Monday, July 28, 2008

India is full of Excitement!

Well this week certainly has been exciting! And to think, it's only Tuesday! I know my past posts have been devoted to specific subjects, but today I decided to just give a general update.

The Mumbai rains have come in full-force at last. I've been a bit spoiled up until now and haven't seen the true monsoon season. But since this weekend, the skies have really opened up and we haven't seen the sun for days! (I guess Megh Mudra did its job!) This has made travel a little more challenging, with roads flooding, but so far, I haven't gotten stranded anywhere yet!
Our flat has also had some excitement. 2 days in a row brought power-outtages in the evenings. Thankfully they only lasted a few hours, but those fan-less spans of time were pretty stuffy, since the outrageous number of mosquitoes outside made opening the windows really unwise.

Once the power issue was resolved, we had another issue to contend with. One evening, while going to put away some dishes, I opened a drawer only to see a furry, black thing jump out and scamper into the cabinet below! Yes, our kitchen now has rats! One of my flatmates, terrified at the thought, promptly went out and bought poison to set around. Unfortunately, Indian rats must be pretty smart, because no one fell for our trap. When we saw another rat the next night, another one of my flatmates decided she had had enough, and was going to force the rats out! So, while my roommate and I holed up in our bedroom with the door tightly shut, Glenda, armed with a broom, opened the cabinet where the rat was hiding. When he came into the kitchen, she began beating him with the broom as he frantically scurried to avoid her blows. I think Glenda must have special rat-chasing skills, because she successfully goaded the rat out of the kitchen, through the living area, and directly out the front door! It must have been quite a sight to see her standing at our open door, broom in the air, yelling "Stay out of our house!" to the poor, abused rodent! (Since Shradha and I were hiding in our room, I only heard that part of the story from Rekha. But since I could hear the commotion from my room, I can picture the scene quite vividly!) Once that rat had been successfully evicted, we thought our troubles were over. But apparently the first guest had brought a friend along too, because not 1 hour later, we had another furry friend on our hands. But, Glenda took care of that one in a similar fashion. So, for now, it looks like our house is rodent free. (Using the term "rodent" quite loosely, of course! We still have all of our lizard, leech, and centipede friends!)

Finally, I have one more exciting thing to tell you all. The reason I came to India was, after all, to do social work. So, it might be good if I wrote about that at least every now and again, right? Well, today is the day for me to begin. Yesterday at school, we were given our field placement assignments for our first year of study. This semester, I will be working in the agency to which I was assigned 2 days a week for 8 weeks. Each week we must put in 15 hours of work in addition to our class load. Then, in 2nd semester, we will have a block placement with the same agency for 5 weeks. During those 5 weeks, classes will be suspended, and we will be required to spend 5 to 6 days a week at our respective placements. And now, for the moment of truth! My placement is..... Akshara Centre! I know that means absolutely nothing to any of you, though, so let me elaborate. I don't know much about it yet, but Akshara's main focus is women's rights issues. They work in a lot of different areas related to women and other marginalized groups, and have various projects, including documentary films and awareness campaigns. Here is a link to their website, if you are interested:
I'm really excited about this new dimension of my education in India. I know this will be such an enriching experience for me, and I can't wait to get started!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Megh Mudra

India is a country that really enjoys a good festival. From what I understand, on any given day, there is probably something being celebrated somewhere in the country- and it almost certainly involves music and dancing. Each state has its favorite holidays and favorite ways to celebrate them. Due to the diverse nature of the school I attend, I am going to get a good exposure to some of the various festive events that different areas commemorate. In fact, this weekend, we had a festival, called Megh Mudra. Now before you go off and try to “Wikipedia” this holiday, I should probably tell you that Megh Mudra isn’t a real Indian festival. No. Apparently TISS decided that India didn’t have enough festivals on its own, and so invented another one! Megh Mudra in Hindi (from what I’ve gathered) means “Cloud Symbol”. The point of it is to be a rain festival to provoke heavenly showers. (Don’t ask me who decided we needed a rain festival during Monsoon….) Anyway, in actuality, what Megh Mudra has turned out to be is a sort of talent show that the 1st year students put on for the 2nd years. And since this talent show is happening in India, you can bet that it involved lots of Bollywood-esque singing and dancing, complete with audience participation and lots of hamming it up for the crowd. Most of my classmates participated, though I opted to be an “observer of culture” for this time around.
All in all, it was a really fun show. I was really impressed with some of the talent, especially the seeming innate ability Indians have to perform the cheesy and over-the-top show tunes from their movies, all without looking the slightest bit ridiculous! (If you are reading this and wondering what I am talking about, get up right now and go rent an Indian movie. I don’t care which one. This is a cultural experience not to be missed!) While most of my pictures didn’t turn out since the sun started to set around the time people started performing, I did manage to take a few shots.
Here is one of my flat mates, Glenda, singing a traditional Indian song.
And here are a few pictures of group dances.
And, last but not least, here I am with my very good friend Sonali, who has been incredibly patient in helping me through more than one “culture shock moment”! (i.e. my mini meltdown in a movie theatre when the security guard made me turn in my camera batteries in order to enter, and the concession stand on the ground floor, which advertises popcorn, told us they don’t actually sell popcorn, and made us go to the 3rd floor to get it!) Thanks, Sonali!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Comfort Food

So lately my stomach has decided that it doesn’t like me very much. I’m not really sure what made it so incredibly determined to rebel, but regardless of motivation, it is staying true to its goals. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say that I’ve been having to get pretty creative with my food choices lately. Luckily I am in a position where I have a lot of independence with regards to what I eat, so this pursuit of peace with my tummy is not a lost cause.
I usually eat at least one meal a day in the school’s dining hall. But, because they realize that even Indians fall ill, or simply can’t stomach certain spices, the dining hall will prepare “bland food” on request. It’s not the tastiest option out there- usually just plain boiled lentils and potatoes- but if you’re in my situation, it works for a little while. Otherwise, I have the luxury of also being able to cook for myself at home. (I say “luxury” because getting a stovetop and a fridge alone were huge feats. I still don’t have an oven, but I’m considering buying a little toaster oven later on.)
However, it is one thing to be physically able to cook for oneself in India, and quite another to actually accomplish it. While grocery stores do exist, the area of Mumbai in which I live has just two tiny (think “mid-sized convenience store”) options. At first I clung to those quasi-westernized shops with all of my being, but gradually I’ve begun to realize that the markets are much easier ways of getting most products.
Fresh fruits and vegetables on the street are incredibly cheap, so I can buy those with no problem. I have to remember to thoroughly disinfect them with purified water, and to peel them whenever possible, but otherwise, going around the corner from my flat to pick up a few mangoes is actually kind of fun! As far as other food items go, I discovered a little stall about a minute from my flat that carries a huge assortment of dried beans and rice as well as spices. I assumed initially that they wouldn’t have anything else, but upon further investigation, I realized they have a lot of other things as well. Today I went with a “wish list” of items I assumed they wouldn’t carry but hoped they might. 15 minutes later, in addition to the dried pinto beans and chili powder I planned on buying, I left with tomato sauce, jarred honey, bread, garlic, dried pasta, and crackers! Every time I asked for something, the little man behind the counter nodded to me, and hopped up on a stool or disappeared into the back and produced the item! Of course I had to scrupulously check expiration dates and seals, but, in the end, nothing he gave me was questionable at all. Oh, and did I mention that I got all of that for less than $2.50?!
I am still going to go to regular stores for most dairy items and eggs, as well as a few specialty “imported” things that street stalls won’t carry. But that is actually kind of a fun trip too. You see, one of the two stores in the area has a fairly large American section to it. When I first started having stomach troubles, I went there and bought a few familiar things, both for physical and emotional comfort. Here is a picture of some of my more exciting purchases!
Breakfast cereal is incredibly American, and Indians really don’t get too into that, so Corn Flakes is almost the only cereal option I’ve found. But, as you can see, these are not just any Corn Flakes. These are Mango Corn Flakes! Mmmm! I was so excited when I found these, and was even more excited when they actually tasted like Mango! Once I finish this box, I’m going to have lots of fun trying all of the flavors: Strawberry, Banana, Honey, and Almond! But cereal is not the only thing India likes to add flavors to. That little box in the corner is a tiny, pistachio-flavored soy milk! I’ve already had the mango-flavor (can you see a trend?) but they also make strawberry, apple, and coffee-flavored ones, so I’ll definitely be testing all of those in the future as well. Finally, the last purchase I photographed is just plain-old Diet Pepsi. (Sorry, no mango-flavoring this time!) Diet sodas are not common here at all, and while I try to limit my soda consumption (diet or otherwise), every now and then, I just want a Diet Pepsi! (or Diet Coke. I’m not picky!) I also bought a few other American items, but they weren’t too exciting, so I didn’t bother taking pictures. I tried to be fairly reasonable about how much I bought though, and reminded myself that I could always come back to get anything else I was wanting, like pancake syrup, jelly, barbecue sauce, salsa…you get the idea.
Well, now that I have thoroughly bored you with an entire post devoted to my grocery shopping habits, I’ll end here. Please keep my poor stomach in your prayers, though. As fun as Mango Corn Flakes are, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to live on them for very long!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

A Day at the Beach?!

Before I came to India, I must admit, I had no idea where exactly the city of Mumbai was located. Of course, once I realized I would be moving here, I took some time to educate myself on the location of the major cities here, as well as their alternate names. (i.e. Calcutta is now Kolkata, Madras is now Chennai, and Bombay is now Mumbai!) Since I know that many of you are probably about as well-versed in Indian geography as I was prior to my move, I will spare you some unnecessary “googling” and just tell you that Mumbai is located on the western coast of India. Yes, that’s right. I finally get to live on the coast! Up until now, I’ve only ever lived in Northern France, which allowed me only one brief visit to the French coastline, and in Texas, whose beaches, to be quite honest, leave a lot to be desired. Unfortunately, Mumbai’s ocean scene makes Texas’ look like the Caribbean! Famous for its ridiculously large crowds and obscene amount of trash, the beaches in Mumbai are not exactly conducive to traditional “beachy” activities. Add in the conservative dress of Indian culture, and all possibility of sun-bathing, sandcastle-building, and even swimming, go out the window.
That is not to say, however, that the beach here is not entertaining. I actually got to go to one this past weekend, and I had a really nice time. On Saturday, after classes, a few of my friends from the MSW Program took a bus with me to a fairly popular beach in town. We walked along the waterline, eating spicy roasted corn, while I took advantage of the opportunity to photograph as many interesting scenes as I could. (A beach is one of those rare places where my camera is not too terribly conspicuous. Since lots of other people were there taking photos, no one paid too much attention to “the white girl with the camera”.) While most of the people in my group did end up going into the sea, I decided to wait until my immunity had been built up at least a little more before chancing the murky waters. Instead, I had fun watching the women in their full saris wading up to their knees in the salt water, vendors selling neon-pink cotton candy, and desperate henna artists trying to convince tourists to try a cheap version of the traditional Indian temporary tattoos.

So, while I don’t envision that my living in Mumbai will result in a perpetual sun-kissed glow, nor will it allow me the opportunity to perfect my surfing skills, I am content to enjoy the Indian version of a day at the beach. Of course, if I ever get the chance to visit one of Asia’s more renowned beaches, (like Thailand, for example…) you better believe that I am taking it!

Monday, July 7, 2008

Sweet Fellowship

I realize that not everyone reading this blog comes from the same religious or cultural background as I do. However, since many of you were raised attending American church services, I thought that finding out how Indian Christians worship might be at least semi-interesting to you all. And since I have a few fun pictures to go along with this subject, I have decided to dedicate this post to telling you about how my worship experiences in India have been so far.

Since coming to Mumbai, I've actually attended two different congregations in the city. Both of them bear the name "Church of Christ" and are involved with each other, even if they are not officially a part of a specific denomination. The first congregation I attended is the one that I will primarily be involved with, and is about a 20 minute bus ride from my flat. The group meets in a classroom of a school and averages 10 to 15 on Sunday mornings. Services are in Hindi, with occasional translation to English, and a few smatterings of songs in Marathi (the dialect spoken specifically in this part of the country.)

The second congregation I attended is located nearly 2 hours from my residence, making worshipping there on a regular basis unrealistic. The reason I even went to this church in the first place is because before coming to India, I had been in contact with the minister of the congregation. He invited me to come and visit them one Sunday, and even made the 4 hour roundtrip journey to pick me up and take me to services! I attended at this congregation my second week in India, and it was here that I experienced my very first Indian potluck! (More on that later.)

Both of the congregations conducted worship in similar manners, so after my first experience at church, I knew mostly what to expect. While some things are the same across the globe, I have noticed several major differences between American worship services that I have attended and Indian ones. First of all, while it's not explicitly demanded, in India most everyone removed their shoes for worship services. This is apparently partly due to the cultural element of Hindu temple worship and associating shoe removal with respect and sanctity of an act. Another difference is that men and women sit relatively segregated in the congregation. I think this goes along with the part of the culture that makes public displays of affection between men and women still extremely taboo. Regardless of the reason, it definitely makes it pretty difficult to identify family units! At first I wondered why the church had so many single individuals! Ooops! Finally, so far most every woman in the church that I have seen covers her head for the duration of the service. While I know this act is practiced in several congregations in the United States, I have personally never been a part of one that did, so this was a rather new experience for me. The nice thing about this is that the traditional Indian clothing makes covering one's head really easy, as most women already have a scarf with them, even if they didn't deliberately come to church prepared to wear one.

I think my favorite part of both of the churches I attended has been the singing. Rather than simply translating Western hymns into Hindi, the churches have their own, decidedly "Indian", songs they sing. Anyone who knows me knows I love music, so I am sure you understand when I say that I am really looking forward to learning these melodies and having a whole new set of songs to sing!

As I mentioned before, at the 2nd congregation I attended, we also had a potluck, complete with all kinds of wonderful, authentic Indian foods. While I have no idea what the name of anything I ate was, I can assure you that it was all really spicy, and really good!

All in all, I think church is going to be one of my favorite parts of being here. Not only does it give me a chance to practice my Hindi and get accustomed to the public transportation system here, but it helps me to see how universal faith can be and what a unifying factor it can become, even when crossing cultures as vastly different as those of America and India

Friday, July 4, 2008

I'm a Walking Cliche!

(Note: I actually wrote this post 2 days ago, but couldn't get online to post it until today. But, since I'd already written so much, I decided to go ahead and post my belated entry. Things should be a little smoother once I have internet access at home, though I'm not promising anything!)

A lot of people have many preconceived ideas about what life in India is like and the types of experiences one will have in coming to this country. Generally speaking, I try to stay away from preconceived ideas and stereotypes about places and people, as they usually are not correct. However, today, I think I managed to expose myself to every single clich├ęd Indian experience possible in the span of 24 hours! Let me explain.

Yesterday afternoon, a few hours after my extremely spicy lunch, my stomach started to rebel against me. It seems that my first brush with “Delhi Belly” had begun. For the rest of the night, I resigned myself to lying motionless on my bed, trying not to switch positions for fear of waking the monster that had apparently crawled into my tummy. Then, today I woke up and took an icy-cold shower, courtesy of our heater in the bathroom’s unannounced leave of absence. After that, I walked to school, dodging suicidal rickshaw drivers and rolling my eyes at the perpetual flood of cat-calls reserved only for those fortunate enough to have day-glow white skin. At school, I actually attended one full course from 9 to 11am, but then had to find some way of entertaining myself from 11 until 2, since the 11 o’clock class was unexpectedly cancelled. After my courses finished at 4, I met another student at the school library to help me check out the only copy of my class’s compendium of notes. This trip of course resulted in me being told that the copy was already taken, and that if I wanted to reserve it, I would have to come back the next day at 8am and put my name on the list. If my name is first on the list, I will then be able to pick up the compendium at 2pm. So, after that relatively unproductive afternoon, I went home to rest, since my stomach still was not too happy with me. A few hours after I arrived home, one of my roommates came into my room and asked if I had checked the water recently. Apparently something had malfunctioned in our water tanks and our daily ration of water had overflowed out of the tank and onto the bathroom floor!

So, there I was, lying in bed, feeling sick, and, due to our sudden lack of water, psychosomatically dehydrated. Amazingly though, I was not discouraged. While I certainly was not happy to be feeling ill and to be inconvenienced by the water situation, I took it all in stride. It seems that the Indian “Chalte hai” attitude ( A favorite phrase in Hindi roughly translating to: “It’ll work”) is rubbing off on me. I’m learning all sorts of valuable lessons here, like: You have to take things as they come (sickness and cancelled classes are inevitable); You can’t take anything for granted (running water is not a God-given right); and, finally, Always carry your umbrella, because if it isn’t raining now, it will be soon.
That last lesson came tonight when my roommates and I started walking the 2 minutes to our landlord’s house to sign our contract. Thinking we would only be out for a minute, none of us bothered to grab our umbrellas. Today had been relatively sunny, after all. Of course, not 30 seconds into our walk, the skies opened up and water came gushing onto us. By the time we reached our landlord’s house, we were completely drenched! Thankfully, our landlord was very nice, and didn’t mind letting 6 soaked students into her home.

Oh, that reminds me... As you can see, I finally have pictures to show you! Because I have so many that I want to share, I have tried to be selective for now and just put a few of my favorites. Here are some of my flat in its unfurnished state. I am now living about a mile from campus with 5 other girls: 3 from Nepal (Shradha, Rekha, and Anjam) , 1 from Bangladesh (Sonia), and 1 from India (Glenda).

Part of the living area where Glenda and Sonia sleep

Our garden. We are really fortunate to be off of the main road a little.

The bathroom that Shradha, Glenda and I share.

See the pink water heater in the corner? It's nice, when it works!

And, just because I like them, here are some pictures at a meal we had after church this past Sunday. I visited a congregation in Northern Mumbai and had a really interesting experience muddling through the Hindi and meeting all kinds of new people. But, since this post is already plenty long, I promise to write more on that another time. Until then, to all the Americans reading this, HAPPY 4th!!!