Thursday, May 19, 2011
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
Tuesday, April 12, 2011
Friday, April 1, 2011
Tuesday, March 29, 2011
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 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
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
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
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.
Wednesday, January 19, 2011
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.
Saturday, January 15, 2011
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.