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.