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.