Friday, April 1, 2011

Southern India

The last portion of our six-week backpacking adventure consisted of visiting a few cities in the southern part of the country. From Udaipur, we traveled for over twenty-four hours by train to reach a Mumbai suburb, Dahisar. Instead of staying directly inside the city, we chose to stay in this town where Holy Cross Fathers were located. As expected, the hospitality of the Fathers was wonderful (a commonly found characteristic of Indians that trumps Americans any day!). Here, we traveled into the city for one day hitting up the essential tourist sites: Taj Hotel, Gateway of India, Elephanta Island, and we even attended a Western-influenced wedding with one of the Fathers. It was great to see people having fun and dancing to music that I recognized. The overall lifestyle in the Mumbai area could not be more opposite of that in Agartala, but it has been amazing to witness the cultural differences within this one country.

Onto Goa! We joked that our trip to Goa was our vacation, from a vacation, from a vacation. Explanation: Extension India is our vacation from real life in America; the six-week backpacking trip was our vacation from Agartala life; the trip to Goa was our vacation from backpacking. This was our time to relax for one week, tan on the beach, enjoy numerous happy hours, and eat an unspeakable amount of food. And we did just that.

Hampi, in the state of Karnataka, pleasantly turned out to be my favorite stop along the six-week trip. Although we did not spend numerous days at this site (though I wish we had) it was such a refreshing city. The entire landscape was beautiful rocky terrain, bright green rice paddies, flowing rivers, and (semi) clean air! The city is full of fascinating old ruins with so much to see. The roads near our cozy guesthouse were even quiet enough that we got some exercise by bike riding to many beautiful scenic spots. The three of us weren't eager to depart from this relaxing oasis, but the last couple cities of our trip were approaching!

Bangalore is the America of India. Don't get me wrong, on no occasion does it slip one's mind that you are still in the country of India while on the streets, but this city is as close to the feeling of home as any American can get. Located in a fantastic spot in the center of Bangalore was a Holy Cross affiliated guesthouse in which we stayed. The Fathers provided us with beds and home-cooked Indian cuisine, which was such a help with the state of our financial situation at the end of the six weeks. Not only were we lucky enough to have incredible accommodations, but we also had a friend to guide us around a few sites within the city and nearby villages. Our additional American companion was Ellen's cousin, Holly, who was working at an orphanage in the Bangalore area. Minus the fact that Holly became rather ill towards the end of our stay (perhaps from the over-consumption of Hard Rock Cafe food?), it was nice to talk to someone new and hear another American's perspective on Indian culture.

Kolkata. First, throughout these travel blogs, I have tried to highlight the positive aspects of my many experiences during this holiday season because this opportunity that I was given to travel the country has been life-changing. However, traveling in India is not your typical vacation. Maneuvering around these cities and modes of transportation is not always full of smiles and positive eye-opening experiences. After being raised in organized America, India is frustrating and frequently brings you through an intense emotional roller-coaster ride. It may have been because Kolkata was the last stop before returning “home”, but at that time, Kolkata left me speechless. I have never been exposed to such intense air and ground pollution, persistent hagglers and beggars, overcrowded streets, and loud surroundings. I cannot even imagine a more overwhelming city and thankfully, there truly aren't many in the world that actually do beat the poverty and pollution that exist here. We stayed at the hotel for one night and only left our rooms once. Even though at this point we had been in India for almost half a year, Kolkata was still physically and emotionally exhausting for me. Nevertheless, Kolkata, along with the other ten cities that we visited, was quite a journey full of ups and downs. We have gained so much knowledge in just these six-weeks, not to mention the incredible amount that we have learned throughout the entire length of the program. Many thanks to Stonehill College for providing this unbelievable opportunity for us.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Rajasthan

The next leg of our holiday travels consisted solely of the female portion of the Extension India group since Ben returned back to America for three weeks. India is predominately a patriarchal society and three girls traveling without a male may cause some to worry, but we did just fine! The three of us have grown some truly tough skin in India (which is essential as an American female located in a male-dominated society) and were proud to have extensively traveled around the country with confidence in our abilities.

From Delhi, our next destination along the route was to stop in three different cities throughout Rajasthan, the beautiful desert state. First, we took a twenty hour train ride to the quintessential Indian city, Jaisalmer. This sandstone city lies in western India and is only a couple of hundred kilometers away from the Pakistan border, but located at a safe distance from the danger that occurs in that section of the world. It was a nice change of pace to travel from chaotic Delhi to low-key Jaisalmer. Immediately upon arrival, we booked an overnight camel safari in the Thar Desert, a must for all tourists traveling to Jaisalmer. Overall, fantastic experience, but PAINFUL! Riding on a camel for two days is not a smooth journey and really strains muscles that I was unaware even existed within my own body!Our desert companions (one couple from the U.K. and another from America) were great to have around because it had been so long since the last time we interacted with anyone who completely understood our home culture and language. The tour guides who were taking care of us and the camels were also good company and cooked up some fantastic meals in the sandy desert. It still amazes me how Indians are capable of whipping up such extravagant and tasty meals from scratch in a matter of minutes. At night, we slept without a tent, but only with a pillow, quite a few blankets, and extremely close to one another so that we each could absorb as much body heat as possible since the desert becomes surprisingly chilly at night. Strange enough, there was even a man selling Kingfisher beer deep into the desert, which made for an excellent night!

Other than the camel safari,Jaisalmer was filled with an extreme amount of souvenir shopping and delicious food. We were then off to the next Rajasthani city! Jaipur (the recent Katy Perry and Russell Brand wedding venue) was our next stop and a very short one at that. Since we were on a tight budget, the most inexpensive route to travel through the state was to spend approximately fifteen hours in the city of Jaipur. Due to the overwhelmingly high intensity of this location, we only explored a couple of typical tourist sites: Jantar Mantar (a famous astrological park), the City Palace, and we climbed a tall minaret which gave us a fantastic view of the “Pink City”. After a few hours, we were prepared to climb aboard yet another overnight train and head to our last destination within Rajasthan.

Udaipur would be the site for our Christmas holiday and we were crossing our fingers for a stress-free city with great accommodations. Fortunately, we could not have asked for anything better and were incredibly happy with the guest house in which we stayed. If you ever find yourself traveling to Udaipur, the “Venice of the East”, I would highly recommend staying at Mewargarh Palace. The owner and his family were extremely welcoming, helpful, and took the time to get to know each and every one of his guests. He even hung a stocking with candy outside of our room on Christmas morning! Besides ordering a Christmas breakfast feast, consisting of every pancake flavor on the menu, we sure did treat ourselves nicely for the entire day! All three of us received a much-needed full body Ayurvedic massage, indulged in some serious jewelry shopping, and celebrated the holiday over a large glass of Italian red wine at a glamorous Udaipur hotel. It was difficult for all of us to be without the comfort of home during the holidays, but this was definitely a Christmas that none of us will ever forget!

Next up, Southern India!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Uttar Pradesh

After eleven trains, three flights, ten cities, and six weeks of traveling, we have finally made it back to Agartala and are relieved to no longer be living out of a backpack! We are excited to have returned “home” and to begin teaching at brand new schools. Considering Ellen and I start at the Saint Andre School on February 1st, stay tuned for blog entries in the near future regarding our teaching experience in the village!

On account of the length of the trip, I am going to divide up the blog entries and begin with the first leg of our journey, the state of Uttar Pradesh. The four of us began our backpacking adventure in the city of Varanasi, India. Two days before arriving, a bomb blast occurred at a well-known ghat on the Ganges River killing one individual and injuring many others. Our booked hotel was extremely close to where this incident took place and because of its close proximity to the incident, we decided to stay on the campus of Nav Sadhana, a college located just outside of Varanasi. One of the Holy Cross Brothers working at Holy Cross School has family in that area and we were very appreciative that he helped us organize these accommodations. The four of us were put up in great rooms, provided with delicious meals, and were thrilled that this quick change of plans worked out so perfectly. On the first day in Varanasi, we became accustomed to the city and toured four-well known temples and also visited the very large campus of Benares Hindu University. Our second day in Varanasi was highly anticipated because we planned to tour the Ganges River by boat at sunrise. This river is the “Mecca” for those who practice the Hindu religion and the Ganges is thought of as holy water. We witnessed many individuals cleaning and bathing in the river water, deceased bodies undergoing cremation on the ghats, and many Hindu rituals taking place. Varanasi was a rather overwhelming city with shocking sights, but I felt privileged to be able to observe characteristics of India that could never similarly resemble anything in the "Western World".

Our next stop was the tourist trap city of Agra. The pollution, trash, beggars, and hagglers are all intense aspects of Agra and if we could go back in time, we would have planned a day trip to the city instead of staying overnight. Agra is extremely lucky that it hosts one of the world's greatest wonders because other than that one beauty, the city is rather unpleasant and frustrating. I may also be a bit biased because other aspects of the city that did not positively effect my opinion were 1.) Being sick with a stomach bug and 2.) Experiencing a sleepless night due to a loud and never-ending Muslim festival occurring directly outside our window. Nevertheless, watching the sunrise at the Taj Mahal the next morning soon replaced our negative mood with an unforgettable adrenaline-rush. The feeling of witnessing the Taj Mahal for the first time is similar to that of seeing the Eiffel Tower or the Colosseum, but, in my opinion, ten times as amazing and stunning. We stayed in the Taj Complex for almost four hours absorbing the scenery, examining the beautiful marble carvings, and taking too many sunrise pictures. I was upset to say goodbye to the fascinating Taj Mahal, but thrilled to say hello to a new city.

Our last stop in the state of Uttar Pradesh was the nation's capital, Delhi. Once again, we were extremely fortunate regarding our accommodations. In this city, every aspect from our arrival to our departure was taken care of by a publishing company that supplies Holy Cross School with textbooks. The publishers were incredibly gracious to have provided us with rooms, food, laundry services, and a driver to tour the city. We had heard some stories from travelers along the way that Delhi was a chaotic and overwhelming city. Consequently, we were all extremely appreciative of our accommodations in this location. The city itself had its nice parts and its bad parts, but overall it was wonderful to be exposed to semi-Western culture for the first time along the trip. We even may have indulged in some rejuvenating McDonald's and Domino's Pizza! Besides spending marvelous hours acquainting ourselves with familiar American foods, we did, in fact, do quite a bit of sightseeing. Visiting Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India, was a very beautiful and unique experience for Aja, Ellen, and I. Upon walking into the mosque, all foreign women are given baggy clothing so that all areas of a woman's body are entirely covered. I have attached a picture of our attire and the mosque to this blog entry! Among some of the other sites that we explored throughout our few days in Delhi included, the Red Fort, the India Gate, an astrological park, Connaught Place, Humayun's Tomb, and the Lotus Temple. We had a enjoyable time touring the city, but were excited to continue on to the next part of our journey!


Next up, the desert state of Rajasthan!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Autumn in Agartala

The school year is quickly drawing to a close with Holy Cross School's academic year running from January to December. Indian classes are continuously in session with smaller and more frequent breaks instead of an extensive American summer vacation. Last Friday was the last day of classes and the students are anxious for upcoming final examinations, but excited to graduate to the next class level. For the next three weeks, final exams will be administered, graded, and students will receive the news if they have passed their current class level. There are only three tests per subject throughout the entire twelve months, making each exam period rather stressful for the students. After hearing stories from teachers, the final examination period is not a pleasant time for teachers or head administrators because upon receiving unpleasant grades, parents angrily storm the school looking for someone to blame. These confrontations often get pretty intense with police officers present and stories frequently making headlines in the local newspapers. Fortunately, the permanent teachers at Holy Cross will be correcting most exams so that Ellen and I will not be subjected to forceful parents blaming the Americans for the failure of their child's grade level. However, we will receive the opportunity to “invigilate” (the archaic word for “proctor”, which Indians thoroughly enjoy using) various examinations throughout the upcoming three weeks.

In order to celebrate the end of the school year, last Saturday was Children's Day, a chance for all of the teachers to perform various acts for the students. Teachers had the opportunity to perform dances, sing songs, act, and tell jokes or stories in order to provide entertainment and encourage laughter among the students before final examinations commenced. At both Blessed Andre and Holy Cross, the four of us performed “We're All In This Together” from High School Musical, as our American bit, while dressed up in the students' school uniforms. It truly was an epic act. Aja, Ellen, and I then performed a tribal Kokborok dance that the Holy Cross hostel girls so graciously choreographed for us. The entire day was more or less an intensely embarrassing experience, but hey, I'm in India, which in my mind is a “no judgment zone”. Since the video file size of both acts was a bit too large to load onto the blog, I have provided the youtube link so that you can watch us all perform in India!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U2AeA5AV8OQ

After the Children's Day performance, one of the teachers at Holy Cross School invited us to an Indian Classical Music Concert. This was quite an experience. Present at this event were world-renown sitar players along with various other well-known Indian musicians. It truly was a great opportunity to witness yet another cultural aspect of India, but it was as far away from any traditional American concert that I am accustomed to. It quickly became humorous to us Americans when the sitar player had not yet begun his first song, but instead sat on stage tuning the instrument for well over a half hour while all Indians patiently and intently waited. The music finally began and one song lasted the length of an entire CD. Great experience, but I am completely content with enjoying this only once in my life because as you can imagine, it was a rather long concert.

Since the date of my last blog entry, the four of us have celebrated another large Hindu holiday, Diwali (Festival of Lights). This day is to signify the victory of good over evil. Lights, candles, fireworks, and sharing of sweets are common celebrations during Diwali. Not only do we have the opportunity to experience Hindu customs, but we even received the chance to take part in a Muslim holiday yesterday with a friend of ours. I probably should not be so daring with the food here, but at the Muslim holiday feast I ate beef! The cow was sacrificed in the morning, we watched part of the slaughtering and cutting, and then ate the meat in the evening. At least I know where the cow came from! Aside from the festivities in Agartala, we are gearing up for our long backpacking journey across India. While the students are on winter break, we will be traveling for a little over one month to the following sites: Varanasi, Agra (Taj Mahal!), Delhi, Jaisalmer, Jaipur, Udaipur, Mumbai, Goa, Hampi, Bangalore, and Kolkata. This backpacking excursion will most likely be one of the most exhausting times in my life, but it will, without a doubt, be extremely exciting and rewarding.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Durga & Darjeeling

After a brief personal battle with food poisoning, our week long trip to Darjeeling, India was absolutely wonderful! Before taking off for the adventure, we spent the two prior nights enjoying the festivities of Durga Puja in Agartala. Durga Puja is the largest Hindu festival of the year and for five nights, the Hindu goddess, Durga, is worshiped inside incredible man-made structures called, pandals. On a normal night in Agartala, this city is completely shutdown and silent by the hours of 9 or 10pm. However, during Durga Puja, the city never sleeps. The pandals are continuously open and welcoming of visitors at every hour of the day. To better envision what the celebrations of Durga Puja entail, imagine a combination of an American carnival, a Christmas light show, an art gallery, a music festival, and a townie fall fair. It is rather difficult to describe, but after the first night, Aja, Ellen and I felt it vaguely resembled an American gathering (minus the alcohol, but with the addition of continuous perplexed stares from local Indian civilians). We were intrigued and therefore, found it essential to attend the festivities for one additional night. During the second night, we became a bit braver and indulged into some tasty, yet spicy, street food. Lesson learned in India: Do not experiment with foreign street food the night before a much anticipated vacation involving a flight followed by an overnight train. My body was not prepared for the shock of spicy (and possibly contaminated) Agartala vendor food. The plane ride and train were pretty miserable along with the first day in Darjeeling being spent in bed, but hey, I became a professional at the use of Turkish toilets.

Andy's Guest House, our accommodations for the week, turned out to be extremely homey and welcoming. Upon arriving, the adorable Tibetan owner realized I was not feeling well after I quickly asked directions to the nearest bathroom. She immediately prepared our rooms and took the place of Moukta by ordering rest and the consumption of plenty of liquids. Andy's Guest House proved to be a perfect place to stay and I would highly recommend it to anyone who happens to stumble into this corner of the world. Warm comforters, comfortable mattresses, an actual shower head, and western toilets all made this budget hotel seem like paradise. In addition, the rooftop view of Andy's was a stunning sight to awake to in the morning. On a clear day, we had a perfect view of Mount Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world. Although it did rain quite a bit, which inhibited us from actually catching a glimpse of Mount Everest, I have no complaints because being able to experience the sight of one of the highest peaks in world is an unbelievable opportunity.

The illness quickly passed and the next morning I awoke and was ready to explore Darjeeling with the rest of the group. We ate breakfast at Sonam's Kitchen, an amazing little restaurant that we revisited each morning. Fresh bread toasted with butter, vegetable omelettes, grilled tomatoes, banana and nut porridge, hash browns, real coffee, and CHEESE really made our mornings heavenly since we lack the majority of those items in Agartala. Restaurant owners and nearby tourists must have thought that the four of us had completely lost our minds because everything that we tasted was loudly, overly, and maybe even a bit, obnoxiously appreciated. The rest of our meals consisted of delicious restaurants full of pizzas, pastas, pastries, and various other “healthy” American foods. Nothing was quite comparable to foods back home, but it certainly was a nice change of pace from Indian white rice, chapati, and boiled vegetables.

As for the sightseeing, Darjeeling has gorgeous tea gardens, Buddhist monasteries situated in the clouds, beautiful temples, a busy market full of hand woven woolen goods (perfect for souvenir shopping), a welcoming and friendly Tibetan Refugee Center, and the most stunning landscapes that I have ever seen. On our last day, we rode the famous Darjeeling Toy Train back down the mountains. If it hadn't been down-pouring outside, then we would have witnessed some amazing views, but it was still a great experience and we did catch a few glimpses of the nearby scenery when we weren't completely immersed in the clouds.

Darjeeling, check!... and onto the next adventure. We are now in the process of booking our next backpacking excursion which will consist of traveling around the country for a little over one month. This will occur while the students are on their annual winter break throughout December and January. We are planning to visit about ten different cities throughout the many states of India. All four of us have now officially adjusted to the Indian way of life and feel 100% comfortable with being independent (an absolutely fantastic feeling!). I have posted many pictures of both Durga Puja and Darjeeling on facebook and you are more than welcome to check them out. Enjoy!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Road Rage

Cars, trucks, buses, public jeeps, auto-rickshaws, bicycle-rickshaws, bicycles, mopeds, cows, goats, dogs, cats, chickens and people are the various components of the chaotic streets in India. At first glance, it is pure mayhem. A little over two months ago, the experience of having a driver chauffeur us through the streets of downtown Agartala was frightening, exciting, and adrenaline-producing. Now that I have adjusted, this chaotic way of life seems absolutely normal to me. I am afraid that upon returning to America, I may lose my license on account of forgetting that Massachusetts actually has road rules.

The major difference between driving in India and in the U.S. is that everything is completely opposite. As in England, here, the driver sits on the right, while the passenger is seated on the left, and the car is navigated on the left-hand side of the road. When the four of us first landed in Kolkata, Manish was waiting for his car along with a taxi. Ellen, Ben, and Aja rode in the taxi while I rode in the passenger seat of Manish's car. As Manish was loading my luggage into his car, out of habit, I immediately opened the front right door, as any American passenger would have, and took a seat. Upon seeing the steering wheel directly in front of me and the pedals at my feet, I quickly shot around to the other side of the car. Manish thought this was quite funny. Awareness of the fact that a passenger is seated on the left was probably a piece of information that I should have researched before arriving in India, but my lack of knowledge definitely provided some humorous entertainment for a few minutes.

Other than the one rule of driving along the left-hand side of the road (which at times is ignored), the only other glimpse that I can provide into the experience of driving along Indian streets is that it is truly every man (or animal) for himself. The only way to get from one destination to the next in any vehicle is based on the effectiveness of one's horn. The concept of honking a vehicle's horn in India is very different than at home. In America, the horn is only honked if the driver has a feeling of pure anger and frustration for another nearby driver. In India, the horn is multifunctional and may mean, “I am turning left.”, “I am turning right”, “I am stopping.”, “I am reversing.”, “I am passing you”, “I am approaching a curve in the road.”, “I am crossing a bridge.”, “Open the gate.”, “Get out of my way, cow/goat/dog/cat/chicken/human being!”. If the horn on an Indian vehicle is broken, it would most likely be classified as useless in this country. The sound of honking vehicles is my alarm clock every morning and could very well be the most commonly heard noise in India.

Everything is still going very well for all of us in Agartala! We are extremely excited to depart for our first independent excursion and head to Darjeeling in three days. Since it is still in the 90's here everyday, it will be quite a shock to be thrown into 40 degree weather and be at an elevation that it just about two times the height of Mount Washington in New Hampshire. Although I would prefer 95 degrees over 40 degree weather, I am anxious to see more of India and look forward to our trip!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Exploring the Village Life

This past Sunday, Father Joe Paul invited the four of us to accompany him to a remote village in the state of Tripura. Every Sunday, he journeys out to various surrounding villages that are in need of a priest to say morning mass for the villagers. Even though the mass was spoken in the native tribal language, Kokborok, he thought it would be a good opportunity for us to exoerience the true life of a small Indian village. The car ride there was about two hours, but took a little longer than expected due to minor difficulties. Unlike America, not all roads in India are nicely paved. Most are bumpy, muddy, and greatly affected by the monsoon season. As we traveled closer to the village, the roads were extremely uneven and muddy, which made driving rather difficult. A couple of miles outside the village, our car got stuck in the mud and Father Joe Paul and local villagers had to push the car free. After that aggravating, but humorous battle, we decided to park the car on the side of the road, and walk the remaining two miles.

Upon arriving a bit late, all of the villagers were already gathered and singing in the small church with a bamboo roof. They were anxiously awaiting Father Joe Paul's arrival and were extremely excited to see that four American guests had stumbled into their community. Mass was said in Kokborok and afterward, Aja, Ben, Ellen, and I were warmly welcomed with flowers and hundreds of handshakes. The four of us and Father Joe Paul were then invited to the house of the President of the village for lunch. Before the meal was prepared, one of the villagers picked fresh guavas off of a nearby tree for us to eat. I had never tasted fresh guavas before arriving in India and they are delicious! None of us have ever seen them for sale in the Boston area, but hopefully we will be able to find some when we return.

Lunch was soon ready and consisted of white rice, a fish curry mixture, a rather spicy chutney, and a piece of fish. I have grown to love the curry mixtures here in India! However, utensils are not an essential part of life for local Indians, which is always a challenge for utensil-dependent Americans. Before this experience, we had only attempted to eat a rice meal with our hands once, which turned out to be pretty messy, but also really amusing! There is also a science behind the hand-eating technique. You want to mix just enough curry into the rice so that it clumps and is easy to grasp. If you mix too much or not enough curry, you are soon faced with a feeding struggle. It is surprisingly enjoyable to eat with your hands once you learn the proper hand-feeding technique!

After the meal, we cleaned our hands, were directed to use the “bathroom facilities” (in which we were asked, “Number 1 or 2?”), and then began our two mile walk back to the car. By the time we had reached the car, we had many animal followers such as, dogs and goats. Only in India does a leisurely walk remind you of Noah's Ark. The village experience was one that I would love to revisit in the future. Traveling to this remote location was a true immersion into a foreign culture and it was great to escape the Holy Cross safety-net that we have in Agartala.

On a side note, since I am talking a bit about the unique culture in India, I have posted a video below of a few performances that occurred on Teacher's Day, an annual Indian holiday in which students honor their teachers. These cultural dances were choreographed by the students and I thought everyone might enjoy a taste of the cultural programs that I attend quite frequently! The first two dances are classical Indian routines while the third clip is a performance from a well-known Bollywood film, "The Three Idiots". Thank you to the Connolly, Costantiello, and Abbott Families for the FlipCam!

video