by
on September 11, 2012 on 9/11/12 from ,

August 28th-September 11th

You have to trust that even though the two-wheelers and cars are coming straight towards you, they will miss you just in time.

I’ll be learning this instrument!

I arrived a day late in India but was happy to still be allowed to stay a night in a nicer hotel in Mumbai. The drive to the hotel made me realize that I was definitely in India. Often when I arrive in another country it takes a few days for me to realize I’m in another country. Not India! There is no concept of lanes in India, and cars, two-wheelers, and rickshaws all participate in some sort of organized chaos that doesn’t seem organized to an outsider. It was simultaneously very exhilarating and frightening.

The next morning I had cereal and mango juice for breakfast (decided to avoid any Indian food for as long as possible). We left for about a two-hour ride to Durshet (our orientation site). The ride was one full of scenery and some cows on the road. Durshet is a forest resort that is like a summer camp. The other two latecomers and I jumped into orientation and met the other students. Orientation was sometimes boring but also very helpful at times. We were introduced to the history of Pune, what foods to avoid, rickshaw safety, and some Marathi phrases. Four or five people stayed in bungalows together, and we had bucket showers. You fill up one large bucket and then use a smaller bucket to pour water over yourself. It wasn’t as bad as I anticipated. The worst part of Durshet was the mosquitoes! Even the bug spray didn’t work! Also, I wasn’t a fan of the food because it was Punjabi style: spicy and thick.

One morning there was an optional trek to a tribal village. I was reluctant to go but am so glad I did! We hiked for an hour or so and then walked through the village. It was extremely muddy and slippery. (Monsoon season!) The women were dressed traditionally and were up early to get water from the well and wash their family’s clothes. Small children were playing in minimal clothing, and there were several chickens walking around. One woman showed us how she makes flour and polishes rice. Some of us practiced carrying water on our heads like the women, but we all failed. One woman had three pots full of water stacked on her head! It was amazing! The men were just sort of standing around—very traditional gender roles. The landscape was beautiful! I’ve never seen grass and trees so green. On the hike down, I slipped because it was so slippery! It just made me more careful from there on out.

I was happy to leave Durshet and head to the city of Pune. It is the 8th largest metropolis in India with a population of about six million. We were welcomed at our Program Center with aukshan. It is a small ceremony and was a very nice gesture. They placed a yellow and red dot on our forehead and moved a plate in a circle in front of us. We then all had lunch, and it was the first Indian food I actually enjoyed. We mingled with Indian students our age, and I really enjoyed speaking with a few of the students. After that we got a walking tour of some important parts of Pune with our Indian buddies. It wasn’t super helpful for me, especially since I’m directionally challenged.

That evening we were dropped off at our homestays. I’m in a hostel with 6 girls total. One of the girls is an Indian student our age. I have my own room, which I really love! There are four bedrooms total and two bathrooms. The bathrooms have western toilets and hand-held showerheads. It is called a geyser. Hot water works occasionally, but it’s not bad. Other students still only have bucket showers or Indian toilets. Three of the other girls live in a hostel above us with several Indian roommates. All of the Indian girls are music majors, either vocal or instrumental. Our roommate is often singing along to Indian music in the common space. Between the two hostels is our host mother’s apartment. She is a professional violinist and teaches as well. Swapna is her name, and she is a very kind host. Her twelve-year-old son is also fun! I spoke to him about Harry Potter and Avatar. We have brunch and dinner with her on Sundays, and she makes chai for us each weekday at 7:15am. It is difficult for me to be ready to go at that time. On other days, we have dinner in the small dining hall with all the students living at the hostel. We usually eat dinner with 5-10 people, and it is served family style in the middle of the table. We can drop in between 7:30-9:30pm for dinner. Breakfast is served at the Program Center on weekdays at 8am, and it is a wonderful breakfast! Lots of fruit, yogurt, oatmeal, boiled eggs, and chai!

The food served at the dining hall is actually pretty good. Sometimes I’m tired of Indian food, but the food served at the hostel is not very spicy and definitely tolerable. Lunch is on our own, and I usually go with some of the students to a restaurant on the road by our college. Today I went to Peter’s Pan and ordered spaghetti, and it was probably the spiciest thing I’ve eaten in Pune so far! I even asked them to put no spices in it. One of my friends (Jessica) ordered caramelized peanut butter and banana French toast though, and I should have gone with that option. I really love most things about India except the food. I anticipated this though. I usually really enjoy the vegetable dishes made for dinner at our hostel.

There is a fairly large grocery store near our hostel called the Big Bazaar. It offers food, clothing, cleaning supplies, etc. On my first trip there I bought materials to make a PB&J sandwich and other such emergency supplies! It is about a fifteen minute walk from my hostel. It works out well.

An interesting note about that fifteen minute walk though: there’s about a 50/50 percent chance that I’m either walking in dirty water or some mixture including sewage. I wash my feet very often. India is a beautiful place but also a dirty place. There are stray dogs EVERYwhere. If I’m walking down the street, I’ll see a dog every few seconds. Some of them are very sad with little fur and their ribs showing or legs hurt so that they limp. Others look more cheerful. There aren’t as many cats; I’ve only seen a couple. I haven’t encountered too many beggars, but today there were two very small boys, probably about five years old who wouldn’t stop following me. I gave them the cookies I had because sometimes it is good to carry small snacks/candies to hand them. After following me down the street a long while, they finally gave up. It is sad, but I know that it would be worse to give them money because usually the money doesn’t actually end up with them. I have seen men peeing on the side of a very busy street, and this is normal.

I take a rickshaw to and from school and sometimes to a friend’s house, so I always take a rickshaw at least twice a day. At first this was an intimidating task, but I’ve gotten used to communicating with the rickshaw drivers. Sometimes you have to be very stern with them because they’ll claim they don’t have change when they really do, or they may take you an abnormally long route to charge you extra money. The drivers usually know a little English but mainly Marathi. It is frustrating when the drivers refuse to take you because it is out of their way or they don’t think it is a worthy drive. I now know the good places to stand in order to catch one, and I know it becomes increasingly difficult to get a rickshaw after 10:00PM. I enjoy riding in the rickshaw because the wind blows as if you are in a convertible but also because you get to drive through the streets and see all the vendors, beggars, cows, goats, hogs, dogs, carts, etc. It is a colorful sight! However, pollution is terrible in Pune, and I have had some bad allergies because of all the smog and dust, especially from riding in a rickshaw with the other exhaust pipes. Sometimes the rickshaw will get about two inches away from the other vehicles on the road. It makes me think of the announcer at Dollywood saying “keep all arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times.” Crossing the road is also a difficult task! You are supposed to just jaywalk across the street. There are no crosswalks or signals except in one or two places. You just have to trust that even though the two-wheelers and cars are coming straight towards you, they will slow down or veer to the left or right just in time to miss you.

My classes are excellent! The professors are all very competent, impressive, and kind. They are stricter than professors in the US, but they demand respect and give respect. I’m taking Contemporary India, Public Health, Social Justice, and Nation, Caste, and Gender through Film. I will also be making a documentary film on a public health issue. Classes go through November 9th, then we have a travel week, and then we start our final projects. All the classes take field trips, and yesterday the Film class visited the Film and Television Institute of India. That was a wonderful opportunity! Many of the famous directors of the Golden Age of Indian cinema worked in the studios that are now used by students. The students at the film institute are required to learn how to edit films the old fashioned way by physically cutting the film. We saw this process, and it definitely seemed time consuming. The group viewed a short film made by one of the students, and we discussed it with one of the film professors.

In addition to our academic classes, everyone takes a cultural expression class for no credit. The options include traditional dance, pottery, painting, musical instruments, etc. I’ve decided that I’m going to learn how to play the jal tarang instrument. It is a set of ceramic bowls filled with differing levels of water, and one plays the bowls by striking the edge of the bowls with a beater.  I posted a video of a professional playing the jal tarang.

I’ve been shopping a few times in Pune and have bought some colorful leggings to match my new kurtas. It is comfortable clothing and helps us blend in a bit since we look so different in the first place. Although, it is a little ironic because many of the Indian students our age are shopping at the Western clothing stores while we are shopping at the traditional shops.

I really have enjoyed getting to know the other students in the program. They come from many different schools across the country, and they have all been supportive of each other. A couple of the other homestays are near the hostel, so it is nice to have other people to take a rickshaw with or visit with without going a long way from the hostel. A few of us are making travel plans to go North, and we’re very excited about that. Students are traveling all over the country. I wish there was more time to travel because the country is so big!

Over the last weekend, I visited with one of the Indian students named Maithily, and I had a great time. She and her dad ordered pepperoni pizza for dinner because I realized they had never had it and encouraged them to order it. They really enjoyed it! (They are non-veg, no worries!) I’m excited to be able to make friends who are Indian and not just the other Americans in the program.

On Sunday, I went waterfall rappelling. I had to wake up at 5:00AM and regretted my decision at that point, but I was very happy I attended the outing. We played in the creek at the bottom of the waterfall, hiked around, and then of course rappelled. From the bottom, it looked like a piece of cake, but when I was at the top of the 150 foot waterfall and saw Lauren go down right before me, I thought, “Oh God, she’s leaning into air!” I decided to rappel straight through the waterfall instead of staying on the right where the dryer side was, so I slipped a couple of times, but it was fun being under the water!

We’re learning quite a bit about the Indian nation and the diversity involved with it like the different religions of Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and Sikhs. We visited a Sikh temple with our Indian buddies, and I’m very happy that I’m learning about all the religions that we hear so much about in the news but not about the intricacies of the religion or knowing people who identify with those religions. This is especially important considering today is September 11th. We are learning about the lives of the minorities through the caste system, tribes, and women. The linguistic diversity of India is also important because it has often caused conflict. I will probably be blogging on these issues throughout the semester.

I hope this got everyone up to speed!