August 20, 2007

Back

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Well, it's weird. I haven't experienced the kind of paralyzing culture shock that some people have described, but nothing feels quite right yet. All the open space, nice symmetrical homes with siding, clean, wide streets, dull predictable colors. Going to the grocery store was especially odd yesterday -- the idea of supermarket would be ridiculous in a place like Dharamsala.

It is nice to be back, and as I settle in for my last semester things will become a little more, uh, real. My cell phone will be working again tomorrow, and I'll be checking my email quite a bit. I hope to get in touch with most everyone who has been following my blog for the past two or three months. Writing is a tedious, incomplete way of describing something as unique as life in India, so pictures will be coming, too. I'll update my blog soon with a Snapfish website where you can get to my 200 or so photos.

Thanks to all for keeping tabs on me. I've appreciated all the good wishes, comments and advice. Thank you! This website will go on sabbatical soon for 4 months, but I will use it for my 7 month trip with my brother next year.

Will keep everyone updated!

August 12, 2007

Last week!

I'm going to spend my time soaking up as much as I can this week. I will be teaching each day, some older women in the morning, some younger girls in the afternoon, and some college-age guys later in the evening. My first two placements are done (teaching at the primary school and teaching at the summer camp), so my schedule has become a little more spread out. Lots of time strolling the market, walking around McLeod, and so on. Wednesday is the Indian Independence Day, too. Should be fun.

Come Friday at 7pm, I'm hopping on a bus (a safe one) for a drive through the night to Delhi. I'll be in Delhi all day Saturday (I'm hoping to get in a trip to the Red Fort and a Hindi music/movie shop), though I'll be heading to the airport just as it gets dark. My flight on KLM leaves at 12.50AM, which, together with the other flights and layovers on the way to Appleton, will total about 23 hours of travel. I get into Appleton at about noon on Sunday. Jet lag.

Anyhow, once I'm back I will post once or twice more and email everyone the Shutterfly site for my pictures. Within two weeks I'll be back at school for a really busy semester, after which my brother and I will take off for a 6-7 month trip to SE Asia, India (coming back!), and East Africa.

It's a mighty big world. I'm excited to see more of it.

See you back in the States!

August 2, 2007

Because you asked

First of all, I'd really appreciate to hear from everyone who lives in Minneapolis. I heard just an hour ago about what happened, and I've been a little frantic since. I can't count how many times I've driven over that bridge. It's sick irony that apparently I've been safer in rural India than Minneapolis this summer.

Here are some quick answers to a few of the questions I've gotten:

...The caste system is still visible here. An Indian women's group came to speak to the volunteers a few weeks ago, and one question put to them was about whether caste is still considered in marriage. Yes, it is. In fact, India's national Sunday newspapers have a matrimonial section, where families will advertise (as in a classified section) for brides or grooms for their children. More often than not, caste is mentioned, as is age, education, family background, and skin color. The lighter the skin the better here.

...The best part of my experience has been building friendships with my students and the CCS staff. The children are wonderful -- they have virtually nothing and, believe me, are just as happy as American kids. Every morning they rush to our car to present themselves, put out their hand, and puff out their chests to say, "Good morning, sir," or, "Good morning, ma'am." They forgive and expect forgiveness. They are more affectionate than I was years ago, but they aren't sell-outs either. You have to earn their respect.

Something else about the kids: If you give one kid something, you better have enough for everyone. Things can turn them into monsters, just as things can turn kids everywhere else into little monsters.

...Naan bread and tandoori chicken are fantastic Indian foods. Dried daal is also very good. Fresh chappatis are great, too, but they need to be hot and crisp.

Again, I hope everyone is all right back home. I'll be checking my email and site a lot in the next couple days.

July 31, 2007

Welcome to the rest of the world

I'm sitting in a cafe surrounded by 4 young Indian guys learning to use the Internet. It's astounding watching 22-25 year olds learn to use email and Google and everything else on the web, particularly when you put rural India in juxtaposition to it.

Anyhow, I've gotten over yet another bout with who-knows-what infection/virus/bacteria. It's official now: I've lost 20 pounds since arriving (and still counting). You should see me. It's pathetic.

Over the next two weeks or so I will be wrapping up my placements and making my last rounds in McLeod Ganj. If anyone wants to know anything about the lamas, the Indians in Dharamsala proper, the schools, the Indian media (the newspapers and TV broadcasts here, believe it or not, are just as celebrity-obsessed and sensational as American media), etc., let me know. I'd be happy to write a little more about it.

Off for some Hindi.

July 27, 2007

Happy Friday

A couple friends and I were talking last night about getting back to the States and what it will be like. I've heard that the culture shock is actually worse going home than heading abroad. I have no idea how I am going to react, but I do know that certain things will be weird: Respect for personal space, white people, the lack of curious eyes, not to mention the intense wealth, religiosity, and attitudes about life and time differences.

For the most part, bridging such gaps coming here doesn't take much more than common sense, but certainly some of my best memories here are from the odd little cultural shocks I've experienced. I still love the cows who lie down in the middle of busy streets, blocking traffic and causing accidents. Random Indian women here have casually redressed some of my friends by lifting, unknoting, tugging, etc. their kurtas and pants in plain view of anyone and everyone. I've learned quickly too that asking any Indian for directions or an estimate for how long a trip takes is a waste of time. If you're told 4 hours, you'll arrive in either 2 or 6. If you ask for directions, you have about a 20 percent chance of getting close to where you want to go.

One of the main reasons I signed up for nearly 3 months of volunteering is so I could get to meet people in the community. And I was right about spending as much time as I have here. I've made great relationships with local families -- friendships that I know will survive for a long time. Meeting people still cracks me up a bit; this is, without exaggeration, the standard exchange whenever I meet a local here:

Indian: Namaste.
Me: Namaste, ji. Kaise hain? (How are you?)
Indian: Fine. So you work for CCS?
Me: Yes, I'm volunteering here...
Indian: Are you married?
Me: No.
Indian: Why not?
Me: Umm...
Indian: What religion are you?
Me: Well...
Indian: How about some chai?
Me: No, thanks, I really need...
Indian: No, no, no, stay, stay, please take tea.
Me: No, no, I really need...
Indian: Please, please, stay, take tea. (Begins making a full meal...)

Even casual conversations about the weather and politics can turn into strange episodes. I know well-educated people here who believe that the alignment of the planets affects the monsoon rains' intensity and frequency. The Ganges is among the dirtiest rivers in the world (it's as much fecal matter as water at this point), but smart, rich Indians will give you the oddest explanations for why it remains so clean. I was told not too long ago that bones thrown into the river somehow 'clean' all the trash, feces, corpses, etc. that accompany all the Hindu swimmers at places like Benares. My favorite episode was when I was told by a local medicine man that, "According to modern science, solar fire, wood-burning fire, and stomach fire are all the same." I almost killed my friend when she insisted we eat at his hut for dinner.

August 19th is coming up quickly. Exactly three weeks from today I will be leaving Dharamsala for Delhi on the first leg of my 48 hour trip home.

Off now for some good Japanese food in McLeod. Friday is Friday everywhere.

July 25, 2007

Women

I'm a little sick right now, back on Cipro and rehydration salts. No better time to tackle all my computer business.

I've had a lot of odd experiences here, and a lot of realizations about Himachali culture and the people here. One I mentioned a while back but never elaborated on is treatment of Western women. If I sounded a little upset in that post, it's because I was. There have been way too many incidents of Indian men acting inappropriately with friends of mine -- and without much reason. Being white brings enough attention as it is, so CCS volunteers typically know to dress conservatively and keep a fairly low profile. Still, too many Indian men here are convinced they have to do little more than ask a Western woman to sleep with him to have it happen. The result is cabbies and shopkeepers hitting on and actually following volunteers. One friend here has had one young Indian guy propose to her repeatedly, despite the fact she purposely, and blatantly, avoids him. He even spread the rumor that they are now engaged.

(For the record, much of the negative behavior toward women is far more pervasive in the North than the South. Southern India has a more matriarchal history and culture than the North.)

There's a lot of finger-pointing at the media, Indian and American, and cross-cultural miscues (improper body language -- particularly eye contact -- is really important for Western woman to avoid) for exacerbating this kind of behavior. I understand and appreciate most northern Indian men aren't malicious. In fact, oftentimes, behavior that they consider appropriate and deferential is simply misinterpreted by Westerners. A good example is how Indian men introducing themselves to me (when I am with another woman) will only shake hands with me and essentially ignore the woman. This isn't meant to be an insult. Indian men are just trying to show respect and deference, inasmuch as they do not know the relationship between myself and my friend.

But that's not to say women have anything close to "equal opportunity" or truly equal treatment under the law. The sex ratio in many Indian states is awful: 8 females for every 10 males, or worse. The Times of India just reported how 30+ female fetuses were found dumped around Delhi, I think. Women are still expected to get married young (18 isn't unheard of) and make babies without working -- even if they were lucky enough to get a proper education. I hope no one wonders why India's population is still booming, erasing a lot of the per capita gains from the country's economic growth.

Certainly my most negative experiences here have had to do with gender and equality here. I'm hardly a cat-petting feminist back in the States, so I hope my opinion on this isn't see as too much huffing and puffing.

I promise something more positive next time. Especially if I'm feeling better.

July 22, 2007

A little sore

Just back from a three-day hike in the mountains here. A little monsoon rain, steep, slick rocks, some Hindi song campfire fun, and I think I'm ready for what is going to be a pretty tough week. As of this Thursday, I will lose the remaining few people who came to India on the same date (June 3) as I did. It'll be a little strange at placement and around town without them...

The hike was a good send-off, though. Friday we went about 6 kilometers (didn't start until 4pm), essentially straight up, over some suspicious bridges (one missing a lot of its planks), to end at a lodge where we had dinner and ended up drinking, singing, and dancing with 6 or 7 local Indian men. Saturday we hiked some more -- about 13 kilometers. We stopped at a small lake (3600 feet up from where we started) where locals joined us for dinner and some neighboring kids gathered wood for us, I guess in exchange for a little attention, a few cookies, and some photos.

There wasn't a minute of the hike that wasn't beautiful -- epic, really. But parts of the hike were grueling enough to be extremely distracting. Today we came back down, and for about an hour along a slick (from the rains that kept up with us all morning), slightly descending, rock path. As I was walking down, I thought of two things: One, how I should update my list of meals and foods I will eat once I get home. Two, how to describe this path that, I swear, was designed to piss off the people who used it. Sometime go buy a barrel of oil, pour it over a slightly descending handicap ramp, and then try walking down it about 2,000 times. We had some pretty nasty tumbles along the way.

Anyhow, we made it back safe, and now it is time to have a send-off dinner for a couple friends leaving tomorrow morning. I think I'll put up a picture or two this week, assuming the Internet doesn't tank again.

And once more, congratulations to Nan and Jeff! I kept thinking about the good family time I was missing this weekend. Hope it was a ball!

July 16, 2007

The Dalai Lama himself

So by an amazing stroke of luck, I got to see him. He was giving teachings all last week, but they were in the morning during my placement in lower Dharamsala. I got out early last Thursday, thanks to some poor planning on the part of the teachers. Good karma, maybe?

Anyway, I'll only say this about the experience: You cannot replicate it anywhere but here. Yes, it's the Dalai Lama, and it's remarkable to see him anywhere. But the 2-3 minutes I saw him (after he finished his teaching) were the best of my trip here only because of the reaction of the people around me. This is true devotion -- hundreds of exiled, refugee Tibetans laying eyes, if only momentarily, on the holiest of holy men. I've never been in an atmosphere like that before, and I suspect that I won't find that kind of atmosphere again until I come back.

Good luck to all the Bernards heading to Detroit this week, particularly, of course, to Nan. Have fun at the wedding; I'm bummed I am missing it!

July 10, 2007

"The Exorcist"

A flatmate of mine had a run-in with the bathroom that was described to me as, "exorcist-style." Coincidentally, the water pipes to my flat and another burst, so we have no water for washing dishes, showering, toilet, etc. (You can imagine just how desperate this friend of mine is for a good bucket shower...) The monsoon rains drop a foot of water across all Himachal in several hours, but we have no water.

Last week, no Internet. This week, no water. Next week...

July 5, 2007

That development thing

About every travel book you pick up these days about India says the same thing: India is a place of contradictions -- sex and marriage, poverty and wealth, caste and democracy, etc. India is also celebrated in the States as a place of rapid development and economic growth, a potential superpower.

My opinion is this: Maybe, but it has a long, long, long friggin' way to go.

The Internet in Dharamsala has been out for the past week (since last Friday), apparently because of a fire at a building in Chandigarh (a large city about 5 hours south). Now, this is important because this fire knocked out Internet connections not just in Dharamsala, but across all of Himachal Pradesh and all of Punjab. Open up a map of India. That's an enormous portion of northern India, home to about 35 million people. Just imagine this story in the States: A fire at some server warehouse in Chicago knocks out all Internet access to people in Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan and Indiana. One fire, at one building. A week to fix.

I was warned by someone before coming here that, "India is great, but nothing works." And that's precisely right. A friend walked into the Internet cafe I'm at in McLeod Ganj five minutes ago and told me that her taxi broke down halfway up the 1,000+ foot climb from the CCS flats in Dharamsala. She walked the rest of the way.

The list goes on, but it's a list that so long and so unbelievable that it's not worth getting into. In fact, I think one thing every person has to learn in coming to India is to expect to create such a list. It's a list of shocking stories of illness and bad infrastructure and transportation that's it's funny. Hilarious, actually. You have to laugh at it.

Chances are those lists will be getting shorter as years go on, though. The country has dedicated itself to development, and it is this dedication (coupled with democracy, to make the growth a little more humane than that of, oh say, China) that is one of India's real strengths. The country is building human capital like few states in the West, and the people India is putting out are motivated and wanting like you can't believe. After talking with friends and teachers and families, I truly believe that if the U.S. opened its borders tomorrow, more than half of India would show up. These people aren't free-riders, and their craving for education and wealth is proof. I'm glad they like us, because India will continue to grow into modernity (even if to the detriment of some of the country's best qualities, the top two in my book being religious fervor and love of life). It just has some enormous problems to work out first.

Time for some Italian food with friends. My food cravings are out of control. Neenah is going to have a beef and beer shortage when I get back.

Kisses.

June 27, 2007

That was June

That was quick, too. I'm gonna be home before nothing.

Everything is still grand in Dharamsala, India. I want to let everyone know that there has been some nasty news out of Kashmir as of late, and there are some riots (as always) in parts of the country, but, believe me, unless something happens in Dharamsala itself, I probably don't know a thing about it. I'm safe from whatever IT is. There was a bus crash that evidently killed 11 people or so here last week; I didn't hear about it until my mata-pita ji (parents) wrote some, um, parent-like emails to me. FYI -- Buses are not safe here. I will not take a bus anywhere. Ignore bus crashes. Life is pretty cheap here. They happen often.

I haven't talked much about the weekend trips some friends and I have taken around Himachal Pradesh and Punjab. A few weeks ago I saw the Golden Temple in Amritsar (the holiest temple of Sikhism), and last weekend a few of us went to Dalhousie -- another hill station (like Dharamsala) that is very popular with Indians who are escaping the heat on the plains. Both were fantastic trips and let me take some fantastic pictures.

I know it seems coy, but this is the one truth I've discovered about India: You have to experience it; it cannot be described to you. The problem is I can't give any kind of frame of reference to those who have never been. It's not that you can't wrap yourself around it. It's not that I've been in extreme culture shock (except, perhaps, on the drive from the Indira Gandhi airport to the CCS Delhi flats; that was unbelievable). It's that everything looks, tastes, sounds, smells, etc. so so different.

An example: Every morning, another volunteer and I wake up, change into our Indian clothes (me in a kurta with western slacks, she in a sari or other Indian garb), and begin a 15 minute walk almost continuously downhill to our school. We pass ragged, but usually wonderfully sweet, women and children filling their water jugs at water pumps along the pathway. We pass the marketplace filled with small shops selling Lays chips (Indians love Lays, and they love Fanta soda, too), shampoo packets, vegetables, and so on. Cars and motorbikes speed by us (always honking) once we reach the narrow streets far below the CCS flats...

That's five minutes into my day, and even that leaves out too much context: The grazing cows (and inevitable cowshit), the ramshackle homes, uneven walkways, passerby's clinging jewelry. Stray dogs are everywhere. Goats are regular neighbors. So are the horses and donkeys that often "mow" our grass for us.

This weekend I'm on a three-day hike. Climbing some mountain with some friends.

So don't worry if there's a bus crash.

June 21, 2007

Indian children are beautiful

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June 20, 2007

White women: Don't travel India alone

Something like that should be the caveat posted on every ad and and written into every India travel book. White women: Only come with men, and thank Paris Hilton for the inconvenience.

My friends here have learned quickly to be discreet, dress humbly, and still expect to be harassed by Indian men. American women are loose and fast as far as Indians are concerned, and men have no qualms showing that's how they feel.

Why this is takes some explanation; television, magazines and other media have a lot to do with it. But that's the cozy, "it's nobody's fault," "it's just a cultural difference" line. Frankly, northern Indian culture is patriarchical, male-dominated, and to me, a little offensive at times.

I will write more to explain what I mean, and to show that it would be a stretch to say women here are seriously oppressed. But suffice it to say that India needs feminists. And lots of them.

June 14, 2007

Here, an invitation isn't

This is why it's so easy to get sick here.

Another volunteer and I were stopped on our walk home today by the father of one our students. He insisted we come inside his house (a pretty typical request here) to chat for "one minute."

Now, understand that some cross-cultural translation is needed here. First of all, this offer to come inside is not an invitation. This is a demand. It is rude in India to turn down any invitation to join someone for "one minute" to talk. Time is not kept, so it doesn't matter if you have lunch or want to shower or x, y, or z. You have time. In fact, you have time to chat for much longer for "one minute." If you don't have that much time, you will have to make it.

Secondly, any "invitation" into an Indian household involves eating and drinking something. When asked by a host for a drink, you usually don't bother saying no. Because they won't accept that answer. Today, I said no, my friend asked for tea. We both got tea, and we both got crackers.

That I got tea instead of anything else is important. The water drunk in most of Dharamsala is not safe for volunteers to drink, but people in the community don't understand that. So here's the trick -- every time you are asked to drink something, you say tea. The reason is water for tea has to be boiled.

Thirdly, chatting for "one minute" is actually a drawn out social routine that lasts for 30+ minutes. We were shown wedding pictures, taught to play an Indian board game, and asked (read: demanded) to teach English to our host's wife every day for an hour. (We didn't want to say "yes" initially; who knows what that "hour" would turn into. But I think I may actually take it on, because there would be no better way for me to learn and practice Hindi.) It was only after that request that we excused ourselves for lunch.

The rains have begun here, which means it is much cooler now. I'm feeling fine, and I'm heading up to McLeod Ganj tonight to eat some American food and change money. This weekend, we're off to Amritsar to see the Golden Temple and see the changing of the guard at the India-Pakistan border.

Also, the Dalai Lama's place is pretty darned interesting. When we were last up in McLeod was saw about 40 Tibetan monks "having debate." I can't describe what that means, so I won't try.

Pictures, I promise, for next week.

June 10, 2007

Ugh

So the sick thing happened. It wasn't cute, and not much fun. No need to go over the fine details of what "Delhi Belly" really feels like, but it was worse than I expected. I think I will be more careful about my food choices now...

Today the whole crew of volunteers visited a Hindu temple just outside town. It is pretty modest, but still gives a unique feeling for the religion's traditions. We did lunch in a narrow valley just south of there, where small -- but cold -- streams pour through year-round. Getting wet never felt so good; northern India is suffering from a heat wave right now. It was something like 47 degrees Celsius yesterday in Amritsar, which is just a few hours from here. Do the math to Fahrenheit.

It is difficult to describe Dharamsala -- I think India in general, for that matter -- without at least pictures or video. Yes, plenty of poverty, terrible infrastructure (every road here is one lane wide, but used as two lanes), unique smells, beautiful countryside. The people are generally warm in Dharamsala, but Indians just are not as expressive as Americans. Humility is a big thing here, especially for women. It's 100 degrees out, and all the women are dressed in full saris. I promise I'll try for pictures soon.

Some of the cultural exchanges here are astounding. Today at lunch, we saw huge numbers of Tibetan monks swimming in streams in Euro/American-style bathing suits. They had set up a large tent where they were watching the movie, "Braveheart." Go figure -- extraordinarily peaceful, Tibetan monks, camping in a gorge in northern India, watching an extremely violent, American-made movie about the fight for Scottish independence from the English?

Off for now.