Thursday, February 23, 2012

Chapati Humor

Note: The pun titles will usually be irrelevant to the post

           It has been a really busy past few weeks, as always.  Since my last post the biggest headline would probably be that Municipal elections were held in Maharastra on Thursday.  I’ve seen heavy campaigning since I got here so it was really fun to see the voting take place, especially in “the world’s largest democracy”.  The most fascinating part of the Indian political system is the amount of political parties they have here.  I can probably name six off the top of my head, but those are only the prominent ones and I haven’t really studied this too intensely.  But if a politician has a problem with his party for whatever reason, he can just break off and form his own party! That’s what happened with Uddhav Thackeray, who left the Shiv Sena party after a series of disagreements with them.  Now he heads up the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena party (MNS).  There are a lot of state-specific parties too, which is also new for me.  That’d be like if Michigan had their own unique batch of parties in Congress.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t sound like more parties equals more variety.  The Indian people I spoke with in Pune are very cynical about their political leaders, no matter what party they belong to.  They say that everyone is out for money and favors, and that no one really cares about the people.  One person said that each politician is either 90% corrupt, 89% corrupt, or 88% corrupt, and it’s your job to vote for the man who is 88% corrupt.  There must be someone supporting these politicians, though, because Pune has been bustling with political activism for the past month.

"The Watchtower" on top of a hill behind Fergusson College.  It's as sturdy as it looks.
     Being an American abroad has had its ups and downs, but I definitely feel a certain responsibility to make my country look good while I’m over here.  Unfortunately, there have been one or two hiccups since my arrival.  Nothing major, but there’s one story that will definitely stick with me:
            There are a lot of international students studying at Fergusson College, so once a semester the college puts together an international talent show to give everyone a chance to represent their culture.  A girl from my program did an acoustic set with one original song and a cover of “Party in the U.S.A.”, and I’m happy to say that she made our country look awesome.  It was unbelievable to see the other students present talents from their cultures, though.  I saw songs and dances from Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and so many other places.  It was really incredible to see the separate pieces put together by Iran and Afghanistan, though, because I definitely haven’t gotten a good sense of their culture in the U.S.  Although a group of students from Iran are studying here, the performance was done by one Iranian student who played a type of guitar that I’ve never seen before.  It was amazing!  As cliché as it sounds, art really can unify people like nothing else.  I feel so lucky to have been exposed to so many different cultures here, no matter how brief.  It helps me put a human face to world news, especially in terms of American foreign policy.

Trash day at Fergusson!  I've learned to love the smell of burning garbage.
            After everyone did a presentation students from each country were asked to come on stage and sing their national anthem.  The countries were called in alphabetical order, so it was somewhere around Thailand that I started to wonder who would be representing the ol’ stars and stripes.  And that’s when my program leader asked me and 6 other students to step on stage and sing “The Star Spangled Banner”.  I was petrified.

A dramatic representation of what it's like to walk the city streets here
            As a liberal arts student, I can’t say I’ve been well educated in the way of nationalism.  The fact that I watch a sports game about once a year also works against me when it comes to knowing the National Anthem.  So when I heard the opening bars of our song, I couldn’t help but hope to find my lines somewhere on a teleprompter in the distance.  Unfortunately I had no such luck.  So there I was standing in line with 6 other Americans, our hands rested on our hearts, eager to prove just how much we loved our country in front of an audience of 100-200 students.  I started by singing the opening lines of “America the Beautiful”, but that didn’t sound right so I flapped my lips a little until I could catch up with the next verse.  I started singing on the second line, but after the fourth line I was toast.  In high school I used to have nightmares that it was the opening night of a play and I had never bothered to learned any of my lines.  This was just like that, except I was representing an entire country, and my country was not on good terms with a good portion of the audience.  I knew a few lines here and there (and belted every one of them), but for the moments in between I looked off into the distance and muttered what I could.  I don’t know why they didn’t just play the Whitney Houston version; it would have been a great tribute to her and a weight off my shoulders.

Taken at a beautiful Navayana Buddhist temple in a Dalit community
             I was really upset at myself for the rest of the day because of this.  It’s not that I was mad that I didn’t know the national anthem- it’d be good to know, but I don’t measure my patriotism by my knowledge of a song.  I felt bad because I’m unsure of how these people view my country, and I just wanted to leave them with a good impression.  I try to read the Indian newspapers every day here, and the stories always reflect the imposing presence that America has in international affairs.  Many of our policies make me uncomfortable when I’m at home, but now that I’m on the other side of the world I feel like it’s my job to pick up the PR pieces.  Judging by my performance of the national anthem, though, I’d say Obama would be better off on his own.

From a tribal village trip.  The man with the instrument followed a line of people around the fire like he was chasing a snake.  Everyone danced in the direction he moved.
On the way to "The Watchtower"
A waterfall outside the lodge we stayed at in the tribal village
The view from the top of the waterfall

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Moolah River

            This story is a long one, but it has an exciting finish if you ask me.  I’ll tell it in person if you don’t like reading and want funny voice inflections.
            Two Saturdays ago Dan (my roommate) and I decided to walk around the streets that surround our neighborhood.  We live in a fairly quiet area, but as soon as you reach the street that runs parallel to ours you hit the normal chaos of Pune.  There isn’t much to do in our immediate neighborhood but there’s a lot to look at.  You can find a shop for almost any vocation; there’s a tailor, an ironer, a butcher.  So we were walking around looking at these shops when we stumbled on a nearby neighborhood that's separate from ours.  The houses were all one story and they were packed close together.  A lot of people were standing outside and talking with one another.  Dan and I guessed that this was a lower middle-class neighborhood.  The houses certainly weren’t lavish, but they looked like they could fit a small family somewhat comfortably. 

Taken from the top of Parvati hill.  Extreme wealth & poverty live uncomfortably close to each other in Pune... this is a good example of a common sight here.

            When we reached the end of the street we ran into a large arch with huge concrete steps that led down to the bank of the Mula River.  We looked down into the grassy area and saw various women who were washing and drying their clothes by the river.  We also spotted some children playing with a kite right along the riverbank.  It was clearly a public area so Dan and I walked down the steps hoping to talk with some of the kids.  The kids were no more than 10 years old and they were really excited to see some foreigners coming down to play with them.  A girl ran up to me and practiced what little English she knew (she was about 7).  Unfortunately, my Marathi (the ‘mother tongue’ in Pune) is terrible so we couldn’t hold much of a conversation.  Once we used up all of the simple English and Marathi phrases we knew, she left and I walked over to join Dan, who was flying a kite with a group of boys.  Although the kite was made from plastic food wrappers and held together by a coat hanger, it flew really well!  When we got tired of the kite we walked over to the river and skipped rocks.  I consider myself a pretty good rock-skipper, but these kids were professionals.  As we skipped rocks a herd of cows walked by on the other side of the river and I thought about how this was the perfect way to spend a Saturday morning.

Chaturshrungi Temple

            After about 10 minutes of rock skipping, the boys wanted to play Cricket.  I’ve never played before, but I can hit a ball with a paddle so I was excited to test my skills.  The kids briefly showed me how to bat and I managed to lob a few balls here and there.  Unfortunately, I landed the final pitch straight into the Mula River.  I.  Felt.  Terrible.
            The kids brushed it off and told me it was okay, but they couldn’t have done anything to appease my guilt.  Clearly they didn’t have a lot of money, and here I just threw their only Cricket ball into the river.  We went back to skipping rocks for another 10 minutes, but eventually I was ready to head back home for lunch.  I decided I would give the kids 10 rupees before I left so they could buy a new ball.

Steps leading to the Chaturshrungi Temple

            I wanted to be clear about why I was giving them money, so I had Dan say “For the ball” in Marathi a few times.  Then I pulled out a 10-rupee coin, which was quickly snatched up by one of the kids.  I repeated a few more times that this was “For the ball” so that they didn’t think I was just throwing money around.  It didn’t do much help, though, because the kids immediately swarmed in closer to me and demanded 20 rupees.  I laughed and said, “I don’t have 20 rupees, but I have to go home now.”  Unfortunately, the kids didn’t move.  They simultaneously reached out their hands and grabbed at me as they shouted “20 rupees! 20 rupees!”  I continued to tell them I didn’t have the money as I slowly waded through the swarm of kids.  As I moved forward they became much more aggressive.  I realized that I couldn’t do anything to calm the situation so I walked ahead and tried to pretend like nothing was happening.  The kids continued to beg and grab at me until one of the kids took a swipe at a small shopping bag I had in my hand.  I kept my hand on one side of the bag while he stared and kept his hand on the other end.  I quickly snatched the bag back from him, but his grip managed to rip the bag at the bottom.  He smiled at his small victory and then reached down to pick up a handful of pebbles.  As I walked away he began throwing fistfuls of pebbles at me, and soon the other kids joined him.  I turned to look at the main instigator and saw that he now had a large rock in his hand.  As soon as I saw what he was holding I looked him straight in the eyes and shouted, “STOP!”  I turned to walk away and all of the kids immediately stopped throwing their pebbles.

Aga Khan Palace, where Gandhi, his wife, and his secretary were imprisoned in 1942.  It was worse than it looks.

            For a few days this incident really bothered me.  I truly felt like I had made a connection with these kids and I was so happy to see them accept Dan and I into their community.  Unfortunately, as soon as money was introduced everyone’s demeanor changed.  Looking back I realize that it was incredibly stupid of me to try and pay them back for the ball.  Admitting that I had any sort of money was clearly a step in the wrong direction.  Dan commented that this incident somewhat reflects our experience with India in general: everyone here can be incredibly warm and generous, but money often poisons certain situations.  I think that’s why I have such a bad relationship with rickshaw drivers…  Either way, I can’t blame the kids for their actions; they were young and saw a clear opportunity to make some money.  I’m still glad we got a chance to play with them, and I learned that I should keep my rupees to myself next time.

A picture of an actual rainbow at the Kasturba Gandhi Memorial.  Too cheesy not to post.
A marker to commemorate where some of Gandhi's ashes were spread.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Currying Favor with Mother Nature

     This 'pun for every post title' is proving to be more trouble than it's worth, but I'm gonna keep it going for as long as I can...

     I’m in the middle of my second week of classes and things are still going really well here.  There are a lot of things I’ve been meaning to blog about, but I can only cover one thing at a time so this post is about the country’s treatment of nature.  I’m adding irrelevant photos throughout the post, just because.

Taken at the village we visited near Durshet
     One really endearing quality of India is its love of nature.  I think this comes from the ideals of the Eastern religions that are popular here, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.  It can be hard to notice the country’s appreciation of nature in a city as busy and polluted as Pune, but there are a few things that have really stood out to me.  First, most of the trees I’ve seen in India are painted with red and white paint at the bottom of the trunk.  This means that the tree and all of its branches cannot be cut down or trimmed unless the government gives permission to do so.  The impact of this law is clear to me every time I walk around the Fergusson College campus.  That’s because a solid green wall/fence has been built around the college’s campus, but at one point in the fence there are two large holes to accommodate a curved branch.  This branch sticks right out into the sidewalk and then moves its way back through the second hole in the wall.  It’s kind of funny to see a large protective barrier modified so that it doesn’t interfere with the growth of one tree branch.  I can only assume that this is the result of India’s (apparently very serious) stance on the preservation of trees.

A tree outside my room in Durshet
     I also noticed the country’s respect for nature when I was reading The Times of India.  There was an article about how Serena Williams didn’t like to play night matches because the mosquitoes bothered her.  The paper asked Indian citizens what they thought of her complaints.  These are some of their responses:

“We Indians are born to love nature. And it's not in every match that insects come to encourage us! We should respect their presence. I often ask the out-fielders to not step on these harmless creatures. I ask them to drop the bugs outside the boundary”

“I never faced any difficulty playing even when they went around all guns blazing. See, by playing under lights, which attract them, we are entering their domain. So why hate them?"

“I was really touched when Shahid Afridi got a match stopped to lift an insect from the pitch, and with great respect, handed it over to the out-field keeper. This is what I call real sportsmanship. Though insects give us a hard time as they make the field slippery, we have to live with it”

     I was honestly expecting people to call Williams a diva or focus on the privileged life of sports stars.  Instead, everyone seemed to be fixated on the well-being of these bugs!  I thought this was a great example of the country’s reverence for nature.  

(Also, most of the restaurants here are vegetarian, but I think that’s for a variety of reasons.)

One of the entries at the Empress Gardens flower show
     As much as India seems to love nature, the problem of trash in Pune is out of control.  There is litter everywhere!  One time my rickshaw driver pulled over to the side of the road so he could throw a big bag of trash over the bridge and into the Mula River.  Then he got back into the rickshaw like he had just taken care of any other chore.  A lot of people burn their trash on the side of the road, too.  To give you an idea of how common it is, I saw a trash fire that was lit inside the fire department’s garage.  I wonder if Pune’s status as a metropolis makes people treat it differently than they would “nature” in general.  Respect for nature is clearly a part of India’s culture, but for some reason its not observed in the city.  I’d like to learn more about why there doesn’t seem to be much respect for many public spaces here.

From the balcony at the Shanwarwada Palace

A chalk (I think) mural from outside the Chaturshrungi Temple

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Saffron a different note...

These are a few of my favorite pictures taken during my first week here.  Most of them are from Durshet, a nature preserve we stayed at for the first three days.

There's a pack of cows to the right but they didn't fit into the frame...
Taken at dawn.

Hiking to a nearby village.

A woman from the village making rice powder.  She puts the rice in the hole on top and grinds it with the stones.
A woman delivering water from the well to her village.

A view of Pune taken from the top of the Chaturshrungi Temple.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Mum-bye, America!

First I'd like to let you know that the title of every blog post here will have a pun, because I love puns.  Also, Alex Norris gave me a big batch of India puns and I have to use them somewhere.  But hey, I'm in PUNe, aren't I?  (OK I'm done with the puns for now...)

My experience in India has been great so far.  I landed in Mumbai on Sunday night and left for the Durshet Nature Preserve on Monday.  We had orientation in Durshet for three days and it was beautiful.  There was a cow outside of my room almost 24/7 and I heard a rooster crow every morning at dawn.  My favorite experience in Durshet was traveling to a village that was a 30 minute walk from where we stayed.  Although it was a remote village, I definitely saw a DirectTV dish so I can't say it was entirely removed from society.  In the village we saw an elder woman make rice powder and helped some of the people fetch water from the well.  I use the term "help" loosely because we were new at the job and they already had a pretty efficient system.  One woman walked with three water-filled jugs on her head, it was incredible.

The colors in India are really awesome, they have definitely lived up to my expectations.  Even transport trucks have beautiful and intricate patterns painted on them.  The pollution in Pune is a real problem, but there are a lot of carts filled with fruits and flower necklaces that really brighten up the scene.  The city is really congested, but there's a lot to appreciate when you walk around.

The streets of Pune themselves are also unbelievable, but in a less artistic way.  The traffic pattern in India is akin to a game of Mario Kart with1,000,000 drivers added to a track.  There are no "lanes", just chaos.  Everyone rides a motorcycle in India, so there's a lot of bobbing and weaving between cars.  And everyone drives bumper to bumper, literally.  The lanes are so congested I could easily pickpocket any motorcyclist if I wanted to.  I wouldn't park as close as these cars drive next to each other!  It's like a game of bumper cars, except everyone miraculously stops when they get 1cm away from the car in front.  And if you're a pedestrian, you don't get any additional rights.  I saw an old woman with a walker stranded in the middle of a street with cars whizzing by on both sides.  I also saw a car race down a one-way street in the opposite direction.  My tour guide said that police don't always enforce traffic laws, so people can get away with that sort of thing.

Tomorrow I start my classes.  I'm taking Contemporary India, Intro to Hindi, Public Health, and Social Justice.  My program has been incredible so far, I really love the students I'm with and the people in charge.  It's all run very smoothly.  Also, the food has been absolutely unbelievable.  At every meal I'm fed about 4 different dishes, and they're almost always something I've never tried before.  Almost everything is vegetarian here as well.  Food is classified as either "veg" or "non-veg".  My family is entirely veg so I really lucked out.

I hope to update this blog at least once a week.  I'll have internet on my laptop soon, so I should get some pictures up then.  I hope everyone has a great spring either home or abroad!