Friday, July 30, 2010

Some stories and observations

These are just a few things that prolly don't merit a whole post of their own. So I made one superpost.

Animals in the city

Stray dogs on the streets of Surat are probably about as common a sight as, I dunno, squirrels or something in the United States. But they are a lot more conspicuous. I mean, there are a hell of a lot of dogs here. They're all strays - I have seen only two domesticated dogs here the whole time - and nobody seems to be doing anything about them, so I can see why their breeding is so rampant. They are extremely well-adjusted to people, which they should be, living a country that is so inundated with population. A lot of them hobble around on injured legs (probably casualties of the psycho drivers) and this bugs me. I really hate it when animals are hurt. It's almost worse than when humans are hurt. I don't know how all of these thousands of dogs find enough food to keep them going.
I have also seen two camels here, one in the industrial district and one in Adajan, my district. These two are very far away from each other. The first one was quite a shock to me. The two that I have seen just lug carts with food goods along on the sides of the streets.
Also cows. In certain parts of Surat, as in the more quiet parts, you can see cows roaming the streets. I don't know if they are owned or domesticated at all. Obviously they aren't eaten, but they do drink cows milk over here. The cows seems all skin and bones to me, but it struck me that cows that we typically see might be unnaturally fat since they are raised primarily for slaughter.
And I saw a monkey. In the middle of a very busy street. It startled the crap out of me.

My First Bollywood Movie in Theaters

It was called Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai (with the two As, I don't know why). It wasn't exactly your classic Bollywood movie, as in it wasn't a romantic comedy and it only had two songs rather than the average 5 or 6. It also didn't have one of the 5 or 6 primary rotating lead actors and actresses, which is unusual.
It was a gangster epic set in 70s Mumbai about a mafia don/town hero who has a stunning rise to power only to brought down by his treacherous underling. For the most part I didn't have a huge idea what was going but you could figure it out. I can't speak to the dialogue and the acting, because I just don't know, but like the visuals and the directing were really impressive. If it weren't for the songs, it could have passed as an American movie in terms of the realism and the way that it was filmed. I thought it was a pretty enjoyable movie and I think I would have liked it a lot if I'd understood all of the dialogue. The audience was constantly whistling and cheering for the hero. At least this time I was prepared for the strange cinema behavior of Indian audiences.
Also it had some gorgeous leading ladies. I mean, these ladies were something else.

Ketchup with everything and salted soda
They like ketchup a bit too much in my opinion. The ask me if I want it on just about every non-vegetable food we eat. Bread and things like that mostly. A few days we a food that would probably be best described as a delicious variation on Ramen noodles (but it wasn't packaged or anything - they cooked it themselves), and Akshay smeared tons and tons of ketchup and spread all around our shared bowl. I'm not sure if I have ever been more skeptical of a food item in my entire life. But it was actually pretty good. I mean, this is not a practice I'm going to enact when I get home, and if anyone sees me putting ketchup where ketchup doesn't belong on my return, slap me. Nonetheless, I see why they like it. It wasn't so bad.
There's this soda shop that we frequent. The propietor is a nice guy who always makes a point of talking to me a bit in his fairly ragged English. I always appreciate the effort when folks do this. I got one soda on the recommendation of Pratik and another one on the recommendation of Akshay. Both claimed that their soda selections were sweet and cool. Not true. Akshay's was salted. Generously salted. It turns out that in addition to their strange ketchup tastes, they also put a large amount of salt on the top of their sodas. Now, I don't mean to be so dismissive, but this is a truly disgusting practice and I haven't the foggiest idea what about salted drinks tastes good to them.

Identity Crisis

I'm gonna warn you, this post is more worrisome personal reflection rather than interesting or amusing or informative stories. If that's not your thing, please don't bore yourself. But other Rotary kids might be thinking some of the same things, so maybe it'll have some merit for those folks.

Rotary always tells me that I'm going to change this year. I thought, "yeah, yeah, whatever". I have spent my whole life operating on the assumption that people are essentially the same all around the world. This I gauged through my travels to Australia, Costa Rica, England and Scandanavia.

The thing is, those are all Western countries. In India, people are different. Not in terms of humanity, helpfulness and kindness. That they have in spades. But I was completely unprepared for the vast cultural disparity that there is between my home and India. There are things that are of essential importance to my lifestyle that are done completely differently here. They have massively different ideas on gender relations, formality, household structure, education. All of which I see the point of. I understand why Indians arrange marriages, for example, and it's really not for bad reasons. They have decent reasons that they do the things do. But still, some of their lifestyle attitudes are alarmingly different from mine.

The point of this, I didn't realize how much my substance, my essence was going to have to change to adapt to this culture. I feel pressured to adapt, and quickly. To fully adapt, though, to fully become part of this culture I have to become someone entirely different from myself. Which is a bugger. I like myself. Is it worth it to change Ted Meyer the American so that I can become Ted Meyer the Indian for 11 months of my life? I mean, the United States is my home. This, it feels more like home every day, granted, but it's not where my heart and head lie, and it never will be. I already see the changes in myself. I used to intentionally put sentences in the incorrect manner that they do so they would understand me, but I realized with a jolt today that I was doing it subconsciously as I was writing. And there are other things too, more complex things that I couldn't really explain without extensive background information.

Ultimately, I'd rather be an American than an Indian, but it may well be possible to act as two people. I haven't figured it out yet completely. I'm still less than two weeks in. However, the entire point of this is to become bicultural, and I think I will have to change. But you know, I think I can find ways to stay myself and still lead a healthy, involved Indian lifestyle. This blog, for one. It's extremely refreshing to write like I would talk in America. Contact with home of any kind is another.

Now there is, of course, a fine line between remembering where you came from and trying to pretend that you're still there, and I'm going to have to toe it. There's a very good reason Rotary recommends slim contact with home. It's difficult for me to gauge how much is too much. I'm still not going to break my monthlong Facebook vendetta, except to accept new Indian friend requests, and I think I will hold off on Skype too. This is probably still a healthy thing to do. It won't be a good experience with my head in the United States.

But I do think contact with home is not as damaging as Rotary made it out to be, and actually for me will probably be critically important to keep my head in line. I wonder if it's unhealthy to try and stay myself while I'm still here. I wonder if it's going to deter from my experience. But you know, I like Ted Meyer the way he is and I'm going to do what I have to, within reason, to not completely lose track of him.

There are easy ways to do this. Today, apart from now, I spent no time on the computer and I still had some good, centering memories of home. How? Songs. Music induces memory like no other. Except for smell I suppose. Examples - today I listened to Kids by MGMT and I remembered that I'm still who makes crappy harmonizations with Mark. Then I listened to Kashmir by Led Zeppelin, which has a sick drum part, and I remembered Jakob the amateur New Year's Eve drummer.

I really hope I can find a way to strike a good balance. This is going well, but still I have my concerns - both that I will lose myself in this exchange and that I will be so focused on not losing myself that my exchange will end up doing nothing for me.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Birthdays and Soccer

Birthdays in India
Today is my host mother's birthday. Birthdays in India are handled differently from birthdays in the United States. At about 1030 yesterday my brothers rather urgently asked me if I wanted to go "roaming", which is how they describe going somewhere on their motorbikes. So we went outside and they informed me that tomorrow was their mother's birthday. So we looked for a still-open gift shop in Prime Arcade (our local mall) and we found some very nice cards for her.
Up until midnight I was playing Carrom (a marvelous game with slight similarities to pool) with Akshay, Pratik and Roosil and then Akshay said that it being now his mother's birthday, we had to go give her the cards.

Additionally, it was also the birthday of one of Akshay's friends, so after wishing his mother well, we took one of those awesome motorcycle rides over to the house of the friend. There were 5 or 6 friends there, and Pratmesh (the birthday boy) had cake, chips and drinks for us. Then we went home and my father took us all out for iced coffee. This all at like 1 in the morning.
So in India, birthdays are a midnight event. Which I have to say, is a very fun idea. Driving back from the coffee shop to the home, for some reason I felt more contented than I ever had before during this stay. I don't know what it was - maybe it was that I felt more fully accepted into the family than I had before and that I realized that I have great affection for these folks. It also might just be that we were out at night, and the cool loveliness of late summer nights always puts me at peace.

Everyone talks about soccer as the world sport, and I never really doubted that. Statistics of World Cup TV ratings don't lie. But I didn't realize until now that it truly has the ability to connect people. It has served as one of my only cultural touchstones with a group of people living a lifestyle that is, in almost every way, hugely different from my own.
Soccer is the 2nd biggest sport in India after cricket. I'm afraid that despite Pratik and Akshay's best efforts to explain to me the finer points of the game, I really don't see the appeal of cricket. My post-Lagaan cricket-obsessive phase is long over. Soccer, though, is something I like.
This year I watched the World Cup obsessively. I watched as many games as I could. I had never really seen soccer before, and I basically decided to obsess over the World Cup and the Netherlands Oranje because these sort of sporting events are infectious, and I wanted to join in. I was delighted to find that soccer is an excellent game. It was pure luck that I am right now at the height of my new soccer obsession.
People in India truly love soccer. It gives me great conversations to have with the new kids I meet in school. It gives me things to talk about with my brothers. I play a FIFA game on the PS2 with Pratik with great frequency. I kick a ball around in the street with my brothers and a bunch of little kids. And nearly everyone in this country will talk to you about it - almost no exceptions. The other day I had a lengthy conversation with my Stats teacher about this year's World Cup. I don't think I would have had much to say to him otherwise.
Indian soccer fits the vision that I think a lot of people have of soccer in impoverished nations - a huge crowd of delighted folks kicking a deflated ball around a trashy pitch with no nets behind the goalposts. But this is the charm of it - that soccer is a game that makes people so excited that they will do anything to play it. The other thing - it's cheap. For cricket you need a ball, a paddle, quite a few players, wickets. Soccer - you need a ball. Not even any other people, necessarily. This, I think, is why soccer became the world's sport and not baseball or basketball - the accessibility.
I hope all of you Rotary kids watched the World Cup. It's been immensely helpful.

On the topic of other Rotary kids, if I'm not mistaken the Sweden folks left today and the Brazil kids are heading out the day after tomorrow. Make the most of your remaining time and everyone have an absolute blast. No matter how different your lifestyle becomes, the human body is a very adaptive entity. I'm a week and a half in, and I get more comfortable by the day.
Have fun!

School - The people are great, not so much the school

If Shardayatan English Medium School is a fair indication of the Indian secondary education system, then the Indian secondary education system is in a pitiful shambles. Fortunately, there seem to be other ways that kids actually learn their stuff, but for me, school is not the best
Let me run you through a normal school day for me.

My grandfather, who is an early riser, opens my door and mutters a bunch of Gujarati and somewhere in there mentions "six o clock". He seems to have taken it on himself to serve as my alarm clock, which I appreciate. So I get up, shower quickly, brush my teeth, yadda yadda yadda. Then I go downstairs and have some tea with my grandpa. Around six-thirty, the auto rickshaw shows up at my house and I am off.

An auto rickshaw is basically a taxi, and looking at it you would think that it would not be possible for more than three normal sized people to fit in it. In my auto rickshaw, however, the driver somehow manages to stuff myself, two middle-schoolish kids and about six obnoxious 5-year-olds. The rickshaw driver seems to know all of these kids pretty well and has a kind of friendly banter with them. He's actually a really nice guy, even though he speaks no English.

Shardayatan might be a decent facility by Indian standards, so I won't judge the classrooms and technology available with nothing to compare it to. But what I can tell you is in terms of trash, Shardayatan is really, truly, disgusting. There are gargantuan piles of wrappers, chip bags, bottles, and papers all over the outdoors of the school. The hallways are relatively clean, but they are open air, and kids are just constantly tossing their crap off the edge into their central sporting area. I can't believe that a scholarly facility allows this kind of horribly damaging littering to occur with such frequency. Another icky thing - I was stepping into a bathroom and there was a little boy who could have been no older than five who was peeing on the floor. I decided to move on.

When I get to school, I go sit in class. Their schedule works like Harry Potter - different every day, not every class every day. I am in 12th standard, which is basically senior year. In India you are to choose one of three streams of learning after your 10th standard year. These can be Art (which apparently nobody does - it seems to cover the humanities), Commerce, and Science. For me it was basically Commerce or Science. Anyone in my AP Chem class knows how I feel about science, so I chose Commerce. Here are the classes that they take and a brief description of what is done in them.

English: Their homeroom teacher, who is an excellent lady, seems to just give them kind of general advisory information. Through three days, I haven't seen any actual English being taught.

Gujarati: This class is for real. It has their most strict teacher, who makes them read and write things in Gujarati. I don't know exactly what they are doing. I usually read my Traveler's History of India during this class period. Obviously it sounds like this would be a good class for me, but it would be like taking Cohrs' class without having ever spoken a word of English, so really almost everything is futile.

Stats: This class is also for real. The only one with a male teacher, who is a pretty awesome guy. Yesterday he sent me and Annie out to participate in some sort of a parade instead of sitting the class, and today he just gave all of the kids a monster problem to do and then talked with me about the World Cup. They learn Stats at a pretty advanced level - I took a decent Stats class last year and I don't have a clue what they are doing.

Organization of Commerce: In this class they are asked to do things like define the word "profession" and learn about budgets with the sort of details that are very intuitive, but somehow are made extraordinarily complicated. I hate to be so critical, but I can't really see how these mundane, obvious details would be at all helpful in the real world of business. I think that this is the worst class - it is both useless and extremely boring.

Economics: There are a few teachers who accept that they have no control of their class. The Economics teacher is one of those. She does not give them things to do. She does not attempt to lecture. She just walks around the classroom and talks to the kids about everything except economics. Sometimes kids ask her questions about economics and she seems to know what she is doing, but this class isn't the best because I would actually prefer to be taught something than just sit around.

Accounting: A decent teacher, halfway in between the extremely strict Gujarati teacher and the relatively without control Organization of Commerce teacher. The problem, unfortunately, is that Accounting is a record-settingly dull topic.

The biggest problem with Shardayatan is that the students don't seem to care at all. They don't listen to the teachers at all. They just talk and squirrel around. Even though the guys that I have fallen in with are nice folks, they really don't have any respect for most of the teachers, and their behavior is sometimes immature. But they are good guys, and since school doesn't matter very much for me, it's not exactly hurting me.

Now there are a lot of things that I like about school - even if the teachers are sometimes fairly useless, they are always intelligent and good to me. The real purpose of me going to school is to meet people, and I have done that in spades. There's a largish group of about 15 or 20 kids that instantly inducted me into their group of friends. They don't do a lot in the way of school, but they aren't stupid either, and they're nice guys. The other thing is that the homeroom teacher is a very helpful lady, and the principal of the school is also a very helpful and informative woman. All of the administrators are very well-intentioned.

The expectations for my scholarly pursuits are almost non-existent. Indian school is just so very different from American school that they don't really expect me to have any idea what they are talking about. Every couple months or so the kids have a sort of final exams period during which I am not expected to attend school. I am given no grades, and the teachers expect me to sleep in class. Also attendance is not compulsory. Many of the Indians rarely attend.

They don't seem to want to learn from their teachers, but they do care about their exams - they don't really earn points daily like we do in the US. Everything is basically determined by these major exams. I have to stress that they do learn, but it is not in school. Instead they take extra classes that they call "tuitions". Akshay goes to these a lot in the evenings. It seems to me like they take these quite seriously, and that is their main source of real education.

The problem with this from my perspective is that I don't go to these. I would rather be taught something in school than just sit around. I hang out with these new friends of mine, but a lot of the time they are having their own conversations in Gujarati. And even when they really are being taught something, it's either exceedingly boring or it's something that I would need some frame of reference that I don't possess to be able to participate in successfully.

So school...isn't great. But it has done it's job of introducing me to people.

One other amusing thing. Today when the auto rickshaw was taking me home on a back road a gibbon jumped out of a tree and nearly hit the rickshaw. This was so unexpected, so shocking to me that before I could stop myself I shouted "Holy s***! That was a f***ing monkey!" I realized that I had just uttered some horrible American vulgarities, but fortunately I remembered that these little children don't speak any English.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Inception in India

Yesterday I went to Inception at a 1030 night showing with my brothers and a couple of their friends. They were basically going to it on my recommendation, which was "Inception is the awesomest movie I have ever seen. It is so cool. Every human has to see it."

So they went. I was worried that they wouldn't like it because they are used to the idiotic romantic comedy musicals that Bollywood pumps out like clockwork every week. But I will get to their reactions later.

Pratik and I looked in the paper for showtimes for movies. The ad for Inception had critical accolades like US ads often do, but they were things like "3 and a half out of 4 stars!!!!!" (with all of the unnecessary exclamation points) from a real newspaper and "Saw Inception. Really liked it!" from a mysterious figure named Shah Amin Rakat. So already it was a little strange.

The Fame Multiplex has its six screens spread out over the floors of a towering mall. I guess instead of each movie costing the same, they put them on different screens arranged by how popular they will be, and then make each screen cost more or less. So they name their screens. We were in the "French" theater, which is apparently the third best, and the third most expensive. It cost me 130 rupees, which, for reference, is less than three dollars. The multiplex didn't have quite as much seating as the Muller Monster Screen in Lakeville, but the screen was about as large.

Before the film started everyone rose for a clip of bunch of old people singing the Indian National Anthem. I couldn't understand any of the words, of course, but it seemed to be a pretty rousing tune. Then we sat down and watched. The film was dubbed in Hindi and I was exhausted, so the parts where there wasn't awesome dreaming stuff happening I was falling asleep. But I was awake for the awesome parts. It took the Indians a while to understand what was going on, but they got it. Also halfway through the movie there was an intermission. Also whenever an audience members cell phone rang they answered it.

I hate intermissions. I also hate dubbing in any situation. If foreign movies were dubbed in English at like, the Lagoon, I wouldn't go to them. And I HATE people talking on their cell phones in a damn film. I love Pratik and Akshay, but I really wanted to take them to America and explain how to watch a movie.

Of course, this is ignorant of me to say in retrospect. They just do things differently. Nonetheless, I was quite irritated.

All of you who have seen Inception (which had better have been all of you otherwise you are a huge loser) will be pleased to hear that they loved it. They used the phrases "mind-blowing", "superawesome", "the Matrix with more cool", and "they can never make a better movie".

But the point of this is to describe the process of going to a movie in India, so other details - we booked our tickets in advance and had assigned seats. Also the theater was absolutely stuffed. Indians love their movies, even if they aren't Bollywood. Sunday night, according to Pratik's friend Roosil, is the hopping night on the town for India. I don't really understand why it wouldn't be Friday or Saturday. For the most part, weekends are timed the same way there. School and work do start again on Monday. It really doesn't make any sense why Sunday is the party night of the week.

This experience also reminded me that movies are going to be one of the biggest things I will miss. It's time to start making good use of Netflix Watch it Now when I have spare time.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

A short list of funny things that they say to me.

Some of the ways that they construct sentences are very amusing to me.
- Whenever my brothers say that an upcoming segment of a movie is funny they say "This part, it will be very very comedy for you."

- Dad was talking about Akshay Kumar, who is a ridiculously ripped movie star: "Oh man. He has a great body."

- Commentary on my running: "I believe you have transformed your body into that of a horse for running such long ways"

- My great aunt, commenting on the weight disparity of my brother Pratik and I (which isn't nearly as significant as she makes it sound) : "I want you to chop off fat of your brother and put it on you because you are far too skinny"

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The only thing I truly dislike about India

I'm just going to take this opportunity to kind of rant a bit. For the most part I am having a great time, but I have identified the root of any of my annoyances.
Most of the things that are different between India and America are things that I understand. You know, arranged marriages, I disagree with them, but having been given their perspective on it I understand why they do it. Bollywood films? They are vastly stupider and more superficial than American films, but I understand why they enjoy them. Heck, I enjoy them too. Hindu religion? Their school system? Psycho driving? I can rationalize all of them
But I have pinpointed the main thing that they do that defies all reason for me. and it encompasses most of my main problems so far.


They always wear pants. Probably 99 percent of Indians outside are wearing heavy jeans. Why do they do this? It's 85 degrees outside with horrid humidity! Formality? That's not really the reason because their jeans are not formal at all. Usually they are rattier than mine. In the home they wear a little more normal clothes, but surely they are just making themselves more uncomfortable. I mean, they all say that they are as irritated by the heat and humidity as I am.

They have hot milk. They offered me some corn flakes with hot milk. It was one of the more revolting things that I have ever eaten. From a taste perspective, I can see that in some twisted, tortured group of taste buds it might be possible to enjoy hot milk. But this is INDIA. They are right next to the equator. Hot milk is not a good idea.

Now they drink plenty of water, but their idea of a thirst quencher is searingly hot tea and coffee. I love tea and coffee. It tastes great here, especially their ginger tea specialty. But it heats ones body up. There is no reason, in this stifling heat, that they would want to do this. It's not like they don't drink water, and they also have glass-bottled Coke in much greater quantities than are available in the United States. But I think that most Indians, given the choice, would prefer to scald their tongues on tea than drink something that might bring their body temperature down to a healthy level. This is inexplicable.

And then there's the food. I must first mention that out of necessity I am happily getting used to it. And it is delicious. Sometimes. But it does not compensate for the weather at all. They have very few cold foods. It's all spicy and/or very hot (which is a different kind of unpleasantness than spicy). Adjusting ones food for the weather is the only area where I would say that the United States actually does something better than India. During winter we serve hot dishes, soups, hot chocolate. We adjust for the cold. In the summer I suppose we grill, but we also have a lot of cooler foods like frozen treats and fruits. Mainly we don't go out of our way to make our food uncomfortable to consume.

Obviously, the Indians have adjusted to this over the millenniums of their existence, but I mean, humans all came from the same place. I am at a loss as to how these practices could possibly have been enacted in the first place.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Religious Education

Today school started, which is a topic I will cover in more depth after a few days of it. I don't have much of a read on it at the moment. But I met a lot of cool folks, and this guy called Gharsham. Gharsham is Head Boy and President of Intrack (I'm not sure if that's how you spell it - I never really understand what they are saying - but it is basically Rotary organization at a student level). He has a reputation for being studious and religious, but also a nice guy. Since he is involved with Rotary he was very interested in me.

I took a nap today from 4 to 6. When I woke up, I had 6 missed calls. This was very exciting. I hadn't been called once yet, and now I had 6 within 2 hours. One of them was from this dude I met at school. FIVE were from Gharsham. So I called him back. He wanted to take me to this temple on the Tapi river (which is a river that bisects my city). So I went. It was a gorgeous temple. I will try sometime to find some pictures of something like it. Predictably, I left my damn camera memory card in the computer. I was quite irritated with myself. It was a nice tan color, with about a dozen domes scattered around. There were idols all over the place and monks in orange robes. That's kind of a wretched description, but I really don't know how to give you a good sense of what it looks like.

The temple was a temple of an organization called BAPS, which is a branch of Hinduism. It stands for something. I don't know what. They believe in Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu and all the rest of it, but they have this idea that a guy who lived from 1781 to1830 was an incarnation of their most supreme deity, someone above that other triumvirate. He's kind of a Jesus Christ equivalent. His name was Swaminarayan. Gharsham described it as a socio-spiritual organization. The first thing I thought of was Opus Dei-esque cults, but it truly seems to be an honest and legitimate organization.

Gharsham showed me much of the temple and some of their prayer services. I met a couple monks. I performed the holy act of bathing a golden idol of Swaminarayan in water. Then this employee of the temple put a dot on my head with his finger (just with water, so it didn't stay), and then he tied a band around my wrist. He also gave me extensive information on the tenets of BAPS. Their monks forgo all relations with their family, with women, with material goods. They are also supposed to somehow train their mentality to think that everything tastes the same. It sounds like my Catholic priests. I told him "This is my biggest problem with religions Gharsham. What loving God would deprive you of the best things in life?" (Although I am fine with the material goods part of it). He was disappointed in my lack of enlightenment. I told him "Gharsham, I will happily listen to all of your information because it is of interest to me, but I ask that you accept if I disagree." He said ok, but he seemed very disappointed. He seems to be attempting to convert me to BAPS. At one point he asked me if I had felt the presence of God in the temple.
I mean, come on.

The best way to describe Gharsham is to call him a zealous Percy Weasley, but nicer. He's a studious prude at school. He tries to steer me down paths the way Percy tries to steer Harry. He seems very interested in taking me to this temple again. I would only do it to take pictures. I feel like he wants to induct me into this cult. He wants me to join Intrack. That one I will probably do. Dumbest of all, he tells me that I shouldn't spend time with the friend group that I joined in with today. Continuing with the Harry Potter analogy, they seem to be like the Weasley twins - hugely friendly jokesters who don't do much for school, but their hearts seem to be in the right place. Basically I took everything that he said with about a billion grains of salt. He's nice to me, for sure. But I was very annoyed with his insistence that I accept his religion and his ignorance at the possibility of a life without religion. It was impossible for him to accept that I just don't spend an iota of my energy on religion.
It was interesting nonetheless - both to learn more about the Hindu religion and to discover that are annoying zealots in India too.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Already adjusting. Also Bollywood films

It's amazing how quickly humans can adapt. Without trying, I have already made the necessary changes in my mindset to try and mold myself into this culture. The veggies are still not my favorite, but I already like them a lot more. The spices don't seem so unpleasant. And I am trying to learn Gujarati in earnest. With every passing hour I feel more and more comfortable here.

One of my biggest educations has been in Bollywood films and film stars. Every time we watch a Bollywood movie Pratik quizzes me on if I can recognize the star. There seem to be only a handful of elite actors. These include Amir Khan (he is apparently the absolute best - he's in Lagaan) , Sharu Khan, Salman Khan (the most muscular non-Stallone/Schwarzenegger actor I have seen), Akshey Kumar, and Abhishek Bacchan, son of the legendary Bollywood actor Amitabh Bacchan, who is mentioned in Slumdog Millionaire.
The leading ladies include Aishwarya Rai, Karina Kapoor, Katrina Kaief, Priyan Kachopra, and my personal favorite, the lovely Lara Dutta. I've also had to get up on all the gossip - Amir Khan is notable for being married to someone who isn't a Bollywood actress, Aishwarya Rai is married to Abhishek Bacchan, and Salman Khan is almost 40 but is scandalously unmarried. He loves Katrina Kaief but she has been rejecting his amorous advances for years.

Bollywood films are almost exclusively romantic comedies/musicals, which, in the United States, would be like putting my two least favorite genres together. Somehow - and maybe it's the way that Bollywood so triumphantly celebrates the worst genre cliches - they are inexorably entertaining.

I feel it might be entertaining to tell you about this one movie that I saw. It had Akshay Kumar and Karina Kapoor, but it also had an apparently desperate-for-work Denise Richards, the star of Superman Returns, Mr. Brandon Routh and an outrageous cameo from none other than Sylvester Stallone. In the Sylvester Stallone scene, our heroes, rushing to stop a wedding that would not involve Akshey Kumar and Karina Kapoor being together, are stopped in the street by a bunch of thugs. They are menacing our heroes when Sylvester Stallone, who just happens to be walking on the street, kicks the shit out of the thugs. It was a moment of incredible hilarity.

I am excited for the first time I see a Bollywood film in a theater, although I won't have Akshay and Pratik explaining what all is going on.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A special on driving in India

Driving in India is, as I have mentioned, quite psycho and completely different from anything in America. I must say although most everything that I will say is going to sound critical, I really have a great affection for the way that the driving works here. When I get back, the United States will be boring by comparison.
Firstly, the vehicles. There are more motorbikes than auto rickshaws, and there are more auto rickshaws than actual cars. Most of my experience has been on motorbike rides with Akshey and Pratik. These are extremely fun for me - I've never really been on motorcycles before, and the fact that they go way too quickly and steer very sharply makes them a lot of fun. I was worried at first, but I haven't come anywhere close to falling off. Auto rickshaws are basically taxis. They are very small, compact little automated carts that seem to pack like a dozen people into them. The cars that are driven are mostly little sedans, or they are cars as small as those Smart for 2 things. None of those hulking trucks and SUVs that occupy our streets.
Secondly, the traffic laws that they don't obey. The only one that they seem to obey is which side of the road to drive on. But speed limits are completely optional. There are sometimes stoplights, but absolutely nobody even considers adhering to their orders. It would be far more dangerous to be stopped obeying the rules of the stoplight than to be disobeying them. The police are a nonfactor. Akshey told me that if he were to be caught driving his motorbike without a license, the fine would be 50 rupees. That's like, a buck. They don't follow lane lines at all. They pass each other like Bob Jacobel on steroids.
Thirdly, the honking. Some of the cars have built-in honking devices that change their intonation every other honk. These are very amusing. I also have come to tell the difference between a polite "get out of my way" honk and a "What are you doing you idiot!?" honk. It's incredible to me how melodic some of these honks can become though.

It's a good thing that no driving is one of the 5 D's...I would get killed instantly if I attempted it. As a passenger, though, being driven around on motorbikes has become one of my favorite experiences.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Early days

This is it. I know you've all been waiting to hear how the first one is going to do.
I'll give you brief narratives of my first days. I would post some photos but for some reason they can't get internet on my computer, so I'm writing this on an absolute dinosaur of a desktop.

July 17. 18th, and 10th

Well I'm sure you've all flown before so most of those details would be mundane. The Continental flight that I took from Newark to Mumbai was on a massive 777 jet with TV screens for everyone and 197 movies to choose from. Which was ridiculous. I watched The Crazies, City of God, and the Usual Suspects. This flight was a 15 hour, 9000 mile monstrosity. For the most part it was awful. I was exhausted the whole time but I'm an insomniac on airplanes, so I was just sitting there while everyone around me was snoring. It was boring, uncomfortable and interminable. But eventually I got to Mumbai.
I went through customs, got my baggage, all very easy. Then I got to the arrival lounge and I circled through it all looking for a sign with my name or someone that was looking for me. No one.
I ended up waiting there for two and a half hours. It turns out that they had left Surat at 3 o clock to come to get me, which is allowing for more than enough time. I guess the traffic into Mumbai was just ridiculous. They claimed that at one stretch it took them 3 hours to travel 30 kilometers.
So at about midnight I left the airport with them. There was this Canadian girl who was staying with some man in Mumbai that we had to get. She had some horrible mishap with her flight and had been waiting with this Rotarian for the entire day. From1 to7 we drove to Surat.
I went to the home of my first host family with these guys that picked me up (they were the nephew and brother in law of my host father). My first host family is in Kenya for a vacation right now, so I'm actually staying with someone else. I don't know why they took me there, but I went and gratefully took a nap. Then I had some vegetable sandwiches and my actual first host father, Mr. Anant Gandhi, picked me up. We drove across town to his home. He has a wife whose name escapes me (I have been told to just call her Mom) and two sons, aged 21 and 17. Their names are Pratik and Akshey. Akshey is my main outlet for activites, and I like him quite a bit.
I hung with Akshey for most of that day, had some dinner, went on a few motorcycle rides with him, and went to bed.

July 20th
I got up at like 7 and Dad showed me this jogging park. I went for like a three and a half mile jog. It didn't all that well, but every person in the park was like, extremely impressed with my stamina. I think that distance running is not a common practice here. Then I got back, showered and did some yoga with my mom's yoga instructor. Yoga seems to basically be variations on breathing in and out. But I liked it.
It's embarrassing to say this, but I had quite a boring day. Pratik was not around and Akshey was out of commission between a cold that he had and a crap ton of school work. I looked around the house, but my host mom and grandparents don't do all that much. I'm ashamed to say that I watched 5 episodes of Dexter Season 4 that day. Well, it is excellent.
The evening was better. Pratik arrived and we went out to eat and then I went to bed.

Here are some notes on notable cultural differences.

Food: Food is a real problem for me right now. My family is vegetarian. I like vegetables fine, but I don't consider a meal a meal unless it has meat in it. I think I've been getting enough food. I'm not going hungry and it tastes ok, but I haven't really had a satisfying meal yet.
We went out to a place that they said has the best chicken in Surat. The problem was that it was extraordinarily hot and spicy. Nothing in the United States compares. I think I might just stick to veggies so that my mouth doesn't burn up. The food is difficult for me, and I will have to adjust.
The basic staple of their diet is roti, a flatbread that they scoop up rice, vegetables and curry with. The veggies are completely variable. They have fruit too, mostly pears and bananas. Plenty of ice cream. I've had a lot of tea and coffee, but the concept of having coffee black without sugar is completely unfathomable to them, so I've given up trying.

People: There are an obscene amount of people here. Everyone knows this, but I was still completely unprepared for how absolutely jam-packed this would be with folks. Everything is very tightly packed in. It's kind of really overstimulating, and there isn't going to be a whole lot of peace and quiet here. This is too bad. I like my peace and quiet.

Driving: It's insane. They don't follow even the rules that their government has set. The strategy for driving seems to be to go as fast as you possibly can, make your own lanes, and honk at everything that moves. I went for a few rides on Akshey's motorbike (which he doesn't have a license to drive) and it was quite scary at first. It's actually really fun now, because I've realized that they really don't crash very often, they just take things at a faster pace.

Sports and Exercise: Yoga is a part of their religion. Mom has a yoga instructor who comes every day and does these breathing exercises with her. The two times that I have sat in she has also done other more aerobic and cardiovascular exercises with me. They have jogging parks here. But the one that I went to, there were about three hundred people there and I was the only one actually jogging.
The sports that they play are soccer and cricket. They are obsessed with both of them. It's a good thing I watched the World Cup this year, it's become one of the few cultural touchstones that I have with them.

Movies: In a typical movie theater, two of the three are Bollywood and one is American. But the American movies are dubbed in Hindi. This sucks. I mean, a LOT. Movies are probably one of the biggest staples of my life. In the summer, if I go a week without seeing a movie it is an unusual week. So while I might see American films, I'm never going to understand what the hell is going on. On TV, only the news is in English.

So the cultural differences are immense, but the important thing is that the people are nice, and that is definitely the case here. I think it will get better. For the most part, I'm having a blast. This place is pretty fascinating. I chose it because i knew that it would be the most different from the United States, and it definitely is that.
I might not say anything for a while, so good luck to anyone who leaves before I look in again.

Friday, July 16, 2010

To all you Rotary kids following in my footsteps.

I guess I have the honor of being the very first Northfield Rotary kid to leave this year. I know that mostly fellow Rotary folks read this, so I want to offer a small tidbit of advice for when you get to this point.
This whole leaving thing - now that I come down to it, it is far more difficult than I could have possibly imagined. I am very close to just breaking down and being reduced to a completely inconsolable state of existence. It's not that I'm worried about India - I'm completely psyched about that part. It's the leaving that is the problem, not the arriving. Saying goodbye to everyone tomorrow is not going to be fun.
I'm telling you this for 2 reasons.
1) So that you might be a little better prepared for it.
2) You should get all of your junk - packing, whatever Powerpoint you may have to put together, shopping, any money or technology stuff you might be using - done quickly. I have put it off, because I'm essentially a very lazy person, and it's going to crimp on my time. Which is awful. When it gets to the end, you won't want to waste a minute of your last days.

Good luck guys! I know my overly emotional ravings probably don't sound very encouraging at all, but very soon I'm going to put up an excited post about how I came out the other side and that India is awesome. It's gonna be ok.
Everyone have a great year!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Leaving Soon

On July 17th, I'm going to board a plane at the Minneapolis airport, and after nearly 18 hours of flying, with a seemingly inexplicable stop in Newark, I'm going to arrive in Mumbai at 9:00 PM. After that, I have no idea what's going to happen. Presumably someone will greet me. I can comically imagine someone waving a sign with my name in the Mumbai terminal. But after that, I can hardly guess what the following days will hold.
The website for my high school in next to useless. I've spoken to my first host family, and they definitely seem nice, but I still can have no sense of what their day-to-day life will be like. What kind of a neighborhood will they live in? Will it be easy for me to run? What kind of kids will live in the area? How do I get to school? And what will school hold, exactly? The number of unknowns that surround my impending journey is pretty ginormous. That is actually fairly exciting to me. I mean, the point of this is new, unexpected experiences, right?Certainly the coming to India is much easier than the leaving Northfield. Anyone who's talked to me about this lately would probably find me acting pretty melancholy about my early departure date. But I can't tell how excited I am to be going to India. By all accounts, it's quite a place. It was by far my first choice, so I can't complain.
Now that it comes down to it, leaving my town and the people in it is harder than I thought it would be. The closest thing I've done to this was going to Costa Rica, where I was really only isolated from my friends for a few days at the beginning. This is going to be much worse. I can think of two people that will be in this sprawling country of a billion that I will know.
I didn't make this blog to complain interminably, though, so on this joyous note, I'll close out my post. Thanks for reading. I'm sure I can provide you with some exhilarating update on the thrills of packing or something before I go.