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Archive for April, 2011

Wow, what an amazing week-long trip to Kerala! It was our last group excursion (sad!) but it was a relaxing vacation in such beautiful places with great people! This excursion took us all around the state of Kerala, which is one of the southern-most states to the west. It was a whirlwind trip of 6 nights in 6 different places through “God’s Own Country” – Kerala’s nickname for its beautiful scenery.

We didn’t do too many tourist things around Kerala, and spent most of the time enjoying the beautiful scenery and relaxing. We stayed in really luxurious hotels – luxury being comparable to a nice hotel in the United States. Clean rooms and soft beds are complete luxuries to us, and our bus was also amazing! In the beginning of the trip, we had buses that were dirty, moldy, smelly, cold, and bumpy…and this bus was impeccably clean with comfortable seats. I’m glad we had such a nice bus since we spent so much time there traveling 4-hour drives for 3 days straight. Every place we stayed also had great buffets of all kinds of food – one morning we even had pancakes!

One of the great parts of the trip was spending a night on a houseboat. Kerala is known for its beautiful backwaters and the houseboats that live on them. I didn’t know what to expect for a houseboat, but definitely not what we had – dining area, bedrooms with separate twin beds, clean bathrooms, and an upper deck for relaxing. We were joking that we were on the Titanic! Luckily it wasn’t too hot, though I think I have adapted well to the climate here. (I am glad I’m missing all the snow back home! Snow at the end of April – yuck!)

Our houseboat!

I also enjoyed seeing the mountainous area of Kerala, where the rolling foothills were covered in tea plants. It was beautiful. We stopped at a tea plantation one day, and had the chance to see how tea is made. The leaves are plucked and then dried, then crushed into various grades depending on how fine you want your tea to be which affects the flavor, aroma and color. The black tea is oxidized, and the green is not. I’ve really come to love tea here, and I was sure to buy some to bring back home with me! We also stopped at a spice garden one day, since Kerala is known for its coffee and spices. It was crazy to see so many different spices in such a small area: coffee, tea, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, pepper, allspice, ginger, cocoa, chilis, and more. There were some I had never heard of that eliminates your ability to taste sugar. You chew it into a paste and then spit it out and for the next 20 minutes or so, you can’t taste anything sweet! Danny and Kathryn also tried a bite of the hottest chili in the world. Judging from their expressions, I was glad I didn’t try it.

The last night was spent on the beach. It was a great beach, and now I can say I’ve swum in the Arabian Sea :)

4 months ago today I arrived in India…and now I have only 10 days left here in India! :( There is so much that needs to happen in the next 10 days – finishing final papers, shopping, spending time with friends and host family, and just taking in this city that has been my home for the past 4 months. There are too many emotions to describe right now – so many things running through my head! I will enjoy these last few days to the fullest!!

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Just a quick blog update before I head to bed – we have an early morning ahead of us since we will be leaving for Kerala tomorrow!

The past week has been pretty low key. We’ve barely had class – just 3 days last week and 3 days this week! We had Thursday and Friday off last week because of holidays, and this week we have Thursday and Friday off for Easter holidays (even though we would miss class anyway for traveling). Last Friday was Bengali New Year. It’s not a celebration like 1 January New Year’s, but a small family event. Our host family had relatives visiting at the time, who were great to talk to. We all dressed up in saris and had a traditional Bengali meal for lunch, served on banana leaves! There was green mango juice for a drink, rice, dal, fried fish, prawns and vegetables, fried potatoes, more fish, a potato preparation, and of course – many many sweets. We had mishti doi (sweetened thick yogurt – YUM) and a few others. Bengalis are known for their love of food, especially sweets! I spent most of the day just working on homework, and Kathryn and Kia came over for dinner before we all went out with our friends Haroon and Atif for some late-night coffee. We’re so lucky we have a program that allows us to meet and spend time with Indian students! :) Saturday was also pretty low key – lots of time spent on my research paper, and then Elizabeth, Danny, and I spent the night at Kathryn’s! It was a great night even though we didn’t do much – watching movies while snacking on popcorn :) We had the most amazing

our amazing breakfast - pancakes, eggs, and hot chocolate!

breakfast in the morning though…PANCAKES! :D Kathryn’s dad had brought along some just-add-water packets of Bisquick with him when he visited last month, so we whipped up some of those and had an American breakfast feast! It was wonderful to get a taste of home.  The next few days were also fairly unremarkable, since I spent a lot of time getting my research paper and other work done so I could completely relax in Kerala this upcoming week :)

Last night was our celebration of Bengali New Year as a group. It was a lot bigger deal than I had expected – I thought we were just performing a little dance in front of our host parents, but there were many more people there! Madhu explained to our guests that this celebration was a culmination of all our efforts and what we have learned through our Bengali folk arts course. Everyone performed a song or recited a poem, and they all were wonderful! The 4 of us recited a Bengali poem (in Bengali! The whole performance was in Bengali) that was a playful piece alluding to how much Bengalis love to eat. After the performances/recitations, we performed a dance as an entire group. We were taught this dance that told the story of a new bride being welcomed into her husband’s home/family. We were all dressed up in saris and assigned roles to enact the story -Elizabeth was the bride, Michael was the groom, Jennifer and Bekkah were the mothers, Haley the elder sister of the bride, Danny the elder brother of the groom, and the rest of us were dancers. In the song and through the dance we bless the bride, admire her jewelry, admire the groom’s attire, sweep a place for them to sit, and just bless and welcome them in general. The dance went off quite well! We didn’t make too many mistakes. We all had a great time – and our guests included host parents, teachers, and art workshop instructors. It was a wonderful celebration, and everyone admired our efforts – they even complimented our Bengali pronunciation!

reciting our poem

The whole group, with Madhu and 2 of our teachers from SXC - Sweta and Rajib

Tomorrow, we’re headed off to Kerala for a week long excursion. It’s going to be wonderful! Kerala is in the southern tip of India on the western side. It’s going to be a busy excursion – 6 nights in 6 different places! We’ll be on the beach, spend a night in a houseboat, see spice plantations and tea gardens, historical monuments, and more. I can’t wait!

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Never thought of India as your next travel destination? In this piece, I give 20 reasons why you should consider it.

Click here to check it out!

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Nomoskar, everyone!

It’s been another week of being busy and not busy at the same time. Classes are pretty much the usual lecture and note taking, the occasional class cancellation. We actually had a test in Bengali last week –  he gave us a sheet of 20 words or so, and we just had to go up in front of him and pronounce the words and know the meaning of a few of them. He gave us 3 tries to pronounce the word correctly and even coached us through it,  so I’m glad we’re all on the same page of having low standards. I’m still struggling with finding the balance of staying in to get work done and going out to have fun – lately, I’ve been staying in a lot and trying to get through my very long to-do list so I can relax in Kerala and not be really stressed out my last week here.
I had a busy weekend though! Thursday was Kia’s birthday, so we all went to her house after school where we had cake and her mom made some really delicious egg rolls as a snack. There was some delicious sweet chili sauce on them – I’m going to have to buy some of that sauce to bring home with me! We went out to eat at a Thai restaurant in South City Mall. The food was really delicious but Brynn and I did a poor job about ordering to share. Kathryn had been there before and told us we could order one dish and share…but i guess that’s only some dishes! The dishes we ordered were delicious, but definitely enough for just one person. We had little mini spring rolls and some dish that was mushrooms and baby corn in a sweet and tangy sauce. It was too bad it was too expensive and we didn’t have enough time to order something else, so I actually got a Subway sandwich afterward! Subway is pretty much the same as it is at home, except that may of the dishes are specific to India – some “aloo” dishes or chicken tikka masala, for example.
Friday was our LAST Friday of class, and our last day of Sheta’s class. She had a speaker for the first two periods of her class who was talking about the history of Kolkata. As usual, it was a lecture and I have realized that I do NOT learn well or retain information that way and need some kind of visual aid to pay attention. It seems that Sheta can’t stand not speaking for more than an hour, because the second period she got up and was cutting off the speaker! They were just talking/yelling over each other – and the best part was when the speaker brought out this map of Kolkata and both were yelling over each other to tell us, “This color means parks! This color means schools!” It was too ridiculous. Later that night, we went out to dinner with our host family to a Chinese restaurant, which was great! It’s so nice to spend time with them, and I had some of the most delicious wantons and honey chicken I’ve ever had!

Saturday was devoted to art workshops – the first was about patachitra, or traditional Bengali folk paintings. They’re painted on a huge long scroll and used to tell stories through song – and the paints are made from vegetables and leaves! The artist told us a few stories first with her very elaborate scrolls – one story about the goddess Durga, another about a fish marriage, and another about the 2004 tsunami. After, we all got to try some painting ourselves! I bought some of her art too (I have such a weakness for the rural handicrafts). I bought myself a painting of the fish marriage and another painting to give away as a gift. We had a dance workshop immediately afterward, which was the first dance class of my life! We learned a dance that told the story of a young bride being welcomed into her new husband’s/family’s home. We had a great teacher who has a lot of fun when he’s teaching, and I think I didn’t dance too horribly. I guess we are going to perform this dance next week for all of our host parents as a way to celebrate Bengali New Year! We’ll see how it goes.

 

 

Sunday was busy too – we spent all morning touring Kolkata. We saw mostly religious worship sites – a ton of churches and a couple synagogues! It was my first time ever in a synagogue. We didn’t see any mosques, because women are not allowed in mosques…lame! We also stopped at a Bengali folk arts museum, which had some really incredible embroidered linens. Women embroidered these bed covers and other household items with such detail and skill – and all the thread came from the borders of old saris. There were also a few examples of patachitra, some clay or metal dolls, and more. We went out to eat for lunch at a Chinese restaurant for a buffet – the first buffet I’ve had here. It was pretty delicious!

some sites around Kolkata on our walking tour

Time is flying by – it’s now less than 10 days until we go to Kerala, and then there will be only 10 days left when we get back!! AGH! How is this happening?! I will already be home one month from today! I’m starting to panic a little having such little time left, and yet it does NOT feel real. It still feels like i will be here for forever. I will be happy to be home, but I know I will miss many things about India. I know I’m just so lucky to have so many wonderful things to look forward to when I come home! I’ll be glad to spend time with my family again, and I will be able to see my grandparents more since they are going to move to Duluth. I’ll be going back to my summer job at Greysolon Plaza, which I love, and I’ll be going to visit Karl in Annapolis just 10 days after I get home. I’m looking forward to being back on campus next year – I have gained an entirely new perspective and appreciation for CSB/SJU!! I’ll be so happy to be back on campus, back to my classes I enjoy, and to see all my friends again! I am so blessed to have so many wonderful things in my life. And of course – one of the most wonderful things has been this year abroad, which I am truly thankful for! Good thing it’s not quite over yet ;)

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Already April 3rd – time is flying! It’s been an eventful week and a half or so. Right now, I’ve just started to unpack from a weekend family vacation to the coast and decided to take a break with a blog update.

Last weekend, we visited the Victoria Memorial – one of the most known monuments of Kolkata. It was completed in the 1920s and was a monument more to the British presence and a symbol of their power in Kolkata and served as a museum.It’s an impressive building – best described as cross between the U.S. Capitol building and the Taj Mahal. There are many galleries inside with lots of artwork, but I preferred the exhibit on the history of Kolkata – there is so much to learn! We spent a few hours there and spent the rest of the day relaxing and teaching Arundhati how to make chocolate chip cookies :) Sunday was an eventful day. We all went as a group to a Jain ceremony – 2 of Madhu’s neighbors are in the process of becoming Jain nuns and she was invited to the ceremony, so she brought all of us along to see what it’s like. I had never heard of the Jain religion before coming to India, and I still haven’t had much exposure to it yet. I’ve read about Jain nuns in one of my books for class – Nine Lives – and it’s incredibly fascinating. I’ll share only what I know, but please don’t think of me as the authority on this and keep in mind that these are monastic Jains and the average Jain is not this rigid in their beliefs. These are Jain nuns, devoting their life to their religious beliefs. The Jain religion is isolated to India, and is most known by its belief of non-violence. Jains believe that there is the spirit of God in every living creature, so one of the main beliefs is no violence. They are strict vegetarians, which also excludes eggs, fish, and root vegetables (because harvesting them kills the plant, and also the numerous microorganisms that live on the plant or in the ground). Monastic Jains also wear masks over their mouth so as not to swallow any insects. They also sweep the ground in front of them as they walk so they don’t step on and kill any living things. They are not allowed to take any form of transportation other than their own two feet. They eat only once a day and only in the daylight so they can see what they are eating. If they find a bug or something in their food, they must drop it and wait to eat until the next day. The monastic Jains take 5 vows – no violence, no stealing, no untruth, no sex, no attachment. The no stealing can go as far as one must ask to use a table to set down something, because if they set down something on the table without asking it’s a form of stealing. The no attachment is also intriguing – they have no material possessions and must detach from personal relationships. This doesn’t mean they live as hermits – they do live in communities. They believe that all attachments cause suffering, and the release from suffering is Enlightenment. They also believe in reincarnation. Once one decides to become a Jain monk/nun, they renounce all their possessions and become a stranger to all their friends and family. At the end of their final ceremony, these women will walk of the ceremonial stage and will never see their family again. If they do, they may be friendly to them but still will be a stranger. The ceremony we saw was the second to last ceremony – and I didn’t understand much of it since it wasn’t in English. There were hundreds of people there, and it was a strange mood. To me, it seemed partway between a marriage and funeral – it was happy and celebratory like a marriage but also a bit somber like a funeral since it’s only another month before these women won’t be seen again by their family and friends. There wasn’t much that actually happened – their cousin was speaking, there were slide shows of the women, and the women sat up front looking slightly uncomfortable on display.

After the ceremony, we all came back to our house for an art workshop. Alpona is an art form that is a paste made from rice and water which is applied to floors and walls for celebrations. It was a lot of fun to draw on the floor and I can’t believe some of the detailed drawings. It’s difficult to be precise at the first go – you have to hold the pouch of rice paste carefully so there’s enough pressure that it won’t be too watery or too thick and so that it will drip down your fingers the right way. I went to go see the movie the King’s Speech on Sunday night – and it was a wonderful movie! I loved it. Colin Firth was amazing – I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to adopt a speech impediment when you don’t have one.

Class was pretty uneventful as usual this week – nothing to report there, except that we’re all feeling a little stressed out with all the deadlines that have seemed to appear out of no where. We knew we would have several assignments to finish before the end of the semester, but the deadlines and expectations weren’t outlined until last week. We’ve all got a lot to do before we head home in another month, and we’re seeing the days count down. The time left is feeling pretty segmented now – we have one full week of class left next week, a few days of class and then Thursday and Friday off, then three days of class before we have a 6-day trip to Kerala. After that will just be another week or so and I’ll be headed home!

Loreto has been okay lately. I’ve kept up on going twice a week for a total of at least 4 hours a week, and I’m getting closer to some of the girls. Durgi has taken to calling me “mama” and many more girls now recognize me and are happy to see me. I’m enjoying spending time playing with them more than tutoring them, since the language barrier is pretty discouraging. I tried teaching one of the girls, Andrea, how to play hangman the other day. It started out okay, but she may not know many words in English or how to spell them yet and she started to get frustrated when she kept guessing letters that weren’t correct. I’ll try again another time with 3-letter words and we’ll see if that’s better.

Drawing with Rosie on my lap

The Cricket World Cup came to a close this week. Wednesday was the semi-final of India vs. Pakistan, and I went to city centre with my friends to watch it. There were so many people there – and their enthusiasm and passion for their team was infectious! India won – and it was great to see everyone celebrating. The final was just last night – India vs. Sri Lanka. It was a tense really close game – and India won!!! It was awesome. And how awesome for us – our first real exposure to cricket is during the world cup and our host country wins :)

The crowd at City Centre for the semi-finals

We left on Thursday night on an overnight train for a weekend family vacation to Puri! Puri is on the coast of the Bay of Bengal, but is an easy train ride away from Kolkata. Our family has been planning this for weeks – and it was hard for Arundhati to contain her excitement. The overnight train was fine – similar to the train we took from Jodhpur to Dehli except it was three-tier sleeper this time and the AC was cranked so high that I had trouble sleeping since I was so cold. Puri was nice – the beach was awesome! It was nice to be out in the fresh air and it was great to swim. There was really nice soft sand, and there were huge waves. Apparently Indians must not have swimsuits or don’t swim very often, because there were very few Indians swimming and the few that were swam in shorts and a t-shirt. We were some of the only women swimming, and of course we were well covered in tank tops and shorts. There were also lifeguards available – in their funny cone-shaped hats – and our family was much less worried if we were swimming with the lifeguard. However, the lifeguard (an older man with just a kind of loin cloth for a swimsuit) hovered so close to us the entire time it felt pretty suffocating. He was never more than 10 feet away, even though we were never in more than chest-deep water. I hate feeling so restricted and feeling like I’m being treated like a child. That was the only downside to the swimming. We also did some sightseeing in the nearby area, to a really famous temple called the Sun Temple (though we didn’t go in since the ticket prices were pretty ridiculous for foreigners) and my favorite stop was in a village. This village was an entire art community – every house was a home and a workshop for whatever craft that family made. I got some great art – some painted coconuts that will become Christmas tree ornaments and an awesome painting/etching on palm leaf. I love buying crafts here! We also just had some great family bonding time – watching the cricket final on TV, hanging out on the beach, dinners out, and teaching Vinayak card games. It was a great weekend, and I’m glad I still have another month to spend with them :)

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