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.

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