Meeting Pratham

I can thank food poisoning for how I came to know Pratham. I was in Doha, Qatar, in 2012, covering an education conference for The New York Times, writing about the World Innovation Summit for Education, or WiSE, founded by Sheika Moza bint Nasser, wife of the emir of Qatar.

I barely got through the conference. I had an early morning departure for the quick flight from Dubai to Doha, and my digestive system had already made it clear it disagreed with the chicken schwarma sandwich I had consumed for dinner the night before. I managed to work the day with a few bathroom breaks, but toward the end of the day, I was starting to feel feverish. I asked staff in the media room how best to get a cab to get back to my hotel. (In an effort to ensure attendees were able to make the conference on time in construction-filled and traffic-snarled Doha, WISE had arranged bus and car pickup to and from the conference.)

Long story short, there were no cabs available and the media buses weren’t scheduled to pick us up for a few more hours. I told them I couldn’t wait and after some discussion, they decided that I could hitch a ride with one of the VIP cars that run on a much more flexible schedule.

Mom and Dad attend Pratham’s Houston gala in May 2018. More than $2.8 mlllion was raised.

The VIP in that car was Madhav Chavan, Pratham’s co-founder and the recipient of the WISE Prize, the organization’s highest honor. I didn’t know all that when I first stepped into the car, a little green and anxious to get back to my hotel. I thanked him for letting me hitch along and we made introductions, telling each other why we were at the conference. He told me that he had founded an education organization called Pratham that worked in India, and that he was here to accept a prize.

(I realized only later how large Pratham is — it was founded 22 years, has served millions of underprivileged kids, and has chapters across the globe — and that the prize that he was accepting is akin to a Nobel for education. Not a journalist’s finest hour, I’ll concede. In my defense, I got the assignment pretty late and my editor was only interested in a story about Sheikha Moza.)

The timing of the meeting was fortuitous as I was winding down my Dubai tenure and headed to Gujarat, India, for three months before I returned to the US and resumed regular life. I got in touch with Chavan, whose office connected me with the local Pratham chapter in Ahmedabad.

One afternoon I went with the local Pratham administrators to a Learning Center in Allahnagar, a Muslim community in the Behrampura neighborhood in Ahmedabad. This was back in March 2013 and, as it was summer in India, the class only contained five girls and six boys in the tiny two-room classroom. The kids are between 7- and 9-years-old and can read but are still dependent on visual clues to help them remember words and build vocabularies. Everyone in Allahnagar is very poor. There are no iPads or Wi-Fi here. The hope is to keep these kids in school until the 5th grade. For girls, economic and cultural pressures are especially strong to give up their educations and get married.

It’s been five years since I visited that learning center. I sat on the floor with them and joined in some of their exercises. Yes, this 7-year-old (see photo, left) and I are basically on the same level when it comes to reading Gujarati!

I have no idea how many of these kids made it to the fifth grade or what their lives are like now. But I’m fairly certain that exposure to programs like Pratham not only give these kids practical skills that will help them navigate daily life, they also give them an opportunity to envision themselves in a world beyond just the immediate experiences of the people that surround them.

 

La vie en ros(é)

My first significant memory of “wine” was in 1988, the day after I had landed in Paris on a high school foreign exchange trip. I was there to spend six weeks with a French family who lived in Angers, in central France, but first, a weekend in Paris.

Family friends had hosted a young Frenchman in their Texas home a decade before, and they gave me his phone number, encouraging me to call him while I was in Paris. I remember being reluctant to cold-call someone I didn’t know last-minute on a Friday evening, but he was immediately welcoming and kindly invited me to join him and his friends for dinner.

It was early July, an evening with warm breezes and the lingering daylight of northern European summers. We sat on the patio at a bar before heading to the restaurant, and the group, all around 30 or so, ordered apéritifs. I had no idea what to order, but my host suggested a glass of rosé. I remember sipping my wine, listening to the group chatter in French (and my brain working overtime to try to translate, largely unsuccessfully, the rapid-fire conversation around me). It was probably the first time I was out in such an “adult” fashion, apart from with my family. And what a place for such an outing, a tree-lined terrasse in Paris, the sun setting in the summer sky.

My other memory of rosé is later that summer traveling with my French family from their home in Angers to their summer home in Monetier-les-Bains, a village in the French Alps near the Italian border. On the drive down, we spent the night with friends of theirs, a family that was renovating a small chateau. That evening, both families gathered at a table outside for dinner. It seemed to me to a quintessentially French experience, simple, fresh food eaten en plein air with glasses of rosé.

The memories all have fuzzy edges now, but those were my first lessons in how food and wine interact with culture and community.

In the years since, my wine education has been uneven, largely self-taught, and probably not the preferred path of a true connoisseur. For example, I’ve never been to Napa Valley or visited the famed Burgundy or Bordeaux vineyards in France. But I have been to the Bekaa Valley in the mountains above Beirut (twice), and traveled around Malbec vineyards in Mendoza.

My journeys have introduced me to Willamette Valley in Oregon and its pinot noirs, tempranillo from Rioja, sagrantino di Montefalco from Umbria, and rieslings from the Pfalz. My travel wish list includes checking out the usual suspects, of course, but also detours to less-familiar terroir like those found in Greece, Portugal and Georgia.

Circles Under Her Feet

I’m the American-born daughter of Indian immigrants, and I grew up in small-town outside of Houston. I’ve never quite fit the mold – American or Indian. Maybe that’s why I was drawn to journalism; the entire exercise is to talk to people, get a sense of their stories and who they are, and share them with other people.

I have traveled on my own since my mid-teens, first, in Europe and America, and eventually to many parts of the globe. I started this blog and called it “Parallel Universe” nearly 10 (!!) years ago when I moved from Dallas to Dubai, where I was a freelance foreign correspondent writing for international publications including TIME magazine, The New York Times and Institutional Investor magazine. I had worked for The Dallas Morning News until late 2008, but newspaper cutbacks meant my chances to be sent overseas as a foreign correspondent were slim. So, I decided to make my own way.

Back then, the idea was to write about a place striving for a place among the community of modern societies while also staying true to its traditions and culture. These objectives, as you can imagine, sometimes clashed. I was there for nearly five years. I took my office on the road as much as I wanted: those places included Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, India, Spain, Paris, Hong Kong, Cairo, Tanzania, Kenya, and Thailand.

Parallel Universe has now been rechristened “Postcards from the Bayou” – though the old posts are still here below. I’ve moved back to Houston, my hometown, where I deal with the culture shock of being back in America and grapple with some of the forces shaping both my country and Texas. I see this blog as my little patch of the Web to muse about that, my travels, food and wine, books, and other interests that I have.

Circles Under Her Feet refers to a Gujarati saying that essentially means someone like me, constantly moving with a pretty healthy wanderlust and curiosity for all things in this amazing world of ours. I suppose the English equivalent is, She doesn’t sit still.

Thanks for reading and please stay in touch: angela.shah(at)gmail.com.

The swastika

I’m cross-posting my recent blog entry in Journey to Gujarat here on Parallel Universe. Please sign up for updates to my travels there as soon as they are posted!

Many of the pictures that I’ve posted on my travels to India include an image that might have surprised some of you.

IMG_2484

 

This photo is of the place where Mahatma Gandhi’s mother gave birth to him. The house is now a museum/shrine and my father and I visited it in Gandhi’s hometown of Porbandar last month. My post on our trip prompted a response from my friend K.S. back in Dallas who wrote: “Again I have learned something new and interesting from you. I only knew the Swastika as a Nazi symbol so was surprised to see it in your photos. I now know that it dates back to ancient India and literally means ‘to be good’ and is considered a sacred symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism. What a shame the Natzi Party bastardized it.”

For more than a decade now, India and being Indian has been a little more cool; Westerners are more familiar with our culture(s) and our cultural idiosyncracies. A few years ago, there was even a show on network TV set in an Indian call center. People have heard about Bollywood and there’s “Lie of Pi” and “Slumdog Millionaire.”

But, still, for most people in the West, the swastika is first associated with Nazis, not Hinduism – even though the symbol has been used as a good luck emblem not only by us but by Buddhists and Jains as well. Swastikas have appeared on petroglyphs in Armenia, a gold necklace in ancient Iran and on Greco-Roman coins.

K.S.’s remark reminded me of a story from my childhood. We had just moved to Texas and my Dad’s nurse was visiting our home for the first time. It was our family’s first stand-alone house, brand-new and seemingly huge, with a big backyard and enough bedrooms to give my brother and me our own rooms. It was also the first house that either of my parents could call their own. Neither of their families had the means to own their own homes in India, and eight years after arriving in America with very little money, they had now built and owned their own home. Looking back now, I realize just how, justifiably, proud my parents must have been – proud to show it to visitors, proud to raise their young family in it.

Anyway, the nurse, whose name was Helen, was a kind person and she was a gracious guest. She just had one piece of advice on the house: Get rid of the swastikas.

I’m sure she didn’t say it quite that way. My parents had hung up Indian tapestries on the walls, which pictured pastoral scenes in the classical style. And in various places there were swastikas. This was 1979 or 1980 in Texas City, Texas. And Helen basically said that it would probably be best if we didn’t have these sorts of things displayed.

This was before I had learned anything about World War II or Nazi Germany. I just understood that, for some reason, the swastika was bad and that we shouldn’t have them around or people would think bad of us. Texas City didn’t have a big Indian community where we could find safety in numbers, or with whom we could “expose” our cultural icons without being judged.

The tapestries came off the walls. And, as I’m only beginning to understand lately, with them began a process of “hiding” my Indian-ness. Not deliberately and not out of shame, but as part of a process of wanting to fit in, normal for any new kid-turned-typical teenager. I’m Indian, certainly, just take a look at me. But I didn’t have to emphasize that. Back then, being Indian was definitely not considered cool. It just made you seem weird. And I wanted to fit in. We settled in small-town Texas, my parents raised their children and we focused on being an “American” family.

Journey to Gujarat: Junagadh & Porbandar

I’m cross-posting my recent blog entry in Journey to Gujarat here on Parallel Universe. Please sign up for updates to my travels there as soon as they are posted!

IMG_2483Porbandar, a port town located on Gujarat’s western coast, is known for being the home of Mahatma Gandhi and his family home is now a shrine/museum to his life. The home’s rooms are quite small. Climbing between flights along claustrophobic staircases reminded me of my visit to Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam. A swastik marks the floor in the room where Gandhi’s mother gave birth to him. We also visited Sudama Temple, named after a childhood friend of Krishna, and I walked through a swastika-shaped maze on the temple grounds. Traversing the maze is supposed to wash you of your sins. The day we were there, a Friday, was also the Birthday of the Prophet Mohammed, and a celebratory parade wound through the city streets. Considering Gandhi’s message of religious tolerance, I thought the timing brought a nice addition to our visit.

I also write about our visit to Junagadh, at the base of Mount Girnar, another pilgrimage site. The city has a 15th-century “upper town,” Uparkot, which is only open during the day and shuts down at 7 p.m. I also enjoyed exploring the Mahabat Maqbara. Built by Bahadur Kanji as a tomb for his predecessor, Mahabat Khan, it is a surprisingly well-kept example of Indo-Islamic architecture.

DSC_9612

A day in Diu

I’m cross-posting my recent blog entry in Journey to Gujarat here on Parallel Universe. Please sign up for updates to my travels there as soon as they are posted!

DSC_9445Out of the rural marshes of southern Gujarat sits a national police checkpoint. This marks the entry to the island city of Diu, a former Portugese colony that like, Daman and Goa, were acquired by the Indian government in 1961. The three are union territories and are not governed by the states’ governments in which they lie.

Today, Diu is a popular beach resort and, along with Daman, the only place to buy alcohol in Gujarat, which is a dry state. The Portugese mark can still be seen in the city at Diu Fort, St. Paul’s Church and Makata Lane, where many Portugese merchants had built their mansions.

For more about Diu and photos from our visit, please click here.

Off the grid in Gopnath

I’m cross-posting my recent blog entry in Journey to Gujarat here on Parallel Universe. Please sign up for updates to my travels there as soon as they are posted!

Our itinerary read “Gopnath Beach,” a place not found in my guidebook or on any map I had. “Gopnath beach is known for its scenic beauty, limestone cliffs, natural surroundings and fascinating flora and fauna.”Image

We drove up to windswept cliff over the Gulf of Khambat and the driver stopped in front of a faded Dreamsicle-colored one-story building. No one came out to greet us. There was no sign, no lobby of any sort, nothing to suggest that this is rest-stop for travelers and, yet, the driver said this is “Gopnath Bungalows,” where we were to stay. I wondered if we were being dropped off at someone’s house, a friend of the travel agent who wanted to make some money off of  gullible clients.

Dad and I exchanged “where are we?” looks and after, a few minutes, a man came out to the car. He looked sleepy, like we had woken him from an afternoon nap. He and the driver exchanged greetings and they both began to unpack our belongings from the car. Ramesh, that was the sleepy man’s name, we found out, sat on a plastic chair behind a desk on the sun-filled porch. He opened a cracked “guest register” – the spine had been taped over to keep the book together – and he wrote down “Kiran Shah.”

For more about our stay in Gopnath, please click here.

Saurashtra road trip

I’m cross-posting my recent blog entry in Journey to Gujarat here on Parallel Universe. Please sign up for updates to my travels there as soon as they are posted!

Two days after Dad landed here, we set off on a road trip. Our plan was to explore Saurashtra, or 1,000 kingdoms, which before Indian independence was a region made up of many princely states. From Ahmedabad, we headed south and hugged the Gujarat coastline – except for an excursion inland to Junagadh – all the way to Dwarka, the state’s most western point.

DSC_9371

The tour company I hired had put together an itinerary for us for nine days of travel (see map above) but it was the sight-seeing in between was no less note-worthy. Along this route there were none of the New India’s multi-lane, modern toll roads. We traversed the state largely along state highways, the surfaces of which varied from fairly decent asphalt to jaw-jarring gravel.

Along the way, we encountered humans using every kind of transport method available: walking,  bullock and camel cart, bicycle, scooter,chhakada, trucks, in addition to passenger vehicles like our own. This being India, the rules of the road are flexible. You overtake from which ever position is the safest and if you need to, driving in the opposite lane is acceptable as long as you are beeping your horn as warning to oncoming traffic.

Click here for more about our road trip and pictures of the people and sites along the way.

 

A divine walk with Dad

I’m cross-posting my recent blog entry in Journey to Gujarat here on Parallel Universe. Please sign up for updates to my travels there as soon as they are posted!

DSC_9334The muted buzz gives way to the intense, insistent punctuation of words spoken in rapid-fire Hindi as soon as the SUV doors open.

Sahab, dholi chaiyye? Bhen, dholi lijiye, nah?

1,100 rupees. 900 rupees. There are four-person dholis and those carried only by two. You can take turns sitting, they tell my father and me.

We are surrounded by dholi-wallahs. Dad and I grab hands so we won’t get separated as we push our way forward. There’s no way to get through the group clustered around us, so close to see the red smears of chewed paan in their teeth. No amount of Nai chaiyye – or I don’t want – spoken at first dismissively, yet politely, and then rudely, as rude as you can be, dissuades them. The dholi-wallahs close in tighter, accompanying us as we try to move toward the gate that marks the entrance.

It is a jarring introduction to Palitana, the most sacred of all Jain pilgrimage sites and a must-do for the faithful. The climb is more than 3,600 steps to reach mountain-top cluster of 3,000 marble temples carved out of marble over a period of 900 years, starting in the 11th century. From the ground, the temples look like the miniatures you see for sale at handicrafts stores all over India.

Click here for pictures and more about my visit to Palitana. At a place for Jain pilgrims, Dad and I have a chance to connect.

‘The Walk Home’

A travel story about my trip to Tanzania last October was published in Gulf Business in December. For more pictures and a video of the wildebeest migration, click here.  

Maria the lionness takes down a wildebeest
Maria, the lionness, takes down a wildebeest

The annual migration from Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park to Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve is one of the world’s most wondrous spectacles.

By ANGELA SHAH

Leonard Kivuyo’s smile is enigmatic. “There is definitely, maybe, possibly a chance to see a lion,” he says.

We look at each other quizzically, wondering about the maybe-yes, maybe-no response of our Tanzanian tour guide. Kivuyo has just picked us up at a gravelly airstrip, a scar in the serengeti landscape at Kogatende. He wants to know what animals we want to see.

We respond with an all-star list of the Serengeti: black rhino, lion, elephant. And, of course, we want to witness the main attraction of a northern safari this time of year, a wildebeest crossing of the Mara River. He nods in agreement at our wildlife wish list. There have been regular crossings, just one this morning, Kivuyo tells us. But whether one would happen today, he can’t say. As he unlatches the roof of our jeep so that we have nearly unobstructed views of the grasslands around us, my friend Angel and I exchange bemused looks at our guide’s Yoda-like responses.

Shortly into our journey along a dirt track, we come across a pair of giraffes. About 20 feet high, the male nuzzles the female’s neck as it creeps closer to her. Realising we have stumbled upon the pair mid-romance, we giggle like school children. A few more nuzzles later and the male giraffe has accomplished his mission, walking off towards a tree for a snack.

“Part of the circle of life,” Kivuyo deadpans and we laugh heartily. We continue our drive and Kivuyo keeps an eye out on the horizon. The hum from the jeep’s walkie-talkie is on low; the guides at the various camps chatter amongst themselves, exchanging information on locations of nocturnal cats, rare rhinos or the anticipatory swarm of wildebeest gathered on the banks of the mara.

DSCN1124
A lion’s life: lazing in the sun

Within an hour, the serengeti’s abundance of wildlife emerge. We spot impalas and elephants silently grazing, and hippos submerged to their ears in the river to ward off the late afternoon heat. Skittish zebras dart in and out of clusters of their fellow prey animals.

By evening, however, a crossing hasn’t formed and we have to reach camp before sundown. From July to October, about two million animals follow the rains, migrating from Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park to the Maasai Mara National Reserve in neighbouring Kenya. One of the highlights of the annual migration is the crossing of the Mara River, where crocodiles lurk underwater and lionesses prowl on the banks alongside.

At dinner that evening, our fellow campers rave about the raw power they witnessed as thousands of wildebeest stampeded through the Mara River. A baby zebra walked into the open yaw of a hippo, which then crunched down on it! We watched a wildebeest taken down, mid-river, by a crocodile!

We have no such stories to contribute to the fireside gathering. I am not worried; we still have a few days left for our safari.

The next day, the walkie-talkies are ablaze with chatter of migration-style critical masses forming along the Mara at several crossing points. We travel from site to site, eventually staking out the one nearest to our camp. The hours tick by but by late afternoon, the first of the wildebeests slide down the steep bank and into the river. And just like that, the migration begins. The zebras’ shrieking bark seems to offer directional guidance to the wildebeest, who in two and then three single-file lines half-swim, half-gallop through the water to the greener pastures on the other side. Zebras, we discover, are the bouncers of the wildlife world.

After that first crossing, we begin stumbling on crossings on a regular basis. The next morning we watch a particularly large group of wildebeest for 20 minutes when suddenly a lioness bounds in from the left. We watch, dumbfounded, as she charges the unlucky wildebeest directly in her path. As she wrestles her prey to the ground, the zebras’ shriek grow even more shrill and the tide of wildebeests reverses course.

ESSENTIALS

Olakira Camp

DSCN0978This luxury tented mobile camp sits just off the banks of the Mara River during the migration season in the summer and fall. Olakira has only eight tents and guests enjoy meals in the common dining/living tents. Dinner is preceded by drinks and snacks around a campfire. http://www.asiliaafrica.com/olakira

Zanzibar

The island, known as Unguja in Swahili to Zanzibarians in order to distinguish itself from Zanzibar city, is dotted with beach resorts. We stayed at Shooting Star Lodge, located on the northwest part of the island. The inn, which features cozy villas on a perch above the beach, was the perfect setting to unwind after our day-long drives in the dusty Serengeti. http://www.shootingstarlodge.com

Stone Town

DSCN1370The House of Wonders and the Palace museums’ exhibitions are few but give visitors a sense of the island’s place along trading routes between India, the Gulf and Africa. The palace museum served as the official residence of the Sultan of Zanzibar until he was overthrown in 1964 and it includes pictures and history of Princess Salme, the Tanzanian royal whose affair with a non-Muslim German businessman caused her to flee to Europe, where she lived until she died at age 80 in 1924.