

An aptly-named fizzy apple juice drink, not to be confused with the non-fizzy Appy Classic.

This is my favourite road sign I've seen so far. Note the phrasing: avoid OVER speeding.

More soon!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Post: Sep. 5

When I was three years old, I told my dad I wanted to be a rock star when I grew up. My musical journey has taken a different direction since then (with no regrets). However, I was able to live out that childhood dream in Pondicherry on Saturday night. The SAM faculty performed at a rock/pop/metal festival called Jipmer Spandan, which was held at a medical college campus. It was an a steamy outdoor gig under bright stage lights. We played one of my all-time favourite songs, Hyperballad by Bjork, and, as I mentioned in my last post, songs by Radiohead, The Killers, and Stevie Wonder (all who also happen to be some of my favourite artists). We snuck in a Kenny Wheeler tune and some fusion tunes as well. The guys sounded great and it was really fun to perform with them again. The awesome students from SAM crowded up at the front of the stage and cheered us on. What a cool experience.

The bus that drove us all into Pondicherry was not so glamourous. There were at least four times when I thought to myself, "This is it. This is how we're going out!". Our chariot was a rickety banana bus that looked like it had been around for a few decades at least. The gears made a lovely, high-pitched grinding/squealing sound every time our driver changed gears. I doubt the brakes were that great either. Oh, and no AC to boot! It was a long, bumpy ride to Pondicherry. Usually the drive is about an hour and fifteen minutes. It took at least two hours to get there yesterday. On the way back to Tapovan we had a slightly more modern-looking bus with the same driver. We had a few more narrow misses. I've found the best way to cope with the terror-fraught travel here is to completely space out and try to avoid looking ahead. But sometimes it's hard NOT to look!

On a more somber note, tomorrow is Randy's funeral in Chennai. Afterwards I'll probably be staying overnight in Chennai as we're lined up to do some adjudicating of a rock competition over Monday and Tuesday and my slot is Tuesday morning. I don't know what to do tomorrow afternoon and evening in Chennai. I'll probably be on my own with a driver. Any suggestions?

Friday, September 3, 2010

Post: Sep. 4

It has been a strange and difficult week. Classes have recommenced but it's awfully quiet, especially around our villa. Randy's funeral is Monday morning. Last Sunday Steve, David and I drove into Pondicherry and had a beautiful dinner at Sat Sanga in Randy's honour. We then raised a glass to him at the Promenade Hotel. Randy would have been happy that we ate and drank well.

Steve and David at Sat Sanga....

Sat Sanga's unique decor.

On our journey we discovered another magical store called Nilgiris. It's a supermarket that takes down Nuts and Spices a few notches. I was able to buy some snacks, toiletries and a few other items for less than $20. In Canada the purchase would have been twice as much. I even found my shampoo brand! We were all walking around with "perma-grins" for a good while after coming out of that place. Our driver was great. He took us there the scenic way and we passed through several small villages throughout the Tamil Nadu countryside before joining the main road to Pondicherry. It was a beautifully sunny day.

A typical road view while driving through the Tamil Nadu countryside.

Today we're going back to Pondicherry to play a gig at a rock festival. It's been fun rehearsing with the other faculty for this show. We've all been indulging our love of pop/rock music. We're doing tunes by Stevie Wonder, Radiohead, The Killers, and Bjork, plus we're throwing in a few high-energy fusion and contemporary jazz tunes. Hopefully we'll have some time to hang out in town before the gig.

This teaching week has been busy but fun. The students have been working on "disciplined improvisation". They've been focussing on improvising within the song form and also working out what kind of ideas to use while improvising. Again, this a great learning experience for both students and faculty. It's cool how much you can learn by explaining and demonstrating these kind of concepts.

It's hard to believe that we've been here for almost six weeks now. I hope to do more sight-seeing on the weekends. Apparently Mahabalipuram is an amazing place with ancient temples carved out of rock and it's only half an hour away. I also would like to make a trip to Ooty, which is about 7 hours away by train. Pondicherry is a great place to visit on the weekends as well. So much to do, and suddenly so little time...

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Post: Aug. 28

It's with great sadness that I write this post. My new friend, Dr. Randall Giles, passed away yesterday quite suddenly. Randy had been ill with a fever and cough for a few days and decided to go to the doctor yesterday morning. He walked himself to the car and even had a cold drink on the way there. But when he arrived at the hospital he suffered a massive heart attack and died.

It was a blessing to have known Randy, even for this short time at SAM. He was not only the Dean of the Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music but also a prolific composer and musician and a beautiful person. The first time I heard one of his choral works it brought tears to my eyes. He wrote a lot of choral works and sang with a number of choirs. He originally came to India as a Christian missionary, doing musical work in local churches. If you want to check out all the work he's done, visit He travelled all over the world and has quadruple the musical education I have plus double the years of experience. He celebrated his sixtieth birthday in July. He lived in Chennai for ten years before moving everything he owned to the SAM campus a few weeks ago.

One of my favourite memories with Randy was the day we spent together in our villa, listening to music. I played him some of my own music that I've been working on. He was extremely encouraging and gave me some great constructive feedback that will stick with me for the rest of my musical life. We also spent time that day listening to his own works. It was so inspiring and made me realize how much there is to learn about music AND Randy himself. I wish I had asked more questions. He told me he was planning on writing a song for me to sing and for the rest of the faculty to perform as well.

Another great memory was the day we went to Pondicherry and Randy guided us to the good places. We ate lunch at a beautiful restaurant called Sat Sanga- Randy knew the owners. Randy was very well-known and well-liked and, as far as I know, has many friends throughout India, particularly in Pondicherry and Chennai. He also took us to a hotel called the Promenade, where we had drinks on the patio with a view of the beach. I would like for us to travel back there and raise a glass to him once again when the time is right.

Randy had a great spirit. He smiled and laughed a great deal. He was also very capable of making his opinions known. I don't know who will be our advocate for boneless chicken and for telling the cooks that the food is simply too spicy! He made himself at home in our villa, bringing in his own filtered coffee kettle and mugs. If you were around when he was having coffee made, he always invited you to share in his coffee stores and have a cup with him- he preferred to not drink it alone. Keep in mind the value of a good cup of coffee around here- they're serving us powdered blend. Good coffee and good conversation.

When I was sick with Delhi Belly: Round Two, Randy would call and check in on me. He would stand in line for food at the dining area and tell me what they were serving, and then make sure they sent me something manageable. He also lent me one of my favourite things that I had been missing since I got here- a good book. The book he lent me is called "The Quickening Maze" by Adam Fould. It's won several awards and is extremely well-written. Randy was in the middle of reading it but, because I was bored, suggested that I borrow it. Reading a good book here brightened my days. The book, which I was still reading when he passed away, has Randy's name inscribed in his own calligraphy on the first page and also has a little business card in it on the page where he left off.

The day I got better, Randy got sick. He was my next-door neighbour in our villa and I would check in on him frequently (but now I think it should have been more frequently). On Thursday I brought him juice and some good old North American crackers from my suitcase. Apparently he quit smoking on Thursday. That was the last time I saw him. According to Prasanna and Shyam, who visited him in the hospital after he passed away, he died with a blissful smile on his face.

Thank you, Randy, for your friendship. It was an honour and a privilege to have known you for this relatively brief period of time. You blessed us with inspiration and light. Rest in peace, new friend.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Post: Aug. 24

"It feels as if I have walked through the fire and can now take anything India can throw at me. But maybe I shouldn't say that as this country never ceases to surprise you...." (Post: Aug. 7)

Famous last words.

Delhi Belly: Round Two arrived just in time for our first gig.

On Wednesday of last week Prasanna and the folks at SAM found us a great gig in Chennai for Saturday night. The faculty rehearsed together for 5 hours on Thursday and 6 hours on Friday. We were playing Prasanna's original music which is really fun material and also a welcome challenge. If you want to hear some of his songs that we performed, here's Prasanna's website: Everything was going according to plan until bedtime on Friday night when I started to feel a bit under the weather. By 2am I recognized the ominous feeling. Lightning had struck twice in the same place and the timing couldn't have been more impeccable! I woke up on Saturday morning determined to do the gig anyway. The tricky part wouldn't be the performance- adrenaline and pepto bismol would take care of that, plus we were set to perform for only an hour or so. But the idea of a two and a half hour car ride to Chennai travelling mostly on country roads and a secondary highway with hardly any rest stops was troublesome to say the least. But everyone was really sweet and understanding and made sure that at least I had a seat by the door. Everything was going fine on the way there. Even the heavy rain wasn't as much of a problem as it could have been.

Then we got a flat tire.

This hitch actually turned out quite smoothly. Not only was the driver able to change the tire (in the rain) within fifteen minutes or so, but there were also two other cars traveling from Tapovan that were still behind us and stopped to help just in case. It could have been much worse as we were already running late (ah, but India time allows for such things!). We even found a pit stop shortly afterwards. Anyway, eventually we made it to the beautiful five star hotel where we were to perform. Even though we arrived late (we're talking an hour and a half late) they still weren't ready for soundcheck (see? India time!). Thankfully they had a couple hotel rooms for us to freshen up in so I curled up for about half an hour until they were ready to soundcheck. The fever I had with Round Two was crazy! I got these off and on chills that turned my feet, fingertips, and lips blue. I couldn't feel anything with my fingertips. All that would help when I got these chills was to ball up under a warm blanket, which I did in the hotel room- that bed was heavenly. It got me all warmed up again for soundcheck, and then it was pretty much time to perform. The adrenaline and pepto bismol did their job and we all had a really fun time onstage.

The concert was part of a MARG charity event for a great cause called "Give Life", which enables and educates urban children living in poverty. Some of the kids were at the concert and they stole my heart completely. At one point we were all asked to pose for pictures with the children. I was standing behind this little girl who, once the pictures were taken, immediately turned to me with bright, shining eyes and said, "Hi!". Suddenly I was surrounded by these adorable kids who were not shy in the least- they held my hands and asked me all sorts of questions. I asked them what their names were and what they wanted to be when they grow up. They answered "Architect!", "Police!", "Police!" (these two were best friends so of course they both wanted to be police together), and "Doctor!". All of them were girls. I was floored by their ambition and earnestness. What an amazing difference for these happy, bright kids who, otherwise, would certainly never even dream of becoming a female doctor (they would more likely end up working as child labourers). There were little boys there as well of course who came up to me a bit more shyly than the girls, but only at first. All of them were so sweet and I'm very grateful to have been able to meet them.

There were other VIPs at the event, including India's education minister, the world chess champion, a cricket star, many more politicians, and of course, MARG's CEO and representatives (MARG is the company that owns and sponsors SAM). It was a really interesting evening. There was some beautiful food laid out for dinner but there was no way I was going to risk eating anything but bread and rice. At the end of the performance they honoured our band by presenting us with some beautiful shawls which we wore kind of like wrestlers (they were big shawls). I was especially glad of it because the fever returned the moment we finished our last tune.

Made it back to Tapovan by 1:30 am. Crashed immediately. Still had antibiotics left over from Round One and they've been helping tremendously. The Tapovan staff have been bringing me a more natural remedy called tender coconut water, a refreshing, stomach-easing hydration drink. I just found out that to make this, they actually climb a ladder on a coconut tree, grab a coconut, make it fresh and then bring it to my room. It really helps ease stomach pain and you can't get it like this anywhere else in the world. The odd thing is, apart from one other faculty member having a bad stomach overnight on Friday night, I was the only one who got hit with this in full force. Twice. We all ate the same food on Friday. What the?!

So, India is still full of surprises. But I'm not going to jinx things by saying anything else.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Post: Aug. 18

There have been so many unknown (and mostly foundless) fears about Tapovan, the place where we're staying temporarily, that I've been lacking in describing its beauty.

Tapovan is actually called Marg Tapovan: The Silent Garden. The Marg initiative is, as far as I can discern, a company that has been building gated communities across India. The SAM campus (still under construction) is being built in Marg Swarnabhoomi, about half an hour's drive from Tapovan. The Silent Garden aspect becomes apparent after coming from the city and its incessantly honking traffic. The place is comprised of several villas, some of which are still being built towards the back of the property, spread around lush green landscapes that, up until five years ago, used to be jungle. Three of us live in the "model villa" so on weekends there are families coming in to view it. It's kind of like cottage country and they're prospective cottage buyers.

It's really quite beautiful around here. The weather has been mostly hot and sunny apart from some pretty majestic thunderstorms moving in to break the heat. We've had a few of these storms and they're spectacular. There are some stunning birds as well- I wish I knew their names! They've got some beautiful markings- I've seen some birds of a very vibrant blue colour as well as some red-winged birds. One person even saw a flock of parrots fly by over the weekend. There is always birdsong in the air. There's a frog pond just outside our villa and in the evenings the sound of frogs, birds and nightbugs serenade us home. I hope to record some of these sounds. There are some beautiful flowers and I wish I knew their names too. There are gorgeous colourful butterflies and some are quite large (there are equally large caterpillars). The only rodents I've seen have been some tree squirrels, and even they look more colourful than the average squirrel.
Of course, it's not a completely silent garden around here with musicians practicing and jamming in the dining pavillion and other areas. But you can't hear any road traffic (including honking) and it's generally pretty peaceful.

I've been able to get a lot of writing done here as well. It took a while to get into a rhythm but since there's no TV and barely any internet there aren't a lot of excuses NOT to write and practice when we're not teaching. It's funny because I had been looking into applying for an August residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts to retreat away and dig into my current writing project. Later that same day I received an email from Prasanna offering the position at SAM. Kismet?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Post: Aug. 15

On Wednesday night we travelled into the heart of Chennai to hear Shyam's band, 7even, perform at the Taj Mount Road Hotel. This hotel is a 5 star so it looked and felt like a swanky Yorkville hotel but with subtle Indian differences. To be honest, it was nice to get into an urban landscape and have a western culture experience. The last experience I had in Chennai was of washrooms with no toilet paper AND no soap!

The hotel had a choice of 5 restaurants within the hotel and the one we chose had a diverse menu of Western, Thai, Italian, and Indian food which was well-prepared and also absolutely delicious. (I had the spring rolls.) The hotel bar where the band was playing was pretty surreal. The decor was just as swanky at the rest of the hotel and included some comfy lounge couches that looked (disturbingly) like they were made from buffalo hair. There was this moment where you just had to laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation- here we were, sitting in a swanky lounge, drinking cocktails while sitting on buffalo hide couches and listening to Shyam's band play Van Halen's "Jump"... IN INDIA. Wow.

I also must give kudos to the Taj's restroom. It was the best I've visited here so far as it was just like a fancy bathroom from home! Toilet paper AND soap!!

On the way there, amidst the insane rush hour traffic, we stopped at a wonderfully magical store called "Nuts & Spices". It's a small, modern supermarket that sells not only nuts and spices but also many delicious western foods and treats. We all stocked up on snack foods and drinks and I even bought a box of Special K. Now all I need is the milk....

Here's a fun story: on the way home traffic was much better. There weren't many cars on the road since it was 1am. We drove without much alarm, relatively speaking, until about halfway home when we passed what looked like a festival at a roadside temple lit up with Christmas lights (you see temples decorated with Christmas lights a lot- it usually means there's something going on or it's a significant religious holiday). There were about seven or eight men standing in the middle of the road holding what looked like decorative sticks with palm fronds and coconuts on the end of them. Our drive slowed down to avoid hitting them and they began beating our car with the sticks! It was pretty alarming but we were all just sitting there stunned at what was happening. David, one of the faculty members who's from L.A., had been asleep in the back seat up until this point. Suddenly, as the men began knocking on the van windows and doors, all we heard was David commanding from the back seat "Drive! Drive!!" in such an authoritative voice the driver didn't hesitate to get us the heck out of there. We all sat there pretty stunned for a few moments, then began laughing hysterically (because what else could you do??). These guys were obviously drunk and it would have been dangerous if they had got us out of the car. They probably would have taken our money and offered it to the gods (or said they would...) or worse. Good thing David reacted quickly. But afterwards the ridiculousness of the situation- a small group of villagers armed with sticks with coconuts attached to them hitting the sides of the car (which wasn't too damaged afterwards- the beatings sounded worse than they were)- it all seemed like something out of a Monty Python movie.

So that was some excitement making for a good India story.

In other news, it's been blues week here at SAM. The students have been learning to play a blues form and how to stick to it even when others in the band get lost in the form. Tuesday and Wednesday were "Freddie the Freeloader" days and yesterday was "Watermelon Man". on Monday they'll have to demonstrate that they know and can play and solo over the blues form. It's been fun to hear the students develop over the week. It's also been a great learning experience for the faculty as we've all been workshopping the students together- so good to hear what the other teachers have to say.

Most importantly, I’d like to give a big shout out of congratulations to one of my best friends, Misti, and her HUSBAND, Adam, on their marriage yesterday. So sad to not be able to be there (I was supposed to be a bridesmaid...) but best wishes (and a lifetime of leverage from yours truly)!

More soon...

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Post: Aug. 7

This is the first post I've been able to write for a few days as I've been bedridden with what Indians politely call "Delhi Belly". Not much fun at all. I came down with a fever on Tuesday night after spending the day in Chennai. A doctor came on Wednesday morning and gave me a bunch of antibiotics that did the trick and by Thursday morning I was back on my feet, albeit a bit wobbly. It feels as if I have walked through the fire and can now take anything India can throw at me. But maybe I shouldn't say that as this country never ceases to surprise you....

We went into Chennai on Tuesday because customs told us all at the airport that we had to register our visas within fourteen days of arriving. So on Monday afternoon we drove to Kalpakkam, a town about 30 minutes away from Tapovan, to get some passport-sized pictures taken. We also took the opportunity to buy some necessities from the amenities there, and of course I couldn't resists buying some scarves from a shop only to eager to invite us in. Got the pictures back, headed back to Tapovan to get some sleep before leaving for Chennai the next day at 7:30am. Every one of us musicians silently sighed about the departure time but they had coffee for us which made it a bit more achievable. Anyway, we travelled the two and a half hours to Chennai in crazy rush hour traffic to be told at the office that we did not have to register for six month visas, which all of us have except for one other faculty member. So we made a day of things in Chennai. We went to this weird "westernized" mall called Spencer's Plaza. It was strange to see a Guess store right beside a sari shop. There was even a very dubious-looking Subway restaurant serving a mix and Indian and North American menus. This mall was like a burren of franchised and privately owned shops. For franchises, the price is what it says it is on the tag. For the privately owned shops, you had to know who to go to for the right price. The whole place was kind of like an Indian market melded into a less-fancy looking Eaton Centre. (There was also no air conditioning, making for a much sweatier mall experience than in the west.) Afterwards we went for lunch at a Chinese Indian restaurant that was recommended to us. I ordered steak as I'd been feeling low on iron. This was a mistake! There are multiple theories about where and how I got sick but this steak seems to be the prime suspect. The majority of Indians are vegetarians and it's hard to find a good, well-prepared beef dish here. Little did I know!

Anyway, I was very well looked after here and am well on the mend. Oh, and there's been all sorts of wildlife situations happening. I found a cockroach in my toiletry bag this morning (and killed it immediately without mercy) and have seen many bigger ones flying around over the past couple days for some reason. Shudder. There have been some sightings of scorpions (gasp!) which makes frogs and spiders seem like old hat. So we all block up the cracks under our doors and check under our beds with flashlights every night. Apparently the ones around here aren't poisonous but their sting would hurt like... well, they would hurt a lot. Mostly they just go about their own business and if you don't bother them then they won't bother you (so we tell ourselves nervously). Being here in Tapovan is kind of like being in cottage country, but since it's not your own cottage country everything you see has the "unknown fear factor" to it. But Delhi Belly has made everything else pale in comparison!

More soon....

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Post: Aug. 1

Today we went to Pondicherry. It was a really great day. The sky was blue, the sun was hot, and we were itching to get out and do some shopping! Pondicherry is about a 1 hour drive south of Tapovan. Four of the faculty members went- Jovol, Manu, Randy, and myself. We hired a driver- it cost about 1900 rupees for six hours, including the drive. Between the four of us that went, this came to around 500 rupees each, with is about $12 Canadian. Pretty cheap compared to renting a car for $100 a day in Canada! The drive was quite scenic- we passed people working in rice fields, cows, goats, etc. but the colours were amazing. The earth here is a rich, red hue, comparable to Prince Edward Island's distinctive soil. That colour contrasting with the green of the palm trees and colourful saris was stunning.

As we drove into Pondicherry the first thing we saw was the ocean. This vista to our left greatly contrasted the view of harrowing traffic ahead of us. I got some video footage of Pondicherry- apparently what we saw was nothing compared to weekdays! But I immediately liked Pondicherry. The buildings consisted of colourful French colonial architecture, and all this mixed in with Indian sights and sounds. It was so strange to hear French being spoken on the streets! Everything had a tropical south-of France look to it. It was very pretty.

We met up with Manu's sister, Julia, who coincidentally happens live in nearby Auroville. She and Randy are both quite familiar with Pondicherry and showed us where the top spots were. First we had lunch at Satsanga, a kind of touristy restaurant whose menu is one of the most diverse and lengthly I've ever seen as they serve French, Italian, and Indian food. And it was delicious. I had a crepe with mushrooms, cheese and shrimp. Not only did it melt in your mouth but it was also a nice change from the menu at Tapovan's menu- it's good food there but it has become a bit routine. I also had a banana lassi, a kind of smoothy drink made with yogurt, milk and banana, which was delicious and hopefully as healthy as it sounded!

After lunch we ventured towards the market. Although it was supposed to be only a fifteen minute walk, the sun was very hot so we opted for autorickshaws (very rickety, doorless taxis that are all over the place here). This was quite the experience. First, you must bargain with your taxi driver for the price. Julia and Randy both knew how much it would cost to get to the market and argued with the drivers over the price they were asking, which was much more than it should have been, of course. We had to walk away, saying they were asking too much before they chased us down and agreed to our price. Man, this bargaining thing is an art unto itself. People seem to really get into it and even enjoy it! Anyway, the autorickshaw ride was fun. They don't go as fast as cars so you kind of bump along the roads and swerve to avoid everyone else, including swarms of people, all the while honking this ridiculous sounding clown horn! Minutes later we were at the market. The street was lined with shops and little make-shift stands and tables on the sidewalks. I can't describe what it was like but took lots of pictures. It was out of this world. I ended up buying three kurtas which are long cotton shirts that go down to about mid-thigh and are worn over jeans or pants. It was fun inside the shop- there are shelves upon shelves of fabrics in every colour. The shopkeepers see what you're interested in buying (kurtas) and then begin piling onto the countertop as many varieties of kurtas that you could possibly ever want. Some with patterns on the front AND back, some with high collars, some with sleeves, some sleeveless, some made with a softer fabric, some with mirrored detailing and embroidery, some plainer, some black, most of them as colourful as you could ever imagine. The three I ended up settling on (eventually you just have to decide on the ones you like otherwise the ever-growing pile on the counter never ceases!) are all sleeveless, and one is a softer fabric. Most don't fit exactly right- the sizing here is much different- but you can take them to a tailor who will customize it for you for dirt cheap- maybe around 10 rupess (50 cents or something ridiculous). The others found some neat shirts as well and everyone ended up being happy with the experience.

Afterwards we were all pretty hot and thirsty so we headed over to the aptly named Promenade Hotel which is directly across the street from the real promenade on the beach. This place was swanky, beachy, and had a great patio with a view of the ocean. We relaxed and had some cold drinks- I had a very sour but tasty green mango marguerita with some sort of herb in it which could have been cilantro. Then we walked out to the actual promenade. It was getting cold to sunset at this point and there were many, many people out "promenading". Finally, it was getting time to get back to Tapovan so we organized a meeting spot with our driver over the phone, found another autorickshaw and went through the bargaining process again. Our driver eventually showed up at our meeting point after we waited for about an hour in the oppressive heat and growing dark. On the way out of town we stopped at a convenience store (that looked nothing at all like a 7-11) and stocked up on cold drinks like pop and some snacks for back at Tapovan. Tastes of home!

Looking forward to going back to Pondicherry!