Een kamerden was het enige wat we konden
vinden voor onze eerste tropische Kerst,
met van die superzachte naalden waar alles
gewoon van afglijdt als water van een eendenrug.
Het lijkt wel een metafoor, al weet ik niet meteen

We hadden natuurlijk ook wel ergens een plastic
gedrocht op kunnen pikken, maar dat was ons
een brug te ver. Erg genoeg dat we het moesten stellen
met generische versierselen made in China, lichtgewicht,
want zo’n kamerden verdraagt niet veel, zoals u al wel
heeft gehoord.

De buren kwamen kijken naar onze échte Christmas tree.
Met een snoer rode lichtjes (voor amper vijftig roepies)
kon ie er wel door.
Je kunt ook watten gebruiken als sneeuw,
zei iemand, maar daar bedankten we voor.


Happy Turkey Day!

Majestic male turkey. (Image credit: “Kindhelper” – freeimages.com)

Friends from America have been sending me “Happy Thanksgiving” messages today. It brings back memories of my first Thanksgiving as a new immigrant in the USA, 27 years ago. Our family had been invited to “dinner” by a Chinese-American family. They asked us to skip lunch and to come to their house about 3PM. What? Dinner in the middle of the afternoon? How strange!

Until my children shared some knowledge they had picked up in school that first year, I had only the foggiest notion of what this “Thanksgiving” was about. It sounded vaguely religious, and given the season, it must have something to do with the harvest, I reasoned. I wasn’t too far off, but I was yet to learn all of the stories and traditions surrounding this most American of holidays.

Pilgrims, “Indians,” and turkeys

So yes, every year on the fourth Thursday of November, American families gather around a festive table laden with nature’s bounty, and give thanks for their blessings. The custom is not associated with any religious denomination, and nobody is required to go to church, temple, or synagogue. Usually, a short prayer of thanks is spoken at the beginning of the meal. In some families, including ours, every member in turn will mention something he or she is thankful for. A subtle exercise in gratitude.

Harvest festivals and thanksgiving gatherings have been around for ages, but what is commemorated on this particular day is the legendary “First Thanksgiving,” celebrated in 1621 by a group of early immigrants on Plymouth Plantation in Virginia together with the Native American (“Indian”) tribe that had helped them survive in their new surroundings.

These immigrants were the Pilgrims, English Protestant dissenters who had fled religious persecution in their homeland. One hundred of them had arrived on a ship called the Mayflower. Literally half of the newcomers perished that first year, when they ran out of supplies before they were able to grow their own food on this foreign soil. Thanks to the natives of the Wampanoag tribe, who showed them some fishing, hunting, and cultivation techniques, the 50 survivors were at last able to hold a harvest feast that lasted three days, sharing the new-found abundance with 90 native guests. Two of the colonists, William Bradford and Edward Winslow, left behind descriptions of this event.

Here is an excerpt of Winslow’s account:

“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which we brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.”

The fowl that was captured in the woods probably included wild turkeys, and to this day no Thanksgiving is complete without a huge (now farm-raised) stuffed turkey and many side dishes that represent the produce of the new land: sweet corn, cranberries, potatoes and sweet potatoes or yams, squash, and pumpkin pie. Later additions are green beans and Brussels sprouts.

Once a majestic  bird…  (credit: as012a2569@freeimages.com)

Our hosts that first year had also included some Chinese dishes. There was so much food that we did not feel hungry until the next day. The following year we invited our American neighbors over for a turkey feast. And later still, when three of our four children had turned vegetarian, we usually prepared a Tofurky (a soybean-based roast shaped like a turkey) instead, with a smaller bird – Cornish hen or Guinea fowl – on the side for the die-hard carnivores. Most American families spend the rest of the day watching (American) football on TV and napping. No more cooking is done. If anybody gets hungry late at night, they can make themselves a plate of yummy leftovers to heat up in the microwave.

Serving my last Thanksgiving dinner in Michigan, in 2016.

Because Thanksgiving is a federal holiday and falls on a Thursday, all students and most employees get a long weekend (four days) off. Many people travel home from wherever they study or work, by road, rail, or air, to be with their loved ones, making for some of the busiest travel days in the year.

The day after is nicknamed Black Friday, and is known for huge discounts in all stores, often leading to chaotic scenes as eager buyers try to beat each other to the bargain merchandise. But that’s a different story!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Who manipulates social media and why?

By 2018, smartphones will account for 62% of mobile phones in India. (Photo credit digit.in)

(Trigger alert. Contains description of violence against humans.)

It’s been over a year now that I disabled my FaceBook account. No, I did not quite delete it, I kept my options open. I discovered that the Messenger function had somehow been preserved, which I thought at the time was a good thing because – even though I’d shared some alternative ways to keep in touch – some faraway friends prefer messaging. I’m beginning to have second thoughts about that now.

Why did I say goodbye to FB? Let me count the reasons… There was the poisoned political atmosphere during the last election campaign, the gross commercialism, the forced camaraderie, the excess of vanity and silliness, the mindless time waste, but most of all, the fake news being gobbled up and regurgitated by people I had previously regarded as discerning. I breathed a deep sigh of relief after leaving all of that behind.

Sadly, though, there’s no escaping fake news anymore. One of my best and oldest friends keeps circulating false information, no matter how many times I disprove her sensational “finds” and beseech her to fact-check before sharing. Why?  Because there’s always some compelling hook that will fool a certain percentage of the recipients. Clearly, unseen powers analyze our FB posts to identify our hot buttons, then use our pet causes and pet peeves against us.

A recent (October 29) article by Kevin Roose in the New York Times covered the problems FaceBook is facing as a result of this disturbing trend, whose effects are influencing politics and life worldwide. Because it’s not just “Russian interference” or “the Rohingya (pro and con),” but a wide range of issues affecting our everyday lives, no matter where we live, that are made to go viral and become many times more divisive than they deserve to be, with the help of photoshopping, deceitful captioning/voiceovers, and wrongful attribution.

It’s not just FaceBook, of course. This is the kind of world we now live in. To keep in touch with family members across the continents, my husband and I are using WhatsApp. It was only in the above-mentioned NYT article that I learned this handy, free, phone messaging app is owned by FaceBook. However, living in India, I have witnessed its crazy popularity and scary influence first hand over the last year.

It’s safe to say that almost everyone in India has a cell phone now, down to the farmers in all but the remotest villages. Tech research site Gartner reports that 62% of mobile phones sales in 2018 will be smartphones. And WhatsApp is not only universally popular here, but regarded by many as a reliable source of news. As such, it’s become an ideal tool for the unholy purpose of inciting hatred and violence between communities. As stated in Mr. Roose’s piece:

<<In India, where internet use has also surged in recent years, WhatsApp, the popular Facebook-owned messaging app, has been inundated with rumors, hoaxes and false stories. In May, the Jharkhand region in Eastern India was destabilized by a viral WhatsApp message that falsely claimed that gangs in the area were abducting children. The message incited widespread panic and led to a rash of retaliatory lynchings, in which at least seven people were beaten to death. A local filmmaker, Vinay Purty, told the Hindustan Times that many of the local villagers simply believed the abduction myth was real, since it came from WhatsApp. “Everything shared on the phone is regarded as true,” Mr. Purty said.>> (K. Roose NYT)

Over time I have seen multiple instances of misinformation on WhatsApp, and Messenger, but a few days ago I had a taste of just how insidious these things are and how they are crafted. My friend sent me a gruesome video accompanied by the following text: “Hindu girl burnt alive in Madhya Pradesh because she attended a prayer meeting in a Christian church. Send this around pls. This video must go viral. This is the real face of Shining India!” I’m purposely neglecting to include a link. It was a cellphone recording of a young woman in shorts being harassed by a mob, beaten, and eventually set on fire. Nobody came to the victim’s aid during the attack. Instead, the bystanders were watching and filming the spectacle. It’s the most horrible thing I have ever seen and I wish I could unsee it. But what shocked me even worse than the lynching itself was the realization that this clip was and is still making the rounds and being used for anti-Indian, anti-Hindu, and anti-Muslim propaganda!

The incident was purported to have taken place in Madhya Pradesh, the state where I happen to live. I won’t deny we have our fair share of violent crime here, duly reported on by the daily papers. However, I had never before seen anything reaching this level of communalism in our state. And there were other things that made me suspicious: the clothes and hats people wore, their faces, which were brown but not particularly Indian-looking, and the audio, which was unintelligible – consisting as it did of multiple voices overlapping – and appeared (purposely?) muffled. What I found really strange, though, was that I was unable to identify even a single Hindi word in the melee.

As usual, I searched for the source, and found it on one of the websites dedicated to separating facts from hoaxes. The video was exposed on the site 11 months ago by Prashanth Damarla, yet it appears to be as viral as ever. It originated in Rio Bravo, Guatemala, where the brutal attack happened in May 2015.

The actual cause according to Mr. Damarla: “The girl was accused of killing a 68-year-old motorcycle taxi driver Carlos Enrique González Noriega along with her biker gang, who managed to flee the scene. Talking about the unfortunate incident, a police spokesman said that officers tried to intervene but were blocked by the bystanders.

In its new incarnation, various kinds of “explanations” have been posted with it on different sites:  “Different stories attached to the video say that the shameful and inhuman incident happened in Andhra Pradesh State or Hyderabad City of India, because the Hindu girl married a Muslim man, and she did not follow the Muslim customs.” (P. Damarla)

So the same mob-violence video was being used by discrete (groups of) people to spark indignation, rage, and similar states of mind possibly leading to… more mob violence. Also resentment between neighboring nations: the version I received came from Bangladesh. It blamed the girl’s own Hindu community, supposedly enraged by her visit to a church. Another version has been used against Muslims. On the other hand, the jibe about “Shining India” will to many Indians appear as having come from Pakistan.

So much mischief emerges from a single video clip.

Who is responsible? On the face of it, multiple entities, each for their own political gain. Or could there be a central puppeteer who benefits from the level of hatred increasing day by day in our world? (Fodder for a conspiracy theory, I know.)

What is the purpose? To have a candidate elected? To destabilize a local or regional government, or a central one? It’s not world peace, or even a quest for justice, for sure.

Years ago, Dr. Andrew Weil advised his readers to regularly go on a “news fast.” That is still good advice, if you want to keep your blood pressure in check. Nowadays, we should include a “social media fast” if we wish to keep our sanity.

But we also have to keep watching, and fighting for the truth to come out, and disabusing our near and dear ones who fall for this blatant manipulation. Which is why I decided to write this, instead of lying awake another night.



Gond and Baiga: A Tale of Two Tribes in Madhya Pradesh

A long time ago, legend has it that Baiga ancestors were created by God from the womb of Mother Earth. They became the keepers of the world. And, after God had finished creating the world, he offered to make them king. However, they declined because they wanted a simple life. “Give the kingship to our brothers, the Gonds”, the Baigas told God. He did so but also blessed the Baigas. “All the kingdoms of the world may fall to pieces, but he who is made of earth and is lord of the earth, shall never forsake it. You will make your living from the earth but without ploughing it, as you must protect the earth. You will never become rich because to do so would forsake the earth”. The Gonds revered the Baigas as spiritual healers and protectors, and invited them to preside as priests in their ceremonies. Yet, as per God’s blessing, the Baigas have never prospered financially.

The ancient Baiga tribe is indigenous to central India. Many of them can be found in the Mandla district, near Kanha National Park, in Madhya Pradesh. They live traditionally, in villages with mud huts and no electricity, completely untouched by modern development. They cook using primitive implements, cultivate and store their own rice, and brew potent toddy from the flowers of the sacred mahua tree. Throughout various phases of their life, Baiga women get tattoos on their head, arms, chest and legs, representing aspects of nature integral to the Baiga way of life.

The Baigas still coexist with the Gonds. Yet, the Gond villages tell a different story of how this community has prospered while the Baigas have not. Artwork, which the Gonds have become well known for, has provided them with a lucrative source of income. Their homes have more facilities, often including electricity.

As I prepared to visit a local Baiga tribal village, while staying at Singinawa Jungle Lodge near Kanha National Park, my guide and naturalist told me we needed to get there well before sunset — that is, before members of the tribe became inebriated.

For many Baigas, the consumption of mahua toddy has become a part of their daily routine. A way to escape. It’s a concerning indication of the troubles faced by this tribal community.

As we got out of our jeep, the head of the village came over to greet us. He was a slightly built man clad in white, with a large sliver earring in one ear.

“He’s already started,” my guide and naturalist commented, as I caught a whiff of the alcohol myself. It became apparent that it wasn’t only the men who had been drinking, but women too.

A friendly young woman with a tribal tattoo across her forehead came over to us, carrying a baby. Aged in her 20s, it turned out that the baby was one of her five children. Which one was her husband? She pointed to a man lounging on a charpoi nearby. Lack of education and things to do in the village meant that having babies was a way to keep occupied.

For the Baigas, India’s efforts to conserve its national parks and protect tigers has come at a huge price. For generations, they lived peacefully in the forest, in harmony with nature. However, following the establishment of the National Tiger Conservation Authority in 2005, thousands of Baigas have been forcibly evicted from Kanha National Park. The Authority wants to make the national park free of humans to maintain a safe habitat for tigers. However, ironically, it’s the Baigas that are facing quickly dwindling numbers and the threat of extinction.

The eviction from the forest has upended the Baiga tribe’s lifestyle, and left them feeling displaced and confused. The land that they’ve been relocated to is bare and unfamiliar. They are worried that their children may never learn about medicinal herbs in the forest. To earn a livelihood, some have had to become menial laborers in the area.

One man who has been helping the Baiga tribe is talented self-taught local artist and snake rescuer Ashish Kachhwaha. Brought up in Mandla, about an hour from the main gate of Kanha National Park, remarkably he now lives among the Baiga tribe just outside the gate. “I could speak their language, so it wasn’t difficult to integrate into their community,” he tells.

Ashish was attracted to the tribe by their peaceful relationship with nature. Their culture, and the pressure that the tribe is facing from the outside world, is reflected in his art. He has also devoted time to reinvigorating the tribe’s traditional dance, as a way to supplement their income. This dance, and the use of traditional instruments, had faded in the community. However, members of the tribe are now performing the dance for the public.

What satisfies Ashish about his work the most? “Whenever I make a painting of a Baiga, it brings me much happiness,” he says.

Singinawa Jungle Lodge offers the opportunity to connect with local tribes through visits to the Baiga tribal village that they support, and painting classes with a local Gond artist. Named Most Inspirational Eco Lodge of the Year in the 2016 TOFTigers Wildlife Tourism Awards, the lodge also has a unique Museum of Life and Art that showcases the region’s tribal culture.


About Sharell Cook

Australian author/photographer  Sharell Cook has been writing about her love affair with India since 2008.

It was probably sometime in 2011 or 2012 that I discovered a blog named Diary of a White Indian Housewife. Sharell Cook, an Australian woman married to an Indian, wrote about her life in Mumbai. I loved the way she wrote about the country and about her experiences. My husband and I were, at the time, seriously considering our move to Bhopal. When we were in the USA, we were addicted to HGTV’s House Hunters International. Ms. Cook mentioned somewhere in her blog that she and her hubby had been featured on the show. I searched and found the episode in question. I learned a thing or two from it.

We bought a lovely townhouse in a brand new colony not far from Raja Bhoj Airport. We were promised possession in the summer of 2013. When we finally received the keys in November, I started spending a lot of time in Bhopal to transform this brick shell into a real home for my soon-to-be retired hubby and myself.  Meanwhile, Sharell’s blog grew ever more successful, too much so for her taste. It led to a book offer (Henna for the Broken-Hearted, published 2011) and a job managing the content of About.com’s India Travel site (now https://www.tripsavvy.com/india). While her blog reached 5000 page views per day (!), and had brought her many faithful fans, it also brought with it quite a few stalkers and trolls, which eventually made her decide to quit. Being a rather private, even shy, person, she had never sought this kind of fame. Plus, she did not enjoy being labelled or put in a box like “expat.”

The Diary of a White Indian Housewife has disappeared. Now Sharell has a new site: Sharellcook.com. She continues to travel the country as a journalist and travel professional. She graciously allowed me to reblog her article – with lovely photographs – about the tribal cultures of Madhya Pradesh: http://sharellcook.com/2017/05/02/gond-and-baiga-a-tale-of-two-tribes-in-madhya-pradesh/ . She also recently gave a TEDx talk (after turning down the first request), overcoming her fear of public speaking – so inspiring.

Thank you Sharell! I hope to welcome you in Bhopal one day soon…


Beautiful Brussels (3)

Within walking distance from the Grand’ Place:

Need a shower in a hurry? Enter here.

When I was a teen, I loved to window shop at the windowless, “underground” Agora Gallery, just off the Grand’Place. In those days the shopping arcade was anchored by a large, exotic Japanese store. “Shibui” was stashed full of silk kimonos, fragrant chrysanthemum tea, incense, bamboo, and porcelain from the Far East. Alas, Shibui is long gone. Nowadays, the gallery’s offerings lean towards more popular tastes, like leather goods, sportswear and, of course, souvenirs. However…

Bargains galore at the Agora shopping arcade.

… should you be in the market for a sari, you can find one here, too! Most of the Agora shops these days are owned by South Asians. I’m told you can even use your bargaining skills, if you’re so inclined.

A sun dress, a windbreaker, or a silk sari; this Bengali-owned store has it all.

The mother of all shopping arcades

Before there were malls, there were elegant glass-roofed shopping arcades in Europe, and the Galeries Royales St. Hubert in Brussels is one of the oldest examples in existence. If you’re at all familiar with the Belgian weather, you will realize the genius of this idea.

Come rain or shine, you can have an outdoors feeling and still stay dry.

The Royal Galleries, designed by architect Jean-Pierre Cluysenaar, were inaugurated by king Leopold I in 1847. (A full 30 years before the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan, which is often called “the oldest shopping mall in the world.”)

Its three parts, the King’s gallery, the Queen’s Gallery, and the smaller Prince’s Gallery still house upscale jewelry and couture shops, a theater, restaurants, ice cream parlors, and tea rooms offering lunch and wonderful pastries. Also at least one excellent bookstore specializing in art books.

Indoor café terrace in the Royal Galleries.
“Chocolates or macarons, what should I buy?”

At the colonnade in the middle, you may decide to veer off into a narrow cross street, the touristy dining paradise of Brussels known as the rue des Bouchers. This street will lead you in the direction of the Opera House and the popular pedestrian-only shopping area of the Nieuwstraat/rue Neuve.

Rue des Bouchers (Butchers’ Street) offers dining options for every palate.

The area is reserved for pedestrians, and restaurants spill over onto the cobblestone pavement.

Fresh seafood is always an appealing option.
Ten euros is not a bad deal for our national dish (drink no longer included?).


And there are always other options nearby: Greek, Indian, Tunisian, you name it.

Like it spicy? This is the spot.

Not by bread alone…

Fancy some high culture? Close by is the famous Brussels Opera House named the Muntschouwburg (Dutch) or Theatre de la Monnaie (French), known for its quality productions. There has been an opera theatre on this site since 1700! The current Neoclassical building by Joseph Poelaert dates from 1856, with a 20th-century update by (among others) Charles Vandenhove.

Another notable fact about this opera house: this was the site where the Belgian revolution, leading to the county’s independence from the Netherlands, was sparked by the patriotic aria “Amour sacré de la patrie” in Daniel Auber’s opera “La muette de Portici” in 1830.

De Munt or La Monnaie is our temple of the arts.

Last but not least, your spiritual side needn’t starve either. The doors of an unassuming little Catholic church, “Our Lady of Refuge,” near the Brussels Bourse (Stock Exchange) remain open all day. You can sit down and meditate undisturbed for a while, or walk around and look at the artwork (don’t miss the ceiling and the historic organ.)

Our Lady of Refuge, on the corner of the Kolenmarktstraat/ rue du Marché au Charbon.
Easy to miss, this little 17th-century church is a gem of baroque architecture.

In its quiet interior you can admire the baroque details… as well as a message of peace and love for the world, in the shape of these Islamic and Jewish banners. (Apparently the parish priest had at one time served in the Middle East.)

This little baroque-style church is a haven of peace in a bustling area.

Of course there is much, much more to say about Brussels. But this is where I end my walking tour. Tot weerziens! Au revoir! Hope you enjoyed the experience. (I look forward to your questions and comments as a source of inspiration for future posts.)

Please note: All images belong to the author.

Beautiful Brussels (2)

Today he’s dressed like a monk. What will he be tomorrow?

That shameless little boy…

Like the streets in Brussels, almost every landmark has two names, a French one and a Dutch one. But the little bronze statue on the corner of the rue de l’Etuve/Stoofstraat has only one: “Manneken Pis.” Like many Belgians, I used to be a bit embarrassed about it, especially when I saw the souvenir version enthroned in a drawing room somewhere in Punjab. Was this the only memento worth bringing back from Belgium? Of late, though, I’ve come to see the little rascal as the embodiment of our national sense of the absurd – which gave rise to surrealist artists like Magritte, Delvaux, and Ensor – and our irreverent humor.  Whenever I’m in the neighborhood, I’ll make a quick visit to our little hero, to see which outfit (if any) he’s wearing that day.

Like the nearby Grand’Place, Manneken Pis is a huge tourist magnet, and so the streets leading to it are lined with typical tourist shops: lace, T-shirts, chocolate, repeat. First-timers are often a tad disappointed because the actual statue is smaller than they expected (well, so is the Mona Lisa, right?). But all kinds of entities, from sports teams to foreign nations, have honored “Brussels’ oldest citizen” by presenting him with an outfit. The whole collection of Manneken’s costumes can be seen at the City Museum (located in the Broodhuis/Maison du Roi on the Grand’ Place).

But is it art?

The costume hoopla tends to obscure the fact that Manneken is a genuine art treasure. The original handiwork of noted sculptor Jerome Duquesnoy was installed at this location in 1619! It was repeatedly stolen, usually by pranksters, and was finally moved to the same museum that houses its wardrobe in 1965. So what you see is, actually, his twin. Other “official” copies are found in various locations, with several towns claiming to own “the oldest Manneken.” My friend Peter Barlow made good use of this fun fact in a hilarious short story that can be found in his recent collection, Little Black Dots.

(Edit: Pete informed me today that the story, “Wild Zebras Terrorize Belgium” did not in fact make it into this book, whose manuscript had already been finalized. Hopefully it will appear in a future collection.)

The little statue is surrounded by chocolate and souvenir shops.

Souvenirs can be found in every price range. Artisanal tapestries and lace are probably the most expensive. Be sure to verify the origin before handing over a king’s ransom: authentic Brussels lace has become very rare. In the best case, what you see is Bruges lace, which has also become an art practiced by few. In the worst case, you will find a kind of Battenberg lace imported from China or the Philippines. This type of lace does have a connection with the city. Up to my grandmother’s time, it was a cottage industry in the East-Flanders villages, known as lintjeswerk (ribbon work), nowadays called Renaissance lace. Machine-made lace tape is stitched onto a paper pattern and combined with lace-like needle work. Brussels merchants used to commission finely worked table cloths, ladies’ blouses, and so on in the province, and sell them in the capital under the name “Brussels lace.” There may be a few practitioners left, but most of what you find in the stores nowadays is imported. As for the authentic, original Brussels lace, it has become exceedingly rare. If you wish to find out how it was made, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brussels_lace

Tourists browsing a lace shop. Make sure you buy the genuine article!
A rainbow display of Mannekens in a chocolate shop.
Belgian tapestries are world famous.
Generic souvenir shops, too, abound in this area.

If all that browsing has made you hungry, follow your nose to the nearest waffle stand. Belgian waffles come in several types, but the ones sold on the street are usually either Liège waffles (chewy, dense, with little lumps of sugar baked in – ideal for munching on the go) and the airy Brussels waffle, which can be dusted with icing sugar or topped with whipped cream and strawberries or other fruit (best enjoyed at a table).

And now for a real Belgian treat: a fresh-baked hot Brussels waffle coming up!

Light-as-air Brussels waffles are usually eaten at a table.
Liège waffles need no topping, due to their caramelized sugar bits. People eat them on the go.

Hungry for more? The third and last part is coming soon!

Please note: All images belong to the author.

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