Wednesday, December 22, 2010

South India Tour Part 1

Guess what?
The tour of South India was super awesome. Perhaps the single most worthwhile experience of my entire life. Maybe the most fun I've ever had. Certainly a memory I will treasure until the end of my days.
Even with my planned liberal editing of the events of the trip, I am still planning to split the 17-day extravaganza into perhaps three parts. Part 1 will take us from our departure to Munnar, and will then segue into some other things on my mind lately, namely, spending the holidays away. The other parts will come at a later date. Hopefully it won't be too boring, but I like recording the things that I've done.
At midnight changing from the 1st of December to 2nd December, the other four Surat exchange students and myself boarded a train from our hectic terminal that would take us all the way Mumbai. It was already loaded with most of the other exchange students (there are 15 in our district - 5 live in Surat and most of the rest live north of us). This was a sleeper train, however, and we all went to our assigned bunks and tried to grab a few hours of sleep before our 6 AM arrival in Mumbai.
The first day was generally spent sitting, sweaty and disgusting, in waiting rooms or on trains. It was about a five hour train ride to Mumbai from Surat. When we got there we sat in a waiting room for three hours, then took a 45 minute taxi ride across the city to get to the other Mumbai terminal. The drive made me want to explore Mumbai, it looks to be a lovely city. Then we sat at the terminal for an hour or two, then we got on the train and embarked on a 26 hour journey to Cochin, which is quite a ways to the south.
I won't spend an awful lot of time describing train travel in India, but it might merit a little explanation. I'd heard a bit about the Indian train system before I got here, so I, at least, was curious. In a sleeper carriage, you can fit 8 people in one aisle space. On one side of the aisle are two beds, one on top of the other, lengthwise along the train. On the other side, which is much wider, are two stacks of three bunks each, positioned in the other direction. The middle bunk generally stays folded up into the wall until it's time to go to sleep, and the bottom bunks are used as benches. They provide food and snacks on the train, and there are even power outlets to charge your phones or your laptops or whatever, so at least you never get too bored. There generally more space and mobility, so it's way better than a plane. The only big beef I have is that they don't nearly provide enough space for luggage. We had a very nasty encounter with a wretched crone who had like four bags and threw all of ours into the aisle so she could have the entire underbelly of one bench. That might not make much sense to you, but trust me. It wasn't fair.
Sorry. I ended up spending more time describing the train than it really merited.
So the train ride, spent in the good company of the other exchange students, was about as tolerable as a 26 hour journey by train can be, and the food actually could have been a lot worse. We arrived at the Cochin train station, in the province of Kerala. In Kerala they generally speak their native tongue, Malayalam, or English. The national language, Hindi, is not spoken very much there. English is their language that connects them to the other provinces. This worked out well for us.

Cochin is a large city, but it is infinitely more attractive than Surat. It seems at the same time more Western and less traditional than Surat. Western, in that the shops are generally neater, tidier, and cleaner, and in that there's quite a bit of English spoken. Traditional, in that they don't seem quite so obsessed with the material and superficial things that the shops in Surat seem to cater to, and that the way people dress on the streets seems more Indian, rather than the idiotic, flamboyant imitations of Western fashion that I'm accustomed to. I like Cochin very much for all of these reasons.

The first day, we were exhausted and didn't really get out of the hotel until about 5, once everyone was done resting and showering properly. That first night we went to a really nice shop. This is more exciting than it sounds - in the South, especially these more touristy places, there are quite a few very upscale shops with a lot of beautiful, expensive traditional Indian things - woodwork, scarves, rugs, paintings, and all sorts of other exciting things. The shopkeepers really pamper you there, giving you free drinks and stuff, and all the while observing you and trying to sell you something. It's a very subtle art, what they do. Unlike many of their street counterparts, they have mastered the skill of making you want something without offensively pushing it on you, and they most certainly sell more things because of it.

Now I have a penchant for weapons. I mean, violence is cool. Not really, but you know what I mean. I've always had an extremely nerdy desire to have a collection of swords in my house when I grow up. I already have a wonderful machete that I purchased in Costa Rica sitting back in the United States. At this particular establishment, they had a very fine collection of swords. After examining all of them and consulting with the employee assigned to me, I purchased a rather beautiful ceremonial short sword for the price of 2700 rupees, haggled down from 4000 rupees. It's pretty awesome. Swords are awesome. So is haggling.

The night was uneventful - they laid out a private dinner buffet for us and played a fantastic collection of Christmas music for us. Then we all hung out together in hotel rooms and went to bed.

The next morning we went to see the sights in Cochin. Like most of Keralan coastal areas, Cochin is stuffed with wide rivers and canals, with a sort of mangrove ecosystem operating on the shores. A lot of the economy is based around that too, mostly fishing and the like. First we went to this ancient Dutch church, where the famous explorer and infamous asshole Vasco da Gama was once buried. This was big news to a history geek like me. I mean, this is Vasco da Gama. He's pretty damn important. It was a beautiful church, and it was nearly 500 years old.

Something I like about traveling outside of the United States is that nearly every place in the world is older than us. I mean, think about it, nothing in our country can be much older than like, 300 years at this point. Maybe like the ruins of Jamestown or something. But you go nearly anywhere else, and you will find ancient things left and right, or certainly things older than us. It's humbling. In my day-to-day life in the US, I'm just not accustomed to seeing things this old. And India can be especially humbling in this since - it has been populated by civilizations since antiquity, and Hinduism is, I think, the eldest of the five main religions. So that was cool.

Just outside of the church was a kind of public square on the shores of a biggish river. There were these Chinese fishing nets there. I cannot describe them very well, but basically they work on some kind of lever system, where these massive nets are lowered into the water, and then hauled out by these huge ropes pulled manually by some hardworking laborers. Stretched along the edges of the square are a whole bunch of fish stands. We went and saw the Chinese fishing nets, and they let us haul some fish out of the river ourselves, then we explored the square a bit.

This place was infested with walking vendors selling moronic little things like irritating carved wooden flutes and stuffed animals for absurdly expensive prices. They were, perhaps, the most annoying people I have ever come across in my entire life. As opposed to the classy shop salesman, their strategy seems to be annoy you into purchasing their products so that they will go away. The only thing to do with these guys is to be rude and blunt. If you attempt to kindly reject their offer, it simply doesn't work.

Usually they start by approaching you and saying "Where you from?". When I tell them, they always say "Oh, US! Obama!" And then I say, yeah, yeah. Then they show you the product, and it is a terrible mistake to even look at it. They think that if you express the mildest interest in their product, you want it, and the only objective is price. So there was this snake made out of a bunch of separate pieces of wood that kind of moved if you wiggled it. I held it and looked at it and determined that it actually really sucked. So first the guy, who was crestfallen at my disapproval, progessively lowered the price until it was like a sixth of the original one. Finally, I lost my temper and said "You could give that to me for a fudging (this is not what I actually said) pese (their equivalent of the penny) and I wouldn't want it.

His hysterical last resort, as I strode away from him was to shriek "Obama! I like your president! Please!" To an extent, I feel bad for them. Obviously this is their livelihood. But I was eager to show them that I am not some stupid tourist, and also I wouldn't want them to get the impression that being a jackass is the way to sell things.
The fish market was awesome. There were all sorts of things there, included a hammerhead shark. Hammerhead sharks are awesome. Their heads look like hammers AND they're sharks. They're like the Ninja Assassins of maritime animals. Anyways, something cool you could do at the fish market was buy the fish yourself (and it wasn't too pricey) and then give to a cook that was standing, and order him to prepare the fish for you in whatever way you wanted. So I bought a small squid and some sizable prawns for myself and had them made to order. This excited me an inexpressable amount.
After our delectable lunch, we proceeded on a bus to Munnar. The bus ride was a bus ride. It does not merit discussion.
Turns out I have a lot more to say than I thought I would. So we'll cut things off there.
Christmas away
To be blunt, it sucks. But it could have been a lot worse. Christmas for me is not an especially religious holiday. I mean, obviously that's what it is, but what it really signifies to me is family. You have to be home, with your family for the holidays. End of story. For me, it's an unbreakable rule in the same vein as something like gravity. Evidently, of course, it can be broken.
In India, Christmas is just another commercial holiday of very little importance, and they don't do an awful lot to celebrate. Santa Claus came with one toy for my little brother Nishant, but other than that my family didn't observe it at all. And India, as a whole, doesn't care much. There are Christmas specials in the shops and that sort of thing, but it's just not given very much importance. It's probably less important than like St. Patrick's Day in the US. Not to mention that they don't have snow, a quintessential element of Christmas for me.
Nonetheless, my family knew that Christmas was going to be very important to me, and they knew that I was pretty bummed to be gone. There wasn't a whole lot they could do, but I really appreciated the fact that they could kind of understand what I was feeling.
On Christmas Eve, the 4 other Surat exchange students and I got together at one of their apartments, blew up inflatable snowmen, ordered Domino's pizza, and watched "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" and "The National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation". And you know what? It was a good Christmas. There's something that's all the sweeter about making Christmas happen in a country where they seem rather determined to adopt an attitude of complete indifference to the whole affair.
In Christmas Day, I opened my presents from my wonderful real family, and my dad and I went out for dinner at an excellent Chinese restaurant. Then I had a nice long conversation with my real family. Skype was out of commission, unfortunately, but this was certainly better than nothing. So Christmas could have been a lot worse. It sucked to be away, and God knows I'm never going to do it again, if at all possible, but I'm sure when I'm old, this Christmas is going to stick out in my memory. It was a great comfort to find love and support even on the other side of the world.
Stay tuned for Part 2.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010


So I'm going to be embarking on the thrilling tour of South India from midnight tonight until the 17th of December. The tour will take us to all sorts of exciting places like the famous beaches of Goa, tropical Kerala as featured in The God of Small Things (no I will not be meeting or encountering the Orange-drink Lemon-drink Man in any context whatsoever), and Land's End, the very bottom of India. And all sorts of other exciting temples and museums and places of natural beauty that I can't recall. It promises to be fantastic. If I time and internet (both of which may be unlikely) I may attempt to do a midway blog entry, but otherwise I plan on keeping a daily journal and taking kajillions of pictures. So there will be an ample supply of things to write about on my return.

There's been some other news lately that I may as well fill you in on.
- I changed host families. This was a traumatizing experience, at least leading up to it. It wasn't as bad as that time that I left home thinking I was going to be gone for an entire year. But it was stressful. However, all of this went away when I met my new host family, which is comprised of a great group of people. I miss my old family, and I especially miss the fact that it seemed like my entire social life revolved around my two brothers and their groups of friends.

- I was kicked out of my school, along with the other exchange students. This school expected us to attend every day, which obviously sounds very reasonable but for a variety of reasons is rather difficult for us exchange students. So I missed these two weeks for the funeral, which at least they didn't blame me for. But when we told them we were going to be gone for nearly three weeks on the tour, they decided they didn't want to teach us anymore because of our inability to stay in class and caught up.
This is a bugger, not so much because I loved the school, the subject, or the people in it, but more because I need something to do with my day. Apparently my club is going to work on it while we're on the tour. Possibly they will have me take daytime classes in useful/relevant things, like Gujarati, Hindu classical music...the possibilities could potentially be endless.

Anyways, goodbye.

Saturday, November 13, 2010


Upon my return to India, I was very pleased to discover that there was another festival in the works, and that the days leading up to it reached anticipatory heights that rivaled the pre-Christmas celebration in the United States. Diwali is the climax of these last few months of festival season, an all-out blaze of celebration and bombast. In my opinion it's the second-best holiday in the world. The only better that I have experienced is United States Christmas. Frankly, there are almost zero things in the world that make me happier than Christmas at home, so it's not a knock on Diwali that it isn't quite up to those very high standards.

Now, Diwali is the celebration of the return of Lord Ram to his village where he was unjustly exiled from some 14 years prior, I believe. The story of why he was exiled and how he returned constitutes the entirety of the religious epic poem The Ramayana. I am familiar with a very condensed overview of the story, and it is far too lengthy and complicated to attempt to explain in blog form. If you'd really like the full story, I'd be more than happy to give it to you, but not at the moment. The point is, folks were overjoyed that he came back, because by all accounts he was pretty great. Here's what is done.

People take colorful chalk and draw a new, intricate design on the street in front of their house every morning. They're cool. I wish I was a good enough blogger to post pictures to go along with this, but it just takes way too long to upload a picture with my internet at the moment. They did this from the day I returned (November 1st) up until several days after it ended (November 7th), and some people have continued to draw them in front of their houses, although they have slowly gotten less multifaceted and colorful.

Then there are lights. They string lights all up around the outside of their houses. Every business does the same. This sounds comparable to Christmas but it's not, because the sheer number of lights on display absolutely blows Christmas lighting out of the water. At some malls it's almost as overwhelming as like, Times Square. Ok, perhaps that was a stretch. But it's really overwhelming. They use all colors, including orange. For some reason you never find orange in any United States Christmas lit scene, and I think I understand why. The color orange, for all of its merits, is an exceedingly ugly color when used in neon lighting. They use these strings of lights enthusiastically to the point of garishness, but it's so festive and genuine that it is very easy for me to forgive a little aesthetic displeasure.

Diwali season is considered a lucky time to buy and make investments, so a huge amount of people do things like buy cars and houses. At the very least, everyone buys something, and stores - clothes stores especially - respond with insane discounts, like "Buy 1 get 5 free" or "80% off all items". Everyone took advantage of this. They also buy new things for around the house - my house got a new portrait of Sai Baba (kind of a Hindu saint - he's quite revered), new couch covers, new teacups, new curtains. And all of us got some new clothes. Young Indians are exceedingly focused on things like "looking cool" (which is one of greatest frustrations but I'm not going to get into that now), and they especially care about it during Diwali time.

Then there are the fireworks.

The English language is marvelously expressive, but there simply are not words to describe the effect of Diwali fireworks. I will still do my best. It's absolutely nothing like the Fourth of July. Nowhere near. Take the amount of fireworks and firecrackers that are used on the Fourth and multiply it by about a thousand and then you will some idea of the sensory effect of being in India on the day of Diwali.

The thing is, there are no restrictions on purchasing them. Someone who had no idea what they were doing could go to the store and buy hundreds of them. A massive explosives industry springs up right around this time, and for a few weeks there are these fireworks superstores that have a seemingly unlimited stock of things that blow up.

People are constantly setting off firecrackers in the street, and these are not friendly firecrackers. Some of them light up in the same way that ours do - fountains and spinners and stuff - but the vast majority of them simply explode violently. Little pieces of firecracker shrapnel go flying in all directions at high speeds, and it really stings if you get hit by one. I was told a story last year where an explosion in our very narrow street was so violent that someone's window got blown out. They have strings of firecrackers that are 10,000 units long. It takes like a minute and a half to get through all of them, and each and every one is disruptively loud. Now I mostly reveled in the uncontrolled ability to explode all of these delightful devices. I mean, blowing things up is really really fun. But there is one product that goes by the name "The Bomb" that sucks. It's like a stun grenade. Or at least it has the same effect on my ears that a stun grenade does when I'm playing as James Bond in Nightfire. We had just set one off in the street and I looked around, too late, to see that everyone in the neighborhood had plugged their ears except me. My right ear only stopped ringing four days ago.

As for the fireworks themselves, on actual Diwali night we went to the roof of my house and watched them. I took two videos of fireworks, and I'm going to post them to Facebook soon. There's simply no way to describe how incredibly noisy and overstimulating it is to have millions of fireworks exploding. And I really do mean millions - my city has four million people in it, and most people fire these things off. There is variety that you can't find in the US. It is noisy and it is beautiful. Fireworks are a wonderful thing. I loved every second of it.

The biggest explosive night was November 5th, but every once in while even now, you can still hear them.

On November 4th, one of the Rotarians rented a plot of land and hosted a dinner/dance party for all Rotarians and their kids. Now, I really don't like dance parties, as most of my friends know. It might be because I'm too self-conscious or whatever, but I just don't do them. At least in the US. Inexplicably, I kind of went off the rails (by my standards) and kind of had a crazy-good time. I've always been reluctant to change very much about my identity here, but I mean, this was fun. The rest of the Diwali days, I just conducted my own business, saw family and friends, and blew stuff up.

Diwali is an amazing experience. I have to recommend to every single person who reads this blog to try and come to a good-sized Indian city sometime during Diwali. These are sights that you will never see in the United States. I never counted myself more lucky to be in India. And think about - early November isn't much of a travel time - school and work will be holding me back for most of my life. I may well never be back for another Diwali. I sure hope I am though.

I was going to write about more things. But this has gotten to be quite a bit. So, until next time.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

What Happened

I realized I haven't published for over a month, which is especially strange because I'm definitely one of the most prolific publishers of the kajillion Northfield exchange students. Here's what happened the last month, in a nutshell.
Where we last left off, I believe, was the exciting school trip to the Saputara Hill Station, which was fantastic. After that, however, things started to go downhill. There is nothing specific that went wrong, although my frustration with my teacher that has me do nothing but draw straight lines grew immensely. School went on normally, family life was solid as usual. I don't know what it was. Everyone tells me about this notorious slump that comes about three or four months in, and I think I might have been hitting it. Just a combination of homesickness starting to really set in and all of my little frustrations with the country teeming up and bursting. So it was bad. I felt about as unhappy as I've ever really felt.
Then, one Monday night, I was sitting down with my family, watching the delightful program Kaun Banega Crorepatti (Who Wants to Be a Millionaire - exactly the same as in Slumdog Millionaire) hosted by Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan. Amitabh Bachchan is awesome. Anyways, the phone rang, and it was for me, which is highly unusual. I was surprised and pretty overjoyed to hear my dad's voice on the end of it. Of course, I quickly realized that was only one event that would necesitate an urgent call rather than an email or Skype date.
My grandfather died, very suddenly, in a car accident. Grandpa was not a young man, but he was really healthy and this was completely unexpected. And I've never really had anyone in my life die before. Up until now, my family has been completely intact. The worst that happened is once my cat died.
This was killing me. I took a day to carefully consider the repercussions of the choice I faced - sticking it out or going home for the funeral and burial. It was a tough choice, and of course, it was probably made in some haste. There might be weird, unforeseeable consequences to my exchange arc by having done this, but it just felt ethically wrong to sit in India while this was happening. I felt guilty for abandoning my mom and my grandma. And, I'll be honest, the decision was somewhat for me too. My host family did their very best to comfort me, and I'll always be grateful to them for that, but despite their best efforts, they weren't the same as my real family. I've never felt so very lonely in my entire life. Maybe it would have been worse for the exchange arc to have stayed and not grieved properly. I don't know. But I decided to come home for two weeks, the length of the journey being necesitated by the fact that the burial itself had to occur nearly two weeks after the funeral. Grandpa was in the Korean War, and he wanted to be buried at Fort Snelling, and it takes a while to get a slot there.
It was a rough trip in many respects, but I got the closure I needed, and frankly, it was incredible to see my friends and family and to have a short time to enjoy the beautiful Minnesota fall that we had this year. At the same time, I learned a valuable lesson - every time that little voice pops into my head and tells me to hop the next flight back to Minneapolis, I know that's a bad idea. Because, fellow exchange students, there's nothing for us there, as a permanent resident, right now. Our friends are at college. We don't have any school we can go to. We'd be dead weight around our folks houses. Which, granted, it was exceedingly nice to be for a short while, but we simply can't do that permanently. I wouldn't want to - I would have gotten restless after another week or so.
So I came back to India, sad to leave, but not nearly so much - I knew that I had good family and friends in both countries supporting me. I'm reinvigorated about this exchange, and I have to say - the first week back has been darn good. Hopefully I ride this high for the rest of the year. And there's a lot to look forward to - South India trip is coming on December 1st. I'm stoked.
I'm really grateful - all of you exchange students and Rotarians and friends and family and whoever else reads this thing - you've all been incredibly supportive of me, and that was the thing that got me through what was a really crappy October.

Next post will be about Diwali, which is contributing hugely to my good mood.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

To the Indian Countryside

I had another terrific weekend. Well, I suppose I don't know how Sunday will play out yet but based on the strength of Saturday alone it should go down as one of the most memorable times of my first stage of India.

My older brother Pratik is a student at an engineering college in Surat. The students from his class (they all do everything is different here) put together a trip to a place called Saputara, which is a hill-station to the south. Hill-stations are smaller villages situated at higher altitudes than the surrounding countryside. They were mostly founded by British colonial folks so that their people could get out of the heat of the lower countries and so they would have a more peaceful, pleasant place to be. The Indians today have happily inherited these lovely locations and made them tourist sites.

The time leading up to this excursion was a bit strange. My Friday was fairly uneventful, but at 1030 at night Pratik, Akshay, one of Pratik's friends and I went to see the Priyanka Chopra/Ranbir Kapoor film Anjaana Anjaani. It was ok. Priyanka Chopra is so unbelievably gorgeous that she can make any film at least tolerable, but Ranbir Kapoor, in my opinion, is not fit to lick the mud from the bottom of Priyanka's shoes. I have developed strong opinions on Bollywood actors and actresses.

The point of this is, I didn't get to sleep until two, and the bus was leaving at 5. So I boarded the bus and conducted the following on two hours of sleep.

So we boarded the bus, which was only slightly less comfortable than one of our coach buses. That is to say, it was comfortable as buses go. The drive to Saputara was about 4 or 5 hours, with two stops. At the first one, we stopped in a fairly normal village that housed a very large and very ancient temple. There weren't any tour guides to give me exact dates or anything, but everyone told me that this was over 1000 years old. You couldn't go in at all, and it wasn't that huge, but I was still pleased to see it. I like the temples here. The village itself was pretty impoverished but it still had modern stands and amenities (modern is always a fairly relative term here). There were a lot of hut-dwellers, which always makes me feel very bad. It was not a prosperous place, but for some reason it was rather a pleasant one for me to be in.

After a tasty breakfast there we drove to the Gira Falls, which as you may have guessed is a really cool series of waterfalls. I was taken aback by the natural beauty of the area - we were starting to rise in altitude and there was some beautiful forests surrounding the impressive falls. I was delighted to find that once you get out of the ridiculously overcrowded cities of India, the countryside is something primal and untamed, stuffed with a mass of tropical plants completely different from stuff you would see in the States. One thing I miss majorly about Northfield and the United States in general is the easy access to some open space. It's really easy to just go the Arb in Northfield if you want to get outside, and it only takes about 5 minutes to be out of town and among some pleasant countryside. So it was great for me to get out and see some natural beauty.

After perhaps an hour walking around the area by the falls, we got back on the bus and drove maybe another 2 hours to Saputara. The route to Saputara was rather treacherous - a bus is obviously a wide thing, and these roads were pretty narrow. We basically spent an hour climbing up dozens of switchbacks on the roads, so it was pretty slow going. The ascent was lovely though. Once we got to Saputara, we were at an elevation of about 3000 feet, and the air was noticeably cooler, which was something absolutely fantastic for me, because another tough adjustment for me in this country is that it's just really hot. Saputara has very little in the way of housing. It's mostly a tourist community, and the folks who live there are propietors of hotels, shops, and tourist businesses. It really is built almost right on top of a mountain overlooking a plateau below that is already quite a bit higher than Surat. There's a small lake in the middle of the town, which is awesome considering that's it basically built on top of a mountain, and a small collection of hotels and other stores built into the hills. The hills around us were just screaming at me to go hike in them. If I was by myself, I probably could have spent at least 3 or 4 days there.

We didn't get there until about 230, and after visiting a bathroom that nearly caused me to vomit, I just walked around the town a bit and visited some shops. Then we were given a lunch of puri and vegetables. Then Pratik, a few of his friends, and I, rented a paddleboat by the lake and just floated around for a while. It was unbelievably serene and peaceful, especially when I've been living in a very noisy city for all of these months. I think that might have been one of the reasons I loved it there so much - it was just such a fantastic contrast to the mass of activity and overcrowding that comes with living in a sizable Indian city. It's really not that Surat's a bad city at all, it's just that I'm not a major city person (probably due to the location of my upbringing), and to get to somewhere a little bit more peaceful was massively refreshing.

After that, we walked to the outskirts of town and looked down into the breathtaking view of the valley below, and discovered that with the massive zoom of my camera, we could see people probably from a very long ways away. Then we went back into town and Pratik and I found this service where you would dip your feet in a small pool and these small, toothless fish that were about leech-sized (but they weren't like leeches at all) would come and nibble at your feet. It was called a fish foot massage, and although it felt really weird to look down and see dozens of little fish trying to eat my feet, it felt really good, and afterwords my feet seemed to be very clean.

All in all it was a terrific day, although by the end of it I was really exhausted, and we didn't get back until 2 AM or so. It really reinvigorated my enthusiasm for India...I can't wait to see more of this beautiful countryside.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The New School and A Piece of National News

After a lengthy (and largely unwise, on my part) hiatus from schooling, my club has successfully enrolled me in a college, which is nice for a number of reasons, the first being that it's more age-appropriate for the 3 graduated seniors that make up our clubs. The school is simply titled School of Interior Design. It's housed in what would probably be some kind of apartment building otherwise over four floors and one other workshop setting. It's nice and clean, and the spots that are dirty are dirty in a "we're working here" way rather than a "we are too lazy to put trashcans in our schools" kind of way.
The classes that we take in the first semester class are Drawing and Painting, Color Workshop, Studio. TRD, IT, History, and Structure.
Drawing and Painting and Color Workshop are quite self-explanatorily titled classes that basically involve me painting things. I have now been wishing that I hadn't avoided all art classes like they were some kind of poisonous animal throughout my entire school career. To put it bluntly, I really suck at painting. I like it fine, and at least I'll get better at it. It's a new thing to be learning, so that's good. The professor (or the sir, as they call it) is a really awesome guy. He has a cool beard and sunglasses that he usually wears to cover up an eye injury from an accident. The only mark the accident has left, however, is that half of the white part of his right eye is red, which to me only adds to his badassery. What is also awesome about this guy is that he's a lot like MacGyver (if you're not familiar with this classic 80s show, find it on DVD and catch up - it's terrific). Forgot your easel today? MacGyver Sir, as I have taken to calling him, willing just whip you one up out of toothpicks and a piece of thermocoil. Also he's quite a good artist. So while I display an ineptitude that has likely never been seen before in these two classes, I quite enjoy them.
Another Sir teaches Studio and Structure. I'm not exactly sure what the stated purpose of studio is, but right now we're working on a complicated project that started with us randomly drawing a bunch of lines and boxes on a sheet of paper and will culminate with us creating a 3D model representing something that developed from the original drawing. It's kind of cool but a lot of work, and again I have absolutely no talent in the subject. Still, I like the Sir so it's allright. Structure is like physics and math - the numbers and calculations of architecture. I like it because the math is pretty basic and I know how to do it and Sir is really impressed with me when I know something like Newton's Laws or the Pythagorean Theorem. I think I could do ok in that one.
TRD and IT involve using a parallel (basically it just helps you draw straight lines) to do "drafting", which is the name for drawings of designs of things. It could be one specific piece of furniture, or a birds-eye view of a room, or whatever. The problem is that the Ma'am for that is very very focused on extremely minute details of whatever project we are doing, and if she doesn't like the work that you just spent two hours doing, she has no qualms about ordering you to do it again. So these two bug me quite a bit.
History is ok - they learn a lot of the stuff that I learned in AP World about ancient civilizations, but then they have to do things like memorize how wide the alleyways were in the Indus Valley city of Harappa from 5000 years ago. How these type of rote details will ever help us in architecture is beyond me, but hey, at least there's a history class here.
I definitely like it better than the other school - the professors remind me of the college professors I know back in town. They are cool folks who trust their students, and for the most part, the students return the trust with a maturity that wasn't present in my high school experience. Interior Design is far from my forte, and I think the teachers will soon become exasperated with my extreme incompetence, but I'm learning skills that I really wouldn't have an opportunity to do anything with at home, and that's the whole point of this exchange, right?

Ayodhya is a site in India (I really don't know where it is) that is purportedly the birthplace of Lord Ram. I'm sure that most of you aren't familiar with him, but he's really really important. It wouldn't be a stretch to call him an equivalent to Moses or someone like that. Jesus probably would be a stretch. The Ramayana, one of the two seminal Hindu religious epic poems, is the tale of Ram. His stature in their religion is exceedingly great.
For obvious reasons, there has always been a temple there, but back in the day (1700s or so), the Mughal Empire (an Islamic dynasty) smashed the temple down and built a mosque there. Then the British came along and the issue was not resolved one way or another. But ever since 1949, there has been a legal battle raging about whether the Hindus should be allowed to have a temple there, or whether the Muslims should have a mosque there. For 60 years this pitched battle has been raging, and today the Allahabad High Court made a decision.
The tension leading up to this decision was incredible. Extreme rioting and violence was predicted all over India no matter which way the decision went - and nobody was really able to predict what the decision was going to be. At the site today there were nearly 200,000 security personnel on hand to stem the potential tides of rioters. The state of Maharashtra, where Mumbai is located (one state to the south of me) was completely closed. Nobody in or out. Cell phone signals were shut down in some areas. It's nuts.
What the court apparently did was release a 10,000 page verdict. They made it so long so that it would take a really long time to decipher what it's true meaning is (and it's going to be something very simple). Hopefully the Hindus and the Muslims will cool off and no blood will be shed.
This case is a big deal. The potential for riots is keeping home from school for two days. Well, on that front I'm not complaining.

There's some serious unrest on a lot of fronts here - Ayodhya is just an extensin of this. I might post something on all of that unrest next time. But for now, in the spirit of the Brazilian bloggers always writing something in Portuguese at the end, Challo.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Ganpati Part 2

Ganpati Part 2

As you may recall, the festival celebrating Lord Ganesha lasts for 11 days. The final three days of these 11 were pretty fun, at least for me personally. Prior to these experiences, the Ganpatis had been sitting in the societies. Along with the Ganpatis was the presence of some exceptionally loud drums. I must admit, I'm really not used to this kind of obtrusive noise just coming from the street - it's the sort of thing you would actually call the police for in the US. I did get accustomed to it, and eventually I came to realize that what sounded like the sound of some kind of military band was really just two little kids equipped with really loud instruments. And at least they never really did it when I was trying to sleep.

Other than that, every day at about 9 o clock there was a society prayer, which my parents only went to once out of 11 days. One day they hired a professional to come sing religious songs for them. There are always a few people manning each Ganpati station and if you go up to one of them, they will always give you a small handful of some treat, always called Prasad, no matter what food it actually might be.

DAY 10 - This was my first day of the new school, and I actually had homework. So I was resigned to a night of drawing and sketching, which is far from my forte. But Pratik said "Tonight we're going to drive around and see all of the awesome Ganpatis. We won't be back until after 12 and the Ganpatis look really awesome and it's a great cultural opportunity for you and you're coming." Well, I thought "eff it, this is a cultural exchange not an Interior Design exchange". Good decision. There are some really awesome Ganpatis around, and the other thing was that all of the crowds at the Ganpatis were very eager to have a foreigner come to see their beloved Ganpatis, so everyone was immensely friendly to me. We went out for dinner at a tastilicious restaurant and all in all I had a lot of fun. Among the awesome Ganpatis was included one that was riding a gigantic dragon. The dragon was some kind of animatronic thing - it moved, it made noise, and it breathed steam out of its nostrils every 10 seconds. I'll have a bunch of sweet Ganpati photos up on Facebook in the next day or two.
Fortunately Sir was very forgiving at school.

DAY 11 - The final day of the Ganpatis. There was a gathering at our societal Ganpati and everyone in the society that I encountered that day impressed upon me the importance of my attendance and one man who seemed to be running the show told me that he intended for me to make some kind of speech. So I went, after probably my most hair-raising motorcycle ride yet from Akshay (which is really saying something) I arrived at the society's Ganpati.
A spot directly in front of the Ganpati was cordoned off by small wood barriers and all the young guys of the society were in there. They instantly invited me in there. The Ganpati looked amazing - it always does, but they seemed to go all-out on the lights that night. Also, there was an unbelievable amount of Prasad placed in front of the Ganpati. There must have a hundred dishes in front of him. They were all covered up, though, so I couldn't see what they really were.

The nightly ceremony included drums, a bunch of organized religious chanting, and a burning of a giant plate covered with candles. My bit ended up being that I went up and was asked what I thought of the Ganpati celebration (I enjoyed very much!), led a recitation of the Gayatri Mantra (which is something I say everyday in yoga), and then led the crowd in a very simple Ganpati cheer. All of it seemed to go over very well. Everyone is always very excited when a foreigner does anything related to their own religion.

After that, Pratik told me that my yoga teacher had specifically invited me to come to her society and see their Ganpati finale celebrations. I was surprised and rather touched by the invitation. So we went to see that. Theirs was a little less organized and more relaxed. People were just sitting around the large central courtyard of the society, watching little kids participate in these goofy games. They reminded me of the Field Days we used to have back in elementary school. Kids were doing things like having races holding spoons with lemons in their mouths, trying to go as fast as they could without dropping the lemon. I liked both experiences quite a bit.

DAY 12 - Technically, I suppose, there are 12 days, the last one being where the Ganpatis are taking to the river. I've discovered that the Ganpatis are made of some sort of hardened sand, so that when they are dumped in the Tapi River they will just disintegrate into the water. I think. Not a hundred percent sure on that. Apparently the Ganpatis this year are eco-friendly, as in they are supposed to not pollute the water at all. I can only applaud this idea, as the Tapi River, for all of its merits, is abominably polluted, and the thought of dumping a bunch of dissolving statues with potentially harmful chemicals into it made me cringe. It was an eventful day in the city. It was tough to get around in the streets. The Ganpati processions stop for no traffic. Also the unsmiling cops were really out in force today, and they were pretty heavily armed with shotguns and assault rifles. Apparently this is a pretty big drinking day, despite booze of any kind being completely outlawed in Gujarat.

For this, my family went to the home of my mothers parents on the other side of the river. Before the Ganpatis are dumped into the river, they are loaded onto trucks and paraded through the streets one last time. Their house has a balcony that overlooks an especially well-traveled Ganpati parade street, so it was another great place to see a bunch of Ganpatis. Another thing, once all of the people sitting on the trucks saw that a gora was taking photos from the balcony, they got really excited and started making poses and offering me huge encouragements to take photos, which was very amusing to me. It was a very enjoyable day for me. I like the food at my grandparents house a lot, and I also like them a lot, so all of that was good. They rent out part of their house to a young doctor, and actually we seem to have kind of a standing invitation to just come to his apartment anytime we feel like it. And actually it's in his part of the building that the balcony with the view is located. So we passed most of the day alternating between watching the Amitabh Bachchan classic Sholay (which, by the way, is an awesome movie) and stepping out to the balcony to see all of the neat Ganpatis passing by. Also my grandma made chicken as a surprise for me. I nearly cried with joy.

So overall, I've definitely enjoyed this festival and I'm going to miss seeing all of these cool statues about when I move around the city. Ah well. There's no shortage of other upcoming festivals, that's for sure.

I was going to write about my new school, but this post has become quite lengthy anyways. So I'll save it for another day.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Ganpati part 1 and other updates

Time for a Hindu mythology lesson/Indian history lesson about the latest festival.

Once upon a time, Shiva (one of the big 3 Hindu Gods, along with Brahma and Vishnu) left his home for a very extended time to go up to Mount Khailash in the Himalayas to meditate (this mountain is real and apparently if you climb it you are liable to find Shiva there - of course the catch is that you have to climb one of the Himalayas). During the early part of his approx. 20-year absence, his wife Parvati had a son, a fellow named Ganesha. Being the son of a god, Ganesha was rather a powerful guy. Anyways, upon his return Shiva attempted to enter his house. His young son had been told by his mother to let no strangers into the house. And he and his father had never met. Shiva became quite enraged with the impertinence of whom he thought was a simple doorman, so he broke through the door and beheaded his son.

Being informed of his horrific mistake, Shiva ordered his closest servant to go out into the woods, behead the first animal he saw, and to bring the head to Shiva. The animal turned out to be an elephant. So Shiva fixed the elephants head to the neck of his son and revived him. His wife said something along the lines of "who is ever going to worship a God with an elephant head?" At which point Shiva decided to vest quite extraordinary powers in his son so that people would worship him. From that point on, Ganesha became the number one deity asked for advice.

Now the history part. It's not quite as lengthy. In the early days of the Indian revolutionary movement, leaders needed a place to meet. So they contrived a festival in which everyone in a community gathered to pray to a statue of Lord Ganesha. In revolutionary days it was a foil, but they decided that they liked it, so they kept it.

Begininng on September 11th (this year at least, it changes every year through unknown determining factors), in every society (which is just what they mean by neighborhood) a Ganpati comes. A Ganpati is a sizable statue of Lord Ganesha. It could be made out of anything. Most are made, I think, of some kind of plastic material, but that kind of makes it sound less fancy than it is. I believe a few are from porcelain, and there's this really cool one around that's made of newspaper. That one's my favorite. Basically all of them are giant statues of elephants with a bunch of adornments like Indian clothes and jewelry. They're extremely attractive.

For weeks a kind of stage has been sitting in our society, and on Saturday the Ganpati came to it. This event was very exciting for the people of the society. Apparently they really love Lord Ganesha. It was celebrated with trademark record-settingly loud drums and some dancing. I participated, as usual exceptional self-conscious about my own dancing. It was pretty fun but was unfortunately rained about by a completely unexpected and cataclysmic monsoon rain. Ah well. I still like the rain. It's one of my favorite parts of this.

For the rest of the 11-day festival, the Ganpati really just sits there. At nine o clock every night, a kind of prayer specialist visits our society and leads those who choose to come in a kind of chanted prayer. I haven't actually been to this because, I don't know, my family doesn't ask me to and I kinda feel like it would be rude to just gawk at a bunch of people doing something very seriously religious to them.

I would post some pictures of the Ganpati but with my Internet connection it would take like, hours. And I apologize, but I just don't want to do that. For some reason the Facebook uploader works very quickly (relatively speaking, of course), so that's where I publish stuff mostly.

Other News
I've never really been completely healthy here. The climate is just so very different from the US, and the food, while tasty, is not what I'm used to and sometimes it messes with my stomach. I'm frequently exhausted during the day, but oddly enough I have a lot of trouble getting to sleep at night. I also have really nasty headaches a lot. Right now everything has culminated with a bout of fever, headache, stomacheache and all sorts of other disgusting details that are unnecessary. It's getting very annoying to me that I can't stay healthy here, but I guess that's just a part of adjusting to a new climate. I mean, I don't get sick that much in the US, and this is honestly just about the most unpleasant I have ever felt in my life.

I have a new school. It's a college for Interior Design and Architecture. I love it, based on the one day that I toured it before I came down with this abominable illness. It's clean (Shardayatan has about 50 metric tons of trash all over the place), the students seem to have moved passed the age of 6, and they actually learn. More on all of this later. I must say, Interior Design has never exactly been my calling. As in I have absolutely no experience or prior interest. But nonetheless, it seems fairly interesting, and Sam Estenson probably didn't think he would be going to a Fishery school when he signed up for Rotary, so I can deal. And my other exchange student friends will be there too. It runs from 8 AM to 230 AM, attendance is compulsory, and there's school on Saturday. So basically it's like a school day in the US, except for the Saturday. I think it might be nice to get into kind of a busy school rhythm again. It'll feel like I'm living a little bit more normal life.

I've also started a guitar class four days a week, and I think I might buy a guitar so I can practice at home. And guitars, like everything, cost about an 1/8 as much here as in the US, so that seems to be an excellent life investment for me to make. So between the new school, yoga, and guitar, I suddenly find myself exponentially more busy than I have been previously, which is definitely a good thing. I've been talking to some past India-exchange students, and a lot of them say they were having trouble finding things to keep busy with early on. Indian school is unfortunately just so completely worthless to an outsider that it's tricky to find things to do. I consider myself quite lucky all of this has fallen into my lap.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

At War with the Mystics

Faith is intertwined into everyday life here to a much greater extent than in the US. It would be cruel and inaccurate to call it blind faith, I think, but they follow the words of their holy mythology very literally and without question. My brother was telling me a story that had great similarities to that of Noah's Ark, and I told him that in Christianity we have a very similar myth. He told me that it was no myth, it was the truth. Whereas I take most of the Bible's stories as metaphorical, my family, and most other Indians that I have spoken to, quite literally believe every tale, every miracle that has been worked by their gods, even though, like in the Bible, some of them are ludicrous.

This devotion also lends itself to faith in other forms of mysticism that are not directly related to Hindu religion. There is a cult astrological devotion in this country - it's actually very similar to the planetary work that Professor Trelawney has Harry do (I'm sorry for more Harry Potter references). Mars sits in the 12th house tonight and that sort of thing. Anyway, Pratik has a friend who is an astrologer. I hadn't met him before, but given my birthday, time, and location, he was able to formulate a series of life predictions about me. Now there is no credence to these predictions. It remains to be seen whether or not he is right.

There were a few things that startled me though - he predicted, three days before it happened (and I was there to see his prediction) that I would have a problem in my left eye. I completely forgot about it because I mostly disregard this astrology as BS. But three days later my left eye was swollen and irritable. Pratik reminded me of the prediction, and I was quite surprised.
In his prediction write-up, this friend included a few paragraphs about my nature and personality, and I must admit, about 75% of the time he is spot on, so directly, precisely accurate that it's hard to believe that it's chance.

Now I'm going to talk about another form of truth-predicting that my family does. There's this guy who comes who subscribes to a Japanese-originated form of healing/mysticism/mind-reading called Raki (that might not be how it's spelled but that is how it's pronounced). He came to the house a couple weeks ago. He had never met me. He asked me the usual introductory stuff - where are you from, how many brothers and sisters you have, all that stuff. Nothing that he could gauge anything from. Then he told me "your favorite school subject is history". Which is right, and there is no way he could have known this. The scary thing is, in their country, history is not even a subject. So for him to so accurately select history is to pick a topic that he really doesn't even consider a topic. He spent about 15 minutes telling me things about myself and my family, again with about 75% accuracy. The Raki-uncle has been doing healing work on my Mom, who has problems with her knee and with depression. He's also apparently going to see Akshay successfully through his exams. Pratik is trying to lose weight - the Raki man has given him very specific advice on exactly what to eat on different days in order to do so.

I'm not a religious guy, and most religious and beliefs of this nature, I kind of take with a grain of salt. But I mean, these guys knew a lot about me. There's plenty of proof for me that their stuff works, all of their astrology and Raki mumbo-jumbo. In the US, this kind of junk is laughable. But here, most people subscribe to it, and worryingly enough, it seems to work. I feel like some crazy idiot listening to it, but I've seen it work.

It creeps me out. It also makes me think.

Saturday, September 4, 2010


I can only say with maybe 80% confidence that I correctly spelled the name of the latest Indian festival. But I can say with 100% confidence that it was awesome.

It definitely seems to be festival season, and it doesn't seem to show any signs of stopping. There's another one next Thursday in which giant statues of the Lord Ganesha are going to be delivered to every society. More on that when I get to it.

Anyways, Janmastami comes to me only a week and two days after the last highly enjoyable festival, Rakshabandhan. Janmastami celebrates the birthday of Lord Krishna, who is a very important God in Hindu culture. I believe that the story goes that Krishna was born in jail, where his maternal uncle was keeping his mother captive. At the moment of his birth, midnight, his father rescued him and put him into a foster home for safe-keeping. I'm pretty sure the entirety of the story is much more exciting than that, but my brother is asleep right now so I have nothing but Wikipedia to explain it to me.

So the way that they celebrate Krishna's birthday is by smashing pots. What they do exactly is tie a string between two buildings, which is easy on the narrow streets where most societies are located. Then they dangle a pot from the middle of the string. It can be any amount of height off the ground. In my society they were about two stories off the ground. Then people build human pyramids from the ground to try getting someone high enough at the top so that they can smash the pot.

Mostly trained pot-smashing squads do this. At about noon on Thursday the main one in our society was smashed by a team that was traveling around in a truck. All of the team members look hugely happy at all times during this ceremony, dancing and clapping, with thunderous drums accompanying their every action. I saw two pot smashes - one in my society and another one that Pratik and I spotted while we were on the way to his friends house.

In big cities, Mumbai especially, they dangle pots from ridiculous heights, at least 8 or 9 stories. Only the best pot-smashing squads get to attempt to scale these heights. I saw some teams on TV attempting to climb and break some of the pots, and it was just ridiculously high. The situation was ludicrously precarious. I saw one team fall when they were probably five stories off the ground, and the results were cataclysmic. Gigantic crowds come out to watch these events, and the dozens of men kind of basically fell into the crowd. Apparently no one was killed, which is good news that I kind of have difficulty believing. There was one team that traveled all the way from Spain to participate. Also they pay the equivalent of about $200,000 to the squads that successfully break the pots.

So I went to watch 3 Idiots at Pratik's friend's house and we got back at about 9 o clock to discover that there were three new pots strung in the houses right next to mine. I was informed that at midnight, the exact birth time of Lord Krishna, all of the neighborhood kids would get together and smash the pots themselves. At 11:55 the drums, right outside my house, announced the beginning of the event. They were deafeningly loud. Akshay and I went outside and all of the neighborhood boys started to have a psycho, drum-accompanied dance party. I had not met most of these folks yet, and I still don't know most of them by name, but they were extremely welcoming and they seemed plenty excited to have a foreigner in attendance. It was a hugely festive occasion. I was not allowed to be involved in the pyramid by my family for safety-related reasons (disappointing but understandable) but I was still very much a part of the party.

It was very very fun.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

I love Aamir Khan

I have seen three Aamir Khan films this week. I have decided that I have to dedicate an entire post to this fantastic man.

In the cinematic hell that is Bollywood (this is not an insult, it's the truth - they just don't usually make very good movies), Aamir Khan is nothing short of a saint. His movies are Hollywood standards, terrific, and by Bollywood standards, stratospherically superior to anything else on the map.

Now Aamir Khan is a terrific actor, but he has also become a major producer. He produced Lagaan, which was terrific, and Peepli Live, which was an excellent movie that I mentioned in a previous post. He has not produced all that many movies personally, but the production company that he founded has produced quite a few. Also, whenever he makes a movie, apparently he is quite involved in the story and production in some kind of uncredited way.

My first taste of Aamir Khan came long before the idea of Rotary Youth Exchange, much less the destination of India, was anywhere in my thoughts. After the AP Exams, our AP World teacher Mr. Wold screened Aamir Khan's historical cricket epic Lagaan. I think the entire class loved it, me included. It was a fantastic first taste of Bollywood. Lagaan is an awesome movie and thanks to Mr. Wold it has a bit of a cult following in Northfield. Go see it.

On Sunday Pratik, Purav (a friend) and I rented this movie called Mangal Pandey and watched it. It was an unusually good print in that it had English subtitles, which was terrific. It was in a pretty similar vein to Indian historical epic that demonizes the British. But it was quite dramatic. I didn't like it quite as much as Lagaan but it was still way above the average Bollywood film.

Then there was this drama called Rang de Basanti. It was a very complicated movie and I won't explain it, but it was basically a very well-done statement on how the numerous problems of the Indian government (namely the incredibly pervasive corruption) are derailing the youth of India. He starred in it. He was excellent. It was a very good movie, daringly dark by Bollywood standards.

Today, though, I watched 3 Idiots, which features, among other things, a fantastically unpromising title. 3 Idiots is the highest grossing movie in Indian history (but in the Avatar way -unadjusted for inflation, I mean). It's a story of three friends at an engineering college where the headmaster rears them to compete like gladiators. It's an indictment of competitive Indian society and it's cutthroat but often completely ineffective educational system. There's very little learning for the sake of learning in school here.
Basically it's extremely funny and hugely touching. I usually like to be more emotionally detached when speaking about movies, but 3 Idiots is the rare movie that has the power to change its country (apparently schools are reconsidering the way they do things solely based on this movie) and to really just give a person a huge appreciation and gratitude for the life they are given.
I thought I was watching an American movie - that's the highest compliment I can give it. There was so much care taken in the construction of the story, and the songs were completely different from the usual Bollywood songs that just exist to show off the bodies of the stars. They were songs that were actually trying to make some point that was relevant to the story. And they were musical songs too.

So after watching 3 Idiots, I have had my faith restored in Bollywood. Maybe it is only one out of fifty movies, but every once in a while they can make something really special.

Aamir Khan is responsible for most of these great movies lately. He's amazing.

Sunday, August 29, 2010


I can't believe I've gone 6+ weeks without saying something about the rain in India. It's psycho crazy scary, to put it simply.
There are 3 seasons in India - winter, summer, and monsoon. Winter, apparently is like 60-70 degrees and it runs from approximately late October to February. Summer runs from March to June. Apparently it's just insufferably hot. Like, 120 degrees hot. I am not as excited for summer. July through October, then, is monsoon season. Now one thing about the precipitation the US, in every season there will be some precipitation. It rains sometimes during spring, summer and fall, and in the winter it just turns to snow. In India, according to my family, monsoon season is the only one where it rains.
It's really hard to describe how hard it can rain here, so I'm going to start with how often. If it doesn't rain in a day it's an extremely unusual day. If it doesn't rain twice in a day then it's an uncommon. I would say two rainfalls a day is about the average. Maybe 2.3 or something.
Now not every rain is ridiculous. There are many times where it just kind drizzles. Other times it rains pretty much as it does in the US. About a fourth of the time it is harrowing and torrential, and probably about once or twice a week a week there is a rainfall that can only be described as apocalyptic.
I wish that cameras had a good way to photograph how hard rain is falling. It would be very helpful in this instance.
About four or five years ago there was a horrible flood in Surat. Surat is a city prone to flooding because it is built around the banks of the Tapi River. So in this flood the water apparently halfway up the walls in my living room. It rose all the way up to the bridges that cross the river. My family abandoned the ground floor and they all camped on the second floor and the roof. Many people were killed (I'm not really in danger - it was, I believe, mostly slum-dwellers who have no high ground to get to).
The last four days have each featured one of the apocalyptic variations of rain. There was one last night that was the worst yet. Apparently it's going to do the same all of this week and on Thursday there is going to be a rainfall worse than anything I have yet seen, where (and I kid you not) it can fall an inch a minute. The entire family smells a flood but they say it won't be as bad as the one five years ago.
Well, in four days I'll have a report on whether or not I survived the flood-pocalypse.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Some holidays

They like their holidays here. I knew this before I came…whenever I attempted to learn about the meanings or approximate dates of the holidays I quickly gave up in face of the sheer overwhelming mass of events that they partake in. In the US, it’s basically New Years, Valentines Day, St. Patricks Day, Easter, Veterans Day, 4th of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. That seems like quite a few more than then are actually important. I mean, all that Veterans Day entails for me is a day off from school. Unless you’re somehow connected to the military you don’t do much. And all I’ve ever done for St. Patrick’s Day is remember to wear green about half of the years.

India has tons more. Like, at least 20 or 25. I think when I arrived I was in kind of their festival-hiatus time but now they seem to be coming fast and furious. Part of the reason for this is that there are a ton of different religions in India and they make recognition of all of the holidays. Hindu holidays are obviously the most important, but they note the Muslim, Christian, and Parsee (Zoroastrianism) holidays. I’m not sure about Jewish and Buddhist holidays, but those are two religions that are almost non-existent in India. Even though Buddhism originated in India, it moved out a long time ago to most other parts of southern, eastern, and northern Asia. It left India for good quite a long time ago.

Since I got here, I can definitively identify three holidays that have happened. The first was Indian Independence Day, which was on Sunday August 15th. I would be annoyed with not having the day off from school but I don’t go to school enough for it to really matter. They don’t take this holiday quite as seriously as we take the 4th of July. All over Surat in the morning there are flag-hoisting ceremonies. I attended one with my dad and a bunch of other Rotarians at a school for the deaf and dumb that our Rotary club sponsors. It seems like they have promoted me to club photographer based solely on the fact that I have a nice camera. I got up quite early and went to the ceremony. While we were driving we could see these flag-hoisting ceremonies all over the place. All sorts of groups hold them – offices, businesses, schools. Most schools hold ceremonies were the students are politely requested, but not required, to attend. I can be considered a part-time student at best at Shardayatan and I really didn’t want to go to that place so I elected to attend this other one with the Rotary club.

That day was the same day as the first district-wide orientation, which was about an hour and a half away from Surat. It was very similar to one of our Rotary orientations so I’m not going to bore with the details of the various lectures that were given to us. But on the way back, I saw a bunch of folks walking barefoot along the road dressed in traditional clothes of orange. The line of people went on for miles. It was explained to me that they make some barefoot pilgrimage to the sea on Independence Day. The reason for this pilgrimage was not really explained to me. But it was a neat sight.

There was a Parsee holiday later that week. It seemed to be recognized by everyone but it had absolutely no impact on my life, school, or the activities of the city as far as I could tell.
Tuesday the 24th of August was a Hindu festival called Rakshabandhan. I’ve been imagining these Hindu festivals as kind of crazy dance parties in the street. I think a few of them are like that, but most of them, and this one, are mostly family oriented. Rakshabandhan celebrates the relationship of brother and sister. To celebrate this relationship, the sister ties a symbolic band to the brothers’ left wrist. This symbolizes that the sister can supposedly reach her brother at any time that she needs him.

The definition of sister and brother is pretty loose. My two brothers have no sisters but nonetheless earned a number of bands from a couple cousins, their maid, and a couple of family friends. I was expecting zilch bands since I was a neither a Hindu nor in possession of any family sisters. But I got one from my host cousin Prachi and one from a family friend whose name I don’t know (this is not my fault, nobody introduced us). We hung out with my dad’s sisters’ family for most of the day, which was fun. For lunch, however, we went to the home of my mom’s parents. I had not met them before. They are very unusual in that they are grandparents living alone. They only have the one child (my mother) and our house is occupied by my dad’s parents. Plus I don’t really think that grandparents go to live with their daughters. They are elderly but seem to do quite well, and nobody, including them, seems too concerned about their lack of youthful support in their old age.

I was surprised to find myself alarmed at this. I mean, all of the grandparents that I’ve ever known live by themselves, and they do just fine. It was a sign that I’m thinking a bit like an Indian. It has now become the norm, in my head, that grandparents should have young folks that they can live with. The fact that somehow my mindset has been changed without me knowing it makes me uncomfortable. I think the essential reason that I’ve never thought I’m going to have a great exchange is because while I’m delighted with adapting and participating in this new Indian culture, I’ve never wanted to embrace it. I’ve never wanted my mindset to become Indian rather than American. I don’t want to think like an Indian. It’s not like I have a problem with how they think. I guess I’m just resistant to permanent changes in my thinking.
I shouldn’t be. This is not what Rotary wants of me. But I can’t help it.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

An Extensive Compare and Contrast Discussion of Hollywood and Bollywood

This post is more for my own purposes than yours. I just felt like writing a discussion on this topic.

It happens that movies are one of my biggest interests, and from that perspective, India is a great country for me to visit. I've certainly made mention of my early experiences with Bollywood films already in this blog, but I'd like to write a fairly extensive piece on the differences between Bollywood and Hollywood, which are large. It might end up being kind of a nerdy, lengthy piece with references to lots of old movies. As always, don't bore yourself if this doesn't exactly strike your fancy. I've been slowly putting this together a bit at a time for quite a few days, so it might seem quite fragmented.

A good place to start is to give their definition of the phrase "Hollywood ending". What we call a Hollywood ending would be something like this - hero defeats the bad guy handily, gets the girl, nobody important dies, everyone lives happily ever after. That's not what they would call a Hollywood ending. We watched Gladiator, an awesome movie in which, at the ending, the main character slaughters the villain but loses his life in the process. The Indians hated that part. They said it had a Hollywood ending. I told them "no it doesn't, he dies, it's a little unusual, that's part of what makes it a good movie". They said "A Hollywood ending is a bad (unhappy) ending. And that makes it a worse movie".

Now this got me thinking - the phrase "Hollywood ending" used to mean what it does isn't exactly accurate. Lots of Hollywood movies end happily, but there are just as many, if not more, that don't. Titanic - for a very long time, the highest-grossing movie of all time. It's one of the quintessential blockbusters of our generation - far from a happy ending. The Dark Knight - also high up there. Not a happy ending. If you look at the adjusted for inflation list, Gone With the Wind tops the list and probably will never be defeated. That doesn't exactly end happily either. Casablanca - often regarded as one of the greatest Hollywood achivements of all time. Not a happy ending for the main protagonist. On the adjusted list The Exorcist is 9th. This is a brutal dark horror movie with an ending that is bittersweet at best. The Godfather and Citizen Kane are usually interchangeable on the lists of Greatest All-Time American films. Unhappy endings. The list goes on and on and on - the recent Spiderman trilogy, Forrest Gump, The Sixth Sense, Terminator 2 are all other blockbusters with bittersweet or unhappy endings.

Now granted, for each of these there's a Star Wars, or an Iron Man, or an Indiana Jones, or any romantic comedy, and there are probably many more of these than there are ones with unhappy or bittersweet endings. But can see how they latched onto the concept that a Hollywood ending is a less than joyous one.

It makes even more sense when you look at the qualifications for a good Bollywood film. A good Bollywood movie has, for want of a better phrase, what we would call a "Hollywood ending". It has to. The hero cannot die. It also MUST have songs. At least 3 or 4, and preferably 5 or 6. Additionally, it should usually have one of the 5 or 6 rotating male actors and/or one of the rotating female leads.

The only time that Indians make exception to their happy endings rule is when it is a story involving a martyr from their own history. They have a lot of movies where oppressed freedom fighters are executed or something like that, and these types of movies are played out very melodramatically. The Indians don't mind - national pride is the exception to their happy ending rule, and there is a great deal of healthy nationalism in this country.

The guys are Akshay Kumar, Shah Rukh Khan (according to Wikipedia he is the biggest film star in the world), Salman Khan, Aamir Khan (I'll discuss him in a second), Ritik Kroshan (I'm 500% sure I spelled that one wrong), Ajay Devgan and Abhishek Bacchan (son of the legendary Amitabh Bacchan). Now these guys, with almost no exception, always play heroes. Nothing else. Not complicated heroes. Good guys. The only variance in character is in their levels of funniness or badassery. Villains...nobody knows who plays them. You play a villain once, you're a villain for life. And villains there are not charismatic or entertaining. They are just mindless, ugly thugs, for the most part. Typecasting is extremely common in Bollywood, for both heroes and villains. There's nothing in between, by the way. There aren't antiheroes. Generally, we have only perfect heroes and despicable baddies.

Most of these men come out with about 3, maybe 4 movies a year. Shah Rukh Khan is especially prolific. Aamir Khan is the exception to every Bollywood rule. He only comes out with one film a year, and it's usually one of the best. His latest was 3 Idiots, which sounds awful but was given extreme critical acclaim and became the highest-grossing Bollywood movie in history. It's your typical Bollywood movie...big star, songs, the like. But it apparently makes a very modernizing statement by Indian standards. In India, there is sometimes a lot of pressure given by parents on to students that they get some kind of very well-paying job - specifially engineering, a competitive and tricky field. In 3 Idiots there is a character who was forced by his parents to go to this engineering school and he hates it. But he is a very talented photographer. Aamir Khan is basically trying to say that young Indians should be allowed to do their own thing instead of conforming to their parents desires. This is a very progressive statement by Indian standards.
The other thing about Aamir Kahn is that he has founded a very highly regarded production company. I saw the latest of that production company in theaters. More on that later.

The ladies - there are three huge ones and an array of lesser ones. The biggest one, I think, is Karina Kapoor, closely followed by Katrina Kaief and Priyanka Chopra (the foxiest by far). There are a few others, including Lara Dutta and Karishna Kapoor (Karina's older sister) but these three are the biggest. The famous Aishwarya Rai retired several years ago after a blockbuster wedding to Abhishek Bacchan. There is one large hyprocrisy about the way that these ladies behave in films. Bollywood dances are very very sexual. They were ludicrous outfits designed specifically to arouse. Yet you will never see one of these leading ladies kiss their leading man. Pratik has told me that all of the big female stars don't allow what he call "the kiss shot". But by American standards a kiss is very tame compared to some of the things that they do. This is very unusual to me.

Now I have seen bits and pieces of probably a couple dozen Bollywood films at this point but there are three that I have seen in their entirety. They are all quite different from each other, and taking a look at each of them reveal interesting things what Indians think about their movies.

The first is the latest from Aamir Khan's production company, a film called Peepli (Live) which was unusually similar to an American film. I saw it in a fairly empty theater with a screen larger than the Muller Monster Screen. The movie was about an issue that India faced in the 90s. Agriculture employs over 50% of Indians but in the 90s and early 2000s a lot of farmers were facing forclosure on their homes, which would be really catastrophic and crippling for them and their families. A governmental loophole became widely known amongst the farmers, which was that the government would heavily compensate the family of a man who had committed suicides. So there came to be a large issue of farmer suicides. Peepli (Live) follows a farmer who is deciding whether or not to commit suicide. He is a squat, rather unpleasant looking man who is not portrayed by any of the chief Bollywood actors. The film is fictional (but based on real events) and it is filmed in a pseudo-documentary style. It focuses on multiple characters - the farmer, his family, a crusading TV journalist (one of dozens who descend upon the farm to make the suicide a kind of a human interest story), and politicians. There are no big actors and they all look like real people. The end is only middlingly happy. There are no songs.

I thought it was a damn good film and the sort of thing that would be good fodder for the Best Foreign Film Academy Award. The Indians hated it - they said "no action, no comedy, no stars, no songs". It seems derogatory to say this, but they seemed mostly concerned with the most superficial aspects of movies.

The second is called Once Upon a Time in Mumbai. It stars Adjay Devgan, who is one of my favorites, and some gorgeous Indian women. It's a gangster epic set in 70s Mumbai that follows the rise and eventual assassination of a gangster called the Sultan. But the Sultan is a good guy. It utilized a lot more realism than most Bollywood movies do, but it definitely had a distinct Bollywood flavor - several songs and very Bollywood-style romance scenes. Although the hero was killed at the end, the Indians were ok with this because the murderer, one of his subordinates, was still alive. They said that he counted as a hero too. I don't know how they rationalized this. For me it was a very entertaining movie, and it was for them too. It was one of the few successful cross-sections between American and Bollywood style movies that I have seen yet. My brother gave it 4 out of 5 stars. I asked him why not 5. He said there weren't enough songs. I could have called it.

The third was a very, very typical Bollywood film starring Akshay Kumar and Karina Kapoor called Kambakkta Ishqi. It's kind of a battle of the sexes between Akshay and Karina. There are 6 or 7 songs. In the movie, Karina plays a model/doctor (the most plausible combination) who appears in a film where Akshay Kumar is a stuntman. They clash. Somehow she ends up performing a surgical procedure on him and sews her watch into his stomach. Then she sidles up to him and tries to get close enough to him (as in seduce him) so that she can secretly knock him out and get her watch back. There are other developments that involve surprise appearances from Hollywood "stars" Denise Richards and Sylvester Stallone. It's an incredibly stupid movie. I mean, just listen to the plot. It's very popular in India - sexy leads, catchy songs, happy endings. Superficial stuff.

So Indians hate an issue drama, like a romanticized gangster film, and love an idiotic romantic comedy. What does this tell us about Indian moviegoers and Indians as a society? They fall on the entertainment side of the classic art vs. entertainment debate. Hollywood is a lot more in between the two. Why is this? Why do Americans have a little more preference to darker or more realistic movies and Indians loathe them?

I think it comes down to lifestyle. Indians use film as escapism. And this is understandable - over half of India lives in impoverished agricultural circumstances. Millions more live in slums. Their lives are a little tougher - their houses are not as nice, they don't have as much variety of food. India is in many places a developed nation but a huge percentage of the population is woefully impoverished. Indians live a fairly tough life. I mean, it's not like it's AIDS-infected Africa, but it's not the Western world either. I can see why they don't want to see more of it - I can understand why Peepli (Live) would not do well. They want to see something that will make them happy, something that will show them beautiful people living in places that are far too nice to really be India having happy endings. Now my family lives comfortably, but their tastes are descended from those of their forefathers, and I completely understand how those tastes came to be.

In the United States even many families that would be considered poor live in better circumstances than Indians do. Most families live in far better circumstances. Emotionally we don't always need escapism. Our lives are nice. It's ok for us to watch an unhappy movie. In the United States, there's more of a market for darker and perhaps more artistic movies. In fact they are certainly more artistic movies.

So it would be easy for me to dismiss a Bollywood musical as fluffy trash. They are, there's really no getting around that. But they are undeniably fun. I would take a Bollywood romantic comedy over The Holiday any day. They go over the top to entertain, and the sheer effort is infectious. As long as I can watch an American movie every once in a while (and they do sometimes go to American movies) I think I will mostly enjoy the Bollywood world.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Up and Down

Without going into dull emotional details, I have to say when Rotary said that I would experience mood swings...good Lord were they right. In this day alone I've gone from overjoyed to inconsolable to pretty good to pretty bad to (right now) fairly contented.

Recent positives:
- It seems that the Rotary Club of Udhna realizes that it's school system is much less pleasant and accessible than that of the Western world, and that even though there are supposed to be tough adjustment parts of exchanges, their school system is just too much. So...I'm going to fill up my day with a bunch of different classes instead and only go to school when I feel like it. The deal is, of course, that I make sure I find things to do, to which I am only too happy to oblige. I want to find things to do. But...not so much school.

- Yoga is marvelous. Because of the feminine connotations associated with yoga in the states I was initially reluctant to do it, but it's a really terrific thing to do. It's good physically, for all parts of the body and it's emotionally calming. The latter is the main reason why I'm feeling pretty ok at the moment.

- The food is getting SO much better. I'm still struggling with no meat. In fact I don't there will ever be a moment where a big juicy hamburger isn't at the back of my mind. But I have still found a handful of dishes that rival anything I've ever eaten in the states. Firstly, there's Allo Puri. Puri, first of all, is tied with roti as their primary flatbread (there's no Naan to be found in Gujarat, despite Kurry Kabab and Chapati's insistence that Indian meals begin with them). Roti is the bread of choice in my house - I slightly prefer Puri. Allo Puri is...well now that it comes down to describing it I don't have a clue what the hell all goes into it. It's basically about a dozen pieces of puri with a bunch of stuff on it. It's delectable. Then there's Pani Puri. Pani means water (it's one of about 10 Gujarati words that I know). What they do is take puri and kind of blow it up into hollowed puffballs, but it's still mostly crunchy and hard on the outside. Anyways, you break a small hole into the puri puff and dip it in water, filling up the inside. It's a wonderful sensation, and it's not horribly hot/spicy like most of the foods here. Also they drink mango juice a lot and its tremendous. There's a dish my brothers call Manchurian and it is a Chinese dish. It's got kind of veggie meatballs all meshed together in a really tasty, thick Chinese sauce. This one is spicy, but I'm beginning to adjust to the spice. One final delicious food is something I don't know the name of. It's a breakfast food. So probably once a week or so Akshay and I venture into the Muslim part of town to look for this food item, which is a very hot and middlingly spicy soup. The broth is different from ours - it's not at all like chicken broth. The vendors heap a handful of ingredients (noodles, onions, small pieces of egg, CHICKEN!!!!!!!! and a bunch of other things I don't know) into the broth and mash it all together. It's very delicious. I'm happy to say that I could go on and on about things that I like here. But I will stop.


- Actually there's only one down. But it's a gigantic down. I dropped my Nook. I was just walking with it and I bumped into the desk in my room and it dropped and now the screen doesn't work. This is truly catastrophic. I brought like 2 actual books. My Nook is one of my primary sources of entertainment. I mean, it's still early on and my classes and stuff are still being sorted out, so I lead a fairly quiet life. I try and spend most of it reading. It's not all that healthy to be on the computer so much. So I've been using my Nook probably 2 or 3 hours a day. It's a great device.

I'm a huge idiot-face.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Pirated DVDs and Yoga

Pratik has a friend who has the most amazing home theater system I've ever seen. Projector, incredible surround sound systen, Blu-Ray player. And his projecting screen is massive. It seems like Pratik and his crew of friends go over there to watch movies a lot. It's kind of the Ted's Basement of this particular friend group. Anyways, the movies that I've watched there were 1) a legitimately purchased Blu-Ray DVD of Gladiator in English (which was awesome because Gladiator is one of my all-time favorite movies. The Indians didn't like it because the old-fashioned dialogue was tricky and it was quite long) 2) Angels and Demons in Hindi (I have no idea what on earth was going on) and 3) The A-Team in English.
Now The A-Team came out about two months ago. It should not be on DVD. I had been informed by Max that there is a ton of pirated movies over there for ridiculously cheap, but I didn't realize they could get them so quickly.

Today I went to a DVD street vendor with Akshay. They sell pirated DVDs in 5 or 6 packs there, all on one computer disc. I was even more surprised to discover that about 20 of the DVD packs included Salt. Which is three weeks old. How do they do this? And it's not as though these are like, cell phone videos sneakily taken from inside of a theater. It's the actual movie.
Pirating movies is something that I'm very, very morally opposed to but when in Rome...
So I purchased 11 total movies for 60 rupees, about $1.33. I bought them on the promise from the street vendor (who turned out to be just as shifty as he looked) that they would all be English rather than dubbed in Hindi. Or rather he told Akshay this in Gujarati, and since Akshay believed him, so did I. It was literally the exact opposite. The one that he said would be in Hindi is the only one in English and the others are in either Hindi or, inexplicably, French. That's what I get for compromising my morals.

My yoga class has started. I was under the impression that yoga consisted of strange positionings of your body and like, balance and flexibility stretches. I'm sure that there are multiple interpretations of yoga, but in my experience it's quite different. There are three main components of it.
1) The seven stages. I can't remember what all of these are but they are basically many different variations on breathing in and out. I won't bore you with extensive descriptions of each of them but suffice it to say that especially in the case of Kopal-Bati, the second stage, it's not quite as easy as it sounds.
2) Body stretches and exercises. These aren't what I thought they would be. I thought it would be putting my body into some obscene position and holding it for as long as you can. That's really not true. It's mostly just aerobic stuff - leg swings, these weird kind of situps, and other pieces that bear unusual similarities to the core that we do in Nordic. And actually some of them are fairly difficult. Sometimes I hear Kust shouting in my head for me to "suck up the pain! Be a man!".
3) The religious aspect. Yoga is not just good physically, it's also a tenet of the Hindu religion. A lot of Hindus do it every day. We always open with chanting the Gayatri Mantra. It's a bunch of words in Hindu. I've almost got it. I haven't the slightest idea what it means, but I have confidence that it's important. They also say the word "om" a lot. It means peace, I think. They have a lot of different variations on the ways that they say it - eyes closed, eyes open, say it fast twenty times, say it for as long as you can while covering up your ears. Also in the middle of the sessions we always have an eyes-closed two minute meditation session. I am told to focus my mind and think about my own god. I always spend the two minutes thinking about what I think about Catholicism in my head and before I reach any conclusion they are up.
I will admit, it seem to be good for all parts of the body. And I can do lots of it on my own. In fact I am recommended by my family to do 10 or 15 minutes of yoga 2 hours after every meal.
It's become one of my favorite hours of the day because I like exercise, because it's good to be doing something outside of school or reading on their porch, and because it's at least one hour out of the day where my mind feels at peace. I will admit that's something I could use at the moment.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Understanding Vegetarianism

Now I don't mean to offend any vegetarians out there, but for my entire life I've always been extremely exasperated with vegetarians. I've always known also that this is ignorant of me, and perhaps "vegetarianist" but I just can't help it. The idea of going a day without meat by choice is unfathomable to me. I mean, it's MEAT for goodness sakes. How could a person go through their entire lives without chicken, steak, burgers, hot dogs, ribs, bacon, pork, turkey, wings, ham, salami, sausage, roast beef and brisket? I mean, they are so delicious. In the United States, I hardly go a single meal without one of the above.
In India overall about a third of the population is vegetarian, but in Gujarat the percentage is much higher, over 2/3. And it's mostly the elder folks that are vegetarians, so really most people eat vegetarian. So, for example, in my household, my brothers and I will eat non-veg, but my parents and grandparents are vegetarians, so really everyone eats vegetarian.
There's this soda shop that I usually go to with Akshay at about 1 in the morning, and at the time of night there are sometimes unusual folks there. Yesterday there was a British Hindu couple and the man in it explained vegetarian philosophy. There are two reasons for it.
1) I'm sure you've guessed one of these is religious. In Hindu religion, God is part of everyone and so if you kill anything, you're killing God or destroying his creation. And cows, of course, are absolutely off-limits.
2) This one I didn't know about. The claims that they have scientific beliefs that biologically, humans should not be eating meat and that eating meat makes us sick. He says that's why humans get ill all of the time and animals don't. He cited examples like how we don't have teeth equipped for ripping meat the way that predators do. He also says that since our intestines are like, 36 feet long if you stretch them out, somehow means that we shouldn't eat meat.

I'm extraordinarily skeptical of the second line of reasoning, but religious reasons, when they're explained to me like that...well I can't really argue with them. And frankly I respect them. This marked the first time in my life I gained a little understanding and respect of the thought of vegetarianism. So that's one eye-opening thing that has happened here at the very least.

Now, if I come back to the states a vegetarian...if you are my friend you will force-feed me a steak. There's a limit to how far this vegetarian stage of my life is going to go. Even if when I get back I cry and scream and beg that I have become vegetarian, change me back. I can let India change me a lot, but Ted Meyer is a carnivore for life.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The cost of living and some stories

Let me give you some prices of things that I've purchased in India and the approximate US dollar equivalent.
Soda - 5 Rupees - 11 cents
Ice Cream - 20 Rupees - 43 cents
Subway Footlong - 170 rupees - 3 dollars and 67 cents
T-Shirt - 170 Rupees - 3 Dollars and 67 cents
Movie Ticket - 130 Rupees - 2 dollars and 16 cents
I have one more great example. This year, for the World Cup, I wanted a Dutch jersey. Jakob and I looked at literally every single store in the Mall of America for jerseys. I found one Dutch jersey in the whole place. It cost 35 dollars. It didn't have anyone's name on it. It wasn't even orange. It was their secondary uniform.
Yesterday Akshay and I went shopping for soccer jerseys. There was good selection available (unfortunately no Sneijder or Robben). I purchased, for 180 rupees or $3.89 a BARCELONA CLUB JERSEY OF LIONEL MESSI. It's high quality. Like, actually jersey material. What do you think that would have cost if I had found it in the United States? $70? Or more? Ridiculous.
So if you haven't figured it out, things are preposterously inexpensive over here. When I discovered that my monthly allowance was the equivalent of $20 per month I was extraordinarily skeptical but I shouldn't have been.
Here's my dad's economic rationale of the low prices. There are over a billion people here. So there's a lot more demand for everything. A shopkeeper can sell something at about a third of the price we would sell it at in the United States and sell many more units than any U.S. shopkeeper could hope to. Hypothetically, the money would come out about the same. This doesn't take into account all of the additional selling competition that would arise from having a billion people, many of whem would be other shopkeepers. I still don't quite understand it, but I'm sure that my dad's explanation isn't all that far off.
What the country lacks in goods prices it makes up for in land prices. Land is scarce around here, especially in big cities, and I must say everywhere I go the country seems packed to the brim. My dad is a middle or upper middle class kind of guy, but his house (or bungalow, as they call all houses) is much, much smaller than mine in the United States. But it's quite comfortable. The thing is, in every household there are a lot of people living in it. In ours, for example, there's me, Pratik, Akshay, Mom, Dad, Ba (Grandma), Dada (Grandpa) and the maid. That's 8. Eight people in my house in the U.S. is a stretch, but somehow we all fit comfortably into this one. I think it's because they don't have extensive recreational space - most of the rooms are used as bedrooms.
It makes sense why land is so expensive - there are over a billion people, mostly all trying to work in one of the bigger cities, and there is just not nearly as much land as there is in the United States. The population per square mile ratio must be out of control.

Yesterday I came downstairs to find a man that I hadn't seen before, which is not unusual. People bop in and out all the time. What WAS unusual was that he stood up, clapped grabbed both of shoulders and (with the most decibels that I have ever heard in a declaratory statement) told me "I am your MAMA!!!".
Turns out mama means uncle. He's my great-uncle. Fortunately Pratik was there to explain what he meant. I was more than a little shell-shocked by his declaration.

Today my auto rickshaw had 8 people in it, which is high even by my driver's standards. There's an especially small boy who usually rides with me who has yet to take full command of his bodily fluids. He has urinated in his pants twice during rickshaw rides and another time I saw him peeing on the floor of a school bathroom.
Now my rickshaw driver, kindly as he is, seems to have only one professional goal, which is to carefully select the bumpiest route imaginable and dash through it at ridiculously unsafe speeds. Today he chose to hurtle over a speed bump just as this lad decided to throw up. Whatever he had for lunch went flying everywhere. No one in the rickshaw escaped the spray. Fortunately it only got on my pants. The person sitting across from the unfortunate child was not so lucky. I don't think I need to go into further details.

In other news, I think I'm starting daily yoga classes tomorrow, which is great because it's anything other than school. Apparently yoga, in addition to being a physically healthy thing to do, also has a very calming mental effect which I will admit I could use at the moment. Also dance classes are being arranged and my club counselor says that he is close to arranging sitar lessons for me. I can't wait for the sitar.