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Archive for February, 2011

The past week has been full of kind-of-but-not-really having class, plans being made and falling through, exploring Kolkata, wearing saris, and attending a sitar concert!

Friday was Jennifer’s birthday, and Madhu and Munu had invited everyone over to their house to celebrate. We all went after class and wore saris! Madhu and Munu have so many saris – closets and closets full! The great thing about a sari is that it really is timeless – you can wear a sari for every occasion, they never go out of style, and they will always fit! Because it’s just a long piece of cloth, you drape and tuck it around the body so there is no need for sizing. It was great to see everyone dressed up in a sari. We had a great dinner (very spicy dinner though!) and some delicious birthday cake. It was a great party and nice to hang out with everyone.

 

Saturday was spent exploring some more of Kolkata. Madhu has given us a few sites around Kolkata to explore on our own for her class, so Saturday we went to College St. It’s a big street here that has many universities and the streets are packed with booksellers. It was okay, not necessarily a lot to see. I’m not sure how anyone would find a book there – there are so many stalls and piles and piles of books! We also stopped in a famous coffee house off of College St – it’s famous for the famous people who used to go there and have intellectual conversations/debates. It doesn’t really look like a coffee house, but more like a dining hall. We started to play cards to pass the exceedingly long time it took to get our coffee – and they came over and told us to stop playing! Apparently whenever you play cards here, they think you’re gambling whether or not you actually are…though they did not tell any of the numerous smokers to stop smoking, despite several “No Smoking” signs. At least the coffee was good. We got home just in time to leave for a sitar concert! Sujoy had arranged for us to go with him to a friend’s house, who arranges concerts and other art related events every few months. It was in a gorgeous spacious flat, and several people were there. The sitar player we saw is one of India’s greatest sitar players, whose father helped invent the modern sitar – whether that meant figuratively or literally, I’m not sure. He was accompanied by two tablas, a kind of drum. It was amazing! They played for 2 hours straight – what endurance! One of the most interesting parts of the concert was seeing the audience’s reactions to his playing – they would make kissing noises, shake their heads in awe, wave their arms, and any other noise/gesture of appreciation. I wish I had a better frame of reference though – this was my first real exposure to the sitar so I feel like I couldn’t really appreciate his talent. And another great part of the evening – j’ai parlé en français! I spoke French! :D I met a Frenchman there, who comes to Kolkata every year to study Indian classical music. It was great to speak French – and I can tell that I’m a bit rusty already! At least I haven’t lost my conversational skills…yet.

On Sunday morning, we went to St. Xavier’s to see Danny and Kia in a play! It was a dance drama of the Mahabharata, an ancient Hindu epic. They told us it would start at 11:30am – so we should up a little early. There was music at first to entertain us…but then the music just went on and on without end! It was the best example of Indian time – and so frustrating!! The actual play didn’t start until 2p.m. No one had any idea what was going on or when the play would actually start, and everyone was taking there time as if everyone else in the audience had all day to spend. Time is just a different concept here – you can’t schedule and plan like at home and you have to constantly adapt to delays and unexpected things. I was getting very frustrated and impatient – mostly because the entire program was in Bengali, so we were just sitting there with nothing to do. So, 2.5 hours of waiting later, we saw Danny and Kia’s 30 seconds in the play and left immediately after to go to the Indian Museum – another site on Madhu’s list. I didn’t have much interest in the museum to begin with, and the exhibits were not very interesting, nor were they designed to be very interesting. For example, there was an entire room full of rocks. Instead of choosing the best 20 rocks, they couldn’t decide and included all 20,000 of them. The coolest parts of the museum was a 4,000-yr-old mummy (not even Indian) and the skull of a blue whale, which is about as big as my bedroom! I spent the rest of Sunday relaxing. I’m really enjoying my book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and another one I started today – Being Indian by Pavan Varma. They are both great reads, and I’m learning a lot!!

crowded metro...sardines have more room

We had a service learning class on Monday, which was supposed to help us better understand the circumstances the behind-the-scenes knowledge of how these girls are in this cycle of poverty and how Loreto is helping stop that cycle. It was a good class, and the biggest thing I learned is that I’m going to have to adjust my expectations and goals of what I’ll be doing there. I won’t be making a huge difference there, and I won’t be able to see any immediate impact of my work there. It’s a little discouraging, but I need to be more realistic. At least my most recent visit to Loreto was more motivating – I spent time with the older Rainbow girls, who are 14-16 yrs old. It was much easier to communicate with them since they speak more English, and they had questions to ask us too. I really noticed that day how much the girls really do need attention – they are constantly touching you, holding your hand, wanting to play with you, and redirecting your attention back to them. Even as I was leaving, I had about 10 girls come up to me grabbing my hand and playing with me until I walked out the door. I liked that so much more than the tutoring – having actual interaction with them instead of just watching them doing schoolwork. I finally felt more needed and useful.

On Monday, we also met famous Indian author Amitav Ghosh! We read a couple of his books for Madhu’s class – The Hungry Tide and The Shadow Lines. He met with us and a group of other students and professors for a question/answer session, and afterward we got to meet him for tea! He was really nice and was very interesting to talk to, and what a great opportunity to meet him! I felt bad since a few others and I had to leave early, but at least it was for something also great – our first yoga class! Arundhati arranged for an instructor she has worked with to come to our house to teach us Monday, Wednesday, and Friday each week. His name is Jamal and we do the exercises in our living room. It’s going great so far! It’s a little different from what I’ve practiced at home before, but I’m enjoying it and really happy that we can do it so often for way cheaper than at home!

Lately, I’ve been frustrated with St. Xavier’s gross inefficiency. I’ve realized that we will probably never have a full week of class – for example, Bengali was canceled all week, all but one class was canceled today, and class was canceled for tomorrow. That’s not a problem for me – but it’s annoying we weren’t told that classes were canceled today until we arrived, even though the teachers knew well in advance. So instead of coming to school at noon, we could have come at 4pm and could have done so much more with our day! I’ve learned to always bring a book or something with me to fill my unexpected free time that inevitably comes up. Another frustration this week was figuring out the library – for our sociology class, the teacher gives us references but we have to find the in the library and make copies of the relevant sections on our own. I don’t have a problem with that, but the library does not make it easy. It’s very confusing – there is a reading section where you cannot remove those books from that room, and a separate lending section where you may check out those books. Many of the books are out of order and in the wrong sections, which doesn’t help. Apparently when you find the book you need, you can’t just bring it to the table and look at it – you must first bring it to a librarian who fills out a reading slip, which somehow gives you permission to read that book at the table (I don’t understand the purpose of this and need someone to explain this logic to me). If you want photocopies of something, you have to give it to the one guy who makes photocopies, but the times that we tried he was too backed up and we were told to come back in the morning. The other time he was on break, and it’s just all a mess. I don’t know how anyone ever gets anything done here.

We were supposed to go along with the sociology department on a trip to the villages this weekend, but unfortunately it fell through :( They are supposed to schedule a separate trip for us sometime later in the semester, and I really hope it happens! So instead, I’ll spend the weekend exploring more of Kolkata! I can’t believe I’m almost at the halfway point of my trip! :/ …expect a more reflective post next time.

Also, click here to check out my newest piece for the Lost Girls! :)

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What an eventful week!

Last weekend, we had a two-day trip to Shantiniketan – a village area outside of Kolkata that’s known for Rabindranath Tagore, a major poet/novelist/essayist/playwright/artist/thinker. Tagore is so admired here, especially in West Bengal, and I don’t think a day goes by that I don’t hear some mention of his name. He founded a school in Shantiniketan, which means “peaceful abode.” Arundhati, Sujoy, and Vinayak came along with, since our parents had helped to organize and lead the trip. Arundhati is very involved in the arts, especially Bengali folk art, and Sujoy is very interested in history. We had a fairly long ride there – about 5 hours with stops. We stayed in a really nice cottages and had lunch before heading off to the local Saturday market. The market was wonderful! It was a local craft market – there was so much to look at and buy! Clothes, artwork, jewelry, journals, instruments, and more. I bought several pairs of earrings – they’re all made from natural materials like seeds, shells, and palm leaves. I also got some really great art – a slate etching of Ganesh and some framed copper wire art. I would have loved to stay longer, since we were given such a short amount of time there before being rushed off to a dance performance. I was upset that it was poorly planned to have only about 20 minutes there – you can’t bring us to a place like that and expect us to leave so quickly! We had to leave well before sunset though, since we were going to a dance performance in a village. The performance was wonderful to see and all I could do was sit there and think, “wow. I’m actually in a village in India.”

Family photo next to an awesome Banyan tree!

After the performance, we stopped at a store that sold local handmade leather products – and I bought a few gifts as well as a couple things for myself! We had a hodgepodge dinner of street food – I had a dosa (kind of like a thinner hardened crepe) and some pokoras (hard to describe – fried deliciousness – onions and other spices in a fried batter). I went to bed early that night since we had had an early morning and another long day ahead of us. The next day was all about Tagore – we visited the Tagore museum and the many houses he lived in. The museum was okay, but there were so many people and it was not well-laid out, so I didn’t spend much time in there. It was amazing to see how many people were there though – there are so many Tagore fans here, it’s a regional/national obsession. There’s good reason for it though – he was and still is incredibly influential, if not for just the sheer volume of his work but also his philosophy about education and (inter)nationalism. He believed in education for all, and also about learning about other cultures while maintaining an interest and knowledge of  your own. After the Tagore morning, we spent the rest of the afternoon traveling home.

Monday and Tuesday were pretty low-key days full of class. Since Monday was Valentine’s Day, I went on a lovely date with my roommates to a nearby restaurant for some dessert. I had REAL ice cream for the first time here in India, and it was wonderful! And it was great to be out with 3 wonderful ladies – I love my roommates! :)

Yesterday was a national holiday – the birth of the Prophet Muhammad. We didn’t have class, and Madhu had arranged for us to have an art workshop that day. One of our classes here is a 2-credit course on Bengali folk art, which we have been doing through a series of events and workshops. This one was in Krishnanagar, and it was on traditional clay modeling. Arundhati, Sujoy, and Vinayak came along with again – Arundhati and Sujoy have helped to organize nearly all the art workshops. They had also invited the media (they work in PR) because this particular form of clay modeling is a dying art. It was a really early morning – we had to leave around 6:30 am. It was fine drive, until about an hour outside of Krishnanagar – we were in an accident :( a motorcycle hit our bus head-on. It happened so quickly, I didn’t really see what had happened, just a sudden screech on the breaks, falling forward, and seeing the windshield shatter. Apparently what had happened was the motorcyclist was passing (we were in the correct lane), didn’t judge it properly, was out of control and went head-on into the bus. I was in the back of the bus and didn’t see the man, but it was not looking good. Apparently there was a lot of blood – and he was transported to the hospital right away, and they took our driver along with. A huge crowd gathered, yelling in Bengali and it was so chaotic and panicked, we weren’t sure what was going to happen – accidents can have huge angry mobs. Luckily the police were there and it was calmed down quickly. None of us were injured. We’ve heard now that the man survived and is conscious, and that the CT scan was clear but he’s under observation for the next 72 hours and they’ll know his condition then. We’re all really thankful it wasn’t worse, for him and that none of us were injured.

I’m very (pleasantly?) surprised that this is the first accident I’ve witnessed here, even though the traffic is crazy. There’s usually a rhythm to it that keeps cars moving, but there have been several close scrapes that I was sure an accident was going to happen. It doesn’t help that they pass all the time, drive on the wrong side of the road (even the wrong direction on the highway!!), and don’t have seat belts (or if there are seat belts, people still don’t use them, and there’s often nothing to buckle the seat belt into). It was probably the best vehicle for us to be in and the worst for the injured man.

The accident took time – we had to go to the police station (nothing for us, just Madhu and the other program leaders sorting it out) and they had to arrange for alternate transportation for us. We eventually got back on the road (after hearing the motorcyclist had survived). We went to an artist’s house for the clay modeling, which was a lot of fun and it good to have something to do with our hands to redirect our attention and get over the shock of what had happened. We made village woman, Ganesh (a hindu god with an elephant head), and a mask. We were there for quite a while after the workshop ended, since it took so much time to get another bus. The people were wonderful though – so kind and hospitable. They entertained us with song and dance while we were waiting. We had a long ride home – we didn’t get home until a little after 10pm. It was a very long dramatic day, and I’m thankful we’re all safe.

In other news – I’ve found a on-campus job for next year! I’m going to be working as a Career Assistant with CSB Career Services. I’ll be helping students research majors/careers, critiquing resumes, conducting practice interviews, and helping plan/promote Career Service events. I’m really excited about it!  It will definitely be more of a time commitment than my previous on-campus job, but there are also some great benefits for my own career development that come along with it. For example, they have assignments for you to do at work, like update your resume, research a grad school you’d like to attend, research a volunteer opportunity that interests you, etc. I think I will really enjoy it.

And, check out my piece for Pink Pangea! :) Click here: Scammed in a Kolkatan Cab.

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Another week in India, another week of adventures.

One week ago was Vinayak’s (our host brother) birthday! He turned 13 – big day. We had a family dinner on Friday, and got to meet his aunt and uncle. We had tons of food – and we had made a birthday card for him (just construction paper and crayon) and he hung it up on his wall! So cute. He got the presents he wanted too – new cricket clothes, a new stamp book, and some valuable stamps (he’s really into stamp collecting! If anyone sends me mail, I’m obligated to give the stamps to him). On Saturday, we went to his favorite restaurant for lunch, Bar-B-Q, and had some of the most amazing Chinese food I’ve ever had! We had soup, wontons, some vegetable and pork heavenly mixtures. I even tried eating with chopsticks, and didn’t do too bad. It was nice to have a family lunch. Afterward, Brynn and I went out to meet some Indian friends afterward, and we just went to a shopping center (seems like some of the friends we made just really like to shop in their free time). It’s nearby our house and has lots of crafts – I think I’ll go back and pick up a few things that caught my eye. On Saturday night, we went to the only place we’ve heard of that serves beef! It’s a bar called Olympia, but it’s called OlyBar for short. Everyone really wanted to try it to see what it would be like – and I quickly changed my mind about getting it once we got there. This bar was really gross. It was a grimy  dingy hole-in-the-wall place with a funky smell that will make you lose your appetite. Plastic chairs for seating, and a cat hanging out on the second floor…which is fairly typical for some places in India, but combined with the gross smell and the wripped up carpet and water served in old whiskey bottles…I was not inclined to eat anything. I just had a beer and some French fries – and I was really glad I didn’t order the “steak.” I had a bite of someone else’s and it was gross – definitely not the right texture and not tasting good. Some people thought it was okay…but I’m glad I didn’t order it. UGH.

We went to this big music festival on Sunday, the Sufi music festival. There were artists from all over India and other countries. It was nice that there were big screens out in the field, which meant I could sit farther away (with my very sensitive hearing…if I sit too close, I will get sick with an awful migraine) and still see the singers. Nearly everyone in our group went, which was a lot of fun – and we all ended up staying over at Danny and Michael’s house! Since the music festival was in Salt Lake (about an hour or more away with traffic), we were not so inclined to have to leave the festival early to get home. I think the original idea was for it to be a Super Bowl sleepover, but that idea faded as soon as we realized it would be at 3am for us and we didn’t have a reliable way to watch it. Instead, we had a little rooftop party and it was a lot of fun!

Monday was a low-key day. We were tired from our sleepover, so we were glad we just had 2 periods of class. Class was not very interesting. The lecture style is just not engaging. And Elizabeth got called out by the teacher in class for eating a little bit of her sandwich. The teacher was surprised to learn we are able to have snacks at CSB/SJU, but just wanted to inform us it’s not acceptable here. The students are really not treated like adults here, and it’s very hard to get used to. After class, we relaxed by watching Mulan – which was great! I spent the rest of the night filling out applications for on-campus jobs for next year (what?? how am I already applying for stuff for next year, my SENIOR year??).

Tuesday was a Hindu festival called Saraswati Puja, so we didn’t have school. It’s a festival that celebrates learning and the arts, though you are not allowed to study and classes are cancelled (oh, India…). There are huge celebrations with worship of an idol of the goddess Saraswati. This day also marks the beginning of spring, and yellow is a very auspicious color. Arundhati brought us to a family friend’s house, and we got to wear a sari!! :) It’s really fun to wear one – but they are so complicated to wrap and wear! I definitely wouldn’t know how to put one on by myself. I uploaded a video onto Facebook to show everyone how it’s done! You wear a short lightweight skirt underneath, called a petticoat, and the fabric is folded, tucked, and pleated into this petticoat and arond the body. One of the servants, Bijoli (we love her!) helped us, and she pinned it in a few spots, which helped a LOT. I would like to buy a sari at some point, but I would need to practice a LOT before I would be able to put it on without help. Brynn went to a ceremony with a friend, and Elizabeth, Ashley and I went with Arundhati and Vinayak to their friend’s house. The house is unique – they have converted the whole first floor to a big studio that can be used for music and dance and other arts (the family is really into the arts). There was an idol of Saraswati made out of paper (atypical of idols) and we were able to watch/participate in the puja. I didn’t understand a lot of it, but Arundhati explained some of it to us. There was a lot of chanting and offering flowers (marigolds are always used in religious ceremonies here). They also burned incense and used the smoke to bless themselves. We ate food afterward, and drank some of the holy water. It was very interesting to see, and I really don’t have anything to compare it to in my religious background. After that, it was a bit boring but I chatted with Vinayak. We didn’t do much after we came home, just relaxing and reading – and I am really loving The Omnivore’s Dilemma!

On Wednesday, we also didn’t have class. I’m not entirely sure why, but I think it was part of Saraswati celebrations. We got up early for a small excursion Madhu had planned – a boat cruise down the Hooghly river. It was pretty nice – the river wasn’t as polluted as I was expecting, as it’s a tributary of the Ganges, but it’s still incredibly polluted. It was pretty relaxing – I even dozed off a little bit. We pulled over after a few hours and got off at Belur Math, the headquarter of the Ramakrishna Mission. It was founded by Swami Vivekananda, who practiced a number of religions and came to the conclusion that all religions are true and there is no one path to get to God. We saw a few temples before getting back on the boat. There was nothing planned after the boat ride, so a few of us walked to the nearby Eden Gardens and played cards for a little while before heading home.

Yesterday, we decided to take advantage of our free morning before our classes at 1pm, and went to Loreto. We were told we can just go to Loreto whenever now, but the staff was not expecting us to come. We were told we could go upstairs to the Rainbow room where the Rainbows were being tutored – and so far I have not enjoyed that experience so much. Some of the older students come and tutor the Rainbows, who don’t speak very much English. I only know a couple words in Bangla, so I can’t participate in the tutoring so much…so I end up sitting there and watching. It’s not very fulfilling to me – I would prefer to do something that would actually help. I ended up sitting next to 3 little girls who didn’t have a tutor – and they were being pretty rowdy. They were okay at first, but got rowdy to the point of hitting each other. I know no Bangla to tell them to stop and behave, so all I could do was say “nah” (no) in a stern voice with stern looks. It was not all that effective, and the time passed very slowly and I was getting frustrated, but I knew these children really needed attention. Soon after, they were all asked to assemble and went off to other classes, and we were left with nothing to do. We finally found Sangeeta, our coordinator, who was flustered as always but finaly found a job for us – to watch a class of 6-yr-olds. Apparently the teacher (and others) was not there, for whatever reason, so several classrooms were there unsupervised. When we came in, they were all working more or less quietly on a worksheet about numbers. They all called us “Miss” – “Miss, may I use the toilet?” “Miss, may I drink water?” It was going well, up until break time, when they had a 20-minute break to eat and play and they came back very rowdy. They wouldn’t sit down, it was difficult to get their attention, and they knew we didn’t know what we were supposed to do with them anyway. We tried teaching them “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” with some success before we had to leave. I hope they don’t have many days very often that teachers are missing.

After Loreto, we had another unengaging sociology class and Madhu’s class was more asking questions about logistical things. After class, we had to go renew our internet data card, and it was an ordeal. We had gone the day before, but the man didn’t really understand and told us to come back the next day. When we came back the second day, they said we couldn’t recharge our card there but had to go to another store nearby, and once we arrived there he said he could only recharge one! It’s always something here. After a bit of confusion, we finally got them recharged. Hopefully next month will be easier. Today was just a bit of our society and history class – talking about the ideology of “the West” versus “the Rest,” and how India made modern Britain. It was very interesting to hear “the West” from the other side – the perspective we are not taught or exposed to. It makes for some very interesting discussion, and I’m glad to be challenged in my views of the world. I’m starting to learn how much of an impact India’s history of colonization still has today.

This weekend, we are going to Shantinikaten! It’s a village community outside of Kolkata, and our family is coming along with us. It’s a huge cultural center, and is known for being the place of Rabindranath Tagore – India’s most quoted author. This man was incredible – a poet, playwright, novelist, essayist, composer, and painter – who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1913. He wrote the national anthem, and also Bangladesh’s national anthem. I honestly think I hear someone quote him or talk about him every day – they are very proud of him. I haven’t read any of his works yet, but it’s only a short matter of time.

And, my newest piece for the Lost Girls is up! Check it out: What to Wear in India: 5 Tips for Travelers.

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What a weekend! Last weekend was our 5-day group excursion to North Bengal and the Himalayas (here it’s pronounced him-ALL-yas) – and it was just what I needed. I wish we could have stayed longer.

We left Friday morning for the excursion – which started off with an hour and a half long taxi ride to the airport (Kolkata traffic…). We had a short flight from Kolkata to Bagdogra, just less than an hour-long flight. Once in Bagdogra, we were off to Chilapata Jungle Camp and we were originally told it would take about 3 hours to get there….try doubling that. Oh, India. It was about a 5-6 hour drive, but it was nice that we were not in a big tourist van but instead in 3 Jeep-like vehicles. The roads were pretty comfortable, only the usual bumps from poorly paved roads. We arrived at the jungle camp around dinner time – and it was a very nice camp, in the middle of rural villages full of rice paddies and surrounded by dense jungle forests. We stayed in individual hut-like cabins on stilts, which were very nice (but cold at night without heat! I slept in all my layers). Since we arrived so late that first night, we didn’t do much more than have a leisurely dinner and go to bed. I caught up on some reading for class before going to bed early, since we had an early morning ahead of us for our excursion into the jungle!

6am came quickly the next morning, when the doorbell rang for bed tea. Hot masala chai (which I am quickly becoming addicted to) was wonderful when it was so cold in the morning, but at the same time we could have stayed longer in the warm bed! We bundled up since it was so cold out and started off on the safari. We were looking for wild elephants, and any other interesting wildlife. We were driving for a little bit before Haley spotted two elephants! Our driver was driving too fast at the time (how are we supposed to spot the wildlife then?? his fast driving quickly became annoying), so we had to reverse and didn’t have the best view of the elephants. Wild elephants are not like at the zoo, where you can see the whole elephant. These elephants hid back in the forest, so we were quite a distance away and not at a good vantage point for taking pictures. All the pictures I tried to take ended up looking like leaves and kind of a gray blob in the middle of the leaves. It was incredible to be in the presence of truly wild elephants though! As we drove along the rest of the morning, we spotted a rhino in some tall grass – but the grass was so tall we could only see the top of its back. It was so wonderful to be out in nature, away from the noise and the crowds of the city. This weekend confirmed my belief that I need to live somewhere with some nature – I don’t necessarily have to live in the wilderness, but I don’t want to live in a huge city. We were out for about 3 hours before returning to camp for breakfast of toast and eggs. Madhu then gave us some options for the rest of the morning – to go birdwatching, to visit the villages, or to bike ride.

I chose to go bike riding, along with Elizabeth, Brynn, Kia, Abbey, Jennifer, and a guide from the jungle camp. It was WONDERFUL – one of my favorite parts of the whole weekend. It was so nice to be on a bike in the sunny weather, and we biked through many of the villages. It was amazing to see that rural rustic lifestyle as we biked through rice paddies, tea gardens, mustard flowers, and all sorts of vegetable plots. As we biked through the villages, I had kind of an eye-opening revelation to see people actually living like this. I realized that these people have to work so hard for literally everything they have. They have no machines to help them grow their food and build their houses – it’s all hard manual labor. As we were biking through the rice paddies, I realized that I don’t even know or understand how rice grows and the process of harvesting it. To me, rice comes in a bag in the store. When I thought about it more, I realized that I don’t really know how most of my food gets to my table – I can just go to the grocery store and get whatever I want, even if it’s not in season. I think it’s pretty sad that I don’t know where my food comes from or the work it takes to produce it. So now, I’ve taken a new interesting in learning about where my food comes from and sustainable eating. I’ve already started on my food education by buying a book called The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan. Anyway – in addition to realizing all how hard people work here (not just in the villages) in India, I also realized how resourceful and resilient these people are. They find solutions with so little to work with. On a similar note, most everything here first fulfills a functional or practical purpose. Most things are in a constant state of slight disrepair here, but as long as it still works and fulfills its original function, all is well.

Our bike ride lasted about 2 hours, and it was so wonderful to be outside and getting some exercise. After lunch, we had a short rest before heading out for our second excursion. The second excursion was about the same as the first, but we saw more elephants! It was also nice just to stop and listen to the silence. We had afternoon tea with pokoras afterward (my 3rd cup of tea that day!) and relaxed with everyone through dinner and caught up on some more class reading before calling it an early night. We got up early to leave the next morning for another long journey to Neora Valley in the Himalayas. It was another 5-6 hour car ride on bumpy roads – but the scenery was beautiful. The tea gardens are very picturesque, as are the mountains. The actual climb up the mountain (over 6,000 ft) took well over an hour, and I was glad I had taken my motion sickness medication. You know you’re in the mountains when you’re on one-lane winding roads and if you don’t feel like throwing up, you feel like you’ll fall over the edge at every teetering turn. The best and worst part of the drive was the last part, going on the road to the Neora Valley Jungle Camp. It was a road in the widest sense possible – not even gravel, but jagged rocks that literally bounced you out of your seat without anything to hold you down (no seat belts, of course). The driver couldn’t drive very quickly then, and one of the tires on the other car popped! We walked the rest of the way to the camp – which was great! We stayed in individual cabins that slept four – one big bed, a loft with another bed, a bathroom, and two balconies! They were wonderful – except for the fact that there was no heat and only a few lights. The views were spectacular, but it was a weird combination of evergreen trees kind of like home and giant jungle plants, like ferns that were bigger than me. We all went out for a short hike right away while we still had daylight, hiking through the jungle until night fell. We had a great dinner (all the dinners there were amazing!) and spent most of the night in one of the rooms having some group bonding :) What happens in the Himalayas…stays in the Himalayas…

Next day was our last full day of the trip that wasn’t full of travel – and we spent most of the morning on a long hike. We set off down the mountain on the road to go to a waterfall. Walking on the roads was challenging enough, since you can’t take your eyes off of where you are placing your feet. It was beautiful – and once again, so nice to be out in nature. It took a long time to get to the waterfall – a few hours, and the last part was a really steep concrete path – but it was worth the long hike! We took tons of pictures and relaxed a little before hiking back up the path, which was so difficult – I was definitely sore for a few days afterward. Luckily, we didn’t have to hike all the way back up to the camp, which would have taken several more hours. We took the cars instead so we could get back for lunch before we headed off to Lava, a nearby town.

In Lava, we went to see a Buddhist monastery. It was beautiful, though we didn’t have a very extensive tour. It also made me want to learn more about Buddhism, since I only know the very basics. Buddhism was started in India and used to be very popular, but now it’s a minority religion. We had the opportunity to see some of the monks saying some prayers – it was so different and interesting since I come from a very different religious background with little to compare this to. We spent a little time in town before heading back – but on our way back, we stopped in one of the small villages to taste a local beer. It was great – this family took us into their home to have this local millet beer – they soak the millet all day, put it in these bamboo mugs with a bamboo straw, and you add hot water. It was actually really good! It taste like beer, just without the carbonation. It’s a common drink there in the winter and even kids drink it to warm up (it’s not very alcoholic). We went back to camp for an amazing Chinese food dinner and spent the night having a great talk with Kia! She has an amazing story to her life.

We left the next morning, and everyone was sad to leave. The weekend was the getaway I really needed – to get out of the city and into fresh air, silence, and open spaces. It seems like we didn’t do a lot when I describe it, and in some ways we didn’t but that’s not what we needed. It was a long day of travel back to Kolkata, and I was crabby to be back in the crowded and noisy city. Wednesday was back to class – though this study abroad has not really required much of the “study” part. We had our first class of the sociology course we signed up for, since the teacher was finally back from being gone at professional training for the past month. The teacher seems nice, and it’s nice to finally be in the right class – but I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to the teaching style here! All the classes seem to be the same – straight lecture, no discussion, and the material is the most general and broad possible. The teacher repeats him/her self all the time – they will literally repeat the same thing 5 times. There is no critical thinking, and I’m not sure how homework works here. So far, no teacher has assigned reading…so I’m not sure if the students are given a reading list to read outside of class on their own time? It’s rare that anyone asks questions. It’s hard to shake this high school kind of atmosphere – and it looks like it will be up to us to ask question to make the courses more interesting. It’s just a challenge to adapt to this different method of teacher, when our classes at CSBSJU are all about discussion, interaction and critical thinking. After class, we went to Kolkata’s famous annual book fair. We took a city bus to get there, and were pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t too crowded or dirty. Buses are hard to figure out here – they don’t really have official stops like at home. The buses kind of stop in the middle of the road, and you literally have to jump on. A man comes around and you pay the fare to him to get the ticket. The book fair was a bit overwhelming – like MN’s State Fair, but all books. It was very crowded, but I enjoyed it after I realized that you just have to shove your way into the store and firmly plant your feet where you want to browse. I ended up buying 3 books – The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Being Indian, and a handbook to Hindu mythology. It’s funny – the book fair has a theme every year (though I didn’t see the theme played out very much), and this year’s theme is the U.S.A! They had a replica Capitol building and some American flags, which was funny to see.

Yesterday was a great day – we found out late that we only had one class! Turns out our sociology classes were canceled, and Madhu was canceling her class to take us to the book fair, which was optional. Seems like we may never have a reliable schedule here! Next week, we have Tuesday and Wednesday off for Saraswati Puja, and Hindu festival that celebrates learning. Our only class was one hour of Bengali, where we learned some words for body parts. Bengali is so different from any other language I’ve learned! It’s very difficult to make the sounds, and most of their letters of the alphabet are difficult for my ears to distinguish the subtle differences. After our class, we had the rest of the day ahead of us, so we decided we would try to make chocolate chip cookies! Arundhati said she wants to learn how to make foods that we eat at home, and chocolate chip cookies were at the top of the list. Vinayak, our host brother (whose birthday is today! he’s 13), went shopping for ingredients with us. He’s just adorable and we love spending time with him. He’s very proper and polite, and every once in a while we get him to break out of his shell a bit more. He makes us laugh all the time and we just think he’s adorable. It was interesting shopping for ingredients – it was difficult to find white flour, there are no chocolate chips, no brown sugar, and no baking soda. We bought chocolate bars and broke them up into small pieces, substituted honey for brown sugar, and instead of baking soda they use a combination of baking powder and khabar soda. They also don’t have/use measuring cups, so we had to eyeball the amounts, and the little toaster oven is in Celsius! We could only bake 6-9 cookies at a time since the oven is so small, but…they turned out AMAZING!! We were so happy! They turned out really close to what we make at home, and they are delicious. It was so nice to have that taste of home, and continued by making brownies, which also turned out well. The family was so appreciative of the treats, and gave us so many compliments! Our host family is so wonderful.

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