Sports Equipment Made in Dhaka

Recently, Daughter number 1 had her Sports Day. Since her new school, this year, doesn’t have space or sports facilities, and the French School doesn’t have buses, they’ve come up with an arrangement. Grace International gets to use the French School’s very large field for Sports, and the French School uses Grace’s buses when needed. I only mention this to illustrate the point of this post. As I was watching my daughter and her school friends trying their skills at the High Jump, I noticed something.

See it ? Two good old-fashioned stands, the kind that you might find pretty much anywhere, a bamboo pole (now, this, you will not find everywhere), and to hold it? Two pens. The cap on this pen kept falling each time the teacher lifted the bar further up, and each time, she carefully put it back.

Fusion High Jump Equipment. With local mattresses piled up on the ground, and there you go. A far cry from the two wealthy schools with state-of-the arts facilities that our children attended in previous years, but it met the purpose, the kids had a great time, and we witnessed some pretty impressive jumps. And isn’t that what matters?

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Zumba, my cure of choice against Dhaka blues

All the books on expatriation say it. When you find yourself in a “challenging duty station” (I like the diplomatic flavor of that), you need to find your niche, something to do that makes you feel good, whether it’s knitting, baking, volunteering with street children, spending all your time at your kids’ school or the spa, organizing coffee mornings, lunches, or afternoon teas, playing bridge or golf, whatever…

For me, filling my days with things to do is never an issue. I have novels to translate, stories to write, a blog… In fact, I’d need more hours in a day. The problem is that I work from home, which means my social life is basically nonexistent (my VIRTUAL social life, now, that one is thriving, but as retired but not forgotten expat guru Robin Pascoe might tell you, you gotta beware of having only a virtual social life – very unhealthy, that.)  Of course, I could never figure out whether my poor social life is a result of my working from home, of if I never really tried to work outside of home because I’m socially challenged. No matter. The bottom line is, when living in dump places like Dhaka (good-bye diplomacy), one needs to find things to do that make us feel good. In my case, it is imperative that said thing takes me out of my house.

Well, I found it : Zumba.

Nothing fancy, mind you. A handful of fanatics (OK, maybe I’m the only fanatic) get together and we all shake our bums (and everything else) in front of a TV screen blaring a fusion of musics. Yep ! No live instructor. But who needs one when you have those DVDs ?

A little backstory, because it’s the kind of story I love : according to the official website, Zumba is the baby of a Columbian Aerobics instructor, Alberto “Beto” Perez, who one day forgot his tapes and decided to use the latin music he had in his backpack to improvise a dancing work-out for his class – and they loved it ! A happy stroke of fate. In 1999, he took the concept to the US, and the rest is history. Today, Zumba is the largest dance fitness program in the world.

His last DVD series has music and dance styles that include cumbia, salsa, merengue, mambo, flamenco, reggaeton, soca, samba, belly dancing, bhangra, african, hip hop music and tango. The DVDs went from having him with two young women who did most of the talking, to a much more professional series with four different work-outs including a Zumba party that had about 6 to 8 people on stage, and what looked like a few hundred in the room, to the last one we were watching tonight. The Zumba Concert has a revolving double stage going up and down, giant screens, and what looks like thousands of people dancing along, every single one of them looking as if they’re in a kind of happy trance. Of course, in all of them, Beto is very much the Presence ! I mean, just looking at him dancing is enough to lift your mood. Picture a Latin version of Shahruck Khan – dark good looks, strong features, gorgeous body. Are you there ? And Goodness me, can he move.

As I was happily dancing, last evening, in a small school room, with a small TV screen, I was thinking how Beto didn’t only seize an opportunity, he also turned it into gold because he knew how to ride a global music and dance wave. Zumba is not only about exercising, and I’m tempted to say that’s precisely the reason it is such a huge success across the world. Call me French, but I could never understand people who sweat on machines. And I did try. Spinning ? You mean people actually do that without someone holding a gun to their heads ? Beats me. But Zumba ! Now we’re talking. I get to sweat and somewhat shape up and tone my drooping pre-menopause body, but those are secondary (if most welcome) side effects. Most of all, I get to dance to musics that lift my spirit, and connect me to Columbia, Mexico, the Caribbean, Puerto Rico, Cuba, India, and other countries around the world. I learn new moves and steps. Oh, and I get to watch Beto’s bare torso while I’m at it.

Is it any wonder I come out of each session feeling so light on my feet, and, yeah ! Happy ?!

Note to self: when feeling the blues in Dhaka, get out of the hole, and go Zumba !

Christmas, here or there, one way or another.

Christmas is coming. A friend was in Paris, recently, and mentioned shopping at the Galeries Lafayette. That brought back a flood of memories. As a child, my parents used to take me and my siblings to see the Christmas windows of the famous department store. We lived about half an hour away, and walked there, and back, something we did as a matter of course. To this day, I remember the excitement, the little clouds that came out of our mouths, the lights and colors all around, the smell of hot chestnuts being roasted over a fire burning in big oil drums. Approaching les Galeries Lafayette, we just couldn’t  wait to push past all the people until we stopped right in front of the first window, our cold noses touching the even colder glass, but who cared ? Inside was a magical world: animated scenes with animals and dolls moving, dancing, singing, riding electric trains…

Photo L'Internaute Magazine / Cécile Debise

My children have never seen that. The older one did see the Gigantic Christmas Tree at the Rockefeller Center when she was 5 months old, but of course, she doesn’t remember it.

I was in that nostalgic frame of mind, when I read an interesting article: What do you do when the kids think Colonel Sanders is Santa ?  The writer is from New Zealand, married to a Japanese, and they live in Japan. Her family has struggled to create a tradition they can call their own.

When we lived in Nigeria, spending Christmas in France, with family, was easy. Then, we moved to India, and after the first Christmas trip, I remember pushing the door of our house in Hyderabad, dropping my suitcase on the floor, and saying : No more !

It’s all right to go continent-hopping with two small kids in tow when you have at least one free month ahead of you. Otherwise, it’s just exhausting. Besides, we wanted to visit India. So, for a while, we just made it a point to be home for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and we took off on the 26th. But it made for really short vacations, as school started soon after the 1st of January, and my husband was due back at work. So, we changed again. Nowadays, Christmas means frantic, last-minute, separate shopping in Bangkok, taking turns keeping the kids busy, and for Christmas Eve, we might be found sending paper lanterns up in the sky, on a beach in Thailand, or trying an organic restaurant in Bali. This year, we’ll be in Siem Rep, and apart from the frantic shopping part in Bangkok, I have no idea what to expect.

But in the meantime, we will take our tree out (most likely this week-end), and deck it out with our international mix of decorations. Buddha and Ganesha will find their usual place in the nativity scene. And we’ll continue to work around our circumstances. Flexibility is the name of the game.

Shake up your story by Raghava KK

A friend sent me a link to another great TED talk by artist Raghava KK. It’s very short (4.30 mns) and yet, what he says is so important, and it resonates beautifully with what I’m going through in my own life : posted in a Muslim country, after six years in a predominantly Hindu country, our two daughters now attending a Christian school, my own agnostic, shaky approach to spirituality which strongly rejects all dogmas but loves to embrace rituals, and finds peace in most Buddhist teachings…

It’s a lesson in tolerance, an invitation to remembering the need for perspective, and it reminds me of another extraordinary TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie : The Danger of a Single story. I especially love Raghava’s last sentence : “I cannot promise my child a life without bias, we’re all biased, but I can promise to raise my child with multiple perspectives.”

My Global Bookshelf : The Grand Plan to Fix Everything, by Uma Krishnaswami

I have been sooooo looking forward to the release of that book, of which I had the pleasure and privilege of reading excerpts when it was still in the revision stage. The novel was not totally finished, but it already had the qualities that now shine through the printed story. A happy, boisterous feeling that leaves you thoroughly satisfied, your heart smiling and your feet ready to tap-tap-tap. Plus, it took place for the most part in the Nilgiri hills, where we went on our very first trip in India – our little one was 9 months old – and so, I’m also feeling a little nostalgic, now.

Dini must leave Maryland, USA, and her BFF Maddie to follow her parents to a small town in the hills of South India called Swapnagiri (which means Dream Mountain) where her mother will spend two years working at a clinic. Dini and Maddie are Bollywood movies fans, and they adore the famous actress Dolly Singh. And, would you believe it, Dolly Singh may well be hiding somewhere in these hills, nursing a broken heart. Will the fan and the actress’ paths cross each other ? Of course they will – in true Bollywood fashion. Which doesn’t mean Dini will not have to deal with some plot twists here and there…

What did I LOVE about The Gran Plan to Fix Everything ?

First, the obvious : it is lovingly written and crafted, it is funny in a tongue-in-cheek way (Uma mentioned somewhere being inspired by P.G. Woodhouse), it is a breath of fresh mountain air carrying the fragrance of blue flowers, and some goat smells, too.

The fusion quality : Dini’s parents are Indian, but she’s growing up in the US. Dini’s BFF is American, and she is as much a fan of Bollywood movies as Dini is. Emails, phone calls, and video computer calls allow both girls to remain in touch. Dini soon meets another girl named Priya whose parents are in Washington DC, but will soon be going to Chile, and then Haiti.  This is the kind of world I can totally relate to, a world where people from different walks of life, different countries and cultures, all learn from each other. I just can’t wait for my daughter, who will turn 11 in August, to read the book, but she had to wait, ’cause I had to read it first. Actually, I think I may even read it aloud, see if our 7-year-old can enjoy it, too. Oh, one last thing : we also get to “taste” curry puffs with a touch of chocolate, and dark chocolate scented with rose petals !

Uma, being of Indian origin, puts her own stamp on the English language, and I’m not talking syntax or grammar, here, but music, and a unique way of stringing words together. You can see this is someone who loves the picture book medium and studied it extensively. Her language literally sings and dances and follows some of the cadences of the Hindi and Tamil languages that she speaks, as well as English. Dini look-looks, and listen-listens, for instance, and a few Hindi words and sentences are woven into the story without any of the heavy-handedness that you sometimes get when authors use foreign words and then proceed to translate them, almost in the same breath.

As a writer, I loved all the references to plots and plotting, and how Dini, a true movie-buff, sees life through the eyes of a budding writer. Everything translates in terms of scenes, the place of the actors/characters in them, plots and their inevitable twists… Uma and Dini have a lot in common, for sure.

I also loved the way Uma describes parent/child, and adult/child relationships. It is refreshing – and a little cringe-inducing, also. Refreshing because you, the adult (OK, me, the adult) are suddenly reminded of the way you were at that age, and how some of your thought-process went  just like Dini’s. The cringe comes from the sad realization that  you need someone as talented as Uma to channel the authentic voice and feelings of that child who got somewhat lost when you took on the role of parent.

Which is probably why I so love reading, and writing for children, and I think all adults should continue to read some kids literature, at least from time to time.

I’ll end up this long review by saying that I will now wait for the movie version of this book. Come on, filmi people out there ! Whether you’re in the US or in India, this book has all the necessary ingredients to make a perfect family movie – complete with songs, and dance numbers, if you please !

The Grand Plan is on the last week of a month-long blog tour at Uma Krishnaswami‘s blog, Writing with a Broken Tusk.