Monday, July 28, 2008
First, allow me to provide some background. Since our arrival, all of us ladies have been dealing with some serious staring. I've discovered that my clothing is, for the most part, inconsequential. I can be completely covered from head to toe and down to the tips of my fingers, and I will still be hooted at or stared down, even if they are passing me on their scooter from behind. Clearly, us foreign folk are not common in these here parts.
Initially, I ignored the comments because I was so engrossed in everything else, from finding my way around, to watching my step (still do this - stepping in cow doo or on a ginormous dead rat is never pleasant), to keeping my eyes peeled for where to buy curd or notebooks or what have you. Now, however, I make a conscious effort to avoid eye contact and put a perpetual scowl on my face so that I didn't give anyone the wrong idea...
Just as I was about to lose faith in the male Indian (insert disclaimer here: I work with some great Indian men and had already run into several somewhat helpful servers or shopkeepers, so I am embellishing for the sake of the story), Goa happened. The trip to Goa (beach) itself was in many ways uneventful (yes, we went to a beach during monsoon season). There were highs and lows, which I'll get to another day, but the trip home takes the cake.
Eight of us made the trip. At the commencement of our afternoon eight-hour train ride home, we learned that we would be stopping in one station for about 30 minutes. When we finally made it to that station at 5:30, the projected wait duration turned into one hour, then one and half, then two, then one again - no one seemed entirely sure. The conductor finally told us 1.5, that we were waiting for another train to come in, we'd pick up some cars, we'd go one direction and half of our train would go another.
Everyone in the group decided they needed a stretch, so we agreed to go in shifts to walk around. When it was my turn about 10 minutes later, Noelle and I hopped off quickly for a stroll, leaving our things on the train. All things. Things includes cell phone, money, credit card, ID, jacket, glasses, water, snacks ... you see where I'm going with this now, don't you?
We walk to the end of the platform then start to head back after about 10 minutes. Soon after we about-face, I hear a hissing sound that sounds suspiciously similar to breaks being released. I mention this to Noelle, who is not immediately worried. It happens again. A whistle sounds. We're a little worried now so we quicken our pace to a jog. The train next to us is DEFinitely moving.
We haven't made it back to our car yet, but we are NOT getting left in this station! Feeling rushed and with no time to find an English-speaking station employee, we hop on and decide just to cross through the cars to get to ours. We hustle in direction we assume is correct only to be met by a dead end after about three cars. Fantastic. Now we'll have to wait til the next stop to hop off and back onto our section of the train - we have none of our stuff and we'll probably miss dinner (you know how I feel about that).
Frustrated, we ask someone about 3A/C (our section), and he points us back the other way. That can't be right. I'm thinking, this is definitely not right. Something is wrong here.
"Noelle? Noelle!" My voice takes on more urgency as I begin to realize what just went down. We are on the WRONG train. We are moving the WRONG direction. I glance through the open door next to me, seriously contemplating jumping off (hey, they do it in the movies AND in the books - Water for Elephants, it's quality). Unfortunately, it is darn dark out there, so I couldn't be sure of what I was jumping into, plus the train was really picking up too much speed for me to see myself rolling safely into a pile of rocks. We were hurtling toward New Delhi, not Bangalore via Hubli, and there was not a thing I could do about it.
Are you familiar with the phrase "deer in headlights"? This is a perfect description, I would assume, of our faces. The first few minutes were spent repeating to one another that we were on the wrong train, yes, on the wrong train, and, indeed, missing any item that could possibly get us to where we needed to go.
Can you believe it? A few men standing nearby at the moment of our epiphany miraculously spoke English and, literally, saved the day. One offered to let us use his cell phone (he was there charging it). Thank our lucky stars I remembered people's numbers, so we started dialing - couldn't get it to work but the man worked on it for us and came through. We alerted everyone as to where we were and they immediately got on it, checking with the conductor and all others about what our options might be. Three other men talked us through our situation, and collectively we finally figured out that our best bet would be to get off at the next stop, Belgaum, catch a rick to the bus station, figure out which bus gets to Hubli and go straight there. They pooled some money and gave us each Rs 150 for the tickets, 30 for a rick and 8 to call our friends (how AMAZING are these guys).
We followed their advice with only a few hiccups along the way (yeah, I almost missed the bus, too - shoot me, it left 15 minutes early - and Noelle was hanging out the door screaming my name as I tried to get us some snacks for dinner, while the bus driver shouted things at her in Kannada, probably something about "crazy lady, get your danged body back in my bus or get the heck off!") We made it back to the guest house in Hubli only about 10 minutes after the others arrived. Sigh, sweet Hubli.
In conclusion, the evening contained both my stupidest moment (who gets off a train with none of their belongings?) and proudest in India so far (we kept our cool and are resourceful little buggers who made it home on the same night - even my coworkers who'd heard the story early last night were surprised to see me at work morning). I have also confirmed that the other Sandbox Fellows rock.
Ah, so yes, Goa was not nearly so exciting until we left ...
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
When we first arrived, we fully expected monsoon season to be in full swing – it IS supposed to be through June-September. But we haven’t had much rain since we got here, particularly in the last 10 days. This morning I heard rumors about only 25 more days of drinking water if it didn’t rain soon, and apparently all of Karnataka is without power every night (unless you’ve got a generator). But then, today came…
And it POURED. I was in the CLite building using their electricity and Internet (just another building on campus, but newer and has all the computers) sitting on the upper level, which is not completely enclosed. The wind was sweeping the rain into the hallway and the thunder sounded like it was right on top of us. Given my earlier comments about the electricity situation, it should be no surprise that everyone quickly began unplugging their computers. I then proceeded to walk to the office for a conference call and arrived as a drowned rat.
When I got home I took pictures of the trickle of a stream next to our house that has since become a very animated river. There were people on the little bridge watching the water move and cheering. I had trouble getting down our street because it was swamped, and I saw one woman with a shovel trying to create a barricade from the road to her house because of all the water running down a rivet into what looked like her living room.
The landlord and her son saw me with my camera and called me upstairs to show them the pictures. She then invited me in and I have learned definitely not to say no to this woman, so right before dinner I stuffed myself with chai tea and sweets. Who am I to say no? ;) Indian sweets are hit or miss with me because they’re so sweet, but Lesley and I discovered tonight that the “cakes made with milk” are right up our alley.
Monday, July 21, 2008
I have decided that should I determine that I absolutely must have a hairdryer here, I will just have to buy one. The other day when I tried using my converter with the thing the inside of the converter became very much illuminated, which made me wonder if I had created a mini-fire. Obviously, I immediately remedied the situation by pulling it out of the socket and there was no flame to be found, but there is no way in heck I’m trying that again. I also had a close call with my laptop when plugging it into a power strip at the office. Though it’s a plug from here and doesn’t need a converter, I still managed to produce a small batch of fireworks. That strip was behind Dulcie’s desk. When I was given one of my own to use, one day I plugged it in and seriously blew a small hole in the cord.
Then, there’s the water heater immersion device. Because our water refuses to come out of the shower head and we have no hot water to speak of, the Foundation provided us with a metal coil thingamajig that I literally place in a plastic bucket full of water (careful not to let it touch the sides, else they would melt), plug in, leave it for 10 minutes, unplug it, then pull it out with – voila – hot water. Seems that these contraptions are quite prevalent here, but clearly they’re dangerous and there is no way I trust myself with one of those babies.
Then again, it seems that I do not have to worry about this electricity problem all too often as our power (current, if you want anyone in India to understand you) is out ALL THE TIME. It goes out around 5:30 am in our apartment, just before I get up at 6. It might come on during the day at some points, though I’m not home to know. Today I stopped home at 2 to try to do some work (because it was out at the office and my laptop was dead) but the power was still out. It actually came back on in the office this afternoon which is highly, highly unusual, but when I got home at 6:30pm-ish it was still off here. It came on for a few hours and then went off at about 9pm. Eating refrigerated goods around here is a risky business, but a risk I’m willing to take (apparently… at least until I get sick again, I guess).
Monday, July 14, 2008
Okay, so working on your day off isn't really so bad after all once acclimated to the idea. We visited one of our agricultural NGO partners (BAIF, where Rebecca works). I walked with the fellows as they interviewed the farmers about their fields and got the translation whenever I could. Another group interviewed villagers. Afterward we all met up (all fellows plus at least 100 villagers) to talk, and I had to stand and say what I could in Kannada, which included: "Greetings from the heart, my name is Taryn, little Kannada, how are you?" I can also say "curd" and "let's finish up" but I didn't think either of those were appropriate during an introduction.
The farmland was gorgeous and the pictures don't do it justice. The people were sweet and more than willing to share their stories with the fellows. After wrapping up (around 10:30pm, I wasn't joking when I said they eat late!) we fed the village dinner and then also indulged.
Next was the bonfire and dance party - seriously. Such inhibition. Everyone danced, including all staff persons (which means my boss and his wife) and the typically reserved "resource person" who joined us. Oh, and me. I tried. I then got 4.5 hours of restless sleep before waking up at 5:30 to get everyone else up and be ready for a 6 am meditation session that wasn't long enough. :) Of course there was tea but no breakfast before hitting the taxis for home, but the girls and I grabbed some uppittu (cream of wheat-like, though not so creamy and with spicy puffed rice and noodles) before I headed to Kannada lessons. It's been a full one!
Sunday, July 13, 2008
The last couple of days have been rough days at work, as I'm still working on identifying my particular job responsibilities and finding a balance between what they want me to do and what I want to be able to do, paying particular attention to how the position was detailed before I even left the States. We had a small issue the other day that changed my supervisor's outlook on some managerial details so that he would like any guest lecturers at our training to be accompanied at all times. Sometimes we have a guest speaker (or "resource person," as we call them) teaching entire modules, meaning they are with us for full days at a time. While I have a laptop and he suggested that I simply work through the trainings, I am not okay with being tied to one room - I have done that before (tied to an office, physically) and was not able to accomplish nearly what I would have liked to. You have no time to build relationships, whether we're talking in or out of the office. So we had a discussion yesterday. In general I have had some trouble communicating with people in the office, not because I cannot understand their English (though sometimes that happens, too) but because the words we choose to express our ideas and meanings differ. Frequently the directions given are also very vague, and sometimes I just cannot ask enough questions to get to the bottom of what is really desired from me, so I have to spend time sorting it out for myself. I'm hoping this gets better with time.
Furthermore, yesterday (Saturday) at about 2pm (when I was leaving work - we do half-days on Sats) I also was informed that I would be going with the DF fellows to their village visit the following day... on my day off. Needless to say I was less than thrilled initially. Again, I spoke with my supervisor about needing more advanced notice and a long discussion ensued. Ultimately, I am glad to have an opportunity to go on this excursion and am looking forward to spending some more time with the fellows and off-campus - even if it IS a training and my job will be to make sure nothing goes wrong and fix anything that does (hmm...should be interesting since I'm only on week 3 in a foreign country), I appreciate the opportunity to make a visit. It's an overnight, too. I do, however, plan to take another day off later this week or something, as I still need to figure out where the heck that "dobi walla" is so I can actually have some clean laundry.
Speaking of clean clothes... because I did not have any (and, frankly, was in a funk), a couple of the other girls (Kate and Rene) and I decided to hit up Koppikar Road (our shopping haven) for some new garb. I ended up buying four kurtas, one salwar and two sets of material that I'll need to have tailored. I wanted to wait to do some shopping in Bangalore, but Kate convinced that I'll still need more anyhow - I mean, I'm here for a year, right? We also purchased some elementary school Kannada books so that I can practice my script. I'm telling you, these letters are wild. I'm not as motivated to learn Kannada as I might be to learn Hindi (since that would be so much more useful in the future, at least potentially), but it is still fun to be able to communicate with the local shopkeepers and such. Just the other night Lesley and I spent at least 10 minutes trying to tell a man in Kannada that we each wanted one package of curd. Even when we know how to spell the word (in English) the pronunciation is so particular that they have no clue what we're saying more than 70% of the time. We did eventually get our curd, but only after Lesley phoned her boss and handed her cell over the shopkeeper. The difficulty here is that there are a million little shops around so you know what you need is likely right around the corner, but unfortunately, everything is behind a counter. It's not as if you can just walk up and grab what you want - you somehow have to communicate your need, and that can take awhile.
Ooo, tomorrow night I have my first dance lesson in classical Indian dance!
Wednesday, July 9, 2008
The Sandbox fellows were all invited to his son’s wedding this weekend, which was quite the party. The first night I wore my salwar kameez, the one I had tried to pick up on at least three separate occasions. Fortunately, on the night before the wedding, I went to the store with one of the Indian staff members, because when I tried picking it up the tailor wasn't there. Since I didn't have my receipt they didn't want to give it to me, but thankfully Golden talked them into it. On Friday evening we arrived around 6 for snacks, which might as well have been the meal. I tried all kinds of delicious snacks and sweets, but unfortunately could not figure out the names for half the stuff. No one ever seems to know. Whenever I ask they just say, “it’s a sweet,” or, “it’s a curry.” Makes it difficult to order the next time I’m out. The buffet was set up in a huge lawn area. As that wound down, the groom entered the scene amidst a gaggle of dancing men and a band of women throwing flower petals. The groom was sitting in a large vehicle with a woman who we first assumed to be his wife, but it was actually a female cousin, as well as with a couple of small children – we never did figure out who they were. The whole scene was vibrantly colorful and quite loud.
From there we moved into a large room and waited for the groom to arrive, and when he did, he came in on the shoulders of his family and friends. From our seats it was difficult to really observe what was going on the ceremony, plus the religious leader was speaking Kannada, so we could only pick up the parts that were translated for us, which didn’t occur often. The people on stage included the family of the groom and the family of the bride (but no bride – she never did appear during the ceremony), and they were being “introduced” to one another. They partook in a variety of Indian foods and engaged in various religious rituals. While I'm certain they knew what they were doing, the ceremony appeared to be haphazard and chaotic, with at least 30 people milling about on stage, photographers and videographers blocking our view, and people running around plastic store bags, dropping things off here and there.
Afterward we headed back outside for a traditional South Indian meal – my first meal served on a banana leaf! At this point the bride finally showed up, although she didn’t come to eat. The groom and his family sat for the meal (with the groom still sitting by his cousin, which was really throwing us for a loop), and the bride simply came to greet them. After dinner there was a sanjeet that lasted until about 11, where a couple men sat on stage playing a sitar and singing.
The next morning the marriage ceremony was at 7:25am, but there was no way I was feeling up to that, as I knew I had a long day/night ahead. I made it there shortly before noon for the reception, where we again had lunch (they like to eat here possibly more than I do) and then went to yet another space where we stood in a long line to pay our respect s to the newly married couple. This day I wore my saree. Preeti (one of my apartment-mates) put it on for me in the morning while the housekeeper watched and made suggestions on the best way to tie it. Everyone at the wedding and at the dinner later that night kept telling all of us girls how great we looked in our sarees, that our sarees were beautiful, which was much appreciated since none of us really knew what we were doing or how to wear them. Someone told me I looked very comfortable in mine and asked if I'd worn one before; I think I was just too busy thinking about the rest of the day and the stuff I had to do that evening to dwell too much on what I was wearing. (My supervisor had called me that morning to tell me my co-worker was sick, so I was in charge of the event for the night - fantastic.)
I stayed until about 3 and then started running errands for the events in the evening. The night turned out fairly well. First we had presentations by a couple of the nonprofits who partner with the DF, followed by brief introductions of the fellowship programs by two of the DF fellows and two of the Sandbox fellows. We had a question and answer period where a lot of connections were made, which was a larger part of the point of the evening, with one of the nonprofits receiving a promise of assistance from NM Murthy. Afterward, as the buffet got set up, we invited the guests to view the posters created by the DF fellows about themselves and the work they had done in the past. Conversation was no problem, and we eventually had to actually kick everyone out of the place. One of the DF fellows told me that this was “one of the best nights of his life;” he felt that he had networked with some very successful and well-connected people who could help him to start his social enterprise.
Monday, July 7, 2008
Not too long after e-mail “ondu” (one in Kannada!) I fell prey to my first bout of – and we don’t dance around the issue here – traveler’s diarrhea. (Why not grab your attention in line one with some vivid imagery?) Fortunately for me, my malady was a minor one, where I generally experienced just some serious nausea, headaches and a fever, but these issues were solved with some ORS (yech!!! Powder that does NOT dissolve completely and tastes more like a salty bitter orange than the Gatorade we were hoping for) for electrolyte replacement, Pepto (glad I went the pill route) and Advil. My roommate, Noelle, was in much worse condition than I, but we skipped day two of orientation together, sleeping nearly all day and all night; even so, it was nice to have the company.
Since we’ve all been invited to the wedding of the son of the founder (us and 1,500 others, in fact), many of us are on a mission to purchase a saree (assuming we can figure out how to put them on). As you may recall, my first attempt was thwarted when I mistakenly bought the wrong material (I didn’t know that was possible). I had better luck next time, at least to some extent. The sarees initially catching my attention were about $35-40 USD, which is really a rather large amount considering cheap ones are available for $8-20. Of course, the one I fell in love with was upwards of US $100, but I think I wisely chose to not make that my very first purchase. I wound up with a bright electric blue one, $22 or so. The employees at the store were very patient and helpful – the tailor down the street and up the windy stone stairs in a hot, cramped room? Not so much. There were about five people working there at the time, and I think I made their evening. I hadn’t the first idea as to how deep the neck should be, or the back, or the shape, or the length, or the sleeves… the list goes on. And instead of making attempts to help me understand, they mostly just laughed. I had a strong desire to shoot them looks of annoyance, but realizing my saree material was in their care, I refrained. I pick it up July 4 – should be interesting.
While I have not really been laughed at since here, I most certainly have been stared at. Many of the residents have never seen Caucasians, or at least very few of them, and they make no attempts to hide their curiosity. We do our best to blend in by wearing Indian clothing or articles that at least are of similar style, but I think our white skin is rather blinding. For women, while it is crucial that you cover your legs (longer capris are acceptable) and your chest, you are free to bare your arms, though most still at least wear sleeves. Men have been seen in all kinds – in only what Mother Nature gave him to button-up, collared shirts and pants. Dress and what is considered acceptable certainly vary by location.
It didn’t take us long to locate the only “American” food in town. Every hotel (restaurant) here is out of at least something on the menu, and Pizza Hut was no exception, but we were happy to indulge in some sticky, gooey cheese that wasn’t paneer (as scrumptious as paneer is, really). The menu included a picture for every dish, so the salads had us salivating but of course, they were out of all five. We ended up with a cheese, a veggie (they had more combinations of veggie pizza on this menu than I have ever seen at a pizza joint) and a chicken that tasted way too Indian for the point of the evening. After bite one, we knew then and there we’d be back on a regular basis. We also found a restaurant called Olive Garden (no relation to the chain in the states) that we were told had really good American grilled cheese –and they were right. You can even get it with veggies, which I found to be a welcome twist.
Lesley and I moved into our apartment last Monday I think it was. We had been really looking forward to getting out of the dorm and settled into a place where we could cook and unpack. Unfortunately, however, we’re still lacking gas (so we can’t use the little stove top they bought for us), nor do we have any dressers yet to unpack our clothes into, so things haven’t changed much. In fact, in some ways I think we’ve downgraded, as we now take cold showers and fight ants and roaches on a regular basis (though less so than that first night!) We took one night to buy the essentials, which included tape and a marker to label light switches, as there are fifty gazillion and some seem to do nothing at all. It took me a few days but I am now adjusted to the idea of a squatter (though we fortunately located a Western toilet connected to the room being shared by the two Indian fellows). The apartment overall seems like it’s going to be a good one, and it’s located in a nicer neighborhood, so I feel safe. The four of us girls live on the first floor of a home, and the landlord’s family lives on the second and third floors. Our first meeting with the landlord was not ideal, as it occurred around 10:15 pm after we were locked out (they had not yet given us the key to the outside gate, which supposedly was getting locked at 11:30pm – not quite) and had to rouse them from their beds. Our rickshaw driver was really sweet and hung around when he saw we couldn’t get in, so he and a little boy nearby started shouting something in Kannada to no avail, so the kid climbed our 9 ft gate or whatever and ran upstairs to knock on the door. And so we met the landlord.
I’m also starting to settle in more at work (and think I’ll feel much more able to really dig in once I’m totally settled at home). On Friday I had an incredibly informative meeting with a girl who has been there for about five months now, though she had worked for the DF for about eight months before even coming over. She’s here “indefinitely” as a staff member and was really able to clue me in on the structure of the organization, the hierarchy, who does what, etc. I now have a much clearer picture of my responsibilities and who I can approach for assistance or collaboration in different areas. So far I have been assisting a fair amount with the Deshpande Fellows program (the Indian fellows), helping grade papers and providing feedback on their English grammar as well as formatting memos, letters, flyers, reports, etc. Next week I’ll be meeting with Naveen about a social entrepreneurship course the Foundation plans to offer to college students at the various schools in Hubli and Dharwad and drawing up a course plan and resources for that. I’m also currently working on the recruitment aspect of the program, as we’ll have a new batch of about 30 fellows coming in in January. There have been instances of Taryn-as-office-girl, like when my boss’ wife (who is there only for the summer because she’s getting her PhD in the US) asked me to scan a bunch of materials that took me forever to do because the machine is slow and hooked up to someone else’s computer. I did not feel in a position to say no at the time, but if it keeps happening (and it might – she asked the tech guy to hook the scanner into my laptop instead, but I haven’t let him do it yet), something will have to be said. The people here do truly work hard. They may have four tea breaks a day, but someone serves us the tea (chai with tons of milk), but the tea is served to us, so no one really stops working. The hours are long and there always seems to be something last minute added into the “weekend” or evenings. Dibya (the co-worker I’ll probably work most closely with) called me one evening at 7:30pm for help with something, telling me she was still at the office. And the other night when I tried leaving at 6:15 (we start at 9:30am, my Kannada lessons are 8:30-9:30) I got roped into a staff meeting.
I also do miscellaneous tasks, some of which are more interesting than others and ALWAYS last minute. This weekend we had speakers join us on Saturday morning (it’s a work day!) to talk with the DF fellows about their experiences as a social entrepreneur, so I just made sure that students had questions to ask, that the room was ready, prepare a few minutes speech on the Sandbox Fellow program (which I thankfully did not have to deliver), etc. One speaker was N. R. Narayana Murthy, this seriously wealthy Indian man who apparently was recently considered as a candidate for president of India. The other speaker was a man who in a previous life had been a banker with Citibank but realized that his dream went beyond what he could achieve in that profession. He returned to India and started an NGO focused on a new approach to education, where all the learning is hands on. Ironically, while the students were initially most excited and nervous about N.M., they were so excited about the second speaker that they literally followed him out of the room asking him more questions after the Q&A period wrapped up. This man was very engaging and inspiring (and, lucky for me, had impeccable English, having lived in London). One of our fellows is placed at this NGO. Then just the other night I helped set up an event we’re having Sunday evening (allllso last minute). Basically, with all the bigwigs in town for the wedding, Desh wanted to take the opportunity to show them what the DF is accomplishing, specifically through the DF fellow program. Since I’m unique in that I’m both a Sandbox fellow and “on staff,” I helped organize the event, which is being held at the nicest hotel/restaurant in town, Hotel Naveen. So on Friday afternoon three other staff members and I took a taxi to the hotel to arrange the logistics – nothing is easy around here. With all these VIPs attending, we needed everything to be top notch. First, they put us in the wrong room, a room too small to really allow us to do what we wanted (serve dinner as well as socialize), plus it was ugly, with views out one window showcasing the parking lot and views out the other side virtually nonexistent (unless you count the tin roof with rotting coconuts). We also requested round tables (remember, networking going on here) that could seat 6-8, but they only had small plastic patio tables that sat four – MAX. Even that was going to be tight with all the plates you need for an Indian meal. They wouldn’t allow us to hang our posters anywhere (which Desh insisted on hanging – I’m in charge of that, which goes down this afternoon, so keep your fingers crossed) and they didn’t have any centerpieces for the tables. They claimed that they would even have to rent more round tables to make it work, and apparently nowhere has any round tables big enough to seat more than four. Tonight should be interesting.
Thanks to all those who wrote me back ... I'm getting to those! And I'll get some pictures going on my blog as well.