Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Aurangabad, Ajanta, and Ellora: bats, Buddhas, and “cutting chai”

     Two weekends after Holi, I set off for Aurangabad, a city in Maharashtra, with 5 other people.  Though we were basing ourselves in Aurangabad, our main reason for this trip was to see the world heritage sites of Ajanta and Ellora.  The train ride was fun.  It was my first time in “Sleeper Class” which is non-AC, and a lot cheaper than the AC classes.  Before coming to India I had been told that sleeper class is sketchy, and to avoid it.  I now see that these warnings were quite stupid.  Though I’m sure that some sketchy people do take sleeper class, it’s mostly made up of families, pilgrims, and other travelers who don’t have quite enough money to pay for other classes.

     Anyway, we arrived the next morning at 4 am in Aurangabad.  We had taken advantage of our hotel’s free station pick up service, so we quickly got to the hotel and slept for a few hours.  After an unimpressive breakfast, the six of us set off for Ajanta caves in a big car with our driver, Rafik.

     It was about two hours to Ajanta from Aurangabad, but the drive was beautiful, so that was fine.  At one point, we made a short bathroom/chai stop at a cute little stand.  As we got out of the car, a group of older Israeli men stared at us, and started talking, continuing to shoot us looks.  Naturally, we were curious.  Fortunately, one of the members of our group, Tamar, speaks Hebrew fluently.  Apparently they had been talking about how we looked like five-year-olds, and really should not be traveling on our own.  Eventually, Tamar told them that she actually understood everything they had been saying.  They were a little embarrassed.

     The second we stepped out of the car at Ajanta, we were assaulted by hawkers.  “Madam, madam!  Rocks!  Crystals!  Picture postcards!”  We told them no, which prompted a chorus of “Maybe later?  Maybe later?  Genuine cashmere!  Hand-carved Ganesh!”  etc. etc.  We sort of managed to get away, although one of us ended up getting pushed down some stairs.

     Things got a lot more peaceful once we actually got to the Ajanta.  Ajanta is famous for its Buddhist cave temples, which were carved between 200 BCE and 650 CE, when they were abandoned until a British hunting party accidentally rediscovered them in 1819.  It is incredible how much work it must have been; each of the thirty temples had to be carved out of the rock cliff.

     Though the carving itself must have been a huge amount of work (not only did each temple have to be carved out of the sheer rock face, but there are also carved Buddhas and bodhisattvas inside most of them) the truly amazing things to be seen in Ajanta are the wall paintings.  Ajanta is actually nick-named the Louvre of central India (at least by Lonely Planet).  Though I, uninformed about art as I am, might describe these wall paintings as frescoes, it appears that they are technically not frescoes, as a “fresco” is a painting done on a wet surface that absorbs the color.  The Ajanta paintings are actually tempera: pigments mixed with animal glue and vegetable gum that are painted onto a dry surface.  The paintings were very beautiful; they included geometric designs, forest scenes, and scenes from the Buddha’s life.

     After a very good lunch, we headed back to Aurangabad with Rafik, who, it turns out, had a mini TV in his car.  We rocked out to Bollywood music videos all the way home, and it was great.  Most of us decided to rest before dinner, but two of us (Laura and I) decided to go on a walk.  We stumbled across a cute little park which had a playground, a small temple/shrine area, and a few trees and benches.  We went in and sat on a bench.  We were soon approached by some little boys who were quite possibly the most adorable children I have ever seen.  They were between the ages of 4 and 10, and their English was about five times better than mine.  They explained that they went to an English medium Catholic school in the area (I guess that’s where the flawless English came from).  They were very curious and asked a lot of questions.  They asked Laura if she was Christian, or Catholic.  I think they were a little confused by her response (“Jewish”), but it didn’t seem to bother them too much.  Laura was wearing an Indian kurta at the time, and they told her that her dress was very nice.  I was wearing my Haverford honor code tee-shirt.  They told me that my “dress” was very nice too, and that it looked like a football player’s jersey.  I think it was meant as a compliment, so I took it that way.  One of the boys even offered us a puppy, as his dog had just had a litter.  Sadly, we had to decline.

     For dinner, we walked out to the main road, and asked a random rickshaw-wallah what his favorite restaurant was.  He pointed at a restaurant, Hotel Tirupathi, so in we went.  It had a really really long menu (Maharashtra is one of the states that can’t quite decide if it’s North India or South India, so the food is some of everything).  The food was quite excellent, and the people were very nice.  We asked if they served breakfast, they said yes. 

     We then headed back to the hotel, where some members of the group tried unsuccessfully to get hookah.  I didn’t really care, but others were sad.  Unfortunately, the chai situation was almost as bad.  Labeled on the menu as “cutting chai,” it tasted at first like someone had pureed a gingerbread man.  The aftertaste was somewhat like novacaine.  It was quite interesting.

     The next morning we went back to Hotel Tirupathi for breakfast, and found that the owner had reserved a table for us.  It was very nice.  After breakfast, we headed off to Ellora caves, about 45 minutes away.  The Ellora caves, like Ajanta, are a complex of rock-cut cave temples.  They are, however, far more extensive and intricate.  We were excited, as Ajanta had already amazed us.  While the Ajanta caves are all Buddhist temples, Ellora has 12 Buddhist caves, 17 Hindu caves, and five Jain caves.  We went first to the Buddhist caves, which were much like the Ajanta caves, except the paintings were not quite as well preserved.  We didn’t fully make it to all the Buddhist caves though, as a swarm of bees had formed in front of one of them, and the whole area was blocked off.  In order to escape the bees, we had to walk back to the first cave, and climb the fence so that we could reach the road and walk back around to the park entrance. 

     After this excitement, we visited the Hindu caves.  The first “cave” that we visited was cave 16, better known as the Kailasa temple.  It was really much, much more than just a cave.  It’s actually a rock-cut temple that covers twice the area of the Parthenon in Athens, and is one and a half times as high.  It’s initial shape was created by cutting trenches into the cliff face.  Once these trenches got deep enough, the excess rock (200,000 tons of it!) was released with tools.  Then the work on the sculptures began.  The result is an enormous temple complex, several stories high filled with huge sculptures.  We climbed all over, and said hi to all the bats that live in there.  It was a lot of fun. 

     After looking at all the other Hindu caves (none of them quite lived up to Kailasa) and eating lunch, we headed off to the Jain caves.  Being Jain temples, they were not quite as ornate or enormous as the Hindu temples, but the carvings that they did have (mostly peaceful looking enlightened people standing in place) were very detailed, each with its own defining characteristics.

     Once we were done at Ellora, we headed back to Aurangabad.  Once there, four of us stopped off at the Bibi-qa-Maqbara, also known as the “poor man’s Taj,” also known as the “mini Taj,” also known as the “Taj Daccan.”  It was built by the son of the man who built the actual Taj in Agra.  This son actually imprisoned his father on account of his extravagance, so I guess it makes sense that the one in Agra is bigger.  Still, the mini Taj was pretty impressive and beautiful.

     After seeing the Taj, we saw a very disappointing water wheel and went back to the hotel.  After dinner we were pretty tired.  Full day!

     The next morning we had breakfast at Hotel Tirupathi again, and said goodbye and thank you to the owner.  We then went to Daulatabad to check out the huge ruined fort there.  The Daulatabad fort is surrounded by 5km of walls.  It is built on a 200m high hill.  The land was originally Hindu, and was called Devagiri, or Hill of the Gods.  In the 14th century, Sultan Mohammed Tughlaq waltzed in and renamed it Daulatabad, or City of Fortune.  This Sultan apparently had the brilliant idea of moving India’s capital to Daulatabad.  Not so far-fetched, I suppose.  However, his way of ensuring that the city was populated enough to be a capital was to march the entire population of Delhi 1100km south to Daulatabad.  It didn’t work out so well.  The fort is magnificent though, and we all climbed to the summit.  We had to pass through dungeons, towers, and bat-filled tunnels.  We passed by minarets, towers, and temples, under numerous arches, and over water-filled moats.  It was a great hike, and I made sure to climb up onto some of the higher ramparts, towers, and archways.  

     The train-ride home was pretty eventful.  Not too long into the trip, we noticed a huge amount of smoke billowing outside of our window.  Slowly, the train slowed to a stop.  We thought maybe there was an engine problem as this is quite common.  We discovered eventually that the train had hit a car crossing the tracks.  The four people in the car had died.  A huge crowd had gathered around the front of the train.  People were doing everything conceivable: praying, gawking, yelling into their cellphones, hysterically crying, chattering excitedly…  It seemed surprising that so many people were either nonchalant or excited.  People have explained over and over to me that life is cheap in India; people die everyday, everywhere, and no one really thinks about it the way they do in the west.  I think some of this has to do with the fact that there are so very many people crammed into every city in India.  When a country clearly does not have the resources to support the population it has, another death is almost a relief.  Also, it’s very possible that the belief in reincarnation makes the idea of dying easier to take.  Still, it seems that people here do fear death, and do mourn those who die, particularly when the dead are family members or loved ones.  I guess that’s just human.  Still though, a nonchalant attitude would definitely help one to cope with death in a place where it is so in your face and omnipresent.

Sunday, April 5, 2009


     The Wednesday of the week we got back from Mysore happened to be Holi.  I’m not sure what you all know about it, but we definitely all came in with our preconceived notions.  We knew it was the “color festival,” and we knew that people threw colors at one another.  We also knew that it could get really sketchy in certain cities, as people tend to pass out drinks liberally laced with bhang (that’s marijuana) or alcohol.  Also, sometimes gangs will use Holi as an excuse to throw things like rotten tomatoes, garbage, eggs, and even diesel oil on one another.  We’d also been told that the colored powders, particularly certain specific varieties, were very bad for your skin.  But that was about all we knew about the holiday.  Apparently when it first began, Holi was a kind of “opposite day,” when the highest ranking Brahmin rode backwards around town on a donkey, and the poorest man was king for a day.  Nowadays though, it’s more of a community thing.  The idea is that all the colors of the world are beautiful and worth celebrating (and apparently worth getting all over yourself?).  We were all pretty excited.  When the time came, we put on some clothes we didn’t care about, armed ourselves with colored powder and water guns, and set out.

     As I think I’ve said, Tagore International house is about 2 kilometers from the rest of campus, so it was a bit of a trek to Gop’s, the student center area where Holi was happening.  On our way down we slowly acquired some color as we got hit by some drive-bys on motorbikes, some little boys from one of the construction sites, and some guys in front of one of the hostels.  This was nothing compared to what was going on at Gop’s though.  Some of the other American students had already been there a while, and were almost completely unrecognizable.  Colored powder was flying everywhere, as was water.  A few unlucky people even got hit by eggs.

     Maybe I should explain a little bit about the color fights first.  Before I’d actually experienced Holi, I had been a little confused as to how the color fights actually worked.  We’d been given powder and turkey baster-like water gun things.  Were we supposed to mix the powders into water?  You could if you wanted to apparently, but that’s not the best way.  What you do is either throw powder at people (risky, as you might miss), or sprinkle/dump it onto them, or (this is the most effective and popular way) take a handful and grind it into your victim’s face, arms, or really anywhere at all.  (Many guys came away with handprints on their chests.)  Basically, it was tons of fun, and also pretty wild and crazy, complete with tribal-looking dancing.  Also, most guys lost their shirts by the end.  What happens is that a bunch of guys will grab another guys shirt and pull at it, and basically swing their friend around until his shirt rips off of him.  This gives a whole new blank canvas.   

     When Gop’s got a little crazy, I went with a few girls to the ladies hostels, where all-girls Holi was going on.  A lot of guys use Holi as an excuse to grope, so I guess that’s why they decided to have an all girls Holi.  There was a very stern guard manning the gates of the ladies hostel.  It was funny, as he never once cracked a smile, and probably would have been really intimidating.  However, he was smeared with color, and I couldn’t really take him seriously.  Anyway, the ladies hostels were really fun; all girls Holi does not mean sissy Holi.  As they were in their dorm area, they had ready access to water and were not afraid to use it!  Also, a girl from one of my classes found me and said “Abby, this is Holi.  You’re supposed to be colored all over your body.”  With this statement she poured powder down my back and down the front of my shirt.  Mission accomplished!

     When things started dying down, we headed back up to Tagore for lunch.  But the adventure wasn’t over yet.  We still had to shower.  I got back later than a lot of people, so by the time I got into the shower, it was quite pink.  No matter how much I scrubbed, I couldn’t get all the color off of me.  Eventually I gave up and went down to lunch, still quite purple in the face.  It took about a week to fully get clean.  I was a little jealous of the blonds though.  The pink stayed in their hair for a really long time, and actually looked pretty good for some of them!         

     I really think Holi is the best holiday ever, and everyone should have it.  First of all, it’s about celebrating the beauty of all the colors of the world, and we really do need to work on appreciating all different colors.  Also, it kind of makes you become friends with everyone; you can’t avoid or be shy around someone you’re slinging colored powder at.  What was also great was that, after a while, you stopped being able to tell people apart.  We no longer stuck out as white people.  Everyone was just their own special mix of Holi.  Clearly, skin color is a very stupid way of differentiating between people.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


Namaste mere dost!  Well, a lot of exciting things have happened since I last wrote.  Much much more exciting than dental floss drama.


On Friday, March 6th all of CIEE (30 people!!!) packed up and set off for a weekend trip to Mysore, in Karnataka.  After a truly awful bus ride from the University to Kacheguda train station in Hyderabad, we boarded a train bound for Bangalore.  We were in 3 tier AC class which was right between 2 AC and sleeper.  So I guess I’m working my way to sleeper slowly.  It was a little more cramped, but it was fun.  There was a very nice family sharing the space that I was in, with an adorable baby girl.  She was wearing squeaky shoes though, which got kind of loud.  I’d never seen those before; they’re like the flashing light up shoes, except they squeak like a dog toy.  I guess it’s a sure way of knowing where your kid is running off to.


Our train was scheduled to reach Bangalore at 6am, but it stopped for about 5 hours due to engine failure.  So we were delayed a lot.  It was annoying, but whatever.  We were getting the true Indian experience.  I taught Kalyan and Madhuri (our program coordinators) how to use chopsticks while we were waiting to arrive (I used pencils).  They were pretty good.  Now they’re triple threats!  1: Fork, knife, spoon, you know, western utensils, 2: the right hand, which is the Indian utensil 3: chopsticks!  I would like to consider myself a triple threat as well.  So, if I come home and start eating things like stew or risotto with my hands, you’ll know why.


Eventually, 5 or 6 hours behind schedule, we reached Bangalore.  The original plan was for us to go to a hotel, shower and have breakfast, but there was no time.  So, after getting off our train we walked to the hotel where our bus was waiting, and got onto it.  The bus had some trouble getting out of the driveway, so we kind of inched around back and forth for about 15 minutes, so we got to experience some Bangalore traffic.  From what I could see it looked like an interesting city…


As soon as we got on the bus our very peppy tour guide started talking to us about Bangalore (which we really didn’t get to see, but that’s ok.  It’s not that exciting anyway, at least not to me).  Anyway, it’s known both as the “Garden City of India,” because of it’s parks and greenery, as well as India’s “Silicon Valley” due to the technology, and call centers and IT places.  Apparently it’s very very expensive, unlike most of India, and very Westernized.  This makes sense, as Bangalore was a center of Colonial rule in South India during the Raj.  The city even has a palace—Bangalore Palace—that was built to look like a smaller replica of Windsor castle.  So in many ways, Bangalore is a lot like a very rich city in England.  Just hotter.


A note on this peppy tour guide though.  She is from Andhra Pradesh, but went to Columbia in NYC for her PhD.  She’s also been working in Bangalore for about 12 years now.  So, she speaks Hindu, Telegu, Kannada, and English.  And not only that, but she switches her accent in English depending on who she’s talking to!  I wonder what she feels most comfortable in…


Anyway, the next item on the itinerary was a visit to the Tipu Sultan’s palace in Srirangapatna.  However, the itinerary did not take into account our train’s 5 hour delay so we didn’t do that.  Instead, we went to a restaurant called Kamat for lunch.  It was very good food.  All “veg” and served on banana leaves.  And they didn’t even give us forks.  That’s how you know you are eating in a legit Indian restaurant.


After lunch we came to Mysore Palace.  It’s a beautiful piece of architecture, built in the Indo-Saracenic style, which quite seamlessly combines Hindu, Muslim, Rajput, and Gothic styles.  It was originally built by Muslim rulers, but was then redesigned in a more Hindu style when the Wodeyars took over.  It was actually rebuilt many times, because of numerous fires and lightning strikes.  Each time it was rebuilt, it incorporated more and more styles.  By the way, best quote from our guide.  She had just explained that the palace had burned, and was therefore rebuilt.  One of us asked “How did it burn?”  Her answer: “A fire.”  She did elaborate after we all finished laughing however.  Anyway, I got a bunch of pictures from the outside, but cameras are not allowed within, which is a shame, as that was the best part.  These people were incredibly rich, and the interior of the palace definitely showed the wealth of the family.  The walls and ceilings were covered with carvings and paintings and murals.  One interesting mural showed a scene of a cavalry demonstration during the Raj.  It was incredibly detailed: the inscriptions below the mural labeled each of the officers by name, as well as his rank.  Even the elephants were named and had distinct features.  Our guide made a big deal about how the painter was trying to show Mysore’s liberal attitude towards women by including them in the mural.  I wasn’t that impressed; after all they were up on a balcony in their own quarters, but I guess it is something.  Another interesting part of the mural was its nod to globalization: all over were signs for Western oil and tea companies.


After exiting the palace we walked to the bus, which was a bit of an adventure in itself.  Apparently, I really look like someone who would want a wooden fan.  Everyone was being hounded by hawkers, but there was one who would not leave me alone.  “Madam!  Madam!  Fan!  Real sandalwood!  200 rupees!”  I ignored him, and he kept following me “For you, 150!”  When I didn’t respond he opened it and started waving it in my face, and did not stop til I reached the bus.  By this time I was laughing uncontrollably at how ridiculous it was.  But he still didn’t get it.


After a brief visit to a market, our bus took us through the Chamundi hills.  From there we could see all of Mysore, which was quite incredible at night.  The palace especially was beautifully lit.  Apparently there’s a temple at the very top of Chamundi hill, and pilgrims usually take the 1000 steps to the top.  I guess we’re not that hardcore.


We then went to our (4 star!!!) hotel which was insanely nice.  There was a doorman wearing a turban who opened the door for us (that’s how you know you’re in a really nice hotel in India).  Dinner was a buffet with Chinese and continental food, and also very Westernized Indian food (i.e. NOT SPICY ENOUGH).  It was quite strange.  I hope I’m not spoiled for Indian restaurants back home.


The next morning after our 4 star breakfast we set off for Sravanabelagola, a major Jain pilgrimage site.  Here we actually did have the opportunity to climb up the stairs, though it was only about 500 steps (I counted).  Jainism is very interesting in that its followers have vowed to renounce absolutely everything (clothes, real food, love, friendship, war) at least eventually.  Jains also strive to be completely non-violent.  The very devout are mostly vegan, wear scarves over their faces so as not to accidentally inhale and therefore harm bugs, and even avoid root vegetables so as to allow the plant to grow to full maturation. 


Within the temple that we climbed up to, there is a huge monolithic statue of  Gomateswara, a Jain saint who refused to fight in a war.  He went to the top of a hill, and just stood, feet together, hands at his sides, until he eventually died.  The statue depicts this by showing him completely naked (he had renounced clothes) with vines growing up all around him.  An interesting counterpoint to this kind of asceticism is the lavish treatment given to the statue.  During the major festivals, it is bathed in milk, ghee, saffron, holy water, and all kinds of seemingly extravagant things.  I guess once you’ve achieved the Jain renunciation of everything you are entitled to these kinds of things.


After staring at the statue for a while,  (it was HUGE!) I wandered off onto some rocks by myself, and inadvertently stumbled onto a vast, open, rock vista from which I had a beautiful view of the surrounding area.  Interestingly, this seemed to be the place that young couples went to.  I only saw one couple there (it was a little awkward, but the woman smiled at me) but I did see a bunch of names and hearts and other nonsense scratched into the rock.  Oops.  I guess they weren’t quite ready to renounce all of life’s pleasures just yet…


After trekking down the hill we replenished our electrolytes with coconut water (gross).  Then we set off for the tiny temple town of Melkote.  There we went to a Dharamshala, a place where Pilgrims visiting the temple can stay while they are in Melkote.  We had a traditional vegetarian Iyengar lunch, which was really good (Iyengar is the caste name given to Hindu Brahmins in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka).  We ate off of plates made of sewn together leaves.  We also sat on the floor and ate with our right hand.  It was fun.  It was also delicious.  We had several rice dishes, spicy soup, a corn salad, and other things.  The only thing I wasn’t too huge a fan of was the ladoo they gave us (ladoos are round desserts—most round sweet things are referred to as ladoos).  This one was pretty much just sugar and ghee.  Maybe some other stuff too, but that was about it.  Super healthy.


After lunch, no one wanted to move, but our peppy guide decided to give us a project.  We were divided into groups, and told to go out, wander around, and return with a homemade map of the town.  Each group had a different category to plot.  My group was in charge of schools and educational institutions.  It took a lot of asking, but we found some.  Most people were really nice, and wanted us to see the schools they went to!  It was really interesting to see the differences between the government schools and the private more “alternative” schools.  The government school was very plain; all it had was a sign saying the name of the school and the name of the Government official controlling that district.  The private school on the other hand was brightly painted with pictures of animals and people and landscapes.  There was also a picture of two kids riding a pencil.  Apparently that’s the unifying simple for private schools in India. 


After our little cartography session, we came back to the Dharamshala and shared our findings.  We then went to the temple to visit.  It was beautiful.  Unfortunately though, I couldn’t stop laughing the whole time we were in there.  The reason was that there were “Photography is prohibited in Temple” signs everywhere.  I know, this isn’t that funny.  What was funny, was that, on every sign, there was a cartoon illustration of an East Asian man with a huge camera and one of those round pointy Chinese hats.  Clearly Americans aren’t the only people who create and perpetuate stereotypes (but I guess I knew that already).


Ok, a lot more has happened since the Mysore trip (Holi, and a trip to Aurangabad for example) but I’ll write about those later.  Phir milenge!   





Thursday, March 5, 2009

My teeth (ARE GOING TO FALL OUT!!!!!)

I don't think I've written about the Shopping Complex on Campus yet, but it's absolutely amazing.  Seriously, you can get almost anything.  there's a cobbler, a tailor, a chai shop, a restaurant, a sandwich place, an atm machine, a stationary/office supplies place, a general store...really, what more do you need?  The general store is especially cool.  You can get tea, biscuits, polos (actually, lots of british candies and products.  Digestive biscuits anyone?)  and also peanut butter, which a lot of people have been craving.  There are also toiletries, sodas, etc.  Even crazier, the guy who works there is not only the guy who you go to to put more minutes on your cellphone, but he can also (at specified times) exchange dollars for rupees.  One person, so much power.  But there is one thing that they do not have.  A few days ago, I went to shop com (that's what the shopping complex is called) and went to the general store.  Once there, I asked if they carried dental floss. (Indian general stores are tiny little cramped spaces.  While some of the products are on shelves, and you can retrieve them by yourself, these self retrievable items are usually of the packaged edible variety.  All other things you have to ask for over the counter.)  Anyway, I asked for dental floss.  The man looked at me blankly.  I repeated it again.  He was completely confused.  Feeling ridiculous, I said, "Um, string for your teeth?"  Nope.  Then, suddenly, his face lit up, and he said, "Oh, to clean your teeth?"  I said yes, relieved.  He then went into a back room.  When he re emerged, he was brandishing a gigantic metal tongue-scraper.  Not what I wanted.  Defeated, I left.

What to do?  My dad just came with a goody bag of American stuff and it did not include floss.  I'm sure they have it somewhere in India though.  I'll try the city.  Actually, come to think of it, the Haverford College bookstore also does not carry floss.  They have toothbrushes, toothpaste, hairbrushes, mouthwash, organic tibetan trail mix...but no dental floss.  I guess it's not an Indian thing at all, just an institution of higher learning idiosyncrasy.  It's funny how you can find similarities between places as different as UofH and Haverford.

Anyway, that post was kind of ridiculous, but not to worry.  CIEE is taking us to Mysore, Sravanabelagola, and Melkote, (with a two hour stop over in Bangalore).  We'll be seeing temples and palaces and art, and we will also be introduced to traditional Brahmin food.  So I'll have lots to write about after that.

Namaste aur phir milenge! 

Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Month of February (a little late, sorry!)

Hi everyone!  Sorry it’s been so long.  I’ve been kind of super busy.


Anyway, where to begin?  Alright.   Since I have to make up for a whole month, this post will be very long.  Don’t let that put you off though!  I’ve divided it up into manageable chunks if you want to read some and then come back to it later.  Here goes.




Several weeks ago (Feb 4), I went with a few people (Laura and Veena) to an all India music and dance festival at the Sri Ranganatha Swamy Temple.  The occasion was the Brahmotsavan celebrations for the temple (the week in the lunar calendar in which the temple’s particular deity is honored).  I found out about it because my yoga teacher is one of the temple dancers.  It was quite amazing. 


The temple itself is very oddly placed, and we had a hard time getting there by rickshaw.  As far as we could tell, the temple is somewhat near the Hyderabad headquarters of Microsoft and Wipro, but once we got there it just looked like a bunch of office buildings (which is what it was).  We asked a bunch of people where the temple was, but they couldn’t really tell us.  Eventually we found our way there.  It was pretty surreal.  We turned the corner around some enormous highrise, and there was this beautiful temple!  The outside was nothing compared to the inside though.  The Sri Ranganatha Swamy Temple is the only temple in all of India (and the world) to incorporate ritual temple dancing into its services, as temple dancing has all but died out, despite the fact that Hindu rituals were once considered incomplete without it.  Back when temple dancing was still in integral part of religious life, the Devadasis (temple dancers) were considered married to the god of the temple they were a part of.  For this reason, they were not forced to take (human) husbands, and had much more sexual freedom than any other women of the time.  Naturally, the British did not approve of this, and banned temple dancing, branding it as the dance of prostitutes.  The different Indian states continued to perform their state classical dances, but made sure to remove all religious and erotic elements.  Even when India got its Independence, it kept the law against devadasis in its constitution.  Only in Andhra Pradesh has this ban been lifted, and it took a lot of lobbying.  I thought this seemed odd, and asked my yoga teacher why this was.  She said that there is still great stigma associated with temple dancing even today.  Also, many of the devadasis were in support of this law, as many unscrupulous men had used the looser restrictions on the devadasis sex lives to their own advantage.  I guess everything is more complicated than it seems at first. 


For many years, there was no temple dancing at all, until the internationally renowned classical dancer Swapnasundari—my yoga teacher’s dance teacher—decided that temple dancing must be brought back.  She then sought out the last living devadasis and learned all she could from them.  Swapnasundari is now teaching classes in temple dancing to ensure that it stays alive.  We actually got to meet her, as she was there at the festival!  She’s quite a diva :o)  Rightfully so I suppose. 


Anyway, over to the service itself.  Like everything in India, it was a huge sensory overload.  Everything was bright, colorful, loud, and the smell of incense took over.  The dancers were decked out in some of the most beautiful clothes I have seen, and were weighed down with so much jewelry that I was impressed that they could move, let alone dance so gracefully!  They had bells around their ankles, as well as hanging from various parts of their costumes. 


The dancing did not go on on a stage, as I had assumed before reaching the temple.  The dancers went one at a time, with the others standing with the audience.  The first dancer began at the temple’s entrance.  The musicians, drummers, singers, incense holders, and audience members all clustered around her.  After she had done her part, we moved to a different part of the temple, and another dancer took over.  This went on until we had completed one clockwise circle around the temple.  After this, the priests brought the idol of the temple’s god (in the case of this temple it was Hanuman) out on a palanquin.  The palanquin with Hanuman on it was then paraded around the temple, stopping at various points.  At these stopping points, the dancers would again perform, so as to ward off any evil spirits that might be in the path of the procession.  This continued until Hanuman was brought back into his shrine.  At this point, everyone sat down, so we did too.  Then came the taking of the Prasad.  Before we had gotten to the temple, it turns out, food had been offered to the deities and blessed.  What the Prasad is is the sharing of the blessed food among everyone in attendance.  We were all given plates made of leaves sewn together, and we were all served rice, chickpeas, and halwa.  It was very nice, because, even though we were clearly foreign, no one seemed to care.  Everyone was there for their own reasons.  It was actually funny afterwards, because they gave us a lot of Prasad, and we’d already had dinner.  Laura and I managed to finish it, which is good, because you cannot say no to or throw away blessed food.  Veena wasn’t able to finish hers though, so she ended up bringing it home and giving it to the security guards, who also knew that they couldn’t say no.  I still wonder what eventually happened to Veena’s Prasad.


The next night we went back to the temple.  This time we didn’t see any temple dancing, but we watched a classical performance that was part of the all India dance and music festival.  It was an Odissi dance drama (from the state of Orissa).  It was beautiful.  The footwork was so perfect and intricate, and the hand gestures were very precise and exact.  Also very stylized were the facial expressions.  Somehow though, besides the rigid stylization, the dancers managed to be graceful and flowing in their movements, making them seem effortless.


Alright, that was the first installment.  More to come…




On Feb 6, I set off with three friends (Emily, Laura and Taylor) for Hampi, in Karnataka.  We took a train to get there, which was a lot of fun in itself.  We were actually in a very nice class of train car; we had a/c, and it was relatively quiet.  Not the real India experience I guess, but we’ll get there eventually.  It was my first experience sleeping on a train bed though, which was interesting.  I’m realizing that the rocking motion doesn’t help me to sleep, as I keep thinking about the train crash scene from the movie The Namesake.  Hopefully I’ll get over that!


We arrived at Hospet station at about 5am the next day.  Immediately, we were accosted by a rickshaw driver offering to take us to Hampi.  We asked him to take us to the ferry (we were planning on staying in a hostel across the river from Hampi proper) and off we went.  When we reached the river, it was still dark, so we allowed our driver to persuade us to take us to “the sunrise place”.  I’m glad we did.  He drove us up to a mountain, where there was a temple nestled between rocks.  In the temple was a priest performing his early morning puja (prayer).  We then climbed up higher, where there was an overlook, and a ruined temple.  There we saw a bunch of Russian tourists who had clearly not gotten the memo about the proper way to dress in India.  One girl’s shorts looked like girly boxer briefs.  Whatever.  Hampi’s a touristy place.  Everyone looks silly.


Anyway, the sun started to rise, and it was absolutely beautiful.  Hampi reminds me a lot of the American southwest.  There are huge rock formations and mountains and cliffs and canyons, and yellow rock everywhere.  Oh, and as if the natural scenery weren’t enough, the ruins of the Vijayanagar civilization are there too, so all over are temples, palaces, and shrines.  As I looked out over this beautiful vista, and observed the sun climbing higher and higher, I decided I should document this moment.  This was the point at which I discovered that my camera was broken.  Oh well.  I climbed up onto the roof of the temple and got a spectacular view from there.  You guys will never be able to see it unless you go there (broken camera, as you’ll remember), but it’s in my mind’s eye.  There were a ton of monkeys scampering around everywhere, coming right up to us, and even trying to steal our bags.  Also, the Russian tourists were being super smart, and feeding them.  Genius.  That’s ok.  We saw a lot of tourists in Hampi who were pretty dumb, which was nice, because it made me feel better about myself.  Some of the dumb tourists included an Australian guy who paid 900 rupees for a relatively short rickshaw ride (you do NOT do that).  Also some crazy Brits who were clowning around in a temple, “omming in the sanctum” as they put it.  Oh, and all the people who got really impatient with minor inefficiencies.  Come on people, it’s India!  In Hyderabad I feel like such a baby sometimes, but compared to some of the people in Hampi, I’m actually quite knowledgable about India!


Ok, after sunrise, we went across the river to check into our hostel and get breakfast.  The town on the other side of the river from Hampi, Virurapur Gaddi, has a very relaxed vibe.  Lots of hippies and crazy young tourists go there, and a lot of debauchery goes on.  However, it’s also perfect for people who want to get away from the hectic touristiness of Hampi.  It’s beautiful and quiet, and there are rice paddies and banana trees all around.  Down the road from our guesthouse, mountains and rock formations loomed.  Our guesthouse itself was pretty cool.  It was called the Uma Shankar Guesthouse, and the people who ran it were really nice.  It was only 250 rupees per night for a two person room (yeah, that’s about 5 dollars) which was pretty sweet.   


Breakfast was good.  Because Hampi is so touristy, every restaurant offers Indian, Chinese, Tibetan, Continental, and Israeli food.  Ours even had Korean!  Or so they say.  I had bread and hummus for breakfast, which was actually great.


After breakfast we headed across the river and began our day as tourists of Hampi.  The first stop most people make is to the Virupaksha temple.  It was huge, with lots of smaller sections and components.  The main tower actually reminded me a lot of Chich’n Itza (or however it’s spelled).  Inside it was dark and pretty creepy.  There was one cool section though, where the light’s reflection on the wall created an inverted shadow version of the temple.  We looked and couldn’t find it at first, but then an old man showed it to us.  For a fee of course.  The architecture of the temple was really cool, but I think my favorite part was Lakshmi the temple elephant.  For a rupee, you could get blessed by her, which I did, tourist that I am.  It was fun though.  What you do is you put the rupee in her trunk, and then she bomps you (softly) on the head.  It was fun. 


After Virupaksha we headed east across Hampi Bazaar (lots of little knick knacks) to where the monolithic Nandi was.  (Nandi is Shiva’s bull, and the reason that cows are holy in India.)  After looking at him, we climbed up some stairs behind him, thinking that they would just lead to another temple, and we’d soon be back down.  For this reason, one of us, Emily, decided to wait at the bottom.  The rest of climbed on up, and quickly realized that these were not just stairs to one temple.  They led to a path that led to many other temples, and to a gorgeous overlook from which you could see a maze of ruins.  Deciding that Emily could not miss this, we went back down to get her.  She was nowhere to be found.  In our search for her we ended up climbing an entire mountain, which required a little bit of scrambling and bushwhacking.  I think we probably would have gotten lost if a goatherder hadn’t come by and seen us and shown us the path.  Eventually, we reached the top of the hill, where there was a temple.  We climbed onto the roof of the temple, and from there we got a 360 panorama view of Hampi.  We could see temples, markets, tourists, rocks, banana plantations, rice paddies, everything.  Guess what else we could see?  Emily.  She had wandered off and was now down by one of the temples.  Mission (sort of) accomplished. 


After we all found one another again we had lunch at the Mango Tree inn, which is supposedly the only good restaurant in Hampi (according to my guidebook anyway).  It was indeed very good.  I had real fruit which was really exciting.  After lunch we went to the Royal Center of Hampi.  There we saw palaces and shrines and lots of cool stuff.  The coolest thing were the elephant stables though.  It was a huge beautiful stone structure with gorgeous intricate archways.  For Elephants.  Wouldn’t they prefer to be outside? 


Our tickets to the royal center also got us into the Vittala Temple, so of course we had to go there.  Unfortunately we had to take a rickshaw to get there, and all the drivers in Hampi are used to dumb tourists, so they had no interest in bargaining with us.  Somehow, we started a rickshaw wallah rumble, and got two guys really mad at each other.  Fortunately, in the end, we did reach the temple.  I think it was the craziest ride I’ve ever taken.  We didn’t want to have to pay more for two rickshaws, as we only had four people, and this driver didn’t want any of us to sit in the front with him (most are ok with it).  So we put three in the back which was fine, as that is the proper capacity of a rickshaw.  I then sat on a lap, which I’m actually very used to.  However, I have never experienced such crazy driving.  The road was already bumpy, and the guy went REALLY fast.  I ended up grabbing the pole on the roof of the rickshaw and kind of hovering over the lap I had been sitting on, just so I could save my knees (they had been knocking against the front).  There were times when turns were particularly violent when I sort of swung out of the rickshaw.  It was exciting.


The Vittala Temple itself was beautiful like all other temples.  Yeah, they do get repetitive after a while.  The attraction of this one though was a huge stone chariot.  Apparently, back in the day, its wheels were able to turn.  Of course we took all the necessary touristy pictures (us pushing the cart, getting crushed by it, lifting it a la Jean Valjean, etc.)  We then headed back to the other side of the river.  There we saw some other CIEE people who happened to be in Hampi on the same weekend.  One of them who speaks a little Hindi and was trying to be helpful to another tourist had somehow managed to get himself mixed up in a botched drug deal with a dealer who can’t have been more than 13 years old, and we got to watch the conflict play out and resolve itself.  I realize that this event is evidence of the darker side of India, and that I should use it to learn and reflect.  It is however a hilarious story that I’m still laughing about. Can’t write about it though.  You’ll have to ask me to tell it to you in person.  You gotta have the voices.  


The next morning we woke up early to see the sunrise.  Well, we all woke up, two of us (Taylor and I) went to see the sunrise.  Anyway, we walked out on the road past some rice paddies, and climbed up some rocks onto some high up boulders.  And we watched the sun rise over Hampi.  Yup, kind of indescribable, but I’ll see if I can get pictures from Taylor to show you all.


After sunrise we got Laura and Emily and headed off to the Hanuman temple, or Monkey temple which is on top of a mountain.  It was aptly named.  There were monkeys all over.  Lonely Planet actually very helpfully advised us not to go there while wearing bananas.  Thanks Lonely Planet!  Seriously though, there were a lot of monkeys.  Emily even got a hug from one of them! It was about 579 steps to get up to the top, where the temple was.  Yes I counted.  After reaching the top we stumbled onto the most perfect example of hippiness that I have ever seen.  A bunch of dreadlocked, beaded, raggedy hippies smelling strongly of weed and sweat were perched on the overlook.  One was strumming a guitar, another was singing, others were writing in journals.  Quite funny.  At one point an Indian raga started blaring from the temple speakers, and one of the hippies started dancing.  Classic.  


We headed back to Hospet train station soon after, where we waited and waited for our train.  It turns out that even though white people are nothing special in Hampi, they are a huge novelty in Hospet.  A family approached us and plopped their babies in our laps.  They spoke almost no English and we spoke no Kannada, but we still had a really good time together.  We got through that we were studying in Hyderabad.  They told us that they were going to Hubli “to see God”.  Pilgrimage I’m guessing.  They got us flowers for our hair, and bindis for our foreheads.  One of the kids, a thirteen year old boy actually spoke good English.  He said he would actually be taking a computer test very soon.  Everyone was very curious about America, shocked by how much things cost there, and excited about Obama.  It was a lot of fun.




A few days after we returned from Hampi, (Feb 12) I got a visit from my Dad, which was a lot of fun.  I showed him around campus, and introduced him to people.  I also got to spend the night in his hotel which was CRAZY.  (A/c and a western toilet and hot water AND toilet paper in an Indian hotel??  What???)  The next morning we left for Warangal, which is about 3 hours away from Hyderabad.  Warangal is a LOT less touristy than anywhere I’d been in India, even Hyderabad, which was refreshing after Hampi.  Our first stop was the 1000 pillar temple.  It’s funny, Warangal is a very normal Indian town, so it’s especially surprising when you turn into a random alleyway, and are suddenly facing a 12th century stone temple.  The temple’s name, the 1000 pillar temple, makes you think it will be very big, but it’s not.  It’s incredibly intricate though; each pillar is very delicate, and the carvings are very detailed.  I read somewhere that Americans value size, while Indians value ornamentation.  From what I’ve seen, I would agree.


After this we went to Warangal Fort, which is huge.  It was very beautiful.  Unfortunately, while there we became the target of a begging scheme.  While we were in one of the buildings, I saw a man with a group of little boys point at us.  The little boys immediately scaled the fence between us and them and attacked.  They then used their English, which consisted of,  “What’s your name?  Which country?  Give me ten rupees.  Give me ten rupees. Give me ten rupees.  Give me ten rupees!  Give me ten rupees!!  Give me ten rupees!!!  GIVE ME TEN RUPEES!!!!!!!!”  Yes, it was just like that, except more intense.  We eventually got away.  It’s sad because they do need money and they do need food.  However, I know that any money we would have given them would have gone straight to the man who had sent them over to us.  And who knows what he would have done with it.


The next day we took a car to the nearby town of Palampet, home to Ramappa Temple and Ramappa lake.  Both very pretty.  The nicest part of the day though, was when we were at the lake.  We had no idea what to do for lunch; Palampet is even less touristy than Warangal (it’s really just a village) and there was nowhere to eat.  We were just kind of wandering around, when a group of people came and asked us if we wanted to share their food with them.  They turned out to be a group of school teachers from Warangal on an outing together, as it was a school holiday.  We had a lot of fun talking.  We took pictures with them, they took pictures with us.  It was nice.


After we got back to Warangal we realized that we had a LOT of time to kill before our train left.  This was overwhelming at first, but turned out to be nice.  We wandered off on some side streets, and found a really pretty little market place.  People were selling fruits and vegetables, and fish, and chickens.  Totally not touristy, and really interesting, and according to my dad somewhat like Korea in the 70s.  After wandering around here a little, we found our way to some steps that led us to a temple on a hilltop.  Here we could look out over the whole town.  It was nice.  A bustling little town, far smaller than Hyderabad.  However, you could see the signs of development everywhere.  There was a lot of construction, and several highrises had sprouted up.  Maybe someday it will be as booming as Hyderabad.  It’s hard to tell if that’s a good thing, or if it’s sad.  I suppose it’s some of both.




On Thursday the 19th of February (yep, 3rd weekend traveling in a row!) I set off with four other people to Gokarna, which means “cow’s ear”.  To get to the train station we were leaving from we took a commuter train where I saw a hijra for the first time.  She didn’t curse us though, fortunately.  At one point two really cute little girls hopped onto the train singing and begging for money.  We didn’t give money, as that’s usually a bad idea, but one of us did give them some food, which is usually a good solution.  “I’d like to see your mama try to buy moonshine with those cookies” he said as they walked away.


The actual train ride was fun.  We were in 2nd AC again (very swanky) and ended up sitting across from a very nice older man, who we talked to for quite a while.  He works in agriculture, traveling around India and looking into agricultural practices, working for sustainability and fair trade.  He had a lot of travel advice for us, and shared a lot of interesting experiences.


We arrived in Hubli late (8:15), so we rushed to the bus stand to get our 8:30 bus to Gokarna.  Once we got there though, we were told that there was no bus to Gokarna.  We’d have to take a bus to Ankola, and from there go to Gokarna.  Confusing, but it’s India.  Flexibility is key.  The bus ride was hot and long, but very pretty, and we got to see some rural jungle areas.  Eventually we got to Gokarna, which is Paradise, in case you were wondering.  Well, for me anyway.  There are beaches, and cliffs to hike on, and rocks to climb on.  Perfect!  We stayed in a very chill guesthouse on the beach.  The rooms for 200 rupees for a two person room.  Four dollars.  Yeeha.  I would write more, but really all we did was hike, swim when it got too hot, walk on the beach, climb rocks, eat really good food, and watch spectacular sunrises and sunsets.  Lather rinse repeat. Some of us got burned.  I didn’t.  Muahahaha.  Basically, it was great.


Some stories bear retelling though.  As at all touristy places there were hawkers all over.  One kid was very persistent and really funny.  He asked if we were from England.  We said no, US.  Some of you know my Germany konichiwa story.  Well, it happened again in India!  This kid insisted that I could not be American, I must be Japanese.  Konichiwa, Genkidaska.  I said no.  American and Korean.  This kid was a lot more knowledgeable than the guy in Germany though.  Once he heard Korean he gave me a perfect bow straight out of a Jhoon Rhee form.  Someone decided to tell him that I did martial arts and he proceeded to give his own demonstration.  Quite amusing.


Another notable tale of Gokarna happened as we were searching for Kudle beach, supposedly the most beautiful beach in Gokarna.  We were told it was north of Om beach where we were staying, so we went that way.  We hiked and hiked and saw nothing, and people started getting a little cranky.  Eventually, we came to a bend in the path, and we just knew that once we rounded the corner we would find the beach.  We rounded the corner.  No beach.  So we turned around and went all the way back.  When we were almost back to where we had started, we caught sight of a sign pointing slightly west of the path that we had taken.  Guess what it said?  “This way to Kudle Beach”  Oh, life is funny.                




Friday, January 30, 2009

Hi! So I guess it's been a while. I'm trying to think, what have I done that I could write about?

Last Saturday I went to the old city of Hyderabad with a friend (Laura). I'd been there before when CIEE took us during orientation but it was very rushed and overwhelming. I felt a lot more confident this time, which was nice.

The old city of Hyderabad, which is home to the Chowmahalla palace, Charminar, Mecca Masjid, and Lad bazaar, is largely Muslim which really shows. Many people speak Urdu rather than Telegu, and there is a very different atmosphere. The old city is a lot more like most Westerner's vision of India (at least Muslim India) than other parts of Hyderabad: there are few western chains, and very few people wearing western clothes. Naturally my friend and I stuck out, and attracted a lot of unwanted attention from some starstruck girl scouts, but we managed to escape. (I'm quite pleased though; I really think I'm getting less and less exciting as I get tanner!)

The first thing Laura and I did was to go up into Charminar something we had not done with CIEE. Sorry I can't upload pictures! Just google Charminar and you'll be able to see what it looks like. Anyway char minar means "four minarets" in Hindi, and that's basically what it is. It's beautiful to look at from the outside, but the real attraction is within. After paying the 100 rupee "foreigner price" (Indians pay 5 rupees) we climbed up the narrow spiral stone stairs to the top. The architecture at the top is really interesting; there are a lot of little nooks and passages which are fun to find (and good for avoiding people who want to have their pictures taken with white people). What was really amazing was the view though. By slowly walking around the top, you can really see the old city. Again, really sorry about the pictures!

After coming down we went to Lad Bazaar, the market in Hyderabad famous for its bangles. We both bought some; those vendors are incredibly persistent. At one point, Laura had an entire counterful of bangles that she was deciding between. She eventually narrowed it down to four. I guess the vendors didn't realize that she meant to narrow it down further, because he wrapped them up for her. She promptly unwrapped them and explained that she wasn't done deciding, but they just rewrapped them again. She tried the old "this is all the money I have on me" trick, but even that didn't work. She really had not meant to buy four bangle sets in one go, but somehow it happened (she's very happy with them though). I bought two sets, which I'm also happy with. I think I'm getting better at bargaining! It's actually kind of fun now, though I'm sure I'm still getting ripped off.

The next day (Sunday) I went out with a CIEE friend and some Indian friends. First we went to lunch at Hyderabad house, a quite nice, but not outrageously nice Indian chain that started in (guess where) Hyderabad. I think I wrote about biryani before. Well. That was at the Hotel Kamat, and was NOT real biryani, according to the Indians we were with. This biryani was truly amazing. We got a "family plate" for four people. It turned out to be absolutely enormous. Seriously the size of a typical dining hall tray, holding a mountain of biryani. Fortunately it was REALLY good. We almost finished it. So apparently, in addition to all the layering that goes on during the biryani making process, REAL biryani also has to be made over a wood fire. Wow.

After lunch, we went to one of the old palaces of the 6th nizam, which has been turned into a high school/museum. The 6th Nizam, like all the others, was insanely rich. The museum showed off the things that he used this money for. For example, his wardrobe. From his birth to his death, this man never wore the same outfit twice. Every single day he wore something new; tailors were constantly working. The wardrobe itself was about the size of a ballroom. Other things the 6th nizam decided to use his money for were pure gold perfume bottles, ivory and silver letter holders (which he would use rather than envelopes to deliver letters), gold bound Korans, silver pan boxes, emerald capped walking sticks, silver replicas of charminar, nampally train station, the Hyderabad market place, etc. You know, all the basic necessities of life. Oh and he used diamonds for paper weights. The funny thing is though, that his son, the 7th nizam was a total miser. He ate off of rusty tin plates and never bought new clothes unless he had too. Rebellion? Must have been.

Today CIEE took us to visit the CII Shorabji Godrej Green business center in hitech city. It was pretty interesting. Apparently it's the 3rd greenest building in the world, by LEED standards. I've visited several "green" buildings in the US, but somehow hadn't thought that it would be something that people would find important in India (I have NEVER seen a recycling bin, and even trash cans are rare. Most people just throw their garbage on the street.) I'm really glad people are getting conscious about that here though. India is developing so rapidly, I'm sure the amount of waste generated must be enormous.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Kids and Cameras and makeovers



Today CIEE took a program field trip to a girls’ (though there were some boys) “bridge school” in Aloor, a rural area about an hour and a half away from Hyderabad.  What a bridge school does is take in children previously involved in child labor and get them up to grade level so they can enter regular schools.  It was really interesting and a lot of fun. 


The second we got off the bus a group of smiling children approached us.  Though they only knew a little English and Hindi, and none of us really speak Telegu, we were able to introduce ourselves.  They were all really fascinated with our cameras.  We let them use our cameras, and they were totally thrilled.  I’ve been looking back through my pictures, and there are some pretty good ones. 


Eventually we sat down to listen to a lecture about the organization (the MV Foundation).  What the foundation does is finds children who have not had the opportunity to go to school.  They then work to get the kids up to grade level, so they can enter into regular schools.  This is important, as, for example, forcing a ten year old to sit in first grade with six year olds is a sure-fire way to get him to drop out.  The foundation is also trying to expand the definition of “child laborer” to include any child who is not in school.  Right now, most people imagine the term “child labor” to only include the most horrific of circumstances: sweatshops, factories, etc.  But the foundation is trying to emphasize that even a child who just works on the family farm is at a disadvantage.  No matter how necessary or fulfilling the work is, the child will nevertheless be blocked from the opportunities that educated children receive.


After the lecture, some of the girls got up and talked about their experiences.  The first two girls were about five years old, and sang some songs for us.  One of the songs was about child labor, and the other was a tribal song.  It was very cute.  The next girl was named Swathi, and she was about fourteen years old (most of these kids aren’t really sure of their exact ages).  When she was quite young, her father took a second wife, and forced his first wife (Swathi’s mother), Swathi, and her older sister to leave.  Their mother worked hard, and tried to keep them in school, but she became addicted to alcohol, and the girls ended up having to work as well.  Eventually, their mother died, and the girls returned home to their father’s house to see if he would take them in.  He said he would give them food, but they would have to work, and they were not allowed into the house.  Swathi’s sister agreed to work, but begged her father to let Swathi go to school.  He would not listen.  So the girls slept outside the house and worked; Swathi at home, and her sister as a street sweeper.  Though their father had agreed to give the girls food, his wife refused to, so the sisters ended up going to a nearby school and collecting leftovers.  It was at the school that the girls got in touch with some MVF representatives.  They are now in regular schools and up to grade level.  The reason that they were at the school at the time of our visit was that it was vacation time; the bridge school campus is now their home.


The next girl who spoke (I very unfortunately can’t remember her name!) had originally lived with her mother and stepfather.  After her mother died, her stepfather wanted nothing to do with her.  Her uncle took her in, and received money from the state for doing so.  However, he kept the money for himself, and forced his niece to work around the house.  The girl was passed along a chain of relatives, each situation as bad as the last.  Eventually, she decided she had had enough.  She stole 200 rupees, got into a taxi, and went as far as her money would allow her to go.  Fortunately, soon after getting out of the vehicle, she was discovered by some members of the MVF foundation. 


After a crazy photo session, we had lunch, separately from the kids.  After we finished, some of us went into the kids’ lunch room and (sort of) helped to serve them food.  One girl, Swaranthi, who I’d made friends with while taking pictures, called me over, and started feeding me her rice, which was really cute.  (I checked to make sure that the kids get enough food, and they do.  I would have felt truly horrible if this child had been giving up her rice for me!)  After lunch we played with the kids, who turned out to be really good at volleyball, even the tiny ones!  In the middle of the game, Swaranthi took me to see her room.  (“Come see my box!  My room!” was what she said which was really cute.)  Then she and a bunch of other girls gave me a “makeover”.  They did my hair with flowers, and put a bindhi on my forehead.  It was really fun. 


When we left, everyone on both sides was really sad, but it was a great day.  Pictures are on Facebook if you want to see!  (I would upload them to the blog, but it takes WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY too long).      


Thursday, January 15, 2009




Yesterday was yet another Holiday: Sankranti (known as Pongal in some parts of India).  Sankranti is a harvest festival, and one of the most auspicious holidays, and it is celebrated when the sun transmigrates to Capricorn.  In Hyderabad, the holiday is celebrated with sweets, colors, different kinds of rice, and kites.  Ok, you probably want more detail.


Well, the first indication that it was a holiday was the fact that there were no classes.  Aside from that though, the guesthouse served a special lunch for us on (real) banana leaves.  Besides the many different amazing dishes there were two different kinds of rice (coconut and lemon) as well as kheer (rice pudding): it’s traditional to eat rice, as rice is the staple crop around here.  There were also two sweets, and lassi (it’s an auspicious day, so sweetness should prevail apparently).  Also relating to the auspiciousness of the day, it is traditional to buy and wear new clothes, so as to ensure a fresh start to the rest of the year (I think Sankranti is thought of as the new year but I’m not 100% on that.  I’ve gotten varying answers).


Well, a bunch of us decided to jump on the “buy new things” bandwagon, and went off to Shilparamam, the market near Hyderabad.  But that wasn’t the real reason for going there.  For Sankranti, Shilparamam was holding a kite festival.  In many parts of India (including Andhra Pradesh) it is traditional to fly kites on Sankranti.  Many people write messages to the Gods on the kites.  As the kites fly higher and higher, the likelihood that they will be read goes up.  There were definitely a lot of kites in the sky that day.  At one point I watched part of a kite fight (like in kite runner).  No one won though.


Another part of Sankranti are beautiful designs on sidewalks and in front of houses.  These designs are made with colored powder (apparently the same powder that we’re going to get covered with at Holi, but I’ll tell you all about that when it happens), and are usually about two square feet.  In the middle is usually a small dish with water and flowers, or sometimes some pretty stones (I think these are all offerings).


Aside from Sankranti, we also decided that it was “bring your cute kid to Shilparamam day” as there were so many cute kids running around!  I saw part of a miniature cricket game.  It was great.  Obviously, the kids found us as fascinating as we found them, and I definitely caught some people filming and taking pictures of us, paparazzi style.  Most people asked though, and were very nice, and wanted to meet us.  Well, by us I meant the group.  I think I’m getting tanner, because I didn’t attract nearly as much attention as anyone else.  I think I’m okay with that though.  Haha, the blonds will only get blonder in the sun! 


I tried bargaining for the first time yesterday!  It didn’t go so well with the rickshaw driver, but I brought down the price of some earrings.  I still absolutely hate bargaining though.  I feel really dumb no matter what happens.  I know I’m getting ripped off by Indian standards, which makes me want to keep bringing the price down.  At the same time though, I know that I’m having a heated argument with someone, all so I can bring the price of something down by about ten cents.  And that seems ridiculous, as I know that, even the marked up price is about half of what I’d pay in the states for the same item.  The vendor definitely needs the money more than I do, so what’s the problem?  Still, I guess if I’m going to be living here I’ll have to stop thinking in terms of dollars.  Paying exorbitant prices (by Indian standards) will just upset the balance of things economically, and will perpetuate the stupid Westerner stereotype.  So I’ll just keep bargaining I guess.