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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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Namaste, everyone!

It’s hard to believe I left home exactly a month ago. In a couple days, I will have been here officially for one month! AGH! Even weirder, I was in France 2 months ago. This is just a crazy year of my life. I feel like I haven’t even been able to really process France yet because I haven’t had time. I realized that yesterday, as I was showing pictures and telling some Europe stories to Brynn…and she’s the first person I’ve shown pictures to and told stories to! I didn’t have time while I was home, plus I was mostly with my family and Karl who basically knew what I did while I was in France.

I am feeling much better. I started antibiotics the day after my last blog post, and they made me feel better right away. It was hard eating the following few days, and I definitely didn’t want Indian food! Being sick really made me homesick too – I just wanted to be home with the people who love me and with my mom’s food! Indian food is such an adjustment. I don’t hate it, it’s just hard to eat something so different from my normal diet at home and that’s all there is to eat here. Our host mom is a really good cook…but it’s just an adjustment to having rice at every meal and some vegetable mixture and a lot of fish. With the exception of 2 nights ago, I can’t remember the last time I had meat. Last night, Elizabeth made dinner (veggie stir fry) and our host mom said she wants to learn some cooking from us! She says she not very good at making pasta and has never made cookies and wants to learn how to make bread – it’s going to be great teaching her. Of course, she’s going to be teaching us some Bengali cooking in return. She was actually very sweet when I was sick – the day I stayed home I was by myself and feeling very homesick and my roommates were all gone. I was having tea, and Arundhati came home from work and was sitting with me. I started to get a little teary, and she gave me a big hug and took me upstairs with her and we just  talked for a few hours. We all had dinner together as a family, and watched a little television. They are a wonderful family, and I feel very fortunate to be living with them and such great roommates.

I have barely had any class. Last week, we only had a few classes and then I was sick on Thursday and stayed home. On Friday, we didn’t really have class. Our teacher on Friday is also the vice principal of St. Xavier’s and she was busy preparing for a big festival this past weekend, so she didn’t have class but had us watch a movie instead. We watched the movie Gandhi, which was pretty good. We haven’t had class this week yet, and I’m not entirely sure why we had Monday and Tuesday off but today is a national holiday, Republic Day. We’ll have class tomorrow, and then Friday we leave for our trip to North Bengal. We’ll be gone until Tuesday, so no class again until Wednesday! After that, I think we will finally have a regular routine of having class…but who knows. Things are so unorganized here, I never what’s going on each day. For example, this weekend we are going to North Bengal and are supposedly going to the Himalayas, but I have no idea where we are going and what we’re doing. Madhu, our director, always has about 8 million things going on in her head so it’s best if we just remain on a need-to-know-basis so she has time to sort everything out. It really seems like we will barely have class here, since we aren’t even actually starting classes until February, and then we will finish classes by about mid/end of April. So that’s about 2.5-3 months of class. It’s nice to have such a relaxing semester, but it would be nice to have a routine here! It makes getting adjusted that much harder.

We had an orientation at the place where most of us are going to be volunteering, Loreto Day School. It’s a school here in Kolkata for girls – half of their students are paying students, and the half who do not pay come from very poor families. Another group of students live at the school – they may or may not attend class at the school, but they came from off the streets and live there and they are called the Rainbow kids. This place is so amazing – it has about 20 programs, and it’s run by Sister Cyril, an AMAZING woman. The whole philosophy about the place is amazing – more about solidarity than charity. If they see the need for a program, they don’t wait for the money and logistics to start it, they just do it. They train teachers who don’t have the time or money to attending a teacher training college, they send teachers into the rural areas, the urban slums, the brickfields, and the fishing communities (all communities where children are not really allowed the opportunity to go to school), they lend money to local people to help them with businesses, they search out hidden domestic child labor, they have special ed students, they have a home for elderly people….the list just goes on and on. Sr. Cyril just sees the need for help and just makes so much good out of it, it’s amazing! We are mostly going to be working with the Rainbow kids, so it seems…but since we’re here for so much longer, we will also get to visit some of the other programs like going to the rural villages, going to the brickfields, or helping with the hidden domestic child labor. It’s so great to be able to be a part of this inspiring organization. When we were there, we just had a tour of the place and then sat with the rainbow kids for a while. I sat with a little girl named Priyanka, who was practicing writing English (the normal students come up to help teach/tutor the rainbow kids…more enforcement of the solidarity, not charity). She was very cute, and doesn’t know how old she is. She doesn’t speak much English, but she was so excited to teach me a little Bengali! She was teaching me how to count to 10 in Bengali. I’m not sure how we’re going to fit in there yet, but I hope it will be good.

There have been a lot of frustrations lately, and it makes it that much easier to feel homesick. India is just very intense, and it’s full of contradictions and extremes that are hard to understand and process. Being in class is supposed to help us understand India a bit more, but we’ve barely had any class! I’m trying to not be homesick, but it’s a struggle. It’s hard having 2 semesters abroad back-to-back, and I miss campus a lot more this semester. One second I feel like I love it here and am so happy I’m here, and the next second I don’t know how I’m going to survive here for the next 4 months. At times, May feels very close and other times it feels very far away. Part of the reason that makes India so hard is that it’s difficult to fulfill basic needs. It’s hard to sleep here, because the mattresses are literally rock hard and there’s tons of noise at all hours of the day; you can’t wash away the stress with a nice long hot shower, because you use a cup and a bucket to bathe; it’s hard to eat, because the diet is so radically different from home and your stomach is freaking out from bacteria and from the spices and doesn’t know how to digest this food that you never eat at home; it’s hard to find bathrooms, and they are rarely ever hygienic in the least; you’re always sick with something, if it’s not stomach upset, it’s something else – I’m congested with a cold now that my stomach troubles are over for the moment. On top of that, safety is a constant concern because we are women, foreign, and don’t speak the language. It’s unsafe to be out past 10pm for sure – 8:30pm is considered late. It’s just such a different atmosphere coming from college and from France when you can be out as late as you want. In France, we would leave at 11pm and come home at 3am. Here you HAVE to be home by 11pm. People always stare at us – we are getting really used to it now, but some of our new Indian friends have commented that people stare at us all the time. It’s just something you get used to, and you get used to them taking pictures of you too. Most people (men our age and little kids usually) will say “hello ma’am how are you?” about 10 times in a row since that’s the only English they know. It is a bit draining to have to be constantly on your guard about your safety – especially around men, and even more so at night. You also have to be really assertive with cab drivers. Kolkata is NOT easy to navigate, which is another hard thing to get used to. We can confidently go to school/the street our school is on and back, and a few other places like the mall and other places near our house, but other than that we need specific directions. It’s so hard here because the streets are not at all a grid, and they have 2 names – a newer Indian name and an older British name – and some streets are known better by one name more than the other, and some maps only have one name or the other, and on top of that the one-ways change directions at certain times of the day. Sometimes cabs will offer us a ridiculous price and refuse to turn on the meter, other times the cab drivers just refuse to pick up people. I still haven’t taken the metro yet, but my roommates have. One day we were going to take the metro but couldn’t because we literally couldn’t fit another body into the car.

It’s also hard to constantly be spending money. It was like that in France too, and certainly more expensive than here, but I didn’t have to spend money on the weekdays in France. During the week, I lived/ate/went to classes in the same place; weekdays are where I spent my money traveling and everything and managed a pretty good budget. Here, things are cheap – Rs 200 is $5, and you can get a lot of things for Rs 200 depending on what you’re buying. The only problem is when everything is “only $5” you end up spending so much more because it’s “only $5″…but then each $5 you spend, it adds up really quickly. Here we have to spend money on transportation a lot – if we ever want to go someplace, you have to pay to get there, spend money wherever you are, and then pay to get back. Since things are so cheap here, I need to start making a better budget. It’s also hard deciding on entertainment outside of the house because it takes a long time to get anywhere because of traffic and because Kolkata is so spread out. It takes 45 minutes to visit our friends who live in Salt Lake, a residential area of North Kolkata. Sometimes we can’t go out because it wouldn’t be worth it by the time we get there. I feel like I’ve been sitting at home a lot lately (doesn’t help that I was sick for a few days last week) but a lot of times it just doesn’t feel like it’s worth the hassle of going out, and we have to really plan ahead to go out because we have to be back so early.

It is getting better though because we’re starting to make Indian friends! We haven’t met very many yet because we haven’t had a lot of class time, but I met a girl in class named Satakshi. I talked to her one day in class, where she gave me her phone number and was super nice. I didn’t get to sit next to her the next day, and we weren’t in touch at all until yesterday. I was at the mall with Elizabeth, and she saw me there and we talked for a little bit, and later that day I got a text from her inviting us out to lunch and a movie today! It was great, and she brought along another girl from our class, Raddhima. Students are really nice here, and it’s like instant friendship. You can talk to them one day in class and they will give you their number right away and say, “Call me if you need anything, and I’ll show you around”…and the best part is they actually mean it! Satakshi and Raddhima are already planning on taking us to all these other places. People are so welcoming and so nice here, which is great. It’s really nice to be with students who can show us around and who speak the language!

When I was at the mall the other day, I got some mehndi! We call it henna at home, but here henna means something different. Apparently the mall is the place to get it done. They have several people there, and you pick the design you want. Mehndi is from ground henna leaves, which you apply to the skin and it dyes your skin. At the mall, the artists use a paper funnel with a very fine tip to apply it – and it reminded me of icing a cake. The artists are very talented, and very quick! My design only took about 3 or 4 minutes. Once it’s applied, you have to let it dry for about 15 minutes. Then you have to wait 2 hours before you can scrape the dried mehndi off your skin. After that, your skin is dyed. You can’t touch water for 5-6 hours, and the color darkens over the next 12 hours. The dye lasts for about 10 days to 2 weeks and slowly fades. Here, it’s traditional for Hindu brides to have their hands and feet decorated with mehndi for their wedding – and they say the darker the mendhi appears on your skin, the more your husband loves you. Now it’s not only for brides – anyone can get it done! I plan to have it done a few more times – and go all out the last time and get both sides of my hands done.

Other than that, I’m still writing for the Lost Girls and my first India piece is posted! Check it out: 8 Things You Should Know Before You Go to India. I’ve also decided to start contributing to another travel website, called Pink Pangea. I think I will have more time for writing here, and there is so much I could write about – the only hard thing is trying to describe everything! It’s so hard to put this experience into words, and I’m starting to realize that I have learned a lot more already than I think I have. At the same time, I feel like the more I learn, the less I know.

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As I write this, I’m sitting in bed drinking rehydration salts. They don’t taste very good. After about a week of feeling great, I’m now back to being sick. Not sure with what this time – it started yesterday after lunch, a general discomfort in my stomach. It later turned to stomach pain and uncontrollable heart burn, until I eventually threw up and spent the night tossing and turning from stomach pain. Today, I’m feeling a little better but decided it would be best to take it easy – perfect opportunity for a blog update.

It’s funny how the doctor/medicine works here – very different from home. Here, it seems like no matter what you’re sick with, they throw some anitbiotics at it first to see if that will solve the problem. They hand out antibiotics like candy here – all you have to do is go to the pharmacy and ask for it. Sometimes they will ask for a doctor’s name, but that’s about it.

Over the past week it feels like so little and yet so much has happened. I haven’t had much class yet – we figured out new class schedules on Friday, only to have them changed 2 more times. We had our society and history class on Friday, and it was a little more interesting than the other classes I’ve had so far. That class is just for us, so it can be tailored more to help us understand.

This weekend, my roommates and I headed out to see the South City mall. We walked there and ended up walking through a great market of clothes and bags and other crafts! It was great – we are definitely going to have to go back to do some clothes shopping. The mall is nice – just like being in America, but with some different stores. I didn’t get anything but enjoyed looking around, and some of the other girls got some henna done. We went to Kia and Kathryn’s house afterward to hang out for a while and have dinner. Their place is so different from ours – it’s much smaller, a little apartment. It was cozy and cute though, and it was fun hanging out with everyone playing cards. We actually ordered pizza for dinner – Pizza Hut! It’s weird sometimes the collision between East and West here and how much American influence there is. (The Pizza Hut wasn’t very good though).

We had an awful experience trying to get home though. It’s hard to deal with being such an obvious foreigner and not being able to blend in, and cab drivers are the most at-ready to take advantage of this. It’s difficult not knowing the city so well. It’s not easy to navigate, and the streets have 2 names and change directions at certain times of the day. Our host dad usually gives us a route and a map each time, which is very helpful, but if the driver starts to take a different route, we don’t know how to get back on the right route. So, from Kia and Kathryn’s house we hailed a cab and were happy enough to get a driver that would start the meter. All we had to do was drive straight and take a left, but the driver immediately gave a little detour. We finally got him back on the right road, but he was driving very slowly. After we had been driving for a while, we realized we had overshot the turn onto our road, so we had him pull over and called our host parents to talk to him. He talked on the phone for a while and kept repeating the same things. He pulled a U-turn and then stopped the car and got out. We had had enough by then, so we got out as well and started to walk away (not the best idea). He came after us and we drew a bit of a crowd – we couldn’t argue with him because he didn’t speak English, so we paid him a little money and left. We later found out from Arundhati that when she was speaking to him on the phone, he was pretending to not know where he was and that he didn’t speak Hindi and was instead using a dialect from a small region far away – luckily a dialect that Arundhati understands. I’m so frustrated with getting scammed by cab drivers! We also found out a new scam the other day – while we were waiting in traffic, our driver pulled out a wire and starting moving it to increase the meter! Luckily we noticed it right away.

We spent the rest of the weekend relaxing and doing homework. This week, we went to class on Monday as per our new schedule we arranged on Friday – only to find out we weren’t supposed to follow that new schedule yet. We’ve been sitting in on random classes in the meantime – not so interesting, and kind of a waste of time. The only good thing about that is that I met a few Indian students! They are really nice and welcoming. I spent a class period writing notes with the girl next to me (reminds me of high school!), but she was really nice and took my phone number and offered to take me around the city.

Other than that, I’ve just been trying to settle in more here. Turns out we won’t really be having class until February – next week, we won’t have class Monday Tuesday or Wednesday because of festivals and holidays, then one day of class on Thursday, and Friday we’ll leave for our trip to North Bengal. When we’re in North Bengal, we’ll be in the foothills of the Himalayas! And by then, I’ll have been in India for a month then….bizarre!

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Namaste, everyone!

I’m in India, and I’ve been here for one full week! I can’t believe that I have been here for only a week though, because I have seen and experienced so much it’s not possible it has all happened in 7 days. My travels here went all according to plan, except once I arrived in Delhi. I arrived after over 24 hours of travel (about 18 hours of that being on a plane) and walked to the arrivals gate where we were supposed to meet Madhu, our director. I didn’t see her there, so I waited in the lobby, as per her prior instructions. I was still waiting there about an hour later, and wondering if anyone was going to be there, and a kind gentleman approached me. He said he had noticed I had been waiting there for a long time, and said I could use his phone to call someone. I called Madhu, and apparently she had gotten the wrong flight information that I was going to be on a flight with about 6 of the other students – and their flight was delayed until 5am! She didn’t want me to take a taxi by myself, especially since the hotel was quite far from the airport – so I had to wait in the airport until the others arrived. Pulled an all nighter and waited in the airport for about 7 hours, but qu’est-ce qu’on peut faire? I passed the time by reading (and finishing) the book my parents gave me for Christmas. I was really happy to finally see the others!

Typical Delhi traffic

One of my favorite things to do here is look out the window when we’re on the bus – there is so much to see!!! I saw so much on the first ride from the airport to the hotel – one of the first things being a group of monkeys crossing the road! Delhi, the capital, has 12 million people there, and I have never been in a place with so many people. There are SO. MANY. PEOPLE. The roads are absolutley insane compared to home – people walking around, animals plodding along, cars honking, people selling things, eating, sleeping, peeing, hanging out. The traffic is just as crazy as it has been described, with what appears to be no rhyme or reason. Traffic can be anything, including cars, buses, bicycles, people, animals, rickshaws, autorickshaws – basically, anything goes. The bigger you are, you get the right of way (unless you are a cow). The honking never stops – but that’s because here, you are only responsible for what’s ahead of you and not what’s behind or to the the side of you. That’s why people merge freely without checking their mirrors – and you honk if you’re coming up along the side of someone to let them know you are there. There are animals everywhere – I don’t think I have ever seen more cows or stray dogs in my life. They roam freely, no one bothers them and they won’t bother you (just watch where you step!). I’ve also seen elephants, camels, horses, goats, monkeys, and peacocks! Navigating the streets is a little stressful – but I’ve learned you just have to look ahead of where you are going and get used to not having any personal space. Delhi also has a lot of smog – so everything is covered in a haze. You can’t see clearly all the way down the road, and my snot has turned black!

Dal, Mixed Vegetables, Paneer, and Naan flatbreadThe food is quite good so far – almost everything comes in a sort of sauce, and it’s eaten with rice and a flatbread. I’ve come to expect spice in every meal, even breakfast! I haven’t really had much that was too spicy to handle, and if it is, you cool the fire with some plain yogurt. I have started to crave fruits and vegetables though, since they haven’t been as readily available and we have been on the road for the past week.

I have been getting more used to standing out as an obvious foreigner (no hiding this pale skin and blonde hair!). People stare at us all the time and take pictures of us – I’ve even been asked a few times to have my picture taken with someone. We are as exotic to them as they are to us. I’m excited to buy some Indian clothes though to not stand out as obviously, and to have some clothes that are more suited to this weather. It hasn’t been very hot yet (60s-70s), but it would be nice to have something a little more breathable than jeans.

We’ve been traveling around a lot before we arrive in Kolkata on Friday. We spent the first couple days in Delhi, and then went to the region of Rajasthan and visited the cities of Jodhpur and Jaisalmer. We took a camel ride in the deserts not far from Jaisalmer – it was a blast! We’ve just arrived back in Delhi, and tomorrow we will be going to Agra to see the Taj Mahal! :) After that, we’ll have one more day in Delhi before we head off to Kolkata. I should be settled in with my host family by Saturday night. I’m looking forward to being settled instead of constantly on the go and doing the obvious tourist things. It will be great to see where I’ll be living for the next 4.5 months! Sorry if this post has been a little all over the place, but it’s difficult to process all that has happened the past week, and even harder to put it into words!

most of us at the Red Fort in Delhi

All of us - Michael, Kathryn, Jennifer, Abbey, Danny, Haley, Bekkah, Kia, Brynn, Elizabeth, me and Ashely. Munu and Madhu, our directors, in the front

Sunset in the desert

and – Happy New Year! 2011 is off to a great start!

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Well. I leave for India tomorrow.

I am completely unprepared for this, and I could definitely use at least one more week at home. I am packed…but how helpful the things I packed will be, I don’t know. I have no idea what to expect. I’m going to live with a bunch of new strangers. I’m not really sure what the plan is at all. Basically, I’m hopping on a plane headed to India and the rest will be a big adventure. Wish me luck. Cheers to the crazy awesome adventure ahead of me!

and by the way, check out my newest piece for The Lost Girls: 5 Ways to Help Cope with Post-Trip Depression

Merry Christmas!

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ten days.

I am now only 10 days away from the craziest year of my life.

What am I getting myself into?

For those of you who don’t know what’s going on, here’s a brief overview:

  • I’m about to spend my junior year of college studying abroad. I’ll be in Cannes, France from August until mid-December, and I’ll be in Kolkata (Calcutta), India from December until May.
  • While in France, I’ll take classes and live at the College International de Cannes with 10 fellow CSB/SJU students. All of my classes will be in French, and I’m even going to be in a play! When I’m not in class, I’ll travel around France and the rest of Europe, drink a lot of wine, sample a wide variety of cheese, and soak up some of that Mediterranean sun. Life will be rough, I know.
  • I’ll be back home in Minnesota in the middle of December, and will be home for about 2 weeks, just long enough to be home for Christmas. Shortly after Christmas, I’ll head to India.
  • While in India, I’ll live in Kolkata with a host family and attend St. Xavier’s College with 12 other CSB/SJU students. My classes there are not necessarily linked to my majors, and I’ll learn about Indian history and culture, Indian literature, and the Bengali language and culture (Bengali is one of the main languages in Kolkata).
  • One of my classes in India will involve volunteering at Loreto Day School, where we will work with the “rainbow kids,” who are underprivileged children, typically from the nearby slums, and attend the school for free.
  • The details for India are still yet to be confirmed, as I am going on the first semester-long trip! In any case, I should be back home in Minnesota in early May 2011.
  • Throughout my travels, I will also write some stories for The Lost Girls, a travel website for women. I will post the links to those upcoming stories on this blog.

(Et aussi, pour mes amis qui peuvent lire français, j’espère avoir une petite partie de chaque blog post en français ! J’ai besoin de pratiquer et maintenir mon français durant mon voyage, et ça sera très utile, spécialement quand je serai en Inde ! J’espère que je ne fais pas beaucoup d’erreur)

I’m only 10 days away from beginning this amazing year! Stay tuned…

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