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!