Thursday, May 24, 2007

In Conclusion...

Well folks, it looks like this will be the last post of the year. Things are probably going to get pretty crazy here as my leaving date approaches (less than 3 weeks! ack!), so I'm going to wrap this up now, before all that confusion.
Let's see... Indian summer has come with a vengeance. For a week or so the temperature didn't dip below 42 degrees C (that's about 107 degrees F for all you americans), and although it's cooled off a little (ie "only" 34 C), I'm expressly forbidden by my host mom to go out during the hottest part of the day - that is, between 1 and 5 pm. And she's right - whenever I manage to sneak out I return bathed in sweat and meekly repentant. The upside of all this is that it's finally mango season!! And mangoes are a Big Deal around here, let me tell you. My host mom brings them home in crates of 50 kgs or more, orders them all on the kitchen counter, covers them in burlap and monitors them religiously until they are ripe, usually a day or two. There are about 10-15 varieties of mango, and any Indian can regale you with the different taste, appearance, and use of each one. There's a mango used only for pickles when it's not yet ripe, and mango specifically for slicing and eating, another for mango juice (called ras), and on and on. We have big bowls of chilled ras every day for lunch, and then a couple of sliced mangoes for dinner. They're exquisite, and worth the heat.
With the prospect of coming home soon hanging over my head, I've been thinking about all the things I'll miss from India. Near the top of the list (right up there with Indian mangoes) are rickshaws, my preferred mode of transportation around Surat. Here's a picture:

Tiny, cramped, rickety and seemingly designed to catch every bump in the road, rickshaws are a godsend to the exchange students of Surat. These 3-wheeled wonders will take us anywhere our hearts desire - and for next to nothing, if you can bargain hard enough (which is really half the fun, anyway). Going from my house to my friend's - about a 10 minute ride - costs me about 15 rupees (thats about 40 cents). If someone else happens to be going the same way, then we share a rickshaw with anyone else who gets picked up along the way (I've ridden in a jam-packed rickshaw with no less than 5 other strangers - plus a little kid), and the fare is cut down to 3 rupees per person. It's great. Every big city in the world should have rickshaws - for those unable or unwilling to drive themselves somewhere. They're everywhere, too - stand on any corner and it's guaranteed that at least 5 will come by in as many minutes. I will miss rickshaws immensely - especially in Seattle next year. Buses and taxis just don't measure up.
Of course, I'll also miss the food so much! I've been lucky enough to be placed in families with host moms that are extremely gifted cooks, and there's little that I don't like. My ultimate favorite dish, which I try to eat as much as possible (at least once a week), is pani puri:

Those little puffed up, spaceship-looking things are crunchy fried puris. You crack a little hole in the top of the puri, and a little bit of boiled potato, mung bean and gram is put in the puri before it's filled with green chilli water and brown tamarind chutney, and downed in one big bite. Yum! My counselor told me that when he and his family visited the US some years ago, there was a Punjabi Sikh selling pani puri right next to Niagara Falls, which gives me hope that I won't have to suffer a pani-puri-less existence at home. I've also learned how to make dal, chhole, batatanu shaak, pao bhaji and other delicious stuff so that whenever I start missing India, I can console myself with some good Gujarati food. If anybody else is interested, you're welcome to join me!

And of course I'll miss my wonderful host families, festivals like Navratri and Holi, my fellow exchange students who have become some of the best friends I've ever had, traveling to North & South India, around Gujarat and Bombay, seeing Gujarati everywhere and speaking it with my host family, and so much more. It's been a good year - but I can't say I'm not a little excited to come home and see all of my family and friends! Thanks for reading everybody, and I'll see you soon!

Friday, March 09, 2007

Holi (rocks my socks)!

Wow...I just experienced the coolest festival of my lifetime! Well, tied with Navratri that is. It's called Holi, a day where everybody goes nuts and attacks everyone else with colored powder and water balloons filled with plain or colored water. This is a picture of me and Depu, the maid at my friend Michel's house. Don't we look good? It's a total free-for-all, and because I'm lazy I'm going to copy what I wrote in my journal...

March 4, 2007

Wow-best holiday ever! When else can you attack random people in the streets with colored powder and water balloons and not get in trouble?? Yesterday, all the exchange students met at Michel's house for a mini Holi party in his neighborhood garden. Why do people in the US only use plain water in their water balloons? This is way better. Miho and I returned home, our arms, clothes and faces a rainbow of colors, took showers and went down to the courtyard of the apartment building for the Holi puja (prayer).

Apparently the story behind Holi is this: there was once a prince who was a very devout Hindu, and would pass the day saying nothing but "Shri Krishna, Shri Krishna" (the name of a god) all day for 24 straight hours. This angered his father, the king, who told the prince, "Krishna is not your god, I am your only god. You must worship me instead!" When the prince (naturally) refused, the king called in his sister Holika to do the prince in. A prophecy had been made about Holika that she would not die in the day nor the night, so she was considered invincible. She took the prince and set herself and him afire. Most unfortunately for her, however, this all took place at dusk, ie neither day nor night. But fortunately for the prince, God saved him as he was such a religious man, while Holika was burnt to a crisp.

So now at dusk on the day before Holi, a puja is held with a big bonfire which symbolizes the burning of Holika and represents the burning of all bad thoughts and actions. (For the record,I have no idea how the color extravaganze fits in with all this.) When we came down to the courtyard, there was a big bonfire of straw, wood and dried cow pies (shudder) prepared, and all the women from the apartment building with their little puja trays sitting around it. A Hindu priest walked around the (unlit) bonfire, chanting prayers and giving instructions to the women on the correct puja procedure to be followed. It involved making a little packet of a betel leaf filled with a betel nut, flowers dipped in red tikka paste, holy water, etc. Then the bonfire was lit, and everyone moved forward, tossing the remaining contents of their puja dishes (rice, chhola, color powder, etc) into the fire, as well as a coconut for good measure. Then the men and women walked around the fire in pairs, the women carrying her pot of holy water and spilling a little at each step. Some men standing by knocked the coconuts out of the fire after a while, cracked them open and distributed the meat to everyone.

Then today, Miho and I went back to Michel's for some more Holi this morning. It was crazy...this time, it was his entire neighborhood, rather than just the 5 of us, getting in on the action. For the first half hour or so, everyone had bags of colored powder and we went around smearing it on each other's face, neck, arms, hair, etc saying "Happy Holi!" By the end we were all wearing powdery, brightly colored masks - I felt like one of those guys that paints their face for a football game. Only mine was way better of course.

After all this, the water fight started with a vengeance. Kids were running around with water guns and balloons filled with every color imaginable, and some guy had turned on the hose and made a huge mud puddle in the grass. I had no idea that a mud bath was part of Holi, but we were all made to sit in it while everyone splashed the murky water on us. Yuck...but in a few momentswe were out and it was the splasher's turn to wallow in the gunk. After that, a quick rinse with the hose, and then straight to the balloons. Our group was sadly lacking in any colored water, so we filled up our balloons with the brown water from the big mud puddle. Disgusting? Definitely. But today is the one day when anything goes, and hitting people with brown-water balloons is totally acceptable.

Now I'm back home, after a pretty ineffective shower - I've still got little streaks of pink on my face and a dab of green on my nose - and sitting looking out of the window. Everyone going by in rickshaws, 2-wheelers or walking (extremely dangerous, especially while walking under apartment buildings - full of kids just waiting for someone to bomb with their water balloons) is covered in color. Pink seems to be a favorite. Some people riding on the backs of 2 wheelers have bags of powder and are throwing handfuls as they pass people. The best part is that nobody gets angry at these random attacks - everyone expects to be completely covered in color by the end of the day, so one more balloon or handful of powder doesn't matter. What a holiday.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Taj Mahal

A little background on the Taj Mahal - it was built between 1631-1654 by the Moslem Emporer Shah Jahan as a tomb for his beloved wife Mumtaz, who died giving birth to their 14th (yikes!) child. Apparently the Emperor was devastated at her death - a court chronicler wrote that "before her death the emperor had but twenty white hairs in his beard, but thereafter many more".
The Taj Mahal truly has to be seen to be believed (it sounds cliched, but it's true). Words don't do it justice, so I'm not even going to try, and even as I look over my pictures, it doesn't seem real. One thing that still seems real to me, however, is this little monkey that was crawling around behind the main building and launched itself at my face as I was clicking pictures of it. Isn't it cute?

Pictures pt.II

Ok, for some reason I couldn't load more than 3 pictures onto that last post, so I'll be doing this in installments, I guess. actual snake charmer! I had no idea that they really existed. We were all sceptical as to whether the snake was real - it looked pretty stationary and kind of plastic-y - until he stopped playing and it lunged at a nearby tourist. Cool turban, no?

This is a view of Jodhpur, the "Blue City". Back in the day, goldsmiths were required to paint their houses blue. This picture should give you an idea of the roaring jewelry trade in Jodhpur back then.

This picture is from one of my favorite places on the trip. Palaces and forts can get pretty boring after a while, so I really liked this outdoor observatory built by a Jaipur maharaja in the 1700s. It was almost like a sculpture park, filled with all sorts of kooky big instruments for telling time, the positions of the stars, and zodiac stuff. This was the highlight - a 90-foot sundial that still tells time suprisingly accurately. I believe it was only about 30 seconds off.

This is a photo from within a mosque at a monument called Fatehpur-Sikri which we visited en route to Agra. For about 10 rupees, you can buy a small piece of this sacred red and gold thread and tie it to the carved marble window, making a wish at the same time. You can't even see through it anymore at the bottom - it's completely choked with threads.

Next stop - the Taj Mahal!

North India trip

Hello everybody - I've just returned from a trip around North India and I have pictures galore for you all. First, we visited Rajasthan (the name literally means "land of kings"), a state bordering on Gujarat that is famous for its palaces and forts. It's also a land of camels, and with that in mind we went on a desert "safari", with everyone riding into the desert on camels and playing in the dunes. Here's me and my friend Sam on a camel named (I'm not making this up) Michael Jackson:

Note the coats - it was freezing! Hooray for cold! Because I'm a big fan of Rajasthani turbans - huge bulbous creations in neon colors - I snuck a picture of this guy through the window of the bus. (Hence the water bottle.)

In Jaisalmer, there are tons of old buildings like the one below. The area around the open windows is made up of intricately carved marble screens, so that people inside can see out, but no one outside can see in. This is due to the purdah system, which was prevalent in Rajasthan for hundreds of years and dictated that a woman could not be seen by any men but the ones in her family. In fact, when the queen of Jodhpur (a nearby city) visited England in the early 1900s, the British media went crazy trying to get a picture of her, as she was always completely covered in veils from head to toe. When a photographer snapped a picture of her bare ankle as she was getting down from a car, it made the front page. The outraged royal family immediately bought up every copy of the paper in the country.
The purdah system has been mostly abolished in Rajasthan, and is now seen only in villages. While we drove from city to city, we occasionally passed through small towns with women passing ghostlike through the streets, their faces covered in veils.