Wednesday, January 30, 2013


The Mystery Machine
 Today was particularly spiritual for us.  Sri and Sivagami were kind enough to take us to two of the most breathtakingly peaceful places we have witnessed in this fair city.  Lisa and myself were quite content to drop our bags and stay forever.

We began the morning with an early start and the 12 of us piled into the "Mystery Machine" as I like to call it.  The name has yet to catch on, but I persevere to the annoyance of some.

We set off through the streets of Chennai (we have mostly acclimated ourselves to the unique driving practices) and in a half an hour arrived in a place so quiet, so green, so unlike the hustle and flow of the city that it seemed as if we were on another planet.  We found ourselves within an artist's compound known as the Kalakshetra Foundation.

Kalakshetra, literally translated means "A Holy place of the Arts", and that it was.

From"A vital centre of training and performance, the institution has produced and molded generations of acclaimed artists in a distinctive style. Since its establishment in the early 20th century, Kalakshetra has had stalwart musicians and dancers on its faculty. It provides a holistic education in arts amidst a serene and inspiring natural environment cultivating a spirit of reverence. The faculty comprises of many experts who have studied here and cherish the ideals of this institution. Some of India's most revered artistes are among its alumni."

We sat quietly in the back as about 200 young men and women from all races filed onto the reed mats wearing traditional kurtas and salwars and took their places beneath a sacred, sprawling, century old banyan tree.  A rag and tal began their hum and the students sang softly and in unison Kalakshetra's morning prayer.  The gentle song poured from every student and the quiet amplified the beauty of the place.  The devotion of every student to his or her work was utterly apparent and inspiring.

After prayer we casually strolled throughout the compound and observed classes taught in small, intimate classroom buildings.  There were girls learning the basics of Bharatanatyam (classical Indian Dance) in one, a single student being taught the mridangam, a large and multi-toned drum in another.  The atmosphere was as if created by Saraswati herself to achieve the ideal environment for learning.  The result was astounding.

Kalekshetra focuses not only on dance, but on the visual arts as well, teaching both traditional Indian styles and modern computerized techniques as well.  We found ourselves lost in the place and the impression it left on us was one of absolute balance.

If you find that one such GSE team member should not return, rest assured he has enrolled at Kalekshetra to re-discover the long since shadowed roots of his art.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Madras Rotary Combined Cricket Club

You may have noticed a great deal of posts churning out in the past two days.  That is because it is the weekend.  And the weekend, specifically Sunday, is time for Cricket!

The Rotary Club of Madras East organizes an intramural cricket tournament that takes place during the months of December and January.  These are the "winter months".  The players take the brunt of the heat but the spectators are quite cool in the shade of nearby trees on the campus of Chennai's Loyola College.

The league is comprised of many local Rotary Clubs, though they do not compete against one another.  Instead they draw names and members of each club are placed at random.  Each of the teams are sponsored by a local businesses.  The first of two, we witnessed a match between the IBC Challengers and the Lanson Knights.

Sue gets a shot at bat

 This is to foster not competition, but fellowship among Rotary Clubs within city limits.  For a rundown of how the game works I suggest Wikipedia, but the day was delightful and we Americans learned a lot about India's most popular sport.  A few of us even got in a swing or two.  Though, it should be said that one of us who shall not be named (me) knocked his pitch into the crowd.  I am relieved to say that no Rotarians were hurt during the creation of this blog.

The cricket was a blast, but as always here in Chennai, the food was the main attraction.  A glorious sunny day and some sporting on the green made for an experience worth remembering.

Back to School

The first few days in a foreign land can have a steep learning curve, particularly in a culture as distinct as India's. Fortunately for me, my very first host, Rtn. Prabha Padmanabhan, was a teacher!

Prabha, alongside her husband, A. Padmanabhan, founded the Surjana Montessori School in 1999. Prabha is the principal of the school, which serves children from ages 3 to 12. She generously gave me a tour of the school and introduced me to her students.

I was immediately struck by how quiet it was - a far cry from my memories of 1st through 5th grade. And when we entered the classrooms, there were no teachers at the head speaking to everyone. Instead I found students sitting alone on mats or in groups of two or three quietly working, many of them on very different exercises.

Prabha explained to me that the Montessori Method of schooling centers on encouraging children to learn subjects on their own - self-motivation that will serve them well as they move onto higher education. Classrooms have facilitating instructors, but students spend most of their time selecting books and activities from the classroom shelves and then work on independently. In a class I observed, the morning session was dedicated to Mathematics. Some children were filling in addition tables by pencil, while others used a bead game to learn about counting. The only thing that united all the students was their very high level of engagement and concentration - again, certainly something foreign to my schooling experience.

Montessori schools can be found in countries around the world - including the USA - but what struck me most about the Surjana Montessori School was not the unique teaching style. What I really came away with was an appreciation for how perfect an example of Rotarian service the school is. The Padmanabhan's own children are fully grown and they have built a comfortable living for themselves. Instead of going quietly into retirement, they chose to invest their knowledge and resources into their community, making a lasting impact on children for generations to come.

Dance! A Cultural Delight

On January 25th, we got the pleasure of attending a group presentation by Bharatha Natyalaya titled "Acharya Devo Bhava" presented by the dance teacher, Roja Kannan

The stories they told through dance were so vivid, depicting Hindu epics mostly of Krishna. Even though there was a short explanation before each dance, it was easy to follow along based on the great facial expressions of the dancers. 

Saturday, January 26, 2013


Hello blogosphere!

Sadly, until this time I have been patently out of reach of the not-so-worldwide web.  It would be truly impossible to give you a full recap of all of the events that we have experienced in such a short period of time, but I can touch on a few.  But please allow me to say that our time has been nothing short of spectacular.

Swami Ramakrishna Math

On Wednesday the 23rd, our lovely hosts took us on a tour of the city.  One of the most impressive stops was at the Swami Ramakrishna MathSri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai is the first branch center of the Ramakrishna Order in Southern India. It was started in the year 1897 by Swami Ramakrishnananda, one of the direct disciples of Ramakrishna. Besides Swami Ramakrishnananda, the Math was visited by Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi, Swami Brahmananda and Swami Shivananda. The motto of the Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission is: For one’s own salvation, and for the welfare of the world.

We were able to experience the peace of the math firsthand and were allowed some time to meditate and gather our thoughts about what has already been a whirlwind of a journey.  We have been here for six days and it already feels like a month (and I mean this in the best way possible).


On Thursday the 24th Lucas and myself had the distinct pleasure of visiting j2k Incorporated.  j2k is a cinematic 3d animation studio responsible for the special effects in films such as "Spiderman 3", "Alice in Wonderland", and "Sucker Punch" to name a very few.We had the pleasure of meeting the  creative director, Raasi N Vijay who showed us around his beautiful and intimate boutique offices.  Aside from being a creative genius, he was also a fine human being.  We shared many a laugh over lunch... mainly concerning the massive amount of mosquito bites that have taken my skin by storm.

 j2k also produces a great many television shows in the Tamil Nadu region.  We had the unexpected pleasure of visiting the set of their most recent serial, Veetukku Veedu Vietnam Veedu.  Rumor has it that one of our team will be appearing as a guest star in an upcoming episode.  More to come on that in time.

Chennai Temple Tour

On Friday the 25th we had the distinct pleasure of touring a few of the city's vast and beautiful temples.  We began the morning, however, with a celebration of Ms. Lisa Mengarelli's birthday.  In true Indian style, this was only one of three cakes she received that day.  It should be noted that Sue Kalifah's birthday happens to be tomorrow.  We have the day entirely free, so though we do not know what she will be up to, we wish her the happiest.  These girls are lucky to be in such an inspiring place on their days of birth.

 We began our tour with our lovely and vastly knowledgeable guide, Rotary Ann Sivagami.  Sivagami and her husband Ramanathan happen to be my current hosts and I couldn't be more pleased.  We have all been blessed with truly generous hosts.  What they say about Indian hospitality is an understatement when one is truly in the thick of it.

Our first stop was at a local neighborhood temple, Turnbull, in the Guindy district.  All Hindu temples have a distinct architectural style composed of materials of the region.   Those in Tamil Nadu tend to be made of simple materials, but are composed of the most vibrant colors, many keeping their true tones for generations.

Sivagami gave us a crash course on the Hindu mythology and allowed us to walk through her neighborhood temple and observe the process and practice handed down for generations.  I could speak endlessly on the nuances of Hinduism, but suffice it to say, it is an intricate and beautiful religion and it is unique in its acceptance of all other religions.  Its accession with the many races and religions that populate India are the primary reason that it can exist as a united country when, in any part of the world, the diversity would cause division.

After we learned what we were looking at, we embarked on a tour of Kapaleeswarar.

The Kapaleeswarar Temple of Chennai is a very old and revered temple of Mylapore in Chennai. The 'gopuram' (tower) of this edifice is peculiar to all representative specimens of Dravidian architecture. Consecrated to Lord Shiva, this temple contains some beautiful sculptures, among which the bronze idols of 63 Saivite Saints (Nayanmars) decorating the outer courtyard are rare examples.

Besides, in the courtyard of the temple under an old Punnai tree, is a small shrine dedicated to the Goddess Parvathi and showing her worshiping Lord Shiva in the disguise of a peacock. It is from this legend that Mylapore derived its name -'myil' meaning peacock and 'oor' meaning town.

It is is a beautiful sample of classic Dravidian temple sculpture and architecture. Fragmentary inscriptions date back to 1250 AD, but the current structure is a renovated one which was rebuilt by the rulers of Vijayanagara the 16th century. The 37 meters tall and grand gopuram is intricately carved. 

It was truly a sight to behold.

Though not a temple, next we were treated to a stop at The Church of Our Lady of the LightIt is commonly called as Luz Church by the locals, which derives from the Portuguese name Nossa Senhora da Luz. Built in 1516 by the Portuguese, it is one of the oldest Churches in the city and its foundation stone marks as one of the oldest European monuments in India. The history of the church dates back to the 16th-century legend of safe arrival to land by missionaries, guided by a mysterious light.

It was an altogether marvelous day filled with equally marvelous people.  Though there is so very much more to say, I must leave you with but a sampling.  I look forward to tomorrow, I am at peace with today and I fondly recall all of those those passed.

With love from Chennai.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Introduction to Cricket

Yesterday evening Lisa and I, along with our hosts Rtn. Shantha Narayanan and Rtn Naghma Sharma and some fellow members of their Madras Temple City Club had dinner at the Madras Cricket Club. It was quite fascinating to see the grounds and learn that when filled to capacity the venue hums from the energy of some 50,000 people.

Cricket is a religion here and being able to set foot where major teams from around India and the world come for matches was amazing. We had the pleasure of meeting a famous Cricketer, Srinivasaraghavan Venkataraghavan, who played many years for the Indian national team and later was a very well respected umpire. He graciously guided us around and along with others throughout the night provided some insight into cricket and it's history in India.

What a fabulous evening we had filled with a small glimpse into the world of cricket alongside some interesting and engaging conversations with all.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Service Above Self: Rotary Club of Madras

Yesterday, our team traveled with the German GSE team to visit two of the community service projects sponsored by the Rotary Club of Madras. We hopped on a bus with our guide for the day, Rtn. Christopher Devapragasam, and our first stop was Sembakkam, a small village in the suburbs of Chennai. There, the rotary club built a community center where weddings and other events are held and the income earned goes to the maintenance of the building. Also in this village, the rotary supports a training center for computer classes and tailoring for housewives that want to learn the skills.

The people in the village were so kind and gave us fresh coconut to drink from and the women surprised us with shawls to take home.

 Next, we visited Boys Town, a home and vocational training place for boys from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.Such an inspiring project to see! We got to the meet the boys and tour the grounds. You can read more about this wonderful project here -

 Visit our Facebook page to view the entire photo album from this project visit!

Saturday, January 19, 2013

We've Landed!

We are happy to report that we've arrived in Chennai after a stressful but successful couple of flights.  You've all likely traveled before so we shall spare you the minutia.  In short: Flights, long.  Heathrow, queue, queue, queue, RUN.  Chennai, delightful.

Sadly, Mike fell victim to lost baggage, and a few security hold-ups, but we are here, we are in one piece, and we are thoroughly tired, though excited to see Chennai in some daylight.

We were greeted by our wonderful representatives from Rotary district 3230 and each given a traditional Indian flower garland.  The smells and sounds were truly alive and the town has a history and magic about it.  And as Sridharan, our GSE coordinator, stated about the manner in which the locals drive.. "Countries with history don't follow the rules".

We are happy to be here and we'll update again soon.  But these travelers need some rest.

-The Team

Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Fond Farewell

(Team Leader Mike Carlino kicks off the presentation)

Here we are but hours away from departure.  We are nervous and excited and altogether thrilled that the day has finally come.  Papers have been signed, vaccines administered, and bags carefully packed (at least by this poster).  At 6pm tomorrow, the district 6440 GSE team will be en-route to district 3230, Chennai, India.

It was with great pleasure that we attended a farewell reception this past Sunday at the Makray Memorial Golf Club in Barrington, IL, so generously hosted by the Rotary Club of Lake Zurich.

It provided the group a chance to meet our respective families, give our presentation to the Rotary Clubs of 3230 a test-drive (to some success I might add), and interact with some of the great Rotarians who've helped keep the GSE alive.

Among the speakers were Rotary GSE Chair, Jim Runnfeldt, showing those in attendance how deeply he cares for this program, followed by a kind-hearted, off-the-cuff salutation from our District Governor, Mike Yesner, reminding those of us fretting about 95° weather that the rest of district 6440 will not be feeling sorry for us as they chip their cars out of the ice.  Ada Kahn, Rotary Club of Evanston's President Elect and leader of the 2012 GSE team to District 3480, Taipei, Taiwan, inducted the group into the distinguished ranks of Rotary Alumni.  A place wherein we do not take for granted.

We are continually thankful to be a part of this, the last GSE program as we know it.  We are honored to have already met so many terrific Rotarians and we are sure to meet many, many more before the month is through.

As for now we bid you adieu.  We must fly.

-The Team

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

A Look at Paul Harris, Founder of Rotary
(Paul Percy Harris, 1896, age 28)

    "Faith, hope, charity and clean business, these four and the greatest of these is clean business. Charity sometimes destroys initiative and demoralizes character; clean business never does. If business is clean, there will be much less need of charity because clean business means not only a fair deal to the buyer, but also a living wage to the employee. Rotary will continue to be charitable but it can do more than that; let it remove the cause of that which makes charity necessary.”  

-Paul P. Harris in his message to the 1916 Convention in Cincinnati. 

Before we embark on our journey, it is important to take a step back and get to know a bit about how Rotary came into being.
Here, then, is a look at Paul Percy Harris. taken from several official Rotary sources.

He was born in Racine, WI, on April 19, 1868, the second of six children of George N. and Cornelia Bryan Harris. At age 3 he moved to Wallingford, VT, where he grew up in the care of his paternal grandparents. He married Jean Thompson Harris. They had no children. He earned an L.L.B. from the University of Iowa and received an honorary L.L.D. from the University of Vermont.
Harris worked in a series of short-term jobs, and traveled extensively in the U.S. and Europe, selling marble and granite. In 1896, he moved to Chicago to practice law. One evening, he visited the suburban home of a professional friend. After dinner, as they strolled through the neighborhood, Paul’s friend introduced him to various tradesmen in their stores. It was there Paul conceived the idea of a club that could recapture some of the friendly spirit among businessmen in small communities.

On February 23, 1905, Harris formed the first club with three other businessmen: Silvester Schiele, a coal merchant; Gustavus Loehr, a mining engineer, and Hiram Shorey, a merchant tailor. Harris named the new club “Rotary” because members met in rotation at their various places of business. Club membership grew rapidly. Soon, Harris became convinced that the Rotary club could be developed into an important service movement and strove to extend Rotary to other cities.

Harris also was prominent in other civic and professional work. He served as the first chairman of the board of the National Easter Seal Society of Crippled Children and Adults in the U.S.A. and of the International Society for Crippled Children. He was a member of the board of managers of the Chicago Bar Association and was its representative at the International Congress of Law at the Hague, and a committee member of the American Bar Association. He received the Silver Buffalo Award from the Boy Scouts of America for distinguished service to youth, and was decorated by the governments of Brazil, Chile, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, France and Peru.

Harris maintained his law office for most of his life. He spent much time traveling and was invited to speak to Rotarians at annual conventions, district and regional meetings, and other functions. By the time he died on January 27, 1947, his dream had grown from an informal meeting of four men to some 6,000 clubs. In the past five decades, the organization has grown to more than 27,500 clubs with 1.2 million members brought together through Paul Harris’s vision of service and fellowship.

-Interesting facts about the founder of Rotary:
  • Paul was expelled from Black River Academy, a school that had been attended by Calvin Coolidge. He enrolled at Vermont Academy, from which he graduated.
  • In 1885, he entered the University of Vermont, only to be expelled. He went on to enroll at Princeton. 
  • In 1890, Paul entered the law department at the University of Iowa. When word came that his beloved grandmother had died, he did not have enough time to return to Vermont for her funeral. His ties to family were virtually cut. 
  • Armed with his law degree in 1891, Paul set off for a series of jobs to gain some experience in the world. Among them: reporter, actor, cowboy, seaman, granite salesman, fruit picker and hotel clerk.
  • Paul Harris wasn’t the first president of a Rotary club.  That distinction is actually held by Harris’s friend Silvester Schiele, who served as the first president of the Rotary Club of Chicago. Harris deferred his club leadership duties until February 1907, when he was elected the third president of the Chicago club. 
  • While Harris served as president of the Chicago Rotary Club in 1907, the club initiated its first public service project, the construction of public toilets in Chicago. This step transformed Rotary into the world's first Service Club

-Notable Quotes:
"In the clashes between ignorance and intelligence, ignorance is generally the aggressor."

"Ideas have unhinged the gates of empires."

"In the cold, shivering twilight, preceding the daybreak of civilization, the dominating emotion of man was fear."

"Perhaps dreaming is not so bad if one dreams good dreams and makes them come true."  

"We are in no further need of politicians; we need some statesmen now. We can dispense with Democrats and we can dispense with Republicans in this time of national crisis. We need real patriots now."

"It is cheering to think of friends in distant lands. We are all very much alike, moved by the same hopes, ambitions, likes and dislikes; in short, we are all human."

"It is not a question of what men ought to be thinking about; it is a question of what men are thinking about."

-Paul Percy Harris (April 19, 1868–January 27, 1947) 


Saturday, January 5, 2013

Let it Snow!

...because when we land in Chennai, the average low will be 85° F, and that is the cold season.  By the time we leave it will be in the 100's.  We'll enjoy the snow while it lasts!

The team met today in Lake Zurich to work diligently on our presentations, brochures, business cards, and preparations for our trip.  We were joined by Jim Runnfeldt and Paul Larson who were helpful to us as always, and Dave Waring made a wonderful presentation about his experiences as GSE Team Leader to Southern India 11 years ago.  We look forward to seeing what has changed and what has stayed the same.

We also had the pleasure of meeting a wonderful Rotarian named Fred Rajan who was born in Chennai.  He shared some wonderful insights, gave us a hint of what to expect, pointed out a few key sights, and gave us some useful tips about etiquette and Indian customs.

The team is getting to know each other and everything is coming together quite nicely.  The next time we meet is at our Farewell Banquet on January 13th at the Makray Memorial Golf Club in BarringtonClick here if you haven't reserved your tickets!

-The GSE Team

Friday, January 4, 2013


We are thrilled at your interest in our once in a lifetime journey and we hope that you check in often to see how and what we are doing.

We currently scheduled to depart from Chicago, Ohare International Airport on January 18th, 2013.  Until then we are busily making preparations.

If you'd like to learn a bit more about the GSE team, click here.

-The GSE Team