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!