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Monday, June 3, 2013

The End

I honestly have no idea how to write this.  Everyone wants to know how I feel about finally coming home.  I usually talk about the cliché happy-sad conundrum, but honestly I am astonished at how little emotional response I have right now.  It feels surreal.  What it boils down to is that I really cannot grasp the fact that I won’t be in this country for much longer.  Here I am, less than 24 hours from takeoff, and it still hasn’t hit me.  It’s the little things that remind me: charging my American phone because I’m leaving my Indian one here; seeing my closet empty and my suitcases full; my outfit picked out, folded and ready along with my blazer, waiting for the morning.  My year is over.  My exchange, my time here, finished.  The way exchange works is that you get excited about the program and jump right in, thinking about the year that faces you.  This year, though, is a strange, arbitrary time frame in which your life changes, your morals are questioned, and your views on everything are turned upside down.  Looking ahead, ‘a year’ seems like such a short time to accomplish so much, yet such a long time to be away from everything familiar.  Heading into the program, ‘the end’ seems like a far-off imaginary time that you will never reach.  For better or for worse (believe me, there are times of both), you are stuck on a treadmill of time and seem to make no dent in the year while you hit benchmark after cultural benchmark, and understand more and more of the people and place that surround you.  Then just when you start to think this year will stretch on forever, you fall off the treadmill and start running full speed toward the door.  It comes much faster than expected and soon you have made it to the door, facing the finality of your worldly, life-changing experience.  ‘The end’ sounds so grand, so important – I couldn’t help but picture it as a bigger ordeal.  However, my end seems like a whisper next to the roaring year I have had.  I convinced myself that this moment would have some profound significance for me but in reality it was the rest of my year that holds meaning; leaving is simply the definitive end.  Despite my cacophony of emotions here I am, one foot out the door.

This is the blog post I have mulled over for an entire year, wondering what I could possibly say to satisfactorily sum up a year of experiences and learning.  As far as my expectations for this year, I have fallen short on some while taking on many other challenges I could not have imagined.  I think this is part of the program.  If I did everything according to what I planned, what kind of cultural exchange would it be?  In the end, my year was turning strangers from across the globe into some of my closest friends and together learning to thrive in one of the most different cultures in the world.  I’ve conquered chili peppers, Indian roads, and eating with my hands, and there’s not a challenge facing me that shakes the confidence I have developed this year.  I have met a greater variety of people and broadened my mind more than I could ever have guessed.  This year made me appreciate alternative ways of living in addition to a more profound awareness of my life in the United States.

As I leave here, I am extremely excited to return home to see my family and friends again, and experience all the things I have missed this year.  However, a piece of me fears that I have exaggerated how great home is.  Are Minnesotans as friendly as I make them out to be?  Are the streets as clean and the roads as organized?  Can a steak burrito from Chipotle possibly live up to the ridiculous standard to which my mind holds it?  I am not sure how accurate my image of home is, and I am almost positive it will feel strange after a year of adjusting to this lifestyle.  That just means that I have done something right this year.  Leaving behind all that I have built in India is by far the saddest part of this moment.  I am not simply leaving a city, I am leaving a home, a family, a life, and I will miss all of it more than I could ever have anticipated coming into this year.  Finding differences and similarities across the globe has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life and I am certainly not going to end here.  Like many of my fellow exchange students, this year has developed in me a strong desire to explore the vast variety of the world and an eagerness to understand other cultures.  This will last me the rest of my life, and I hope it takes me to many unique and unexpected places. 

As the monsoon rains begin to fall in Pune and I complete a full cycle of seasons, I look forward to making the most of summer in Minnesota.  I have purposefully packed my schedule for the next three months, and cannot wait to get to work crossing things off, hanging out with my brothers and friends, and playing an obscene amount of ultimate frisbee.  I will be happily too busy to write again, and this seems like the natural end to my blog.  It has been a great tool for me to process my thoughts, and I hope it has served to spread a little cultural understanding as well.  Thank you to Rotary for creating this opportunity for so many people around the globe.  India will forever be my home and I will always appreciate this amazing adventure.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Hiking the Himalayas

I climbed a piece of the highest mountain range in the world, and it was magnificent.  As any of my fellow 16 Northfield outbounds can tell you mountains are impressive, especially for teenagers who have never lived outside the flat plains of Minnesota.  Don't get me wrong, I love my state to pieces, but mountains are undeniably majestic.  It was an exhausting 48-hour journey each way but the beautiful landscape greeting us from the moment we arrived was completely worth it.  

View from our tent
We set out the next day after breakfast equipped with backpacks and rain ponchos.  Luckily we only had to carry the weight of our clothes, as the tents and sleeping bags at each camp were immobile and the food and cooking supplies were carried by a team of mules.  This made the hiking less difficult and allowed us to focus more on enjoying the trip and the miraculous views.  Each night was colder than the last as we ascended the mountain, but our tent endured.  The girls' tent, however, struggled a little more - understandable for a Brazilian, Mexican, and Argentinean experiencing true cold for the first or second time in their lives.  Being a true Minnesotan to my core, I love cold weather and have certainly missed it these many months.  This trip helped me get my cold fix in a fun way.  The third day we reached our highest campsite, bordering a large snowy hill.  Naturally we headed right for the fun, building snowmen, having snowball fights, and sledding.  We all had a good laugh as we watched our favorite latinas pack into a sled and scream the entire way down.

360 panorama of our highest point.  Click to enlarge.

After two days of hiking we descended back down to base camp where warm showers awaited us.  We cleaned up, unpacked our bags, and headed into town.  Manali is a quaint city located in the middle of baby Himalayas, and its culture reflects a unique piece of India.  Due to its location near the border, Manali is home to a significant Tibetan population who primarily run stores in the market where we spent all of our time.  Manali is quite cheap for handmade items, especially if you are an adept haggler unlike myself.  I did, however, manage to procure a few items for decent prices with the aid of more practiced bargainers.  The experience was quite enjoyable with good shopping as well as a peaceful atmosphere that evades the majority of Indian cities.

When we left the North and reached Delhi, it was time to say our goodbyes to friends from other cities.  Knowing we will likely never see the majority of them again was a sobering thought at the end of an otherwise fantastic experience.  We closed the trip with another 24 hour train ride full of our usual shenanigans born of boredom, and it was nice to get back to a real bed after two weeks.  Seeing the Himalayas was definitely a highlight of my year, and this experience is one I will remember forever.  Thanks to Rotary for organizing this and all the other trips this year, and to my parents back home without whom I would not have been able to participate in all the amazing experiences they offered.  

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Mangoes: Nature's One True Perfection

Mango Stand
I do not mean to overstate it with the title, but mangoes are really great and it would be hard to exaggerate how much I love them.  We are in the heart of mango season and that is the only thing that could possibly manage to make up for the awful weather.  In fact, mangoes were undoubtedly a divine creation, sent to Earth for the express purpose of balancing out the unbearable heat of this season.  Mangoes can turn a bad day into an enjoyable one, and they are so easy to get.  This blog post is dedicated entirely to the wonder fruit that is keeping me going this summer.  Mango season began in mid-April and runs into the beginning of June.  Mango is India’s favorite flavor year-round, but during this magical period of time you can find fresh mangoes at every stand on every street.  Before I left the US I had tried mangoes a maximum of three times and none had gone so well.  India has turned me.  Now one of my favorite fruits I simply cannot get enough of the stuff in every form available.  Here is a variety of mediums drawing on the perfection of the mango:

Freshly cut mango: original fruit fresh from the mango farm
Aamras: mango pulp, plain, simple, and incredibly delicious

Mango juice: Nectar of Life
Mango mastani: combines two of the best ways to eat mango - milkshake and ice cream

It is my personal belief that mangoes account for some of the purest moments of joy I have felt on my exchange, and I am making it my goal to push the limits of mango consumption until the day I leave this country. 

Summertime, Not So Fun

It’s really hot.  I know that sounds pretty good to most of you in Minnesota where you cannot seem to shake winter and the snow keeps popping up like a difficult game of whack-a-mole, but trust me, you are better off cold.  Right now we are in the middle of summer which marks a three month period where the temperature hovers just above 100 degrees for the day and dips down to about 80 at night.  It is more manageable than the hottest of Minnesota summer days due to the lower humidity, but it is certainly unpleasant and hot enough that you sweat just being outside.  I unconsciously have begun drinking several liters of water each day simply to survive.  Though I am not one to appreciate high temperatures, it seems like no one enjoys this time of year and Indians are equally unhappy.  Activity outside has visibly decreased due to the heat and people go out earlier or wait until the sun sets to leave the house.  Summer lasts until right after I leave, and then temperatures drop as the rainy season sets in.  To be honest I am less than thrilled to go directly from India’s hottest to Minnesota’s hottest when I miss my cold weather so much.  I’m sure all the ultimate frisbee, swimming, and barbeques will make up for it.

Now that I think about it I do not believe I ever blogged about weather in India.  The strangest part of the weather here is how astonishingly predictable it is.  For June, July, and August it will rain once or twice a day and the weather will be cooler.  The rains stop in September and the temperature remains about the same through November.  December, January, and February constitute the coldest time of year, a “winter” of sorts, with nights in the high 50s and days up to low 70s.  March and April are a transition into the much hotter summer weather of May and early June and temperatures are high all the time.  When I say the rain stops in September, I don’t mean less rain.  I mean none.  Zero precipitation from September through the beginning of June.  That’s almost nine months with rain, snow, or anything else to create moisture in the ground.  To be honest, I’m not sure how fruit manages to grow here, or any plant for that matter.  The other extremely strange part of the weather is that it does not change from day to day.  When I look at the forecast on my iPod, the highs and lows change by maybe a degree or two a day.  Ever.  In fact, it is so consistent that weather is never featured in the news and only gets a 1”x1” section in the paper.

Though the heat is definitely putting a damper on my final weeks in India, I am lucky enough to be spending the next two hiking in the Himalayas where the temperatures are a little cooler.  I cannot wait to cool off and experience another unique and beautiful piece of India!

Saturday, May 4, 2013

North Trip Wrap-Up

Seeing as I leave India a month from today I had better get this trip over.  I leave in five days to go to the Himalayas for two weeks and I have some more I want to say before then.  Well after our extremely Zen desert outing we headed off to another Rajasthani city with a color theme: Jodhpur.  Jodhpur’s buildings are blue, and much more coordinated than Jaipur’s pink.  We visited an enormous fort-turned-museum which had an incredible array of artifacts and substituted audio guides to the real ones.  This actually enhanced the experience because we got to split up and learn as much or as little as we wanted about various pieces of the culture.  We spent several hours wandering the area and it was probably my favorite fort we visited on the trip.  From a landing high in the structure you got a beautiful view of the city and could truly appreciate the blue buildings covering the landscape. 

From our next city, Udaipur, we took a bus to Chittorgarh and its fort.  Though not the most interesting, some of its architecture was covered in remarkable carvings.  There was also a tall tower that was really cramped and took about 15 minutes to climb.  Maybe not worth the effort, but it was an interesting experience to direct a group of 10 people going up and down past many other Indian tourists.  The best part of the day was when we went market shopping and I purchased a cool turban.

Side note on turbans, I think they are really cool.  Besides, each region of India has its own way of styling turbans.  While Rajasthan simply wraps the cloth around your head in a really poofy arrangement, some places leave a two-foot tail running down your back.  Personally, I think Maharashtra has it right.  You may remember feeling really jealous of the beautiful turban creation adorned atop my head for the Ganpati celebrations in September.  This is the traditional Marathi form of wearing a turban, with the tail on the back and the fan-like protrusion in the front.  Turbans take a surprising amount of fabric and were unexpectedly difficult to purchase considering how many people wore them in Rajasthan.  There are also turbans for Sikhs which are smaller, usually black, and have a round bulge in the front that holds some of their hair.  I think these look pretty cool but they are used only religiously and apparently I might upset people.

Anyway, the next day was our last of the tour.  We visited the second largest palace in India which took 450 years to build.  While the architecture and artifacts were intriguing, the experience was really defined by our tour guide.  By far the most humorous and good-natured we have had in all of our trips, this man made the tour really quite fun in addition to educational.  He certainly knew his stuff, but kept interjecting some strange statements that caught our attention.  Here are a few:
“Kill a peacock: three months prison.  Kill a cow: six months prison.  Kill a man: 5,000 rupee fine.”
“Wife died in ’73 at the age of 45 because her husband had polio.”
Upon telling one king had hundreds of wives and no offspring, he told us the spouses were for “kissing and hugging, no more.”
He was quite a character, and a good way to end our day before taking the long train home.

At the end, we made some observations about North India compared to South.  In general the North seems more developed and has better roads and more technology (this is mostly predicated on the fact that most of our hotels on this trip had wifi).  Also, there is significantly more Muslim influence to Moghul invasion and the proximity to Pakistan.  Shopping was cheap at the copious number of markets, and there were many more pure-veg restaurants as well as foreigners. All in all, this was a fantastic trip.  As a group we clicked much better than on South Trip and we were all sad to say goodbye at the close.  Lucky for us, we will see the others again in only a few days for the next trip!

Friday, May 3, 2013

Adventures in Rajasthan

In an attempt to reconcile for past lack of blogging I am going to knock off North India: Part II.  My plan is to make some ground on travels in Rajasthan then finish up with a third post this weekend.  After Agra and the Taj Mahal we visited a city called Fatehpur.  The town was less memorable but our experience in the tomb was unique to say the least.  We began our tour in the usual manner with one guide and about 20 salespeople trailing along attempting to bargain us into buying their cheap trinkets.  The thing about these people is that they will not take no for an answer.  They bother you for minutes without provocation and any sign of interest, even as slight as looking at their wares, means it is only a matter of price and they will follow you to the end of the Earth.  These guys are everywhere in tourist areas and they really start to test your patience after weeks of travel.  After viewing most of the tomb some guys offered us individual tours which our original guide endorsed.  It was definitely the quickest and most forced tour on which I have ever been, and ended with “Oh look, here is a shop full of carvings made by the craftsmen of my family!”  We should have seen it coming.  These salesmen were craftier than the common followers, and their sale has been perfected after thousands of repetitions.  After getting you to the shop, they put on a sort of one-way auction where you are the buyer but certainly not the bidder.  They keep up a monologue of decreasing prices and what a great deal it is without giving you time to breathe.  Once they think they have hit a price you will agree to they wrap up the carvings and put them in your pocket, covering up your doubts with the simplicity of their request: “1000 rupees and done”.  The show really is a spectacle and tricked many of us into submission if only to get them to stop talking.  My original intention was to browse independently, likely buying nothing.  Instead, I received an excessively intense personal salesman who got me to buy two small elephants and a candle holder all for only Rs. 1500, or about $28.  The carvings are intricate, beautiful, and certainly cultural, but they are also at every store in the country and for better prices.  I, being the miser I am, had bought next to nothing in India and knew no better, and was fooled by the original price tags which were about three times as much.  Learning is the cornerstone of a cultural exchange and this day I certainly came away wiser, if poorer.

Our next destination was Jaipur, “the pink city” and our entrance into Rajasthan.  Although the levels of pink were a little disappointing, the city was not.  We visited some typical forts and visited an intriguing collection of astronomical instruments belonging to an old king who was enamored with the night sky.  It was quite amazing to see the impressive level of cosmic understanding this man discovered several hundred years ago with such meager technology, and to compare that knowledge to what the average person can explain about the night sky today.  A humbling thought.  As we left this place our Rotarian got pulled aside by security for questioning.  It was explained to us that they thought he was a fake tour guide fooling the naïve tourists and taking our money.  The stupid part was that they failed to listen to our collective assurance that we indeed we did know this man and that we were not completely moronic.  Though they threatened to bring him to the police station for further questioning, they eventually let him go and we moved on with our day.

One of the major themes of our trip was shopping.  Shopping, bartering, and buying gifts.  North India, and Rajasthan in particular, was filled with markets selling all kinds of clothing, carvings, and other keepsakes.  This was a cool piece of India not found as much in Pune as well as an ideal time to buy gifts for people back home.  Some of us took this to different extents than others.  While most of the guys bought a few interesting items, the girls spent about 3 times as much collecting scarves, bags, and poofy Indian pants with elephants on them.  In Jaipur Ana showed us her collection.  A little more extensive than ideal.  We are all wondering how she will get it all home come June.

The next day as we continued our travels in Rajasthan we visited one of the better known temples in India.  However, it is not known for its beauty or importance, it is known for the rats.  Yes, you read that correctly.  This temple is crawling with the vermin.  There are certainly hundreds of them skittering around and drinking the milk left out for them.  Just writing about it is giving me the willies.  The rats are considered sacred and I believe the whole temple is dedicated to the rat, probably as the vehicle for the god Ganesh.  It was a rattling experience and we were on edge the entire time.  I could not comprehend how some people could sit there so calmly surrounded by the creatures, or why they would choose to.

As we entered Jaisalmer we decided its nickname, “the golden city”, was better deserved than that of Jaipur as literally every building was built using the same gold-colored stone.  The city is centered on the large fort, unique in India because it is still home to 5,000 of Jaisalmer’s 50,000 residents.  The small population of the city is interesting because most Indian cities near on one million people.  500,000 is considered a town, not a city.  Anything smaller than that is usually just a village on the outskirts of some larger metropolitan area.  Rural areas are almost always less developed and do not have the modern technology of their urban counterparts.  Jaisalmer, however, is a rather famous city that stands completely alone and independent making it the most unique city I have encountered in India.  Its architecture is beautiful and its more traditional nature avoids much of the western influence that permeates the Indian culture of most cities.  I developed an immediate fondness for this place.


That afternoon we set out on a camel safari.  I love camels.  They are just so chill and nonchalant all the time and nearly everything about them is really cool.  If you have never ridden a camel I highly recommend it, as it is rather enjoyable once you get the hang of swaying with its walk.  We got to ride them through some legitimate sand dunes and it was a sad moment when Colby and I had to say goodbye to our camel with whom we had grown quite close.  After running around in the sand for a while we visited an oasis camp where we witnessed some traditional dancing and ate traditional food from Rajasthan.  The night culminated with a run back to the sand dunes to look up at the stars.  The only light for miles was from the small camp, so the view was magnificent and you could see about ten times as many stars as usual.  It was one of those moments you have to have every once in a while when you realize how big the universe is and it boggles your mind attempting to comprehend it.  We just lay there in the sand for half an hour.  It was a great ending to my favorite day of the trip, and one of the most calm and peaceful moments of my year.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

An Expedition North

I’ll start off by saying that North tour was amazing.  It truly was a fantastic trip full of experiences I will remember for the rest of my life.  Though I feel like I say this quite frequently, that just means I’m having a valuable exchange.  Nevertheless, this trip was above and beyond my everyday life-changing ordeal.  Now that I think about it, I don’t believe I mentioned this trip beforehand so, for anyone wondering, that’s what I was up to for two and a half weeks of late February and early March.

As is the norm, we started off the trip with a long train ride and arrived in Delhi the next day.  Delhi is a lot like Washington D.C. in that it is the nation’s capital and resides in its own state.  We started the trip off with a bang and headed straight to the famous Lotus Temple.  It is the most well-known modern temple in India and is renowned for its beauty and unique shape (you guessed it, lotus flower).  For a building with such a stunning exterior, the inside was remarkably simple – a mostly empty area with chairs and space for quiet reflection and prayer, encompassed by plain, white walls.  This is probably an effort to reflect the minimalist nature of the Baha'i faith, for whom the temple was built.  What I understood of their beliefs is that they focus on the spiritual unity of mankind, claiming that all religions are based on the same God who created the universe and all humans.  I believe they also are pushing for world peace by uniting all countries.  Some interesting ideas at least.

After the Lotus Temple we visited some of the other major attractions of Delhi including the Gate of India and Qutub Minar.  The latter was an interesting site which claims a famous tower as well as the oldest solid pillar in the world.  It is made of a mixture of metals and was created using technology not developed elsewhere until centuries later.  Though it is not too much to look at, you cannot argue that it is not impressive.

The next morning we rose early and took another train to Rishikesh (Roo-she-kesh), a city located on the sacred Ganges River.  Many people come to Rishikesh to wash themselves in the water and line the river to participate in the religious ceremonies each day.   We walked along the shore and could not resist dipping our feet in the holy water (followed by a thorough scrubbing in the shower).  

The rest of our stay in Rishikesh contained slightly less traditional Indian culture and slightly more adrenaline.  We started the next morning off by going river rafting in the Ganges.  In two large, inflatable boats we braved our way down the river daring powerful rapids and waves that covered our entire vessel.  Several exhilarating hours later we finished our adventure sore, soaked, and ready to relax.  Naturally, we took the next day easy with only a little light bungee jumping.  I personally did not jump, but I thoroughly enjoyed the looks of pure terror on my friends’ faces at the moment they began their 83 meter (272 feet) plummet. 

The next day we went over to Agra to see India’s most famous edifice, the Taj Mahal.  Naturally there was a lot of anticipation and hype leading up to this moment, but it completely realized my expectations.  Despite paying 37.5 times more than an Indian citizen to see this amazing tomb, it was incredible.  You enter a tunnel leading through the enormous gate and the Taj hits you – framed by the dark end of the passageway the white marble is illuminated as you gaze on one of the most beautiful structures in the world.  Though everyone knows the Taj is magnificent from afar, only those who actually visit can fully appreciate its intricacies.  The Taj Mahal is built from marble and covered in colorful floral designs and Arabic texts, but the workers did not use any paint.  All ornamentation is composed of semi-precious stones inlaid into the marble.  To wholly give the workers due praise, this means that each small stone was carved by hand to perfectly match the piece of marble cut out and held there with only a small amount of natural adhesive.  However, the most impressive testament to the level of workmanship is that when you rub your hand over the engravings you cannot feel the border between the different stones.  Only where the British carved away stones before fleeing a newly independent India are there any signs of imperfection.  The Taj truly deserves its status as one of the Seven Wonders. 

We stopped afterward at a marble-working store that uses the same techniques employed in the ornamentation of the Taj Mahal.  This increased my admiration of the process considerably.  Here they gave us a small sample of the work that went into constructing such a masterpiece.  Two workers sat on the ground one carving out the marble, the other sanding down the stones.  The store owner told us that even small works take two workers months of dedication to complete and showed us examples of finished products from pebble-sized elephants to entire dining tables.  I still consider this one of the most impressive pieces of culture I have witnessed, along with several other sites we visited during the remainder of this trip.