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

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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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Well. I leave for India tomorrow.

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

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

Merry Christmas!

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Hey all! Check out my newest piece for the Lost Girls: 7 Tips to Savor Dining Out in France

À bientôt!

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Life has settled down back to normal after my haphazard trip to the Cinque Terre.

Classes are still going well and keeping me busy, theater is getting a little more intense, and tutoring is still wonderful! I’m really happy that tonight, I’ll be having dinner with my tutoring family :) really looking forward to it!

This past weekend, our CSB/SJU group took a day trip to Aix-en-Provence. It was really nice to get out of the College for a day, and it was nice to be someplace that felt a little more like fall. It’s a 2 hour drive to Aix from Cannes, so it passed by pretty quickly. Once we got there, we had a quick tour of the city and then were allowed free time for 3 hours. Aix is very pretty, and feels very collegiate – it’s a big university town. There aren’t a lot of tourist sights, so Mickey and I just wandered the streets and did some window shopping. Afterward, we all left to go to l’atelier de Cezanne – Cezanne’s studio. It was the last studio he used before he died. I was a little surprised that it was so small! It’s a very small cottage house, and the actual tour is just one room upstairs. I’ve realized that I’m not really into art, so the tour didn’t interest me as much. Afterward, we just came back to the College.

This weekend, Mickey and I watched some of the movies we had borrowed from the mediathèque, the library, down the street. On Friday, we watched the movie Persepolis – and I loved it! It’s a great movie, and very artistic. It’s about the revolution in Iran and the radicalisation of Islam through the eyes of a young girl. Later, her parents send her to Austria to escape the war. The movie is about her coping with her identity, feeling like a stranger, and feeling like a stranger in her own country. And, it’s all animated! I was very proud that we watched the whole thing (in French, bien sûr) and I understood all of it! We had to watch with subtitles (in French), and that helps enormously. It’s still too difficult to watch movies without subtitles – it’s much easier when I can read what they are saying. On Saturday, we watched La Môme, or La Vie en Rose. It’s a movie about the life of Edith Piaf, a very famous French singer. It’s very well done, but a depressing story.

Tomorrow…we leave for PARIS!! I am so excited! Originally, we were going to leave for Paris on Thursday, but there is going to be a big strike then and we will have to leave a day earlier to get there. I don’t mind though – now we have an extra full day in Paris! We will be there until Monday afternoon (my birthday!)- so we’ll have 4 full days there! EXCELLENT. I think it’s really cool that I get to wake up in Paris on my birthday. The trip is not very structured – we will have a ton of free time. Beth will give us suggestions of things to do each day, but it’s up to us what we want to do. There are only a few required things: Friday morning, we will give our Revolutionary tour of Paris. Each of us has to present a site in Paris that has significance to our historical character (the character we played in the game for our class). Friday night, we will go to the Louvre as a group. Then Beth also has some optional things, like a boat tour down the Seine river at night, and a trip to Versailles on Sunday. I am so excited!

So, I won’t be updating again until after we return from Paris…about a week from today. When we return to Cannes, I will only have a couple days before I head off to Rome! Life is good.  In the meantime, check out the Lost Girls website on Thursday: www.lostgirlsworld.com I’m going to have a new piece up on Thursday, another re-telling of my weekend in the Cinque Terre.

Love to all at home!

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I don’t have time right now to write a full blog post, but I just wanted to let you all know that my newest piece for the Lost Girls is up! Click here to check it out! :)

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