Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Apparently all the cute boys are in Punjab...

I spent just about a day and a half in Amritsar but it was enough to make me want to stay. Partly because, yes, the cutest Indian boys have been hiding the entire semester in Punjab. The other part of it is a bit difficult to explain over a blog. For some reason I felt more compelled to talk to random strangers in Amritsar. Bhangra, the traditional Punjabi music, is also quite captivating, as my friends and I quickly discovered. But there was much more to Amritsar than just cute Punjabi boys and fun Bhangra music.

Here's a quick recap of what we did. We miraculously got hold of the last room available at the Golden Temple. We ended up paying 50 rupees per night per person. Let me do that math for you: that's a dollar. Down side: you get what you pay for. Up side: when you decide you have to be at the Golden Temple at 5am because that's the best time to visit it, it's quite convenient that you're already there. But, yes, the Golden Temple is quite beautiful, especially at 5am for those who can muster the energy to get up and deal with the cold Amritsar morning. It was really interesting to see that most of the visitors at the Golden Temple were actually all Indian and where there simply to pray as a part of their daily activities. It was beautiful simply to sit there, watch everyone else sit still and pray in the middle of the water. Definitely one of the most peaceful experiences I've had so far.

After napping for a few hours and drinking some chai we headed out to explore the city on a few cycle rickshaws. First stop Jallianwala Bagh,  the memorial gardens dedicated to the Amritsar Massacre where British soldiers shot at a gathering of unarmed people without notice. It was actually really touching. Then we had some lunch at Brother's Dhaba, Amritsar's famous restaurant that's almost a century old and went for a little shopping. Yes, I know. I do that a lot but in my defense, this time I bought nothing for myself - all gifts were purchased for very deserving people.

Anyway, then came the part we had been planning all day long. We arranged to be driven an hour out of Amritsar so that we could make it to the Wagah Border. For those of you who are not familiar with India's geography. Amritsar is way up north and to the west, just on the border with Pakistan. Now, some of you may know that Indo-Pakistani relations are not in the best shape due to the violent partition of British India into the two countries. Happenings on the border can get pretty rough; the entire semester our Academic Director strictly forbade any of us from going to Kashmir, one of the most beautiful places in India. It's also coincidentally one of the most conflicted. However, the Wagah Border just an hour outside of Amritsar is a ceremonial border between India and Pakistan where they have a retreat ceremony everyday at sunset. This is what we were there for.

The retreat ceremony started as a kind of solidarity between the two halfs of the broken village amid all of the conflict and has been held since 1959 by both India's Border Security Force and Pakistan's Rangers. You have India on one side and Pakistan on the other, with only their respective gates in between. India's BMF collects its flag and puts it away at sunset while Pakistan's Rangers do the same with the Pakistani flag. The next day the flags are returned to their place where the Indian flag and the Pakistani flag fly side by side. Either side is packed with spectators; India's side chants "Hidustan!" and Pakistan's chants "Pakistan!" I saw so much patriotism in everyone's eyes and heard it in everyone's voices, including Pakistan's. At the same time I could feel the solidarity spread through the gates and envelope the crowds. Seeing that, being a part of that was one of the most emotional moments I've had in India thus far. I'm afraid I cannot do my feelings justice in this blog. All I can say is that for a while there I forgot that any borders fragmented the world at all.

After the ceremony, I managed to push my way through the crowd of really rowdy Indian men waving Indian flags and holding their camera phones ready to document the moment and snag a few pics myself.  Let me tell you that this getting this picture was not an easy task. It was definitely worth it, however. I got some shots with no one but BSF in it and was standing just ten to twenty feet from Pakistan. I'll take what I can get, for now. You can see one of the pictures just below and I will soon be adding more to the photo page of this blog. If you look behind the man holding the automatic weapon you can see that there are two gates, one with India's flag painted on and the one just behind it, with Pakistan's flag.

And now I'm in Goa beach hopping for the next few days, which is quite the stark contrast from what I witnessed out on the Wagah Border. It's just a bit more relaxing so I have time to upload some pictures. I'm currently uploading pictures of the banquet and Amritsar on the photo page of this blog for all of you to take a look. I'll get back to you on my experience in Goa as soon as possible.


Friday, 9 December 2011

I'm Ready to Go

Yesterday was the last official day of my semester in India. We had a session on reentry into the U.S. and reverse culture shock. We had a cute little ceremony where we gave each other silly awards; I got "Most Likely to Design the Best Kurti" and I'm quite proud of this actually. You all know how much I'm obsessed with fashion. Anyway, we were required to go around to everyone and tell how we grew throughout that semester. This took a quick turn towards the sentimental side. I realized how much I had come to all of these people that were strangers just three months ago but have now become such an essential part of my life. Then my friend Poonam cried, which isn't really that shocking but then I started crying. I'm not gonna lie, I bawled like a baby. I could see our Hindi teachers observing and laughing at us but I could tell that, secretly, they really thought we were adorable and wanted to cry right there with us.

Tears were wiped, saris were donned, and with bindis on our foreheads we headed to the Indian Habitat Center, a huge convention center that doesn't really look like it belongs in India, for our final banquet. We all looked beautiful in our saris, our host families were there to say their final goodbyes and have some delicious khana (food) with us. The banquet was a lot of fun but riding back to the hotel was a bit weird. It all felt very surreal, thinking that some of us would be in America within just 24 hours. The United States just feels like such a distant, foreign world after having spent close to four months in India. I'm not sure that the fact that I have to go back has fully sunk in yet, actually. This is probably because I still have a few days left in India before I fly back to Amrika. 10 days, to exact.

You're probably asking yourself what I'm going to be doing now. Traveling, of course. But you knew that so the question is really where will I be going? Well, I'm currently on the Shatabdi train with 5 of my friends heading up to Amritsar so that we can spend the day there. We want to spend the night in the Golden Temple, which you can't book ahead of time, so hopefully we have a place to sleep tonight. Then we'll be heading back to Dilli so we can catch our flight to Goa. Hopefully all goes as planned, or unplanned in our case.

- Eli

P.S. I promise I will be posting the few pictures I took in Mumbai and those from the banquet soon so you can take a look at those. Also, I have embedded a YouTube video of a song that my friend Mateo Corby wrote, it expresses a bit of what I'm feeling as I set off to see as much of India as I can before I have to leave. It's a great, very catchy song. I find it very appropriate that Mateo wrote a song about traveling given that he traveled over 20 countries in his undergraduate career... I'm slightly jealous of him but seriously impressed.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

The Power of Women

Two days ago, the Dalai Lama received the Dayawati Modi Award for Art, Culture and Education at the Sri Sathya Sai International Center in New Delhi. I had just arrived back in Delhi but entrance to the event was unfortunately restricted to members of the organization so I wasn't actually able to go. I did, however, take a study break to watch this youtube video of his talk on the power of women. I thought I'd share because writing this post would be a nice little way to procrastinate writing my paper....which is due tomorrow. I have 30 pages due tomorrow. In 17 hours, actually. Needless to say, I have a long night ahead of me. Anyway, listen to the Dalai Lama.

- Eli

Friday, 2 December 2011

Flash Mob Mumbai

P.S. My roommate just forwarded this video of a flash mob in Mumbai's CST train station to me. This happened just last week when I was still in Mumbai, though I didn't get to see it in person. What I did get to see is the CST train station. It's in the heart of Mumbai and is a beautiful building. If you watch the video until the end (or skip ahead if you must) you get to see a quick shot of it. Anyway, now I'm back in Delhi and have to get back to working on my lovely 30 page paper. Or pretending to anyway... Enjoy!


Thursday, 1 December 2011

A little taste of Bollywood

Hey everyone! So I know the past few posts haven't been too happy so I thought I'd touch on a much lighter topic today. In spirit of the time I spent watching Bollywood movies this past week, I decided to make a fun Bollywood music playlist. Let me just explain a little bit about how the music industry works around here. In India, all Bollywood movies are musicals and the songs from those movies are released prior to the movie release date. By the time the movie comes around, you're already hooked on all of the songs and NEED to go see the movie. Genius, isn't it?

Anyway, here's the playlist I created on Youtube. Most of these movies are "chick flicks" by the way so some of you will really enjoy all of these songs, some of you will not. You know who you are, enter at your own risk. However, if you feel like laughing for a bit, I suggest you watch the "Bodyguard" music video, it's towards the end of the playlist.

- Eli

Friday, 25 November 2011

Mami, hold my hand.

So here's the part where I tell you why I moved to Mumbai an entire month before my semester is over. I'm not sure if I told you much about the SIT program I'm enrolled in this semester but maybe I should start by telling you that SIT has a very hands-on, experience-based approach to learning. Hence the excursions, the one week workshop in Varanasi and hence my independent study project. For their ISP everyone has one month to research a topic of their choice in a location of their choice and write a 30 page research paper about it. A topic related to health and human rights, of course. Fun, no? Well, despite having to write a 30 page paper it's really pretty easy to spend a lot of time on your project if you have a topic that truly interests you. Something that you're truly invested in.

My topic: the female "rehabilitation" centers of Mumbai, Maharashtra. For those of you who don't know what a female rehabilitation center is (I hadn't heard of one of these before coming to India either), a female rehabilitation center in India is a shelter home where girls are taken after they have been rescued from domestic violence, sex trafficking and rape among other cases. Once at these homes, the girls are supposed to be provided with (if funding allows, which it usually doesn't) shelter, medical care, education, life skills and vocational training, and counseling services. Some of the girls learn how to make jewelry or different pieces of art so they can sell it in the market, while others are trained to work for different companies.

Over the past few weeks I have been spending some time in some of these homes in Mumbai, some have been run by NGOs and a few others have been run by the Maharashtra state government. It only takes a bus, two trains and an auto rickshaw ride to get over to them from where I'm living here in Mumbai. And yes, that's only a bus, two trains and an auto rickshaw there AND back. But don't mind my sarcasm, my 2 hour commutes every morning and afternoon are worth the hassle. Throughout my time in Mumbai I have had the opportunity to interview social workers, counselors, NGO staff and directors, a government home superintendent, staff members of the International Justice Mission, members of the Child Welfare Committee and even girls who have lived in the homes for a few years. I can only interview the girls who have turned 18 according to the International Review Board's rules but I have had the opportunity to also chat with some of the underage girls who live in these shelter homes.

Talking to these girls is a tricky thing. They love me instantly because I am a foreigner and want to talk to me and know all about who I am and what I'm doing there but I have to be very careful about what I say to them because their story is the last thing they want to talk about - it's too painful. But I spend a lot of time looking at their files, building case studies for my paper, learning about every painful, traumatic part of their life and their stories. Then I have to turn around and look at them, talk to them, and be a bubbly person that will hopefully cheer them up and make their day a little better. I talk to them about the latest Bollywood film and how cute that new actor is, nail polish and whatnot but I all I want is to be able to undo what has happened to them. But I know I can't and it's hard. It's really, really hard.

I'm sorry to say that there's no uplifting, happy conclusion for now. All I can say is that this has been my life for the past couple of weeks. But that doesn't really matter because this has been their life forever and will be their life after I leave Mumbai in a week.


P.S. For obvious reasons I'm not allowed to take pictures inside these homes but you can take a look at the few that I've taken on my morning commute just below. And if you're feeling a little blue after this post, just take a listen to "Momma Hold My Hand" and "Green Lights" by Aloe Blacc. As some of you may know, I'm quite obsessed with Mr. Blacc. While the second song lightens the mood more than the first this post brought both of them to mind.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

The Special Rajdhani Express. Next stop: Mumbai.

Trains are the preferred mode of transportation in India, at least for long distances. They might not be the most comfortable or the cleanest but they are usually pretty inexpensive and relatively fast. The Rajdhani is not faster than flying to Mumbai but being the second fastest train in India, it was naturally only a 21 hour train ride! Hey, I'm just glad I didn't have a 33 hour train ride to Bangalore like some of my friends.

This train ride in particular was a bit different from all the other train rides I've been through so far and I thought I might mention it here. My roommate and I said our bitter goodbyes to our host parents and headed for the New Delhi Railway Station, arriving with time to spare in order to catch our midnight train. I fell asleep almost instantly. The next morning I woke up looking a hot mess, with cilantro chutney on my kurta of course. My roommate was already awake but we didn't feel very energetic at the time so we both busted out our books only to be interrupted by the guy sitting across from us. After being interviewed about our lives and what we were doing in India, we had made a new friend despite having been told by our academic directors not to talk to sketchy strangers. This guy seemed a little crazy so we figured he was harmless. He taught us how to play Indian card games, we taught him how to play some American ones, we argued about corruption and the time went by really fast. He doled out some useful info on Mumbai; where to go, what to eat, which public transportation to avoid. He gave us business cards for all the places we absolutely needed to go see and then threw his in just in case we needed anything while we were in Mumbai. 

His card caught my attention, it said something about immigration services. Naturally, I was really curious about what he did and after interrogating him about it for a bit, it turned out it was just a fancy title for recruiter. American and Canadian universities pay him to recruit wealthy Indian students; the more students he brings in to one specific institution, the higher a percentage of the students' tuition that he is entitled to. All I could do was laugh nervously as he confirmed my undying belief that college is a business. I've always been aware of this but it had been merely lurking in my subconscious and all of a sudden it was in my face, as most depressing things in India seem to be. It does seem like this is increasingly the case in the U.S. On that note, I read an interesting article in the NY Times. It's worth a read.  Both very fun things to think about, I realize. Sorry I'm not sorry.

I also realize I still haven't told you why I'm in Mumbai and what I'm actually doing here but since I'm on a bit of a time crunch, we'll just leave that for the next post.