Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Day in the Field

So I just returned from my second field visit. Instead of writing all the details and boring you and, well, me, I'll just put up some photos. A successful day in the field entails...

Going to your first focus group discussion way early so it's only 90 degrees. Make sure to bring three men who will work to piece together their English to translate. The women's houses will be made of desert clay of sorts that has sand and cow dung in it. The houses keep the heat out quite well.

Then you ask the most respected village elder for directions back to the cluster office. He got mad at me for not accepting chai with milk. Lactose intolerance simply doesn't exist here. 

Get cajoled into taking the MOST awkward group photo with the rest of the group of women. Then take my hoard of men, all wrapped in scarves to keep the dust out, back to the cluster office. We rode on motorcycles this time since no jeeps were available. I thought we were quite the crew as we rode around all wrapped up, skidding out in the sand, and with a white girl on the back.....

 Go back to the cluster office for lunch and while everyone naps and lounges during the heat of the day, I review all the interviews from the morning. One of my translators, Shrikant (to the right), came to check on me and took a creepy picture of me. I found it while uploading these to my computer. Despite his creepiness (my first night I slept in my underwear and a t shirt because it was really hot. He came in to make sure all was well, and talked with me for a half hour as I held a small blanket over myself), he was very helpful and had the most comfortable motorcycle. After a great discussion with the women on the right, I got on the bike to go to our next village. The women and men died laughing when I got on. As we left the village, Shrikant turned around to say "You sit like a boy, and now the laugh." Here, all women ride side-saddle on motorcycles. I find that slightly suicidal and terrifying, especially when we skid out driving through the sand. Women here do it in sarees, but I guess I'm just not as much of a cultured woman.

These last women are being scolded by the woman on the left for keeping their faces covered for the photo. Women in rural areas practice a system called purdah in which they cover their faces and don't leave the house. The self-help groups I was talking with are actually one of the rare times they can leave the house. However, since my translators were men, they almost all kept covered. The women above are actually Muslims, and they never covered themselves in front of us. It was only the young Hindu women.

Hope the picture helped to put it all together

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The research begins

So I recently returned from my first "field" visit as they call it, and I'm taking advantage of the time in front of my wind tunnel. The field basically means that I was outside the city living in a compound of sorts in the desert doing fieldwork, aka my research. I'm working with an organization called GRAVIS, which you should look at. The work they do is unbelievable. Seriously, click this. Their office is located in place called Milk Men Colony. Neighborhoods here are called colonies, which I find wildly ironic considering they've only been a free country for about 60 years. This colony is exactly what it sounds like. Nearly every house here owns lots of cows, which of course are allowed to roam wherever they please. The streets of the colony is exceptionally crowded with cows, more so than anywhere else in India I've seen--which really is saying something considering how much freedom cows have here. All day long, men on motorcycles and three-wheeled trucks come to this colony and fill up huge metal jugs with milk to distribute throughout Jodhpur. The streets are just a caked, dry layer of cow shit and the area smells as such, but it's a wealthy neighborhood because people value their milk.
Anyway, everyone at the office warned me that this ominous "field" place is quite hard to handle and really awful living conditions. The field office is about two and half hours into the desert outside of Jodhpur and villages are about 20 minutes to an hour from there. I think they were making gross assumption about my expectations since I'm white and all because the field was exactly why I came to India. That's not to say I was completely comfortable there, for there was no AC or water coolers and the temperature was a balmy high of 115 each day. I also had quite the interesting shower experiences considering I forgot to bring a towel. So I'd change out of my sweaty, sand-blown clothes from the day to shower, only to put them right back on drip dry while wearing them (I tried to pack light and had barely any clothes). By the last day I was a little sick of this process, so I decided to suck it up and use the mystery towel that was hanging on the door when I arrived. It didn't smell bad, especially in comparison to my sandy clothes, so it couldn't have been that bad? Without checking the towel, first thing I did was wipe my sopping face. Little did I know a couple cockroaches had made this towel their home and they gave me a nice scrub. Is it weird to say thank gosh they were cockroaches and not something I could have squished and rubbed on my face? That was my consolation anyway.
Other than that misstep, the trip was fantastic. For three days, my translator (she spoke about as much English as I do Hindi, so that of a slow four year old) and I traveled by jeep through white desert to get to these villages in the Thar Desert. It was like raiders of the lost arc, as everyone had handkerchiefs tied around their faces and thick sunglasses on as we drove through barren flat and over sand dunes to get to these remote villages. Once at a village, we usually went to someone's house and just started talking to the women who lived there. I had the director of the field office with me, so he knew some of the women and could arrange for us to come to their houses. These women are still practicing purdah, which is the women's behavioral tradition in which they cover their faces and don't leave their homes. At least 80% of the women kept themselves veiled the entire time they talked with me. Some of them wouldn't speak at all and had other women speak for them, especially if they had older relatives present. If a woman's husband was present, forget about her even looking at us. She usually just sat and looked at the ground or didn't make eye contact as her husband literally answered every question. At one point the woman's husband was facing my back, not even in the group I was addressing, yet he was still shouting the answers for her. After that time I had to ask any husbands to not be present, but that wasn't always an option considering that some of the discussions were held in people's homes. By the the time my discussions were coming to a close, the news had spread that a white girl was in the village, and almost every child in the village had come to watch. At some points we'd be a in room no bigger than your average college dorm and there would be about 40 people crammed in the space. Now since it was a remote area, I often ended up boiling the water available so that I could drink it without fear of sickness. I would put some of it in my water bottle to hopefully let it cool. However, I stupidly only brought my metal water bottle, which did a great job at keeping that water hot.So for much of the time I'd be in boiling weather drinking just about boiling water out of a metal bottle. Clearly I didn't think that one through very well.
An interesting experience to say the least. I go again this coming Monday to a different field office to do the same work. Yesterday, I bought my own towel and a plastic bottle to bring along.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

What a new blog post?!

Finally back to blogging. I originally stopped when I got exceptionally sick and couldn't keep food down for four days or so. After I recovered from the fun incident, I visited a friend in her research spot, traveled to meet up with other friends, and then spent the next week writing my 30 page paper about my research. Once that was finished, I spent the next two weeks traveling around India with family and friends, so I had pretty much no internet access.
However, now that my family is back in Amrika and my friends are again scattered throughout the country and world, AND I'm living in 114 degree heat everyday, I have reason to take refuge in my room with my computer. Yes, today the high was 112 and yes, I was walking around in the height of it. I haven't seen a cloud in over 24 hours. However, in four days I get a nice little break with a high of 107 and partly cloudy! Anyway, I'm in Jodhpur, the second biggest city in Rajasthan. It's also known as the Blue City since many of its buildings are painted blue, and when viewed from the historic fort, the city looks like a desert speckled blue. This is my second time visiting this city; the first was with my school and oh how manageable the temperature was then. I arrived yesterday by train and am staying in a great little guest house outside the old city that is also home to a very small, grassroots women's empowerment organization. How perfect for the work I'm doing, especially since Gravis, the organization I am supposed to work with, has yet to give me much information or help me find a translator. We'll see how all that pans out.
It wasn't until I had dinner with some of the other guests last night that I realized how long I've been here. One of the girls has been here a grand total of three days now and the other couple has been here for a week. It was so strange to talk with them, as they were just freshly experiencing things that I had become desensitized to. Not that I'm any sort of veteran or connoisseur of India; I've just somehow just stopped baffling at all the cows lying in the streets. It wasn't until then that I realized how long I've actually been here. It's been almost half a year that I've been gallivanting--not really--around this sub-continent. Until two days ago, I didn't even have a flight home yet. Technically, I'm not legally allowed to stay in India until that day, July 19th, but that's another feat with which I'm still wrestling. The employees of the various Foreigner's Registration Offices I've visited are amazingly good as passing me along to the next city and office without giving me any definite answers except that the next office will definitely figure it out for me. I suspect I'll need to start throwing down rupees in order to get real results. We'll see how that one pans out too.
So back to what I've been doing in my cyberspace absence. Here's a map of where I've visited:

Took a flight from Jaipur to Trivamdrum in Kerala, the southern most state. Traveled up the coast of Kerala, visiting beautiful red clay beaches, canoeing through the canals of backwaters in tropical village areas and biking through Portuguese influenced capital city. From there, took a train to Goa, the teeny-tiny state below Maharashtra. It was the off season for this state which is crawling with foreigners, so we got to have the usually chaotic beaches for ourselves. Because this state is so small, we decide to rent a motorbike and take it to explore for ourselves. Bad idea considering it was made for two people at the most and we stuffed three on. None of us knew how to drive either and the streets here are insane. It was terrifying but fun, or at least I had fun. My friends took a cab back to our hotel. I had a terrific time doing it by myself then on the back roads. From there, took another train to Mumbai. Mumbai was insane, but not in the chaotic, over-crowded way we were expecting. It looked like London with tropical plants growing everywhere. There were black and yellow ambassador car cabs, gothic architecture everywhere and Indian food was actually quite difficult to scope out. We spent two days eating great western food, drinking real coffee and being total tourists. Mumbai did have its crazy crowded bazaars and an unimaginably large slum area, but nothing like we expected.
From there, I flew to Sikkim, the small state in the North East above Bihar. I meet my parents and brother there and we spent four days hiking and doing eco-touristic stuff. We woke up in the clouds every morning and watched them consume Mt. Kanchenjunga, 3rd tallest mountain in the world. Then we traveled back to Jaipur and despite all my warnings about not eating meat, my brother ate mainly chicken only to end up violently ill on our travel day from Sikkim to Jaipur. The day started at 5 am and ended at 9 pm; he had an awful time. Oh the perks of vegetarianism. So now I'm in Jodhpur, sitting in a tooth-paste green room without air-conditioning in this crazy heat. I do however this wind-tunnel sounding machine that cools water and then blows the evaporating cool water into my room; it's mildly pleasant and obnoxiously loud. Tomorrow I officially start my research. I arrive at the office at 9:30 and that's all I know. Here goes the last leg of my India adventure

Saturday, April 30, 2011

So in case you don't know where Dharamshala is, here's two maps that should help. One is of India, showing the state where I am (Himachal Pradesh) and the other is of the state with the cities and what not. I've spent most of my time in Dharamshala and just spent three days visiting a friend on apple orchards in Kullu. Unfortunately, I wasn't there during "plucking" season, so no fresh apples. Being an apple addict around all those apple trees was slightly torturous, but the area was unbelievably beautiful. In two days, I will head to Shimla to meet up three other friends for the end of our independent study projects.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

This is a picture of one of the women's self help groups that I visited. Just to give an idea of what it all looks like, sort of. We're sitting in a circle talking about the group and its effects on their lives. The meetings are usually held in school, hence the alphabet in the background

Saturday, April 23, 2011

One's gotta preach

The more I'm here, the more I understand the effects of the West's over consumption (particularly the US, including myself). I see now more and more the detrimental effects of it on the people of developing countries. Don't write me off as a Marxist just yet.

We have been told to reduce our consumption, reduce our emissions or make such and such sacrifice in order to save the environment and the world. If people absolutely don't have to change their lifestyle and they can't see the tangible effects when they neglect to do so, then they won't. However, the poor, uneducated and often voiceless rural and tribal populations of India experience these effects as our consumption destroys their livelihoods. I know, I'm sounding dramatic and riled up (I am riled up), but just bare with me.
So many of the tribal and village people of India live in the most mineral rich areas. They are extremely poor and uneducated. Big mining companies want the minerals under their land, so they bribe the government to give them permits or ignore their activities. But first, the tribes have to be moved. So the government tells the tribes to get out and they will be provided with other land as well as some sort of monetary compensation. The tribes don't know they have the right to stay since they own the land. Most of these people have never left their communities much less gone to the state capital to file for a land title deed. So these tribes are moved to land that is actually owned by other tribes or villages, which causes conflict between these people. The land is usually infertile too, so they're livelihoods are destroyed. The monetary compensation filters down from the larger government and each level siphons off a little for themselves. By the time the money reaches the tribes, that is if it ever reaches them, it is significantly less than it should be-- not that many of the tribes know the amount they deserve since they're uneducated and don't understand their rights.
Meanwhile, the mining companies are destroying their land to get bauxite that will be converted into aluminum. They will sell this bauxite on the international market because they can make a ton more money than if they sold it domestically, starving any local people of profit or benefit. The mining companies are like hit and run whirlwinds: they come very suddenly, use big, fast machines instead of any manual/local labor, and then disappear without doing any of their dutiful land reclamation, leaving the area useless and damaged.Tribes can't return and continue farming. And this is all so I can get my new iphone with cheap aluminum.

Then, in countless areas throughout India, and the world, farmers have switched to growing cash crops (cotton often). Many times, companies like Monsanto will come to poor farmers and sell them their genetically modified seeds that promise to earn higher crop yields, and thus more money. This is true if there is sufficient irrigation. However, these are poor farmers in rural areas who don't have complex irrigation systems. They rely on the rain and some forms of groundwater. Also, these plants are not as resilient to pests, so then farmers come back to Monsanto to buy pesticides, putting them into debt. Unpaid debt is a highly dishonorable quality; many times farmers commit suicide because of it. They eat the pesticides that Monsanto has sold them. It can be said that Monsanto is literally killing people throughout India (If you know nothing about Monsanto, look it up. Watch Food Inc or read Travels of a T-Shirt in a Global Economy. Find out something because this company that is destroying domestic and international food security).
So these farmers don't get the high yields they're promised. What they've grown is no longer a food source, but a corporate crop. It has to be sold though, so they sell it and get a pittance of money, which they will then turn around to buy food that they could have grown themselves. When they can't afford enough food, it is imported through aid programs or from other areas of the country.These poor, rural farmers can't rely on what they grow to sustain themselves and then the aid creates dependency and brings in more genetically modified crops and soils that make them reliant on corporations.

And with all this, we are telling developing countries to become more like us and become developed like us. The West often projects the image of success as the ability to consume things beyond your necessities. If you can consume at a certain level, you are an image of success--you can buy a BMW; you can buy a high tech laptop. There's aluminum in the laptop I'm using now that was cheaply mined in a developing country and I bought it not for necessity, but for the convenience of having a smaller computer. People in the developing world now are told that their aspirations for success should include being able to buy a cell phone or wear good designer clothing. You should develop to be like us.
BUT don't do it the way we did because we destroyed lots of the environment and emitted all kinds of shit into the atmosphere. So you should reduce your emissions and develop in an environmentally friendly, but expensive, way. The United States will continue polluting more and consuming more than any other country in the world. We'll continue business as usual, but you destitute, developing countries have to make major changes. Half your people live in poverty and don't even have electricity from which to create emissions. We on the other hand drive everywhere, run our AC when we get least bit sweaty, and buy all the minerals that were unethically exported from your country; and no, we won't reduce our consumption of the earth's goods or significantly reduce our emissions. Except if everyone in the world consumed at the same level at which American people do, the earth's resources would be completely and devastatingly depleted.

A lot of the foreigners I've met here are looking for some sort of spiritual guidance. They want to escape the superficial lives of their homes and enter into some new kind of life that is more in touch with existence and reality. I've unfortunately run into a lot of disappointed and unsatisfied seekers as well. From what I've seen, this global escapism masquerading as spiritual hunger results at worst in individual madness, at best in an awareness that these life-changing gurus are little more than sky-writing, and that the mystic East could teach the West a thing or two about materialism.

Wasting here is just not an option, especially with food. You don't get the obscene portions they serve in the US. You finish what's on your plate. I was scolded incessantly for not finishing one day at my homestay. If there's any food left, it is given to the cows or pets. People buy milk almost directly from its source; they cook their own food instead of buying packaged and frozen food. They use vegetables, chicken, lentils, and actual food as their sources of sustenance. There are far fewer chemicals; less processed protein substitutes or any other artificial food. Plastic bags are illegal. People use newspaper or old clothes sewn into bags. Things are constantly recycled and reused. People take bucket showers here. While I think it may be a learned art form at which I'm still horrible, it does use A TON less water. I'm not saying these things about everyone in India; just like not everyone in the US is a senseless consumer. But in lieu of capturing every category of people, I'm making generalizations. Deal with it till the end of this post.

 Consumption can't stop altogether because then the economy would crash. It's all about the sale and purchase of goods. In my mind, more service oriented activities are the answer. Instead of buying a new tv and cell phone just because there's better ones out on the market now, why not fix/update our current ones? We're just generating more trash and consuming more materials by buying a new version of something we already have which works perfectly fine. i fall into this category all the time. I like buying stuff. I have high-tech devices. I'm just now starting to see the potential of my changes This is all too idealistic and undeveloped, but something to think about nonetheless.

Maybe people should just consume more ethically. But that constitutes more thinking and effort in buying. When you're in a hurry, or you really need something, you don't think about where it came from, the emissions produced by transporting it half way across the world or anything of the sort. You buy what's cheap; doing otherwise would just be a sacrifice. You're going to buy what's cheapest. Of course you are. So how do you send the message to people that consuming ethically is important? Well, you can't market it as a sacrifice-- that will never work. What you need are the same excellent minds that are marketing the unethical products, the ones that drive consumerism at its source by advertising and telling you what's available and why you want it. Consumerism is often driven by the need for products that are portrayed as desirable by excellent marketing minds. It works and people want what is marketed as new and trendy. So in order for people to change their consumption, they have to see it as desirable; it has to be effectively marketed as new and trendy. You need those strategies and those mindsets that created this problem in order to combat this problem. And so on ad nausem.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Small Talk

After doing group discussions and personal interviews, I've gotten to know some of the women in the self-help groups pretty well-- especially when they spill their life stories about their husbands' alcoholism, beatings, female foeticide, harrassing in-laws and what not. Except it goes from them to Jyoti in the local dialect, then she thinks a bit to process it in Hindi, and then translates it to me in English. By this time it's a 2 minute delay before I can try to show compassion to the women sitting right next to me. Anyhow, they often invite us back to their houses for chai and to meet their families. Here are some phrases that I never anticipated using in small talk:
"Is that your cow?" In reference to the cow half in the doorway since cows can literally do whatever they want.

In response to the question are you married, which I get about five times a day. "Not yet. No I don't have children. No, I don't want any children." This get about 30 seconds of frustrated Hindi mumbling and the question "Really?" about six times. "Yes, I will have a love marriage. No, my parents won't be angry about a love marriage. Okay, I will try to come back to India for my marriage ceremony."

"Were your in-laws mad that your first three kids were girls? Have they pressured you to have an abortion?" Mother in-laws in India can be SUPER cruel and awful.Also, sex-selective abortions are a huge problem in India. Some states have as much as a million more men than women.

"No, at home I don't eat burgers everyday."

"No, I've never met Barack Obama."

Screaming over suckling

I’m the only white person I’ve seen in over a week. I actually didn’t even notice until today when I went to the foreigner’s registration office to extend my visa, which is the most complicated process I’ve ever been through and I’m only just starting. There was an Irish man reading Dharma Bums in the office who told me I could cut him in line because he was just getting to the good part (he was on page 17). I eagerly accepted and then I realized it was the first time I could speak normal English with someone.
All the people who I work with everyday are really nice and love when I act Indian. I wore my salwar kameez suit and bindi (the red dot that women stick between their eyes) to the office today and got a thousand compliments on how Indian wear suits me. They are ecstatic when I speak Hindi and constantly ask me to read random signs in Devanagri script just to laugh as I sound out the Hindi words like a first grader. They do make some wonderful green tea though, so I embrace their teasing. The organization has also assigned two guys to be my entertainers of sorts while I’m here. They work at Gunjan doing AIDS and Alcoholism prevention work, but they’re around my age and know Dharamshala well. They walk me to the different offices and Gunjan locations since the organization is terrified that I’ll get lost and have an anxiety attack, thus prompting me to call the US Embassy and demand immediate removal by helicopter. That’s what the one told me anyway. My second night here, they offered to cook me dinner when I confessed that I hate cooking and don’t know how to do it. Then they ran the dinner over to me at 9:30 at night (normal dinner time actually) and called later just to make sure it tasted okay. The next day they showed me the highest cricket stadium in the world, which is in Dharamshala, and then showed me their “spot,” aka this neat roof top from where you can see the whole Dharamshala mountainside and then down into the valley. They’re the typical Indian male best friends, so they hold hands or have their arms around each other at all times. They also love making me speak Hindi, which is downright embarrassing around them since they speak so fast and always wonder how I can say I speak a little Hindi when I never understand them. Thing is, I can understand non-native Hindi speakers better. Hindi speakers speak soooo fast and they mumble their words. When I don’t enunciate while speaking, the guys (Rishi and Sahel) will tell me that my accent is better. Seriously? My “accent” is better when I slur my words and barely differentiate between syllables? Oh Hindi.
I tried to do some serious practice the other day at one of my field visits. It was a festival day, so after my interviews, the village invited Jyoti and me to the temple for lunch and the small ceremony. Lunch consisted of the entire village sitting in these neatly arranged double lines that would in a spiral around the temple. People sit on either side of this pathway which the food servers walk down with HUGE baskets of rice and food that they dish out. So Jyoti explains the whole ceremony to me and tells me how the lunch and eating will be conducted. We’re each given these massive plates made out of local leaves. The leaves are soaked and then set out until almost dry at which point they are sewn together into a plate with the super thin sheets of branch. On these plates, you get a mound, massive mound, of rice on which every other dish is poured. You then mix the rice and dish served and go at it with your hands. I still haven’t quite mastered the hands only eating (I’m great with a chapatti though!), and the two year old next to me definitely took notice. She would laugh at me every time I spilled or dropped food and get the attention of whoever was within earshot by pointing and jabbering in Hindi. She had slightly more food spilt down her shirt by the end of it, but comparing my neatness to a two year old is not saying much. By the end, I am more full than I think I’ve ever been from the heaps of rice and I still have a bit of the mound on my plate. I was pretty close to upchucking the whole bus and jeep rides home.
By now I’ve met with 9 women’s self-help groups who have all been pretty neat and shown me a different side of India. The most memorable however was one that met in what was equivalent to the pre-school of their village. For some reason, most of the women brought their pre-school aged children. Jyoti told me it was a holiday in some villages that day, so they wanted to be around their families. I was just happy that people actually showed up on a holiday since in India almost everything shuts down for the simplest of holidays (people miss work for up to four days after Holi on the grounds that they are celebrating in the remnants of the victory of good over evil). The kids were pretty quiet, so I didn’t think they’d be a problem. The conversation went seamlessly until one baby started whining until she was breastfed. This spurred about six other babies to whine until they were also fed. At first I wasn’t bothered because well, womanhood comes with such things and I had to expect it at one time or another. What I did not expect, however, was the noise. Until you’re in a small pre-school trying to conduct “meaningful” interviews with 20 women, you’ll never know how loud the sound of eight babies breastfeeding can be. That was the first time I’ve ever had to raise my voice over the sound of suckling. I’m sure it’s not the last since I will be meeting with women’s groups everyday for the next month. Gross.

Mountains Beyond Mountains

I of course made it into Dharamsala quite easily.  A lot of which was due to my host brother and dad who insisted on accompanying me onto the train platform when they found out I was still waitlisted. So they buy their 1 rupee tickets, wait on the platform and wave me off through the window as the train leaves. It was adorable, especially since they’re both 6’3 and super skinny; they both have this super slow and gangly but kind of regal wave. So someone was nice enough to share a seat, and then her book, Drugs of Choice for Life. She was especially proud of the chapter “Drugs of Choice for Poisoning.”
I got my seat in New Delhi, slept soundly till my stop, crammed into a shared taxi to the bus station, and crammed onto a bus to Dharamshala. The bus ride was an adventure in itself, as it was basically 4 straight hours of climbing scraggly mountain roads that corkscrewed up the side of this mountain. It picks people up along the way to Dharamshala, but it doesn’t actually stop. When the ticket clerk sees someone wave down the bus, he blows his whistle and driver slows down enough that the clerk can throw open the doors and people can jump off and on as the bus passes. If you’re old, make sure someone lifts you on; if you can throw elbows to get yourself on, all the better. The one stop we did make was a five minute food stop at some random food stall on the side of the road. Just as we’re about to leave, it starts pouring. So this other Swedish guy and I climb onto the roof of the bus where everyone stores their luggage. I went to dig out my camera and ipod to save from the rain when the bus engine starts and it lurches into motion with us on top. We both try to balance for a second, but it’s raining really hard so we both slip and end up on our bellies, holding onto the luggage racks as we move. Everyone on the streets is yelling at the bus, but once again, it’s raining, so he doesn’t here them. We finally get him to stop by banging on the wet roof, soaking ourselves even more. When we do get back on the bus and take our seats, the ticket collector comes over and asks me to prove my ticket since I just got on. Really? He didn't remember from the past two hours when he was checking tickets? Was my wet, soot-covered self not enough to prove that I had previously been on the bus?
Anyway, upon reaching Dharamshala I called the two numbers, and landed myself in a cottage guest house with an unbelievable view of mountains beyond mountains. The actual Dharamshala is a quiet hill station town with a lot of random family owned businesses and such. Mcleod Ganj is about 20 minutes away and that’s the town full of spiritual journey seeking tourists. We all rode the bus together from the train station and I got many gasps when I got off before reaching hippie-town. Anyway, so this organization called Gunjan Organization for Community Development is helping me complete my project. I’ve spent three days in the field so far and I constantly embarrass myself. This adorable little woman named Jyoti is my advisor and she helps me get to the villages where I’m doing my research and then she translates what I can’t understand-- which is just about everything. So we walk 15 min from the NGO office, take a bus, then a jeep, and walk another 20 minutes through mountain-ledged pathways to get to the first village. Everything in India happens on its own time, so when we get to the village, we wait for almost 40 minutes before all the women of the self-help groups finally come. I’ve become quite good at entertaining myself here. That 40 minutes passed pretty quickly as I did pretty much nothing but stare out the window and listen to the Jyoti jabber in the local dialect with the village school teacher. At one point, Jyoti paused to tell that I should play and interact with the 4 toddlers who were sitting waiting for the teacher to take them home. I’d really rather shoot the shit with myself than play with kids, but I figured I should try if only to make my advisor happy. So I walk over to them and sit down. They all stop what they’re doing, retract a little bit and get really, really scared. I was probably the tallest woman they’ve ever seen and one of the only white people who‘s come to their school. They were absolutely terrified of me. One started crying, the other literally turned to face the wall and cupped his hands around his face while the remaining two ran to their teacher and hid behind her.  I’ve never been good with kids; it was a useless venture.
Soon enough the women pile in and we all sit together in this dark wooden school room as we discuss self-help groups. The whole experience was fantastic. It was completely voluntary for these women to come since they don’t usually have their meetings on Wednesdays. Yet they came to talk with me and they all really wanted to chat and tell me their story. Who knew they’d be so willing to talk with a white girl who speaks shotty Hindi. Also, I still can't believe that their everyday scenery is a range of dry mountains backed by the snow-capped Himalayas. "It's nice, but on the cloudy days we can only see part of the Himalayas" Jyoti responded when I told her how much I loved Dharamshala.
After two hours or so of talking and interviewing, we finally finished and people start to leave. I’m an idiot and forgot to bring lunch with me, but I figured I would eat it later. However one of the teachers asked me if I wanted anything to eat. The staff in Jaipur had told us that in Indian culture, you accept what is offered. When you go to visit a friend, you take the tea and biscuits; when you go to an NGO, try some of the snacks they offer. I guess that’s different when you’re in a poverty-stricken village.  In my split second decision, I only considered what I’ve known as polite. So I accept and Jyoti kind of warily tells them to bring me yogurt and an apple, what I had the day before for lunch. So I finish up my last interview and then notice one of the teachers coming back to the school having just purchased the yogurt and two apples (which are ridiculously expensive now because they’re out of season) with her own money. Now I feel awful-- like a self-entitled rich foreigner who’s come to India expecting people to serve her--- but I have to eat the food they bring or else it would be a serious waste of hard earned money. So I watch the teacher wash the apples and spoon in water that I know will make me sick and smile as she gives them to me. I’m given a blunt knife to cut up the apples, which are already bruised and mushy, but they’re expensive so dig in. The knife turned out to be a disaster. It so dull that when I would finally get a good cut in the apple, chunks of it would go flying onto the ground, wasting precious fruit. The first chunk was funny, the second chunk got a few giggles, but the third chunk got me a couple cold stares. So I’m sitting there, trying to be quiet and socially acceptable as Jyoti chats with the teachers, but these damn chunks of apple keep flying into the air every few seconds. The teachers start trying to catch the chunks and give them back so as not to waste. I felt like such an idiot sitting there eating food that I should not have accepted and out of the pocket of someone who I will never socially be allowed to pay back. Then I’m flinging apple chunks around their well-kept classroom and throwing away half the chunks since they landed on the floor. Thank gosh I had done the interviews earlier or else I would have been too embarrassed to interact with someone who saw my eating display. At the end, I tried my best to thank and say sorry in broken Hindi. Most of the women just laughed and chatted away with Jyoti. I can’t quite tell if she likes me right now, but she did invite me to meet her children (they will probably also be terrified of me and I will have no idea what to do with them.) Regardless, she’s stuck with this apple-flinging American for the next month.

Monday, April 11, 2011

So I’m sitting in my bed for my last night of my homestay. It’s the usual day before leaving situation in which I’m not fully packed and  still have a list of things to do tomorrow before I leave. Except, I have no idea how the next month will go. At 4:30 tomorrow I leave on an overnight train for Dharamshala (home of the Dalai Lama) to live by myself for the month doing my independent study project. I don’t have a confirmed seat for half of the ride yet (unconfirmed Jaipur to Dlehi, confirmed Delhi to Dharamshala), and I’m 38th on the waitlist. My program director’s advice was to find a nice group, a family maybe, and ask to sit with them until a seat opens up. I asked if I would get thrown off the train if I don’t get off the waitlist. He said no, you might just have to pay a “fine” of 100-200 rupees. Assuming that all works out, I get in at 6:30 in the morning to a town called Panthakot, which is four hours away from Dharamshala. The only options for getting there are buses or shared taxis. One teacher told me the buses start at 10 am and to hang around Panthakot until then. The other told me that the buses will revolve around train arrivals and if not, find a trustworthy group of Indians and share a taxi with them. The bus station is 4 km away from the train station and there’s no guarantee I’ll find a ride there either. Assuming that all works out and I get into Dharamshala, I have two phone numbers to call. One is my guest house, and the other is for the head of the organization who is providing me transportation to some mountainous villages later on during my project. After that, no idea. Food I could get at the guest house, but Indian food gets a tad monotonous since it’s all the same mushy texture and who knows what kind of guest house this is. No idea if I have a kitchen, so maybe I could cook, except I don’t know how to cook anything but eggs. No one knows exactly where I’ll arrive or when. And so begins the second part of my Indian adventure.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Holi Hai

Holi is one of the biggest holidays in India, probably equivalent to Thanksgiving. There’s a whole story with it, but it basically celebrates the victory of good over evil. To celebrate, people “play with colors” or basically cover each other in colored powder or water. As one of the shopkeepers told us on Holi’s eve, “There are no rules on Holi. You can even drive drunk and you won’t get a fine. The policemen are playing Holi too!” The penalty for drunk driving in India is only a fine? He wasn’t kidding thought about the no rules thing. According to my host mom, “Holi is an excuse for young people to touch each other.” She wasn’t kidding. In India, any kind of public physical contact between guys and girls is very, very rare. Husband and wife do not even touch each other. The younger generation pushes this sometimes by holding hands inside of the stores of the mall where less people will see them, but other than that, physical contact is just really rare. However that is just between the opposite sex. Physical contact with the same sex is incredibly common. When guys walk together and are good friends, they hold hands-- I mean fingers inter-laced locked grip. Even if they’re walking through traffic and a bike rides between them, they’ll hold hands over the cycle-er as they walk. Guys rub each other’s necks and pinch each other’s waists. Bro-mance here is just any old friendship. It’s pretty adorable. So yeah, that would neverrrr happen between a guy and a girl. Maybe in Mumbai or Bangalore or somewhere that’s overrun by business foreigners and western culture. 
Holi, however, is the one day a year that it’s okay for people to break that norm.
Holi’s eve was the first, and so far only, time I’ve been robbed. And by robbed, I mean petty theft. I bought a small water gun in the shape of a boy riding an elephant as we walked through the old city. A boy and his friends proceeded to follow us for about 15 minutes as we walked, keeping their a distance and occasionally asking for the water gun. I sound like a bitch in this situation, but after enough kids continuously bother you just because you’re white, you start to get aggravated when kids beg for something they don’t need. Just as my friend asked me to look at something and I leaned over to look, I slackened my grip on the water gun. The boy snatched it right out of my hand, sprinting off into the crowd. His friends started whooping, turning around to stick out their tongues and laugh at me as they run. I definitely considered running after him. Then I remembered that he stole a water gun.
Later, our student group went to the Elephant Festival, which is something Jaipur basically as a tourist attraction on the day before Holi. It a legitimate elephant fashion show. The owners dress up and paint their elephants and then have them catwalk down the elephant polo field (yes, elephant polo exists and is a very royal sport). At the end, judges award them first through third place, complete with trophies. Then this parade of cultural dancers, camels, horses, and what not come down the field catwalk and perform for all the white people with their huge ass camera lenses. It’s funny to see tourists fawn over this “authentic” display of culture in which hotel workers and mediocre musicians drunkenly perform. The festival flew in 60 elephants from Bangalore just for the event. That’s an 8 hour plan flight for each elephant. We couldn’t help but think of a fleet of flying elephants, dumbo drop style hanging from the bottom of a plane, landing in Jaipur just for their fashion show.
So while all of this is going on, I start feeling more and more nauseous. I couldn’t quite pin down if it was some virus that had been going around our group or if my malaria medicine was the culprit. Either way, the longer we sat, the more I looked for an escape route in case I start blow. Right in the middle of this slightly epileptic and arthritic tribal dance, I feel it starting. I leap up and rush down the stairs, pushing the large lenses out of my way as I go. A security guy points me to the closest bathroom and I duck inside, hand over mouth. When I get in, the one toilet is occupied and there’s a 5 person line. I look around my options: sink, chin-height window, floor, urinal. Urinal it was.
There are few lower moments than standing above a urinal, spitting and waiting to throw-up as a group of brightly powdered, heady tourists try to mask their disgust. Making the moment even more special, an Indian guy walks into the bathroom and upon seeing me asks in his British-twinged English, “You there’s a toilet, ya? You shouldn’t piss in a urinal.”
Yes, I thought that hiking up my skirt, lifting a leg and a taking a piss in a urinal in front of everyone in this crazy conservative country was a much better idea than waiting in line. I shot him the dirtiest look I could from my hunched over stance. “I’m sick,” I mumbled as my friend came in to do the whole hold your hair back and rub your back thing. Luckily, I was able to hold down whatever it was for the rest of the festival. I think I was so mortified by the thought of people watching me vomit into a urinal that I was able to post-pone any up-chuck.
Our staff rented us rooms in a guest house for the night since the next day there would be no rickshaws or taxis in the city, and if we wanted to play Holi together, we would have to be in the same area when we woke. I reserved my sickness episode for that night and had some fun times with the toilet while everyone ate their delivery American food.
The next morning we filled up our water guns (I bought a new, better one), grabbed our bags of powder and headed to the street. Across the street was a pretty small slum next to a half-finished building. There were kids outside playing with a hose and throwing what we thought was Holi colors at each other. So a few us climb the wall and jump over into their slum to play. It turned out to be construction debris that they were throwing and then washing off each, but we quickly turned it into playing Holi. I think their parents were stunned to see five white kids jumping a wall just to come throw colors around, but soon enough there whole group started to play with us. They turned on music and started doing some chest pumping and slow jumping dance as they screamed “Holi hai!” (It’s Holi). Everyone was throwing colors and the Indians had this dark red water that looked blood when you got it on you that they threw at us. There was this tiny, tiny old man in the group yelling and doing some Indian jig thing and when we colored him, the group of Indian got really excited and lifted him up, tossing him like he was a two year old. They started having him crowd surf through all of us and chanted “Gardas!” White people!
So we’re all dancing around, throwing colors, spraying water and laughing when one guy ducks into his home and emerges with a big white guinea pig in either hand and yells, “Happy Holi!!” He starts dancing around with his arms fully extended over his head and the guinea pigs bouncing around. The Indians don’t think this is odd at all and respond with “Happy Holi!!” I have yet to figure out if the guinea pigs had any significance; nevertheless he had us hold one for a bit and continued to dance around with them for the entire time.
Once we ran out of powder and crossed back to our hotel, we realized the touching thing was a not a joke even in our relatively calm setting. All the men who passed by us capitalized on their time. At one point, a small band rode by in a rickshaw and jumped out to play a Holi song upon seeing us. A super drunk old guy was accompanying them and he came over to dance with us to the song. He was kind of creepy and danced super close to our faces. It was funny until he got really close to you and then grabbed you by the shoulders and body slammed you. After about three people, we got skeeved out and left the band. They of course stopped playing and asked for money. They wouldn’t leave until we gave them something, but such is India.
We knew our staff had arranged for some kind of alcohol for us, but we were elated when we went back into the guest house to find a fully stocked bar of sorts waiting for us. I have yet to see a liquor shop in all of Jaipur, so it was definitely a wonderful surprise for all of us. Now we’ve all been in India for over two months now and have yet to drink more than one beer in a sitting (excluding those of us in Jaisalmeer). So our tolerance is down, it’s 10 am, already 95 degrees outside, and we’re 22 American college students in a guest house with lots of alcohol and pounds of colored powder. The most rational thing to do was get wasted and play with colors. Our staff shows up and drinks with us to play Holi. People from the street filter in and out, playing with us, dancing with us to Hindi hip-hop music. An hour or so in, the guest house put out salty, fried Indian snacks that we demolished. It was fantastic. At one point, we got kind of sick of the same Bollywood Hindi hits, so we plugged in an Ipod and settled on playing some Sleigh Bells. We’re all really excited to dance around to Crown on the Ground  and hear something from our culture. All the Indians, however, were not too thrilled about the noise. Being Indian, they don’t verbalize any disgust or discomfort. Instead, they very passively stop dancing, go sit and give us the stink eye that our Hindi teach taught us to use when someone is harassing you. Whooops. We had to finish two songs though. Then the computerized Hindi voices came back.
It was pretty crazy to watch our color progression. At first we had a couple of colors on our faces and clothes from the people across the street. Then, a little more from the people who passed us on the street. A crazy amount in our mouths, ears, hair and through our clothes as things started to pick up. Then, the water guns came out and we slowly all turned a shade of brown, black, or dark dark purple. By the end we were all dyed some sort of creepy color so that we slightly resembled zombies as we laid on the grass after our dance and drink filled day. The staff left and we all lazily went to our rooms to sleep. We dyed everything in the white guest rooms. We rickshawed home around 5 and saw small crowds of people doing the same thing: slowly walking home, slightly hung over and fully dyed. When I arrived at my homestay, my mom took one look at me, spun me around and said “You will go wash.” The water runoff from my hair was purplish black. My part was bright purple for three days. My hands were dyed pink for a week. My toenails still have pink on them.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Family Photos

So my oldest host brother came to visit for Holi and stayed for a week. He works in Mumbai and is super, super interesting. I felt bad because I was pretty non-discrete about how much I enjoyed talking to him; two nights we sat at the dinner table for hours after everyone had finished and talked about India, development and what not. Oddly, he's really into photography, so he also taught me a ton of stuff to do with my camera and such. I think in Indian culture that means hard core flirting or something, but we argued and debated a lot, so hopefully not. I've never talked with Yeshu this much since he's so shy and when we do talk, it's while we're watching tv and it's mostly about movies, music or Dexter (which I persuaded him to start watching!). His name is Sweetu? That's how it's pronounced at least, though his full name is Swaroop. So on his last night, he wanted a family photo and had us pose in different areas of the house with his timer camera. Here are the results.

Also, before we took the picture, he says he needs to change into a nicer shirt than his white nike one. This Black Sabbath shirt was his choice.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Art of Bribery

So Mt. Abu is the highest mountain in Rajasthan, which isn’t saying much considering it’s a desert and relatively flat. Nevertheless, the weekend I spent there was arguably the best weekend I’ve had here. My friend Lisa and I, who somehow always end being the facilitators of trips, have the worst luck with trains. As expected, our train to Abu arrives 20 minutes late and leaves about an hour late. Naturally, we expect the train to be about 30 minutes late arriving at Abu Road station, putting us in around 4:15 in the morning.  We decide to wake everyone up at 3:30 just in case and then we can wait for our stop as we wake up. So around 3:20 in the morning we’re both laying on our bottom bunks, looking out the window and we feel the train start to slow down. They do that from time to time for whatever reason, so we brush it off. Then out of some miracle, she spots a sign laying on the ground with big red letters reading “Abu Road” and the train comes a stop. Not only is our train about an hour earlier than what we projected, but it’s also 25 minutes earlier than it’s scheduled arrival. Nothing gets done early in India-- nothing. The Commonwealth games facilities are still unfinished, and those games are ended last year. IST, Indian standard time, is also synonymous with Indian stretchable time. Even my classes start anywhere in the 5-10 minute window after they’re supposed to. Nothing ever is on time, except our train?
So Lisa and I turn on the lights for our cabin and start yelling and shaking everyone to wake them up. There are six bunks in a cabin, three on either side stacked on top of each other. The girls on the top bunks literally jump from the top, landing on our shoulders, picking up bags with a leg still stuck on bunk poles. We’re all scrambling and yelling, waking up our entire car.
 Before coming to India, my mandatory blood test showed that I’m just barely anemic, but it wasn’t much to worry about since I had not been bothered by it in the US. In India however eating meat is a rarity and therefore so is absorbing iron; I’ve definitely felt the effects. I’m constantly tired and dizzy, and anytime I’m sedentary for long, at least one of my limbs becomes numb. We had been lying down for about 7 hours, so a majority of my right leg is numb, and upon rushing to get my stuff, I immediately get dizzy and sort of collapse. So I’m on the ground, searching for my shoes and bag, the girls from the top bunks are still climbing on the upper bunks and shoulders to find their stuff. Somehow, our luck allows us to be entirely suited up as the train creeps a little forward to the station and stops. We’re all wide awake and ready for the one hour cab ride to the mountain.
We get to our guest house just fine and have a room with four single beds pushed together to form a giant bed for the five of us. Supreme sleepover style-- we shared pillows and shotty blankets. After sleeping some and eating a fantastic muesli breakfast (huge commodity here since most breakfast is a fried bread thing stuffed with potatoes) on the roof with a great mountain view, we did some hiking through the mountain’s peak and climbed the 367 steps to a crazy cave temple.
At sunset, we took a  hike around some of the peaks, somehow scaling slanted rock sheets with the help of our guide yelling at us to “just climb!” While a little harsh, our guide, Ashok, turned out to be one of my favorite people I’ve met so far. He loved speaking Hindi with us, even though we only knew the most basic of sentences, and he knew everything about the mountains. Also, he had an obsession with photography and once he saw my friend’s fancy camera, he finagled his way into taking hundreds of pictures over the course of the trip. We watched an amazing sunset on this rock ledge that over looked a farming valley that went to the next city, almost five hours away. All that sounds kind of cheesy and slightly boring, but before Abu, every city we had visited was over polluted; this limited any views and cut short every sunset since the sun descends into a pollution smog before actually disappearing. As the sun was going down, Ashok ordered each of us to take stupid pictures of the sun: one of someone eating it, one of someone balancing it on her thumb, etc. He loved it and served us up some of the best chai we’ve had all semester to finish off the sunset.
The next morning we woke early to hike with Ashok and a British couple, taking a 45 jeep ride farther out. Hands down one of the best hikes I’ve ever done. We climbed for a while and did general hiking things until we came to a cave. Ashok turns to me, saying that I will go first because I am a strong a girl and can lead in the dark. Hmm…So then he instructs us that we will be crawling and to stay low without making too much noise because there are bats in the cave. Also it will be pitch black and if we keep crawling straight we will see a light hole immediately to our right, head towards it and then climb out. Sounds simple, except by crawling he meant sliding and squirming along on your belly and by immediately to our right, he meant a good 15-20 yards ahead. So we crawl at first, hunching lower and lower until we’re scraping on our bellies, going up hill, not totally able to look straight because the ceiling is too low. Luckily no bats, since we were all laughing and groaning about hitting our heads. I was the only one who could see the light since my butt blocked the sliver for everyone else as we slid up towards it. Ashok got some great pictures of us all coming up through the whole at the other end (he didn’t tell us about the walk around option).
We spent the rest of the morning climbing up to this amazing rock that overlooked the rest of valley from a different side. We stopped for chai, cookies, and some rock top yoga of which Ashok insisted on taking pictures.
After the hike, We had half a day to see the rest of Mt. Abu. One of the girls went ahead to the Om Shanti meditation center to try to conduct an interview for an assignment we had due the following week. After checking out of our guest house, the rest of us go to meet her at the center. We enter and immediately two older men come up to us, asking if we’re looking for our friend. Perfect, we think since they work at the center. They probably talked to her and know where she is. The one says he will take us on walk, the end of which we think will be our friend. Unfortunately, it was a disaster.  He takes us into this huge auditorium, sits us down and starts preaching to us about our immoral way of life and how to change it. He starts telling us all about their cultish philosophy on finding happiness, spreading it through the world, and achieving world peace. Some of his statements, I subscribe to, so we agree and nod and smile thinking it will end in a few minutes. Then he starts asking questions about whether we are satisfied with out lives in America. We of course think it’s a rhetorical questions since it’s been about 6 minutes and he hasn’t let us get a word in. He, however, takes our hesitation as a sign of dissatisfaction and takes the chance to seriously proselytize. We were lectured for a good 15 minutes on the selfishness and materiality of our lives and how the way we conducted ourselves was causing our own suffering, but if we would only think like he does, then we would be at peace. We all agree the first chance we get and start to stand up, but he keeps preaching. We start very slowly walking out of the aisle and down the ramp, but still he keeps preaching. Then he has us sit down again and preaches for another 10 minutes about how to save ourselves. None of us want to offend him since we’re surrounded by people getting the short version of this talk and we don’t want to cause a scene. Also, this whole time we’re thinking he knows where our friend is and that if we stick it out, he’ll take us to her. At the end he has us close our eyes and envision our saved lives. I am getting quite fed up at this point and open my eyes. He looks at me, gives me the squinty stink eye and says “You’re immoral life is still with you. CLOSE. YOUR. EYES. ” How stupid of me to be living this life. I’m so blind.
When he stops his rant after a total of 30 minutes, we ask to know where our friend is to which he replies, “Oh, she has gone from here about an hour ago.”
We rush out of the center to find her sitting at the other entrance, reading and unscathed by any proselytizing wrath. Lucky girl. We finish off the afternoon with a long walk to this Jain temple that is famous for its ornate white marble carvings. We weren’t allowed to bring cameras in, but to give you an idea, it is slightly comparable to Charles Dickens‘ novels. He got paid by the word, so his writing is sort of ornate and belabored. The carvers of this temple were likewise paid by the pound of dust accumulated from their carvings. What they accomplished was mind blowing.
We of course finished off the trip with an unnerving train adventure. Our seats were not confirmed, which was a usual event that had always cleared itself up on its own. This time we remained waitlisted. No one could give us a straight answer about what to do. The enquiry office told us to talk to the conductor. Our travel agent told us to ask the enquiry office. Our teacher told us to ask the travel agent. Our main concern was being ousted from the train at the next available stop if we didn’t have confirmed seats. Somehow, no one would give us a straight answer on whether or not that was a possibility. Finally, our travel agent told us that we should go to a certain car where the conductor, who’s name he knew, would be and then we should have the two of them talk on our phone. We should be prepared to hand over 100-200 rupees. I’ve never felt more “Indian” in those moments as we sat on the floor of the train station, eating Indian food with our hands and chapattis out of foil and tubs, just coming from a trunk jeep ride down the mountain, about to board a train where we don’t have seats, but ready to name drop and slide over hundreds of rupees to attain them.
So we do all this that we planned. We give the phone to the conductor with the travel agent on the other end, but it doesn’t quite work. Of course, a small crowd starts to gather in the corridor as we try to play pity foreigner card with the conductor. He keeps telling us there are no seats and we start to look at each other, knowing we’ll need to dig into our pockets. We’re getting ever more annoyed as all these men stare at us as we try to plead for a seat and we were definitely getting sick of being entertainment. When we one of them asks what our problem is, we grudgingly answer that our seats aren’t confirmed. Stupidly, we misjudged them as two of the men look at each other and offer to have their kids share bunks so that we can at least have one. Indian hospitality to the rescue, kind of. We ended up with one bottom bunk seat for the five us. After two hours of squishing onto the seat with legs on top of each other and hugging our knees because of the bunk above us, we decide to whip out our rupees. It totally backfired, for the conductor threw the 500 back and flatly told us that there were no seats. We couldn’t help but wonder if we should have tried to do it with more class, stick it in his pocket and wink, or maybe flash in the cup of my hand when I talk. Whichever method is best, we were screwed. My friend and I decided to venture off in hopes of another, and somehow found one about 6 cars down. So for the remainder of the 5 hours ride, the two us shared a bunk (miserable, 20 minutes of sleep total) while the other three split a bunk, which ended in one girl residing to spreading newspaper on the floor and sleeping there. We sleeplessly arrived at Jaipur at 6 am and decided to skip our first Hindi class session since we would basically be asleep. To us, it would have been ruder to attend class and be asleep during it; to our staff, it was ruder to not show up. We got a nice tongue lashing  and extra hindi homework for that cultural mix-up. Oh India, you make good stories, but you’re never easy.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Mustard seed oil and belly buttons

The remedies which my family has given me for my “delicate” stomach (usually my excuse for not eating all the stuff they force on me at the dinner table) have been quite interesting. When I first expressed that I had any problems, they suggested their natural remedies. I’m all for natural medicines and letting your body naturally fix itself, so of course I agree. My mom whips out a jar of white fluffy, seed-like things and says drinking them with water will help. The directions are to pour a tablespoon of seeds into a cup of water, stir briskly, and drink immediately before the stuff settles. So they get me a class of water and I start to stir the seeds when I suddenly feel like I’m participating in some drinking game. The three of them get on the edge of their seats, talking me through the stirring, “Ok, keep stirring a little more. Are you ready?” I take the spoon out. “NOW DRINK!!” My mom nearly yells and then starts chanting “drink, drink, drink!!” while head-bobbing and lightly pounding her fists on the table. My host dad and brother start to partake as well, and I can’t help but laugh. The seeds start to settle and I slow down. My mom immediately orders, “No, Jessica. Chug!” I didn’t even know Indians knew that word. By the end, I had drunk all the water, so the bottom was just soggy seeds. That was fun to chug. After that whole ordeal, I was watching tv with my host brother (which means me awkwardly pretending to enjoy this British show about muscle cars) when my mom comes into the room and exclaims, “Jessica, I forgot, there is another remedy for upset stomach! Follow me.” So I follow her into the kitchen and she shows me a bottle of mustard seed oil. “How could I forget? If you put a little bit of this in your belly button before bed, then you will be cured. It cures tummies and chapped lips.” Oh naturally. She was dead serious and I wasn‘t about to decry her natural remedies. So I took a spoonful of mustard seed oil back to my room to use before bed. Nothing eventful happened after putting it in my belly button. I was mostly uncomfortable because I couldn’t move off my back until it was nearly dry. Two or so days later I was better and my mom remarked that the mustard seed oil never fails.


So I brought my computer into my host brother’s room to write this post. Definitely walked in on him watching a National Geographic special on the international bra industry. Conveniently, I walked in during the fashion show segment, and in a society where showing your arms is scandalous, I felt like I walked in on him watching porn.  He changed it as soon as I sat down. Anyway, I guess I should recap significant things from the past couple of weeks. So after an awesome weekend hiking around and exploring Jaipur, my group went to Ranthambore. This is a kind of rural area in Rajasthan that has really only developed as a result of ecotourism centered around the preservation of tigers. They’re seriously endangered in India and this park is home to about 30 of the hundred some left  in India. Basically, this one awesome guy retired from his job, decided to dedicate his life to saving tigers and started up these two NGOs called Prakratik and Tiger Watch. They have formed a whole new way of living for the surrounding people simply in the name of saving the tiger; the whole operation is controversial, but really interesting. Tiger Watch came in to the forest area where the tigers lived and, by order of Indira Gandhi, moved all the forest dwelling communities out of their forest and relocated them outside of the forest. They were given land money and vocational training so that they could re-establish themselves somewhere else. These people are ex-poachers who relied on tiger hunting for their livelihoods. The relationship between Tiger Watch and the forest dwellers is still delicate, but the organization has otherwise done some awesome work with community development. In order to build rapport and trust with the surround people, Prakratik has set up a private school, new hospital (with almost entirely free surgeries for villagers), bio-fuel converters and a system of artificial insemination for cows that will have a higher milk yield. All of these projects rely a ton on the tourists who come to Ranthambore for tiger safaris and such. Our group of course took a safari through the tiger reserve to test our luck in seeing the precious tiger. We split into two jeeps and right away ours started having problems. It was smoking, popping and the accelerator just refused to work. So after much conversation between the park ranger, our staff, and the driver (who had a hint of whiskey on his breath) they decide to let our 15 person jeep roll down the hill to get back to the ranger center. The brakes worked occasionally as we slid backwards down this rocky hill. God knows how he steered it, but we somehow got down the hill and piled into another vehicle. We tour around the park, looking at birds and mongoose and the like when the ranger says something to the driver and he starts zooming through this thick safari, whipping around rocky and uneven corners and blasting through this shallow river getting us all wet. (As I’m writing this, the music video for “Black and Yellow” is on and I just spent five minutes explaining to Yeshu, my brother, the significance of the terrible towel). We get to our rushed destination and, oh my, there’s been a tiger spotting! Luckily, there are at least five other jeeps crowded in this one ditch area with all of their passengers climbing on top of the rails and yelling at each other so they can see this tiger. It of course is lying down and occasionally raises its head, which causes everyone climb higher and shove harder to get a view. Who are the animals now…? Our guide would tell us to be quiet as we all tried climbing and crouching at different angles to get a view through the 15 ft of brush separating us from the tiger. However, he clearly meant the Indian version of quiet (aka a little lower than a shout), for as soon as he would shush us, he would yell at the jeep in front of us to move so that we could get a better view. Most jeeps that showed up were full of older white people who wiped out ridiculous lenses and literally stood on their seats and jeep bars so as to get the best angle. I’ve never seen old men move so fast, especially with those crazy beige safari hats they were all wearing. It was all over a great trip and the community development work Prakratik does is pretty groundbreaking. Look them up.   I’d have to say though that of all the events of that excursion, the most eventful happened the night I got home and tried to tell my family what I learned. That whole week we just had Hindi vocab and review sessions since it was too much to have our usual 2 hour classes. We learned all the parts of the face and body so we could ask how much money poachers get for different parts of the tiger. Anyway, I was telling my family at dinner, pointing to my eyes for aank and nose for naak as they all nod and repeat. Then I point to my mouth and say “muut,” but no one repeats it and they all look at each other awkwardly as my brother stifles a laugh. My mom turns to me and sternly says “Jessica, don’t say that word. Mouth is muu.” The next day I ask my brother what muut means. He looks around to make sure no one is within earshot and almost whispers “ahh, you see, it means…penis.”

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Many Desserts of My Mother

So the rest of the travels were wonderful and are too hard to capture in blurbs, but just know that we visited a ton of really wonderful NGOs and met some inspiring, progressive people. Upon returning home, my host family was all buzzed to see me and of course fed me a monstrous meal. Then my mom whipped our her homemade barfi, which sounds really, well nauseating, but is actually sort of like soft toffee with pistachios on top. I’m of course obsessed with toffee, so I could barfi for all my meals. This is not, however, the most eventful of the desserts that she’s made. At first, she was really impressing me with her apple-pie creation and a chocolatey rum cake thing. Then she started making more “hereditary” desserts as she calls them. One of which was flour, butter, sugar, and almonds, not cooked, rolled into balls. Yes, they have enough butter in them to hold that ball. My first bite made me a little sick, but I smile, say “delicious!” and finish it. So of course, she spoons me two more and says “Take! You like sweets!” So I pick up another butter/sugar ball and chase it with a glass of water. “You should try another!” Damnit. I try to say no, which is literally impossible here, so I smile and eat it. I’m out of water, so I immediately excuse myself and go lay in my bed and fall into a sleep/food coma. The next day is my host dad’s birthday, so my mom makes her favorite desert: sweet potatoes. I’m thinking that sounds okay until she brings out a plate of cooked potatoes doused in honey. “Take! Take!”  It was quite repulsive. A couple days later, we have that similar flour ball dessert, but we’re out of butter, so it’s just a bowl of raw flour, sugar, and nuts. Eating it with a spoon though is sacrilegious; food tastes better when you eat it with your hands. Please picture eating floor, sugar, and pistachio flakes with your hands. Somehow they can do it quite gracefully and I am the big Neanderthal at the end of the table trying to catch all the pistachio pieces with my tongue. They didn’t tell me to take more that night.


So I guess I should explain more about traveling before I leave again for another week. I had a hindi mid-term (mid-terms in India? WHAT?) and silly UVa application things due last week, so I neglected any updating. So of all the places we went last week, Jaisalmerr was definitely the most eventful. Luckily our 12 hour train there went smoothly and we spent the next day in Jaisalmerr just getting lost through the streets and exploring parts of the central fort. Unlike most forts in Rajasthan, this one is free admissions and people live in it. They set up their porches like store fronts and have their workshop areas as their first floor. There are occasional  rooftop restaurants and we decide we’ll eat at one for dinner. Beforehand, we buy some whiskey and wine and sit on one of the ledges to watch the sunset behind the “Golden City.” Feeling slap-happy, we go to eat and everything seems fine as they bring our dessert. All of the sudden, the one boy in our group turns and vomits over the wall of the fort into someone’s front yard. The rest of look at each other completely shocked, for we are all sober after eating and had no idea he was on that level. He turns around and claims he’s fine as we give him our water. Then he turns to vomit multiple times over the side of this centuries old fort. We are mortified and pay our bill as fast as possible. Luckily, the waiter was unbothered, probably because all the mess was on someone else’s property. We somehow fit the six of us in a rickshaw (I laid in the back while my friend sat up front and drove part of the way) and escape to our hotel. 
    The next morning is camel riding time and our friend is still feeling the previous night. We get to the place to mount our camels, and my camera dies, so no pictures of this whole day. The first half of the day was phenomenal as we rode through different Jain temples and cemeteries. Of course all of us did the guilty tourist bit about exploiting the camels for our Orientalist pleasure, but we couldn’t miss the chance to for a stereotypical camel ride through the desert.  We had a great lunch in the sand dunes and take a jeep to our next camel place, stopping in ghost villages and temples and such. The jeep drops us off at this remote village where we meet our next group of camels. From here, things slowly get more and more uncomfortable. We meet our new guide, who offers us chai and to come meet his wife. We go into his house and his wife has her face covered and is crouched in a tiny, dark, smoky room. She won’t speak to us and very subserviently gives us chai. Then our guide introduces us to his kids. His sons are over the top engaging and lively and are playing with the other boys in the village. One of his daughters is sitting by herself, playing in the dirt and is very zombie-faced. She doesn’t even register that we’re talking to her and is almost creepy in her stand-offish demeanor. She is tiny for her age and has light streaks in her hair, a sign of malnourishment.  His other daughter is an infant in the room with his wife and he made an offhand joke about selling her to us for 20 rupees. This of course makes me a little sick since I’m studying sex-selective abortions and Rajasthan has one of the highest rates of missing women in the world.
We finally get on the camels and  make our way to the sand dunes when one of the camels starts freaking out, trying to pull away from the group and letting out this roar of sorts. We are all attached, so our camels start to get a little antsy as well. The one camel won’t stop freaking out and the guide stops us to come over and soothe him. He can see that we are all really unnerved and says “Don’t worry. He is nice camel, but sometimes he is joking.” We laugh uneasily. They switch up the order of the camels, which makes it better, but we are all really close together and the camel occasionally stops to roar and kick. We make our way farther across the dunes, which are amazingly enormous and throw off your depth perception until one guide scares us again by jumping onto my friend’s camel and keeping them much farther behind the group. Now she is blonde and Indian men have an affinity for blonde white women, so we all get a little uncomfortable and tell the other guide to wait. A few minutes later, they come cantering by and run off into another crevice as she gives us a slightly terrified look. We finally all get off in the same place and are free to run around the dunes as the sun goes down. From there, we eat a camp fire dinner under some amazing stars and take a jeep back into town. We have to rush to the train station since the chai and camel temper tantrums made us late. When we arrive, we realize that our train has been moved up an hour and is leaving in 10 minutes. We scramble to find the platform and ask a man if it is the train to Bikaner. He says he is on the same train and will let us know when it‘s here. When the train in front of us starts leaving, he yells “this is our train!” and starts running after it. We pick our bags and sprint after him. Jumping onto a moving train is not so glamorous when you’re desperate to make it, especially with hiking backpacks. When we do get on, the whole army unit fiasco begins and we spend a freezing night on a scary train. We get to Bikaner at 4 am and are delighted to cram three into a tiny bed with a thin mattress.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Travel Times

So I've been gone for a while doing some traveling around Rajasthan. This week is also packed with work, class and more traveling. But just to give you an idea, two Fridays ago, February 22nd, a couple friends and I took our first overnight train to Jaisalmerr. We took a day long camel ride out on some the desert sand dunes to about 40 km from Pakistan. Then we took another overnight train to Bikaner to meet up with our group. That train ride was, well interesting. We got cheaper tickets since it was a shorter ride, which turned out to be an awful idea. We jump on the train as it's moving out of the station and turn into our car to find it occupied by an army unit. Now we have had constant orientations warning us about train safety and locking up your belongings, but we've also had countless warnings about being a woman on a train and never making eye contact with people. They also told us to try to get an upper berth seat so that we can sit above people, hide under our blankets, and not draw attention to ourselves. Unfortunately, with 5 white girls and a car full of army men, that's a tad impossible. So we walk through the car and it slowly grows quieter as everyone stares and starts whispering. The army never has actual reserved seats, so they take any available seat. Of course, they are occupying our seats so we have to show them our tickets and get them to move, which was its own fiasco in itself since we had to verify our ticket with about 10 officers before they moved. We finally get settled and just die laughing as cat calls and the smell of hashish fill the car. None of us slept soundly that night as we hugged our bags and woke every time someone bumped our beds. Getting off in a strange city at 4 am was such a relief. We spent two days in Bikaner going to different rural education based NGOs and then went to Jodhpur for three days. There, we went to different sustainable communities and Pakistani refugees  organizations and visited palaces and such. From there, we took a bus to Pushkar (just north of Ajmer) and spent the weekend there. It is home to the only Brahma temple in the world and was unbelievably touristy. Not the kind of touristy atmosphere where people have fanny packs, visors, and multiple cameras. The main street reminded me a music festival crowd, for there were really earthy plain clothing shops everywhere that were infested by pierced and dreaded white hippies. Admittedly, it was really nice to have some organic muesli fresh fruit for breakfast, but the area was definitely geared toward drugged out hippies looking for more "true lives." We did go on an AMAZING 5 am hike to a temple on the top of a mountain to watch the sun rise, so the trip was well worth it. We returned home on Sunday night and I slept for 13 hours.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Imperialism Song and Dance

Our field trip to Laporiya today was cancelled due to inclement weather aka a freak thunderstorm that is never supposed to happen this time of year. After watching a classically ridiculous 3 hour Bollywood movie at the school, a group of us decide to do some monsoon sight-seeing. So we make the 20 minute auto rickshaw ride to the City Palace just in time for some sunshine. I won’t even try to describe palace, it was massive and unspeakably beautiful. I did however make a complete fool out of myself in one of the buildings. It housed most of the traditional wears of past kings and such, and the ceiling was this gorgeous carved white and pale blue marble. So as any tourist/student would do, I whip out my camera and take a picture. I forgot about the large sign at the entrance that said no photography. This traditionally dressed security guard comes running in my direction, holding his red turban with it’s 3 foot train, and shouting at me in Hindi. I, of course, am transfixed on getting a good angle for this ceiling and hear nothing. India is freaking loud-- I’ve learned to not be phased by shouting. By the time he reaches me and I’ve realized why he’s shouting, my flash has already gone off, aging the ancient clothing by at least a decade. The entire room is full of Indian students who have heard the shouting and are now looking at me with disgust for just tampering with their history. What an imperialist I’ve become.
After walking through this palace, we head towards the next one, which is called Hawa Mahal. It’s this great monument that was built so that the royal women could watch processions in the street without showing their faces to the public. Google it. So amazing. Anyway, as we’re walking there the usual street creeper comes up to our small pack of white girls and starts saying “hello, you’re so pretty, can I have two minutes?” As always, we ignore him and keep walking. Usually he’ll follow us, repeating the same three lines, for 2 minutes before he’s bored. This guy was rather persistent and started to ask my friend if she wasn’t talking to him because he was Indian, or because he wasn’t white, or because he was black. After ten ish minutes when we still ignored him, he says “Fucking bitches!” and leaves. We were just insulted in our language by a Hindi-native because we wouldn’t . Again, what imperialists.
Lastly, we stop in a notebook shop and browse through its stacks. Jaipur is famous for its hand-made paper, and I am a notebook fiend. I brought 11 notebooks here, including two mini ones for pockets for those times when I can’t carry one. The shopkeeper is incredibly nice and a great opposition to the ass we just escaped. He tells me all about the paper and such without doing the usual Indian song and dance of pushing you to buy everything in their store right     NOW for an outrageous price. I settle on the ones I like and he sells them to me for pretty cheap. I’m feeling great cuz I asked him the price in Hindi, haggled in Hindi, and he gave it to me. Then in Hindi he asks where I’m from, to which I respond in Hindi that I’m American. He immediately asks, in English, if I’m interested in the Kama Sutra books. I cannot escape the loose morals stereotype.

Chapati times with my host mom.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Hanky Panky

So I went to my second wedding over the weekend, and this time my entire 22 person group was invited. So of course our hoard of loud Americans comes dressed in our brand new sarees and eat everything in sight. Now, I didn’t actually buy a saree, but I told my host mom that most everyone else bought one to wear to the wedding. She gets all flustered and tells me that I have to wear a saree if my group is dressing up. The flashy thing I got last time just won’t do with so many fancy Americans. Hmm. Then she asks me what kind of earrings I have, to which I respond none. I didn’t bring any jewelry here. It’s rustic and quaint right? My mom doesn’t try to hide her shock and says “Nuhhhthing? You have no earrings?” And I tell her again that I brought not a single piece of jewelry with me. I’ve committed such a sin against females. It’s 7 and my ride is coming at 8:30 for the wedding, but she throws on her shawl and announces that we have to go buy earrings. On the way to the first store, I remark that people respect me much more when I’m walking with her. She very seriously replies, “They know that if they try any hanky panky with you, I’ll insult them!” Thank goodness.
We go to two stores before finding a pair that she finds fancy and, frankly, gaudy enough to match the saree she wants me to wear. Oh and conveniently it’s a two for one “scheme,” so I buy two pairs of large gold earrings with crazy bright gem stones. The pair weighs about the same as my cell phone. I spent 890 rupees to turn my ears purple by the end of the night.
So I borrow one of her sarees, which is chiffon and expensive, so I‘m super worried about ruining it or getting it dirty. The more my mom tucks and folds me in saree the more I realize I have to pee. By the time she finishes, I’m  cross-your-legs desperate to piss and I sheepishly ask her how to use the bathroom in a saree. Then, for the second time while in India, someone has to show me how to go to the bathroom. The first time was in orientation from the Indian version of Borat in a youtube video about Indian toilets, aka a ceramic hole in the ground with a water hose to “wash.” Peeing in a saree is the most delicate and careful thing I’ve done since I’ve been here. Before I leave, my mom asks if I want a picture in my first saree. My dad gets super excited about it and says “Yes! Yes! A photo shoot for your parents. Come to our couch!!” They take me into their never sat in family room and have me sit on a couch below a painting of his grandfather. Then my mom re-does my hair so that everyone can see my new earrings.  They both command me during the pictures as the dad gives me a play by play of the photos he’s taking. “Now for a close-up. Now don’t smile; be an Indian. Now smile; be American. Now stand and show the saree. Turn this way to catch the light.” I could hear their son stifling his laugh in the next room.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Adopt These Phrases

I just wanted to share a list of great things that my mom says in everyday life:

"We live in such a good area. There are many malls close by. You should go and model around in them."

"Are your shoes biting you?"

"Do you know about Gandhi?"

"This is Dogha Singh. He is our dog. Don't pet him though. He runs through the yard and spoils my hedges. Then I must beat him with a stick. He will spoil them again in 3-4 months, and then I must beat him again."

"You shouldn't go for runs around here. Men will misbehave at you." -My homestay Dad

We went to the nearest bhasti, or slum, that day. It's the area where all the puppeteers live. There is a certain kind of puppets for which Jaipur is famous, and these people make the puppets and put on the shows. We were able to get a group of men, women and kids to sit down with us and talk about changes and such that they want for their community. It was...ahhh FANTASTIC.