Sunday, November 18, 2012

Bright Lights, Big City, Crazy Politics

When I landed in Mumbai several days ago, I saw…
1. Other foreigners
2. Street lights
3. Large tour buses
4. Women showing knees and shoulders.
5. Men wearing ties

Basically the point is, Mumbai is so different from Guwahati. A city of 21 million people, it is by far the most “westernized” city in India. At the same time, Mumbai has every part of India in it.

For those of you who remember, I have come to Mumbai for an Operation Smile "ULead" student conference. ULead student conferences take place in countries where student programs are beginning to develop. (To read about this conference, please visit The blog provides an hour to hour overview of what the conference was all about and has LOTS of photos--I wrote this blog as well). I had so much fun at the conference introducing Operation Smile to Indian students and seeing their passion for making a difference develop. I spoke to the group about my experience with Operation Smile and how I ended up moving to Guwahati. I hope the conference inspires these students to start Operation Smile clubs and be more involved in their communities.

The conference was held at a school called Reaching Beyond Knowledge International Academy (otherwise known as RBKIA). RBKIA is a very nicely designed pre-K to twelfth grade school. Because Mumbai is so big, all the buildings go up and not out. So, RBKIA is seven stories tall and barely has any play space. Students who attended the conference mostly attended other nice schools that offered an International Baccalaureate (IB) program. They all hope to go to a university in Europe, U.S., or a good college in India. It is really fun to see their energy and determination behind the things that they do.

The modern building next to RBKIA
The houses outside of RBKIA
This is seen everywhere in Mumbai next to really nice schools, country clubs etc.
I am staying at the Bombay Presidency Golf Club. It is a nice hotel with a swimming pool, several restaurants, a fitness center and a golf course to which members belong. Golf has been a huge part of my life and I haven’t seen a golf course or a golf club since I left Nashville two and a half months ago. So staying here has been quite weird. There is a putting green, a driving range, junior clinics in the afternoon, a 19th hole restaurant, and all of the other things you'd expect at a full-blown course. It kind of feels like home. However, there is one thing that is very different than home. There is a slum right outside of the entrance to the golf club, which is just so typically Indian and what makes India so crazy.

Tim Clark's signature
The Ladies news bulletin board (lots of ladies playing... my favorite)! 

Driving range

Club house

Nobody uses the golf carts-- all golfers walk

The pro shop
Dinner room
Party room

Unfortunately, while we have been in Mumbai, Bal Thackeray died. Bal Thackeray is a very famous and powerful politician from Mumbai. As one girl at the conference here told me, “Some people think he is God. People love him more than you can imagine.” Bal Thackeray died of old age (he was 86), and within hours after his death, all of Mumbai just completely shut down. No shops were open, no one was on the road--the whole entire town just shut down. The restaurant in our hotel is just slammed because it is one of the few restaurants open anywhere. Another girl that I saw at dinner tonight said, “My parents have lived here their whole lives and have never ever seen Mumbai like this. Mumbai has never been like this and might never be like this again.”

Thackeray's funeral was today, Sunday November 18, and tens of thousands of people showed up to watch him be cremated. As a result of his death, we have not been able to leave the hotel or really do anything much at all on this last day of the conference. Some people anticipated violence breaking out after his death, but that has not happened. There is a good story in the New York Times describing his politics, which a lot of people did not like (you can read it here).

Since all tv channels were shut off except local news, we decided to watch the funeral with the rest of Mumbai. 

The cremation.  

Hopefully tomorrow we will be able to get out and see Mumbai! Keep your fingers crossed please. On Tuesday I am off to Bhubenswar for an Op Smile medical mission. 

Sending smiles from India,

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Gambling, Explosions, and Back at Pinky's House

Happy Diwali!!

In my lower school every year, we had the Holiday Song Fest. Parents joined their kids and sang songs about holidays from all over the world. One song that I still remember is “Diwali, Diwali, Celebrate Diwali…” I remember it as the most important Hindu festival, the festival of lights, a day to welcome Lakshmi (the goddess of wealth).

Today, I like to explain Diwali as the festival that destroys your eardrums and encourages kids to light fireworks and play with fire.

Kids playing with fire crackers
Some kids playing with small fire crackers.
Diwali, which is a five-day festival, officially began on Tuesday, November 13 and will last until Saturday. However, most of the excitement takes place on Tuesday and Wednesday. School begins again on Thursday and the fireworks, which started Sunday night before the official start, will come to an end then as the kids return to school. Fireworks are important in Diwali because they are believed to
destroy the evil spirits. As to honoring the goddess of wealth, businesses stay open hoping that the holiday will bring them more money.

On Sunday, my flat mates and I started to get our apartment ready for Diwali. You are supposed to clean your house to make Lakshmi feel welcome. You also string lights all over your house and create Rangolis, which are decorations using colored powder and rice. We were not so successful at cleaning the flat, but otherwise we were successful.

Most Hindus create the Rangolis free-hand, but we cheated and used outlines to help us. We lit our apartment up nicely (and are thinking about keeping the lights up for our Christmas decorations as well). Finally, we lit the dipas, which are small clay lamps filled with oil. We soon learned we were amateurs after looking at our neighbors' decorations.

Our Rangoli with a dipa (small clay candle) in the middle.

More Rangolis.
Our neighbors Rangoli. 
The feet that welcome Lakshmi into our home. 
Come in, come in Lakshmi! 
Our neighbor's veirson 

Decorating our flat with lights!

The dipas all lined up on our balcony. 

Dipas in the apartment building.

On Sunday night the fireworks began but in little spurts. Then on Monday night, I thought I was in a war zone. During Diwali, apartment buildings have get- togethers. The apartment I live in threw a party in our parking lot. You pay $10 to light fireworks, have dinner, and gamble. (Gambling is a very popular tradition during Diwali, again because of how the holiday honors wealth). Not only did I
get to meet all my neighbors, but I won $6 playing Bingo. I spent much of my time screaming as fireworks were lit five feet in front of me. Kids were lighting fireworks left and right with no parents around to supervise what they were doing. I was freaking out. At about midnight, the fireworks ended.

My winning Bingo (Indian Bingo is played way differently)!

I got the top row!

The center pieces at the party
Me, Rosie, Kristin, Olivia
Dipas, the party decorations.

Sparklers (isn't her little sari so cute?)
Doing fireworks in the street (cars would just go right past as a bomb was about to go off).

From Monday night until Tuesday night, everyone left their doors open in the apartment building so that Lakshmi would come in. This meant that quite often

I was invited in to an apartment when I passed by an open door. Again, a great way to meet the people in my building.

On Tuesday, I found myself at Pinky’s house again. Her sweet mother fed me delicious food as usual, I played some board games with the neighbors, and learned how her mother weaves clothes. I have only gone to Pinky’s house at night so going during the day allowed me to check out their view. As well I took the opportunity to check out her mother’s massive weaving machine. She makes beautiful saris and taught me how to use the machine. I was not good with it at all.

The hand weaving machine. 
The view from Pinky's hill
After visiting Pinky’s house, several of us (including Pinky) snuck over to visit Apu, Pinky's boyfriend, at his house. During Diwali, you are supposed to eat lots of sweets (Indian sweets are VERY sweet), and I was served a lot of these as I got to know Apu’s brother, sister, and mom. Apu's family was so kind and welcoming. Although they were in such shock over a foreigner being in their house that they touched my face, they were so generous. Without asking, they brought me tea and a huge plate full of snacks (which can be a problem when you cannot put anything more in your mouth). They waited for me as I arrived in front of their house with huge grins on their face. They asked me to sit down, they wanted to know all about me, and the list goes on. I simply smiled, said their home was beautiful, admired the art on the wall, asked questions about their lives, and that meant so much to them. Apu’s sister said, “I will always remember this Diwali,” and I certainly will too.

Apu's dad's cricket trophies

On Tuesday night, the Operation Smile center had a very fun get-together. It involved the usual: gambling, eating and fire crackers. Tuesday night and tonight (Wednesday night) was the busiest night of firecrackers. They began at dark (5 P.M.) and lasted until 2 A.M. It is a constant stream of at least two booms per second (and I did wake up to fireworks at 7 A.M. this morning so who knows when they ever stop).

Men playing cards for $20, it got very intense. 
My new favorite fire crackers-- flower pots! 
I cannot believe the Diwali song that constantly got stuck in my head when I was little actually means something now. What a fun, festive, and joyful holiday!

I am off soon to travel to Mumbai and then Bhubenswar, Orissa for Operation Smile. I hope to get Internet at both of these places, but if not I will write on the blog as soon as possible afterwards.

Sending smiles and ear plugs from India,

Hannah Dobie

Sparklers are my favorite, so I bought 2 foot sparklers.
Rosie lighting sparklers!

Happy Diwali!

Diwali lights everywhere!