Monday, January 24, 2011

India: Part 2-Building

Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.
-Mohandas Gandhi

He's so wise!

I arrived at Narita airport in Tokyo early on Christmas Eve morning and scoured Gate 23 for Denise, my flight partner, travel buddy and roommate for the next two weeks. We had talked via email and tried to skype the previous day to finalize our plans, but that was the day skype wasn’t working. Of course. I had no idea what she looked like or sounded like. I knew she had been in Japan 3 years, spoke great Japanese as her position in the JET Program is slightly different than mine, and I knew she was American. Needn’t worry. We obviously we found each other at the gate and boarded the plane together. It was weird to have a conversation with someone you’ve never met, all the while thinking, well we’re going to be inseparable for the next two weeks. She was amazing, and we were a great team. Couldn’t have asked for a better buddy!

We flew Malaysian airlines every leg of the international trip, HIGHLY recommended. I was obsessed with the food and service. I am also obsessed with Kuala Lumpar`s airport, also, HIGHLY recommended. It was like hangin on
5th Ave
in New York. Classy shops, Starbucks AND Coffee Bean, English book stores AND a mini rainforest that opens to the outside. Right in the middle of the airport! I spent a total of 9 hours in that airport. I can give you a to-do things of must see things if you ever have a layover there. Between the service, the airport and the little video they show you before you land, I was sold. I am seriously considering Malaysia as my next vacation spot. Evidently it doesn’t take much to convince me to go to your country. English books, good coffee and nice weather and I’m there.

Then it was another 4 hour flight to Chennai. A far cry from the Malaysian airport. Denise and I powered through the airport, into a taxi and to the hotel. Arriving at about 11pm. A solid 18 hours or so of traveling and we had just enough time to shower and take a power nap, as we were set to get up at 4am and meet the rest of the group to drive to the train station for our 6am train. Getting up at 4 am became a theme on this trip. I saw the sunrise no less than 5 times over the course of the two weeks I was there.

We arrived in the hotel lobby to meet the other volunteers in our group. Meeting new strangers that you are going to be inseparable with for the next week is always an experience, just add jet lag, serious sleep deprivation and a sunless backdrop to the mix and you’ve got yourself a partaaaay.

We hopped in the car and got acquainted for the hour or so drive to Chennai train station. Ravi, our leader who founded ARV and served as our all around link to India, was with us the entire time. And I was ever grateful for that. He had booked our tickets and made sure we were there safely. No one dared talk to us, hassle us or ask to take our pictures with Ravi around, though it wouldn’t be long before we all got a chance to experience that. He led us to the correct platform and train car. Something that sounds so simple yet is far from it in India.

The train stations are crazy hectic, so much so that I never took a picture because I didn’t dare stop in the middle of all the madness. Travel books had pre-warned us that display information is often incorrect (ummm what?!) and when asking for help make sure to ask a legitimate person. All of which made me slightly nervous, and I was beginning to worry about the day Denise and I were going to have to do this on our own. With valid reason I would later find.

We were sitting in First Class India. First class meant we all had our own seat, the car was air conditioned and there were even outlets for us to charge stuff. The trains also had sleeper cars which we were advised against when traveling alone, and general class, aka cattle car status with benches instead of seats and about 3 times the amount of people in the car than there should have been. We were most grateful for our 1st class status for the 7 hour train to Vijayawada. Where we then stopped at the ARV offices for a brief orientation and then it was off to lunch at a restaurant for one of the best meals I’d ever had. Then it was another 2 hour drive to Gudiavara, where we stayed in a hotel for the entire work week. Driving about a half hour every morning to Cheveru village, our Indian home.

The first work day, the 11 volunteers and Ravi piled into 2 cars, the majority of us riding in the bed of the truck, a favored spot, and drove to Cheveru. We passed tons of people in beautiful colored clothes, dodged emaciated cows in the middle of the road, drove on whatever side of the road was convenient honking to let people know we were passing, all while blasting Indian music. I loved it. I was incredibly nervous the first day, but after about a day I learned to exhale during the car ride, and the drives to and from the village became one of my favorite parts of the day. 

The first day we drove to the village, I was taking in all the scenery and wasn’t really paying attention to where we were. The cars came to a stop and became surrounded by people. Apparently we had arrived. They popped the back of the truck and we all hopped out. Immediately kids started yelling hello, we were handed massive, intricate flower necklaces as kids took our hands and led us down the street. Other kids threw flower petals on us as we walked and there were drummers in front of the pack leading the way. It was absolutely amazing. A whirlwind of colors, sounds, smells, laughter and languages. Hands down the best welcome I have ever been a part of J

Welcome to Cheveru!
We walked through the village until we got to the village volleyball court and then we all stopped. The drummers played a bit longer and we all started to take pictures and tried to absorb our surroundings. It was a lot to take in. When the music stopped, Ravi spoke in Telegu, the native language of the town, and we all went around saying our names and a short sentence. Basically we all expressed how excited we were to be here and what an amazing welcome that was. This was technically December 26th, but I think all of us made it Christmas in our minds. It was such a memorable day.

Then it was off to breakfast.

We ate all three meals at the village. All three consisted of some type of curry and all three were always delicious. The people who cooked for us only used bottled water and had been trained in how to wash vegetables etc. It was even more delicious to eat knowing weren’t going to get sick, and none of us did.  

Chai break
Every morning after breakfast we were split in to work groups and headed off to the different areas around the village. We all rotated between whitewashing, smoothing cement, assisting the masons and carrying bricks. During our down time we played with the kids, who constantly wanted us to come meet their parents and families. It was great to see so many people and the inside of so many homes.

The people in the village were some of the most beautiful people I had ever met, inside and out. Pictures are worth a thousand words, enjoy. 

 Faces of Cheveru

As a surprise gift we all received sarees! We chose the color we wanted and the tailer came the next day to take our measurements. On our final day in the village, which happened to be New Years Eve, we all put on our sarees and got dressed for a final village farewell party! The ladies of the village decorated our hands with henna and helped us put our sarees on. I added some mascara, which was then pass around the group. 

Being that we had been hot, sweaty and covered in paint all week and now had beautiful clothes and minimal amount of make up we looked like brand new people. The transformation was amazing!

We had the most amazing time in Cheveru, and experience I know none of us will ever forget. There were definitely some tears from all angles as we parted ways and the final car ride back to the hotel was silent as we all tried to process everything that happened. Even as I write this, 2 weeks later, I am still not sure I have a full grasp on what we we did, the difference it made, or how it has effected me. It seems everyday since I've been back I reference something that happened in India to something in my day to day life.

Our time in Cheveru ended Dec. 31 and come January 1st we were on our own. Everyone was going different directions. I was set to travel India independently with Denise, Brittany and Beth, other volunteers from the group. Next stop Taj Mahal.

Monday, January 17, 2011

India: Part 1-The Country

After spending a good two weeks in this unique country, I was trying to figure out how I was going to blog about it, and every time I started, I got slightly overwhelmed. I just had too much to say. Between our work there, traveling and the culture shock we all went through, I decided it was too much for one post. So I’m going with three. One on the country, one on our volunteer work and one on my travels. Hope this helps to simplify things for everyone, I know it did for me, enjoy!

The minute I touched down in my current home of Japan, people kindly asked me, with an ever hopeful tone, “How was India?!”
“It was goooood!” I would reply, with some hesitation in my voice. They clearly heard it as I was then pressed for more answers.
“So what did you do, how were the people…how were the toilets?!
All valid questions I must say.

I had been back merely hours before I was faced with this conversation, and I had spent the past 20 hours of travel trying to decide how to answer these inevitable questions. I had no idea where to begin. It is hard to describe India, a country like none I had ever been to, without explaining the entire story. Clearly people didn`t sign up for a 3 hour lecture when they asked how my winter vacation was, but I couldn`t think of any other way to describe it other than to just spill it all. My answer came out in spurts and in random sentences. I was essentially talking in circles as I tried to make sense of the experiences I just had. In order to simplify things for myself and help me reflect on my time there, I came up with some key words. I decided to come up with adjectives to describe the country, neither positive, nor negative, simply objective.

In a nutshell India is…colorful, photogenic, poor, pushy, dusty, multilingual, aggressive, beautiful, dirty, smelly, loud, smiley, unsanitary, on guard, congested, humid, smog filled and delicious.  

I’ve traveled quite a bit for my age (now 24, ohmygod) and I can safely say, having been to both poor and rich countries, and everything in between, this country was like nothing I`ve ever experienced. We arrived in Chennai to a humid, crowed airport, where we quickly became the clear minority. I traveled with one other girl from the program, Denise. Us two little American white girls have never felt more out of place. This coming from round eyes living in Japan. The airport was loud and aggressive and it promtly became everyman for itself. The complete opposite of the country that we had just flown out of, which operates with the group in mind. We put up our guards, grabbed our luggage, converted our yen to rupees and headed to find ourselves a prepaid taxi to the hotel. All the while ignoring constant offers from men for a taxi, following us, talking, sometimes yelling, in our ear, asking us where we wanted to go, “taxi, taxi ma`am, taxi, 20 Rupess, taxi ma`am, good deal, taxi, taxi, taxi, taxi.
I fully understand why celebrities hit paparazzi.

That little taste of aggressiveness was only the beginning. Coming from Japan, where everyone stands in line and waits their turn, all in the name of harmony, was a far cry from India`s belief system. They seemed to run on the idea that if you had money to spend, you were entitled to literally shove and push your way to the front of the line, slip your money under the window and take your ticket. I wanted to shove these people. But given that I had a death grip on my bag at any given time it was rather difficult. Needless to say it quickly became apparent that the money equals power phrase held steadfast in this country. Which leads me to my next observation, every ones desire to earn money.

India is a third world country. We all know that.

The water is poor. Leading people to get ill from drinking it, fortunately for us we had a plethora of bottled water that we used. Exclusively. We`re talkin teeth brushing and sometimes hand washing.

The air is terrible. The black clouds of smog and dirt that hovered continuously were like nothing I’d ever seen, at times we would blow our nose and find our tissue black. Yes it was gross, but I was starting to really feel for these people who had to breathe it on a daily basis, for their entire life.

People would go to the bathroom on the side of the road, both number 1 and number 2. One morning I saw a man reading a newspaper while he did what we do every morning behind closed doors.

Brittany and my, don't screw with us face
Not today India, NOT. TODAY.
And everyone wants to make a buck. Well in this case, a rupee. They`re desperate, and that is where I believe their pushiness comes from. They would constantly try to hire themselves to us as tour guides or our drivers for the day, when really all we wanted was a one way ride to the bazaar. No Mr. Taxi man, we do not want you to wait for us and drive us home. No we do not want you to take us to your friend’s saree shop. No we do not want you to then take us to a tailor. At one point I got so frustrated at having this conversation with every driver that I yelled, cutting him off midsentence. `NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO,` I screamed, `Take us. Drop us off. And leave.` He immediately responded with, `Ok, but first saree shop?,` `NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO,` I yelled again, this time glancing in the rear view mirror making eye contact with him. As I gave him a, you gotta me effing kidding me face. I saw him smile. We were all clearly aware of what was going on. He actually turned out to be one of our favorite drivers, and he teased us the entire ride, ultimately taking us exactly where we wanted to go and leaving just like we asked.

We were all constantly going through a tug of war with our emotions, between empathy and frustration. It was an exhausting trip on so many levels.

One of the things that shocked me the most was how multilingual everyone was. I knew everyone in India spoke English, thank God. But watching people on their cell phones switch languages mid conversation beyond impressed me. Even the taxi drivers or beggars’ on the street, people you may think were not the most educated, seemed to be fluent in at least two, probably three languages. It blew me away. The multilingual factor doubled with how poor the country was, was a combination I wasn`t expecting. In any other country having the ability to speak two or more languages puts your resume on the top of the pile. Apparently I associate it with high intelligence and monetary success and while India was multilingual everywhere I went, it was also poor across the board. I know there are Indian people with some big money, but everywhere I went I saw little to no money. It just amazed me that as a whole the country could be so poor.

All in all we had a great time. I took some of the best pictures I had ever taken there simply because it was hard to take a bad one. We found that once we got past people’s doing business facade they were some of the kindest people we had ever met. India really is one of the most unique, amazing and fascinating places I’ve ever visited. Nothing could have prepared me for what I was going to encounter when I got there, and it was that shock that made my experience what it was.

India is definitely worth a visit. Just be prepared to be shocked from all angles. 


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