Thursday, April 25, 2013

Moi Tumak Bhal Pau

The other day, Kristin was out of town so I borrowed her scooter to drive to work. Along the way, I realized that everything that was new to me the first couple of months is now so normal. Once I could not navigate the unpaved streets, and now I know how to get around town. I used to think the town was smelly and dirty, but now it all seems ordinary. I always stared at the barefoot men carrying tons of
bricks on their heads, but now I do not even blink an eye. Honestly, I feel when I am walking and driving the streets here that I am home. The people walking past me are my neighbors, the friends I have made are now family, the vegetable market is a normal grocery store, and the man selling the veggies and fruit knows exactly what I am coming to buy every other night.

Kasitan, the girl who we take to school every afternoon from Lakhtokia, has been sick with a virus this week. I have been checking on her every day. I walked into her house on Tuesday and found
her throwing up. When she was done, she came to give me a kiss on the cheek… yummy. Today, I walked two other slum kids—cute Avita and Ajbanu—to get some food. (Sidenote: There is another
NGO in Guwahati that also helps Lakhtokia on some weekdays by providing lunch--so I was taking Avita and Ajbanu to this NGO. It is so comforting to know that more people are providing for this
community.) We were walking in our usual way, holding hands and dancing and laughing. All of a sudden I heard, “I love you.” I said, "Excuse me?" I looked down and Avita looked up and she said,
“I love you.” I did not think she knew what that meant. So, I asked her what “I love you” in Assameese was. Luckily, I had a pen and paper in my purse and wrote I what she said to me. When I returned
to the center, I asked my Assamesse friends how to say, “I love you” in Assamesse. And they said, “Moi Tumak Bhal Pau.” Which is exactly what I had written on my piece of paper: “Moi Tumak Bhal Pow.”

This is one of those moments that you read about and that you hear about. This is one of those moments that you never think will happen to you. I love these children but sometimes you cannot tell if they really understand that. After this happened, I realized why this has become such a familiar place for me, because love is everywhere.

Sending smiles and “Moi Tumak Bhal Paus” from India, 

Photos from earlier in the year: 

Ajbanu after her major haircut!
Avita washing up on street kids day. 
Avita and me earlier in the year. 

Monday, April 22, 2013

Southern styles

I decided to post another story about southern Indian life because I find it so interesting that things can be so different within one country. I have mentioned before that the southern attitude towards education is different than what exists in the North. In addition to education, there are numerous other examples of how the South is so culturally different than what I am used to.

1. Because the South is so humid and hot, the girls put loads of oil in their hair to keep their long black locks tamed. The oil makes their hair sit there, with no volume, and never move. Every girl's hair was long (almost down to their bottom), drenched with oil, perfectly held together with a wooden clip, and adorned with a flower. It was as if their hair were straight out of a magazine. It was always so beautiful, and would sometimes involve complicated braids and other intricate styles. To keep everything in place, the wooden clips the girls use are sold everywhere on the streets and come in a variety of designs. Attached to the wooden clips are fresh Jasmine flowers. People could tell that Archna, the Indian girl I traveled through the South with, was a tourist because of the simplicity of her hair. She told me one day, “I look northern.”
A southern woman's hair is quite a sight. 

Trying to fit in with other Kerala women: wearing Jasmine flowers in my hair. 

2. India is known throughout the world for keeping the gold market in business. Everyone in India wears gold it seems. And not just all of India. I've heard it said that 90% of the gold bought in India is bought in the south. And I can believe that. Every woman is loaded down with gold. Whether they are just running errands or going for a morning walk, an Indian woman in the South is usually wearing at least five pieces of gold that might include two elaborate earrings, one necklace (either extremely heavy and large, or a simple chain), one bangle bracelet, and one ring. My friends told me that people in the South save their hard-earned money to buy gold. It's not only wealthy people wearing it: no matter the class, women have it. At weddings here, a bride is covered in so much gold that you can barely see her

3. The men can usually be found wearing a type of sarong, which is either a white dhoti or a colorful lungi. Honestly, I sometimes feel uncomfortable with how short their “skirts” can get. But this is normal, and nobody else thinks that is weird. For the final party, two Operation Smile people bought dhotis and wore them. They said they were complicated to tie, like a sari.

Two mission participants sporting their dhotis! 

4. Just as southern food in the USA is delicious, southern food in India is fabulous. Loaded with curry, the food is light and not as heavy as northern Indian food. In other words, when you're finished eating, you do not feel as if you have a brick in your stomach. Especially in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, there is a lot of seafood. Southerners also have their own kind of bread, called parootha. If you know what naan is, this bread is like naan but not so thick and heavy. The breakfasts especially hit the spot. Three main breakfast items are verda (sort of like a donut without the icing), idly (steamed rice cakes), and dosa (thin crispy bread). All of these are eaten after you dip them into curries. In Kerala and Tamil Nadu, I saw far more fruit stands that I am used to. I guess that is obviously because the south is more tropical than the north.
Alleppey snack sand with lots of banana chips. 



Verda and idly
5. The driving is nothing compared to the north. Guwahati has some of the worst driving in India. It is extreme. But the driving in the south was pretty calm.

Sending smiles and southern lovefrom India,

Friday, April 19, 2013

One in a world of seven billion

For a couple of days after the mission, I traveled around Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The map below explains all of the cities that I stopped to see. Whether it was looking around a town or actually visiting monuments, Archna (an Operation Smile program coordinator) and I covered a lot of ground in a short amount of time. We planned where we were going (thanks to local friends who gave us great recommendations), but not where we would stay, or where we would eat or what we would do. We would just show up and wander around. When traveling this much, I really realize how much I enjoy simply observing the way other people live. I like seeing their environment—food they eat, surroundings they live in, clothes they wear, roads they drive on, work they find, things they do. Again and again, you are reminded you are but one of seven billion people in this world.

I started at A (Alleppey) and ended at E (Madurai). 
A. Alleppey: I started out in Alleppey (the mission was here) where I spent one night on a houseboat floating around the backwaters and observing the villages. The backwaters are way more beautiful than I expected. Houses sit on small islands of land surrounded by water. We parked the houseboat for the night next to the backwater’s version of a bus stand. There is a boat that travels around the backwaters and stops at docks to pick up people. The last one came at around 11:30 P.M. and the first one came at 6 A.M. I assume that it is very reliable because there is not much traffic in the backwaters.

Other house boats floating around the backwaters. 

The fish market sitting on a piece of land in the middle of the backwaters offers delicious freshly caught fish. 
This fish market was extremely smelly as well. We bought some fish for the house boat staff to make.
B. Kovalam: From Alleppey, Archna (my traveling companion) and I took a bus to Kovalam. The buses are lots of fun (and not so fun) to ride for several reasons. First, they are jam-packed. Second, they are extremely hot. Third, they have some of the best people watching. Fourth, you get to drive through cities, villages, and various sized towns you would ordinarily miss. (A side note: one free day during the mission, some new friends and I looked around Kochi, a large city filled with history north of Alleppey. The bus ride back to Alleppey at 10 P.M. was so crowded that you could not move a centimeter. We stood for 3/4ths of the one and a half hour bus ride, completely packed in. My friends and I just could not stop laughing, it was so much fun.)

The drive from Alleppey to Kovalam was beautiful because some of the drive is along the beach. Kovalam is an adorable beach town on the coast of Kerala. With many tourists, it attracts those searching for an inexpensive place to enjoy a great beach. I was shocked when I showed up and saw women in bikinis. So, I put on shorts… wait, what? I wore shorts in public in India? Yes, I felt really self-conscious.

Lighthouse beach in Kovalam.
Enjoying the sunset! 
The waves were really big as the crashed upon the rocks. 

Archna is boogy boarding. 

C. Kanyakamuri: From Kovalam, we took another bus to Kanyakamuri, Tamil Nadu. This is the most southern extreme of India. The sheer excitement of walking out on India's most southern tip is why I went there. Kanyakamuri had the most fun, colorful culture. The people there take pride in being so far south and their houses are a rainbow of neon colors. They love to wave and say hello to you. 

A temple in Nagercoil, a town near Kanyakumari. 
This temple has a beautiful shrine sitting in a small pond.
Kanyakumari sits at the point in which the Bay of Bengal, Arabian Sea, and Indian Ocean join together. 
The two monuments in the distance are the Vivekananda Rock Memorial and the Thiruvalluvar Statue. You can visit both of these memorials, which serve to celebrate these respected Indians. 
A colorful place, eh? 

More colorful houses. 
The Vivekananda Rock Memorial remembers Swami Vivekananda,  who  is a reformer and philosopher. It is believed that he swam to this rock to meditate. After three days on this rock, he reached enlightenment and discovered the mission of his life. (I take yoga at the Vivekananda center, which is like an Indian YMCA). 
To get to the Vivekananda Rock Memorial, you must wait in line for the ferry. I thought this picture was nice because you can see all the beautiful colors of Indian clothing. 

The classic hurkie jump on the very southern tip of India! 
Sunset Beach. 
The sky was incredibly purple. Thank you Sunset Beach for an amazing sunset. 
D. Kodaikanal: After an eight-hour ride starting in the early morning, we arrived in Kodaikanal excited to be away from the beach and experience a hill town in the south. Kodaikanal was extremely beautiful: valleys, plains, and hills. When we got there, we were not quite sure about what to see because we did not have much time. So, we hired a $4 guide off the side of the road. He did not know much, but he knew where to take us and how to get there and that is what mattered.

The drive to Kodaikanal begins with a massive wind energy farm. Tamil Nadu generates 40% of India's wind power. 

The drive to Kodaikanal. 

One of the many view points in Kodaikanal. 
The pine tree forest. 
There were many wild monkeys in Kodaikanal. Honestly, there were very scary. 

Kodaikanal lake. 

The clouds settling in the for the night. 
Kodaikanal houses and businesses sit along the hills. 

E. Madurai: This city is home to one of the most famous temples in India. Menakshi temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva and Parvati, is a historical structure built over thousands of years. A beautiful, dark maze, the temple is filled to the brim with shrines, statues, and gods. There are four towers on the outside of the large temple, which are detailed in ways that I could never imagine building.

The Menakshi Temple had better people watching than the bus (and dare I say the airport). This temple attracts around 15,000 visitors a day and 25,000 visitors on Fridays (because Friday is a holy day). These visitors are from all walks of life: poor, rich, village life, city life, north or south or east or west India, and as a result they all wear different clothes, talking different languages, etc. It is a melting pot of Indian cultures. By the end of our time at the temple, I could recognize who was from what culture thanks to Archna.

The 4 towers are entrances to the temple. 
The towers are extremely detailed.


Seeing so many places in such a quick amount of time makes the impact of observing different styles of living that much more incredible. What I mean by that is that at some point it is hard to accept and understand how one village in the south can live such a radically different life than a comparable village in the north. One of the most important things I have learned while being here is that I am one tiny, tiny, tiny grain of sand in the ocean. It is always hard for anyone to accept how many people there are in this world. (Accepting how many people live in India is hard enough.) But acknowledging what other peoples' lives are like, and how starkly different they can be, is one step closer to accepting that you are one in seven billion.

Sending smiles from India,

P.S. I encourage you to google the places I visited for more detail, history, and information.