Friday, June 27, 2014

Coming home to the foreign

I wrote the following post last Monday but haven’t been able to post it yet for a number of reasons (lack of wifi, classes and lots of stuff to keep me busy – classes, shopping adventures, Indian food, my shower, my bed, my homework, etc.). I will intersperse this post with updates in italics and will definitely post some new pictures as soon as I have a chance to upload them to my computer. ENJOY!

One of my favorite feelings in the world is being immersed in a completely unfamiliar place, feeling the thrill of the exotic tease all my senses as I am challenged to transform the foreign into the familiar. Am I strange? I guess it’s a symptom of my travel addiction.

I am in India.

This thought runs through my head a lot ever since I got here. I am writing this at a small wooden desk, in a swelteringly humid bedroom with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out onto a garden, walled in by stone and crimson bougainvillea. Hair is sticking to my neck as I rub a sleepless night of unfamiliar heat out of my eyes and I can hear the parrot cackle outside, along with the cacophony of morning birds. I am in India. It was only that hot because I hadn't yet figured out how the fan and air conditioning worked. Now my room is so cool I've got a cold!

As we only have internet at the institute, I will post it there, after having even more experiences and lessons learned. Today is my placement test, to prove that I’m truly a beginner in Urdu. PLOT TWIST: First they put me in Intermediate, and today I was promoted to Low Advanced. We are already reading newspapers and magazine articles! Before that I will have breakfast with my host family and the two program companions who live here with me, I will have my first ride in a rickshaw (overrated), and go through a State Department Briefing via skype.

Here are a few photos I’ve been wanting to post of my journey so far!


Our program had conveniently booked a 6-hour layover in the very international airport closest to my long-distance love. I was certainly not going to spend this layover in the airport (as if I ever spend long layovers in the airport haha – layovers have allowed me to discover Istanbul, Bucharest, and Iceland).

We took the train to Frankfurt am Main Haupbtbahnhof to start our little stroll around the tiny piece of Germany we had time to visit. After a short walk we stopped for some pretzels  and pastries, and the very german apfelschorle (apple juice mixed with seltzer water).

We then stopped by the Euro sign, where no one could deny that we were in Europe. There was even a gift shop where you could spend your euros on collectible euros.

The pinnacle of our trip was the ascent to the top of the Main Tower, with an elevator taking you up 54 floors to a maginificent view of the city of Frankfurt and the surrounding dark green countryside, with the Rhine river running through it.

I was ecstatic to be with mera pyaar and we took the opportunity to take lots of photos before our next episode of long-distance.

Back at the airport, four of us program participants had a final meal of good asian wok before our next 2 months of Indian food. I highly recommend this place if you’re ever stuck in Frankfurt Airport and really hungry!


We arrived in Delhi just passed midnight, jetlagged after two uncomfortable overnight flights across over 9 timezones. From the moment we stepped off the plane, we were attracting stares. As we piled into our air-conditioned minibuses who would take us through the warm Delhi night to our hotel, I could see old men looking down at us as if we were in a gladiator ring, fighting culture shock. I was just so excited to be in a place I had dreamt of for years!

We stayed at the Ibis hotel, which already had breakfast ready when we arrived around 2am. I relished the free wifi and a room to myself with a bed to stretch out on for three hours before my third and final flight to Lucknow. Those three hours were so refreshing after so much sleeplessness on airplanes!  The breakfast was really good too, and I had my first sip of chai in India, as well as my first taste of what Indian breakfast is like.

We nearly missed our flight to Lucknow because our minibus driver took a wrong turn on his way to the airport. At the small domestic terminal we seemed to be the only non-Indians, and due to the tight schedule we were rushed through security, overweight fines quickly handled by the program. The brief 45-minute flight to Lucknow was so nice after the 7 or 8-hour flights of the past couple of days, especially in the company of all my fun and easygoing program participants. However, the haze we encountered in Delhi seemed to stretch across the entire distance we flew, making my window seat not as exciting as I had anticipated.

As we drove to our hotel in Lucknow, the small and elegant La Place Sarovar Portico, I just wanted to get out and explore Lucknow with my camera. But after lunch at the hotel I was already so sleepy, and decided to take a half-hour nap, which swiftly turned into two hours. Fortunately I still had time to explore some of Hazratganj, the famous street at the heart of Lucknow, before dinner. Here are some of my first impressions captured through my camera lens:

After dinner I watched dramatic love stories, Tamil movies with English subtitles, and Little Krishna 3 on the hotel room TV before falling into comfortable sleep in the air-conditioned room.

The next day our orientation started, where we met our program instructors, introduced ourseleves as best as we could in Urdu, were given cellphones, and gradually siphoned off to our host families. I was in the fourth group to leave to my host family, the Khan family living in the most modern and trendy part of Lucknow, Gomti Nagar. I would share the host family with two other program participants, Sabrina and Yasin, who are sure to become good friends over the course of the program.

In the car to the host family I saw cows in the middle of the road and monkeys climbing bridges, as well as shacks by putrid gutters juxtaposed with huge beautiful houses with mughal architectural elements. This was the India I had heard so much about, right in front of me.

My host family live in one of those big beautiful white houses with a garden and terrace and servants and jovial auntyji welcoming us into her cool, airconditioned sitting room with glasses of cold water. It felt like I had stepped into an oasis – I couldn’t believe this was my home for the next two months.

I have a host mother, who I call auntyji, as well as two host siblings living here. My host sister wants to be a photographer and has already been a tremendous resource on where to go in Lucknow. My host brother, who hasn’t really engaged with us so far, just came back from studies in London. Auntyji says all her children were educated in either Oxford or Kings College and she has family all over the USA and Europe. The host family in general seems well-traveled and well-educated, but most importantly, so caring of the students they host, of which they seem to have a lot of experience. My host mother clearly understands all our English but mainly answers us in Urdu – with that sort of support I feel like I’ll learn the language in no time!

Here are some photos of my room and ensuite bathroom

My bed! <3

View out my window!

My bathroom

In the afternoon we sat and chatted with auntyji in the TV room. The rest of the afternoon was unplanned so Sabrina, Yasin, and I chose to watch a movie. Just as we were ready to press play a strong breeze brushed through the courtyard and into the house. Thunder rolled in and soon the skies opened up – the monsoon was here! We watched in awe at the rain pelting down. We hadn’t expected the monsoon to come for another week! Apparently the monsoon gives some preview rain showers before it actually hits. It is getting hotter by the day and the 5-minute rain that comes once in a while does little to curb the heat. Oh well.

At dinner auntyji and the cook made us a very lightly-spiced dish of tofu (she had read in a magazine that Americans liked tofu), chapatti/roti with cheese, potatoes, corn, and shedded cucumber in custard. It was actually very good but we told her we are ready to handle Indian spice if she wants to give it to us. We finished the meal with my first taste of Indian mango – absolutely delicious, confirming that aam (the Urdu/Hindi name for mango) is still my favorite fruit.

At the dinner table we talked about Lucknow and Bollywood. We were all tired though and soon went off to bed. I took a nice cold shower before bed, although it did little to help the sticky heat of the night, as the electricity had gone out earlier that afternoon and still hasn’t returned this morning. Welcome to India!

I hope you enjoyed the blog post. I'm so happy I finally got to post it! Next posts will showcase photos taken on the roads of Lucknow, that are run in total chaos by cows, mangos, and motorcycles mostly (the monkeys dominate the bridges), my shopping excursions, and my trip to the Bara Imambara and Chota Imambara (shi'a shrines in Lucknow). I will also be doing more exploring of Lucknow this weekend and will certainly have pictures and stories about that to post as well. In other news my classes are super challenging, but my teachers and fellow students are all amazing and in this environment I am learning so much! 

Khuda hafiz!

Friday, June 20, 2014

My Literal Journey to India

Guess where I am...INDIA!!! This magical country of contrasts and color, sickness and spice, beauty and prejudice, is mine to explore for the summer. I can't tell you how excited I am, even though I am also incredibly tired. I have so much to tell you too! But my computer charger isn't working so this will have to be short.

When I get the chance there are three things I want to write about:
1. Our amazing 6-hour layover in Germany in which the love of my life was an amazing tour guide and took us to the best cafes and views in Frankfurt. THANK YOU! (pictures to come!)

2. United vs. Lufthansa. We took United IAD-FRA and Lufthansa FRA-DEL. Pros and cons but generally Lufthansa wins. And if you're on a flight to India ALWAYS order the vegetarian food - best airplane food ever! Also movie recommendations: Lunchbox (beautiful story about human connection in Mumbai), Saving Mr. Banks (put me in tears - the backstory of Mary Poppins), and Hundraåringen som klev ut genom fönstret och försvann (my favorite Swedish book that has now been made into a really awesome and hilarious movie - read the book AND watch the movie!).

3. First impressions of India. I was too tired and it was too late to really get a proper impression, but exiting the airport wasn't as chaotic and culture shock-y as they make it seem in the movies. Maybe that is because we arrived at midnight. At the hotel they already had breakfast set! We are staying at Ibis hotel - awesome service and complimentary bottled water. YAY NO PARASITES YET! Ok now I have to get to bed to catch a flight to Lucknow tomorrow morning. Flying with Indigo Airlines. :)

Shab bekhair and hugs to all!!!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Leaving on a jet plane


I can't even describe how excited I am. I've been waiting for this day all year, since last fall when I would visit the CLS page every day to see if the application had opened. I can't believe my good fortune.

The DC orientation was really helpful though! We had a wonderful stay at one of my favorite hotels in DC, Renaissance Dupont Circle Hotel, and I love my fellow program participants - who seem to all be intelligent, driven, very friendly, and just as excited as I am about going to India. The most beneficial part of the orientation was meeting former participants and hearing advice like "talk about poop!" and "don't expect the AC to work!" and telling us embarrassing host family stories. It seems to be such an intensive program, since the two alumni we talked to yesterday had started as complete beginners and were already having conservations halfway through. I am going to learn so much!

Now I'm off to have my last meal in the United States (until December) - the Mango & Brie Waffle at Wicked Waffle. One of my favorite treats in Washington DC! I am going to miss the city that has been my home for the past four years but I am so excited (and a bit nervous) about everything to come. I will also miss my family and friends but after moving across continents more than a couple of times, I know that with technology the people I love are never far away.

However, one of the people I love most in the world will be waiting for me in Germany in a few hours, where I have a long enough layover for a hug and a kiss and a gift exchange. Life is too perfect.


Thursday, June 12, 2014

Books and Bollywood

ONE MORE WEEK TO GO UNTIL LIFT-OFF! I couldn't be more excited. My existence has been taken over by dancing around the house to Hindi and Urdu songs, teaching my family random Urdu phrases, watching every bollywood movie on Netflix, and of course reading about the incredible country I'm about to visit. I would like to share some of the books and movies that I have enjoyed the most in my pre-trip education of India, in the hopes that you also will want to learn more about the subcontinent.

Empires of the Indus: The Story of a River by Alice Albinia

Empires of the Indus is a blend of gripping travelogue and compelling history, chronicling a young British women's journey up along the Indus river that binds much of Pakistan together and is coincidentally what I want to focus on in graduate school. The brave and confident Alice had worked for several years in Delhi as a journalist and studied Indus River history at SOAS in London before she embarked on her mesmerizing journey in Karachi. She starts the book with a startling image of a man emerging from a sewer, and in the first few pages already uncovers the social complexity of Pakistan that goes against the stereotypical image of the country in the West. Amidst her own discovery of Karachi she also swiftly moves back in history to partition and what it meant for the region, and the region's rivers. She then follows the river upstream and introduces the reader to the Sheedis - the community in Pakistan of African descent. She seamlessly binds history with contemporary life, while simultaneously displaying the contrasts  of Pakistan that combat our unfairly monolithic idea of such a vast, diverse, and beautiful country.

As she moves up along the river from its outpouring into the Arabian Sea to its source in the remotest parts of Tibet, she swiftly interweaves her 21st century experiences of the region with the past that brought us to this point. Sufis, British colonialists, Mughal emperors, Sikh gurus, Alexander the Great, early Buddhists, Sanskrit writers of Hinduism's holy texts, lithic female hunters, matriarchal nomadic tribes, and nature's forces all appear to be inexplicably bound in this incredible tale of one woman's incredible bravery to uncover the truth about this river that has inspired literature, music, bloodshed and faith since the beginning of time. Each chapter seems to be the most riveting, from border-hopping between Pakistan and Afghanistan, trekking through unmapped tribal territories, to finding fear, desolation, and melancholy beauty in Tibet. The final chapter ruminates on the moment when the Indus itself was created, long before man sought to control it and (SPOILER ALERT) starts destroying it. The book left me incredibly moved and more determined than ever to travel around the region (including Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Kashmir – but when the time is right) and commit myself to uncovering the reasons for and solutions to their detrimental water problems.

That was one of the books I wanted to write a proper review of because I just recently finished it. Here are some books I have also read that I recommend:
I just graduated, which means in the past four years I had minimal time for reading for leisure. Therefore here are some books on my Amazon wish list that I hope to read in India or afterwards:
The list could go on and on but I'll stop here. Happy to receive suggestions in the comments!

Now on to one of my new favorite things: BOLLYWOOOOOOD!

At first it was something that played on the TV in Indian restaurants. Then I began to watch them in earnest and thought they were a bit annoying but entertaining. Now I can't live without them, and I've got my whole family hooked as well - including my grandma who thinks Shahrukh Khan is a total charmer.

Here is a list of the bollywood movies I have seen so far that I have liked, including my favorite song from the movie:
  • Three Idiots: Often the only Bollywood movie that Americans have seriously watched, in my experience. Great movie and the ending really made me want to visit Leh/Ladakh! Check out this song from the movie.
  • Bunty Aur Bubli: Before I was even planning to travel to India I watched this and really enjoyed it. A Bollywood Bonnie & Clyde! This song is fun.
  • Jab Tak Hai Jaan: Some of my Indian friends told me they heard this wasn't that good, but I really enjoyed it, mainly for the beautiful scenery and clothing and my obsession with the Punjabi song Heer. The two things that frustrated me were that the plot line was unusually farfetched and that all the women in the movie were too frustratingly perfect. But I would watch it again for the song Heer <3
  • Aashiqui 2: A sob story about alcoholism and celebrity sacrifices, with an incredible soundtrack and a breathtakingly handsome male lead. My best friend and I thoroughly enjoyed it! I will recommend two songs for this one: the heart-wrenching Tum Hi Ho and the beautiful sufi-rock tune Sunn Raha Hai.
  • Kai Po Che: This was the second bollywood movie I loved most after Three Idiots, mainly because I just fell in love with the passion and spirit of the lead character, played by Sushant Singh Rajput. It taught me a bit about cricket and Hindu-Muslim tensions as well! I mainly discovered it because I love the song Meethi Boliyan.
  • Shuddh Desi Romance: I was so happy when this turned up on netflix, because I had been dying to see another movie featuring Sushant Singh Rajput. It's a fun take on controversial contemporary attitudes toward dating and marriage in the beautiful state of Rajasthan. This is how I discovered one of my favorite actresses, Parineeti Chopra, a girl with some kick-ass attitude. Listen to this cute song.
  • Ishaqzaade: I watched this film for two reasons - it featured Parineeti Chopra and the entire thing is filmed in Lucknow. A warped Bollywood version of Romeo and Juliet, it was a moving tribute to all the ishaaqzaades (rebel-loves) in India, who (SPOILER ALERT) die for loving outside their caste or religion. The dancing in this song is just as fun as saying its title: Jhalla Wallah. There is even a remix!
  • Jodhaa Akbar: Long, expensive-looking, and ultimately impressive depiction of the famed love between Muslim Mughal emperor Akbar and his Hindu Rajput princess Jodhaa. The sufi wedding song has been stuck in my head ever since I watched it.
  • Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge: This was the Bollywood movie I showed my grandma to introduce her to the whole thing. Includes the European road trip that Indians seem to love, forbidden love of course, and lots of colorful song and dance numbers. A classic! This song started the peculiar Bollywood trend of women singing and dancing with only a towel around them.
  • Jab We Met: I watched this movie in my Politics and Conflict in South Asia class and found the main female character, played by Kareena Kapoor, kind of annoying but the male lead, Shahid Kapoor, very sweet. Manali looks beautiful as well! Unfortunately, I didn't really like any of the songs from the movie especially much, but here is one: Hum Jo Chalne Lage.
  • Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara: Fun movie about men who reevaluate their romantic relaitonships and bromances over the course of a crazy roadtrip through Spain. I loved the intermingling of Spanish and Indian culture in the songs - check out Señorita!
I can't believe I've already seen more than 10 bollywood movies! There are still a lot more to discover though. Please write suggestions in the comments if you have any ideas for how I should continue my bollywood education!

Now I'm off to celebrate the start of the World Cup. I'll be spending most of the summer in a country where I have heard they don't appreciate the beauty of football (for you Americans, soccer) but I'm too excited about India to be sad about that. SO MUCH TO CELEBRATE! *Cue bollywood dance sequence*

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Koi baat nahi: Travel Advice for India

کوئی بات نہیں  (Koi baat nahi) is a common phrase among both Hindi and Urdu speakers with a variety of meanings depending on the context. In this post, its meaning as "no problem" or "it's fine" will be used to calm the fears of all my loved ones who are worried about me going to India. It's meaning as "you're welcome", generally used in response to a "thank you", will be relevant in that I am sharing the advice I have gained through experience and found on other blogs - and I am thankful for the lessons I have learned and hope that this post can be of help to other travelers. Because after all, travel is the best education of all, and the world the best classroom, and experience the best teacher. Prophet Mohammed would have agreed with me.

Some of the reactions I have been dealing with most frequently from my loved ones in anticipation of my trip to India are worry and fear for my safety (mainly because after the program I want to travel around a bit for two weeks, potentially on my own). Yes, I am not going to lie, India can be extremely dangerous for a young woman (especially one with an adventurous and trusting spirit like me) - but I also recognize that every place has its dangers and the key is to use common sense. In short, I WILL BE FINE. Lots of travelers have visited India before me, in a less structured and secure context (the State Department makes sure you stay safe!) and made it home with amazing memories and no horror stories.

I have learned some tough lessons during my 21 years of international travel, and when I am on a trip, I am especially conscious of what I'm wearing/drinking/eating/doing and how that might impact my safety. (And I've learned to be just as careful in my home countries as well!) Nonetheless, there are certain lessons I have learned, both from experience and from scrounging through countless blogs of women traveling solo in India and elsewhere in the world, that I would like to put together in one convenient blog post. 

1.  Beware of darkness and loneliness

If local women don’t go out at night, it’s usually because they know it’s much smarter to stay at home - and even if they do, think how you're actions may be interpreted differently because of who you are (aka an exotic foreigner). I learned in Jordan that Western women are often assumed to be more loose and to not have the same morals as local women – so creepy guys will be quicker to assume that “you’re asking for it” and will have an easier time to get away with things at night. So I am going to take the opportunity to bond with my host family most evenings, and only hang out in the evenings with people I truly trust, in places I feel I can trust.

When I'm in an unfamiliar place I've also learned the value of an escort, especially at night, even if it's just a group of other tourists. Ideally you will mostly be surrounded by a group of good friends. Make sure you can always be heard, by people who you know would rush to your aid. So in India, I will be aware of who is around me, and the first thing I will do is to forge the friendships I need to feel safe and to make my host family and family back home feel less worried. Also, these close friendships will make my experience in India so much richer, as it did in Ecuador and Jordan!

On another point, use your host family to help determine whom you can trust. They are personally invested in keeping you safe since you are their temporary daughter and they know a lot more about the local culture and community than you do.

2.  Respect the local culture

Wear short shorts and tank tops at home? I plan to leave those items at home (or in my suitcase, since I will technically be without a home this summer - more on that in my forthcoming packing for India post) and take the opportunity to go SHOPPING and buy some beautiful local clothes. Also don’t just imitate local dress, but also local body language. I have learned to be aware that personal space is approached differently in different cultures and to always be conscious of the space between you and those of the culture you are unfamiliar with, especially those of opposite gender. I’ve heard that women in India look slightly above eye level and past the shoulder to avoid eye contact, so that creepy men won’t think they are “interested”. And they are really good at frowning and saying no, based on my watching of bollywood movies. I plan to channel those feisty bollywood heroines if any man in India tries something with me.

But I’ve also learned that sometimes the best (and sometimes hardest) thing to do is just to ignore stares and catcalls. The guys who do that do so to get your attention – don’t give them what they want!  Once it gets to groping then bring out that feisty bollywood bride, but for the purely verbal sexual harassment, be an ice queen (cue Let it go). Usually the staring and catcalls are a part of the culture, and not something you alone can easily change – and it’s not up to you as an outsider to try and change it either.

3. Think before you eat (or drink for that matter)

Thank god for modern medicine! My culinary ventures into the street food of Ecuador would have quickly turned unpleasant if it wasn’t for my handy Imodium pills. Pepto-Bismol and antacids will also help an upset stomach, and acidophilus supplements will help toughen up your stomach. But the best medicine? Common sense! Think about how each ingredient in each food you are handed has been handled (and by whom) before it came to you. In a place like India, from which we have the term Delhi Belly (you do not want to know what that is first-hand, but you can probably imagine), you have to be careful as a North American or European as there are types of bacteria your body is not used to. Everyone has told me it is inevitable that I will get sick in India in the beginning, while my body adjusts to a new sanitary reality, but I’ve read accounts of people who have avoided the dreaded Delhi Belly. I plan to fight it as best as I can, but I still want to enjoy the amazing Nawabi cuisine that Lucknow is famous for. A combination of modern medicine and common sense will allow me to do that. 

Also, in regards to what you drink, I've felt more at risk in any situation when I've had alcohol. This is partly why I chose to completely quit alcohol a year and a half ago. I will have a sip of champagne on New Years, at graduation, or on my birthday, but otherwise I prefer to abstain - my head is clearer and my body healthier so I can better take use of common sense and fight foreign bacteria. While you're abroad, think twice before you imbibe some intoxicating substance.

However, the most likely thing that will get you into an Indian hospital is DEHYDRATION. I plan to constantly be glued to a bottle of water (never tap water - I've heard the TATA brand of bottled water can be trusted) and wear 50 SPF sunscreen every day. A friend of mine also suggested carrying a round a wet handcloth to wipe off the sweat and cool your face and forehead from time to time.

This is has been Lucknow's weather forecast for the past few weeks, and it willprobably be like this or hotter for the next few weeks (for those who go by Celsius that is way above 40 degrees!):

Two vaccinations you should get for India because of food and water dangers:
·      Hepatitis A (given in 2 doses, 6 months apart)
·      Typhoid (get it at least two weeks before you travel)

List of products I plan to bring to India for my health and sanitation:
Basic first aid kit
Anti-malaria pills (get a prescription from your local doctor)
Antacid tablets
Acidophilus supplement
Tissue packets
Moist towlettes
Hand sanitizers (I like to get the small scented ones from Bath & Bodyworks)
Mosquito repellent with DEET

Here is a little blog roll of good advice I’ve read about staying safe in India:

Let me stress, that despite all these dangers, I COULDN’T BE MORE EXCITED TO BE GOING TO INDIA! IT IS A DREAM COME TRUE! This post is more to assuage fears of my family and friends and remind myself of all the things I need to be aware of when traveling – but I’m so excited for the new lessons I’ll learn in India, both tough and fun, that I will be sharing with you on this blog.