The following story, in my opinion, is hilarious, and demonstrates metaphorically the resilience, flexibility, and sense of humor needed for navigating India….
I was visiting the nearby city of Bangalore (population around 7 million), and staying with a family that I have become quite close to. They invited me to an engagement ceremony for their nephew. It was a traditional Hindu ceremony, and was fascinating to watch. They presented the bride-to-be with her bridal saree, and both sides of the family were greeted by the couple and gave them their blessings, which included the bride touching everyone’s feet. The entire affair was a sensory delight – gorgeous sarees, beautiful gifts, colorful flowers that filled the room with their perfume, and delicious food.
After the event, we went back to the family’s home in south Bangalore. They live in a nice neighborhood and have a beautiful home. A side note about infrastructure in India – you learn very quickly to look at the ground and watch where you are going. You also learn quickly that the best option is to walk along the edge of the street and not the sidewalk because of the unexplainable, unpredictable holes that appear suddenly. However, this family lived on a busier stretch of road, and I figured since it was a nicer neighborhood, they would have solid sidewalk and I would be safe. And I was quickly defeated in my thinking.
Before I could reach their front gate, I suddenly found myself in a large hole, big enough and deep enough for me to be fully in up to my face. I was confused. What had happened? Where was I? Why was this family surrounding me with faces of concern? Then the pain in my leg shot up to my brain. For a moment, I thought I had actually broken my leg. After they pulled me out, I looked down into the hole I had fallen into…. Lots of trash, water and god knows what else. I then surveyed my leg. My ankle and foot were swelling up, and I had a huge gash on my shin, down to the bone. I just sat in disbelief. How had I fallen? Why was I not being more careful? Why was there a bloody hole in the middle of the sidewalk??
Mr. Reddy, the head of my hosting family, kept asking me, “Why were you walking on the sidewalk?” At first I was horrified and embarrassed by his questioning. Why had I been walking on the sidewalk? Then I remembered, “Oh yes, that’s right because the alternative was a busy street, where traffic has no law.” For the next hour, I produced a continuous mixture of tears (from pain and embarrassment) and hysterical laughter (from the sheer comedy of the situation).
The thing is, in the United States, if there had been a hole like that, there would have most certainly been caution tape or there hadn’t been and you did fall – boom, you have a very good case for a lawsuit. It is not like that here in India, even in developed, populated metropolises like Bangalore. I am sure that there are long term solutions to these copious and dangerous holes that lay in the hands and minds of urban planners, but the immediate solution is to learn to watch where you are going and to walk with caution wherever you are at. This is a larger metaphor for India. You have to mind your literal footsteps as well as your interactions with others. You also have to be ready for these large, unexplainable holes – whether they are literal or figurative. India is full of situations where you are suddenly in a place you do not want to be in. You have to learn to be flexible, and as I am a firm believer in the power of laughter, you have to find the humor in those sometimes unfortunate situations. For anyone who is interested in visiting or working in India, this is the most sound advice I can give you: be ready for anything, be flexible, and laugh. These things will keep you sane and help you enjoy the beauty that is India.
I was very fortunate in this situation. The pain subsided after a couple of days, and thanks to Dr. Stocks, I had my tetanus shot before I left the United States. The swelling in my foot and ankle went away after a couple of weeks, and the gash is healing, slowly but surely. It could have been much worse. That is my last bit of advice – be grateful for the good in those otherwise annoying situations; the slight breeze on an un-air conditioned overcrowded bus, the cold water bath that helps you get clean even if it’s freezing, the scenery of a train stop even if you are stranded for hours, reliving the rush of Mariokart when you are on a death defying auto rickshaw ride, laughing when you fall in a giant hole (c’mon it’s funny! Who doesn’t see a giant hole??). India has much to offer – some of it is great and life changing, some of it puts far out of our comfort zone. Always look for the positive, I promise it’s there. It just might be small, but it is not insignificant.
These past weeks have been very full. I have traveled around the country, and I crossed a huge threshold in my project. Laughter and my internal reminders to be flexible have helped to make this month enjoyable instead of overwhelming and maddening. I will update you on a few things before jumping into my travel.
The one with the maid and the fleece
I was surprised by people’s reactions towards my story about my maid, Krishnima. It actually helped me think through how to approach her, and I assure you all that things have gotten much better with her. Not only did I get my fleece back, but she also apologized to me for having it for so long. We were able to reset some expectations, with the help of a translator, and now we have a much more productive and professional relationship. I want to thank everyone who reached out with advice or words of encouragement.
So a large bulk of my last post was about my stomach infection. Unfortunately, the day after my post went up, I had another bout. This continued throughout November, and I was finally sent to see a specialist in Bangalore at the beginning of December. In total, I had lost close to 15lbs and had had no appetite for weeks. Health care in India is an entirely different cultural experience. I was put in situations that I was not used to regarding lack of privacy and sanitary conditions, and it was a very trying experience. Healthcare is not necessarily a right in India, it is a luxury. I have been spoiled in my upbringing, and have taken for granted how clean and safe our hospitals are.
Fortunately, I was with the family I mentioned above, and I finally got in to see a doctor I was comfortable with. I was diagnosed with Post-Infectious Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Which basically means my infection was never fully cleared and would flare up at random. I was put on a strong antibiotic regiment that knocked the infection out. I still struggle with low energy, but I have started on an iron supplement. The doctor thinks I am slightly anemic from the lack of nutrients and sudden weight loss. Hopefully by my next post I will be fully recovered!
My puppy Duranta is doing well and is now fully grown. This comes with another slew of challenges. I grew up with dogs, but we always had them fixed. Obviously, Duranta and I do not have that option here. That being said…. Mating season with the other wild dogs has been quite the experience. The constant snarling outside my door, the epic battles of dominance trying to claim the alpha title and Duranta’s attention, and poor Duranta’s whining and her obvious discomfort. I know nothing about puppies and dog pregnancy. I am not sure if this will become an issue while I am here or before I leave in June, but I am one worried mama.
I have also become the mama to another dog whom I lovingly call Scar. I found Scar on campus a few months ago after he had been badly injured by presumably another dog. Poor thing had chunks of flesh missing from his body, his face was badly slashed and he had an injury to his leg. I brought him water with some antiobiotic crushed up in it. I didn’t see Scar again, and I figured he had passed away from his injuries. Then about a month ago, I walk out onto my porch and he is standing there – a little weak looking and with a giant scar on his face. He walked up to me and leaned up against me with his whole body. We have been mates ever since. He joins us on hikes when he feels up to it and protects Duranta from the other dogs. It is a very sweet life we have, the three of us.
My project has been intensifying. Deadlines and quality of the work have been my number one priorities. I love that I have ownership of my project, and I am learning that although I am in charge of the project, I do have a mentor that I am accountable to and his opinion will dictate the final product. My mentor has been out for various reasons for the past two months. These absences are completely out of his control, and when he is in the office, we have a great relationship. However, after I work on my project independently for a month, I still have to receive his approval when he is there. It has been frustrating at times to work without support, and with my own idea and then be required to change things based on fast observations, however his experience and knowledge of the subject cannot be ignored. I am learning to balance my own professional expectations as well my mentor’s expectations of me. I am also learning to take others advice and ideas into consideration.
I just finished our first phase – grade 3. We are rolling out the pilot curriculum on January 19th. I am in the middle of structuring and researching for grade 4. I am finding that it is much easier this time around as I can build off what we have taught in grade 3. I am also finding that I can pull more from my experiences in the classroom and putting it towards this curriculum. Before, I hadn’t felt confident in my own abilities. Using my empathy for the situation of these schools, I ask myself the following two questions, “What gaps in understanding could occur with students?” and “What issues will the teacher potentially have in presenting or facilitating this activity?” I am excited to observe the activities in full in the classroom and receiving teachers’ feedback. My only goal for this curriculum is to create a product that impacts students and gives them English skills that make them successful and competitive whether it is to continue their education or in the job market.
My Dad is a huge fan of the original Planet of the Apes. I remember watching the movie with him growing up, and thinking how cheesy the ape suits and Charlton Heston’s acting were and how unbelievably ridiculous the plot was. Other than that 1970s ‘epic’ I have had little to no interactions with monkeys. I saw a great exhibit at the Omaha Zoo with Jeff a couple of years ago, but that is about it. Well as you know from my last post we have some renegade monkeys here in Rishi Valley, but they kept to themselves and were just fun to watch…. That is until recently. In the past week the monkeys have been becoming more and more bold, and are exhibiting what I believe to be evolved patterns of behavior. Needless to say, I am wishing I had paid attention to Planet of the Apes more. I can’t remember how it ends!
Last week, as I was leaving my apartment, I stepped out of my door and turned to my left to lock it. Something caught my eye. I looked up and a large male monkey was flying down from the tree top toward my head with his arms and legs outstretched and a look of vengeance in his eyes. I screamed and jumped back into my apartment. He sat on my ledge and stared into the screen door. Then a female monkey jumped down in front of the door, and proceeded to leave a bloody disgusting mess while staring at me. It was gross and terrifying. I worried, “am I marked for something later on?” They eventually left, and after cleaning up the mess, I was able to head to work.
Two days later, my co-worker Nimi called me to come over. I walked into her apartment, which is just down the row of hostels from mine, and noticed that everything seemed to be turned over. She explained that she had walked out of her bathroom, and found two monkeys, sitting in her kitchen eating her food after toppling everything over. What was unnerving about this incident was their apparent ability to open the doors by pushing and pulling. After helping her clean up the mess, and getting settled in her living room to do some work on the internet, her phone rang. It was her next door neighbor and she was trapped in her bedroom as a thieving monkey had also let himself into her apartment and was currently taking advantage of her groceries. I ran in with a big bamboo stick and scared him out. We all had a good laugh, but I thought to myself, ok I just need to make sure I have my door shut and locked if they can figure out how get in. I wish those thoughts had stayed with me past that moment.
The next morning, I was getting ready in my apartment. My set up is very simple. I have one set of heavy doors with a screen door, I have one large bedroom with a desk for an office. In the mornings, I like to listen to music, make some tea and take a bath – in other words, I make a lot of noise. I was standing at my desk located by my door when I heard my screen door open and shut several times. I thought to myself, “Krishnima was already here and finished her work. I wonder who that is?” Then my main door was pushed open, and in strutted two monkeys. I just stared at them for a split second before I started to scream. Fortunately, the big stick I use to scare of Duranta’s suitors was in arms reach. I grabbed it and chased them out before they could come in any more. They sat outside my apartment, opening slamming my screen door as if to taunt me for the next 15 minutes. We will see how this turns out, but it is making me very nervous…..
The month of December included a lot of travel for me. I visited the bustling megacity of Mumbai for a conference, and then attended a wedding in Kerala before spending Christmas in Kanyakumari.
I was fortunate enough to attend a conference in Mumbai with Teach For India. This program is modeled closely after Teach For America, and places top Indian college graduates in high need classrooms. The conference, InspirED, was a meeting of minds from around India and the United States to discuss the work that needs to happen to improve the education conditions in India. The conference focused largely on urban education, however it was a great place to make connections and get some ideas that we can use in our own ESL development. My favorite benefit of the conference was interacting with the TFI fellows, and being invited into their classrooms. I had the opportunity to visit the 3-2-1 school which was started by two TFI alumni. Their student population is from the nearby slum. It was amazing to see the movement beyond the US. To see teachers who are committed to giving all students what they deserve – a quality education. The love and energy in the rooms was contagious and their children were precious.
I will say this…. Mumbai is one CRAZY CITY. I have never experienced that level of population density or intense energy. The first thing I noticed when I landed was the pollution. There is just a brown haze over the city and everything is covered in a brown dust. I navigated my way to the Khar West neighborhood and met up with Ryan, Gayatri ‘s (another fellow) newly arrived husband. We rode the train down to South Mumbai – which was a trip all on its own! We spent the afternoon at the Prince of Wales museum before meeting up with Gayatri at Café Leopold an ex-pat bar, featured in the novel Shantaram and unfortunately, site of the 2008 terrorist attacks. Afterwards we met up with the other fellows living and working in Mumbai. It was so good to see friends, relax and enjoy the perks of being in an international city. I ate as much meat as I could and enjoyed some refreshing Kingfisher beer. We went dancing at a rooftop club one night and enjoyed crepes at a French restaurant the next. Besides the great food, alcohol and feeling like I was an urban dweller, the time I spent with my other fellows made the weekend unforgettable. I laughed so much that weekend, and I loved experiencing their daily routines. We have such different lives yet are still part of the same fellowship. It is a beautiful part of the program.
The conference ended on Sunday, but my flight didn’t leave for Bangalore until late Monday night. I had a whole day to myself to be a tourist, and I took full advantage. I attempted to get to Elephanta Island, but it is closed on Mondays. Instead, I was introduced to a tour guide and negotiated a very fair price to visit a national park north of the city to see Buddhist caves and a Jain temple. The caves were haunting and gorgeous, and the temple was beautiful. En route to the temple, my driver was explaining in broken English about the naked Jain prophets. I figured he meant figuratively or that they would only be partially naked…. No he meant fully naked. When you pull up to the temple you see three 500 foot statues of naked men. Then you see their current prophet, an 88 year old, very naked man walking around with a plume of peacock feathers. He walked towards me speaking in Sanskrit and placed the feathers on my forehead giving me a Jain blessing. I never thought the blessing of an elderly naked man in India would feel so good, but it did. The day was topped off by an hour long traffic jam. When we approached the source of the jam we saw a giant Elephant just standing on the road, enjoying the sun. Mumbai exceeded my expectations. I look forward to going back someday. Click here to out my photos.
I had the opportunity to visit India’s southwest coast in the state of Kerala. Their tourism department’s motto is God’s Own Country, and I have to agree with this mantra. Kerala was an absolute joy and a great vacation. It is a tropical paradise, coconut and banana trees everywhere, delicious sea food and it isn’t completely overpopulated. I was there to celebrate the Indian ceremony for Gayatri and Ryan as Gayatri’s family is from Kerala. We stayed just outside the city of Kochi at a great hotel in Aroor. My trip revolved around three things: beautiful scenery, amazing food, and laughter. Ted and Asif, two other fellows, also joined us for the trip.
We spent a day house-boating which is one of the top activities for any traveler to India. The boat lazily takes you through the backwaters of Kerala. We stopped at a shop right on the water where we bought giant fresh water prawns. The crew on the boat prepared and cooked them – they were TASTY. For 6 hours we lounged on the water – soaking up the sun and enjoying each other’s company. The next day we spent in historic Kochi. It is a charming city with a great colonial history with the Netherlands and Portugal. I had a blast just walking through the shops and seeing the antiques. Ted and I even got an extra blessing as we were the recipient of a present from a bird – landing comically on Ted’s face and on my shirt that went unnoticed for hours (you would think someone in our group would have noticed). I don’t believe I have laughed that hard in a long time.
Gayatri and Ryan’s wedding reception was later that night. The ladies all dressed up in sarees. I didn’t think I would have a chance to wear one, but I bought one just for the occasion and Ted helped me put it on (thanks boo!). Everyone looked gorgeous, and it was fun to wear the traditional dress. I was nervous about my mid-drift showing. It is not exactly an area of confidence for me, however, there is something empowering about the saree. I was fine with my stomach exposed and even though I ate enough food for a small nation, I felt oddly confident in the outfit. It was even easier to move in than I thought! I can’t wait to get back to Kerala, it is a beautiful place and I want to explore more of it. Click here to check out my pictures from Kerala adventure.
After Kerala, the wedding party and I made our way down to the southern tip of India via train. We ended in the town of Kanyakumari located at the literal end of India. This place is an important pilgrimage site for Hindus. It is considered holy due to the meeting of three large bodies of water – Bay of Bengal, Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea. Pilgrims make their way to the shores and bathe in the water to bring good fortunes to their lives. I was very excited to see this area of the country and experience its holy powers.
We chose to spend Christmas day there, traveling by train Christmas Eve day. Our train travel was a beautiful experience on its own. To travel down the southern coast of India from the window of a train was amazing! I spent time in the area between the two cars, hanging out of the door and absorbing the beautiful scenery. I loved how the train would whisk through villages, and witnessing the lives in the community – kids playing cricket, people bathing in the water, women walking with large baskets on their head, men climbing giant coconut trees, and miles of banana tree groves. We arrived in Kanyakumari after dark, and upon debarking, I noticed that the train tracks just end. It is the literal end of the line.
We checked into our hotel, ate and proceeded to relax and enjoy Christmas Eve. Leave it to Ryan the groom to get us invited to hold company with the mayor of Kanyakumari; a jolly man with a generous disposition. He had much to be proud of and shared with us his greatest pride – his beautiful wife and child who he described as ‘white’ and told us how beautiful they were because they were fair. This sparked a heated debate between him and me. I said that while his family was indeed beautiful, dark women and children are also beautiful. Our conversation extended and given the libations and language gaps it was a surprise that we both reached an understanding at the end and I was still invited to his home for Christmas dinner. It was an experience I did not think I would walk away with.
Christmas morning we rose very early to witness the sunrise over the three bodies of water. I cannot put into words the how incredible this experience was. The sun peeking through the sky above the waters was breathtaking. For some context, it was my first Christmas away from my family. This was one day that I have been dreading. I knew it was going to be a day that I wanted to be home the most. Fortunately, the excitement of Kanyakumari distracted me enough. We explored the town after breakfast, and went to the holy point on the shore. There is something absolutely magical about the water there. I put my feet into the ocean, looking out onto the endless horizon and as the waves broke on my shins, I felt fulfilled. I did miss my family, but I never thought I would be standing in this spot at this moment. I am incredibly lucky to be here. Click here to check out my pictures from Kanyakumari.
Even though my project has been very stressful, and I work continuously to keep up, even though I feel lost at times as a minority with no language skills, even though I may not always be in my comfort zone at all times, India is a beautiful place. You have to master the art of flexibility, you have to learn to laugh at yourself and you have to be willing to look for those moments of beauty, but it is worth it. My time here is almost half over, which I cannot believe! This next month is full of deadlines and presentations, but I also get to see my other fellows at the end as meet up in Rajasthan for our mid-point conference. My personal and professional journey continues here in India, and I can’t wait to see what else this country has in store for me. Until next month….