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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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Last Saturday was Holi! It’s the Hindu festival of colors that celebrates spring/summer. It also has some ties to Hindu mythology – apparently there are references to the god Krishna playing with all his girlfriends, or gopis, throwing colors at them. Elizabeth and I went to a friend’s house – Bhaswati – on Friday night since it’s not always safe to travel on the morning of Holi with all the people out in the street, especially as a foreign woman. On Holi, many normal social restrictions are broken – you can come up to anyone on the street to shower them with the colors, touching their face, spraying passers-by with colored water, and many people take drugs on Holi. We didn’t want our host parents to worry about us, so we went on Friday night. Saturday morning was the celebration. Another friend, Raka, came over and we all went up to the terrace. First, Bhaswati did a small puja (ritual) by putting some of the red powdered color (gulal) on various idols and pictures of ancestors, as well as on her grandmother’s feet. We all went up to the terrace to play then – throwing gulal at each other or another powder that when mixed with water turned into a clothes and skin staining paint! We moved down to the street to get some passers-by, and some neighbors joined us. It was so much fun – and I wish we had this holiday at home!

 

before

after

On Sunday morning, my roommates and I went with our friends Haroon, Atif, and Adil to Atif’s farmhouse just outside the city. It’s not really a farm – but more like a countryside small cottage with a fenced in area. There’s a lovely vegetable garden, and a variety of tropical plants. It was nice to get out of the city and I had a lot of fun playing soccer and relaxing in the hammocks :)

The rest of this week hasn’t been too eventful. Classes are…still pretty lame and frustrating. It’s so hard that our educational systems are so different – here the students just take down the notes dictated to them and it’s so hard to deal with that when we come from a system where we are allowed to speak our minds and learn as much from our peers as we do our professors. At home, the professor is a facilitator of discussion – the students make the class into what they want it to be – whereas here, the teacher is the ultimate head of authority and knowledge. I am reallly looking forward to getting back to my CSB/SJU classes. We’re actually having a meeting with the administration tomorrow to go over some of our concerns. Though we knew it is the first program and very little was going to be sorted out before we arrived, we thought there would SOME more continuity than this. It’s just frustrating that it seems there is a serious lack of communication between the administration and the teachers and between our school and St. Xavier’s. For example, one of us went in to talk to one of the admins about something in her class, and he made a comment like, “oh, are you taking this course for credit?” The admins apparently don’t even know that we are here as real students who are taking courses for credit and will get grades that will be going back to our college at home as real grades.  And it’s also hard that student expectations are not very clear – at home we get a syllabus that lays out your assignments, what you’re supposed to do, when it’s due, and what you can do to succeed in the class. Here, it seems like the teachers make up assignments on the spot in a kind of offhand comment, and we really don’t know if that’s serious or what they want us to actually do for the assignment or when it’s due. It’s just very frustrating. And at this point, it’s too late for there to be many changes for our group (since we only have another month of classes, in which I’m sure about half of them will be canceled) so we just hope this can be better sorted out for the next group.

Yesterday, some of us went to the Park Hotel – a very fancy hotel here – since Kathryn’s family is visiting and are staying there. We went over to enjoy the pool and I was surprised to realize how much my standards/expectations have changed. This was a very nice hotel by American standards even, and I felt like I was not India. The bed was so soft and wonderful – such a contrast to my rather lumpy bed here at home. It was weird to be in a place so incredibly clean – not a spot of dirt anywhere. I never wear shorts and a tank top outside of my bedroom, and I felt practically naked going down to the pool in just shorts and a tank top. Small glimpses like this of the reverse culture shock I will experience when I go home makes me think I will have a hard time adjusting back to life in the US.

I can’t believe it’s the end of March…I will be home May 9th, so I have about 6.5 more weeks left. I have less than 50 days til I’ll be home! WOW. I’m not entirely happy or entirely sad about this – I will be glad to be home finally, to get some stability and normal back to my life. I’m not sure yet if India is a place I will visit again or if I’ll be “done” with it. I’m pretty sure I would like to visit again, but not for a long time. I would need a good break from India for a while,  and to be honest I’m not entirely sure if I’ll make it back here since it’s so far away. I will definitely go back to France though – I love France for so many reasons, and I really do love India too (for completely different reasons) but it’s definitely more of a love/hate relationship here.

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Happy St. Patrick’s Day! :)

Check out my newest piece for the Lost Girls – 10 Snacks and Sweets in Kolkata :)

I can’t believe it’s already the second half of March – where is the time going? The past week has been great. On Saturday morning Ashley, Elizabeth and I went to Loreto to go along on their weekly trip to the villages. Every Saturday, the older Loreto students (around class 7 and 8) go to nearby villages to teach. We had about a two-hour bus ride to the villages, and the whole ride I talked to a group of 4 girls in class 8 who were in charge of leading me around. They were very cute and very interested in me and how I’m liking India. The school in the village was more than I was expecting – a huge building with several classrooms for many different ages. The facilities were quite nice – I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I can tell how much my standards have changed from home…this was a great school but it didn’t have electricity or desks for the students. The girls I was with took charge of a class 3 classroom of about 25 students. These students didn’t know any English – not more than numbers 1-10, so I wasn’t able to help very much since I’m at about the same level in Bangla. The girls were pretty good teachers, but some of them were more interested in talking to each other than teaching the class. I watched most of the time since I couldn’t do any teaching, but I often felt more like a distraction than a help since the students would focus on me instead of the lesson. It was still great to see. It was definitely worthwhile for me to go, but I don’t think I will go again since I felt almost more of a hindrance than a help.

Bengali on the chalkboard - all I can identify are the numbers at the left. 6 (choy), 7 (shat), 8 (aat) and 9 (noi).

Sunday was a relaxing day at home doing homework, and I watched the movie Food, Inc. I loved it – and it was very similar to the book I just finished, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The author, Michael Pollan, was in the movie and so was one of the farmers he visited while writing his book. I’m learning so much about our food system in America – the good, the bad, and the ugly. I can’t wait to learn more! Next on my reading list will be Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser.

Durgi

We didn’t have class this week since it’s mid-semester exam week for all the St. Xavier’s students. We only had one exam to study for – our elective course at St. Xavier’s, so for me that is Sociology. Since we didn’t have class on Monday, I had the whole day free but I made some productive use of it by going to St. Xavier’s to study in the air-conditioned library without distractions. I went to Loreto afterward, and I’m slowly but steadily enjoying my time there more particularly because I’m starting to build relationships with the girls. One of the girls, Durgi, is becoming more attached to me each time I come. She gives me a huge hug every time she sees me and makes sure to ask when I’ll be coming back before I leave. She even made me a really cute drawing and poem about how we are friends and she loves me – how cute :) I took out my camera to take some pictures of her and another girl, Parveen, but they became very rowdy once the camera came out. It was very hard to get them to calm down afterward – they were climbing all over me and yelling and stole my shoe as I was trying to leave. It started to wear on my patience, but I’m constantly reminding myself of how much these girls are really desperate for the attention. I came home for a nice relaxing yoga session before our big night of switching rooms! Elizabeth and I share a bedroom here and so do Ashley and Brynn – but one room is much bigger than the other and also has desks for studying so we wanted to switch rooms so everyone had a fair chance to live in the bigger space. I’m enjoying the smaller room so far, though I’m still adjusting to sleeping in a new bed.

Suman and Parveen

Tuesday was a great day – we went to the Cricket World Cup! Madhu tried to get us tickets to a game with India playing, but that didn’t pan out so we got tickets to a South Africa vs. Ireland game. South Africa is one of the top cricket teams in the world so I was really excited to see such a world-class team play, as well as go to my first world-level competition! I met up with everyone at New Market to walk to the stadium, Eden Gardens (which is one of the biggest stadiums in the world!). There was really strict security – no cameras are allowed, nor are plastic water bottles (apparently the fans would throw the bottles onto the field?). We were there a little while before the game started, and we had plenty of time to find our seats which were fabulously placed in the lower tier so we were really close to the field. It was incredibly hot at the beginning sitting in the full sun when Kolkata already regularly reaches 95°F. They don’t really sell water in the stadium either…they give you 3 little plastic pouches of water with your ticket though, and it’s the worst packaging possible. You just have to rip the corner of the bag, which spills water everywhere and the little plastic cups you could use to drink the water didn’t hold the whole bagful. Stupid. It was great to relax with everyone though – I felt like I should be at a Twins game at home! I felt like I could be in America, and really wanted the typical American sporting event snacks that go along with it – popcorn, pretzels, nachos, etc. but instead there was Indian snacks like papri chat and egg rolls. Watching the game was great – I didn’t know much about cricket going into it but luckily Vinayak sat near me and he explained whatever questions we had. I have a solid understanding of the basics now, so I could at least follow the game. People will often say that cricket is like baseball, but if someone tells you that just don’t listen. Cricket is not like baseball except that someone throws a small ball, someone hits it with a bat, you run, and someone tries to catch the ball. It was a lot of fun, but we didn’t stay for the whole game. It started at 230pm and was scheduled to go til 1030pm, but we left around 730 – turns out Ireland didn’t do so well at bat, and South Africa won by 131 runs. The form of cricket used for the world cup is one where you play 50 “overs” – an over is 6 balls – and there are only 2 innings. One side will bat for the first inning and one will field, and they switch for the second inning once either the 50 overs are finished or all 11 players of the batting side are out. The traditional form of cricket lasts for 5 days! I’m looking forward to learning more about the game and to watch Vinayak in a match!

Wednesday was the day of our exam. We left quite early so we arrived with about an hour to spare before our exam began. We had heard from Kia, who took her exam on Monday, that it’s confusing trying to figure out where you have to go so we wanted to get there in plenty of time. We went to the office to ask which room we would be given the exam, and turns out the administration didn’t even know we would be taking the exam! Apparently the departments didn’t notify them we would even be taking the exam, so we were not included in their very elaborate seating chart which separates each class into different classrooms and specific assigned spots to take the test. They put us all in the same room. Luckily the exam was not difficult – I had prepared enough so the questions were very straightforward. The kind of exam that is given here is an essay exam where you have to write down basically everything you had memorized from the notes the professor dictated in class. It’s very much a kind of regurgitation of information – and I’m glad I only had the one exam to study for, unlike the rest of the St. Xavier’s students. I’m glad it went well, but now we’ll have to see how they will be grading us. We’re not sure how the grade conversion will work, or how the professors will grade our papers since they know we are not Sociology majors and that we have had no background in Soc. or India before coming here. After the exam, we met a few of the visiting CSB/SJU professors – there’s a group of about 7 professors who are visiting from our campuses to help assess how the program is going and also to introduce more faculty to the India program so there may be potential future program directors from this group. Elizabeth, Ashley and I went to Loreto afterward which was okay. We showed up at a time when there were very few students, but I spent the time with Jhuma and Durgi. Jhuma thoroughly enjoyed combing and braiding my hair, and I helped Durgi with a little homework. That night, we met up with our visiting professors at a great Chinese restaurant called Bar-B-Q. It was a wonderful dinner and it was SO nice to talk to them. I miss campus a lot so it was nice to talk to someone from there, and it was even better to talk to someone outside our group who really understands how different home is from here. They much better appreciate the joys and frustrations we have here, and they were very keen to listen to us describe our experience and to hear all our feedback, both positive and negative. I’m optimistic that this group will seriously consider our negative criticisms and will take action to help make this program better and more established in the coming years.

Another post, another reflection…this time it’s about beggars. When I decided to come to India, I knew I would see poverty like I could never imagine. I knew I would see beggars and I knew I would see slums. I knew, but at the same time I didn’t know that seeing this would affect me the way it has. At home, there is most often a clear division between a well-off neighborhood and less wealthy neighborhoods – you may be driving along in a rich area and as you drive the city slowly changes into less privileged areas. There is a very clear distinction and physical separation of these areas. Here in India, it is not like that at all. There is no clear division between wealthy areas and impoverished areas – you may be walking along next to a giant beautiful fancy hotel and within the next 20 steps, you find yourself walking through a slum. For such a long time, Calcutta was the West’s image of human despair and suffering and today there are still many examples of suffering. It’s hard to see such abject poverty – there is a slum area right outside my house and I walk by so many people every day who literally have nothing. There are so many homeless people on every street, and beggars at every corner. It’s hard to see this poverty – it’s emotionally draining and results in an ethical/moral dilemma. The hardest part of seeing this poverty is to see the vast majority of indifference to it. People walk along without even noticing the beggars or the homeless and ignore them when they are approached. I understand now how or why there is such an apparent indifference – if you became emotionally invested in every person that approached you on the street, you simply would not be able to function. It’s certainly easier to just walk by them. But is that even the right thing to do? How can we walk along so involved in our own lives that we ignore the humanity and suffering around us? I’m surprised at how quickly and easily I’ve become desensitized to the poverty, and a bit ashamed. I can honestly walk down a street and not give a second glance to the dirty woman and malnourished child huddled in the corner on a piece of cardboard.  It’s also hard to know that they seek me out specifically because I am a foreigner. When I’m approached by beggars, I never give money. I have no idea where that money is going, if they will actually use it themselves or if it will be given away to someone else or spent on unnecessary things. I give food when I can, and unfortunately just say no and sorry to everyone else. There was one incident that really stuck with me the other day – on Tuesday, when I was in New Market. New Market is a very popular shopping area where you can find almost anything in a great selection and bargain your price down to something reasonable. I like going to New Market, but I hate how hassled I am there. Vendors and beggars follow me around constantly, and they are very persistent. While Elizabeth and I were standing trying to figure out where to meet up with the group, an older woman with a baby in the crook of her arm approached me. She was following us/me, saying “didi, auntie (terms of respect here)…help…please, no money, milk for my baby…”, touching my arm, etc. She was very difficult to ignore – and it’s really hard to say no to someone when they are asking for some real thing they need and not money. I was stuck so uncomfortably in this ethical and moral dilemma – do I give her money? Do I buy her the milk? Do I just ignore her? And I hate that I feel like I have to be suspicious of their motives – is she seeking me out just because I’m a foreigner? Is that even her baby? If she was really desperate, wouldn’t she be asking everyone else? It feels awful having to judge someone’s motives when they are clearly in desperate need. I hate knowing that I’m targeted and that they are relying on manipulating my emotions – and should they? Do they have that right? I’m always so self-conscious when I take out my money to pay for something, because then they (whoever they is) can see how much money I actually have. Whenever my wallet comes out, that’s directly where their attention is focused. I can’t be giving out money all the time. I may have a lot of money by their standards but I’m still a poor college student with a lot of student loans and not a lot of money will be coming in this summer when I have to pay for things in U.S. dollars again. But still – I know I can always get more money through some way or another, even if that money will be in the future when I have a salaried job which I am so privileged to be able to rely on and plan on having. So when I ignore the beggars, I just feel like such a cold-hearted person. In the end, we did buy her the milk for the baby, and she did seem appreciative or grateful. I did notice that her attitude changed immediately after we said yes though – it was like she had assumed the position of power and became very confident, she was triumphant. I just hope she actually uses it. I wish there were easier answers for this dilemma – there seems to be no answer as to what is the “right” thing to do.

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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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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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