Posts Tagged ‘Hindi’

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Mary: Tales from Dharamsala

September 9, 2011

I’ve been trying to write about our epic Dharamsala escapade for the last few weeks but I just kept getting (surprise) side-tracked. For the most part though, things have been pretty quiet in Jaipur since we got back. I’ve mainly just been focusing on school, which we have from 9:30 to 4:30 every day, and reading in my free time. They’ve really amped up the Hindi lessons! We’ve finally transitioned away from the English transcription system we were using to read and learn new vocab words and now we just write everything in the script! I’m incredibly excited because it finally feels like I’m making significant progress with Hindi but it’s also a lot harder than I expected! It feels so strange to struggle through each individual word, slowly pronouncing the sound each letter makes. It really is like being in kindergarten and learning to read all over again. But still, it’s so thrilling to finally be able to read and write in such a strange and beautiful new language!

Anyways, I’m mainly writing this post to share the story of my journey in Dharamsala! I shall start off my swash-buckling account of the small hill station in the northernmost reaches of this vast and wondrous country with the simple and beautiful truth – we didn’t really do much of anything that week. Though I am sure a collective note of confusion may now be heard rising up from the befuddled peanut gallery, allow me to explain. Fact: the city of Jaipur is exhilarating and fills me each and every day with a sense of awe and admiration for the multitude of ways that humans have come to call this planet we live on home. Unfortunately, I believe that in that week leading up to our departure for the north, I had come to experience firsthand a little phenomenon, all too familiar amongst foreign travelers to India, known as “sensory overload”. I was getting a bit, shall we say, frazzled. I was more than ready for a little vacation to somewhere that wasn’t exceedingly hot and wasn’t plagued with the constant blare of traffic horns. Regrettably, the roughly 30 hour rickshaw-train-rickshaw-train-bus-ricksaw ride it took to get from Jaipur to Delhi to Pathankot to Dharamsala was, quite frankly, miserable. I don’t think I’ve ever had feelings of being dirty, sleepy, hungry, and grouchy combine in as great a magnitude as they did that first evening in Dharamsala. To top it all off, as we wandered the streets looking for a hotel, it was dark and pouring down rain. However, good news is that when things start off going that poorly, they can really only improve. We finally found a hotel, negotiated a reasonable rate for the six of us, had a hot meal (complete with carrot cake and chai) in the upstairs café, took pleasantly warm showers and crawled into very comfortable beds and immediately fell asleep.

The next morning, all troubles of the day before were negated and negligible upon our first look out the window. It was indescribably magical. I actually had the feeling of being in some other world where prayer flags wave invitingly from the forests, tiny little women beckon me forward to feel the yak wool shawls they have just finished knitting, monks with shaved heads draped in curtains of brightest saffron orange meander through the streets and the clouds normally drift down to say nameste and hang lazily about all morning. It was also on this first morning that I had one of my most memorable experiences in India to date.

Hannah and I had gotten separated from the rest of the group, lingering a bit longer at some little shop. We were walking down the street, looking for breakfast when a small boy with thin, ungainly limbs and a wide but crooked smile stepped out of the shadows of the early morning mist, eager to chat. “Hallo!” he called, “How do you like Dharamsala? You are travelers? Where are you from?” He reeled of a series of questions, determined to demonstrate his mastery of the English language, hoping to keep us engaged. We were used to this type of behavior from the local street children, the pestering attention this boy was giving us, and I had a very strong feeling he was about to seek our charity. But I could feel something different about this boy, something more genuine. Perhaps it was his persistent yet determinedly casual knack for keeping up a conversation, or the fact that he did not immediately hold out his hand and ask for money, like so many others, which caused me to pay him a bit more attention. As we meandered down the small street, poking our heads into shops selling everything from yak cheesecake to singing bowls, we continued in the boy’s company. A solid ten minutes went by without him asking for anything. It was only when Hannah and I eventually found and were about to enter a restaurant for breakfast that the boy spoke up, “Please madams I was curious, I will not ask for money, but if you would buy me some rice before going in?” Since my arrival in India it has been my personal decision to refuse to give money to beggars but occasionally if I have a piece of fruit or pack of crackers with me I will pass it on. As the boy stared up at me with silent pleading eyes, I found myself answering his question with one of my own, “Would you like to come to breakfast with us?” He looked hesitant; I could see him weighing in his mind the price of missing out on potential tourists against the luxury of a warm meal. Keen to hear more of this boy’s story, I offered the added promise of buying him a bag of rice afterwards if he came with us, which did the trick. We sat down at a table outside with an excellent view of the surrounding mountains and launched into conversation. I learned that his name was Suratch and that he had lived in Dharamsala all his life. He lived with his older brother and his wife, a younger sister, and his mother. He was 11 years old and had never been to school. He told me he learned English from talking to tourists, and he promptly rattled off phrases in French and “Israeli” (which I took to be Hebrew), saying those were the most common languages he heard besides English. When I asked why he wasn’t in school he looked a bit confused and said simply “I am needed at home”. When it came time to order our food, he explained that while he would rather have the chocolate pancakes, they would be gone like that (with a snap of the fingers) and so he would like to have the porridge with bananas because it would be a better meal. We continued to chat through the rest of breakfast about nothing in particular; it felt a bit like meeting a new kid I was babysitting for the first time. As we left the restaurant and I took Suratch to a nearby food stall to buy his promised bag of rice, we were laughing together at the monkeys and he promised that he was going to marry me next time I returned to Dharamsala. When at last we shook hands goodbye, he looked me in the eyes with an enormous smile and said earnestly “I thank you Mary, I thank you, you are so nice, I won’t forget!” Watching him walk away, I was filled with genuine sadness that I wouldn’t see him again. I honestly cannot tell you why that particular morning I decided to spend around 500 rupees to buy breakfast and a bag of rice for a street kid, when every other morning on my way to school I walk unblinkingly past dozens of women and children holding upturned palms in my direction. I can, however, guarantee that the memory of sharing a meal with the little boy who gave me a glimpse of unadulterated human goodness was well worth it. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Mary: Jodhpur, the blue city

August 20, 2011

Today is the first time all week the rains have relented for more than a few hours straight, finally allowing the city to dry out a bit. Honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever use the word “monsoon” lightly again for fear of invoking even a hint of the rainfall we’ve gotten here this last week. When we all got back to Jaipur from our weekend trip, the streets were positively flooded, making for one of the most unpleasant rickshaw rides I’ve had yet back from the train station. Not to mention I seem to have picked up a most unpleasant head cold for these past few days, but luckily that seems to be clearing up with the weather.  In the meantime, I’ve been utterly slammed with school work, studying for our first Hindi exam, which was Thursday, hence why this post has taken me a while to get around to writing! But now that it’s the weekend I’ve finally found some free time and felt I really must share more of the wonderful adventures I’ve been having!

Last Saturday morning, I and six other MSID students headed off for the ancient city of Jodhpur, 331 kilometers away from Jaipur, more to the west and much closer to the vast deserts the state of Rajasthan is famous for. Our train was scheduled to depart around 11:30 in the morning and we made it with more than enough time to spare considering we didn’t roll out of the station until around 1. The train station itself was incredibly entertaining though, full of sights and sounds galore, so we really didn’t mind sitting around for some time.  Best of all were the train station guards, all wearing baggy orange jumpsuits with name tags across the front that said “Jaipur Railway Employee – Your Friend for Life”.  What a comforting slogan! When our train finally arrived, we made our way to our sleeper car. There were two sets of three tiers of blue leather bunks with the middle one folded into the wall so that we could all sit on the bottom one. The large, barred windows had no glass but did have a metal cover you could pull down in case it started raining. I was lucky enough to snag a window seat for the five hour journey, prime real estate for soaking up the images of life and beauty offered up by the extensive Indian countryside. We made our way through dozens of small town railway stations, sometimes hardly slowing down enough for the people jogging alongside the train to hop aboard, sometimes stopping for what at least half an hour. On one such occasion, a group of 3 or 4 daring teenage boys decided that hanging on to the bars of our window and begging to have a go on our ipods was perfectly acceptable, despite our rather sour expressions.  Overall though, the train ride was absolutely splendid! We passed several herds of sheep being tended by small men bent crookedly forward, structures ranging from magnificent temples to small little huts with grass roofs, and the largest salt mine in northern India. The giant piles of salt being bulldozed around were incredible and the vast fields of shallow water from which the salt is harvested were beautiful. We hit a spot of rough weather after a few hours but it did little to hinder our progress and I was actually quite keen to make use of the dramatic lighting in some of my pictures!

We finally arrived in Jodhpur late in the evening. We had arranged with the guest house where we were staying to send someone to pick us up from the train station but since we were so much later than our original arrival time, we ended up having to find our own transportation. Navigating the slew of rickshaws waiting outside the train station was utterly dreadful. All the drivers can spot tourists a mile away and will swarm you, trying to yell over all the other drivers that they know where you’re going (even if you haven’t told them yet) and offer very reasonable prices (even though you know they would offer a local the same distance at maybe a tenth of the cost). It’s very frustrating to say the least. We finally managed to find a driver who spoke decent English and legitimately seemed to know where our guest house was and after cramming all 7 of us into the back of a rickshaw, made our way deeper into the city streets. Jaipur is known for being the first pre-planned city in India, with streets carefully constructed on a grid, allowing (relatively) logical flows of traffic and distinctly straight edge streets. Driving through the streets of Jodhpur made the fact that it was not a planned city painfully obvious. We took increasingly sharper turns into narrow, crooked alleys as we worked away from the train station and into the heart of the city. I must have hit my head against the roof of the rickshaw no fewer than 7 times. We finally made it to our guest house just as the sun was setting though and it was suddenly all worth it. A beautiful courtyard garden greeted us with an inviting set of stairs leading up to the rooftop terrace. We left our bags sitting outside the front office and scampered up to see the view, just in time to watch the sun set for a few minutes. The rooftop world of Jodhpur stretched out all around us. You could see children flying kites all over the place, the sky was simply filled with them. The houses famously stained with Indigo dye which give Jodhpur its nickname as the Blue City were standing out brilliantly against the orange sunset. Mehrangarh Fort, the main attraction of Jodhpur and largest fort of its kind in India, towered over the city, high on a hill, probably just a quarter mile away from our guest house. It was truly a breathtaking moment.

We eventually pulled ourselves away from the roof and headed back downstairs to check in. It was a surprisingly long process, with the front desk having to make photocopies of all our passports and write down both our American and Indian addresses. We eventually finished up, had a wonderful dinner at another rooftop terrace restaurant, made our way back to the guest house, and immediately fell asleep. That morning we were all woken up around 5 am by the call to prayer from a mosque very close to our house. It turns out we were staying in the Muslim quarter of Jodhpur and since this is the month of Ramadan, the family who owns our guest house woke up to eat before sunrise. While we were less than thrilled at being woken up that early, it gave us the opportunity to get a nice early start to the day. Nonetheless, we didn’t quite manage to beat the heat. We were all sweating profusely as we climbed the millions of stairs on our way up the “mountain of birds” to see the fort at the top. Oh, how it was worth it though! The view from our rooftop terrace, spectacular though it was, simply paled in comparison to the view outside the fort! You could see for miles in all directions. I had the distinct feeling that I was standing inside some National Geographic travel documentary, which only increased tenfold once we entered the fort and started listening to the smashing old British chap who narrated our audio tour, explaining away the architectural wonders around us in such eloquent words that the queen herself couldn’t have sounded more dignified. We saw the giant palanquins (elephant saddles) once used by the kings of the palaces. We gazed in shock and dismay at the plaster handprints of all the women of the castle who had long ago been forced to commit sati, the ritualized burning of a widow on the funeral pyre of her husband so the pair may remain together in the afterlife, a practice now outlawed in India but still sometimes practiced in the villages. We spent hours and hours wandering around, beholding all the ancient wonders and I again couldn’t help but think how, as an American, I would normally consider something fifty years old “historical” and really have no concept of a civilization and culture as old as the very hill upon which it has been built.

By the late afternoon, we had found our way back into town, specifically the central bazaar. We frittered away the rest of the day in a whirlwind of tapestries, scarves, curry combinations, and countless cups of chai, offered by various shop owners as we sat and admired their carefully crafted goods, epitomizing the idea of Indian hospitality. We were very tired by the evening and since we had to wake up early to catch the 9 o’clock train home, we headed back to the guest house after dinner. Monday dawned bright and early with another 5 am call to prayer. We packed our bags and headed downstairs for a delicious breakfast of aloo parathas (kind of a flat potato pancake) with curd and chai. The 8 year old son of the owner of the hotel also kept picking flowers and bringing them over to us as we ate, it was unbelievably adorable and just really tickled me pink. We made it back to the train station without any difficulties. After another crazy train ride with tons of people all over the place and guys walking up and down the aisles with big baskets shouting for you to buy their food or chai and dealing with the dirt and dinginess by remembering it’s just all part of the experience, we finally made it back to Jaipur, which brings us back to the flooded streets we first encountered in the beginning of this post. 

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Mary: “curiouser and curiouser”

August 13, 2011

Of late I have found myself pondering what a very strange and curious concept time can become here in India. The watch on my wrist ardently claims to be on intimate terms with the precise time and date and yet I constantly question its faithfulness. How can it be that even when it tells me that class should have started five minutes ago, teachers and students alike are still casually sitting around the library, sipping chai? Or what of the fact that while my first day here seemed to stretch out long and lanky, invading at least three or four neighboring days time, this past week has seemed to gather its things all in a rush and exit promptly through Friday afternoon’s back door? Perhaps during the strange dimly lit hours of Tuesday and Wednesday, when the electricity was caught in a continuous cycle of fading and surging, time managed to steal away and get some work done ahead of schedule before slipping unnoticed back into its place just as the power returned. I must admit the time disease seems to be an eternal epidemic though, extending far beyond the house on Devi Path where I have recently taken up residence. How else could you possibly explain the rickshaw-wallah who weaves his cycle between horse-carts and cows while talking on his cell phone, or the procession of hundreds of elaborately decorated and barefoot people who, on a pilgrimage to the sacred places of India, stop traffic for hours on one of the largest highways in the city as they pass by the Ganesh temple in Jaipur? Indeed the phenomenon seems to stretch back as far as the beginning of recorded history when we consider how in the Hindi language a single word, kul, means both tomorrow and yesterday and parso can stand for either the day before yesterday or the day after tomorrow. The conference of ancient civilization with modern metropolis is a phenomenon rarely experience or truly understood in America and the thing I am finding most marvelously baffling about India.

Aside from the time travel sickness though, I’ve had quite a wonderful week! Allow me the pleasure of backtracking from Friday’s back door to the rainy early morning of Monday. I finally figured out (after a ludicrous but largely accurate reenactment for Rama-Ji at the breakfast table) that the unearthly EEEEAHHHH bird call which wakes me so early every morning is in fact a peacock. This actually makes me quite happy and I have nearly managed complete forgiveness for the creature. On Tuesday, most of the other students and I went to a little coffee shop called Mr. Beans, perhaps the most “westernized” place I’ve seen yet in Jaipur, to study Hindi. We had all been seriously craving coffee (especially Lauren, who’s from Seattle) and were thrilled to have a few hours to stumble over the pronunciation of our vocab words away from the scrutinizing looks of our professors. The return trip also allowed for my very first experience in the back of an auto-rickshaw! It was very much like being in a tiny roller coaster that smelled simultaneously of curry and cow patties, and yet it was not entirely unpleasant.

On Thursday, we took a small school field trip into the old city area of Jaipur. We had to stop at the Foreign Registration Office (F.R.O.) to pick up our passports and acquire the official temporary residence cards which are required for anyone staying in India longer than 6 months (technically this doesn’t include us but just to be on the safe side, MSID always has their students apply). When we got there we were all quite surprised to find that the building seemed to be on fire. Despite the nonchalant attitudes of the faculty standing in a circle outside, we were obviously very concerned. Luckily, before any of us tried to call the fire department (not that we would have any idea how to anyways) Rishi-Ji explained they were actually in the middle of a pooja, a religious ceremony in which a large cleansing fire is built, and it was taking place in the courtyard next to the building. The area of the old city where the F.R.O. had been built actually used to be a temple and so once a year, a priest was brought into the building to perform the pooja, to continue to honor the sacred land. We ended up having to wait for about half an hour, watching as the priest went around to each member of the faculty gathered outside and prayed over them, placing the bindi on their forehead. The fact that all of this was happening, unannounced, at an official government building seemed quite strange to me but Rishi-Ji just called it a “true taste of India” experience which made me smile.

After the F.R.O. office we went deeper into the old city, where the main market place, called Johari Bazaar, is found. We wound our into the side alleys and back through what seemed like several centuries, what with the tiny little cubbyhole shops and fruit stands which looked like they had been around since before the East India Company first made anchor off the western coast, again leaving my sense of time wildly out of whack, finally coming to the specific part of the market where bangles, known in Hindi as churis, are made. We were actually lucky enough to stumble across one shop where the artisan was deeply engrossed in his work. Indian bangles, usually made of wood, silver, gold, or other metals, have a specific wax, called lakh, placed around the inside rim of the bangle. This wax is especially revered in the Hindu faith and it is considered improper for a woman to allow a “naked” bangle to touch her skin, without the special inner layer of lakh added. It was really a beautiful process. The man sat cross-legged next to a tiny little portable stove with hot coals on top and a small flame in the middle. He slowly heated a stick of wax over the coals, pausing a couple of times a minute to flatten and elongate the stick with a heavy square of metal with a handle on top. When it reached roughly the desired length, he took a golden bangle and wrapped the lakh under the inner lip, cutting the wax at the appropriate length. Finally, he twisted the bangle on a large wooden rolling pin to press the wax in tight as it dried. It was mesmerizing to watch, the man knew his work so well he could probably have done it with his eyes closed. The adeptness with which he moved his nimble fingers left me staring incredulously.

Back at school that day, our professor told us how all bangle makers actually belong to a specific caste, known as the munivar and that each successive generation amongst a family of that caste will continue to be bangle makers. There are actually hundreds of occupational castes like this one, from utensil makers to house sweepers even to gymnast circus performers, which really surprised me and led me to realize I really have no idea how comprehensive the caste system is. Later that night, when Emily and I were recounting our field trip for Rama-Ji she told us that most people don’t refer to the bangle makers as the munivar though, simply as belonging to the working caste. I’m sure I’m hardly even beginning to comprehend the complexity of this strange social stratification system though, it just seems like the more I learn the less I know.  I’m also feeling the same way about Hindi. It’s honestly mind boggling how very little Hindi I know. It’s very unnerving to start a language completely from scratch, especially one as foreign to me as Hindi. Having taken French for nearly five years now and being used to language classes where I can at least vaguely understand what’s going on around me, it’s been quite difficult to go back to absolute square one. On the other hand, I am really surprised how much I have learned in just twelve days! I can sort of carry on a basic introductory conversation with someone and I now know how to bargain the price of something in Hindi. Also, I must say that I am absolutely in love with the Devanagari script. It looks so beautiful and ancient, like a cryptic message from some lost civilization.

This weekend is one of the largest festivals of the year, known as Rakhi. It is the festival of the relationship between brothers and sisters, a most wonderful reason to celebrate if I’ve ever heard one! Sisters buy these special red string bracelets with little beads on them to tie around the wrist of their brothers on Rakhi day and give them lots of sweet treats and sometimes small gifts. In return, the brothers give their sisters money. There are parades in the streets and feasts throughout the day. Rama-Ji has been shopping all day today and yesterday in preparation for her visit to her brother’s house tomorrow. She said the all the students at the university today were in joyful, festive moods and could hardly focus on their studies. Unfortunately, Emily and I will miss the parades and such because seven of us students are going on a weekend trip to the city of Jodhpur, roughly 500 kilometers to the southwestish. It’s more of a desert city than Jaipur and the second largest city in the state of Rajasthan, so it promises to certainly be an adventure. Plus, we are taking the train! A “true taste of India” experience I have been looking forward to for quite some time now!

Oh, and just in case anyone didn’t catch the reference in the title, it’s taken from the following line in Alice in Wonderland (which I reread this week just for the fun of it): “Curiouser and curiouser!” Cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English). I felt it captured quite neatly the feel of this post. 

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Emily: You make your own rose garden

August 13, 2011

If my life were a garden, it would be full of brilliantly colored flowers, the sweet aromas of my memories, and all my favorite songs and sounds would float through the air.  I gasp sometimes at how awesome life can be – sure I have my low points: times when the garden feels like a maze of dark thoughts which petrify me, but without this the flower petals might become dull in my mind.  Speaking of my mind – it needs to slow down!  I’m like a PC on the fritz…somebody needs to press ctrl-alt-delete and end some of the processes so I can function enough to deliver my messages.

you never know when a peacock may land at your gate…

a manihar man making lakh chuli (special bangles)

one of many bangle shops in a long alley near City Palace

Today I awoke from the loveliest dream, emerging from the depths of a cool turquoise lake into the sparkling sunlight of reality.  I took another bucket shower, (yes, I’ve been sweating up a storm; yes I’ve been disgustingly dirty; no, I don’t mind…I’m on a mission to use as little water as possible) using hot water to warm myself in the early morning.  After breakfast, Mary and I wandered to school. The weather was perfect: cloudy and cool—hardly broke a sweat.  Our lead Hindi teacher (Sheila-ji of France) was absent today, but our native Hindi teacher (Harusch-ji) was a real treat acting as the head instructor, so I was quite pleased.  We cut our Hindi lesson short for a field trip near City Palace, where the old Rajasthani rajas (kings) once lived.  In fact, their descendants still occupy the palace, but their “royalty” is more for decoration than anything else – their main duty being to orchestrate festivals, parades, and the like.  The purpose of our trip was to pick up our passports and registration papers from the Foreigners Registration Office as well as take a visit to see how churi (lakh bangles) are made.  The FRO is located in the former temple of Shiva, the god of destruction – I found it a little ironic/comical that a government office decided to occupy that area.  As a respect to Shiva, the FRO was recognizing this day as a tribute to him, so the office was temporarily shut down and we had to wait outside the gate until the ceremony ended.  Standing around in a circle, we all got to talking and our intermediate level Hindi teacher, Rasheet-ji, brought up a very poignant message…

I’m sure you’ve heard by now of the riots taking place in London. From what I’ve heard (and please correct me if I’m wrong, I’d love for this to be a forum for discussion rather than a monologue) police brutality which resulted in the death of a young man has ignited the fire for revolt in the hearts and minds of the young, the oppressed, the disadvantaged.  All it took was one little spark in this Western world where people felt they lacked opportunity to progress, and the streets were ablaze with violence.  Not necessarily the best way to voice your opinion of injustice, but that’s the way history changes, sometimes it’s the only means for getting a response it seems.

In other places of the world, like in India as Rasheet-ji said, people have lived oppressed lives for centuries, waiting for change, dutiful in their birth-given positions, and hopeful that life would improve with patience and tolerance.  In the last ten years, with the globalization of goods and information increasing at light speed, more social change has occurred here than in the last century altogether.  Meaning those who are able to lift themselves up have been able to seek out better lives.  And they’ve done it with mucho gusto – Indian intellectuals outshine their Western counterparts in mathematics, sciences, and even in the English language (read it for yourself!). My ninth grade host brother, Ayush, looks like a genius compared to me.

Of course, there are still rows of sleeping people lining the streets, poor health conditions and limited opportunities for the poor to become anything else. I’ve been researching NREGA, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act as part of my quest to find out why things are the way they are; the middle class here in Rajasthan seem to think that the poor beggars who line our streets aren’t truly poor – and perhaps they are correct. I’m sure there are people in much worse conditions as you travel further from the cities. You can read the act here or visit the website. But from what I’ve been reading about the it, there are a lot of loopholes that would keep rural workers from being able to get this menial wage for (only allowed 100 days of the minimum wage set in 1948 per family, regardless of family size) and even if they do, it doesn’t seem like enough for them to gain any kind of social leverage without adequate knowledge on HOW to do so. And many people might not even KNOW about the act if they are not literate, and then of course the act doesn’t even apply to inner city residents…only so many people can afford to send their children to school, and the competition for higher education is very high.  You can certainly feel the tension if you look around, and there are definitely acts of “terrorism” committed by people who feel they are oppressed if you do your research.  The world is a shrinking place, and every person wants a chunk of it to themselves (not everyone of course, there are those who don’t think that way)…but is there enough to go around?  I think there is.  Maybe not in the material sense – not everyone can have a hot shower every day of the week, not everyone can live like a movie star, and it’s simply not sustainable.  But everyone can have enough to survive; food to eat, freedom to be spiritual, to be a healthy human.  Easier said than done of course – I’m speaking ideally (yes…I’m a romantic idealist, I realize this) BUT if everyone practiced tolerance, patience, and planted seeds of kindness, then great trees of good would grow from it and the human race would be fruitful.  I realize I’ve gone off on yet another rant…the point that Rasheet-ji brought up outside the FRO was that for the world to live in harmony, human beings need to find a balance.  Everyone is racing towards the finish line like little kids in the egg-and-spoon race; you may get to the finish line first, but if you drop the egg you’ve lost.  Everyone is trying to get to the top, but without finding harmony with others…

To me, finding that harmony with others starts with finding peace and balance in your own life.  Sure, work, school, family, and friends may stress you out – you may fail sometimes, life may bring you down, and you may feel like no one cares about you, but YOU.  What did you expect though?  No one is going to pick you flowers every day. You have to make your own rose garden.  Cherish all the things you do have (which if you’re reading this is probably a lot) and whenever you can, pick a flower from your garden and give it to someone else.  Imagine what a sight to the see the world would be.

Other than that, I also had a friend from Minnesota visit me today, which was quite nice – Rama-ji insisted he stay for lunch and stuffed him full of curry, chapati, dal, rice, and ice cream before he left to catch his train ride to more adventures. After lunch my classmates and I booked our own train tickets to Jodhpur for this weekend.  YAY!  Our first little adventure outside Jaipur!  We’ve have been excitedly looking for adventurous things to do – camel rides?! Champagne dinners in the desert!?  Sleeping in tents on the rooftop of a hotel?!  Whatever happens, I’m sure it’ll be another fulfilling experience. . . I feel bad sometimes, talking about all the fun things I’m getting to do…but you can do it too!  All you have to do is have a dream and fight for it – that’s how India started for me!

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Mary: Another day in India

August 7, 2011

I’m writing during a mid-afternoon break today as I jam to a little Grateful Dead. I think it’s technically time for afternoon chai but Emily and I just got back from a long exploration walk so we just snuck up to our rooms to flop in front of the window air cooler for a few hours and relax. I’ve already had chai twice today, so skipping this one round is bearable. I woke up pretty early this morning, around 6:30, after going to bed so early. I was just sitting in my room reading when Emily came in a few minutes later and said she couldn’t sleep either so we sat on the floor and played speed scrabble (basically bananagrams but with regular scrabble tiles), and talked about our lives for about an hour and a half. Emily is the second oldest of six children. She spent three months in Tanzania last year volunteering as a teacher there in a small village and then took the rest of the year off from school to work in Minneapolis, where she’s from, in a bike shop, which is all pretty awesome. We’re both interested in a lot of the same stuff in school, environmental science and how people interact with their environments and trying to work on some of the social problems in the world. We bonded over music a bit too and I told her how psyched I was that she brought along her ukulele from home, I’ve been listening to her playing every day so far and loving it. We eventually got dressed and showered. There’s both an overhead shower and a faucet about half way up the wall that you can use to fill up a bucket for a bucket shower. Yesterday I took an overhead shower and thought nothing of it. Then yesterday afternoon I learned from another MSIDer that in our neighborhood the water supply is only turned on for an hour every morning at around 6 am. The owner of each house must turn on a main water supply pipe at that time and fill the storage containers for each home. Then when the water is switched off after that hour, that supply of water held in the containers must last all day, supplying the plumbing, sinks, and everything else in the house that uses water. Needless to say I won’t be taking any more overhead showers—they waste absurd amounts of water. My bucket shower this morning was maybe a little awkward but perfectly enjoyable. Emily and I then had another really big breakfast. It’s a good thing lunch and dinner are eaten so much later here (around 2:30 and 8:30 respectively) or else I would never be able to eat!

At breakfast, Rama-Ji’s daughter was talking to us about how the school where she works is in the middle of transitioning from a private school to a government owned public institution. Even though the government offers some subsidies to private schools, the taxes and corruption which skims some money off the top of the subsidies were so high that it made more sense for the school to just go public. What’s really interesting though is how the government is starting to focus more on rural education. Instead of employing more teachers and building new schools in the villages, the government is sending public school teachers out into the rural villages and telling the city kids they have to go to the rural schools if they want to attend public school. Rama-Ji’s daughter was glad they were finally thinking of the rural children but Rama-Ji was angry they weren’t just employing more teachers.

After breakfast, we made it to school safely, which is saying something considering it was our first walking experience in the city and we had to cross JLN road which is basically like a major highway with traffic lights (jaywalking is the norm here though, nobody uses the designated crosswalk). Class was awesome. We had our first real Hindi lesson and I actually feel like I learned something today. We went over the transcription system, which is really important since we haven’t learned the devangari script yet, how to introduce ourselves, ask how you’re doing, the difference between addressing an elder and a friend, how to make the weird pronunciations we don’t have in English (like curling your tongue back and touching the top of your mouth to make the retroflex consonants like ta, da, ra), how to ask questions, how expensive something is, and the numbers one through twenty. I really like the word for eleven – gyara (pronounced gee-are-ah with a soft g and a rolled r). Our Hindi teacher is a seriously cool woman. She’s Romanian but was born and grew up in Paris and is now married to an Indian man. We had a fun little conversation in French after she asked the class what other languages we had taken (Emily being the totally cool human that she is knows Swahili, Korean and Spanish). We also learned a bit more about religion and marriage practices in India. Despite being about 80% Hindu, India has complete religious freedom, to the point that major Muslim and Christian holidays are considered national holidays alongside the Hindu ones and conversion is tolerated amongst all religions. We discussed how Hinduism worships the abstract (a rock or flower or tree for example) as though it were sacred because God doesn’t have any one single form and therefore can be found in any form, which I thought was very beautiful. We talked a good bit about arranged marriages in India too, which are still very common. Love marriages are completely tolerated for the most part, but “dating” is hardly ever allowed and most Indians just expect to have an arranged marriage. Arranged marriages are very complicated, with both people’s caste, education, religious background, and horoscope being the main factors taken into consideration. There are classified ads in the paper every day advertising the families that are looking for a bride or groom and there’s even a website you can go to, basically like the Indian version of eHarmony, except it’s actually used fairly commonly (when I brought it up at lunch today Rama-Ji’s daughter laughed and said she had recently been on to see about finding a wife for one of her nephews).

After class, we came home for lunch which was delicious as usual and we even had mangoes and vanilla ice cream as a treat which was absolutely to die for, the ice-cream over here is different, it’s a lot thicker and richer than most American ice cream and I can’t rave enough about how amazing the mangoes are! While eating we watched some Indian soap opera that Rama-Ji’s daughter really likes and it was absolutely hilarious.  The acting was horrible and there were even sound effects added in. After lunch, Emily and I met up with the other MSIDers and went on our “assignment” to find the price of peanut butter at the closest grocery store (for some reason everyone thinks us Americans LOVE peanut butter, they always ask if we are craving it yet) and then to the closest mall to see how much a bus ticket to Delhi costs. This was all quite the adventure, as we only had vague memories of where everything was from driving past it yesterday and we took quite a few wrong turns down some alleys. We eventually found everything no problem but it was really crazy to actually be on the streets walking around the city. One of my guidebooks had an excellent description of city living that I kept recalling to my mind as we were walking around today – “Urban structures lie shipwrecked in the sea of humanity and a flowing, sinuous, teeming mass enlivens the streets, causing sensory and emotional seasickness. Every space is filled, and just as on the temples, where carvings complicate every surface, so too does the endlessly shifting pattern of the human form in all its postures create the background of the street”. Alright, well I’m going to go sit in the living room downstairs to read so Rama-Ji doesn’t think I’m being anti-social. Plus it doesn’t hurt that that’s the only air conditioned room in the house.

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Mary: MSID welcomes Mary Brickle

August 5, 2011

As I lie here in bed tonight, so ends one of the most memorable days of my entire life to date. My first day in India. I haven’t the slightest clue how everything I’ve seen and felt and experienced so far could possibly have fit into a mere twenty four hours…

I flew into Gandhi International Airport in Delhi yesterday evening. I was immediately greeted with a big fat wall of humidity. Luckily, being from South Carolina, I felt right at home and couldn’t help but smile at how I had to fly half way around the world just to find the same unfortunate weather I had left behind. I then shuffled my way through customs (unbelievably easy, I didn’t even have to say a word to the guy stamping my passport and the whole procedure took about 3 minutes) and headed over to the baggage conveyor belt and found the most wonderfully cliché looking Indian man I have ever seen (dressed all in white, with a great big mustache and smile on his face) holding up a little sign that said “MSID welcomes MARY BRICKLE”.  I practically shrieked with excitement and promptly proceeded to shake his outstretched hand, only to notice his slightly alarmed and confused expression as I realized he was actually trying to take my bag for me. Fearing I had committed some horrible crime by making enthusiastic human contact, I apologized profusely and walked a few feet behind him the rest of the way out of the airport. We made our way to the parking garage and after another small look of alarm on the face of my Indian friend as I tried to get into the driver’s side door, we were off on my first car ride in India!

I think I died just a tiny bit in the first fifteen minutes or so. I have never, ever, experienced anything like driving in India. In a certain pirate movie I love and cherish, one of the characters refers to official pirate code as “more like guidelines than actual rules anyway”. This also conveniently describes Indian traffic laws. Yes, there are lane lines painted on the road. No, you do not have to follow them at all. This includes having three or four cars driving casually side by side on a road which was clearly meant for two. Not once did my driver use a blinker.  Instead it’s more like a race to see which car can fit into the tiny little opening in between two the giant trucks first! The more horn you use the better. As one of my guidebooks said, it would probably be more efficient if the horn were just attached to the accelerator. Not to mention we were sharing the road with every possible type of vehicle you could imagine – taxis, trucks, fancy cars, 1950′s cars, buses, tractors, bicycles, tiny little three wheeled auto rickshaws, people, horse-carts, dogs, etc.  Everyone is pretty much going at whatever speed is most convenient for them so it’s pretty much stop and go traffic combined with brief intervals of flying willy nilly down the road. And yet, to be perfectly honest, for that entire car ride, with the soft sounds of Indian radio playing in the background and the little bobble head Ganesh stuck on the dashboard, not once did I actually feel like I was in any serious danger. I could tell this guy really knew what he was doing, even if I personally could have sworn we were going to crash at least 15 times. We finally made it to the hotel though and after checking in and getting a bottle of water, I made my way upstairs to the room I was sharing with one other MSIDer, Samantha, and promptly went to sleep.

When I woke up this morning there was a lizard in our toilet bowl.

The next few hours consisted of meeting the other 6 girls besides Samantha and myself who are here for  the Hindi pre-session and Rekha (we call her Rekha-Ji, an honorary term of respect) and Rishni-Ji, two of the MSID faculty. Rehka-Ji is a wonderful woman who is in charge of homestay coordination and some of the teaching in MSID. She told us to think of her as a good friend and that we could talk to her about anything. Rishni-Ji is one of the Hindi teachers (today I learned how to say “Hello, my name is Mary”) and really a fantastic and charismatic human being as well. Around noon we all got into a tourist van and started out on the 6 hour drive to Jaipur. Though I hardly thought it possible, daytime driving is even more chaotic. Delhi is a truly beautiful city though with tons of trees and fascinating architecture. I really hope I can make it back to actually do some exploring one day. We did drive by the President’s palace and a famous World War II monument though which were both just breathtaking. After making our way through the city we hopped onto Indian National Highway Number 8. When we stopped at one of first tolls, there were men walking around selling coconut slices and army guards with great big guns making sure that traffic kept moving along nicely. About half an hour into the drive, we stopped for lunch at McDonalds… Oh the irony. The first time I’ve eaten McDonalds in maybe 2 years and it happens to be in India. My McVeggie Burger wasn’t half bad and it was kind of funny to see the Indian version of a McDonalds menu. There weren’t any beef or pork items and most things were vegetarian. While we were eating the power went out in the restaurant, giving me my first glimpse of the shoddy electricity here. We left shortly thereafter and continued on our way towards Jaipur.

As we got further away from the urban sprawl of the city, the landscape changed dramatically. Small little shanty towns and clusters of crumbling buildings started popping up along the side of the road, usually coming up to within a foot of the asphalt. In these little pockets of urbanization there would be a great mix of people, dogs, cows, camels, and goats milling about and often making their way right into the middle of the highway. In some places there was extensive poverty, the likes of which I had never seen in person before. We would then see long stretches of open fields and tropical looking landscapes, sometimes with a small woman dressed in a bright red sari bending over to tend to the flock of goats surrounding her, or perhaps a man with no shirt on sitting cross legged in the middle of some great stone ruins. The next five hours were totally surreal. As I kept drifting in and out of sleep while looking out the window of our van, it was easy to suddenly wake up and, having forgotten where I was, be shocked to see a cow sitting down in the middle of a highway while the cars diverted around it or a camel being calmly led past a tiny little fruit stand with a monkey sitting on the wall behind it, or a cluster of women in a vivid rainbow of color carrying giant water containers on their heads…

Around five we stopped for daily tea time (which is probably going to be one of my favorite Indian customs) at a small roadside café. Hands down it was the most delicious chai I have ever tasted. Much sweeter and spicier than the typical American chai but not the hot kind of spicy, just the tasty, aromatic kind. Around seven we finally reached the outskirts of Jaipur. There’s a huge, ancient fort which was built by the Moghuls sitting atop a giant hill that greets you as you first enter the city. It was simply stunning, especially in the dusky red light of the setting sun. I will definitely be returning to explore later. The city center of Jaipur was complete sensory overload. An absolutely unfathomable number of incredibly colorful people were to be seen, doing their shopping at open market bazaars or relaxing next to a fountain in the middle of a small green space or hailing one of the hundreds of green and yellow three wheeled auto-rickshaws. I’ll never forget the image I had for a few moments as we were driving behind a totally jam-packed rickshaw with at least seven adults inside and three children in school uniforms sitting in the trunk smiling hugely and waving enthusiastically at the foreigners in the big tourist van. I can hardly describe the extent of everything I saw even as we were just driving through downtown for the fifteen or twenty minutes this evening. As I experience the city in smaller chunks hopefully I’ll be able to give more nuanced descriptions.

We finally made it to our various homestays, stopping one house at a time to let off the two girls who were staying there. Emily and I were second to last, getting off in front of a lovely home with a big garden in front. We were greeted by Rama-Ji, an older woman, who has been retired from her job as English professor at the local university for 13 years now. She has three children. One son lives half his life in Canada, with his wife and children, and the other half in India, to take care of his mother and work. He is a neurosurgeon that also works with artificial intelligence software in hospitals. He’s currently in India for the next few weeks. She has another son who lives in Singapore with his wife and son in 9th grade, who is actually here in the house now visiting India and his grandmother for a few months. Her daughter lives nearby also teaching English and comes to visit every day. Rama-Ji speaks perfect English, though her accent is a little hard to understand at times. But it is clear the she is genuinely pleased to have Emily and I visiting her home and that she is eager to teach us about Indian culture. Emily and I each have a small room upstairs. It is a simple setup with just a desk, chair, bed, and window, complete with a window ac unit which is incredibly loud and is going to take some getting used to. Also, the beds here in India are rock hard with very little cushioning. Rehka-Ji said this is better for your back though and that she actually can’t stand American beds because they are too soft so she sleeps on the floor when visiting the states haha. We had a wonderful dinner with Rama-Ji, her son from Canada and her grandson from Singapore. Rama-Ji made Emily and I an adorable little cake with welcome written on it. Dinner was really superb and thankfully not too spicy! Most of the conversation actually went on between Rama-Ji’s son and Emily and myself. He was definitely the most talkative of the bunch and quite entertaining, challenging Emily and I to think of any disease he couldn’t tell us the scientific name and symptoms for, and promising to teach us Hindi swear words later, despite a reproachful look from his mother. There’s also a male servant in the house who helped Rama-Ji cook and serve the food. Apparently another woman will come to clean in the morning.  It turns out today is also an Indian holiday called Tddg, during which Rama-Ji said that Rajasthani women would wear special sari’s and that a special dessert was usually served, which she promptly brought out for us to sample. It looked but tasted nothing like funnel cake but was more of a cookie consistency and baked into a bunt cake… it was quite delicious, very sweet! After a bit more post-dinner chatting, Emily and I were yawing excessively so Rama-Ji gave us each a bottle of water for the night and sent us upstairs to unpack and crawl into bed.

And so it is now nearly midnight and like I said, the end of my first day in India. I am positively giddy with anticipation of the upcoming weeks and months, everything is pointing towards this truly being the grand adventure I was hoping for. I know this post was probably entirely too long and hopefully as I get more used to everyday life here I won’t feel the need to go into as much detail about the little things but it’s like a have a little movie playing in my head now of everything I’ve seen and heard and felt today and I wanted to make sure and capture as much as I could before I went to sleep. Anyways, I have class at ten tomorrow morning and am utterly exhausted so I’m off to sleep now!

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Jonathan: Hindi Language

April 11, 2011

Keeping in mind that the interest of people back in the United States to my every move may not necessarily inspire constant interest in this blog, and given the fact that I use it basically all day, a brief introduction in the Hindi language is long overdue.

To begin, Hindi is a Dravidian language, meaning that it evolved along with many of the Romance languages and therein has common roots with many words.  Take, for instance, Pita in Hindi, Pata in Greek, and Father in English.  Modern Hindi, which developed through a geographical process which saw it swoop down central Asia and onto the subcontinent, therein is vaguely familiar to the western ear.  Note the term vague.

It should be noted, before continuing, that Hindi is by no means the universal language of India.  While widely spoken across northern India, it is secondary in many rural areas to the local tongue which has various similarities and differences.  Some may appear to be dialects while others are entirely different languages.  The area I am currently living in speaks Mawari whose script looks as if Dravidian Hindi script was merged with Arabic letters (could it have come from the Mughal Empire who has such firm roots in Rajasthan?).  The north, however, is largely bilingual, and often times trilingual, in the local language, Hindi, and some with English.  In the south and west, however, local languages reign and many speak only fractured Hindi, or none at all. With Tamil, Maharathi, Malayan, Bengali, and many others, the country therein maintains a diversity of languages, each with their unique insights into culture and identity.  This does not even touch on Urdu, a variation of Hindi which is spoken by Muslim communities and the whole of Pakistan.  With many similarities, and some borrowed words, it is not an official language of India even though it is widely spoken and understood.   Its story provides an interesting window into Hindo-Islamic relations.  This aside, however, if one presupposes that a cultures language(s) are an indication of its social values and priorities, Hindi gives excellent insight.

The most striking of these is in terms of familial relations.  Hindi maintains a tremendous number of descriptions to explain in-laws, cousins, aunts, uncles, older siblings, younger siblings, and onwards. Paternal uncles are “Cha-Cha” while maternal ones are “Foo-Fa.” Sister is “Bhen” while elder sister (including any woman who is older than you but too young to be your mother) is ‘Didi.’  Paternal grandparents are “Dada” and “Didi” while maternal are “Nana” and “Nani.”  There are different words to describe older sisters-in-law, younger sisters-in-law married to older brothers-in-law, cousins of ever iteration of genealogical gymnastics, and so on.  The sheer enormity of the number of familial relationships speaks both to the centrality of the family unit in Indian society, as well to the rigidity of male dominance and honor. Strict lines are drawn along paternal and maternal sides, and there is to be no doubt as to which family any given relative comes from.  No Indian would ever openly use this to place value unto a relative, but it is certainly present within a society where wives leave their villages far behind when, and I am being entirely literal here, ownership of them is transfered from their birth family to their husbands family.  In English, the terms mother, father, sister, brother-in-law are all quite curious in that they are clearly demarcated as being “in-law.”  A legally formed relationship — not blood.  In contrast, when a woman marries into a family, she looses not only much of her identity (the family and family friends will only call her by the Hindi word for ‘brothers wife,’ not her name), but she also will begin to refer to her new family by the requisite terms.  When she translates these to English, however, she describes her mother-in-law simply as her mother; her brother-in-law as her brother; etc.  To find out about her blood family, the family of her birth, it may take a few tries with broken Hindi, but one can usually break down the barrier.  The answer, however, seems distance and irrelevant to the woman.  She has married into the new family.  Till death do they part.

America, as we all know, is a politically correct society, and any international traveler is reminded of this constantly.  In India, this is manifested through the use of “thank you,” “sorry/excuse me,” and “please.”  To put it simply, they are not used often.  But to add complexity, when they are use it is a fascinating commentary of globalization.  Each word has a Hindi equivalent (“danyevad: for “thank you,” for example) which is widely known but not necessarily widely spoken.  Using these words is only done when one really means it.  All the students on my program have stories of being chastised for thanking their host mothers for chai or dinner.  Shopkeepers are bewildered when we dropped a quick “please” when requesting something.  In comparison to America, where children are groomed to over-use these terms, here it is seen as an insult.  To thank a good friend for a gift is to insinuate that you are not true friends (after all, don’t good friends give each other presents?).  To say “sorry” to a person on a bus whom you bump into would indicate that you did it on purpose.  ”Please” is only used in a begging situations, such as “please give me your notes for our engineering exam because I have not studied” (yes, that was a real example given to us by an Indian desperately trying to make it clear; it is a cultural commentary in its own right).  With all that said, these terms are beginning to gain use, but in a curious way.  It is not their Hindi equivalent but rather the english words that are used.  And thus westernism and globalization are intimately linked with the establishment of an over-polite culture.  That has been perhaps one of the most unexpected iterations of globalization I have encountered here.

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