Archive for the ‘Kolkata’ Category

I can’t believe it’s already March, and it’s even harder to believe that my time here in India is half over. Even weirder, that I’ve been in India for a little over 2 months. I have mixed feelings about this trip being half over…but first, an update on what’s been going on the past week.

I had a fabulous weekend! We didn’t have class on Friday, so we took advantage of the day off to explore more of Kolkata. For the first time since I arrived in India, plans were made and they actually happened!! It’s a miracle. We started off the day with going to Tagore’s house here in Kolkata – we all met at the metro (around the same time, and everyone was there! That’s a huge accomplishment in itself) and then walked to his house. His house is now a museum, with lots of art galleries and photos of Tagore. There were a lot of artifacts and quotes, and it was just okay. I still don’t understand why people are so obsessed with Tagore here, but then again, I haven’t read any of his work yet. For now, it sounds like most descriptions of him or his work are very melodramatic. We were all pretty hungry afterward, and headed back to Park Street for a delicious lunch – chelo kebabs at Peter Kat :) We had a little time after lunch before we had to be home for yoga, so we went to the Mother House – Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. It was incredible! Mother Teresa’s tomb is there, and I can’t believe I visited the tomb of someone who is in the process of becoming a saint! There was a really nice exhibit as well, which had lots of information about her life and many of her things like her sandals, letters she wrote, her Nobel peace prize, her wheelchair, and more. She had an amazing life, and I don’t know how you can know you’re life’s calling when you’re 18 and follow it to the fullest. I really respect people who devote their life to God to live in an order or monastery, because I could not live that lifestyle! We also saw her bedroom – a tiny austere room, and they said she never used a fan even though her room was directly above the kitchen (not to mention the Kolkata heat)! Turns out we were there during the time they give weekly Mass, so of course we had to stay for that. Can’t believe I had Mass with Mother Teresa’s tomb right in front of me!

Mother Teresa's tomb

We made it home in time for a great yoga class. I really love yoga. It’s great to take the time to relax and meditate, and I feel like we never make time for that at home with our always-on-the-go lifestyle. It’s no wonder yoga was invented here – they need it to cope with the craziness that is India! After yoga, we had dinner out at a nearby restaurant, Mirch Masala, and had some drinks at a nearby bar. It was a great time and so nice to be out!

We had another big day on Saturday – starting off with visiting the Botanical Gardens. It took a long time to get there (about 1-1.5 hours), but it was great to see the famous Great Banyan Tree. This tree is incredible – it’s basically a forest, yet it’s all one tree. It’s 250 years old and has been in the Guinness Book of World Records! It takes up over a kilometer of space. We had a really long bus ride and metro ride to go to Danny and Michael’s house afterward, and by the time we had lunch and reached their house, it was already 5pm. So much time is lost in transit here!! We watched a great Bollywood movie, called 3 Idiots. It’s was a really long movie, full of slapstick humor and song and dance. You have to suspend the laws of reality and probability and embrace the cheesiness – but I liked it :) We spent Sunday relaxing and recovering after such a busy weekend. It sounds like we didn’t do that much since we only did 2 things each day, but it just takes so much time and effort to get anywhere – it’s exhausting! This week has been pretty good so far – just class and getting some work done. I met a new friend in class, and Loreto is slowly getting better. The past few times I’ve visited, I’ve spent time just sitting and talking to the girls since it wasn’t tutoring time and I’ve enjoyed that a lot more. When I went today, more of them remembered me and were happy to see me, which is a great feeling :) These girls need so much attention, which is really obvious when they turn my face back to them if I look away for even a second. And this time, the girls asked my help for some homework so I felt helpful for once!

So…I’m halfway through my time here in India. I’m not sure how I feel about it, because my feelings change each day. I feel like I’m barely adjusted to living here. Sometimes I think I’m doing really well and I feel well-adjusted to living here, and then something will happen that will throw me off again. It’s very confusing – I go back and forth all the time between enjoying it here and wishing I was home. Sometimes I’m not even sure if I like India, and sometimes I have to remind myself why I even came here in the first place. There’s so much of India that I don’t understand. I feel like I still have a lot to learn, and I know I’m only just barely scratching the surface, even though I’m here for 4 months. Now that I’ve realized I have a little less than 70 days left here, I’m torn between being excited to be home soon and being panicked that I have such a short amount of time left and that I should be seizing every day every moment. I think about home a lot here…it’s partially a coping strategy for India and partially a negative distraction from what I’m doing here. I know the time will pass quickly and sometime in the future I will miss my time here. That’s exactly how France was, which brings in a whole other element to this. It was only 3 months ago that I was still in France. I’m not even sure what I’ve learned and taken away from France yet since I’ve barely had any time to process it. It feels like that was a dream – the reality that France is over still hasn’t really sunk in. I was organizing France pictures the other day, and I can’t believe that it’s already over and it’s all just memories now. I keep trying to compare this experience my experiences in France, which often doesn’t work very well since this is a completely different situation. I miss France already. My life is a constant transition, which is equally exciting and exhausting. India is often so draining, so I find myself often thinking about home and wishing I was back there with the stability and predictability and people I love. I think I’m just feeling study abroad-ed out, or  a little travel weary. I knew it was going to be crazy and I wanted this kind of challenge and I knew what I was getting into, but at the same time I had no idea what I was getting into and that I might be biting off more than I can chew. For a long time, I thought being homesick and thinking about all the good things I have waiting for me at home was a bad thing. But now, I need to not be not be so hard on myself – give myself a break after being away from home for what will be almost 9 months straight. For now, let the roller coaster continue.

Let it be.


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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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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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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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So much has happened since my last post! It’s been a whirlwind as we finished off our 10 day tour with visiting Delhi again and Agra before we headed off to Kolkata to get settled in with our host families and begin attending classes at St. Xavier’s.

Michael, me, and Haley

A little over a week ago, we went to Agra to see the famous Taj Mahal. We left Delhi around 630am for what should have been a 4-hour drive to Agra…but we had a driver who wouldn’t listen to Madhu and insisted on taking us on the backroads instead of the highway. Horribly bumpy village roads that aren’t meant for tour buses, as people were literally bouncing out of their seat. Imagine MN potholes on steriods and covering the entire road. Even if these backroads were a shortcut as the driver was saying, it took more time because we couldn’t drive quickly. Madhu eventually convinced him to go back on the highway, but we were so far off course by then that it probably took more time to get back to the highway rather than just finishing the backroad route. With the stop for lunch included, our 4-hour drive took 8 hours. In addition, the bus was freezing. Literally almost freezing – about 34°F. It wasn’t a very easy bus ride for me, as I had started to get sick the night before with “Delhi belly” – the stomach/intenstinal plague of indigestion and diarrhea. I started to get a fever and chills on the bus as well, so it wasn’t a very comfortable ride.

However, seeing the Taj Mahal was worth the long bus ride and sickness! The second we stepped off the bus, we were assaulted by various peddlers selling Taj Mahal figurines, shoes, bull whips, books, and more. The slightest glimmer of interest will only encourage them, so it’s best to just not even look if you’re not interested. Sometimes a polite but firm “no” will deter them, but others will just pester you more. After making our way through the mass of peddlers, we were on our way to the most famous tourist sight in India! The Taj Mahal is very beautiful with so many intricate designs. We had to wear little shoe covers, thankfully, rather than taking off our shoes like you need to do at many sights in India. There is not a lot to see inside the Taj Mahal, just the tombs in the main central room, and then the surrounding chambers are empty. It was built by emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal after she died giving birth to their 14th child, and their tombs are inside the Taj Mahal. We briefly toured Agra Fort before heading back to Delhi, but Agra Fort was very similar to the Red Fort in Delhi, and I wasn’t feeling well at that point. The coolest part of the tour was a ton of monkeys at the entrance gate!

We spent our last full day in Delhi shopping. On our way to a big craft market, we stopped at the biggest Hindu temple in India. It was amazing to see – literally every surface is carved, bejeweled, or decorated. There are so many Hindu gods and stories, it will take a while to learn even the main ones. The craft market was fun – there’s always so much to look at and buy! We also stopped at FabIndia, an Indian clothing store that’s like the GAP of India. It was nice to buy some Indian clothes, but the experience was a little different than shopping for clothes at home. Luckily, Madhu gave us a brief explanation on Indian clothes and how you wear them, so we had a small idea of what to look for. Since we’re not quite ready for saris yet, we were looking for a kurta (like a long tunic) and churidar (leggings that bunch up at your ankles). Kurtas can also be worn with a salwar (looser pants). The whole ensemble can be called salwar kameez, and can be worn with a scarf called dupatta. In the store, the kurtas are organized by size and length of the kurta (mid thigh, knee) and length of the sleeve. On top of that, there are so many patterns and colors to choose from! It was a little overwhelming, but I ended up buying 2 kurtas. It will be nice to go shopping again to have some more clothes that aren’t so Western and more suitable for the weather here.

Kolkata streets

The next day, we flew to Kolkata and spent the night in a very nice Western hotel, resting up from traveling. The following day, we went to see St. Xavier’s College, where we will be taking classes for the semester. There was a big event going on that day – sports day – and 4,000 students were there! They were there to be in a student parade around the track, representing their majors, and we got to be in the parade. We were our own section with a sign, “Visiting Students – College of Saint Benedict/Saint John’s University – Minnesota.” As if we don’t draw enough attention to ourselves normally (no hiding this blond hair and pale skin), we were officially directing attention to us. It was fine though when people cheered a lot for us. There was actually quite a bit of ceremony for sports day, including speeches from the president of the college, honored guests, and a dance performance. The sports part was kind of like a track meet, with mostly track events but then some other things like tug-a-war between students and teachers. It was more about solidarity than competition. We got a little tour of the school next – 4 floors of classrooms that have pew-like desks. We had our first experience of a kind of street food afterward – a chicken egg roll. They fry a tortilla-like bread in egg and oil, and then roll some chicken, chillies, and onion inside. It was pretty good, but I couldn’t eat fried food like that every day!

Our house!

After our time at St. Xavier’s, we went back to the hotel to have some tea and meet our host parents! I’m living with 3 of the other students – Elizabeth, Ashley, and Brynn – and our host parents were the last to arrive. Arundhati (host mom) and Sujoy (host dad) are really nice! They are very knowledgable about so many things, and they are very excited to share their home, city and culture with us. They own their own PR business, and Arundhati used to work in journalism, while Sujoy used to work in advertising. Arundhati loves to cook and Sujoy is really into history. Their English is perfect and easy to understand, lucky compared to some of the other host parents who don’t speak so much English. They showed us their home afterward, and it’s a stand-alone house. We have the ground floor to ourselves – a hallway with an open wall into the garden where we eat, a living room, and 2 bedrooms with bathrooms. I’m sharing a HUGE room with Elizabeth, and we also have a huge bathroom. We also have a 13-year-old host brother, Vinayak, who is very cute and busy with school and cricket practice. I forgot that it’s common for families to have servants here, so I was surprised when Arundhati introduced us to her “staff” of  3-4 servants. That is something that has been hard to get used to – there is always someone to do each job and we’ve been waited on hand and foot. At hotels, we wouldn’t be allowed to carry our own luggage and could have anything delivered to us at any time. Even here at home, we are served food whenever we like and don’t have to clear dishes, and someone comes in to clean our room. It is sometimes frustrating not being allowed to take care of things ourselves. Life with

My bed and Elizabeth's bed

the family is still an adjustment, since we have only been here a few days and we’re not into a routine yet. They are very nice and love to talk with us, but we still have a kind of formal relationship. For example, they will sit with us while we eat but they don’t eat with us. We haven’t seen the upper floor of the house yet, where they live. We’re not sure if it’s a privacy thing, or a cultural thing, but we haven’t quite been “allowed” to see the upstairs yet. I’m sure it will become less formal as we get to know each other better. It’s great living with these girls though – they are all so nice and we get along really well. We’re getting to know one another really quickly!

Elizabeth in our room

The hallway to our bedrooms, with the garden on the other side of the gate

Vinayak, Arundhati, Brynn, and Sujoy on Brynn's birthday

Elizabeth, Brynn, me, and Ashley

Classes have started (in theory). Because this is the first exchange program, most of the details are not sorted out. It’s been very confusing trying to get class schedules worked out, and the schedule has already changed a few times. I’m taking an elective sociology class here called Indian Institutions, which will be about family, marriage, education, religion and some other topics. Madhu, our director, is teaching our study abroad seminar which will be studying Indian culture through literature. I also have a kind of “India 101” class, and I will be learning a little Bengali language and about Bengali culture. Apparently, the normal teacher for part of the sociology class is on academic leave through the end of January, so I’m not sure if that class will meet until she comes back. I had my first “real” class today – and it was quite a bit different from St. Ben’s. It was the religion part of my sociology class, and there were about 30 people in the class. The students were very friendly. The teacher stood at the front of the class and lectured for the hour, and when she would ask a question, about 10 students would respond at once. Each time a student addresses the teacher, it’s followed by “sir” or “ma’am,” and the students stood when the teacher entered the room. The teacher takes roll, and the classes begin and are excused by the bell – it reminded me so much of high school! The students were very nice, but they seem young even though we are about the same age. Today’s class was not very interesting, as the teacher was talking about things they had studied the previous semester – about different sociologists’ views on religion. I don’t expect there to be much discussion during the semester, which is one of my favorite parts of classes at St. Ben’s. We also had Madhu’s class today, but we did things like paperwork and general discussion of how things are going rather than classwork. It looks like I’m going to be in class quite a bit here, but I’m not sure how much homework we’ll have.

In addition to class time, we’ll be doing some volunteering at Loreto Day School. We stopped by there earlier this week for a little introduction, and it looks like it will be a great place to volunteer. There are several programs to get involved in – you can help during the normal school hours, with the Rainbow kids (who came from off the streets and now live at the school), with teaching in the villages and slums, playing with the kids, and so much more. It’s all started and run by Sister Cyril, an amazing woman whose philosophy is all about solidarity more than charity. I’m excited to learn more about it and what we’ll be doing there.

I’ve started to feel better after taking some antibiotics, and we’re starting to develop a routine and get things sorted out here. It will be nice when we’re more in the swing of things – know the city better, have more Indian friends, and know a little more about the culture!

Just a taste of some of the culture shock and other things I’ve noticed:

  • When you take a taxi here, the meters are really behind the times, so you have to double the meter plus 2. so, a ride of 20Rs would be 42Rs.
  • You must dress very modestly compared to home. You never show leg and must wear a scarf if you have an open neckline. Everything is covered up all the time.
  • Boys walk together with one arm around the other’s shoulder, or often hold hands. It shows friendship.
  • Indian toilets typically don’t have toilet paper. Instead, they use a cup of water to rinse.
  • Indian showers use a cup and a bucket instead of continuously running water. You have to turn on the water heater to get hot water.
  • English is widely used, though with British terms.
  • The streets here in Kolkata have both an old British name and a new Indian name, and streets are known by both and some by only one name. For example, Kolkata (Calcutta). The house our street is on is Garcha (Dover Place). Some maps only have one name, so someone could tell you to go on Harrington Street, when your map will only say Acharya Sarani.
  • India is a country of extremes. On a similar note – when you find one thing to be true, the opposite is also true.

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