Thursday, May 19, 2011

The End

Right now it's very early in the morning, and I can't sleep, so I thought I'd write this up. It's all just too weird. It's too much to wrap my head around. It's all over. I've invested more than a year and a half into making all of this happen, and it's done. Kaput. Terminated. Bas. While the finals days were stuffed with farewells and things like that, it can't help but feel like a whimper rather than a bang.

Going home - that is to say, being able to see my family and friends for the first time in far too long - is pretty much the most exciting thing that's happened to me since I went to India. But there was so much momentum heading to this moment two weeks ago. Where did it go? Suddenly I just feel weird. I'm actually kind of disappointed that I'm not happier. I think when I get to the airport and see my fantastic family waiting there for me, all of this strangeness will be forgotten. Still.

What's the deal? I guess I'm much sadder to leave than I thought I would. This surprises me. I've developed a lot affectionate memories with this place, but a lot of really difficult ones too. This was not an easy year. It got easier, but I had so many frustrating setbacks and difficulties. I had months and months of extreme self-doubt. I pulled out and got better at being a person living in India, but still, it was rough.

Maybe it's the investment. How can I spend so much time (which feels like so little time) working for something and then have it just end? It's just weird. Everything I've been doing and preparing for over the last 18 months is finished. The real question now is this - what did I achieve with all of this? I don't know. I have some ideas, but I can't really answer that question right now.

Every once in a while I would think about what I could write, in summation, about this year once it came to the end. I guess there's no way I could have written it until I actually got here. I never suspected I would feel this uncomfortable with something I've spent so much time looking forward to.

As it was when I left, it's not what is coming ahead, but what I'm leaving behind that gives me trouble. I was deeply excited and intrigued by coming to India when I left, but I was a train wreck. Saying goodbye to all of my friends and family was one of the most painful things I've ever done. It's the same thing right now.

I have a lot of hope. I remember when I finally said goodbye to my parents at the Minneapolis Airport, and I got on that plane, I suddenly felt really good. The anticipation of the future, the new opportunities overwhelmed me. And while admittedly, Northfield isn't exactly something new, the future beckons. It's not just this immediate, already assured-to-be-awesome summer (I have some big plans) - it's the happily looming idea of college. It's the idea of continuing to become an adult. To continue enjoying life with my old friends and to make new ones. To get to know my family even better. To eat beef. And finally, hopefully, to reconcile all of the complex thoughts and memories that have come out of this year. There's no doubt in my mind that I've accomplished something here, but I still have a very vague idea of what exactly it is. I guess, as they said back at orientation, this really is a three year process.

This has ended on a more indecisive note than I thought it would, and suddenly I'm worried about reverse culture shock. Maybe my memories have fooled me. Maybe the US isn't all that it's cracked up to be. It's the little things that get you - I remember when I went back to the US in October, the stairs in my house just didn't feel right. I HAVE made this place my home. The US won't feel like home right away. It's not immediately familiar anymore. That's worrying, but also kind of exciting - the excitement of rediscovery.

I don't really know what else to say. It's not very ceremonious or reflective or decisive, but this is the natural time to KO my blog. The exchange is over, and I gotta wrap my head around that. I'll be back here. That much I know. But it's time to go home.

I liked writing this blog. Travel writing is something I've really enjoyed, so maybe I'll look into doing that in the future, like Bill Bryson. To any future exchange students who might be reading this, I offer some advice - say yes to everything that comes your way (within reason, obviously), and enjoy it. It might feel like it's going really slowly, even at the halfway point, but it's not not.

So that's it. I want to offer sincere thanks to all of you for being there this year, even by just taking a look at this every once in a while. It was a tough year on a lot of different levels, some of which I'm only discovering right now. But it was, and is, reassuring to know that there are folks in my corner. To all Rotarians - I want to thank you for what you do, and for offering all of us this amazing experience. We couldn't get this anywhere else.

I can't wait to reconnect with all of you. I've missed home terribly, and once I snap out of this funk, I know I'm going to have a fantastic summer. And I anticipate that this Saturday, which, in a happy coincidence is also my birthday, will be pretty much the best day ever.

I also anticipate the day I come back to India, whenever it does come. It's kind of exciting to suddenly feel like you can be at home in two places. I love that I haven't even begun to discover the things that I've gotten out of this. I have so much excitement for so many aspects of the future. This truly was a worthwhile and excellent adventure.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The End is Nigh

There are 18 days left today, and at this late stage, I'm not ashamed to be counting down. I think the closer one is to home, from either direction, the more one thinks of it and misses it. As these last months have winded down, thoughts of my home, my family, my friends, and America in general have been pervading my mind. It wasn't like this as much in the middle, except perhaps around Christmas. And while generally speaking, I'm sad to finish my India journey, I'm far more excited than unhappy. It's just not very pleasant right now - you can learn to at least be mentally prepared for the heat here, but you never enjoy it. Days of 105+ degrees are no fun. I'm going to be the second-to-last student from my district to leave. Many of them are already gone. There's a sense of decisive momentum heading towards the end at this point, and I'm as swept up in it as anyone could be.

In this desire to blast through things and get them over with, I've lost all drive to finish recounting what I've done, and I don't think anybody much cares anyways. Additionally, things have gotten busier with Rotary farewells, making preparations for my departure, and my own goodbyes. Nonetheless, I set a task for myself, and even if I'm the only looking at what I wrote, I know that I will probably appreciate this when I look back in a few months, or a few years, or whenever. There are three things left - short stops on the tour, Holi (the best festival not named Diwali), and my recent visits to India's grandest cities, Mumbai and New Delhi. I'm starting this on May 2nd - the goal is to have it posted by Friday the 6th. I'll do the tour here, the rest of it next week, and then I'll probably put something together two or three days before I leave.

The Taj Mahal

So we went to the Taj Mahal, which is located in the city of Agra. The Taj Mahal, of course, needs no introduction - it is one of the most recognizable edifices in the world. The effect of the Taj Mahal, with all of the hype surrounding it, is pretty stunning. We got up at about 6 to see it, because the crowds get pretty nuts later in the day, and we had a long drive ahead of us. Even though we sort of beat the crowd, it was still very busy, and we had to stand in line to get through security, which was tight by the way. The line was totally worth it, because I found a fellow Minnesotan in India! This was the first time this has happened. I was stoked.

It does take your breath away - when you pass through the surrounding complex, you eventually come to a big, old gate that is pretty impressive in itself. And then you look through it, and there it is, almost like a picture in the distance. There's something about the color and type of stone that was used in the Taj Mahal that makes it seems kind of hazy and mystical. It's pretty fantastic.

Unfortunately for us, it was raining (which is unbelievable - it NEVER rains in India at this time of year), but that didn't really pose much of a problem. The Taj Mahal is gorgeous and breathtaking, and in person it absolutely lives up to it's hype. There aren't even very many annoying hawkers in the area. There are many reasons why everyone should come to India - the Taj Mahal is decidedly one of them.

We also went to Delhi, but I'll talk about Delhi later. Dharamshala is the general name for a collective of small villages located at the roots of the Himalayas. I don't mean to overstate things (although I going to do just that), but this was something like my favorite place ever. By far the most difficult things to deal with in a big city in India, for me personally, have been the noise, bustling activity, and the lack of surrounding natural beauty. Dharamshala is a magnificent antithesis to Surat (which I should mention that I do not loathe or anything, but it does present some difficulties for me). I mean, the Himalayas are RIGHT THERE. You see them for hours driving from the nearest train station to the town we were staying in.

Besides the striking, overwhelming visual of the world's most famous mountain chain in the background, the various small villages are small but cluttered, and generally clean. Although there are certainly pleasant hotels, cafes, homes and restaurants to be found in the area, it is not an especially developed zone. The roads aren't great, and you're always right next door to the mountains, and there are thick forests covering the area. We were not at all prepared for the climate. We should have been, probably, because once you get up to the mountains, it's obviously cold, and we knew where we were going on the trip. So we had to go into town and buy winter gear right away. There wasn't snow in the village, but it was still pretty cold, kind of MN November temperatures, though I don't have any statistics to back that conjecture up.

Our hotel was located in a village with nothing but a bunch of small houses. There was a larger town, McLeod Ganj, located about a half hour's walk through the woods away from the hotel. Besides it's hilarious Scottish/Indian name, McLeod Ganj is an awesome village with a bunch of fine restaurants, cafes, and markets. We actually had quite a need to peruse these markets, since we were all without proper winter wear. It is also a fascinating cross section of peoples. There are Indians in this part of the country, but not many. Cold is not appreciated by most people here, which I can understand, though I disagree. There is also a minority of curious ex-pats and a handful of tourists there. You meet the coolest people here. We met this guy from Cincinnati, a retired inner-city English teacher who had come here to live out his days. We also met a girl from New York state, about 24 or 25, who had left America after completing college to become a Tibetan pop star. I'm not even kidding. She showed us videos and a sizable Facebook fan club.

Tibet is the predominant influencing cultural factor in Dharamsala. I would say at least 70% of the population, if not more, is made up of displaced Tibetans. This is a whole new culture for me. I know next to nothing about Tibet, other than that they are fighting for independence from China and that the Dalai Lama is their political leader. He would live there if his government wasn't exiled. Guess where he lives now? McLeod Ganj. We went to his main temple, the Tsuglag Khang.

I don't really mean to get political here, but talking to some of these Tibetans, you hear horrible, incredible stories about the atrocities committed against their peoples by the Chinese government. There was a guy who walks around with hand in a sling - it was shot and he had to escape, crossing the mountains into Dharamshala without any surgery on the arm. It's dead now, he can't use it. There are people who have no idea where their sons and daughters are. The American/Tibetan pop star was once captured by the Chinese for taking part in a peaceful protest (fortunately, she had a contingency plan with the American embassy to keep her out of prison for too long). If there were ever people who don't deserve this kind of persecution, it's the Tibetans. They are the most friendly, peaceful people you could possibly meet. I am very behind the Free Tibet movement now.

Through the retired American teacher that we met, we found this young Tibetan man named Gyeltsin, who had, in a typical Dharamshala story, escaped to India over the Himalayas. He told us that they had to only move at night so the Chinese wouldn't see them. Imagine crossing the Himalayas, of all places, in these circumstances. Incredible story. Anyways, he took us up to a Tibetan school in a village further up the mountain and showed us a traditional Tibetan culture show, with music, singing and dancing.

The way we had found this guy was from asking the American if he knew anyone that could take us on a hike. Gyeltsin was the guy. So the next day, he took myself and six others on a hike. The plan was to go to the snow line, but once we got there, we decided to keep going. It gets to be basically a winter scene very quickly. This was not an easy hike - it took us almost an entire day to get up and down, and it was physically taxing. This was a Himalaya that we were climbing - perhaps an outer, baby Himalaya, but a Himalaya nonetheless. Beyond that I finally got my snow fix, this was pretty much the best thing ever. I've been craving this kind of raw, outdoorsy adventure the whole year, and while it was just a taste of the Himalayas, it was still enough for me. I know for a fact that sometime in my life I will come back and explore this part of the world more closely. It's like no place I've ever been.

At no other time this year was it more apparent to me how incredibly diverse the cultures, peoples, and climates are in India. Within the two-week stretch, I rode a camel into a vast desert and I hiked up one of the baby Himalayas in a blizzard. Best trip ever.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


I have several topics today.

The Rotary Conference

This was back in January, and it's not that notable, but I totally forgot about it back in the day. I don't know how big the district conference is back home, since I'm not really involved with Rotary beyond this IYE thing, but it's a big deal in India. All of the Rotarians have spent a lot time preparing and thinking about the conference. We were instructed to do a fairly extensive presentation. We had to learn dances to three popular Bollywood songs, don ridiculous costumes, and perfect a complicated catwalk routine.

In preparation for the dances, all of the exchange students in our district came to Surat. We all went to a dance studio for about 8 hours a day, training and practicing for the show. This wasn't my favorite part of the exchange. I was not born to be a dancer. But we eventually got it down. The performance didn't actually go all that well, but all of it ended up being pretty entertaining. It's a good memory, that's for sure. I'm am sorry to Logan and Lukas, if you're reading this, because you aren't in this picture, but this is the only one I have.

Another House Move

I hate moving because I'm not great with change. But at this point I've learned to go into them with an optimistic heart, because they always end up going well. I was unhappy to leave the warm and friendly Kachiwala family, but my new family is actually a really good fit for me. In some ways it's the most familiar sort of family setup. My parents, Sachin and Sumita Shah, have two children, Niralee and Anirudh. Anirudh is 15 or 16 and is on a Rotary Youth Exchange to Germany this year. Niralee is 21 and studies in Mumbai. So most of the time it's just me, Sachin and Sumita. But in actuality, it's mostly just me. This suits me just fine - the freedom of coming and going, having a key, and having more space reminds me of my life back in the US. I wouldn't say that the Shahs are better or worse than either of my two previous families. But they've all been really good fits - I've been lucky with the families - and the Shahs are no exception. Every family has been noticeably different, in terms of family structure, housing situations, location, and day-to-day schedule, and this, I think, has been immensely valuable. The most wonderful and most difficult thing about India is the incredible diversity of the place. Even within a relatively small sample size such as the city of Surat, I've met people with hugely varying worldviews and lifestyles. And there are so many different varieties. As I said, this makes living in India fascinating, but it also makes full comprehension of the place a constantly moving target. It's hard to adapt because there are so many contradictory, immensely different things going on right next to each other. My goal for a long time now has been to understand India as best as I can, and I've reached the conclusion that 10 months is probably too short a time to accomplish this. Sachin and Sumita agree with me on this point - the complexity of India, that is. Of course, all that this means is that I'll have to come back sometime and work on this some more later in life, which I have no problem with.


In Rajastan, we visited three places - Jaisalmer, which I already mentioned, Jodhpur, and Jaipur. We went to Jodhpur after Jaisalemer. Jodhpur is known as the Blue City. Take a gander.

I'm not sure exactly why all of the houses are painted blue. I recall the tour guide saying that it was initially religious, and it later just became tradition, but I can't remember the specific reasons. The Wikipedia page seems to have been written by people with limited command of basic sentence structure, and the brain trust at Yahoo! Answers tells me that it is "so that nobody comes and paints the city red." I suppose this will remain a mystery until I find someone who can give me the answer.

We only spent a night in Jodhpur, in which we visited a fort one afternoon and another fort in the morning. This isn't as boring as it sounds. This was a fort-heavy trip, I will admit, but I kind of like forts, and really the tours are never boring. India is just so constantly interesting and funny that if you're moving around like this, it's never dull. Additionally, we all have a good time together (myself and the other exchange students, I mean). It's always fun. Having said that, the forts were just forts, and I don't remember history or information about each of them specifically, so a couple pictures should certainly suffice.

Jaipur was our next destination. Jaipur is known as the Pink City, again for reasons unknown. But in Jaipur, they take their Pinkness very seriously. There is one district of town where the buildings are not allowed to be any color but pink. Our time here also featured a fort (surprise, surprise). We also saw a collection of very large astronomical instruments. I have not explained that very well - back in the day, the Jaipur region had a king who was a very accomplished astronomer. He set aside a garden to build massive sundials and similar instuments. This place was cool - all of these tools have an aesthetic simplicity that makes the place extremely attractive to just be in, but if you hear their use explained, you would find that they are very complicated and rather brilliant. Sometimes I marvel at the genius of these ancient guys without all of our modern scientific tools.

These two destinations don't merit an awful lot of description, so I'm going to talk a little bit about Rajasthan and Rajasthani culture. It is in Rajasthan that I found an India closest to the one I had imagined. It's contained in a rather stark desert ecosystem, but there are some elevated parts of it as well - there's a very aged mountain chain in the south, as well as some of the foothills of the Himalayas in the north.

Rajasthan is so named because it is the place where the effects and remnants of the British Raj can be felt most obviously. Its history, however, dates much further back. As a bit of a history junkie, I was interested to find that the people of the Indus Valley Civilization, a mysterious group credited with being among the first true civilizations, were partially based in Rajasthan. Throughout India's long history, it was largely ruled by a number of squabbling warrior tribes, the Gurjars (who are the forerunners of the Gujaratis that inhabit my own state) being the most long-lasting and powerful. It's always been a war-torn area. Besides the internal conflict, Rajastan acted as a bulwark against various Muslim invaders for many centuries. Eventually the Mughals, who were pretty good conquerors, took control of Northern India. There are forts all over the place, commanding geographic rule over vast regions, which are a constant reminder of the region's violent history. It is primarily an agricultural and pastoral economy, much more so than any part of India I've been to.

I would say that Rajasthan seemed to be the most traditional part of India that I've yet been to. The whole of India has a strong oral tradition, often expressed through singing and dancing, but Rajasthan's is distinctive. People are generally dressed more traditionally than they are in most of the other parts of India that I've seen. The big cities (Jodhpur and Jaipur are the biggest) are touristy but not cosmopolitan. They also celebrate festivals with zeal and have a lovely, colorful artistic tradition.

I suppose I missed a week in my plan that I set out in the second-to-last post, but that's ok. Time is going faster than I thought. While it is true that the heat has significantly lessened my desires to be active, there are more things going on in my day-to-day life than I thought there would be. Among other things, I joined a gym in an effort to fill up my evenings before dinner, and it's been really solid. It's way too hot to run outside anymore, at any time of day, and also Surat is probably the worst running city I've ever set foot in, so this was a good idea. There's only about a month left at this point, but hopefully I'll get back into shape a bit before I return to the US.

The exchange students are slowly leaving, one by one, which I don't enjoy. I'm one of the very last to leave from my district. I'll be fine without them, of course, but I'm going to miss them a lot. In a country as tough to adapt to as India (and there's no denying, India's one of the tougher options on the list), we didn't confine our friendships and social lives to each other, but I really relied on all of them for support. Goodbyes are rough. The end of this might not be easy as I thought it would be.

Friday, April 1, 2011

If any of you are interested in cricket. An ESPN reporter by the name of Wright Thompson travels to India in an attempt to try and understand the sport of cricket. His focus is less on the finer points of the game than on the complex and interdependant relationship between cricket, Indian culture, and cricket's God, Sachin Tendulkar. This article requires a fairly sizable time commitment, especially by ESPN article standards, but it's one of the best pieces of sports writing I've ever read -engaging and very entertaining. Not only does it give you a terrific sense of cricket, but it gives you a terrific sense of India, period. If you've got some time on your hands and you want any sense of what is going on in India right now, this is a must-read.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Jaisalmer and the Thar Desert

A post a week. Seven or eight weeks, I think. If I can do this (and barring what will hopefully pan out to be a week-long trip to New Delhi, I ought to), I should be able to acceptably summarize my remaining experiences, to my standards.

It sure is a strange feeling to be so close to the end, and it's different than it was when I left in the first place. I was very sad to leave the States, and especially to cut off what felt like my symbolic last summer (though I have since realized that it will be anything but). At the same time, I was absurdly excited for my exchange.

This time, I am again absurdly excited to get to my destination - the allure of a steady carnivorous diet, being able to drive myself again, and seeing my friends and family again is mighty enticing. They told us at the beginning that we would most certainly have a greater appreciation of our home when we left. I have definitely noticed a much greater sense of American and Minnesotan pride in myself than I used to have. The United States may have a lot of work to do, but what country doesn't? I love my country, my home and almost all of the people in it, and I miss the hell out of it.

I have much more complicated feelings about the place, or rather, the experience, that I am leaving behind. To be perfectly clear about India, I adore it and most of the people in it. I know that I gave it a lot of crap over the early posts, and while my critiques hold somewhat true, having seen more of India and the vibrant culture, I have an unadulterated love of the place. Part of the problem was that there were just a couple things about Surat that did not sit well with the type of person that I personally am. Mainly, the high population density. Surat is not nearly the biggest city in India, but it is definitely one of the most crowded. This is partly a geographic issue - it's pushed up against the sea, and the way that it's been organized, it's not really in a position to expand in any direction but into the ocean. So it's packed. I have always had difficulty with the constant crowds and traffic. Most of India is loud, but Surat can be particularly piercing. I value my own time and peace - it's why I go for runs in the dead of night in the U.S. There's really no escape from the lights and crowds in Surat. I've gotten used to this in Surat, but I haven't liked it.

To go along with this city life, this means that there aren't very many nice outdoor places. This is not an India problem or a Surat problem. This means that I am not a city person. I love a big city for like two or three weeks. But I operate best in a place like Northfield, where you have everything you need and plenty of people, but that is full of natural beauty. I'm sure that this is just a product of me being where I'm from - everybody is - but quiet streets, open parks, and woods and fields are more important to me than high-rise buildings. A lot of big cities can offer a nice balance - actually Minneapolis, what with all of those lakes, is a great example. Surat doesn't happen to. These little things kind of eat away at me on a daily basis.

These daily irritations spilled over and put me in an early bad mood, but having gotten around and seen more and more of India, I've realized just how special it is. The North Tour was the kicker. It is an absolute must for everyone to see India in their lifetime. You can really find everything here. There are spectacular, cultural cities, and a wide variety of them. There is nearly every single kind of natural habitat and climate imaginable - in the space of two weeks, I rode a camel into a vast, windswept desert, and climbed to the top of one of the baby Himalayas in a blizzard. There is incredible food, and a huge variety of food. There are amazing festivals. There are great, hospitable people folks, who are nearly always friendly despite the incredibly vast differences in thinking between India and the West. The chai is delicious. You have to see this place. I'm called back to my mood of over a year ago, when I was first applying for the exchange and I was deliriously intoxicated with the idea of India. All this time later, having experienced more of the country, with all of its wretched flaws and all of it's untouchable glory, I am again spellbound, but in a much richer, more honest way. I cannot wait to come back here.

Having said that, I have gotten to the point in my life in India where there is a limit to what I can do. I want to travel and see every inch of it, I want to take power-life hardcore ashram courses. This isn't easy to do right now. We don't have an awful lot of independence, and besides, it's summer. I think it is difficult for you guys to contemplate just how much activity ceases in India in the summer. It's not like anything specifically stops, other than school, but things just don't happen. I don't know how to describe it. I'm just not doing very much right now, and I'm restless. The most immediate option for release is to return to the US and work and go to college. There's a strong chance that, for reasons out of my control, I will accomplish much less than I have been in the next seven or eight weeks. I know that when the time comes to leave, I'll be sad to go, but I'll be itching to go home as well. It's hard to say what the next two months are going to be like, other than hot.

On that indecisive note, let's go to Rajastan.

I've already talked too much in this post, so I'll talk about Rajastan and Rajastani culture a little more in the next post. Our first destination, after a train ride and a lengthy bus trip, was Jaisalmer, also known as the "Golden City". One can see why.

Jaisalmer is not as populated as I thought it would be - only about 75,000 people live there. It's not common to find developed places this small in India - I suppose it's mostly tourist places. It is certainly a very tourist-oriented city, but as I've mentioned before, you often find the most traditional lifestyles in the tourist places. We had an interesting encounter with a new bride in one of the twisty, winding roads of the city. She was dressed in a full traditional saree with many piercings. She spoke excellent English, which indicates a good education, but she was nonetheless given the very strange job of sitting outside all day and greeting people for the 30 days after her marriage. I'd never heard of this before. You learn something new every day in India.

Even just walking around the narrow alleys of Jaisalmer is entertaining, but there's also this gigantic, sandstone fort that overlooks the whole city. It's pretty awesome, kind of a mini-community in it's own right. It's stuffed with quirky little shops, interesting architecture, tasty restaurants, and awesome panoramic views of the city and the surrounding desert. In a trip that was laden with old military forts, this was easily the most memorable of them all.

After visiting the sights in Jaisalmer, we had a chance to really get into the desert. There are these resorts in the desert where they put you up in tents that are all around a common, built-up camp, but are really all out in the sand. We also took a camal ride out into the sand dunes and were able to see a beautiful desert sunset. Also, we got to wear badass turbans. As you can see, they are extremely stylish. Apologies to Lukas for picking a picture that has him not looking at the camera.

The desert safari was too short - only a couple hours - but the sunset over the dunes was unfathomably gorgeous. Also, riding camels is an experience in itself. The night was fun too - we played cards well into the night, and back at the camp we were served up a delicious dinner and treated to a traditional dance show by a couple of very entertaining cross-dressing dancers. There seems to be an occasional penchant in traditional Indian culture for having dudes dress up as exotic women. I'm not sure exactly what is behind it. This reminds me of the way that in Shakespearean times, female parts were performed by men, but that certainly seems outdated for these days.

I will close with some facial hair and a nice group photo. This curious man, who we encountered in Jaisalmer, has the sort of moustache that most men with facial hair can only dream of.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Heat and the Cricket World Cup

Before I move on to giving you far too much detail about my travels in the northern part of India, I'm going to talk about a couple things that impact my life a little bit more directly as of right now.

The Weather
The nice thing about Indian weather is that it's predictable. I was a little surprised that the news never features the weather and that the paper simply includes a miniscule box listing the temperature, at least when I first got here. But for some reason in this tropical climate, they know almost exactly what's going to happen. From July to September/October it's going to rain 2 or 3 times a day, from October to February there will be no clouds or precipitation, and the temperature should hover around a pleasant 70 degrees during the day, and from March to June it will again be dry and cloudless, but the temperature will hover from a decidedly less pleasant 95 to 115 degrees.

The first two seasons were very comfortable for me. When it wasn't raining during monsoon season, it was very hot, but it was raining like 80% of the time, so that wasn't a problem. And of course, there's nothing wrong with clear skies and 70 degree temperatures every day. Perfect for playing soccer or just wandering outside. This season is awful, and I don't think anybody who has ever lived in India, including the completely acclimated actual Indians, would argue with this. None of my friends like this any more than I do, but the difference between me and them is that they are at least mentally and physically prepared for the heat. I don't do all that well in the heat. I always go back and forth on whether I hate extreme cold or extreme heat more, and having experienced both within three days of each other (I climbed a mountain in a blizzard on the North Tour, so that's where I got my cold fix), I can unmistakably say that I hate heat more. See when you're cold, there's a lot you can do to warm yourself up - hot food, warm clothes, a cup of tea. When you're hot, there's a limit.

I've had a really nice run of it ever since I came back from America in November, and actually just since I've gotten back from the North Tour I've begun to appreciate India as a whole more than I ever have before. But I have two months left, and I am pretty sure that they are going to handily be the worst of my exchange. The thing is, it's just too hot to go out. In India, I'm mostly an afternoon socializer. That's just the way things are done here - the culture is very family-based, and the evening is really the only time in the day where you can see your family. This is true in the US too, but there's less importance placed on it. The problem is that you really can't go out in the afternoons all that much anymore. The streets have become noticeably quieter throughout the whole day because people just don't venture out anymore.

So yeah. It's too hot, and that was really all that I was trying to say.

The ICC Cricket World Cup
Ever since I got here, I've harbored resentment towards cricket for three reasons, all silly. 1) I didn't understand it. 2) It takes forever. 3) In the world of hitting balls with bats, it stands in direct opposition to baseball, the greatest sport on the planet.

But I like sports a lot, and I sure do miss the March Madness right now, and I've been craving something to get emotionally involved in and to provide excitement. So I turned to the Cricket World Cup, under the obsessive guidance of my new host father. The Cricket World Cup, like the FIFA World Cup, happens every 4 years, and this year it is hosted by India. Not only that, India is probably the leading favorite to win. So it's a terrific year to be a cricket fan in India.

Cricket isn't bad at all. You just have to take the time to understand it. It is, undoubtedly, extremely long - the games in the World Cup are a bit shorter than usual, and they usually last about 8 hours. But if you're entertained by it, this is 8 hours of entertainment. This is the argument I've been making for years to people who complain that baseball is too long. Cricket is a game of long, grand strategy. It's much more complicated than I gave it credit for earlier. The captain of the teams, who takes on the equivalent role to a baseball manager, must be a very clever strategist. It can also be very exciting - it's kind of a slow burn, but if you get a tight match at the end, all of the time that you've spent watching before pays off. Imagine - bottom of the ninth, two outs, bases loaded, 3-2 count, down by 3 runs. Sometimes the anticipation in cricket can be that exciting.

The basic problem with cricket remains that it is constructed in what can be a numbingly simple way. One teams bats for three and a half hours. Then the other team bats for three and a half hours. I much prefer the back and forth possessions of pretty much every other sport. But cricket has proved to be one of the most diverting pieces of entertainment that India has to offer. The knockout stages of the tournament will be very helpful in keeping me occupied through these difficult summer months.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

A bit about Uttarayan

Uttarayan is the kite festival that is apparently featured in the book The Kite Runner, which I haven't read, but some of you may have. It involves spending the entire day flying kites. It was awesome. All of the Indian festivals that I have experienced have been major highlights, and Uttarayan was no exception.

It takes place in January, which gives you an idea of how absurdly behind I am. Also, I don't have any pictures, which is only kind of my fault. I took lots of pictures, but then I made the foolish decision of loaning my kite-photos-laden memory card to a friend, and when I got it back all of the kites pictures were gone. Lesson to be learned - your memory card is YOUR memory card.

For this I went back to my first host family - my second one was taking a trip at this time. This is good, because my first host family lives in a packed, kind of old-school part of town - perfect for festivals. Also it was good to see them again. Uttarayan is on a Friday, but the kite flying had already started on Thursday, albeit not in full swing yet.

Here's what the main objective is on Uttarayan. Kill the other kites. Seriously. It becomes an awesomely fun competitive sport. This is hardcore kite flying. Let's just start with the string. They make a special kind of string with small bits of glass intertwined with the actual string, the better to slice off someone else's string. It's savage. This is how I spent the better part of two straight days - up on the roof, flying kites, trying to destroy as many other kites as I could. Now the thing about kite flying is that it is an activity that I seldom, no, never engage in when I'm in the U.S. So I pretty much sucked at all of this, which I have no problem with. It takes the Indians some years to learn the trade too, and this was my first one. I still managed to take down a handful over the course of my career. And it was super fun anyways, the atmosphere is infectious. The dads get into it too, and it's hilarious to watch grown men drop everything and try to slay each other's kites. The houses are all packed together, so we're all up on the roof shouting across the roads at each other. Very fun.

A fact that is of sad interest is that 70,000 birds were killed by garroting themselves on the deadly wires during the festival. Worse, a woman was driving her motorcycle and a downed string caught her across the throat and killed her. These are sad blemishes on a wonderful day.

There is a certain amount of moral ambiguity, environmentally speaking, to a lot of these festivals. Diwali, which I regarded with unadulterated adoration, cannot be good for the air pollution, what with millions of fireworks being shot off. And as a bit of an environmental enthusiast, it's hard for me to rationalize this. But it's their culture, and an extremely fun one at that, and since there's nothing I can do about it, especially as an outsider, I chose to just have as much fun as I could. Good decision, I think.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Allepey, Goa

Today marks the day when your laziest blogger (relative to his covering-of-everything ambitions) finishes writing about the South Tour, which, incidentally has been done for almost three months. Why am I so bullishly insistent on covering everything in this detail? I've discovered that I really like this travel writing. And what with the onslaught of 95-110 degree heat, I'm going to become a bit more of a shut-in than I have before, so I will hopefully catch myself up with reasonable speed.
Alleppey is Kerala exactly as I imagined it from Arundhati Roy's wonderful book The God of Small Things. We arrived at our hotel after a hellishly long bus ride in which we made a misguided stop at low-quality Subway that made everyone sick except me and got lost multiple times. It's a horrific tragedy that this particular Subway establishment is giving a bad name to what is, generally speaking, a top-notch chain that provides a plethora of sandwiches both delicious and nutricious.
We spent less than 24 hours at this place - we woke up fairly early and took a morning cruise around the backwater canals of the area. Canals is what they claimed to be, but they really seemed more like decisive rivers. If a great picture can speak a thousand words, mine can probably only account for a few hundred, but that would still save me from writing lengthy descriptive paragraphs about the climate and ecosystem of the area. Frankly, there's not all that much to say.
Goa is among the most popular tourist destinations in the whole of Asia. It is India's smallest state, and among the smallest in population. I've never been much of a sun-and-sand traveling, but Goa is home to some eye-poppingly appealing beaches. The one below isn't one of the most swimmable ( I photographed it from a cliff that was nowhere near the more touristy beach zone), but it's no less beautiful.

We were staying at a resort that extended down on to the beach, and this was a terrific beach. Packed with people, but not too many people. The sand was beautiful, the water from the Arabian Sea was amazing. There were a bevy of activities to take part in beyond the tanning and swimming - we went on jet-ski rides through the rough waves, we got cheap but awesome two-week tattoos, and we went parasailing, which I loved. Beachside restaurants are all over the place, and sometimes they send waiters out to wherever you are sitting so you don't have to get up. Our first day was pretty much a beach day, and a nice one at that.

Day 2 was spent sightseeing. Most of the day was spent driving, frankly, but we did get to see the very beautiful Basilica of Bom Jesus, which is an extremely beautiful basilica in it's own right, but is most famous for housing the remains of Saint Francis Xavier, famous for his pioneering missionary work in Asia. Xavier's remains are, apparently, exceedingly well-preserved for some reason (cited as holy influence, I think), and every 10 years his body is taken out for public viewing. The next one is 2014. It's supposed to be an extremely big deal.

Day three was spent with the morning at the beach and the afternoon at the biggest flea market you've ever seen. It stretched for over a kilometer, just a gigantic, sprawling mess of shops selling things that were generally more traditional Indian than the things I usually find at home. The shopkeepers, based on their dress and behavior, did not seem to be all that prosperous. They weren't trying to sell any electronics or anything very modern, the pace was lightning-fast and the haggling was extreme.

I made an observation here that somewhat helped me to progress in my understanding India. I thought to myself "these are very desi Indians (desi means kind of proper, traditional Indian), but why are they like this in a tourist place and less so in my own city, which is not a tourist place?" The thing is, this kind of wild, zany India is fading. Modern India, the one I live in, is an India that, dichotomously, can still be backwards, poor, and undeveloped, and can also be hurtling headlong into new technologies and ideas of the globalizing world. THIS is the real India today. The other kind of traditional India is fading. People don't really live like that anymore. It's a show for the tourists, as part of their economy. And I have to admit, I loved it. It was a total blast. I kind of feel like this kind of India is either fading, or was a foreigner's myth to begin with.

Well, then we went home. Then there was Christmas, which I discussed several posts ago. In January, there was another festival, and it was extremely awesome. That's what I'll talk about next.

I'd just like to conclude with this goofy little sign at the Basilica. India is perhaps the only country in the world where it is deemed necessary to inform people that there are certain places where you shouldn't explode things.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

More South Tour

I will get this done soon. I've started to realize that these entries of the South Tour are probably more for my sentimental benefit than your entertainment, but that actually just makes me want to write them more. It's very difficult to motivate myself, in the moment, to actually write something though - I'm constantly distracted by the things going on away from my computer, or occasionally other things on my computer, I will admit. It's hard to trim it down to size, too. Oh well. Where were we? Ah yes, Thekkady, land of elephaants, kung-fu, kathakali, spices, Ayurvedic massages, and American coffee. What a place.
He looks friendly.

Our next locale, Madurai, is a tad less exciting. Madurai, in the state of Tamil Nadu, is one of the oldest inhabited places in India - I believe it has been around for something like 2500 years. So yeah. I sit here proud of Northfield's defeat of Jesse James in the bygone days of the late 1800s and these guys have been around for two and a half milleniums. And according to Wikipedia, it was trading with Rome and Greece around 550 BCE. We did not see much of Madurai, which, in retrospect, disappoints me, considering all the history that seems to reside there. At the time, Madurai did not seem like anything special, the following tourist attraction exempted.

We were pretty much there for the Shree Meenakshi temple, which seems to be the bread and butter of Madurai's status as a very holy city. I think (and I may have this wrong) that Lord Shiva is said to have been married there, which kind of gives it the same importance as Bethlehem. Whatever legend says, the foundations of the building have been around for as long as Madurai has been, although the spectacular present building was built in about 1600, which is still super-old by American standards.

It's a sprawling complex, with many intricately carved towers connected by vast hallways. The exterior surfaces are astonishing - one one tower, there are innumerable, intricate carvings of Hindu deities. Our guide claimed that every Hindu god was represented on this tower. I find this hard to believe. There are 36 million of them, according to some sources. Guessing the number of Hindu gods in existence, even to an expert on the subject, seems rather like guessing the number of mosquitoes in Rice County in August. It fascinates me that this religion that has about a billion zealous devotees can be so deliriously inexact.

The interiors are also something else - we've got the Thousand Pillar Hall, which is exactly what it sounds like. There are tons and tons of statues and paintings and religious artifacts. There is even an elephant that they claim is Lord Ganesha (I feel like this would be kind of like grabbing a random carpenter and telling the whole world that he is Jesus). Nonetheless, it's pretty cool to have an elephant bless you. As I've mentioned before, elephants are really awesome.

So that's the Shree Meenakshi Temple, our only stop in our short Madurai stay. The pictures speak for themselves - this is an incredible structure. This may have been more descriptive than I initially intended, but this place was something else, and I wanted to do it justice. There's nothing else to say about Madurai, other than that our hotel was memorably awesome.
After that, we went to Kanyakumari, which is a touristy, seaside town in the Land's End part of India, the uttermost bottom of it, where the waters of the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea, and the Indian Ocean come together. It was another nice hotel, with meat and everything, and very close to the ocean. We got there about noon, and right outside of our hotel you can see an island temple and a gigantic island statue. We took a ferry to the both of them, and I like them both quite a bit. Nobody saw fit to inform us what the massive statue was supposed to be of, and when I asked our tour guide after the fact, she did not know. But they were pretty awesome.
Kanyakumari is a fun little town - it's got all sorts of markets and things, pandering to tourists, and it's also a good place for some solid South Indian food - masala dhosas, idli sambhar, both of which are delicious. It's a good place to sort of wander around. We enjoyed ourselves. Our second day there was spent strolling around the city and visiting various seaside attractions. We also visited a small museum which marks a place where Gandhi's ashes were held for a time after he was shot. These were not all of his ashes - those are all over the place - but just some of them, and I belive they were scattered into the oceans after a spell. It was a solid place to be.

I'll have to get this done soon - I'd better, the North Tour is coming up. I haven't talked much about my actual life lately, because there isn't anything spectacularly new to report, but I've been happy and healthy - I hang out with various Indians and other exchange students, I work on the language, I do yoga, I drink tea, I mess around with my 7-year-old host brother. It's fun. It's not super-eventful, but I'm slowly realizing just how valuable this year has been on a personal level. There's not much left, actually. When I get back from the North Tour there will be less than 3 months left. It's really hard to believe. Right now, this is a good place to be - things are going well, and if I ever get in a foul mood I know that home isn't very far off. At the same time, it's far out enough that I still feel like I have plenty of time left here.
My mission has changed a bit - I'm determined to get as close to the bottom of this dizzying, incomprehensible, dichotomous nation, and it's a fascinating excursion. I've also realized that I simply will have to come back here. There's simply no way to understand this country in just 10 months, and I am too interested in this to let it fall away. Also, I will miss people my friends and family. I'm only just starting to realize how much.
I will admit, I'm not looking forward to the post North Tour life here - the exchange students are going to start peeling off, and the Indians are going to have their end of year exams, which are pretty much a full-time occupation for a long time. Additionally, summer will start, and summer here is like, 115 degrees. Apparently nobody does anything. It's just too hot. I hope I can work around the weather and keep doing stuff with my last days.

Still, I'm a pretty content exchange student, and I have been for a long time, and I'm starting to realize how many things I will miss when I leave. It took some time, but life has gotten pretty good here. Stay tuned for the concluding part of South Tour, if you're interested.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

South Part 3

I'm just gonna keep on rolling and posting. It's not an especially busy time, so I want to get caught up fast.
Place number 3 was Thekkady. Thekkady is about 100 kilometers away from Munnar, but it takes nearly 5 hours to get there. It's still up in the hills, but in terms of elevation it's quite a bit lower than Munnar. It's dry and hot, but not too hot, and you can see mountains in the distance. Surrounding the tourist-oriented town are lush jungles and traditional villages.

Thekkady was not my favorite place (that honor is given to Munnar and Goa), but the things that we did there were definitely the best. We left Munnar quite early and made it to Thekkady by the early afternoon. Thekkady is famous for its spices. So we went to an elephant-riding zone/spice garden in the late afternoon. We walked around the garden (which isn't really a garden, it's just basically spices growing in the forest). After that, we all took turns riding on elephants.
Elephants are just awesome. These are the Asian elephants, of course, which are known to be not as large as their African counterparts, but they are still very big (bigger than they look in the picture) and intimidating, what with their thick hides and flailing trunks. These guys were very well-trained though. I felt a little bad for them. It seemed like they could be leading much more interesting lives. Still, I enjoyed it. The best part, however, was when we all were led to the elephant's bathing pit and were each given an elephant bath. It was an experience. It also provided me with perhaps my favorite profile picture of all time.
That evening, we dried ourselves off as best we could and attended a Kathakali show at the same place. This facility seemed to be a combination of a wide variety of entertainment. Kathakali, which we sort of learned about in AP Lit while reading The God of Small Things (another excellent India book to read), is a very ancient, traditional song and dance style of storytelling. In our particular show, there were two male actors that were ridiculously made up, one to look like a woman. There was a man singing what was presumably the story in maybe Malayalam (Kerala's widely spoken native tongue) or Sanskrit (the Indian equivalent of Latin). In our tale, a studly warrior-king caught the eye of some sort of demon, who disguised himself as a seductive woman and failed to attract the attentions of the king. The demon then revealed himself to be Blackbeard and had a dance fight with the king before having his ear sliced off.
Kathakali is an experience.
The next morning we got up early and went on a jungle hike through a tiger preserve. Nobody saw any tigers. But the guide said that in four years of taking folks on jungle treks, he had seen tigers four times. I suppose it was too much to expect that we would provide his annual sighting. It was still a lot of fun. This is the kind of thing I like, walking through some beautiful outdoors, looking for wildlife, trying to be quiet enough to photograph deer and birds and monkeys and things.
That afternoon, we went to an Ayurvedic massage session and we were given a long, very traditional massage and steam bath. It was exceedingly pleasant. We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around Thekkady, which is a nice place to do this because it has a lot of tourist oriented shops. Also, it had a coffee shop. With filter coffee. This was a terrific discovery. The coffee that you can find in India is really overly sugared. Not my style. But this place was cozy in a Blue Monday kind of way, and you just don't find these kind of places in India. Made my day.
That night we went to fighting show in a kind of battle pit, surround on balconies above by excited tourists. It was kind of like a wrestling arena. 7 highly trained athletes had these very fast, incredibly choreographed battles with all sorts of exciting and dangerous weapons. They also jumped through rings of fire. It was really cool.
So that's Thekkady. Post 4 coming up soon.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

South India Part 2

As time-consuming and rather wearisome a task as it has become to update my blog regularly (as you may have noticed), I am determined not to let it die off, because I like it and I like writing. So I am going to prune my tour details as much as is reasonable and plow through it. Hopefully by the end of next week I will be all caught up. The essential problem has been that there can be very long stretches of inactivity, where there's very little that is new enough to be blog-worthy, but there can be even longer stretches, like in the past two months, where is simply so much to write about that I am completely overwhelmed and backlogged. Now, for example, I have to cover, in addition to the rest of the trip, a thrilling new festival and our bombastic District Conference performance. And the North tour is rapidly approaching.

On a non-tour-related note, I would like to recommend a book to anybody who may have an interest in learning about modern India but wouldn't like a textbook , or, sometimes even worse, a textbook masquerading as a novel. The book is The White Tiger by one Aravind Adiga, a Mumbai native who was educated in the United States and London. It is a very sharp satire that tracks the ruthless rise to power of a very poor, low-caste villager. It is an outstanding book. It will not take you long to read. The pages practically flip themselves and it's a pretty short novel anyways. It resonated very clearly with me - it is, perhaps, the first piece of literature about India that tells the story of India as I have seen it. There were so many little pieces and details that I can see clearly out of my daily life. India is a deeply misunderstood society, and it is misunderstood in a lot of different ways ways. If you happen to be interested in a very entertaining and brief crash course in the real India, this book is the best thing I can recommend.

Thank you for indulging my sales pitch of the day. Now to more tour.

When we last left me and my fellow travelers, we had just proceeded on a drive up into Munnar. Munnar is not a large city, but rather a series of communities built around a flourishing tea industry high up in the mountains. Now these are spectacular mountains, but they aren't exactly the Alps or the Himalayas. Look at the picture. That's them.

Beautiful, eh? Admittedly, it isn't the untamed, rocky, snowy beauty of some of the aforementioned mountain chains, but they are still gorgeous. If you look at the ground immediately in front of them, you can see neatly arranged clumps of some sort of crop. The said crop is tea. Munnar is full of tea plantations, and a large part of the mountainside is occupied with these crops. Normally I would not approve of farming and industry spoiling natural beauty, but as you can see, this doesn't spoil it at all. Munnar is gorgeous.

In Munnar, we toured a tea factory and saw a video on the history of the region. This is a place where somehow the humans and the mountains have interacted very well, and the mountain ecosystems have remained safe and beautiful. There are parts of India that are very polluted (most populated areas), but it also should be noted that the government has set aside a ridiculous amount of land for preservation. Then we explored a pleasant town in the hills and we found BEEF. Turns out the cow-slaying taboos don't apply to bulls. This is certainly still frowned upon in a lot of places, but clearly it was ok here. I cannot express to you how thrilling this was. Then we visited a dam and a beautiful, crystal clear mountain lake. We walked around there for a while, visited a roadside market, and took a boat ride. I cannot express to you how nice Munnar felt to me. It was just so cool, so fertile, so beautiful, so natural. This was one of my favorite sites on the trip.

I think I'll stop there for today, but like I said, I'm going to try and plow through this trip pretty fast in the next week or so. I'll probably make a lot of posts, and then make it like two parts trip, one part something else. Just bear with me.

Look how much fun we're having and how proud we are that one of us is from Brazil.