|Walking through the forest canopy|
|Touching a crocodile!|
|El Mina Castle, Cape Coast, Ghana|
|The 'door of no return'|
|Walking through the forest canopy|
|Touching a crocodile!|
|El Mina Castle, Cape Coast, Ghana|
|The 'door of no return'|
Unbeknownst to my parents and my girlfriend Katherine, I decided way back in September to fly home for Christmas. I bid Aja, Ellen, and Marie goodbye in Delhi and as they made their way to the train station; I headed to the airport.
Still not feeling well, I was ready for some good food in Amsterdam, where I was scheduled to layover for no less than 12 hours. When I first saw this itinerary, I was thrilled. I would get a full day in an amazing city and then proceed to New York from there! Unfortunately, the weather had other plans and the city of Amsterdam, along with a good deal of Western Europe, was effectively shut down. All flights out of Delhi to Europe were either delayed indefinitely or cancelled, so finding another way home wasn’t going to easy. There were just about 1,000 people in the Delhi airport in the same predicament as me, which didn’t improve my odds of escaping India. A family behind me wasn’t going to be able to get out for another 3 days and the airline was refusing to put them up anywhere…Inside I began to have a bit of a melt down, but then, salvation! Or so I thought…
I had pushed my way up to the front of the crowd and literally threw my passport on the counter because I had just discovered an Air India direct flight from Delhi to Chicago leaving in just over an hour. I was given a seat and even a ticket. I was ecstatic…I would still get home on schedule. When I got to the gate, however, I was flatly told that my ticket wasn’t good and that my initial carrier had assumed there would be enough room on the plane. I think I stood and stared at the woman behind the desk for a full minute without speaking. I was angry…to put it mildly.
I had now been in the airport for about 9 hours and I knew that the chances of me finding a second flight were slim to none, but I went back to the main ticketing area and began to attempt to negotiate my way onto a flight. After about another 2 hours of haggling and arguing, I was able to get a seat (business class no less) on Royal Jordanian Airways to JFK with a stopover in Amman, Jordan. At this point, I was in no position to be picky, so I jumped at the opportunity. I rushed through security and didn’t relax until I was sitting on the plane bound for Jordan.Amman and then another 13 to JFK and by the time I landed in an absolutely frigid New York City, I was feeling worse and very ready to stop traveling. Seeing my brother at the airport was an amazing feeling. He was in on the plan and had graciously agreed to drive me home from the airport.Once home I collapsed on my bed, which seemed so much softer than I remembered it. My parents were at the McCoy’s annual Christmas party so I had a few hours before they would be home. My sister Julie arrived home first and we had a wonderful reunion. When I heard my parents walk through the door downstairs, my heart began racing. As we rehearsed, Julie called down, “The package Ben sent from India came!” At that point I walked down the stairs and literally shocked my parents. My father took it in stride but was extremely happy and mymother just kind of stared at me as if I wasn’t real. It was good to be home.
The next day I was able to see most of my family at my Aunt Helen’s birthday party and they were all so surprised. Now I just had to make it 6 days before seeing Katherine. It felt strange to have been home for so long without being able to contact her. Those 6 days flew by thanks to fun times at home, sharing stories, listening to Christmas music, and just being with my family. I also spent quite a bit of time at my doctor’s office.
Christmas Eve arrived and I was so happy to be home. My family went to midnight mass at Saint Thomas in Thomaston and sat through a wonderful service. The church looked so beautiful; particularly because I had not seen the new carpeting, paint job, and kneelers. After mass, we went back to the house and waited for our guests to arrive for our annual Christmas Eve party. It was amazing to have everyone over the house and to see all of the smiling faces. My cousin Becky resurrected the tradition of having a piñata at the party, which made for even more memories. At the end of the night, my family and I cleaned the house and then exchanged gifts, as I would be leaving very early the next morning to drive up to Albany to surprise Katherine on Christmas!
I felt like a little kid waiting for Santa to arrive that night. I couldn’t sleep. I had been planning Christmas morning for four months and I was too excited to shut my eyes. Finally, after some of the longest hours of my life, my alarm sounded. I had already packed my car so I got dressed and hopped right in. I didn’t see another car on the road until I hit I-90, so I made great time and arrived at the McCoy’s around 8:15am.
When I arrived, I found the garage door unlocked like Katherine’s mom had promised. I put on the Santa hat that was waiting for me and quietly went into the house. Mr. and Mrs. McCoy (who I have to thank for helping me plan everything!) were already awake and waiting for me. I snuck upstairs and slowly opened Katherine’s door. She immediately lifted her head and what happened next was like a scene out of a movie. I barely got, “Merry Christmas!” out before she shot out of bed and jumped into my arms. It was one of the best moments of my life and I immediately knew my trip home had been worth it. We were both smiling ear to ear all day.
Katherine’s family came over for a Christmas feast, which was a lot of fun and the next day we headed into New York City to see Billy Elliot on Broadway! It was a phenomenal show and the dancing was particularly impressive. The trip to the city was made far more interesting by the blizzard that awaited us. I certainly didn’t envy Mr. McCoy as he was charged with driving back to Albany from Poughkeepsie. We arrived back far later than expected and the snow was still coming down fast. Katherine and I had to be up in just a few hours to make our way to the airport for our flight to Chicago, but the weather being what is was, we were certain that we would be getting a text alert that we were delayed or cancelled.
To our surprise our flight read “On schedule” on the Albany airport’s website. We were one of only three flights that went out! Thank you Southwest Airlines! We were both very excited to be going to Chicago to visit Uncle Paul and Aunt Robin, Diana, and Claire who Katherine hadn’t seen in years and I had never met.
From the moment we were met at the airport to the moment we were dropped back off, we had a great time in Chicago! Our stay included some amazing food, sledding, a neighborhood new years party, a trip into the city, and even meeting Mike Ditka! I am looking forward to seeing them all again this summer when they visit us. I was so happy to get to meet more of Katherine’s family. What a great group of people!
After returning to Albany, I drove back home where my family and I had a nice week of visiting, food, and games. Before I knew it, it was time to get back on a plane and return to India. I knew my time at home was going to go by quickly, but I was still a little taken aback at just how fast it had passed. Saying goodbye to everyone for a second time was slightly more difficult, but it was comforting to know that I would be home in another 4 months or so.
The NFL playoffs were on the night I was leaving, so I made sure to find a seat in front of the Packers VS Eagles game in my terminal. I was actually the absolute last person to board my Air France flight to Paris to the obvious annoyance of the flight crew/airport staff. I kept stalling and stalling until the 3rd quarter came to a close. I looked at the exasperated AF employee standing over my shoulder and joked, “Do you think I have time to watch the 4th?” Apparently she didn’t appreciate my humor. They like cheese in France, but I guess not on their heads!
During my short layover in Paris, I got some great coffee and enjoyed eavesdropping on people’s conversations in French. Then it was off to Bangalore where the girls would meet me later that night. Little did I know that my baggage would decide to stay in Paris for an extra day! I can’t say I blame it, but as for me, I was back in India!
I enjoyed being there and taking photos, having tea with the girls and taking in the beautiful Moughal architecture. We spent a good deal of time there and then went to the Jama Mosque (the biggest in the city), which was beautiful. I love Islamic architecture and the “feel” of them when inside. Perhaps the most poignant moment of my day was after we finished view the mosque and were walking back to the car and we had an encounter with two street girls about 4-6 years old. Two little girls, beautiful, their faces and hands werecrusted with mud and sand, their smile yellowed, their hair matted, but their eyes shone with a childlike glow that made them so amazing. They laughed when I showed them pictures of them on my camera. When we left we gave them a few Rupees and waved goodbye. I couldn’t get their little faces out of my head as we drove to the hotel in a nice car towards a warm Indian dinner. I can still picture them, perfectly, without consulting my photos. Two people dealt remarkably different hands in life.
The rest of our stay in Delhi was a time to forget, at least for me. I had come down with a stomach bug (I later found out that I had e-coli poisoning) that had me running to the bathroom every 5 to 10 minutes, but the girls were able to go out and see the city, and from what I heard, had a great time.
Regardless of my stomach’s woes, I was very excited to leave Delhi and make my way back home for Christmas. I said goodbye to the girls who were heading to the deserts of Rajasthan, and waited a few more hours before heading to the Delhi airport…Next stop Amsterdam then off to New York! Or so I thought…
Agra is…different. According to all of the guidebooks and general consensus of other travelers, the city itself isn’t worth a second glance. In fact, its only redeeming quality is the fact that it is home to the Taj Mahal. If it weren’t there, no one would visit, willingly at least. In fact, aside from the Taj Mahal, Agra is best known for filthy streets, crime, and rampant corruption.
Our hotel was within a 2-3 minute walk of the Taj, which was great and its rooftop restaurant offered great views. Our only night in Agra was a terrible and sleepless one for all of us. We happened to be so lucky as to arrive in Agra in the midst of a big Muslim holiday that apparently requires obscenely loud music to be played from speakers around the city that would put the Tweeter Center’s to shame. Parts of our rooms were literally vibrating. When I asked the man at the front desk of the hotel if the music would stop, he flatly said, “It goes all night.” Wonderful. When he said all night, he wasn’t kidding. Our walls shook from about 8pm to 5:30am we were all a bit grumpy when our alarms went off at 5:45…We later found out that the holiday is actually a sad day meant to lament the deaths of important Muslims long ago. Upon learning this, I felt bad for wishing the music would stop so fervently.
We left the hotel around 6:15 and headed to the Taj where we purchased tickets and collected our complementary water bottle and shoe covers. As we proceeded through the West Gate, it was apparent that the Taj Mahal was one of those things that lives up to its billing. It is absolutely massive and perfectly symmetrical from all 4 sides. The closer I got (snapping pictures all the way), the more impressive the monument became. Intricate carvings of floral scenes graced the sides and more than 30 types of semi-precious stones are inlaid in elaborate designs and floral motifs. Before climbing up the stairs to the main platform, all visitors need to either remove their footwear or slip on the bright red shoe covers provided with your ticket…we all went with the latter.
Inside, the tombs chamber surrounded is by a solid marble screen. The twin red sandstone mosques flanking the Taj were perhaps even more beautiful with equally impressive floors and archways. With the rising sun giving the white marble a golden glow, I got some great photographs.
After taking some traditional tourist pictures at the Taj we went for lunch and coffee before moving on to the Agra Fort, an amazing architectural feat in its own right. Located just on the opposite bank from the Taj, the fort’s red walls and opulent features were breathtaking. The king at the time of its construction even had his own private fishing pond (at which he used a bow and arrows to fish) and 365 girlfriends…needless to say, the man had it good. After a late lunch we grabbed our train from Agra to Delhi.
Hello and sorry, once again, for not writing for some time. We are in the middle of prepping our students for exams, correcting final projects, and counting down until our 40-day trip around India.
On November 13th we celebrated Children’s Day here in India. It takes the concept of Teacher’s Day and turns it on its head (as India has a knack for doing). When I first heard about this holiday, I wondered, “Where was this when I was in school?!” I would have loved to see my teachers making absolute fools out of themselves purely for my enjoyment…but alas, on my first Children’s Day I was on the giving end of the hilarity.
So for the weeks leading up to the big day, each night our house was filled with the sounds of High School Musical, as we appropriately chose the film’s final song, “We’re All in this Together” as our dance number. The girls all caught on pretty quickly with the moves, but I, having never learned a choreographed dance before, had a bit of trouble keeping up at first. In the end (in my humble opinion) we had it down pat! In addition to this the girls, with the help of the Holy Cross hostellers, learned a traditional Kokborok dance and Aja because of her lighter colored hair was volunteered to lip sync to Shakira’s “Waka Waka” song from the 2010 World Cup. During the latter number, some of the male teachers from Blessed Andre and I donned soccer jerseys and kicked a ball around the stage as the music blared.
When Children’s Day arrived we dressed in our house uniforms (the same ones that the students wear on Saturdays) and hopped on the bus to Blessed Andre School. The Shakira song was first and was extremely well received. When the kids saw Aja come running out with a microphone, they went crazy! She should get a lot of credit for that dance because she had almost no time to prepare for it and the music kept cutting in and out. Next came our big HSM song, which went really well and the students got a big kick out of. Finally, the girls wrapped up our performances with their tribal dance. They did so well! I never could have balanced the plates while dance like they did and they looked great in the traditional dress.
As soon as they left the stage, we frantically collected our belongings and got into a car that was waiting to take us to Holy Cross School where we had to do it all again! I think the dances went just as well the second time and Children’s Day 2010 was a great success! Now I know what you're thinking..."Ben, when will you perform again?!" and "Where can we behold the sheer mastery that was your performance?!" To answer your first question, I have decided, after much deliberation and internal anguish, to hang up my dancing shoes. When you have a performance that you just can't top, you have to leave on a high note. (A certain quarterback should have taken this advice). As for your second, completely understandable, question, a video of the dance can be found on YouTube @ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U2AeA5AV8OQ.
Another notable development is the completion of my 8th graders’ letters to my brother Andy’s 5th grade class in the U.S. When I first gave them the assignment to write a letter to a student in the United States, I wasn’t entirely sure how they would take it, but I am ecstatic with their efforts and enthusiasm! They are currently putting the finishing touches on their final draft and we hope to get them in the mail by the middle of next week. Many of them have asked question after question about the families, pets, and favorite things of their American counterparts. Some of them even included brief lessons in their mother tongue, Kokborok. It was great to see their creative juices flowing in a system that does not generally reward originality. My personal favorite was one letter that said, “I know that it is very cool in the United States now, but here, Sir Ben is still sweating very much.” You have got to love the brutal honesty and candor of my kids! In the end, no matter what they write, this is a valuable opportunity for them. Sure, they will be getting to practice their writing skills and English grammar, but in all honesty, they could do that copying out of a math textbook. They are getting to expand their horizons by contacting kids, like them, on the other side of the world and in doing so; foster a sense of cross-cultural understanding and appreciation.
So now, I bid you adieu. I will be sure to update the blog at least once more before we leave for our big trip.