Friday, December 16, 2011

India: walk it out

On December 1st, I finished Peace Corps and headed to India for eight days. One of my best friends, Heidi, is doing an internship at the Sangam World Center in Pune, about four hours from Mumbai. To try to describe those eight days is going to be tough (I keep putting off this blog because of that), but I'll do my best.

The December heat in India was unlike any other type of hot climate I had ever felt. I've been in a few hot climates before: Florida, southern California, and Israel, but the heat of those places feels a lot different. Although it wasn't summer, I now understand the term "Indian summer." It's this spicy kind of hot there - you are immediately enveloped in heat through all your senses - the smells of the air, exhaust, food, and most of all, people, hit you right away. There are SO many people - yes, it is a well-known fact that India is home to 1.3 billion people, but it is a different story when actually there. That is when you see HOW that population is possible in one country - there seemed to be a person within a foot (or less) of me in every direction I turned, at all times.

And there is so much color! There are the green palm trees, the tan baboons on the side of the streets, the multi-colored saris or kurtas or scarves on almost all of the women, fruit stands, painted vehicles, painted walls, flowers, dirt, puddles, cars, rickshaws, horses, motorcycles of all colors (motorcycles and rickshaws are the main vehicles that take up the streets), brown skin, black hair, henna, bright signs.

After leaving my bandura (my Ukrainian instrument - a gift from my school at the end of my Peace Corps service) with a woman outside of the airport to be put into storage for the week, I saw my name on a sign among all the people waiting for the recent arrivals. I got in the car and we started the drive to Pune, a city four hours from Mumbai, where I flew into. On the way, that's where I saw the baboons, and I saw cliffs, new kinds of trees, hills, and the dark blue Arabian Sea. I forced myself to stay awake for most of the drive so I wouldn't miss anything.

We got to Pune in the evening, the city that I stayed in for the first few days, and the driver asked rickshaw drivers, motorcycle drivers, shopkeepers, and pedestrians for "bes Alandi? Bes Alandi?" We were trying to find the Sangam World Center where my friend works, on Alandi Road. After maybe 45 minutes, we found it; the gate guard let us drive up to the door of the center, and after paying the driver and walking toward the door, I could already hear Heidi's voice. Yep, same Heidi as always. :) I was relieved to see (or hear) that. After our loud, screaming, hugging reunion (in front of about ten people), Heidi got out a bunch of food from the fridge and I got to have my first curry in over two years. The spices were perfect, although a shock to my system after more than two years of a Ukrainian diet (actually, we'd had Indian food on the airplane on the way to Mumbai, so my body was already hating me while my taste buds were loving me.) Eating Indian food in India is spectacular.

So, after the rice, curry, naan and salad, we went to the doctor for Heidi to have her ear looked at. Heidi's friend (now my friend too) Hayley came too. The doctor's office is in a tiny little house a couple blocks away, with a small divider between the waiting benches and the table where the doctor sat, talking to the patients. For 60 Rupees, Heidi had her ear looked at and was prescribed several medications for what may have been an ear infection or just a blocked ear, which we were able to get at the pharmacy across the highway. The reason I'm even including the doctor's visit in the blog is that this is the first time (other than when I lived in Japan as a child) that I have been stared at/ been admired/have caused fascination or curiosity simply because of my skin color. It was a really interesting feeling, and I think I was more surprised by the realization that I had never really experienced that (I don't count the years in Japan, since I was too young to understand why people were always looking at me) than by the fact that people were staring at me. A father kept nudging and whispering to his 3-year-old son to approach me; a woman with a baby sat, beaming at me non-stop; people passing the office on the street looked in and said hello and wanted to touch my hand.

After getting back to Sangam, Heidi and I sat out in the December heat (that sounds like such an oxymoron to this Minnesotan!) in the garden on the big wooden swing with our lime soda and gulab jamun from the sweet shop - conveniently next to the doctor's office - until around midnight.

The next day I went for a walk with Heidi to accompany her on some errands, we met up with Saga (who also works in Pune); we stopped at a coconut stand, then back to Sangam, started Heidi's scrapbook, had chai several times, and then Hayley, Heidi and I went to the tailor to pick up Heidi's finished dress. Heidi set herself on fire not too long ago, ruining one of her favorite saris. So her solution was to take the material to the tailor, who rescued the non-burned part and now the sari has been morphed into a dress for Heidi. I bought a pretty brown kurta, put it on at some point (or maybe not - I can't remember), and then we made a night of it and went to an amazing restaurant. We had lamb and chicken and a lot of types of bread and rice. The chocolate restaurant nearby couldn't be neglected, so we drank various hot and cold chocolate beverages out of "Love Me" and "Hold Me" cups. It was a good day.

After eight of the best hours of sleep I had had in a very long time, the next morning and afternoon was filled with food, scrapbooking, relaxing in the garden, a rickshaw ride to the main street in Pune, getting tempted at the mall by fish pedicures, though not doing it (but hey, if I ever get a pedicure in my life, it'd better involve fish sucking on my feet), an amazing, crowded, vibrant open-air cafe with more spicy, amazing, perfect food, and above all, people, rickshaws, and motorcycles everywhere.

Back at Sangam, my debit card decided not to work for some reason, but in the end I'm glad it didn't, because it got me out of the building (alone) and I walked around that area of the city for quite some time looking for an ATM and really getting more of a feel of where I was. I stopped at the same coconut stand; she remembered me and I was blown away by her beaming smile - such a welcoming sight. Although I love Ukraine with all my heart and am super patriotic to it now, anyone who has spent time there will understand that it was extremely refreshing to be in the midst of smiling strangers when I went to India.
That night began the epic journey to begin what would be an unforgettable few days in Amritsar.

We took our rickshaws to the airport (by this point I was getting used to rickshaws but I still think they're fun, no matter how many times I go on them), and our flight to Dehli was just a couple hours. We had a few hours to wait at the Dehli train station before our train to Amritsar, so we played Flux, and then I found Masala Cheetos and we joined the party out on our train platform for about an hour. I caught a really bad cold at some point that night, but other than that, the train ride was really comfortable. It was like platzkart in Ukraine but with three bunks on each side. And the bed was already made! At least mine was, because I think someone had just been sleeping in it, but that didn't bother me - I slept well other than the occasional being woken up by my newly dripping face.

Refreshed and hungry the next morning, we got off the train in Amritsar and found some rice and daal and naan. After satisfying our breakfast needs, we got a rickshaw to the gated community in which our Couchsurfing host lived. Jolly was an amazing host; we had a great room in his beautiful house - he was really helpful when we had questions about how to get places, what to do in Amritsar, etc.

The city itself of Amritsar - in the Punjabi state - is surprisingly small (geographically, and the population is only 1.2 million), compared to what I had pictured. But the famous Golden Temple is right there in Amritsar, where thousands of people take pilgramages to every day. The Sikh faith is something that I'm really happy to have learned more about while there. The main value is that "a service to God is a service to humanity." An extremely open, accepting religion, it's impossible not to feel completely comfortable in the presence of such a place.

Before going to the Golden Temple, we stopped at the nearby Jallianwala Bagh, a memorial site, explained here:

And then we went to the temple. Needless to say, seeing the temple in person is a surreal and amazing experience. It is about 250 years old and millions of people have touched it, walked on it, swum in the water, and slept on the ground; however, because there are so many thousands of willing volunteers, the floors are always scrubbed, the surfaces polished, and every day, the whole place is immaculate.

We caught a rickshaw back that night and the next morning, we had chai with our hosts and then went back into town. That day we were all excited because we were going to the Pakistani border, in the village of Wagah; the ceremony can be read about here:

We got into the city at around eleven, and we decided to have breakfast and then look around the city some more until we headed for the border (about an hour away.) After being followed into a cafe by a man very aggressively wanting to sell us tickets to the Wagah border (he even stayed for about 15 minutes, sitting at the table next to us without ordering anything), the three of us determined that we needed to start enforcing our "walk it out" policy more.
(West Side Walk It Out
South Side Walk It Out
East Side Walk It Out
North Side Walk It Out)
Anyway, after talking about various methods of "walking it out" after we were finished with our breakfast - the bearded man in white had finally left the cafe but stayed right outside the door, waiting for us to come out - we successfully did it. We went out the door, turned right, and walked it out like like pros. We bought tickets to the border from another man who was very kind and polite, and we were told to meet the group at 3. So, we had a couple of hours to kill, which we did with stellar killing-time skills.

At 3, we met with the rest of the group going to the border. Waiting with the group, the bearded man in white spotted us and started shouting at the people who were in charge of our tour. As he was yelling in Punjab, I can only use contextual logic to make a (pretty sure) guess that he was expressing his displeasure that the new guys had "stolen" his customers. I'm not completely sure, but it was pretty awkward for a second.

Driving to the border, after I was instructed not to sit in the back of the Jeep with Heidi and Hayley for some reason, we listened to amazing music while marveling at the slice of the Punjabi region we were getting to see whizzing by. Once we arrived in Wagah and parked near some colorful semi-trucks, we walked a couple kilometers to the border ceremony. As we approached the ceremony, I felt as if I was arriving at a huge, important sporting event, a concert, or something else equally expectedly exciting... but in this case, it was a border ceremony that is held every single day at the same time. And it appears that every day is just as amazing as the day before. I'm so grateful that I had this experience - it was unforgettable.

The "VIP" section was for us foreigners; we were in bleachers of our own, separate from the Indian nationals. Heidi, Hayley and I agreed that it would have been an even cooler experience to be in the crowd with those from India, because there was such a love for their country felt throughout the crowd; there was a lot of enthusiasm and it would have been fun to be in the middle of that feeling.

After the ceremony was over, we posed in some photos with more people who requested it (if single men asked for them, we said no; families or little kids, sure.) Hayley purchased an informational DVD from a guy on our way out. A few minutes later, a boy (maybe 13 years old) asked Hayley over and over to purchase one of HIS DVDs at a higher price, because there was English in it (Hayley just wanted the Hindi one that she had already bought), but after about five minutes of the convincing 13-year-old's marketing skills, Hayley was about ready to buy an English DVD from him. Before she had the chance to say "ok, sure, fine," a middle-aged man passing by us grabbed the boy, smacked him and shoved him back, and told him to leave us alone. We felt really guilty, but I guess that's a normal occurrence; the cultural nuances of India are very intriguing to those who aren't from there.

Back to Amritsar we went.

We got to the Golden Temple again that evening, ready to walk around it more and eventually head to the Free Kitchen for dinner. The Free Kitchen was a memorable, great moment. There were hundreds of people in a large room; we all sat next to each other in a line on the floor and volunteers walked around distributing bread, daal, water, and rice pudding. Outside of the large hall were about 5 dozen people sitting around gigantic containers or piles of onions, potatoes, peppers, and other foods, dicing, slicing, cubing, and washing them, preparing for the steady supply of visitors to the Free Kitchen.

After our dinner, we walked around the temple, sat near the temple, went inside the temple, and explored the surrounding buildings. While sitting in a building near a guru reading the sacred book, a 12-year-old boy slowly walked past us, obviously interested in being acquainted. So, I said hello, and he was extremely friendly, well-spoken, and adorable. We talked to him for a few minutes, and then we went back outside. About five minutes later, the boy came running up, with handfuls of suji halwa, the sweet cream of wheat-type food eaten by everyone after a visit to the temple. He wanted to make sure we had gotten some; we ate and talked with him for a few minutes, and then he ran away again. We were commenting on how adorable the kid was and how we wanted to ask him more questions about the Sikh religion, which he had started telling us about. After about ten minutes, he reappeared, this time with his older sister (about our age), his grandmother, and parents. We talked to him for at least an hour then, really amazed by his composure, his good English, and his sense of humor. The family would have been really great to stay in touch with; I regret that we didn't exchange email addresses.

Sitting near us was Nov Joti, a man around our age who had come to the temple alone. We then talked with him for quite awhile, and learned a lot of very good information about the Sikh religion and what it is all about. He has just finished his final exams in dentistry, and hopes to work abroad for awhile where dentists are well respected. Nov is the one who told us about the importance that the Sikhs place on putting humanity before anything else; they believe that God wants, above all else, human rights, mutual respect, and dignity on this world.
The hair on a person's head is considered sacred, and should not be cut; that is why men and women often have very long hair. Men keep it coiled on their head with the turban to keep it up. The turban has many other purposes/a lot of history, which can be read about here:

We had to pull ourselves away from the temple and the cool people we met, since it was close to midnight by then, and once we got our shoes and found a rickshaw, we were on our way. The driver wasn't familiar with the exact place we were going, but he stopped along the way to ask shopkeepers and passerby, and we were going the right direction. The turn to the gate approached, and one of us said, "Ok, turn here" but probably too late (plus, the rickshaw was very close to the curb); the vehicle didn't slow down (it was probably going at round 50 mph), and while turning, the rickshaw hit a rock on the side of the road. We started bouncing, and all of us hit our heads hard, and before we knew it, we were all screaming while the rickshaw was tipping over. My first thought was, "Oh no, Hayley is going to be really hurt" because she was the one who fell first, followed by Heidi on top of her, and me on top of Heidi. I probably lost consciousness for 5 seconds, and when I realized what was happening, there were men who seemed to appear out of nowhere, standing next to the rickshaw and telling us they would help us out of the rickshaw. Somehow, Hayley and Heidi were both okay (no more than just a little blood, some bumps, and shock); I was unsurprisingly okay too, being that no one had fallen on top of me. We all stood up after about 30 seconds, and the poor driver was near tears, he was so worried. He kept saying, "Madam, please, are you okay?" Somehow, although we were all in a state of shock, Hayley managed to have the sense to call Jolly (our host) and let him know what had happened. After we got out of the rickshaw finally and gathered our things, the driver walked us across the road to the gate and told the guard what had happened. While we were walking toward the gate I heard the rickshaw being started up again by one of the guys who had come to help us - it started running fine! Those things are tough.
Hayley paid the driver and we all reassured him we were okay (I asked him several times if he was okay but he wasn't showing any concern for himself); he was still shaking and looked really upset as he walked away. I felt really awful for him and I hope he's okay.

So, we walked it out after the rickshaw accident; we were fine.

Although I can't compare this to an actual car accident (usually those are going a lot more quickly and there is glass involved, which there wasn't in the rickshaw), I now know what the after-shock feels like. First I cried for about 10 seconds, then I started shaking, then I started freezing (I was cold for about half the night and couldn't stop trembling.) It's strange how a body physically reacts to something like that. All of us complained about the same stuff - bad headaches, aching necks, legs, and shoulder blades. But above all, we kept repeating over and over how amazing it was that none of us had serious injuries. We all definitely had concussions - to be discovered the next day - but besides that, we really had nothing to worry about. We fell asleep at some point that night, and in the morning we all woke up with headaches, and after showers and getting dressed, we of course got back in a rickshaw and went back into town.

Hayley's necklace/earring set that she had bought early in the day survived. She had left it at the jalabis stand, unknowingly, and we did some backtracking to places we had been, and were unsuccessful. But when we went back to the tea stand, which is next to the jalabis stand, the jalabis people handed Hayley her little plastic bag with the necklace/earrings and said, "I think you have left your luggage here." And then it survived the rickshaw accident. So Hayley was meant to have those. :)

That day was really nice; we were all in the same state (we were all kind of nauseous, dazed, and exhausted) so we took it easy. Hayley's doctor friend told us over the phone to just keep hydrated and not to do anything stupid, basically. Our tea man and our jalabis man kept us company for a little while; then we went to some Hindu temples.

There is a Hindu temple with an indescribable interior. We didn't take pictures inside; however, I'll attempt right now to find something on the internet...

Here we go:

It was like a maze, with low staircases, a few tunnels, narrow passageways, and mirrored tiles on every visible surface.

This is the other one; we got there just in time, before the temple went to sleep for the afternoon.

We then went to a nice restaurant; I wasn't hungry, which was unfortunate, because the food was amazing. I made myself eat some of the lamb and chicken, though; we were all still in a daze and not feeling so well. There was some sari shopping sometime during the day, as well as drinking more chai. We got henna on our hands from some guys on the street; they were incredible. A girl was making an appointment to get all of her wedding henna done there, so we knew they must be good. Our henna dried on the rickshaw ride home.

Then, we went to bed, woke up at 4, and were on our way to the train station to get back to Dehli to get our flights back to Mumbai (in my case)/Pune.

At the Dehli train station, we sat on the floor minding our own business; however, a lot of people wanted to talk to us, take our pictures from a distance, or simply stare at us. It didn't bother us much at first, but one of the guards (carrying a large wooden stick) was not having it. He shooed away people, keeping his eyes on us and making menacing faces at people who tried to mess with us or even look at us. It was really funny but also intimidating! We definitely felt well protected, even if we weren't feeling the need for it. A boy took a photo of us on his phone, and the guard waved his stick at him and yelled, sending the boy and his group out the door of the main hall.

One train fight (a disagreement between two men about assigned seats), several hours of sleep, and a rickshaw ride to the Dehli airport later, our trip had come to its end.

When I got to the Mumbai airport, it was time to track down my bandura. First, I asked the info desk to direct me to the left luggage area. They sent me to the counter, which had closed an hour before. I left the building (which I guess I wasn't supposed to do) and asked a security guard how I could get a hold of the luggage storage people. He told me to go back inside and wait for someone to show up, which didn't happen for about half an hour. Eventually an Indian guy came up to the counter looking for his lost ID - I was happy about that because he could call the phone number listed at the counter (cause he had a phone and also cause be speaks Hindi, which helped the situation); he didn't have time to wait for long though, so he didn't get his ID unfortunately. But eventually a man came to the counter; when I described my bandura, he looked very perplexed, sprinted off for ten minutes, came back sweating, and said that I was in the wrong terminal.

This was an hour after I had started my mission of finding my bandura, and my flight to the States was in about two hours. I started getting a little worried. But the man was extremely helpful - he rushed me through luggage screening and out the door to the bus that would take me to the international terminal. Once I got to the other terminal, I got in line to get my passport checked, allowing me into the airport. I thought the left luggage counter would be inside there, just as it had been inside the other terminal. No, I was mistaken; after waiting for 15 minutes in line, I had to get out of line and run to another part of the terminal, down an elevator (I asked people along the way - it was like a scavenger hunt), out the door to a place with taxi drivers, and I found a security guard, asked him, got pointed to another security guard, and finally found someone who knew. The security guard who knew what I was talking about didn't even do anything, and this other guy out of nowhere appeared, saying, "Oh, madam, it's you. I got a phone call about you." We rushed down an alley, into a storage room, where I hugged my bandura and thanked the man. Then, he walked with me all the way back to where I had started (where I needed to check in.) I got through check in/check my luggage pretty quickly, and even had about half an hour to spare before boarding.

At my layover in London, I had about 20 minutes between getting off the plane and boarding the next one (due to our flight landing late); I went up to an employee and asked if I could go through the express security. She said to get in the back of the line and that she couldn't help me unless one of her colleagues came with me and "allowed" me to get through. So, in my ultra polite way, I jumped the line, apologizing to everyone, got an employee to help me, and ran to my next gate; the gate closed at 8:10 am, and I got there at 8:11. They let me on the flight and we took off very soon after.

THAT flight got to New York late; I had to go through customs, pick up my luggage, and then switch from JFK airport to LaGuardia airport for my flight to Minneapolis. By that time, I was exhausted and just wanted to be home. I got through customs within half an hour, then asked a woman if I needed to pick up my luggage despite being told at the beginning that it would go straight through to Minneapolis. She said, "Um, we don't clear your luggage through customs for you, so yeah, you need to pick up your luggage right now." So I waited for ten minutes or so, saw that all the luggage was there (but didn't see mine), so I basically just said "forget it" and went to LaGuardia. By then it was something like 1:15 pm and my flight was at 2:25 pm. The shuttle to LaGuardia took a good 45 minutes; I got to LaGuardia at 2, and somehow made it onto the (tiniest ever) airplane to Minneapolis. There were only 20 passengers; my bandura got to ride under a seat in first class. The flight attendant's sister was about to go to Ukraine on a mission trip. It was a good relaxing flight.

Hello Minneapolis!

Thank you Nancy for this amazing welcome home cake! She had it delivered overnight, fresh, from New Orleans in time for my coming home.

Finally in Minneapolis with my mom and brother (who I hadn't seen in over two years - he's so tall!), I filed my luggage claim, came home, ate Cajun cake from my mom's cousin Nancy, and crashed (oh, and my luggage was delivered to our house at midnight two days later - yay!)

My leg is still numb, my stomach's still recovering, and I'm only just now fully getting over my jet lag. But none of that stuff matters at all - the only thing I can think about when I think of India is that I need to go back.

Friday, November 18, 2011

A Day of G.L.O.W. in Nova Kakhovka


My former sitemate, Rachel Muhlstein, did some great things while here: one was taking such an active leadership role in GLOW camps (during her summers here), and another was that she formed an English club of some outstanding people, who have now become some of my best friends in Ukraine. Olya, Natasha, Tanya and a new member (from the Red Cross), Olya - all of them are extremely kind, are super fun to be around, and are active members of their community. They all have different things to bring to the table.

After taking part in Stephanie Somerman's GLOW (weekend) camp in her town of Chaplinka, Olya and I came back to Nova Kakhovka and filled the rest of the English club in. Natasha decided that we should recreate it in Nova Kakhovka, and we decided to cut it down to a half-day training, because we wanted to do it soon (before I left) and that's what we had time to plan. So, we had this seminar on Saturday, November 12. Seven awesome girls came.

Everything went very well, thanks to the English club. They completely took charge and organized the whole thing. All I had to do was request a room at my school, request the use of some equipment, and find the girls to attend. Natasha wrote out the agenda, with the help of Olya. Also, Natasha and Olya got a gynecologist to come as a guest speaker, as well as a woman who works at an organization in town that helps HIV-positive people. Olya from the Red Cross invited her colleague, Elena, who is a psychologist (exciting side note: I'm feeling very hopeful that the Red Cross is getting a Peace Corps volunteer! I really hope it happens - what great people they would be to work with. That PCV would be so lucky.)

Our training included:
Introductions (Natasha)
Human trafficking (me - thank you Tanya and Olya for translating!)
HIV/AIDS (Natasha from the HIV/AIDS org.)
Women's health (the gynecologist)
Gossip (Natasha)
Self-esteem (Elena)

The girls were so engaged; we really lucked out!

This was just the fist of many trainings. After I leave, the plan is that the English club will continue doing the same seminar at different schools in our town and in surrounding villages. Peace Corps always talks about sustainability. Talk about sustainability right here! I'm really happy we did this!

By the way, this five-hour seminar cost us a total of 25 grieven, about $3, for the coffee breaks. Any PCV, English club, Ukrainian, whoever, can do this! No paperwork, no grants, nothing needed. All you need is a room and some motivated girls and women.

HIV/AIDS project at School 8

In early October, a trainer who works for Peace Corps (his name is Sasha) traveled from Kharkov to Nova Kakhovka to give a training to 15 students at my school on HIV/AIDS: facts, statistics, prevention, and dispelling stigmas/discrimination against HIV-pos. people. The training lasted from 11 to 4.

In turn, the students at the training took the information they learned and recreated 45-minute lessons for younger students. The 9th/10th-graders split up into groups of three, and each Friday for about a month, they gave lessons to 5th-, 6th-, and 7th-graders on what HIV/AIDS is and gave a little insight on what it is like to live with it. The lessons were very interactive and, for the most part, kept the kids' attention, which is no easy feat. :)

Thanks so much to everyone who made this a very successful project! With just a $100 grant (which provided the materials for the training + classes, certificates, and stuff for coffee breaks at the initial training), we managed to educate approximately 75 people on the topic. I think that PEPFAR (President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) is extremely effective and important, and it costs so little to make such a big impact. Americans: if you have the chance, please encourage our Congress to keep the program going. It's so important.