Welcome to my first attempt at a blog! I figured now is as good a time as any, having moved halfway around the world to Hubli. While I didn't know anyone on day one, I've since met many wonderful people, both those who have come from out of the country as I have as well as those who are native to India and have been teaching me a lot.

The plan is to update the blog somewhat regularly so that none of the posts get too lengthy (which is the case with the first several, as they were originally mass emails). We'll see how well I do at keeping up. Miss you guys!

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Arriving in India

Namaskayra! (Right... that's the typical greeting in Kannada.)

This first one is a book and a half, so you may need to go grab some refreshments prior to digging in...

Right now, I have very little substantive to say about my work, as we only just completed orientation yesterday, and I have not yet even moved into my apartment (for now I'm staying in the "girls dorm"), so instead you get the details of the trip here and just a few of my experiences so far.

Let's start with my flights. Because this fellowship program was thrown together in under 6 months, the DF has appeared somewhat disorganized (a trait demonstrated both before my departure and after my arrival). Because the flights were booked so late in the game, we all had the opportunity to enjoy more flights than were necessary, and it took me five flights and nearly 48 hours to get from point A to point B. For those of you planning on visiting, I am going to recommend fewer flights of longer hours, as unappealing as that sounds. On the other hand, I was fed at least once on all but one flight, and most of it (especially once I left the US) was relatively tasty.

In London I had to run literally across the airport to catch my flight, so that stop was a blur, but once on the plane I met a number of the other fellows ... you could just tell who they were. There were not too many young adults traveling alone (particularly white adults) on the flight to Bahrain. More than half had been to India before, and they all have significant international experience, be it the Peace Corps or just casual travel. The Bahrain airport was sweet and I wanted to take pictures, but we weren't allowed. We were all particularly intrigued by the Muslim women who were donning full burka-wear, so that you could only see their eyes. Intense conversation regarding women's rights ensued (mind you, we'd all literally just met), as well as some attempts at peeking around respectfully to see if we could figure out how they managed to feed themselves. They were seated separately from the men in their group, though, and were thus around the corner, so we not able to satisfy our curiosity.

When we got to Mumbai the DF had arranged for us to go to this very swank hotel to get showers and enjoy an all-you-can-eat breakfast. We were really in no mood to cart our luggage around the city and most just wanted to get to the final destination, and some people were a bit disgusted at the use of money, but in the end we all agreed that it sure felt nice to get a shower and stuff our faces, regardless of the fact that we weren't hungry to start with. Since then, I haven't seen many fresh vegetables (nor can I really indulge yet thanks to a lack of sanitation here), which has left me seriously craving a fresh, crisp spinach salad. This is bad news considering I'm only on day 5 or something.

Returning to the topic of transportation: this place is INSANE. Corinne and Mom, when you come, I'm going to meet you at the airport with blindfolds. The roads are packed with a constant stream of auto rickshaws (look up a pic of these badboys), buses, trucks and cars, and to get out onto the street, to turn left or something, you honest-to-goodness pull out in front of moving traffic -- cautiously -- until the entire group of approaching vehicles stop to let you out. To put it more precisely, I feel very much as if I'm Toad jetting around in MarioKart. There's little use of blinkers but copious use of horns, and some of them sound like clown cars, but you're thankful they work. As it appears to me, there is, however, no rhyme or reason to their use, but I've been told that they actually utilize the beepers according to very intricate rules. We mostly use the autos, and we have to negotiate in rupies (using Kannada when we can, though we still resort to English, which isn't always effective); we get the "foreigner" rate regardless of how good we are at bargaining. Crossing the street is a death trap, but I haven't seen anyone get hit yet. ;) Seriously, I'll survive, but it's a jungle out there.

For now, they've got us all put up in Hubli, though a lot of people are going to remote locations anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour away. Most of the females are staying in the ladies' hostel, which has a curfew of 7:30 for the Indian students and of 10:00 pm for the Americans (which we missed the other night on accident by about 20 minutes - they weren't so happy, and I felt disrespectful, though a lot of girls hate the idea of a curfew since "they didn't pick these accommodations." The bathroom is pretty icky (most are, actually, and I have to carry toilet paper and tissues wherever I go), and I haven't yet figured out what to do with the faucet/hose next to each potty, or how the ladies in saris manage to use it without getting their clothing all wet.

We started our Kannada lessons immediately, and honestly, it is the most foreign thing about India so far. The language looks supercool written, but it takes me at least 5 minutes to write my name. And there's a difference between sounds like O and o ... or Ta and ta and Tha and ta that I cannot hear in the slightest. And instead of saying "bring", for instance, you end up saying "shit." I'm hoping most people give me a little leeway. However, if you don't say it correctly, sometimes they don't understand it at all, as we discovered after multiple pronunciations of "Hotel Swati." (I got it right, yay, only due to the fact that this is the name of Neil's girlfriend. Most "hotels" are actually only restaurants, too.) Our first lesson was 2hr 45min, which was more than most of us can take, and I think I have them DAILY for 90 minutes for the first six months.

We've also gotten to do some shopping. I mentioned the Wal-Mart-esque store, which is called Big Bazaar, though it's much, MUCH smaller and has lots less stuff. The only canned vegetable I've seen so far is sweet corn, and the only milk I've found is either buttermilk or soymilk. (Not to mention when I order milk at the canteen in the morning for my cereal, it comes out hot, which really did a number on my Cheerios). The more exciting shopping occurred on Kopikar Road, where we've been making attempts to buy some Indian clothing. It took me awhile to get into the purchasing groove, both because I only had borrowed money and because, as most of you know, I have a tough time making up my mind when it comes to spending money on anything anyhow. The way it goes is you walk into a shop that has walls lined with material, sometimes ready-made outfits, sometimes not, and all you can really see is the color because they're all folded one on top of the other. So you just point and the employees pull them off the shelf. Usually you can tell immediately if you don't like it, but you have to be quick (and sometimes it doesn't even matter) to say so, otherwise they take the entire thing out of the plastic and lay it on the counter for you to see in all its glory. If you don't seem to jump at it, they quickly pull another and another. All the clothing is loose fitting, so there is no sense in expecting it to be flattering (unless it's a saree or something else I can't remember the name of, maybe a gagra choli). I have a couple kurtas (shirts) and salwar kameezes. When I made an attempt to buy some material to get a saree made, after talking to the salesmen, paying, then taking it upstairs to get measurements with the tailor, I realized after a short while that indeed, he was not planning on stitching me up a saree, but rather another salwar kameez. When I finally figured out I wasn't going to be getting a saree (serious communication barrier), a guy who spoke some English came over and explained to meet that the material I bought was not enough for a saree. Oh well. Next time.

On to the food (right, I'm sure most of you are wondering how this was not paragraph one, though you will notice it has already been mentioned). It is all absolutely delcious, and I'm having fun trying new stuff, but the unfortunate thing (at least in my mind) is that it's ridiculously rich, with the veggies all cooked to a pulp and blended with absurd amounts of cream and/or oil. This morning I woke up feeling slightly nautious, and I don't think it has anything to do with the one slice of tomato I'd eaten the night before (in fact, that didn't affect me at all... it was from a nice restaurant and was probably fine, but the rest of the group freaked out and were all in bad moods, so I didn't finish my tomato salad more for the sake of the group than for my health). That said, I've had some scrumptious paneer (cheese), both served in saag (spinach) or in other veggies or baked tandoori style. Yum. As soon as I move, I'll be definitely cooking my own veggies and probably learning to clean them sufficiently enough to eat them fresh or I might just go nuts by September. Seriously, though, first chance I get, and who knows when that will be, I am gorging myself with cucumbers. One person has already fallen victim to traveler's diarrhea; apparently it's a right of passage.

There's so much more to tell, but I'm sure you already had to read this in separate sittings, so I'll save more until next time. I'm sure I'm forgetting lots, so feel free to ask questions, though I might have a hard time responding to everyone individually. I haven't taken too many pictures so as not to offend, but I'm figuring I'll be here a year, so I promise I'll get to it eventually. The next email will be shorter, and shortly thereafter I'll make the switch to a blog (and emails to only family members and those who request).

Cheers from Hubli,