Edventures in India

We’ve had education on our minds since before we set out on this trip. We mentioned in an earlier post some of the road-schooling curriculum features. There’s also been an emphasis on the school of life. This gives us a nice blend of education and adventure. The girls have learned about geography, politics, poverty, inequality, cooking, animal rights, international currency exchanges, and much more. And they have reasonable well-informed opinions about these topics! Recently, Saga is taking the “benevolent dictator” approach to ruling the world. Not surprisingly, she would like to be the ruler, positioning her to outlaw pollution, poverty and perfidious behaviour.

We’ve also had a chance to learn about primary schools on our travels. In Cambodia, some would argue that the prime minister builds schools to strengthen his network of political patronage. Communities that show strong support get schools as private gifts, outside of the public education system. Once the schools are unveiled, the paint peels and the classrooms molder. Teacher levels of education are weak. Only a quarter of primary school teachers hold an upper secondary degree, while about two-thirds hold a lower secondary school degree. Teacher salaries are so low that students are required to pay “informal fees” which buy them advantages such as test questions prior to exams. All of this has significant downstream effects on student outcomes. In 2015, Cambodia ranked 114th out of 142 countries in terms of its quality of primary education (World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report). 

India, with its more than 1.2b people, has recently made major investments in educational infrastructure. It has 1.4m schools and 7.m teachers; 98% of households have a primary school (class 1 to 5) within 1km and 92% of households have a senior primary school (class 6 to 8) within 3km walking distance. But keeping children in school is a challenge; 43% of students drop out before completing upper primary school. We see a lot of private schools here in Jaipur and were surprised to learn that the public to private primary school ration is 7:5.   

We’re staying at an Airbnb arrangement and the owner of our house runs a private school on the lower floors of the building. Monday to Saturday 200 boys and girls in grades 1 to 8 fill the building. It’s surprisingly quiet; we only hear them at the start and end of the school day. It’s also delightful, fun and cheerful.

They had a science fair on Saturday. Windmills and periscopes and much more. Very impressive. 



Being this close to a primary school has its perks. One of the teachers, Seema, has agreed to tutor the girls. Monday to Saturday at 3:30pm we show up at Seema’s house for math class. The girls enjoy themselves (especially getting to play for a bit after class when their brains are tired). And it’s really good to see the girls being taught by a professional.

One of the other students of Seema’s is a little Junior kindergarten girl who gets help to set her up for success on her tests. She’s already scoring 90% but looks stressed out. High expectations here!

Today, we took a field trip to the Wind Palace (Hawa Mahal) in Jaipur. The palace has thousands of small windows that the women of the court could use to watch activities on the street without being seen. 

From the outside:
One of the windows:  

And the girls getting a view of the street:   

Many more field trips to come in Jaipur. That’s one part of the Grade 3 curriculum we all get to enjoy!

Delhi Dispatch

Yesterday we packed up our gear in Kerala and flew to Delhi. We spent five weeks in and around Kochi, the spice capital of the world. Christmas was horribly awesome, we went to see a Mollywood film, checked out Kerala’s first library and paid a visit to one of Mother Teresa’s homes. We learned about tea production when we visited a hill station in the beautiful Western Ghats. We were lucky to fall in with a group of local Keralites that are involved in business and arts and culture. They took us under their collective wing, gave us art lessons and helped us learn about Kerala. They even lent us a unicycle.

Delhi is a great city. We’re only here for a few days to see some old friends and we expect it to be a terrific stay. We are in a three-bedroom flat in South Delhi, within walking distance of the Central Market, the Khan Market and much else. From our rooftop we watch eagles and kites terrorize local pigeons. Parrots fly overhead at dusk on their way home to Lodi Gardens. 

One of our favourite sights has been the local Rumali Roti Walla. He drips nonchalance. His rotis are also known as handkerchief rotis. Paper thin, they’re served nicely folded and could fit into a pocket.


We arrived on Republic Day. It’s a big holiday in Delhi (kind of like the Fourth of July); stores are closed, most people are at home and there are fewer cars on the road. The parkette in front of our house erected a stage and the local kids put on dance routines. This group was the Pollution Dance Troupe, dancing in favour of a cleaner city.


And there’s been a lot of talk about Delhi’s air recently. An earlier post about rickshaws mentioned  that their two-stroke engines contribute significantly to air pollution. So do the rest of the Delhi’s cars, as well as the coal burning power plants and the garbage that burns in the streets. At least one study reports that Delhi’s air is among the dirtiest in the world. One can check local air quality at any given time here (at the time of writing, the air is simply unhealthy; yesterday the levels were hazardous). According to some estimates, air pollution is the cause of death of approximately 10,500 people in Delhi every year.

As a new year’s resolution, the Delhi government launched an odd-even scheme in an attempt to curb the pollution. On January 1st and other odd-numbered days, only cars with licence plates ending in odd numbers were able to ply the roads. On the 2nd and even-numbered days, cars with even-numbered plates were permitted on the roads. There are several exceptions: taxis, rickshaws and female drivers are allowed on the road regardless of the parity of their plates. The scheme continued for the first 15 days of the year and while the jury is still out on whether it helped clear the air, drivers appreciated the fact that traffic was lighter. The scheme will likely renew on March 1st; following some public consultations.

Everybody here is talking about green in Delhi. 


Even the rickshaws are green!


We were very kindly invited to the Canadian High Commissioner’s residence for tea. Saga and Ida were delighted with the green space and the opportunity to do cartwheels and somersaults on the grass.  

Ida spent some time on the piano.

There was even a bit of nostalgia for supermarket products from back home


We also had some time to replenish our stock of books. The girls were so comfortable at the bookshop that the owner suggested that we leave them there for the afternoon while Louise and I tour the city.


At the end of it, Saga said:”this is the best day ever! The people are nice; sweets; cartwheels, handstands and somersaults on the field.”
We soon board a train to Jaipur; more cartwheels in sight!

Visiting Mother Teresa’s Home For Differently-Abled Girls and Women

Earlier this week, we arranged to visit a Mother Teresa home in Fort Kochi. Flash backs to my days volunteering at Mother Teresa’s homes in Kathmandu and Kolkata came to mind throughout the visit. My time there was very formative and Louise and I wanted to provide the girls with opportunities to get a glimpse into the fulfillment that the MC Sisters derive from serving the poor and marginalized.

Mother Teresa (1910-1997) was an Albanian Roman Catholic religious sister and missionary. She established the congregation called the Missionaries of Charity in 1950. Today, the Missionaries of Charity (MC) sisters number more than 4,500 and are located in cities all over the world. In addition to the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, they take a fourth vow, which is to give ‘wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor’.

No photography was allowed at the house we visited. Here is a shot from motherteresa.org:

The Wikipedia entry summarizes it well. MC sisters ‘care for those who include refugees, ex-prostitutes, the mentally ill, sick children, abandoned children, lepers, people with AIDS, the aged, and convalescent. They have schools run by volunteers to educate street children, they run soup kitchens, and many other services as per the communities’ needs. They have 19 homes in Kolkata (Calcutta) alone which include homes for women, for orphaned children, and for the dying; an AIDS hospice; a school for street children; and a leper colony. These services are provided, without charge, to people regardless of their religion or social caste’.

The MC sisters’ work is well known for meeting the needs of people who have no other options. They are utterly dedicated to their cause and the social value that they create. Mother Teresa was awarded the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize and was beatified in 2003.

The MC sisters run a number of homes in Kerala, including a home in Fort Kochi for the differently-abled. The residence supports 39 girls and women. All have been abandoned by their families and have come to the home through Kerala’s social services. Since the residents have been abandoned, there is no record of their age. Some are young girls and staff estimates that others are in their 30s. The home is on a campus that includes dormitories, therapy rooms, kitchens, a playground and rooms for training (local women from the community can learn how to operate sewing machines, for example). The home is clean and professionally run.

One of the sisters (Sister Concepta), took us on a tour. We met the girls and women who live there and learned about their day-to-day activities. Many of the residents who we met are non-ambulatory and all have an intellectual disability. We met one girl who, because of the therapy program, was able to sit up in bed.  At one point an auto rickshaw rolled in and seven kids who returned from a school program spilled out.

Concepta told us a bit about herself. She has been a Missionary of Charity sister for 40 years and has worked in Kerala, Rome, England and the New York.  While very matter-of-fact in her manner, one could also see that she is very caring with the residents of the home. She said that in “every place it’s the same”: The MC sisters offer programs to meet the needs of the people they work with.

The girls stayed close to us throughout and asked Concepta a lot of questions.

Hill Station Dispatch

The Western Ghats are a chain of mountains that run parallel to India’s west coast. They cross the states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra and Gujurat. The mountains cover around 140,000 square km in an almost uninterrupted 1,600 km long stretch.

The Western Ghats are on the UNESCO World Heritage List because of their immense geological, cultural and aesthetic importance. By moderating the tropical climate of the area, the region represents one of the best examples of the monsoon system on the planet. Its tremendous range of plants and wildlife has made it one of the eight ‘hottest hotspots’ of biological diversity. It includes some of the best representatives of tropical evergreen forests anywhere. It’s home to at least 325 globally threatened species.

The Western Ghats are also home to serene hill stations, one of which is Munnar. (A hill station is a high altitude town, often used as a place of refuge from the summer heat). At 1,500m to 2,500m in altitude, Munnar has close to 100,000 inhabitants and is surrounded by more than 20 tea estates. There are approximately 25,000 tea harvesters based in the town, a quarter of the population, picking tea on a 15 day cycle.

We were happy to arrive in Munnar to get some fresh air and a break from the busy streets of Ernakulam. We are staying outside the city on the edge of a tea plantation. It’s breathtakingly beautiful.


Peppercorns are never far from our minds and here they seem to grow everywhere. Seemingly random trees at the side of the road have peppercorn vines:

The picture below is of a small-scale plantation. The trees on the left have mature vines. The smaller trees on the right have tiny vines growing at their base.

Even the local church has a piece of the action.

Tea plants are in fact trees. They can grow as high as 60 feet and live for a hundred years. They are usually kept at a height of four to five feet to facilitate harvesting. Here is a close up of one of the trees at the side of the road. It looks like it burrowed into the brick retaining wall.

We enjoyed walking through the tea trees, along staircases built of stone.

Tea trees have a remarkable way of  softening the landscape.

We went to the local tea museum to learn how the leaves are processed into the tea that we drink. Leaves are fed into a cutting machine for four stages of cuts.

They are then oxidized…

….and sent to the dryer along a conveyor belt.

Dry tea subsequently goes into bags and large pieces are sorted out. Then it’s ready for prime time.


Visiting Munnar, one understands why Kochi has such a thriving spice trade; this is where it all comes from. The local chai walla has a cardamom plantation. Here is a cardamom plant. The pods are at ground level.


Ida’s holding fresh pods. We opened them up and tasted the fresh cardamom. Delicious!

And this is the machine (an old model), along with its operator, to crush the dried cardamom.



Walking around here, one understands why the forests in the Western Ghats are so important. The trees are gorgeous.

They stretch forever into the sky.

Screens and Circuses


The Kerala film industry is well known as Mollywood (named after the Malayalam language spoken in Kerala). It grosses about $120m per year at the box office and 2014 saw the creation of about 150 Mollywood feature films. Major Mollywood studios, locations, production and post-production facilities are located in  Kochi and the capital, Trivandrum. The first 3D film produced in India was from Mollywood:  My Dear Kuttichathan (1984). Two Mollywood films have been sent to Hollywood as India’s official entries for Academy Awards: Guru (1997) and Adaminte Mayan Abu (2011). (Neither was selected).

One of the biggest Mollywood stars is Indrajith Sukumaran. Another big name is his younger brother, Prithiviraj Sukumaran, the heartthrob in Kerala. Their parents, Mallika and Sukumaran, are also major Mollywood names. We were lucky to meet Indrajith’s wife, Poornima, herself an actor, when we were out for dinner this week. She seemed to be quite taken with the girls.


She mentioned her husband has just come out with a new film: Amar, Akbar, Anthony. Posters promoting the movie are all over the city.

Undaunted by our limited Malayali language skills, (we know one Malayalam word: ‘nanni’ which means thank you) we spent the afternoon at the pictures today.


What a movie! We understood 60% of the plot and less than 1% of the words. Anthony delivers pizza. Akbar drives kids around at the local mall in a large toy car. Amar operates a lift at a hospital. The three friends are trying to scrape together enough money for some hedonism in Thailand together but life keeps getting in the way. One of the friends’ father is hospitalized, Amar is assaulted by a goon. A psychopath chases after small children. They all fall for the same girl. There are dance scenes. A huge fight. Spoiler alert- everything works out in the end.

It was a real treat to be at the cinema. Aside from the movie itself, we got to enjoy spicy chai during intermission. Moviegoers taking phone calls during the movie. Explaining to our neighbor that no, we don’t speak Malayalam but that the film transcends language.


We mentioned in an earlier post how we’ve met a nice group of creative professionals here in Ernakulam. Our neighbor is an artist that keeps his studio next door. His current project explores India’s colonial past using old found photographs that he converts into negatives. He then makes beautiful images using a wetlab. (Not light proof but close to a darkroom). He has invited us to take a look at his production process and will show the girls the basics of photography (negatives and photo paper). He has a sound room where his band plays. He showed the girls his DJ kit (vinyl). And he lent us a unicycle. Saga will likely be the first of us to master it.



Literacy and Language, South India

Our earlier post mentioned that Kerala has the highest literacy rates in India at 94%. Related, the state has the highest media exposure in India (the highest percentage of people exposed to the media) and Kerala’s newspapers are published in nine different languages.

The importance of literacy to economic and human development is well documented, for example here by the Canadians, and here, more broadly. Katherine Boo, in her brilliant book Behind the Beautiful Forevers, writes, “as every slumdweller knows, there were three main ways out of poverty: Finding an entrepreneurial niche; … politics and corruption; … and education”.


From our very first day in Kerala we noticed reading spots. These are public spaces where anyone can go and read the paper. The Golden Cascade Reading Room pictured below was around the corner from the guest house where we stayed in Fort Kochi. This kind of reading room seems to be ubiquitous here.

We took a trip to the Ernakulam public library. Sure enough, at the entrance is a reading room.


The Ernakulam library is the first public library in Kerala. It was founded in 1870 and carries 20 newspapers, 300 periodicals and over 200,000 books, in six languages.

The library brings together the old and the new. Patrons get a quick review of the Dewey Decimal system.


The Romance of Modern Manufacture, pictured below, is available in its original 1911 edition. Similarly, Taussig’s original Principles of Economics dates back to 1928. The old books are covered in dust; my fingers were black after handling them.


There was a lot for the girls too.


The library operates on a membership basis. Each of the library’s 10,000 members get a Reader’s Ticket (see below) and each pay a monthly membership fee of 30 Rupees (CAD 0.60).


The reader’s tickets sit incongruously beside the computer terminal at the checkout desk.

And then are manually organized in the office:


The membership fees, along with state government subsidies, donations and income derived from renting out rooms pay the library’s operating expenses. New books arrive daily, brought in from booksellers around the city in suitcases and boxes. Here is a shot of some new arrivals in the cardboard boxes:

A committee, made up of library staff and members, decide what books to acquire. The process is overseen by the Senior Librarian, pictured below. He very patiently answered all my questions (even the ridiculous ones) and introduced me to his colleagues.



Language is important to us. We use it to establish human connections; it’s necessary for the admin of life; and we need it to acquire the stuff we need at a reasonable price. In Cambodia we were stymied by both language and alphabet; we couldn’t talk to most people nor could we read the signs. It was a considerable relief to get to Vietnam, where we could at least read the signs. Ha Noi. Ca Phe. Ok.

We’ve learned basic greetings and pleasantries along our journey. We were daunted by tonal language: in Vietnamese there are multiple meanings for what sounds to us like the same word. “Bo” for instance, can mean husband, lover or beef.

According to the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, Indians speak in 780 different languages. At the national level, Hindi and English are official tongues. The Constitution lists 22 other languages referred to as scheduled languages that benefit from official recognition and status.

Linguistically, it’s easier for us here as English is spoken so widely. English language literature from the subcontinent is among the very best, and we feel like kids in a candy store during our visits to bookstores.

But India’s polyglot nature is always present. Our neighbor, whom we meet regularly at the pool, has a 13 month old son who is exposed to 5 languages on a daily basis. His parents speak to each other in English. A nanny speaks Malayalam. Another speaks Tamil. The father speaks his local language to his son, as does the mother. Both of the latter languages are oral only; Malayalam’s alphabet has 56 (fifty-six!) letters.

All of this brings this family’s linguistic profile to mind. Our family is 75% Danish and (despite the best efforts of the remaining 25%) 75% Danish speaking. It was with some pleasure, then, that we learned this week that Danish is the 9th most difficult language in the world to learn. This helps explain why my Danish remains persistently at the sub-Tarzan level, or why I have such difficulty credibly pronouncing rød grød med fløde.

But our young multilingual prodigy neighbor takes it all in stride as he swims in the pool with his dad.

Kochi, Pepper and Spice (and Everything Nice)


The story of Indian spices is more than 7000 years old, with some of the earliest records of ships bringing Indian spices to Mesopotamia and Egypt. Later, ancient Greek merchants thronged the markets of South India, followed by the Romans.

By 1511, the Portuguese controlled the exceptionally lucrative spice trade, based in Kochi.  Black pepper, counted out in individual peppercorns, was as valuable as gold at that time and a sack of pepper was said to be worth a man’s life. In fact, over half of Portugal’s revenue came from Indian pepper and other spices and West African gold.

Kochi is still a major spice capital and it’s easy to see why; spices grow everywhere. We took a boat trip through the backwaters the other day. As we floated through the canals we saw pepper vines, nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom, coffee, cacao and turmeric growing in the wild. Here’s a shot of our boatman who doubled as a spice guide.


Kochi is home to the International Pepper Exchange, an organisation that deals with the global black pepper trade. The exchange was established in 1997 and is the world’s only international pepper exchange. (It has been compared – perhaps generously – to the New York Stock Exchange.)

We’ve been bitten by the pepper bug on this trip. We were blown away by how any dish can be enhanced by Kampot’s feisty and flavorful peppercorns. We dug a little deeper and are impressed by Kampot’s organic cultivation methods that are hundreds of years old. The mighty peppercorn’s benefits in improving digestion and promoting intestinal health are also well documented. And like Champagne, Kampot pepper benefits from a protected geographical indication to safeguard its special attributes.

We want to learn as much as we can about pepper and there’s no better place than Kochi to do that. We met with a man who is locally known as the “King of Spices” yesterday and learned about freeze drying the famed green Malabar peppercorn. The international spice conference will be held in Goa in a few weeks and we plan to attend. The experience is spicing up our trip and our lives.

We’ll have more to say about spices in later posts. Stay tuned.


We moved to a three-bedroom flat in Ernakulam a week ago. We’re on the top floor of a building overlooking the Kochi naval yards. From our balcony in the morning we watch white breasted sea eagles (wingspan up to 2.2m) rising beside us on updrafts. Big navy ships head out to the Arabian Sea past the Chinese fishing nets and cargo ships unload their containers in the harbor. It’s amazing to watch.

We’ve befriended our host and a bunch of her peers. They’re smart, generous, cosmopolitan, entrepreneurial and fun. They’ve given us a glimpse into the opportunities and lifestyle of this exciting group.

Here are some random shots beginning with treatments for thump sucking and mouth breathing that are available around the corner from our place. Something for everyone here.


Che’s iconic photo has made it to the back of rickshaws. Salamat, is Tagalog for thank you. It also means welcome in Arabic cultures. Not clear why it seems to be written in blood in this case.



Beautiful colors here. These powders are available in the local market. Mix with water and start painting.