Monday, April 6, 2009

You know it's April in India when...'re really excited about the weather forecast because it's only going to be 95 tomorrow. (Hey, it's a lot cooler than today, when it was 110!)

I'm slightly jealous of the snow in Oberlin. Only a little bit though--the heat is growing on me.

Religious Tolerance

Yesterday was Palm Sunday. For the first time all semester (I know, I'm a bad person!), I managed to find a church to go to. I needed it; the Gospel was the wrong reading (You don't read the Passion from Mark on Palm Sunday!), the songs were horribly cheesy, and the words were just different enough that I couldn't recite along, yet coming out of mass I had the same feeling that I always have after going to church: a kind of inner peace, and fellowship with the people around you. It doesn't matter that we came from different countries and backgrounds, or that their version of Catholicism was completely different from my version. For an hour, we sat together on the floor and worshiped, together despite our complete separateness. To me, that's one of the most powerful things about religion--it's power to bring people together and remind us that we're not alone.

One of my favorite things about India is how present God is everywhere. Religion is a huge part of people's lives, and not like it is in the US, where we go to church and then forget about it for the rest of the week. One of the first questions we're asked is what religion we are, and then a conversation invariable ensues about the similarities and differences between Hinduism and Christianity, and how there is really only one God. I have a friend here who grew up Hindu, but now proclaims his atheism, since he sees Hinduism as a way of perpetrating the caste system and he doesn't agree with yet. And yet, after I'd known him about a week and he had continued telling me about how he doesn't believe in God, he turns to me and says, "I find God in other people, and I try to show it by helping them" (ok, maybe in slightly more stilted English than that). Well...yeah...that's God. Actually, that's religion at it's best, without whatever political baggage it carries, which is what he disagrees with. The same friend wants me to tell him stories from the Bible, yet more proof of the complete religious tolerance that's present here. There is no tension between religions (well, among individuals, speak to the religions as entities and you'll find a change--take the violence in Ayodha several years ago, where Hindus attacked the mosque that was covering Rama's birthplace) and there tends to be a widespread acceptance that God is God, it is only how one chooses to worship and acknowledge the Divine that differs.

In the church I went to last Sunday St. John and Mary were both decorated like the deities in a Hindu Temple would be, with clothes and flowers and flashing lights. And a few nights ago I saw a deity being brought on procession, with music and parades--much the way that my church used to have a parade for St. Anthony on his feast day every year, when we would carry him around the block, with the whole congregation following and singing. Maybe the two aren't as different as they might seem.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

I haven't updated in a while. I guess it's been a combination of no Internet and life settling down to something resembling normal. If normal is temperatures of around 105 degrees and constant power outages and continuing to get ripped off everywhere we go...

Last night I went outside to talk to a friend on the phone. When I got back, all of my friends were giving me strange looks, and kind of glancing at each other. One of them asked me if I was all right, and then didn't answer when I asked why they would possibly be asking me that (I had been talking to an Indian friend who's giving me his computer for a month). It wasn't until about 45 minutes later that I went online and heard about what happened in Binghamton. Apparently they had heard while I was outside and thought I was getting a call from someone at home.

I think what really made it hit home for me was looking at the news pictures of the Civic Association building where the shootings occurred. OK, anything happening in Binghamton is bad enough, but I parked in that parking lot every week for my violin lesson in high school. My violin teacher lives right across the street. And sometimes I go to Trinity church right next door in the other direction. This wasn't just something that happened somewhere that I was kind of familiar with, but in an area that I've driven and spent time in quite regularly since I was a teenager. In a way, the events of yesterday hit me harder than 9/11 did. Maybe because I'm older and can realize what it means better, but also simply because it was so close to home.

Everyone I know is okay (I called my mom and made her stay on the phone until she had found one of her friends--since he goes to Trinity and he was the one person I could imagine being in the area). But that doesn't really make it a lot better. I keep thinking about everyone who was killed or injured and wishing I could do something besides pray for them, which doesn't seem to be quite helpful enough. I wish I was home, although it's not like I would be doing anything more there than I am here. It made me want to tell everyone I know that I love them--that they are important to me--just in case I don't see them again. Which is silly.

I think what also hit me was the fact that I'm in India, which everyone told me would be more dangerous than home. Everyone, from my father to my advisor at Oberlin, told me that I should reconsider going to India after the bombings in Mumbai in November. And yet, I've ended up feeling safer here than many cities in the US. And look, I could have stayed home in Vestal and been more likely to be in danger. I don't if that should just persuade me that nowhere is safe and turn me into a huge pessimist, or if I should instead find some perverse comfort in the idea. I guess people are just people--which is what I kept trying to tell my dad before I left. Some people do awful things, for whatever reason. Most people, whether it be in Hyderabad or Vestal, are just people--we all have our issues, our strengths, and our weaknesses, but that doesn't make the people in any one place any more or less likely to snap.

So I guess the moral of the story is to be careful wherever you go (and maybe the US can take advantage of some of the security measures India has implemented in public places). And to put your trust in people instead of countries or states, who do, for the most part, continue to care for and love each other. Which is cheesy, but I can't help feeling a little bit true.

Friday, March 6, 2009


Someone left a comment on my blog about the security in 5 star hotels and how people were starting to complain because they found it intrusive and that it took away from the hospitality of the hotels.

It made me think about the security in India. It's not just something that's found in fancy hotels--almost any public store, restaurant, or even park or monument has metal detectors, guards, and mandatory bag and body checks before you go in. Sure, it can get a little tedious at times, and even slightly intrusive (as yet another female guard pats me down to make sure I'm not hiding anything in my bra), but it's also reassuring, especially after what happened in Mumbai. I'm sorry, but having to wait five minutes in a security line is a lot better than dying in a bomb blast.

The security measures also show yet another way in which men and women are treated differently. Men are asked to go through the metal detector and then are checked right after they pass through the door by the guards there. Women, on the other hand, sometimes don't even have to go through the main door. Instead, we are ushered into this little curtained enclosure where a female guard goes through our bag (most of them just check inside it, but sometimes you have to turn your cell phones off, etc.) and then we're searched there. God forbid any man should see a woman being searched with a hand held metal detector--they might not be able to restrain themselves! I guess I do appreciate the privacy, but in that case men should have their own little space too--I'm sure it's just as embarrassing for them. Or maybe this country with it's constant insistence on differentiating between the genders is just starting to get on my nerves., off to Mysore for the weekend with CIEE!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Sometimes when I catch a guy staring at me I have to fight the urge to make a funny face at them.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

What exactly constitutes a "weekend on the beach"

Last week a bunch of my friends and I went to Gokarna, a small beach town in the neighboring state of Karnataka. It was beautiful and idyllic...there was everything you could want in a beach, including cows and stray dogs wandering around...

However, I think that I have a much different definition of a beach vacation than the people I was with. When I say I'm going to the beach, I mean that I'm going to lay in the sun reading a book until I get hot, when I'm going to jump in the water. Maybe I'll take a stroll along the ocean, and I'm more than happy to walk on the beach after sunset and look at the many stars (I don't think I've ever seen that many stars in my life! And all the constellations are flipped on their sides and in different places than they are at home, making it a whole new sky). My friends however, decided that what would be a really good thing to do would be to scale cliffs in an attempt to find the next beach over. Fun, but probably not something to be done in shower flip flops, a bathing suit, and a silk sarong.

Gokarna is apparently where all the European hippy couples go...the beaches were covered in them. It was a strange mix of Indian and western; mixing with all the naked Europeans sunbathing were hordes of Indian men (who apparently swim in nothing but their underwear, which are even briefer than briefs in the US) and Indian women playing in the water in their full salwar suits. Which again made me cringe at the double standard between the genders (It's okay for men to go out wearing next to nothing--and certainly I saw more than I ever wanted to see!, but women better stay completely covered, even in the ocean...)

The food was also amazing. It was a welcome respite from Indian food, as I feasted on hummus and homemade veggie burgers and fresh seafood. I did happen to get a fish worthy of my father--it came with the head and the tail still attached, and my friends laughed at me as I said something along the lines of, "I can't eat that, it has a face!" But one of them did cut the head off for me and put it on his plate where it wasn't starting at me for the whole meal. It's also hard to complain about anything you're eating when the view looks like this...

In other news, summer has officially started and it just keeps getting hotter and hotter, my sunburn is peeling and I look kind of disgusting, and I have two presentations next week (one on Frankenstein and women's literature and one on Roald Dahl and the definition of children's literature). My computer has a giant crack across the screen, and I'm starting to be able to pick up parts of conversations in Hindi. Life keeps going on and it's already almost March. But whenever life gets too hectic, I can always remember sunsets on the beach, and hopefully remember to slow down and enjoy whatever comes to me.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Surrendering to India

Surrender. It’s an interesting concept, and one that most often has connotations of giving in to an enemy or having to do something you don’t want to do. But it can also mean giving yourself up, completely and utterly, for better or worse. And it doesn’t always have bad results.

I’m in the middle of reading the novel Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. It’s incredibly rich and beautiful and Roberts is able to capture just how I feel about India. Anyways, the main character (based at least partly on Roberts’ real experiences), finds himself in India, most specifically Bombay (now Mumbai, but this was before the name was changed). He talks about his transition into Indian society, and how the advice he was given was to surrender, to whatever came and in whatever form.

It sounds silly, but I feel like he has a point. We, as American students, are never going to be able to assimilate into Indian culture. However, we can experience it, but it requires some loss of control; you have to let yourself be swept along with it. And, eventually, India will assimilate you instead of the other way around—the country has a way of taking everything inside of itself and making it especially Indian, no matter what the origins. Only here could centuries old temples exist side by side with buildings built by the British Empire and modern high rises that could compete with any buildings in the U.S. stand next to slums, where the standard of living has been the same for hundreds of years.

So that’s what I’ve tried to do—let myself be swept along with the tide of Indian life. However, I’ve found that this mindset conflicts with other people’s idea of what travel, or life should be. Take our trip to Hampi for example. The trip was amazing, and Hampi was beautiful, but I got tired of being surrounded by Americans all the time. How can we really learn or experience India if we stay in our little western bubble, even while traveling?

OK, so I did some things that the other people in my group probably thought was stupid. But I had more fun than I’ve had all semester. And I feel like I’ve learned more about the “real” India. Which is something that you won’t get if you don’t take chances and go out of your comfort zone. (And by going out of your comfort zone, I don’t mean doing anything extremely dangerous like wandering around a city late at night by yourself…I mean eating unfamiliar foods that may or may not make you sick, or starting a conversation with the homeless man who lives in the abandoned temple, or making friends with people in the train station by all taking pictures of each other with your camera, or wandering down a path until you reach one of the most breathtaking views you’ve ever seen.) I had more adventures than the rest of the group did…and better stories to tell.