"I believe that if one man gains spiritually the whole world gains with him." -Mahatma Gandhi

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Heaven, meet Earth (Hampi) + some reflection

Sundar means beautiful in Hindi

            Exactly a month ago I was leaving San Francisco for my new home in India.  With less than two weeks left in the study abroad program, people are beginning to talk about how to take even better advantage of their time here and brainstorming where reunions will take place (considering we are from all over the U.S.).

            There are so many wonderfully fantastic things about India: the people, the varying landscape, the food, the clothing, the music, the movies, and the culture in general. However, some of the issues I have seen here have made me realize how evident these issues are all over the world.  I guess being in a different setting is just enabling me to see these from a different perspective.  When I say “issues,” I am mostly referring to the gender inequality that is so evident here.  Being a woman, this is the most frustrating for me, especially when I am personally experiencing the biases and inequality on a regular basis.  I am so grateful for the progress that is so clearly taking place, but I know that the rate at which change will come is slower than I would like.

            Besides social issues getting me down, I had an awesome week.  It included learning the beginning of a new dance for my dance class (we perform this Friday already!), karaoke night with some new local friends, Indian pizza, the last Harry Potter, a solo walking tour of my neighborhood and other areas, lots of shopping (including a sari!), and of course more and more awesome food. 

            The week was topped off with one of the best weekends I could ever ask for.  My roommate, Kelsey, Marissa, and I planned a trip to Hampi, which is around 8 hours north west of Bangalore.  Hampi is one of the ancient Hindu centers of India and sounded pretty amazing according to review online and references from friends who had gone before.  We bought our bus tickets a couple days before to leave Friday night for the overnight journey.

            The trip started out a bit stressful.  We took a bus to the main bus station (Majestic) to catch our bus to Hampi.  After asking around a bit, we found out we were actually at the wrong station!  Turns out there are two Majestics, one is the bus station and one is the railroad station that some bus companies leave from.  After confirming that this was the case with a young Indian couple, they told us we needed to get in a rickshaw right away if we wanted to make our bus.  We hurried to a rickshaw and explained where we needed to go, showing the driver our ticket.  After some confusion, he figured out where we wanted to go.  He tried to finish his conversation with the other drivers nearby, but we all looked at him and demanded, “we need to go NOW!”   He instantly got into gear, realizing that these white girls meant business.  He got us there incredibly fast and after getting dropped off in the general area and wandering through the street of businesses, we figured out our bus was late anyway and waited with the other confused white people in the area.

            After a surprisingly delightful sleep in the AC sleeper bus (it will be tough for me to go back to a non-AC seater for an overnight ride), we got to Hampi at 6:30 am.  We had a hotel in mind and took a boat across the river, but noted that the temple elephant was going to be bathed in an hour. We checked in to our beautiful hotel, which was just a bunch of huts looking out on a rice paddy, the river, and a banana plantation in the background.  The landscape was covered in palm trees and awesome boulders, with tons of temple ruins scattered in.  We went back across the river to really get into our amazing day. 

            We watched the elephant get bathed, ate breakfast at the Mango Restaurant (recommended in Lonely Planet, but overpriced) wandered around the small shops with handmade clothes, jewelry, bags, etc and did some shopping.  Then we rented bikes and roads to some ruins where we climbed around and took tons of pictures.  We ate again and waited out a quick monsoon (aka it rained some) and went back to the main bazaar area.  I got a very oily massage (include on my face and in my hair), so I was walking around with hair wet with oil the rest of the weekend.  We walked up a rocky area above the main temple that is known for sunset watching.  Probably the best event of the day waited until the end.  We were walking back to the river to take a boat across and saw the temple elephant with two of its caretakers and three French guys.  Naturally we followed them and it turned out that the French guys convinced the caretakers to let them ride the elephant!  After watching them ride, we asked if we could too.  The caretakers said sure for 150 rupees each (less than $4 to ride an elephant bareback…yes please!).  I rode an elephant the first weekend of the trip, but this was so different.  Elephant rides were not common here, but since it isn’t tourist season, the guys didn’t mind.  I got to sit with my leg around Laksmi’s (the elephant) neck and lay on his head.  It was fantastic.

            Although we started the next day a bit later than planned, we still walked around our side of the river, did more shopping, were guided in a boat (Tappa) that looked like an upside down turtle shell down the river past more temples and ruins, sat with our feet in the water at an old temple, walked back along the river, and obviously ate a lot.  I also got henna done on my hand and we drove a mean bargain for some shirts we really wanted.  I talked to a man that sold us some jewelry and found out he is from Dharamsala, which I will be visiting in three weeks.  He gave me his contact information so he can help me and maybe get in contact with his family if we need a place to stay.

            We left Hampi Sunday night and got back to Bangalore in time for me to take a shower (and finally get the oil out of my hair) and go to class.  Hampi is by far my favorite place that I have been to so far.  I spent the entire weekend in awe of where I was and planning my return. 


Sunday, July 17, 2011

Hello Mysore

Geleya means friend in Kannada and Mandahasa means smile.

            It’s hard to believe that I have already been here for three weeks and am more than half way through the “study” part of my travels.  I am feeling more and more settled in and am more comfortable branching out from the routine of walking back and forth from my apartment to school.  Last Monday I went to the business part of Bangalore to talk to the office manager and HR manager at a company called Futures First.  The company is a branch of a financial trading company started by my sister’s friend’s dad and I talked to them before coming so I could see how a non-American business is run.  The people are so friendly and open to my questions.  It is a very laid back atmosphere for a financial trading company and it is great for me (as a business major and person) to meet these people and find out more of the business side of the country. 

            This week we also performed our first dance performance at Christ University.  A month long festival just began that celebrates different arts in general.  The opening ceremony involved a choir performance (singing/rapping Eminem), a theater performance, a traditional Indian dance, a dance from a more modern/hip-hop group, and then our dance to finish it off.  It was so much fun and we all can’t wait to learn a new dance and perform at the end of our stay in Bangalore. 

            This weekend Jacob had a group trip planned to Mysore, which is about a 3 hour bus ride south of Bangalore.  We drove down Saturday morning, stopped for a breakfast buffet on the way, saw a Hindu temple, went to the Mysore dam that supplies Bangalore with about 80% of its water, and tried to do some shopping.  During the drive to these different places, our van driver entertained us with a Britney Spears concert tour video from 2000.  I would not have guessed that I would ever drive through India in a van singing “Hit Me Baby One More Time,” but I am learning that surprises like these come up more often than I could ever hope for.  I think I got my Britney fill for the decade.

            At night we went to the Mysore Palace to watch them turn on the lights.  The palace is covered in light bulbs (it was the first city/palace to get electricity in either all of Asia or this region, I’m not too sure).  That was beautiful and it was really interesting to tour the inside on Sunday. 

            Sunday was really great.  We started the day at the zoo in Mysore, which is similar to most other zoos.  The highlight was when Marissa and I walked around the second half of the zoo with a family of locals.  There was a mom and grandma, four little girls under 11, and a little boy.  They all spoke English pretty well and were really good at teaching us some Kannada as we showed off the words and short sentences we learned.  They are such affectionate people in general.  Grown men always hold hands and have their arms around each other and the little girls held our hands the entire time.  The showed us the different animals, telling us the meaning in Kannada and were so much fun to hang out with.  I think they were asking us to come have lunch at their house, but unfortunately Jacob had us on a tight schedule. 

            Jacob had been talking up a surprise he had for us starting a view days prior to the weekend and we found out that it was a super fancy lunch buffet at the Lady’s Palace.  Although it was much less extravagant than Mysore Palace (the Gentleman’s Palace), it was still beautiful.  The palace is now a hotel and the food was amazing as anyone could assume.  There were also some shops for tapestries, rugs, scarves, jewelry, etc.  I had been trying to spend some money the day before, so I was happy that I found things that I liked and weren’t too expensive.  We then toured the inside of the main palace.  It was so detailed and beautiful.  It took fifteen years to build, but it was actually built in the early 1900’s (rebuilt after the whole thing burnt down), so it didn’t have an ancient feel, but was still very beautiful.  While we waited for the whole group to reconvene, people tried to sell us stuff for probably half an hour before our tour and another hour after.  These guys are persistent!  At times it definitely gets annoying.  How many times so I have to say no I do not want that wood box?  But it is much more entertaining to make a game of it: offering extremely low prices, trying to sell them something (that was my favorite technique), or using my umbrella as a wall when it started to rain. 

            It was great to see another city, bond with the other USACers, and meet some locals.  Time is flying by, but I can’t wait for all of the other adventures to come.


Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Manzil Ooty

Manzil means destination in hindi.  De-haat means countryside. Makdi means spider. 

            Since Jacob didn’t have anything planned for us Saturday, most of us took advantage of the opportunity by going on different weekend trips.  Some people went to Delhi and Kerala, but four others and me chose a weekend in the Southern mountains in Ooty.

            My friend, Marissa, and I didn’t have class Friday so we left Thursday night via bus.  Thirteen hours later we made it to Ooty, waking up for the last couple hours to wind our way up the road through tea plantations, small towns, and other beautiful scenery.

            We found our way to the nicest YWCA  in the world (costing us a whopping $4 each), dropped off our backpacks, and set out for the day.  We went to Ooty Lake and took a paddleboat out, walked through the botanical gardens, wandered through the small, but still honking city of Ooty, went to dinner, and watched Harry Potter.  It was really fun exploring a new city, but I think the day’s events made me feel the closest to culture shock that I have felt yet. 

            Ooty residents are much less traveled and exposed to Westerners compared to people in Bangalore.  This made Marissa and I that much more interesting being two little white girls in India.  On our way to the lake, we walked on a somewhat deserted street and were first stopped by two friendly guys who wanted to take a picture with us.  They were students at Christ University also and were perfectly good people, but our agreement to take a picture sparked more interest from others.  Another groups of boys and young men asked for pictures with us and may have followed us for a bit.  During this whole episode, a man walked in front of us pretending to take pictures of things in front of him with his phone, but was really videoing us walking behind him the entire time.  He definitely followed us around in the crowd by the lake, which made us quite a bit on edge and considered getting a rickshaw back to the YWCA and staying in all day.  He eventually left and we went on our merry way, but were definitely on edge the rest of the weekend.

            These people and the many others that stared, took pictures, and tried to approach us were probably just as interested in us as we are in the locals in general.  I have definitely taken my fair share of stalker photos since I got here, too.  However, both women and men warn against any type of interaction or contact with men here.  White women are perceived as loose and “ready for sex” so only eye contact or a smile cans end the wrong message to someone on the street.  It is frustrating living in fear, but it is important to remember that you don’t need to be friendly with everyone you see and can get close to those you know and can trust.

            Fears aside, the other girls arrived Friday night and e enjoyed sleeping in a bit Saturday morning.  We then “hiked” to the highest point in the Nilgiri Mountain Range.  Hiked meaning our bus dropped us off at the bottom of a hill and we walked the mile up while cars drove past.  It was quite the tourist spot, but the view was incredibly of valleys and other mountains.  After that we went to The Tea Factory and watched how tealeaves get processed.  By this time I was pretty tired of the tourist scene.  We eventually got a taxi to out next lodging place about 30 km down the beautiful mountain at a place called Glenn View Resorts.  I was asking for remote and I definitely got it.

            The resort didn’t even have a sign on the main road like all the others, but our driver eventually found it.  The drive there felt like a safari in itself, driving by monkeys on bridges, rocky roads, and random cows and goats.  We had one hut and a tree house made out of bamboo (hellooo George of the Jungle).  It was so pretty and quiet, which was very refreshing after all the city life.  The major event of the evening was between the three of us in the hut, the resort manager, and a spider the size of my hand.  Luckily it ended with the death of the spider (killed by the manager obviously) and us finally going to sleep after dripping heavy duty bug repellent on the walls surrounding our bed (accidently staining the walls and making the bed look like a crime scene).  We woke up Sunday morning for an early morning safari trek.  After worrying that the trek was actually going to lead to our abduction and then thinking the guide was just messing with us pretending to track animals, we saw a herd of wild elephants, water buffalo, and hyena dens.  We relaxed and ate the rest of the day until we had to take the bus back to Bangalore.

            And the story isn’t over! (if anyone is actually reading this far)  The drive down involved an even twistier road than the one we drove up, with incredibly tight switchbacks that looked impossible for a bus to drive around, but ours did along with the many others it passed going around these turns.  Half an hour in, at least half the bus was grabbing for barf bags while an awful Bollywood movie played on the tv (Greese meets Westside Story meets Rocky).  I was grateful that none of us joined in the puking and we eventually made it back to Bangalore, stuffed the five of us and our bags into a three-person rickshaw, and went to bed by 2 am.  Overall it was a pretty fantastic weekend and I will eventually add pictures so the beauty of Ooty can be appreciated. 


Wednesday, July 6, 2011

"Uh-Mer-Ca" in India

Nanage tea ista means I like tea in Kannada.  I haven’t brought up one of my favorite parts of India and that is the daily tea breaks.  Tea (always chai) is served in pixie cup sizes and I drink it 1 to 4 times a day.  It is milky and sugary, which are two of my favorite attributes hence my love for tea!

            Christ College experienced its first 4th of July celebration ever and it was done better than I ever could have expected.  Jacob, our resident director, has been making sure that we feel comfortable and cared for as much as possible during our stay in Bangalore.  Part of this was planning an event for us to celebrate America’s independence.  He asked the hospitality program to make an American feast for us, menu upon our request.  We had burgers (veg and non-veg), hot dogs (which ended up being awesome homemade sausages), watermelon, potato salad, corn on the cob, lemonade, and brownies.  I think we were all getting to the point where we needed a small break from the delicious and flavorful Indian food and wanted some good old neutral American food.  The food was amazing and they made the some of the best brownies I have ever had.  But the festivities didn’t stop there.           

            Before Jacob would even let us eat, he made sure we had a little cultural emersion with the students who cooked for us.  Americans are relatively boring when it comes to parties and the like.  We feel pretty awkward about dancing in general and are usually focused on the food and drinks.  Luckily we have a singer in our group who we forced to sing the National Anthem as we all joined in for the Indian students.  We then asked them to sing for us.  We expected a traditional Indian song, something similar to our National Anthem, or maybe even a little Ji Ho (Slumdog Millionaire anyone).  Clearly we were surprised when they finally got one of their students to sing and we asked to join in to singing “Beauty Queen” by Maroon 5.  I’ll blame it on the language barrier.  THEN Jacob wanted us to perform and teach a traditional American dance.  What the heck is a traditional American dance?  Square dancing?  We went with “The Macarena”……they didn’t join in.  We finally got to eat after being videotaped dancing and making fools of ourselves. It's the American way!

            Luckily the monsoon (aka light rain here in Bangalore) stopped after dinner so we could light off the fireworks that Jacob bought for us.  We were all expecting sparklers since the college said we couldn’t get anything that would make really loud noises.  Surprised again!  Jacob’s trunk was full of fireworks that would be far from legal in the US.  I think all of almost pooped our pants when one of the big ones went off way too close and directly over our heads.  Some of us thought that this was Pakistan’s joke on us.  We all walked away from the event unscathed though and it was overall an amazing 4th of July.

            Besides the 4th of July, I am getting in the school mode, spending way more time of the college campus here than I do at my own.  We have a spectacular (I really think it warrants that word) dance class where we are learning a Bollywood dance.  We are surprising the student body by performing next Tuesday to kick off the month long dance festival on campus and are learning new dances and performing again two more times later in the month.  I am also taking a yoga class, which is so great and taught by a woman who has a PHD in yoga.  I didn’t even know that was possible!  I’m taking Kannada (local language of the state of Karnataka) and Hindi and a business class, which is the only class that I am actually getting credit for.  Life is good here in India and tonight is ladies night so it is even better!


Sunday, July 3, 2011

A National Park and Urban Hiking

Haa-tee is elephant and baag is tiger in Hindi. Sundar means beautiful.

            I can’t believe we have been here a week.  In some ways it feels like we have been here for months, but it also seems like we just got here yesterday.  Since the program in only five weeks, we all feel rushed to make sure we see and experience as much of India as possible.  I am incredibly grateful that I am staying for an extra month to travel.  There is no way five weeks would be enough and I am already planning my second trip to India.           

            Every Saturday (except next weekend) we have something planned through the study abroad program that is some type of little trip or visit that Jacob arranged for us.  Therefore, Sunday is pretty much our only day to go out and do whatever we want.  Before I go into our amazing day I want to describe Jacob, our resident advisor.  Jacob grew up in Bangalore and has worked at Christ University for 10 or 15 years.  He has been the resident advisor for the USAC study abroad program for the past four years.  He ran our orientation week (along with Ms. Florence) and is the lucky person who gets to be contacted by confused students and people from the local community.  Jacob is incredibly animated and loves to tell stories, especially about all of the student stuff that past students have done and how he somehow always gets calls in the middle of the night, which he imitates well (picture and Indian man imitating a winey American girl).  He is awesome. 

            Today we seven of us went to the Bannerghatta National Park, which is a 30-45 minute bus ride from Christ University in Bangalore.  This wasn’t just a national park that you would see in the US. It is also a wildlife preserve, mixed with a zoo and small carnival.  We got off the bus and jumped into a safari van.  I realized I stole the driver’s assistant’s seat, but a small language barrier mixed with friendly locals meant that I got the front passenger seat so I could see it all!  I expected to drive around and maybe see some cool animals, but no.  First were the sloth bears sitting in the middle of the street that fought (or maybe did a mating ritual) a couple feet from my window.  Next came the lions.  There were seven cubs, but they looked almost full-grown to me.  Then came the tigers and white tigers (Lions, tigers, bears….oh my!)  Our van was within a couple feet of all of these animals! 

            We strolled around the zoo and got friendly with the wild monkeys and then made our way to the elephants.  For 60 rupees ($1.50) we got to ride an elephant!  Some people thought it was a bit inhumane since the elephants had chain around the ankles, but they looked like they were being treated well and were moved around with a small bamboo stick instead of anything sharp, so I approved.  After lunch with a beautiful view, we finished the day trip experience with a ride on the ferris wheel.  Some people thought this was a poor choice considering there probably aren’t any safety regulations, there wasn’t any time of enclosure for your little compartment, and it went faster than any ferris wheel I’ve been on, but I lived and think I can handle anything now after eating a spicy Indian lunch followed by a ride that jostles you and goes in circles.

            Our day didn’t end with the National Park though.  Instead of getting off at the bus stop we knew to get home, my friend Marissa and I thought we’d take it to the end so we could figure out the bus station and its schedules to plan for another day trip.  Unfortunately the only thing we found out was that the bus to the place we were interested in going to didn’t leave from that bus station.  We had a lovely walk for an hour or two, but eventually got to a more familiar area.  You can’t really know a city without getting lost!  After a drink stop, we took a rickshaw the rest of the way home, which turned out to be way closer than we thought.  A day well done!


Saturday, July 2, 2011

Classes and Tours

Hare Krishna Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama
Rama Rama Hare Hare

This is the mantra visitors to the ISKCON Temple Complex are supposed to chant and devotees are supposed to repeat these lines 108 times a day.  Hare means praise and a mantra basically makes you focus on one thing instead of letting your head race around like most of ours do on a daily basis.  I think of it as a stepping-stone to meditation, but this is my own interpretation on what I know about a mantra.

            After our first day of classes, a city tour of Bangalore, and bonding sessions with the group, I am beginning to settle into my Indian lifestyle.  They eased us into summer classes by starting on a Friday.  We wouldn’t want to overexert ourselves and go to class two days in a role or anything.  I am only taking classes with other USAC students so there were three of us yesterday in the International Strategic Management class, taught by an Idaho University teacher.  Later we had a cooking class where we learned to cook a traditional Southern Indian meal.  Unfortunately I don’t remember the names of the things we made so I will get back to you on that.  Most of the time that you go out for a traditional Indian meal you will first get some type of bread (chapatti) and three or four different “gravies,” which are what most of us consider curries.  Brown curry is onion based, yellow is from various spices and poppy seeds, white is coconut or something else, green is spinach based, and red is tomato based.  This can vary and the things that go in each of them differ depending on the region, family tradition, and what is on hand.  I might be confusing some of those, but I think I have it right. You then eat the same gravies with rice.  All with your right hand of course!

            Today we got a tour of Bangalore, which included visiting some temples, one of the train stations, going to a traditional lunch served on a banana leaf, a lake in the middle of the city, a traditional market, and other various things as we drove through a miniature bus.  The first temple we went to is called the Sri Guru Singh Sabha, which is a Sikh temple that provides a very loving community for visitors.  Sikhs do not accept the caste system, which still has a significant influence in many parts of India and underlies many day-to-day things that foreigners might not notice unless they ask.  The temple gives food to anyone who comes because “it is our divine right to ask for a meal,” according to a man who showed us around the temple.  Although it is a relatively new temple and isn’t ornate or beautify, I felt a strong sense of community just being in the building.  Sikhs also where a turban or other form of head cover, which many Americans find intimidating and creepy.  However, hearing this man talk and feeling his commitment to equality and love really made me appreciate his outer appearance.  We also went to a much more extravagant, but also nearer temple, which was a Hindu temple. 

            The market, named Russel Market after a British officer, for me, represents India.  It is a very large market and the farmers come to the city the night before so they will be ready by 3 or 4 am when people start to come to bid on mass quantities or fruits, vegetables, meat, and flowers.  After the bidders are finished, the market opens for other to wonder through the small streets, alleys, and buildings to make their purchases.  It is extremely colorful, fragrant (wonderful in the flower and fruit section, but a little more pungent in the meat and fish section).  There were also puppies, kittens, rats, and bunnies for sale.  Our van/mini bus was trapped for a while trying to get through the thick weekend traffic in the small streets.  We were going against the traffic, but everyone was so helpful trying to move out of the way and conduct our driver through.  I think the best way to describe India is harmonious chaos.  They may not pay attention to the lines in the street that Americans follow and there is no such thing as a line at a food stand, but there is a beautiful flow nonetheless.  People aren’t afraid of getting to close to one another walking by on the street and this translates to their driving.  This throws us more closed off Americans off at first since we are used to apologizing every time we accidently bump into a stranger, but I think there is a terrific amount of trust that goes along with the physical closeness.  Friends of the same sex hold hands, link arms, and put their arms around each other, male or female.  Pedestrians step out into the traffic and rickshaws jump in front of buses so nonchalantly, which I think shows that high level of trust.  This is a wonderful place to be and I am learning so much already.