Saturday, October 19, 2013

101 Things to Do With a Dupatta

This list won't actually have 101 things on it.  But the dupatta is pretty darn versatile, so I decided to make a list of all the things you can do with it.  For the unfamiliar, when a girl wears salwaar kameez (pants or leggings with a long kurta, or tunic-style shirt), she wears a dupatta with it.  A dupatta is basically a sheer or cotton scarf that drapes across the front, covering the chest.  It's often pinned at the shoulders so it stays in place.  The dupatta is surprisingly versatile, having a wide variety of uses.  It can double as a:

1. A nuisance (do you know how hard it is to remember to wear it?)
2. Shawl.
3. Turban.
4. Head covering for church.
5. Light blanket/sheet.
6. Hand towel.
7. Dish towel.
8. Full-body towel (if in dire need).
9. Hot pad/potholder.
10. Handkerchief - sneeze guard.
11. Handkerchief - sweat wiper.
12. Mosquito net.
13. Mouth coverer (useful when walking past garbage).
14. Sling (if you would sprain your wrist).
15. Sash.
16. Jump rope for kids.
17. Banner/flag.
18. Tablecloth.
19. Table runner.
20. Dustcloth.
21. Small purse.
22. Gift wrap.
23. Rope (if attacked - this is hypothetical).
24. Dance prop.
25. Pillowcase.
26. Wall hanging (if nicely patterned).
27. Curtain.
28. Belt.
29. Blindfold (for party games, y'all).
30. Shade creator.
31. Miniature tent.
32. Source of mood lighting (if draped over light fixture).
33. Tourniquet (also hypothetical).
34. Modesty preserver.
35. Screen or divider.
36. Filter (if you want to stain it with tea, that is).
37. Seat cushion.
38. Veil.
39. Security blanket for a kiddo.
40. Butterfly or insect catcher.
41. Object in a children's game.
42. Scarf (obviously).

And there you have it!  Some of the many uses of the dupatta.  That's all for now, but I will post again in a few days - same Bat-time, same Bat-channel.  Signing off ---

Monday, October 7, 2013

Food, Glorious Food

A question from someone back home reminded me that I haven't actually talked about food here.  Which is (I'm sure to some of you) criminal, as it's something that India is known for.  So, first and foremost, let me say that Indian food - like Chinese food - is vastly different in the actual country than in restaurants in the U.S.  Big surprise, right?  In my cuisine class, I actually learned that a lot of "Indian" food sold is influenced by Punjabi cuisine and has been stripped of a lot of the regional intricacies that make Indian food so different.  Anyways, moving on:

We provide our own breakfasts here, as well as dinner four times a week (plus any eating out at restaurants that we want to do).  The program gives us a stipend to go grocery shopping, which is fantastic.  We have dinner sent to us from the university in a tiffin three evenings a week.  The contents vary, but we can almost always count on rice!  (More on that later.)  We tend to eat lunch at the university's mess hall, as it is free for us to do so.

Lunch at the mess is almost always the same and it's easy to adapt to its routine.  You enter the mess hall, find a stainless steel plate from the racks, and head out to the other side where you wash the plate and your hands, making sure to clean under the nails, because eating here is done with the hands.  Handwashing, actually, is always done before meals, even in restaurants.  Then, you bring your plate back into the mess hall, go up to the enormous pot of rice, serve yourself some, spoon some sambar over it (along with raita, or a cilantro-chili-curd mixture, to cool the taste if you want), get some kind of vegetable dish from the aunties serving the food as well as a fried, crunchy pappadam, and go sit.

You mix the sambar and rice with your hands, breaking pieces of the pappadam into it, and eat that.  The rice is often very hot so it takes me a little time to do this - not so for my Indian friends!  But it's become easy to eat with my hands.  I tend to eat the veg dish last.  Often, the people who prepare our food will slice fresh cucumbers and carrots for us, and provide us hard-boiled eggs.  But that's only for the ISP students.  When finished eating, you take your plate back out through the back door, dump the small food waste into a large plastic barrel, take a pinch of clay soap, and clean off your plate and your hands.  After stacking the plate on one of the racks to dry, you're done.

The food is very spicy to my poor taste buds, which aren't used to it at all.  They're getting there, I hope.  The dishes are not only hot, a result of the green chili peppers AND the chili powder they add, they are also spicy and flavorful, with a variety of spices mixed in.  In our cuisine class where we made tomato rice pilaf, we added not only chili, onions, and bay leaves, but cardamom and cinnamon as well to create a balance of spices.  That said, while the food is very tasty (even for mess food), it can be hard at times.  I'm just glad we aren't eating some of the Kerala food; one of my Malayalee friends told me that her grandmother's cooking makes her cry, it's so hot - and she's used to it!

South Indian cooking (at least in Tamil Nadu) is centered around rice.  Lots and lots of rice.  Lots.  And lots.  I can't really emphasize how much rice there is.  But, thankfully, it does get mixed up sometimes with chapatti, parotta, and dosa just enough that we don't go crazy from all the rice.  I think it's really that I'm not used to it . . . but I am starting to get used to it.  It's hard to be here and not adapt to eating rice multiple times a day (three times if you have idli for breakfast!) without fail.  But as with everything here, I'm slowly getting used to it, and for the most part, enjoying all of it.  Even the chilies.  

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

A New Religion: Temple Visits

Now that I have a few temple visits under my belt, I feel like I can describe them a little more accurately.  The program has sent us to two temples so far: Perur Temple, a temple dating back to the Chola period, and the Meenakshi Temple in Madurai, Tamil Nadu’s cultural capital and another old temple.  Some carvings or paintings go back over hundreds of years.  

One of the gates at Meenakshi Temple.
Cities here were built around their temples; the temple was built first, and then the city followed.  As large temples, these two had large, distinctive gates topped by huge towers of brightly painted, life-size statues.  It was impossible to miss the gate.  Meenakshi, larger than Perur, had multiple gates, and several towers within the walls of the temple! 

Inside, too, is a riot of colorful paintings adorning the walls and ceilings.  Some depict scenes from the lives of saints or gods, some are floral designs.  Rock-cut pillars line the halls, figures carved into their bases.  Statues also flank the halls, carved as if leaping out of the stone.  The halls rise to arched ceilings, almost Chinese-looking lions at the top of the arches, baring their large teeth down at the occupants, huge-eyed.  Of course, the figures topping the columns are brightly colored.  

Temples are devoted to a particular god or family of a god.  Perur was a temple for Shiva, and Meenakshi was devoted to Meenakshi, an aspect of Shiva’s wife Parvati, but both temples included shrines and halls to other parts of Lord Shiva’s family (e.g. Ganesh).  Generally, temples start with larger halls, narrowing to the inner sanctum where the statue of the god rests.  In Meenakshi, only Hindus could go into these more holy parts of the temple, but in Perur they let us go forward even into the inner sanctum, through the guardian statues flanking the door and even into the small chamber where the swami performed the puja and blessed those who came.  

Something I do appreciate about Hindu worship is how all the senses are engaged: first, the temples are brightly colored.  During the ritual of asking for the god’s blessing, a flame is circled in front of the statue.  A bell is rung to invite the god’s attention, mixed with the swami’s chanting of a mantra, or holy text.  Incense is waved, thickening the air with its distinctive musk.  And when the supplicants are blessed, it is with the slight grit of ash upon their foreheads as they kneel against the hard, slightly cold stone floor.  

Because worship is linked to all the senses, every time someone passes a temple and hears the bell being rung, or smells the incense, or applies the sandalwood powder to their foreheads at home, the experience of worship will return to them.  For that, I really admire the Hindu form of worship as a very sensory, tangible experience that proves for easy recollection and association.  In short, the temples were large and ornate, full of history and rich architecture.  Seeing people worshiping there added to my understanding of Hinduism and how people lived it.  I was really glad we got to visit these temples as part of our learning experience here.  

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Wait, I'm interning WHERE?

Part of the India Studies Program is doing an internship or field experience.  Early this semester, we all waited with bated breath to see where we would be placed.  Everyone's internship sounded perfect for them and like a great place for learning.  I waited.  I didn't know where I would be placed - I had mentioned writing and editing in my 'internship interest' form, but I had no idea what would come of it. 

"You'll be interning at The Hindu," the professor told me.  I gaped. 

See, The Hindu is India's largest English-language newspaper.  It's been around since 1878.  For crying out loud, I read The Hindu as part of my attempt to familiarize myself with Indian current events!  And I was going to be interning there!  I was totally agog.  It was kind of hilarious, because my professor and internship guide kept asking if I was okay with it, if I was happy to go, and I had to say, "No, it's great, I'm over-the-moon excited about it, I just can't believe I'm actually interning at The Hindu.  LIKE WHAAAAAAAAAT???"  . . . well, you get the drift. Anyway, it wasn't all smooth from there - there were some hiccups in getting the internship off the ground.  The Hindu had a different format for internships that what the program had planned, so it took a little bit before we got it started - but start I did!  I came back after homestay to hear that they wanted me to start the next day.  Mindblowing. 

It's been feast-or-famine here - since it's a newspaper, they either have a lot to do or almost nothing, depending on what's coming in and how far along they are on the day's issue.  (Also, since I don't know Tamil, it can be hard to find things for me to do, as news comes into the office in Tamil and is then written as an English article.)  I've gone over to one of the entertainment sections, Metro Plus, often since they have things for me to observe and do.  There, they do something similar to what I do with the Writing Center newsletter, so it's been cool to see how they format things and work with everything.  I'm hoping I can use this experience to better my writing, editing, and formatting of the Writing Center newsletter. 

Far and away the coolest thing that's happened during my internship was writing an article for the Metro Plus, watching it go through the process of editing and formatting . . . and having it published the following day!  I heard responses from people in the program, but other people from commented on it, too - it's just so cool to know that something I wrote was published, and that a lot of people read it.  It was such a fabulous thing to see and be a part of, and such a great learning moment. 

Internship at The Hindu has been interesting, to say the least.  Sometimes it's been stressful, and sometimes it's been boring - and sometimes it's been so packed with amazing things and learning experiences that I need a day to just sit back and process everything.  A bit like my overall experience in India, actually.  I feel so lucky that I was privileged enough to be placed here - what a crazy, wonderful, thing. 

My article, published in the weekend edition of The Hindu's Metro Plus!

Monday, September 16, 2013

A New World: Flora and Fauna

India has held many new things and new experiences.  Today, I thought I'd describe some of the new things I'm seeing in nature! 

First of all, the plants.  There are so many different plants here: palm trees, banana trees, cacti, banyan trees . . .  Many of the plants are tropical ones, with flat waxy leaves that look almost plasticine, especially when wet.  Some are spiky, some are soft, but they all have a very different, sleek look to them.  There are plants of all colors - this morning, I noticed a kind of creeping plant that was a dark, rich purple color.  The flowers on the trees range from canary yellow to passion-fruit orange to bright fuchsia.  Some are duller pinks and blues, some are white, but all of them stand out. 

In India, even the bugs are colorful.  Yesterday, I observed a centipede crawling - it reminded me of a powerstrip, with bright orange legs and a black body with an orange strip running down it.  On my homestay, we saw a butterfly with black wings and a bright red body - we're talking fire-engine, acrylic red here.  So bright.  The Japanese beetles (while huge) are metallic emerald and copper hues.  Butterflies are orange, yellow, white, black, nearly every color you can imagine . . .

On homestay, we saw a kingfisher.  They are a bright turquoise, as if someone had taken a paintbrush and just streaked them with it.  Unreal, the way the butterfly was bright red.  Almost too pure a color to be plausible.  It was gorgeous to see it fly.  And, of course, I was able to see a peacock at the zoo and it was stunning, with its tail spread and feathers on full display.  Crows here are interesting, too, as they have a band of color at their throats, sometimes a dull gray and sometimes a mousy brown; the rest of them is oil-slick black, but they have just a patch of a different color.  Pigeons are kind of the same everywhere, but the ones here often range from dark gray to a fine pale silver, with marbled green-gray-white feathers around their beady black eyes.  They like to flutter around our balcony and windows. 

But my favorite moment of observing the huge differences between nature home and nature here happened last night around 6:30, at dusk . . . when the bats came out.  I had visited the small zoo here and seen hundreds of them sleeping in the trees, and I'd been hoping to see it for a while, so it was very exciting that I finally got to see them come out last night.  They flooded the sky, and if you didn't know better you could mistake them for a flock of crows or starlings.  Within a half hour, they had dissipated, but for that half hour they were swooping all over the sky, flapping by overhead.  Incomparable and incredible.  There was a full moon, too, and seeing the bats sweep over the moon against the steely blue dusk was magnificent.  I couldn't take my eyes off them. 

There's other things, too - like the cow we ran into one night, just hanging out down a side street, or the goats and small dogs that roam the streets - but these are the little, everyday moments of beauty that pop out every so often and remind me that this is India, and it's a whole other world from what I see at home. 

P.S. Sorry I don't have pictures.  I can't always capture these things, so you'll have to make do with my description until I see if I have anything to put up. 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Gratitude Without Guilt

First of all, let me apologize for the very late post - I was without Internet access through the weekend and into Monday, and the Internet in our apartment is spotty right now (as in it honestly takes at least 5 minutes to load a plain-text page - forget about anything with pictures or backgrounds!).  There are so many things I could blog about from last week: classes starting, the ongoing internship saga, hostel night -- but what I want to talk about the most is my home-stay last weekend with my peer mentor, Karuna.  

There are so many things I could say when talking about my home-stay (so, so many things), but I want to focus on one thing in particular.  There is a saying here: “The guest is like God.”  Nowhere was this more evident to me than in my home-stay.  Karuna took me and another student, Faith, home with her for the weekend.  Upon arriving at her house, her mother welcomed us with a traditional Tamil welcome ceremony.  From that moment on, Karuna and her family were hospitable to the point of embarrassment (at least, on my part).  

We never went hungry.  We sat at a small table set for two, and Karuna’s mother served us the wonderful food she had prepared.  She would keep coming back, asking if we wanted more, if the food was good, if we wanted something else, or what she could make if we didn’t like it.  (It was all delicious.)  The first day, everything, including the snack she brought in on a plate, was served on a banana leaf - this is something done for special occasions in Tamil Nadu.  Karuna and her mother would serve us tea or coffee in the afternoons, always asking if the ratios of milk and sugar was all right and, of course, if we liked it.  

They were always turning on the fan for us, telling us to take the only chairs and sitting on the floor instead, making sure we had enough to eat, getting us water, finding snacks for us, seeing if we were comfortable - basically, trying to please us in every way possible.  And every morning, Karuna’s mother gave us fresh flowers to put in our hair, sometimes ones she’d picked and strung together just for us.  

From Left: Karuna, Me, Kanya, and Faith 
One other amazing thing about the weekend that I have to mention is that we took an auto up the mountain to be shown the banana plantation Karuna’s family owns - 40 acres of banana plants.  I can’t even describe the beauty of the trees and the mountains.  We could see the clouds shrouding the mountaintops.  The banana trees were stunning.  There’s nothing to compare it to in the States, no way to compare the wide, slick green leaves of the trees, or the way the different types of bananas grow upside-down, or the height of the trunks, or their orderly rows.  There were banana trees as far as the eye could see, surrounded by  water.  It was incredible.  
We did a lot of other things.  Karuna, her mother, and Karuna’s cousin Kanya pulled out all the family photo albums for us.  Her mother didn’t speak much English, but we went through every single album with the three of them, hearing about where each photo was taken and who was in it.  It was a bit overwhelming, but it was clear that by doing that, they wanted to not only show us their family but make us a part of it.  Kanya was over at the house every day, spending time with us; we played cards and games and got to meet her family that weekend, too.  In addition, Karuna’s father came back home from Chennai to meet us - Chennai.  It had to have been at least a 7-8 hour journey for him, but he came.  He came so that he could welcome us to his home and to his family.  

At the end of our stay, when we were already so humbled by our time there, they bought us saris.  Let me repeat: they bought us saris.  I was blown away.  When Karuna’s father told us he would be buying us saris, I couldn’t believe it.  So we spent our last afternoon at Karuna’s house looking at saris (and of course, they asked repeatedly if we were happy with the fabric, if it was okay, and telling us if we didn’t like it, we could exchange it, no problem). I honestly don’t know how to emphasize the enormity of the hospitality we experienced, but the sari purchase was only one example of the so, so very many ways they welcomed us into their home and their family.  

They sent us home well-fed, with half a papaya and other fruits, with new saris, with a lot of amazing pictures of everywhere we stayed, and most importantly, with a new and personal understanding of the incredible hospitality extended to guests.  It was a fascinating, beautiful, grace-filled, humbling, indescribable weekend.  I only wish I could have described it better.  

Me with Karuna's Family!  From Left: Me, Faith, Karuna's Father, Karuna, Karuna's Mother

Monday, September 2, 2013

Is That It?

It's hard to believe that it's only been six days.

Six days since I arrived in India!  They've been so long and so much has happened and been thrown at me that it feels like much, much longer.  The time difference is a bit odd and has taken a while to get used to (I hope I'm over jet lag?), because it's 9 1/2 hours.  It's just long enough to throw off the day but not long enough to be a complete reversal.  

So: in the time since I last wrote, we've had multiple days of orientation at BACAS, information about our internships and field experience, our first shopping trip, our trip to get our "uniform," i.e. traditional clothing, and our first day of classes!  

The memorable moments: meeting our peer mentors, who are BACAS students assigned to us to help guide us in the culture and help us with whatever we need.  Mine, Karuna, is absolutely wonderful and I love her already.  I was excited to find out about my internship - hopefully, I'll be interning at The Hindu, i.e. the largest English-language newspaper in India!  Also, shopping for salwar kameez was a blast.  The clothes are great.  Attending church was neat, and obviously our classes are really interesting.  Oh, and produce - I bought fresh produce for super cheap here, so that was pretty exciting.  

I hope to post every Monday - a bit ambitious, maybe, but we'll see if I manage it.  Ta for now!

ISP Batch 5!  As you can see, we've started settling in (with our new clothing!).