Stereotypical exit from India: infection, sand storm, police commissioner visit and Bollywood

Stereotypical exit from India: infection, sand storm, police commissioner visit and Bollywood

My last few days in India flew by in a blur. The first half of the week, a stomach infection ruined my dreams for an illness-free stay in Delhi. Fortunately, between an injection to stop my vomiting and three days of Cipro, I bounced back pretty quickly. Class wrapped up with a flurry of solar powered boast making and showing off all the students’ work at the academic fair. Sandstorm! We had to end the fair slightly early when hurricane winds started blowing the posters off the wall in the open reception area where the students showed off their work from the past three weeks. The RAs and TAs corralled the kids and tried to move them toward the dining hall, past the OP Jindal workers struggled to take down the massive flag which threaten to take flight with them in tow. I headed back to the classroom to finish packing up our supplies when the sky went black, the wind startled whistling and the power went out. After having survived two sand storms in sonipat already, I tried to take a deep breath and relax but with doors and windows flapping and water flooding the hallways, uneasiness was inevitable. I jumped when my TA, Surya, burst threw the door with a crumpled paper tea cup. “I spilled his tea and it saved my life”, he explained breathlessly. Apparently, the wind blew the tea on to his shirt which slowed his gangly gait long enough so when the picture blew off the wall, shattering glass all around, it missed him. Apparently the staff trained the campers in the dining hall to run back and forth, from one side of the room to the other to avoid the worst of the gusts, like sailors bailing out a boat in a high seas storm. We later learned that the storm was one of the worst in Delhi’s recent history: it’s 140 km/hr winds downed several light posts around campus, caused day long power outages throughout the city and twelve people died during it. One more visit to the police commissioner After surviving the storm, the remainder of camp went pretty smoothly: I bid farewell to the campers at parent pick-up and went on one last trip to downtown Sonipat with some other instructors just in case we might maybe need the signature of the police commissioner on the visa form. As per usual with visa related things, it was a wild goose chase around the police/governmental compound as people pointed us in random directions before we returned to a room we’ve been twice below, piled high with papers that no one probably looks at. Some men talked, scrutinized our passports and the previously awarded letter, flipped through in the paper register, pow-wowed again and decided to add a new stamp to our paper. Of course, when I finally got to leave India, no one asked about any of this but after previous instructors for this job got detained, the administration didn’t want to take any chances. After three weeks of not being allowed of campus without an excessive amount of accompaniment, I finally could meet up with the family of one of my best friends in Raleigh. Since I didn’t have an “out pass”, his mom ritu and I had to argue with the guards then try to sneak away, with me shouting, “I’m not coming back!! I don’t need an out pass”. Then finally, we were off and I was free! Freedom!   Hanging out with Atul’s family was just what I needed after three weeks in “jindal jail”, where everything was gates, barbed wire and we lived in cell blocks. To be let in places, we had to flag down wardens whose pants sagged with the enormous weight of their metal key rings. We had curfews and policies prohibiting visitors, alcohol and escape. In atul’s family’s home, his parents and super-cool 12th grade sister treated me with such warmth and unrestrained hospitality. Nice conversation and endless amount of food preceded a trip to the cinema to watch heropani, one of the latest Bollywood flicks. They worried that I wouldn’t understand the movie since it was in Hindi, with no subtitles, but the dramatic soundtrack and longing looks was all I needed to decode the boy-meets-girl storyline. What made the movie even better than cheesy dance numbers and a very attractive cast, was that it was set in Haryana (the kind of “backward” state where I stayed in sonipat), where fathers are infamously reluctant to let their daughters chose their husbands. Throughout the movie, I recognized flashes of Delhi: the qutab minar, India gate and...

Budget, bucket-list day in Delhi

Budget, bucket-list day in Delhi

The time has come to document one of the best days I’ve had in India.  Day flowed so smoothly, in an almost eery efficiency.  Why hasn’t the car broken down?  Why hasn’t the driver dropped us off in an unknown area where big-eyed, dirty kids tap our hands and whine, “mujhē bhūkha lagī hai” (I’m hungry)?  Why haven’t we been detained by security for some unbeknowst infraction?  I’m not complaining.  It was Kimberly and Cameron (our American faculty friends from OP Jindal) last weekend in Delhi and they wanted us to experience all of it: local activities (yoga and street food) to best-kept-secret (free!) touristy things.   The day began as all good days in India do (well, after we survived the harrowing drive where I witnessed a man making the most of the traffic jam, when he decided to change his tire in the middle of the highway)… with a steamy cup of chai. The day began as all good days in India do- with a shot glass amount of street side chai. The tent-like shop was on a shaded corner and the whole family hung out under the tarp to watch over its wares: teeny packets of cigarettes, lottery tickets and snacks. They boiled the chai over a central mini-fire and then reached into a large jar to serve it with cumin cookies. The family watched us getting highly on tea with bemused faces and when after serving us a second round, the teenage girl who served us shyly asked us for a “snap”. Even though I’ve taken pictures with dozens of locals who want to pose with a blonde, I still can’t imagine what they do with these photos- post them on Facebook and brag about exotic encounters? Print it out and put it on the mantle in between baby pictures and grandma’s wedding day? After our photoshoot, we proceeded back to f-7 hauz khas enclave, the supposed site of our “sweaty” yoga session. We poked around driveways of residential homes and Kim called her friend who recommended the place, “it’s in a sketchy basement? Tikka. (Ok)”. And so we proceeded. Through an unmarked door, down some stairs to a surprisingly expansive studio room. We each grabbed a mat, and filled with chai and cookies, we fell into assorted variations of child-pose. Suddenly our instructor entered, puma pants swishing as he blew my us and assumed a central position. “Up, up! Let’s get warm!” And he proceeded to lead us through a high paced warm up of jogging, high knees, arm swinging and moving stretches. I looked skeptically at Aaron, flashing my eyes at our teacher’s football jersey. “This was yoga, not national soccer team tryouts, right?”. Once we were warm, the class increased in intensity. Rapid fire sun salutations, fat-burning leg lifts and ballerina-like balances and deep back bends. By the time the 90 minutes over, my friends and I collapsed, sweaty piles of spaghetti on the floor. Yoga class in India: check! Did it make us feel like American wusses? Absolutely. After sponge baths in the bathroom, we headed to the crafts museum for brunch and culture. The man behind the museum traveled the country hunting down handicrafts and the (free!) museum had an incredible assortment of sculptures, textiles, engravings and paintings. It included life size village huts, totem poles, and ended in a courtyard with live artisans doing calligraphy, putting on puppet shows, making jewelry and playing local music. But we didn’t indulge in any of this culture until we finished a feast in the cafe, which featured dishes from all over the country. We nibbled on beetcakes (a street food delicacy from Kerala), green papaya salad, goat dumplings, a quinoa creation and actual French-roasted coffee! (In the land of Nescafé and instant, real coffee was definitely a highlight!). After wandering around the museum, we headed to Lodi garden, an expansive public space and another highly recommended, free attraction. The garden had a fish pond, various flora and fauna, an impressive assortment of artsy trash cans and an assortment of ancient mogul tombs, temples and forts. Watching other people picnic in the park as we sweated to explore the ancient monuments, made a beer break a necessity. We headed to khan market “in ex-pat land” for drinks and dessert. This area looked different than other Indian markets because we weren’t instantly assaulted by wandering salespeople (“bamboo plant for you, ma’am. Just one!), stepping over women selling jewelry, brushing up against mangy dogs and drowning in goods spilling onto the streets. Although more contained than we were used to, the market still didn’t look like much from the outside- dusty, claustrophobic...

Typical India: Taj Mahal Debacle

Typical India: Taj Mahal Debacle

The Taj Mahal has been one of the forerunners on my bucket list ever since shingles deprived me of the opportunity to go during my last trip to Delhi three years ago. It’s serene, sleek, marble smoothness, shimmery in the hot sun seems too calm and collected to be in this land of chaos. However, the process of visiting– as I gleaned from Slumdog Millionaire, where kids acted as tour guides to scam tourists, steal shoes and cause other types of chaos—quintessential embodies the mixed bag of good-and-bad that India embodies. And none of the best things in life come easily. The 18-hour quest might have lacked villains with machetes but required as much strong spirit and sweat as Indiana Jones pursuing the crown jewel! And the adventure begins! First, we had to bust out of our OP Jindal jail… an elaborate process of convincing fourteen instructors and teaching assistants to wake up at 1:30 AM so we could see the Taj at sunrise, applying for approval to leave from the on-site director and getting issued an out-pass. The morning of, we had to round up all fourteen of us, find the drivers who were washing their cars outside the campus gate, convince campus security to let them on campus just to pile in the car and be denied to leave campus without showing an “out-pass” that the trip organizer didn’t know we had to bring. Someone had to hunt down a security guard to unlock the TIP office at 2:00 AM, get the paper and convince the other security guards to let us leave. Then we piled into three cars and began what should have been a 4-hour journey to Agra. However, the drivers decided they wanted to take us the scenic route and they wanted to stop at thirty minute intervals to smoke, drink tea, pee on the edge of the highway, silently leaving us in the car (without explanation) in places where leashed monkeys would leap on our windows and their owners would demand payment if anyone took pictures. We approached Agra around 8 AM (3 hours behind schedule) and the drivers picked up a random man from the side of the road and we drove to a restaurant where we learned he’s a tour guide that we never wanted. Since he required no fee but tips, we decided to keep him around. In the Taj Complex Fortified with toast and jam (that took the restaurant an hour to prepare), we finally had our drivers drop us at the gate to the Taj. Immediately, little boys selling snow globes mobbed us with their cheap, plastic merchandise, patting our butts as they battled for our attention. Weaving around the persistent sellers-of-useless-things, we made our way down the dusty street to the Taj, choking on the smell of manure from the malnourished camels, who could escort in “style” (if sitting on moldy blankets on a bony camel’s back is your sense of style). To enter, foreigners have to pay 37x the price as Indians (but at 750 rupees or $13, I’m not complaining!) and proceed through “security”, to get your breasts bifurcated by a stern Indian woman who has perfected the J-shaped frisking motion. I didn’t attempt to bring anything prohibited into the area but talking to Kimberly later, she said she carried around pepper spray and a switchblade for a week in India, probably passed through “security” a couple dozen times without it being detected… I just don’t understand this country’s obsession with all this ineffective fondling! Anyway, the group re-grouped and entered a magical land of green carpet grass and sandstone-covered walkways. Shortly after, we reached a plaza surrounded by three huge gates, graced with elaborate Arabic inscriptions. These areas housed the 20,000 workers and 1,000 elephants over 22 years of construction for the complex. The gate was surprisingly long and it got quite dark but about halfway through, it opens up to the Taj, perfectly centered in the arch, creating an unforgettable first impression. From there, we wandered along the (dried-up) reflecting pools, taking all the touristy pictures (our tour guide had perfected lightening speed efficiency while photographing- unfortunately, I did not perfect lightening speed posing) while learning the history behind the Mughal emperor and the testament to his love of his favorite wife. The tour guide advised me to wait to get married until someone promises to finish the black taj mahal as a testament for their love for me. I responded that I’d rather not wait another thousand years but thanked him for the advice. We donned silly shoe-covers and slid across the marble floors of the main...

Puzzling Over Indian Newspapers

Puzzling Over Indian Newspapers

In the United States, I rarely pick up newspapers, except to attempt the Sudoku in cases of extreme boredom. In India, reading the newspaper is one of the highlights of my day and a helpful information source in my quest to understand this incomprehensible place. Ever since a horoscope instructed me to “get any skin inflammation investigated immediately” on the morning that my shingles rash arrived on my first trip to India, I always consult the astrology section first. After that, I always enjoy flipping through stories that range from somber to quite comical, usually told in a matter-of-fact manner. This week I read an incredibly informative piece about the discovery of fifty species of dancing frog. In the middle of the human rights section. You can count on strangely-arranged pieces containing an assortment of practical, symbolic and hilarious insights into Indian society and culture. As an example, here’s what I learned the past two days: Practical: Worst Pollution than Beijing Sure, tangerine colored suns look neat and my nose always knows where I am when I go outside where it always smells like something is burning. But, ultimately, when you want to go for a jog outdoors or have the kids play cricket, the ever-present pollution becomes a little less fun. Having lived through a pollution scare in Singapore last summer, the air felt equally heavy (even without a high level of humidity) and thanks to the newspapers I learned why. Delhi ranks #1 for pollution worldwide and now, twenty five of India’s cities have higher pollution levels than Beijing. Where Beijing averages around 56 microgram per cubic meter of pollution, Delhi averages three times as much: 156 micrograms per cubic meter! Aaron’s been tracking it on his phone and says yesterday the pollution exceeded 200. And just like the fire in the field during our first sandstorm here, it appears to be “no big deal”, a fact of life accepted with a shrug and a head bobble. In the meantime, I think I’ll be sticking to exercising inside the gym! Insightful (and tragic): Suicide Over Cell-Phone Scolding Despite silly tabloids and an absurd amount of information on hair care, Indian newspapers depress me more than watching the news in America. Almost every day, some sort of suicide makes front-page news- often stressed out students or frustrated lovers. Yesterday, a high school student got caught typing a “slightly scandalous” text message (probably not very…) to a male acquaintance. The teacher caught her and planned to notify her parents. That night afternoon around lunchtime, the girl hung herself in the school bathroom. As I mentioned previously, this type of incident happens almost every day. Why is suicide so common in India? I hardly claim to know the answer, except parents in India tend to be extremely involved in the lives of their children and often have high expectations for their futures. Anne, the social entrepreneur instructor, learned from a JGU economic professor that India doesn’t have a social security retirement plan so many parents depend on their off-spring to ensure their financial stability as they age. Whatever the reason, stories like this make me nervous about teaching India’s top talent, especially at the tender age of 12-13. How could an American anticipate that scolding a student using their cell phone would lead to premature death? Woof! Teachers in the US love to complain but that’s something that they don’t usually need to worry about. Bizarre: “Love Calls at Metro Station” And some articles are just bizarre. In the serious “Sunday Express”, buried amidst editorials and a piece about two men dying during a TV poll, a feature in the corner shed light on “A Day in the Life: Metro Condom Machine, Delhi”. What followed was an almost scientific account of the observed interactions of metro-travelers with this new machine. As one of the area’s first public condom machines (they plan to add 24 more throughout Delhi’s metro), it is apparently adorned with pictures of happy couples and carries “ultra sheer, dotted, coffee, rose-water, all-night and ‘Velvet’” varieties. In addition to condoms, these machines carry water bottles, deodorants, joint pain cream tubes and hair oil bottles. The writer vigilantly observes the machine over the course of business hours, carefully watching the contents and interviewing passerbys. Overall, the machine elicited several giggles, was completely ignored by many and the stock of water bottles was depleted by the end of the day (unlike the condoms, which just sat there). I enjoyed reading an interview from a gate guard who recalled, “seeing a young boy buy a Happy Days sanitary napkin (for Rs 10) thinking it was bread....

Dust storms and Other Spontaneous Happenings in Sonipat

Dust storms and Other Spontaneous Happenings in Sonipat

Setting the Scene Trapped in a little TIP bubble in India, this week wasn’t the most exciting of my life but when in India, everything is adventure. They stretched orientation out over six days, an endless assortment of meetings, spiced up by presentations to different permutations of instructors, teaching assistants and residential staff. TIP (Talent Identification Program) has been operating in India long enough to know that creating schedules are pointless so administrators plan the day one hour at a time and the whole time, it feels like the “blind leading the blind”. During the awkward length breaks between sessions, Aaron (an old friend from a research fellowship and the cryptography instructor) explore the maze-like academic building. In India, you have to walk up a floor to get to the first time… unless you have a mezzanine above the first floor. So we wander, the first floor turning into the second, a spacious hallway welcoming you to a dead end, the place you want to go right within eye sight but no place to get there. The architect in our group concludes that the building is designed very creatively but shoddily built. Perfectly designed to be a death trap for curious 7th and 8th graders… dimly lit staircases, random 4” gaps between sidewalks, piles of crap at key intersections (that may or may not be important) and a pack of mangy dogs in the surrounding field. So it should be interesting to see what happens when the “notorious” kids arrive tomorrow. Finding Entertainment in Isolation Our program has curfews, dress codes and strict rules about leaving campus (up until yesterday, when the instructors got to go on a supply run, we’ve been stuck here) so we’ve had to get creative about entertaining ourselves. Aaron busts out the card game “SET” every chance that he gets and we’ve assembled a good gym group (of course, the Americans crazies working out at 6 AM) where Aaron sometimes teaches yoga. There, we met another crazy American, a blonde who kept sneaking suspicious glances at us other white people, while striding along on the elliptical. Eventually, she burst out, “I just have to ask. What are you all DOING here?? I haven’t seen this many white people on campus since I got here!”. Since we wondered the exact same thing about here, we became fast friends. As a recent law school graduate from California, Kimberly teaches a health and gender class here, as a research fellow with a specialty in Southeast Asian Sexuality. She invited me and the other instructors to her monthly “make-fun-of-Americans-party” and promised beer, buckets of greasy KFC and plenty of politically incorrectness. And she let out a let shriek of excitement at the thought of having actual Americans present! The night of the party, I holed up in my room working on some lesson preparation before dinner. Suddenly, it got so dark that I thought the power went out again (as it does at least a half dozen times a day) but an illuminated computer-charging light discounted that explanation. This sudden darkening was soon accompanied by whirls and wooshes of wind pounding against the door, followed by pellets of something peppering the windows. When I heard a crack of lightening, I chalked it up as a rainstorm but then a burning smell and sandy ash started blowing under my door. When the door’s vibrations slowed slightly, I peered outside and realized there was no rain, just dirt swirling around. I consulted with my next-door neighbor Anne and we decided to seize the window of calm to make a run for dinner. We got to the dining hall, which was covered in dirt (because windows here don’t close tightly) and the staff busily swept off tables with straw brooms and tape together the windows. Some of the admin called security when they noticed a lightening strike started a fire in the neighboring field but apparently that’s N.B.D. (no big deal) and they weren’t worried. The excitement of our first dust storm exhausted some of my colleagues too much to trek to faculty housing for the American party.  However, Aaron and I donned our headlamps, gathered our ponchos and headed over. We got there about 10 minutes after the party was supposed to start and a gang was already assembled! Then we knew it was a function for foreigners, because in a country that operates on “Indian Standard Time”, nothing starts on time. An Israeli, two other Americans and a couple Indians greeted us enthusiastically, thrilled to find out what our mysterious blue lanyards were for and to meet people who weren’t lawyers. Between playing with...

Back to India: Land of Impenetrable Mystery

Back to India: Land of Impenetrable Mystery

Greetings from India!  The land of impenetrable ironies, ceaseless contradiction and mind-boggling juxtaposition.  The one country I keep coming back to because of it’s chaos, color, complete sensory overload and utter incomprehensibility.  And I’m a scientist so I keep puzzling over things that I don’t understand.  People learn how India continues to draw me back, they instantly ask “so you love it there?”…. Not necessarily.  With India, it’s a love-hate relationship.  I love the energy, over-the-top-ness and how everything is so exotic and unfamiliar.  However, while here, I’m usually frustrated by a complete lack of control- people say “one minute” but nothing happens on time, people shake their head “yes” (assuming I properly decoded their bobble head) and they mean no and it is the ultimate bureaucratic nightmare (Indians love piles of paper and sending you to see a million people who send you to see someone else, for example when registering with the FRRO). “There are some parts of the world that, once visited, get into your heart and won’t go. For me, India is such a place. When I first visited, I was stunned by the richness of the land, by its lush beauty and exotic architecture, by its ability to overload the senses with the pure, concentrated intensity of its colors, smells, tastes, and sounds. It was as if all my life I had been seeing the world in black and white and, when brought face-to-face with India, experienced everything re-rendered in brilliant technicolor.” ―Keith Bellows  Like Keith Bellows so vividly expresses, of all my trips, India has revolutionized my world view the most but I still don’t claim to understand it.  It’s mysteries are impenetrable to wiser minds than mine.  Maybe the third time’s the charm and I’ll reach enlightenment.  Or at least, finally cross the Taj Mahal off my bucket list (for those of you who don’t know, I was in Delhi three years ago for a research fellowship at Miranda House College, got shingles and had to come home early without doing much sightseeing). Like last summer, I’m teaching Physics and Engineering to super-smart 7-8th graders for Duke University’s Talent Identification Program.  This time, we’re at OP Jindal Global University in Sonipat, two hours North of Delhi, unfortunately in the middle of nowhere. Arrival in Delhi Walking towards immigration, a sense of dejavu overwhelmed me when I remembered statues from naively entering this country three years ago.  But what I encountered so far seemed infinitely more tame than last year.  We arrived at night but the outside temperature was a cozy 98 degrees Fahrenheit, not wall of heat and humidity that I remembered.  Last time, as soon as two twiggy men in a dilapidated van took me to leave the airport, I remember seeing humans and dogs strewn alongside the side of the road, wondering whether they were dead or alive.  This time, we hopped right on the highway and drove two miles past resort construction sites to a posh little Holiday Inn, without even a glimpse of poverty.  We feasted like kings at a gluttonous buffet, the boys swam in their infinity pool (I didn’t pack the “one-piece bathing costume” that was required at Infosys so I didn’t attempt entry) and we played with the dozens of buttons that controlled random things in the room.  I couldn’t help thinking that for some, royal treatment by the excessively-sized, eager-to-please staff and a sense of the slightly exotic  may be their only experience of this country.  What a same that would be! They’d miss out on passing through a scanner and being frisked by a security guard, just to enter McDonalds where they’d chose from meals like “McSpicy Paneer” and “Tikka Masala Burger”.  They’d miss the underlying scent of this country, which smells like something’s always on fire (and not the cozy campfire smell of Vermont).  They’d miss the customs officer who will only let you pass if you’re perfectly centered and smiling in front of their face (please, shift two centimeters that way, ma’am).  They’d miss the crazy way drivers swerve to avoid the nonchalant cow in the middle of the highway.  They’d miss the way the smog turns the sun into a giant tangerine.  They’d miss the sweet kiss of cardamom in the cup of chai that miraculously appears when you think you’re going to pull your hair out in frustration.   So I’m excited to be back and experiencing it all.  Life in Sonipat, at an air-conditioned university in the middle of a field, seems like a diluted version of the India I remember.  It’s hard to deal with the rules, regulations and schedules of teaching when I started this journey in Panama with complete independence and flexibility.  But it’s also nice to split up this...