Thursday, December 20, 2012

Weekend Trip: Kerala!

During November 7-10, the ISP group headed out on the train to Kerala, the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu. Kerala is nicknamed "God's Own Country" and is known for being predominantly Christian, which they credit to the fact that the Apostle Thomas traveled to India for the Great Commission and stepped off the boat right in Kerala. The state is also unique because its government is  democratically elected communism.

After leaving at midnight to catch an eight hour long night train, we arrived at our accommodations. They were really nice, other than the fact that the beds were like rocks and Johanna and I found a spider in our toilet that was the biggest I'd ever seen in my life. Seriously, it was like the size of my hand. Pictures didn't do it justice, so I'm not even going to bother posting any of them here. But take my word for it, the beast was huge.

Most of our time in Kerala was spent taking classes about economics, but we did get to do some really cool things, like go for a boat ride on the Backwaters, which is all these canal-type rivers. It's actually called the "Venice of India." We saw the sun set over the water, and it was the first time in India that I got to see what I pictured as a classic "Indian sunset" before I got here.

We also got to wade in the Arabian Sea! It was warm and lovely! Other than the fact that in India, women go to the beach fully clothed. It was pretty icky to pull off all our wet, sandy clothes in the dark. Not to mention the cafe bathroom we were going to change in was locked, so we girls just held up a towel and changed in the back corner of the complex in the dark. It was really crazy and felt daring. Kirk stood guard for us though! What a guy.

We visited Amma's Ashram, a holy place where people visit to be devotees of Amma (meaning "Mother"), this woman who is the "hugging saint." Amma's whole shpeal is that she hugs people and alleviates some of their suffering or whatever. Amma herself wasn't there while we were visiting because she spends the majority of her time traveling the world and hugging people everywhere. But her mission also donates tons of money to relief after disasters and helping people and all sorts of stuff. It was a pretty interesting thing to learn about and her group does good work throughout the world. Unfortunately, she is doing all of these good things in the world, but people are worshiping her. It was kinda hard for us as a group of Christians to get behind her work. It seemed rather false prophet-ish to us.

During our last day, we visited several small churches and sites around Cochin. We got to see that site where the Apostle Thomas supposedly stepped off his boat (although, like everything in Jerusalem, it's rumored to be the site and who knows what is really the case...). And then we headed back again, on another train to Coimbatore.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Packing Up and Shipping Out.

At this point (as I sit on my bed in a hostel in Kathmandu, Nepal) this post is pretty late. But during my two and a half week trip through north India I didn't have internet access at all, so I never got a chance to post it. Better late than never, right?

With my friend Kairos on my last day in Coimbatore.
For the past week or two, I have been organizing, purging, and packing all of my possessions from the past three months of my life. Three months isn't that long, but since I didn't bring many possessions to India with me, I have accumulated quite a few things to fill up my room, my closet, the apartment in general. So I started early; cleaning out all of the folders from my classes, ditching the loose papers that I didn't think I'd ever look at again. It was a process. Not to mention, I had only one suitcase, limited to 50lbs, a backpack and a tote bag in which to fit all of my possessions, gifts, and souvenirs. The task seemed daunting.

Our little balcony, where we hang laundry.

What has really struck me though, is the perspective I've had packing. Now, if I were packing up from my apartment in Raheja Enclave and immediately boarding a plane back to New England, I think I would be totally geared up for going home. But in my case, for this trip, I am leaving Coimbatore, my home for the past three months, for two and a half weeks of traveling within India to places I've never been and one week to Nepal. Instead of feeling like I was leaving India for home, I packed up feeling as though I was leaving home to be a tourist, a nomad.

Isn't it interesting how one's perspective on home changes, just based on the next destination?

The gate of Raheja.

That being said, I am pumped for going to real home, a place where I have a culture in common with the people around me, where I don't automatically stick out because of the color of my skin and my knowledge of only one language instead of the average Indian's proficiency in two to five languages, where I can cook the food I like and know how and where to shop (usually, everything is available in one convenient location--how novel!) and can DRIVE myself there! It will be great. Aside from the fact that I'll be so cold that I'll probably never leave my bed.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Thanksgiving, India style.

On Thursday, everyone in the India Studies Program had to go to their internships for the last time. In case any of you were wondering, there is no Thanksgiving in India. It's a purely American thing. (Actually, Canada has one too, but it's a different day...)

We wanted to have a Thanksgiving meal with our neighbors, but we knew we wouldn't have time to do all of our cooking if we had internships all day. Instead, we dubbed Saturday our official Thanksgiving celebration and called it good. I mean, our neighbors didn't care! So yesterday we cooked all afternoon and had a delicious feast with seven of our neighbors, one friend, the program assistant, and the seven of us ISPers.

The challenge that remained was how to cook Thanksgiving using almost exclusively stovetop. We had long since given up the idea of turkey because you can't even buy them here, not to mention non of us has ever cooked one. And some of our neighbors and Hannah are vegetarians. But we still had to look up lots of versions of recipes to be cooked on the stove. We had a stovetop stuffing (no, not the brand; it was cooked from scratch in the wok), mashed potatoes, honey glazed carrots, and apple crisp (that's what I made!) all prepared exclusively on the gas burners. Additionally, Kelly made a green bean casserole that utilized our neighbor's microwave oven and Morgan made biscuits in the McClelland's oven (which is only about the size of a small microwave and sits on the counter in their kitchen). Morgan's family is Southern and she had a different biscuit recipe than mine. I still prefer my Bakewells, but hers were really good in their own way and I was impressed because she hasn't made them very much before and she had to modify the recipe for what was available here!

To make my apple crisp, I cooked oats, chopped almonds, brown sugar, and butter up in the wok til it was crunchy (basically, a stovetop granola), and cooked apples, raisins, sugar, and cinnamon in the wok separately. The recipe tells you to put the apples in a pan and then put the crunch over it, but because I made such a huge amount, we didn't really have enough space for that. So instead, I left them in their separate bowls and we put them together when we served them onto everyone's plates. It came out pretty well for what it was.

Since there were so many of us that we wouldn't really fit into any one apartment, we had a picnic on the roof. We spread sheets out and lit little Indian lamps and had all the pans of food up there. I bet none of you have had a nighttime picnic on the roof for Thanksgiving before! But it was like the perfect temperature up there and it was really lovely!

I think for me the most memorable part of the Thanksgiving time though was when I talked to my family on the phone. They all got together for desserts at about 5 pm EST, which is 3:30 am for me here.I wasn't planning on staying up to chat with everyone, but I ended up being awake until after 7am my time because I was working on a final project anyway, so at 3:30 I called them up. It was really nice to have a few moments talking to everyone individually, but the most impactful conversation was the one I had with my brother, Zac. Honestly, our ten minute conversation was probably the longest that I've had with him in a few years. At one point in the conversation, he commented that it's weird because I'm here living in India and he has literally no idea what that's like, no idea what India is like at all. That was the first time anyone acknowledged that verbally to me before, and I know it's something that the other members of India Studies Program have been dealing with, too. Most of us called home or skyped for Thanksgiving, but a lot of people felt more distant after skyping than they did before. It boils down to the fact that even though it's kind of a better glimpse of our lives here, skype will never do justice to our lives in this place. Even when we go home we'll never be able to fully articulate what we've experienced so that our friends and families will understand everything that's happened here. Several of my fellow participants have expressed their frustration with attempting to explain things to their families and not getting what they felt was an appropriate reaction. So we all thought it was neat that Zac took the time to verbally acknowledge that he literally has no clue what it's like for me to be here. After that fact was established, I explained a few small things so that he might have some kind of picture, but it was nice to have it out in the open that he didn't, couldn't and wouldn't fully grasp what I've been up to.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

A Change of Plans.

A change of flights. A few weeks ago I made the decision to go to Nepal before I fly home. Mostly because roundtrip tickets from Delhi to Kathmandu are only $200 and postponing my flight from Delhi to Boston a week was only $138. I dare you to get to Nepal for $338 ever again. It'll never happen. So I figured I'd go for it. A few of my friends here will be going with me. We're just going to chill in and around Kathmandu for a week before flying back to Delhi to catch our flights home on December 23rd.

In the meantime, things here in Coimbatore are wrapping up. We've got just over a week left in the city for all of our tests, papers, projects, and presentations. After we finish that all up, we're heading out on November 29th for a few weeks traveling around the rest of the country. Our first stop is in Hyderabad, the capital city of the neighboring state to the north, Andhra Pradesh. Hyderabad a seventeen hour train ride from here. And yes, we are doing all in one go. Bring it on, India, bring it on.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

I Can Hear the Bells

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to get invited to an Indian wedding. One of my friends here in Coimbatore was friends with the bride when they went to college together and the invitation he received was also extended to "the foreigners." So one of the other ISP participants, Morgan, and I headed down to a place called Trivandrum for a week-long break called Pooja holidays (that is, a week-long break from school because there were Poojas, a Hindu ritual, and Bakrid [otherwise known as Eid al-Adha], a Muslim holy day). We traveled by train for the very first time! It was interesting. Honestly, it wasn't as bad as people had been mentally preparing me for. It helped that I am little so that my feet didn't stick off the end of my bench-like bed in the sleeper car. At every stop, chai and coffee wallahs troll up and down through the train cars calling "Chaichaichaichaichai" and "Coffeecoffeecoffeecoffee" with an accent so thick you can barely understand them (think "Peanuts! Get your peanuts here!" at a baseball game; those people are American and I still don't know what they're saying half the time). But they don't only sell drinks-- there are dishes of biryani (a rice dish that is considered a national specialty but is prepared differently everywhere), plates of vada (a savory doughnut-like fried snack), and so many other things to choose from. And that's just what they're peddling ON the train! If you have a longer stop, you can leave the train to buy other things at the station.

When we got to our stop, the bride, whose name is Siji, and her mother were there to pick us up. Morgan, Poornith (the friend who invited us), Sonali (another friend of the bride who was our travel companion), and I crammed into our small cab with the two of them and the cabbie. Siji's family lives in a sort of complex. It's difficult to describe because there isn't really any relation in America, but there was one main entrance to the street with several of her extended family's homes back there. Even her grandparents were buried behind the houses! Because we were staying with the bride's family, we had behind the scenes access to Indian wedding preparations.

The day before the wedding, the bride gets all dressed up and has a kind of reception in her home where she receives her extended family members, family friends, and just about anyone who wants to come wish her well and see her off. They all pose for the camera standing next to her, and each visitor gets a piece of candy before they leave. This goes on for hours as people trickle through. The last people to come are the representatives from the groom's family-- basically, everyone from the groom's family except for the man himself. They bear all the gifts that are traditionally given to the bride for the wedding day; platters of fruit, flowers for the ceremony the next day, her wedding sari and veil, even her shoes and undergarments arrive on big silver trays in the arms of the groom's mother, sisters, and cousins. After dropping these items off and posing for the thousand obligatory photographs, the groom's family leaves for home again and everyone heads to bed for the big day.

This part of our stay was particularly fun for me because I got to hang out with the group of Siji's friends who were attending the wedding. Of all the people that were there, only six of the guests were the bride's college friends. They arrived at the beginning of this event and stayed til the very end despite the fact that the four boys were staying an hour away because one of them was helping photograph everything. While Siji was receiving guests, the rest of us all sat out on the porch chatting and having fun. It was a unique experience because at our college, boys and girls don't really interact. At all. So other than the only boy in my ISP group, I've barely even talked to guys since I got here. It was fun to just sit and shoot the breeze with a mixed group of males and females. Then, Siji came out and joined us for a while as she waited for her future in-laws to arrive and we all sang "action songs" together (basically songs I learned at China Lake and they sang during their years leading chapel choir at BACAS).

The day of the wedding was intense. Siji was fawned over by all of her female relatives. We were supposed to leave by ten at the latest, and didn't get out of the house until after ten thirty. Morgan, Sonali, Jenny (another friend of the bride) and I were shuttled in a minibus with the rest of the bride's family to the church where the wedding was held. The service was more than a little boring. Because it was a Christian wedding, they have VERY traditional vows and ceremony. There were hymns and LONG prayers said during the service, and even an entire sermon by one of the important clergymen. After the service was the first of two official receptions. It was in the same church complex as the ceremony but in a different building. The bride and groom stood on a stage and received hordes of guests, again posing for pictures. This was also the part where they fed each other and their families cake.

After the first reception, the bride goes home with the groom's family and they new couple is fed bananas and milk. Those two items represent something, but I don't remember what anymore. Meanwhile the rest of the bride's family and our group of friends retreated back to Siji's family's home to rest and change for the second reception. This was the one we wore our saris to! One of the aunties helped Morgan and I get dressed. We left with the family in two minibuses and trekked an hour and twenty minutes to the site of the second reception. This one was at night and was much fancier than the first. Again, the newlyweds were on stage, receiving guests, taking presents, getting photos taken. Also on stage was a whole scenic setup behind them including live doves! The photo ops with the couple are really awkward because not only do they take your picture, but the entire thing is filmed by video camera. As in, they make a video of you standing there and smiling. So uncomfortable. Anyway, the food at this reception was delicious! It included American-style dinner rolls (something I haven't had since being here)! And there was ice cream for dessert. Yum.

After the reception, we were bussed back to Siji's house to sleep for a few meager hours before getting up to catch our train. We did a lot during those few days, but at the same time, much of it was only sitting around and watching people interact with the bride. What I concluded is that being an Indian bride is really exhausting because you have to act so enthusiastic toward everyone, even when you don't know who they are. And there are a lot of people that you don't know who they are! So strange.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

If You Attempt a Titanic Pose with Your Photo-phobic Friend...

You might end up with a truly awkward series of photos. Kinda like this.

Lesson Four: Come Hungry. Or, On Hospitality and Gandhi.

Hospitality is a huge part of the culture in India. When you go to someone's house, you bring them a hostess present of some type (we usually get fruit or half a Kg of a famous sweet from the shop near our school). In the same way, when you leave, it is typical for the host to send you on your way with some small gift in return. If you stop in someone's home for any amount of time at all, expect to be pressured into tea of coffee and a small snack at the very least. This is just the way things go here. For the most part, it has been a really interesting study in loving your neighbor and caring for one another. It is part of the Indian culture to show people you care for them by feeding them. Hospitality is of the utmost importance.

The drawback to this insistence on hospitality and feeding people is that we are often stuffed full of food to the brink of exploding. And try as we might to refuse the snacks people push on us, it is considered insulting to refuse someone's hospitality and we feel pressured to oblige them. Last weekend, when I opted for only a small amount of rice at a meal following a church service, the young man behind me in line made a comment about, "we're not feeding rats!" took the scoop from the girl who was dishing it out, and plopped a bunch more rice on my plate. It is practically impossible to eat a small amount unless we're in the cafeteria or else our own apartment.

The conclusion I've drawn from this is that Gandhi had a ridiculous amount of willpower! I mean, it was already impressive that the man fasted for so long. But now that I have experienced the will of the Indian woman to make people eat, I have a whole other appreciation of Gandhi's dedication.

In all seriousness though, I have learned a lot about reverence for a leader from the people of India. In my contemporary India class, my teacher was brought to tears recounting the dedication Gandhi had and the sacrifices he made for this country. Reflecting upon it, I couldn't think of a single American leader who inspires tears in the American people, especially more than fifty years after their death. Martin Luther King Jr. is probably the closest we get, and even he doesn't inspire as much reverie as Indians have for Gandhi.

The lessons here are to go places hungry (do NOT eat before you go!) and respect your leaders. Or maybe elect and follow leaders worth respecting.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

On Being American, Part II.

In case anyone has been living under a rock (in which case you probably wouldn't be reading my blog, so that statement makes little sense...), today is voting day. I sent in my absentee ballot about six weeks ago in the hopes that it would make it home to Maine in time for elections. I have no way of know for sure, but as all the rest of my mail has arrived in ten to fourteen days, I think it's safe to assume that I have successfully voted in my first Presidential election.

It's weird and a little bit challenging to be eleven and a half hours separated from Eastern Standard Time. Right now it is actually almost 4 am Wednesday morning for me in Coimbatore, and yet much of America will still not have voted. For me, today has been a long day of jitters every time I remember that the fate of the America I return to will be decided in the next twenty-four hours.

The US Presidential elections are a big deal even in a place as far away as India. In fact, as some here have pointed out, the policies that the president will put into effect might have more of an impact on the average Indian than they will on the average American. Controversies like approval of FDI (foreign direct investment) in India are hot-button topics for people here. Starbucks has recently come to India, and Wal-Mart is on its way in. Globalization such as this could be really harmful to the economy of India, which is already so fragile to begin with.

With all the publicity this election is getting here, people have been asking us frequently about our political beliefs and who we want to win. As a politically diverse group of students from all over the country, this is a difficult question to answer. Instead, we've been deflecting and attempting to learn the Indian perspective on the presidential candidates. It has been really interesting. Apparently, most of the countries in the world, India included, support Obama over Romney. A conversation I had with a few women earlier this week confirmed this opinion. The women said that they liked Obama's charisma and that it wasn't his fault he took over during such a tumultuous time. They said that if he were president instead of George W. Bush, America would have been in a much better place back in 2008. They also said that they want him to have another term so that he can actually have some time to start getting things done.

As much as I agreed with most of what they said, it was all I could do to not contradict them at that statement (and one of the women was the secretary of the college I attend here -- a role similar to the president in Indian colleges-- so it would have been really inappropriate to do so). Four years is the term of the American presidency. It shouldn't be a requirement that a president have two terms to get things done. The first term should be long enough. I really don't want Romney to be president, but the reasons these women were giving frustrated me as a participant in the American political system. It's hard to represent a country that everybody thinks they have some right to an opinion on. Yes, America is influential in the world. Yes, people here are more informed about my politics than I am about theirs. But to have die-hard opinions about the governing system of a country you've never visited and is nothing like your own seems a little ridiculous to me.

That being said, I am even more interested to hear the results of the Maine-specific topics that I voted for. I want to see Angus King in the Senate. And most of all, I want everybody in Maine to have the chance to marry whomever they love. I don't think it's fair at all that some people are denied basic human rights because they happen to love someone who is the same sex as they are. I will be seriously disappointed if Maine chooses to deny this right to people during this election. All I can say is that at least I voted this time. I think.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Things I'm Looking Forward to at Home.

Things I'm looking forward to at home:
(Vaguely in order of how much I want them, but not really.)
(This list is not comprehensive.)

1. Ovens
2. Supermarkets
3. Jeans
4. Dryers
5. My mattress
6. Shower
7. Flushing toilet paper
8. Meat without bones
9. Eating with silverware
10. Coffee
11. Juice
12. Driving
13. Sweaters
14. Socks
15. Using my iphone
16. Stars
17. Electricity
18. Ice cream
19. Salad
20. Water
21. Free time
22. Kitschy arty crafty stuff
23. Bacon
24. Sandwiches
25. Not having to worry about cultural appropriateness
26. Starches that aren't rice
27. No (or at least fewer) bugs
28. Cheerios
29. Reese's
30. Bagel Mainea
31. Panera
32. Ice skating
33. Having an income
34. Foliage
35. Reliable mail
36. Chocolate
37. Beef
38. Earth-conscious waste systems
39. No language barrier
40. Bookstores
41. Wifi
42. "Breathe easy, you're in Maine"
43. Straightening my hair
44. Watching movies
45. Interacting with guys
46. Maine culture
47. Seeing the babies
48. Late night in Lane
49. A campus that has places to hang out
50. Blankets

Friday, November 2, 2012

Halloween Party

We can do it!
Sometimes, you just need a little bit of American culture in your life. After seeing everyone in the world’s (okay, not really everyone in the world…but still.) pictures from their Halloween parties last weekend, we in the ISP needed a bit of Halloween ourselves. Not to mention our director’s children, who are two and four years old, have never really experienced Halloween because they have been living in India for the past year and change. So we decided to throw a little shindig. We told ourselves it was for their benefit, but really we loved it as much as they did.

Kirk, Jireh, Nadine, Kairos, Hannah.
Everyone dressed up and we served no bake cookies, apples cooked with cinnamon (after the caramel totally failed), and wassail. I know that wassail is technically a Christmas drink, but it seemed like a pretty good option for fall festivities, especially as an alternative to apple cider. Not to mention all the candy we had. In fact, each of the people in our apartment hid in one of the rooms and all the children (Kairos, Jireh, and their neighbor, four-year-old Nadine) came “trick or treating” to the different rooms.
Enjoying my wassail.

Pin the leaf on the tree.

Then we played pin the leaf on the tree which was a variation game where there was no objective and nobody won, but we all successfully pinned our leaves on our tree. And it's still up and super cute. 

Garden gnome and friends humored me.

But the best part was that everybody involved had a blast. And that's about all you can ask for.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Weekend Trip: Ooty!

From October 4th to 6th, we went to Ooty, a city in the hill region known as the Nilgris. In fact, Ooty is one of three “hill stations” which were started as summer house/retreat locations for British soldiers during the reign of the British Raj because of the cooler climate found in the mountainous areas. I was really excited to go on the trip because it would be my first cool weather (read: fall) experience since coming to India. I have been really missing the autumn weather. We woke up freaking early just like the Madurai trip and headed out to Ooty, which is luckily a much closer location than Madurai was. Unfortunately, the drive is slightly more treacherous because the roads up and down the mountains consist of many hairpin turns. As in, there are 33 of them and they are literally called “hair pins” and there are signs telling you that you are on “hair pin 17/33” (cue the “REALLY?!?! We have sixteen MORE!?!?” groaning). I have never gotten carsick in my life, but even I wasn’t feeling well during that drive. The plus side was the view. We got to drive along this road that had gorgeous views of the valley and all of these little monkeys sitting on the side of the road. It was so great!

When we got to Ooty, we visited an NGO called Freedom Firm, where they rescue underage girls who are working in the sex industry. In India, it is illegal for girls under the age of 18 to be prostitutes, so if they are in there, it is totally legal to get them out, but removing them is a tricky business because if they don't want to come out there isn't really opportunity to convince them to come. Freedom Firm has men who go into the brothels while hooked up to video cameras and try to find and rescue the underage girls. 
 Unfortunately, due to demand in the sex industry here, it is only possible to purchase about seven minutes at a time with a girl, so the agents who go on these missions must convince a girl to trust them and come with them and call authorities within a seven minute window. It is all very complicated and sounded really stressful! After the girls have been removed from the brothels, they come to headquarters in Ooty where they get some rehabilitation. One of the things they do during this time is make jewelry that is used as an income for Freedom Firm and for themselves. Another part of their rehab is assisting with horse therapy for special needs children; this lets them feel like they are helping others and aren't just the ones being pitied and helped all the time. 

After learning about Freedom Firm, we headed back down the other side of the mountain to a place called “Quiet Corner” which is a retreat center. It really was quiet, too. Quiet Corner is technically within the boundaries of a place called  Mudumalai—a national wildlife reserve. After unpacking our bags, eating lunch, and resting a bit, we headed out on safari! Well, it was really just a drive through the wildlife reserve in the cars that our school already provided. But apparently in India "safari" means a ride through the jungle areas (whereas when I think "safari," I think of the grassy plains where lions prowl and gazelle lope). There are wild elephants and even tigers in Mudumalai. We saw several trained elephants, lots of deer, a few monkeys, a herd of bison, a peacock, and ONE little wild elephant chomping away on some greenery. We didn't see any tigers, unfortunately.

The next morning, we headed back up the mountain to Ooty where we stayed in a guest house run by CSI (the Church of South India). It kind of felt like the Von Trapp family because the style of the house was European lodge-ish and it was on the mountainside looking out over the valley and stuff. We had a class there, a lecture about the history of Christianity in India. We also got a tea break that included CHOCOLATE CAKE! It was glorious.Then, for lunch, we went to a woman name Queenie's house. Queenie was an orphan and was brought up in a group home by a Canadian couple. Her husband was raised in the boys' group home by the same people. So she grew up with a very westernized perspective. And better still, a very Westernized palate! She made us delicious, bland, American food. And she cooked for us for dinner that night and breakfast the next day as well! She made pancakes! We were so excited.

In the afternoon, we visited a tribal group called the Todas. They live in a place that REALLY feels like the Von Trapps would live there-- it's even called "Little Switzerland"! But that's just named such because of the scenery of the mountains, not the way their houses looked. Even still, the mountains and all of the grassy hills reminded me of home. A lot.
The Toda tribe was beautiful. They live in this secluded little area and farm and do enbroidery on these really intricate shawls that are their traditional garment. I wish I could have bought one, but they're ridiculously heavy and cost a couple thousand dollars I think. So that wasn't happening. But the people themselves were just all really beautiful.
There are many different little enclaves of Todas, but the one that we visited is all Christians, converted from their original tribal religion. It was interesting to hear all their different cultural practices though, like the way their marriage works. It's kind of like an arranged marriage, but after the families pick the marriage, the couple has a "trial marriage" for a year and they have to conceive a child within that time. If they do conceive, their marriage takes place in the seventh month of pregnancy. If they don't, it's just back to the drawing board on the marriage front, I guess, and they get to try again. Anyway, my favorite part of that trip was the two beautiful little girls that were there. I drew them each a picture (a peacock and a butterfly) and smiled at them a lot. They didn't know any English and I don't know anything from their tribal language, but I didn't even care. They were so presh.

After leaving the Todas, we visited the botanical gardens in Ooty…which were kind of lame. It was just all these potted plants really. But there were some pretty cool shaped shrubs. Bunnies, swans, peacocks and the like. That night we had a campfire. It was really fun because the air was so crisp and it felt like it was really fall in New England. Our two faculty guides and two drivers had never toasted marshmallows or had s’mores before, so we got marshmallows from the sweet store downtown and set them to work over the fire. They told us that they liked the s’mores, but I couldn’t tell if they were just saying that to be nice. The marshmallows were weird and supersweet and a little bit flavored, anyway, so it wasn’t exactly like American s’mores.

The last day of our trip, we visited a tea estate. All the hills in Ooty are covered with tea plants-- it's crazy. Tea grows in shrub-like bushes and they have lines for the workers to walk along and it looks to me like zen gardens. But they were seriously everywhere. In some places, tea fields were all you could see when you looked out the window of the car. We got to tour a factory where they dry and grind and sift the tea leaves to collect the different types of tea. We also go a demonstration of how tea is harvested in the fields.

On our way out of Ooty, we stopped at another tribal village, the Kurumba Tribe. They were a bit out of sorts because all of the men from the tribe had taken someone to the hospital that day, but it was still cool to spend some time with them. A bunch of us got to dance with the little kids, and after we left we learned from our faculty guide that the song they were singing was about Jesus! It was apparently a song they'd learned when a local church ran a VBS for them.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

A Little Bit of Homework.

For one of my classes I have to read Amartya Sen's book Development as Freedom. I don't recommend it. Sen is some super genius economist who works at Harvard and has won the Nobel Prize in economics and the book is really complex and confusing. We're supposed to read different sections of the book, develop a question about the reading and answer it. You don't even have to actually come to a conclusion; it's more about the thought process and attempting to wrestle with the content of the book. I felt like the wrestling I did during the last section was really valuable, so I've copied my paper below for you all to enjoy. Just in case you didn't have enough homework.

In this section of Development as Freedom, Amartya Sen writes extensively about what poverty means to individuals living in their own countries, and how location and median income of that area affect the quality of life those individuals can have. The theory, which seems to be logical, is that even if a person has a greater income than many others in the world, if it is significantly less than the average in their area, that person will probably suffer because the standard and cost of living are higher and they can’t keep up. If this is true, then is emigration based on hope for economic increase or better healthcare or something of the like actually advantageous?
In my personal life experience, through novels and historical trends and the typical American perspective, I have always rather thought that America was the best place to live. Not “best” as in no other place is good, beautiful, or rich in culture and experiences, but “best” as in I have never been excessively hungry, I have a place to sleep, I receive a very good compulsory education, I can drink any water that I want and not worry about getting sick. Even though I know it is a fallacy, deep in my mind I still think that the best way to improve people’s lives is to bring them to America, the land of opportunity! Therefore, tasks like teaching people English are of the utmost importance because their ultimate end goal is to be in America someday, where life is better. This probably sounds really stupid to anyone reading it, but I’m just being honest. Even I take this perspective with a grain of salt; it isn’t as though I have a dream to bring every poor, sick, or starving person to Maine and think that they will all flourish there. But it has always seemed to me that America is the best place to live.
After reading these chapters, as well as having a conversation with someone experienced with refugee work in America, I have started to seriously overhaul this line of thought. If it is true that more important to quality of life and happiness is an individual or family’s economic standing compared with those surrounding them, rather than the world as a whole, then it is most certainly not in a person or family’s best interest to immigrate to America to start life over. Chances are they don’t know anyone in their new area, and apparently even refugees are only given governmental assistance for eight months upon arrival in America. If someone doesn’t speak English, they may have a difficult time finding work, especially within an eight-month time frame. Furthermore, refugees are given less than one thousand dollars with which to start life over completely new. In the scheme of American finances that amount is virtually nothing to survive on. When these people come to America, they are leaving behind a place where they are understood and probably feel comfortable for the hope that they will have a “better” life. But because they are economically disadvantaged by American standards, they will be financially hurting just as they were in their home country and possibly even worse off. This leads me to believe that America isn’t the best solution for everyone. It seems like an obvious answer, but it really did take all that thinking through to come to the conclusion that America isn’t the answer. America is not and never was the Promised Land.
The realization that America isn’t the answer to every third world country’s problems led me to reconsider a few other ideas that I had previously taken for granted. At my internship, on of the potential opportunities for American interns in the future was to teach English lessons. It seemed like such a great idea, something that I am able to do relatively easily and that could be a really valuable investment of my time into the community. But after realizing that America is not the final goal of these people and shouldn’t be their goal, it was a little less clear why the people should all learn English. Yes, English is spoken in this part of India a lot, and it would certainly be beneficial to the overall economy to have a common language, but why does it have to be English? The language of their oppressors for so many year shouldn’t be the language everyone is required to learn to function in society when they already know the language of their cultural heritage. I have come to doubt and wonder whether the skills I, as an outsider, possess can really be that beneficial to the communities here. Help needs to come from within, as World Vision has already realized. Their plan is to work from within the culture, with offices right in the areas they want to improve, employing locals who know what is going on and what can be done, to try to get the underprivileged educated and get them the resources they need to have the same opportunities to fill potential as those around them in India.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

It's Just Not the Same...

As one might expect, things in India are a little bit different than things in America. Sometimes the differences are dramatic, like the clothing options, but sometimes the differences are subtle so that you don’t notice them for a while and all of a sudden you realize that it isn’t what you are totally familiar with. Those are the differences that tend to be either shocking in their sudden appearance or else highly entertaining. Here are some examples:
Trash. There is no real system of waste management here. Everyone just throws everything onto the ground. It was really jarring to see one of the most Western acting students still crumple up a piece of paper and throw it over her shoulder. I was horrified. But then I realized that probably the trash that we leave out in little baskets every morning to come and be collected is still ending up on the ground somewhere. There really isn’t a good way to beat the system. And don’t even get me started on recycling. It’s like the concept never even occurred to them.
Traffic. I’ve mentioned this before, but there just aren’t any road rules. They don’t even exist. It’s terrifying.
A silly sign in Ooty.
Language. Not as in I-speak-English-and-everyone-else-speaks-Tamil-or-Hindi (although that is sometimes the case), but the words people use and the pronunciation here are just different. Because there is such an influence of Britain in this country, especially in the education sector, the people who know totally fluent English sometimes come out with words that seem to me to be really sophisticated and random. For instance, in class the words that teachers use are sometimes really surprising to me and even though I know them, I can think of three other easier words that a professor in America would have used. And the pronunciation is really funny, like people pronounce “only” so that it sounds like “one-ly” (which actually kind of makes sense).

Food. Cooked and eaten using mostly your hands. The meat here is totally bone-in. It’s kind of disgusting, especially when you see a big pile of raw meat with all its bones and blood just chilling, waiting to go into a dish. And then you find the pieces of liver and heart and all sorts of nasty in your food. BLECH. Also, the juices here just aren’t the same. They are more like fruit drinks than actually fruit juice even when they tell you they're 100% juice. I can’t wait to get some juice when I go home.

Bathing. Instead of showers, most people take “baths” which we ISPers refer to as bucket baths. As in you fill a large bucket full of water and then you have another cuplike one (think of a large liquid measuring cup) that you use to splash it over yourself. It really helps to conserve water, but they are a pain and a half to do. In our apartment, I usually just take a regular shower.

Henna by torch light (flashlight) during a power cut.
Electricity. As in, there isn’t any half of the time. Coimbatore has power cuts 12-15 hours per day. My apartment runs on a generator, which will power our lights and fans as well as our few outlets, but the water heaters, fridge, and washing machine aren't connected to the generator. Overall, our basic comforts are covered and it still gets annoying for us. The people who can’t afford generators are the ones who really take a hit from the power cuts, and typically use one or two candles (or, if they're lucky and can afford it, some portable lights that you plug in to charge when the power is on) to light their homes. 

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Weekend Trip: Madurai!

On September 21st and 22nd we took a weekend trip to Madurai. Despite the fact that we had to wake up at four thirty in the morning to start our five hour journey, we were all really excited to be going on our first trip. In previous batches of ISP students, the Madurai trip has been referred to as the “Coimbatore appreciation trip” because of the very different climate in Madurai. Though the actual temperature in the two places is pretty much equal, Coimbatore sits between mountain ranges and catches an excellent breeze, whereas Madurai is humid and gets no breeze whatsoever. The entire weekend it felt like we never stopped sweating.

After stopping for breakfast during our drive, our first stop was at the Gandhi museum. The information was really interesting, with walls filled with the entire story of the Indian independence movement from way before Gandhi’s time, up through specific details about the work during his lifetime.
Unfortunately, much of the area devoted to Gandhi’s personal life and beliefs contained signage exclusively in Tamil. What I really loved about that place was the architecture—the museum was housed in an old exhibition pavilion called the Tamukkam Palace. It was built around 1670 AD, during the Nayak Dynasty. All the windows and arches were gorgeous!

We spent the night at the Tamil Nadu Theological Seminary (TTS), which was this beautiful oasis right in the middle of the city. I’m not kidding, either. You are literally driving through the middle of the city and you turn down a road that you probably didn’t even realize was a road because it’s right between two buildings and then you drive for a ways and are suddenly on this spacious, coconut tree filled campus with chickens roaming about and plenty of walking paths. All you can hear on the TTS campus are crickets or cicadas or whatever chirping even though five minutes away the city is bustling. It was crazy! We spent the afternoon resting and visiting with the TTS “principal” (as opposed to the American version that would be president). TTS is unique in that they are making a marked effort to help the untouchable caste or dalits. The caste system is still a major detriment to the people and society of India and TTS is attempting to empower the people who are still being abused in this dysfunctional system. Hopefully I’ll have a post exclusively about the caste system and the dalits sometime in the future, but for now just take my word for it that it’s totally messed up and lame.

That night, we went to the Thirumalai Nayak Palace and saw a sound and light show. Which meant that different parts of the palace were lit up with colorful lights and voices narrated much of the history of that place. It was really interesting—if only we’d all been awake enough to truly absorb everything we’d heard!

We spent the night at TTS, but the rooms were so blasted hot that everybody had a hard time sleeping. While the power was on the fans kept us relatively cool, but when the power shut off and the fans stopped, it got positively sweltering in our rooms. I slept pretty well throughout the night, but lots of people had a rough time.
On Saturday, we visited the Sri Meenakshi Temple, which is a huge Hindu temple that gets lots of traffic both from worshippers and also from tourists every day. It really was enormous. And so much of it was beautiful. But at the same time it was weird and a little eerie. Okay, at times a lot eerie. There was an area of the temple that had all these idols on the pillars and people came and prayed to specific ones for specific things (kind of like Catholics with the saints), and one of the idols on the pillar was for something to do with bearing children and they had this cloth tied over it and men aren’t supposed to look at it and it was smeared with goop and it was just really gross and unnerving.

We did get to do sweet things like take pictures with the temple elephant! And inside we found a small stone elephant and took pictures "riding" that too! On the way out, there were all there pigeons on the ground and I ran through them and made them all fly away. It made me feel like a small child, and it was lovely. So basically, my favorite part of that visit was the photo ops...

On our way back from Madurai, we had the opportunity to stop at a “hospice” called Arugalam, which means hope. But a hospice here is not the same thing as hospice care in America. Instead, this hospice was an outreach through TTS that takes care of people, predominantly children, infected with HIV/AIDS. Obviously, the children who have it have mostly gotten it through genetics rather than unsafe choices of their own, which made it seem like a potentially depressing place to visit. But it wasn’t depressing AT ALL. In fact, stopping there was my favorite part of the entire weekend! We got to hear all about how the children receive treatment and are loved and cared for and given an extremely nutritious diet so that their bodies can be as healthy as possible. And best of all was that we got to play with them. Seeing the way those children were loved by their caretakers was absolutely heartwarming, and seeing how they all interacted as siblings was also beautiful.
When our time there was over, none of us wanted to leave! One of the boys reminded me of Jon like crazy except for the fact that he was shorter than I am and is sixteen instead of thirteen. But it seems that all Indians are shorter than Americans for their age and all Indians also look younger than they really are. It can be really confusing to try to figure out a person’s age!