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.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

This weekend me and three of my friends went to Hampi, the city where Hanuman was born. The city is beautiful. And breathtaking, And powerful. I loved it. I loved the mountain views, and the ancient temples, and even the European hippies that are swarming around. And I love the fact that I had interesting things happen to me, without even really trying.

So…what happened? Well, let’s see. It all started when our train got in at 5:30AM. Our rickshaw driver decided that we really needed to go to the “sunrise place.” So he drives up these really steep hills, and finally he stops in front of a huge pile of rocks. It’s dark and we’re tired, since we spent the night on a train, but we stumble out of the rickshaw and follow him. He leads us up stairs and around rocks, and eventually to this old abandoned temple on top of a hill. We sit there and I see one of the best sunrises in my life. The view was fantastic.

Afterwards, we look over, and there are two monkeys, just staring at us. They show no fear of us at all. In fact, one grabbed the strap to my huge backpacking bag and tries to drag it off. I had my foot on the strap so he couldn’t take it anywhere, but it was really funny to watch him tug at it. Monkeys are stronger than they look. There were some Russian tourists there as well; they have food and they start feeding the monkeys. One of them gave me some grapes, and a baby monkey ate out of my hand. Watching the old Russian ladies with the monkeys was hilarious; they were really afraid of them, so they’d be opening a pack of nuts or something and then a monkey would come up and they would shriek and drop it and the monkey would take the whole plastic package. And then the monkey would figure out how to open it (and the fact that plastic is yucky…).

I think my first real adventure happened when I decided not to climb the steps to a temple. I’m not a big steps person. So, while waiting for my group to come back (and at this point, I would like to mention that there were people around, most of whom were Europeans and that Hampi is very touristy and very safe—just for any parents who might be reading this), I decide to walk around a little by myself. I end up stumbling on this homeless man who was sleeping outside one of the temple ruins. I was going to leave, but he beckons me over and puts down a rug for me to sit on, and ends up reading my palm and talking to me about religion and reincarnation for 45 minutes. (Apparently I have been given a gift from God, I am slow to have a physical relationship with anyone, I will get married but then we’ll start fighting and I’ll get divorced and remarry again, and I’ll have four kids.) In my next life, I’m apparently going to be someone like George Bush, who he really admired—I really hope not. This guy, on the other hand, will be reborn as a yogi and that will be his last life. Then he’ll go up to heaven.

So, I finally leave and go back down the path to where I left my group, but they’re not there. And there’s no cell phone service. After getting a little worried, I decide that the only thing to do is go up the steps that they were climbing the last time I see them. They eventually lead me to this old abandoned temple in the jungle, with more steps up this mountain. I hear people shouting my name and telling me to come up, so I start climbing. I end up in this watchtower with the most amazing views I have ever seen in my life.

I would have been fine just sitting there for hours. There’s service up on the mountain though, and I get a call from my friends, who followed another path up the mountain and are on another path. We eventually all meet up—and they yell at me for wandering (I’m not the one who went up the mountain—at least not until I heard their voices telling me too! I stayed right off the path in plain sight!)
The next day we went to the birthplace of Hanuman, otherwise known as the monkey temple (and it’s crawling with monkeys…). We didn’t eat breakfast before we left, and again, there were hundreds of steps to climb up. And I immediately got really dizzy. So I stayed at the bottom (after promising not to wander again). I went to the chai stall at the bottom of the hill and bought some hot chai, and the people invited me into their home (also known as the chai lean-to) and I sat there and drank chai and watched them get ready for their day. After some sweet tea, I felt better and decided to climb some stairs. I took a break part way up and was just sitting, staring out at the view and thinking/meditating/praying. This Indian family walks down the steps past me, gives me the dirtiest look ever, and starts muttering in whatever language they speak. The only word I understood was “opium,” which was repeated over and over again. I am not an opium user, I promise. So, I decide I should start moving again, but soon the view is too tempting and I stop again and sit on the railing (not a real railing, a cement barrier thing…) and stare at the view. Soon I feel these little hands on my back…one of the baby monkeys had decided it would be really fun to climb on my back and give me a hug. He was really cute, but I still screamed. I think I scared him more than he scared me. By the time my group walked back down the stairs and met me, I was laughing hysterically and talking to the monkeys…people probably thought I really was a drug addict.

We also made friends with a huge family we met in the train station. We didn’t speak the same language, but it’s amazing how easy it is to break the ice. We showed them our jewelry (they laughed because my fingers are huge and none of my rings fit them) and American money, they were amazed at our sunburns and bug bites, and I showed them how to use my camera. In return, they handed us their children to hold, approved of the double piercings in my ears but told us we should get our noses pierced, and gave us bindis and bought us flowers to put in our hair.

They were going to Hubli to “see God,” and we bonded over religious icons (I showed them my St. Christopher necklace and my cross anklet and one of the boys showed me his necklace with Arjuna on it). They figured out I was Christian and kept saying, “Jesu Christe!” and making the sign of the cross, and I kept saying, “Arjuna! Hanuman!” It was fun.

I had so much fun, and I feel like I learned more from this trip than I have from my semester so far. It was the first time I’ve had the chance to really interact with Indians—besides my professors and classmates. This, more than my experiences wandering around with other Americans, has taught me about “real life India”—a phrase that tends to get thrown around here a lot. I feel like although I am an outsider here, India will learn to accept me. As long as I make an effort to accept it. And my goal is to try, whether this be by going out of my comfort zone in talking to people or going places without a protective group of Americans surrounding me.

(Also, for more pictures:,%20India/Hello%20from%20Hyderabad.html Then click the two Hampi albums.)