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...

Figuring out Life, Love and Long-Term Travel… in 10 Days

Figuring out Life, Love and  Long-Term Travel… in 10 Days

Sorry for the hiatus but I can promise that there will be no shortage of things to write about in the coming months so check in regularly! For those of you who don’t know, tomorrow I’ll begin an epic journey into the unknown, bouncing between three continents in three months. I have a vague agenda: two weeks in Panama (one week for a yoga/surf/paddleboard retreat then ???), a month-ish teaching a Physics & Engineering course for talented youth in Delhi (India), ten days trekking in Annapurna region (Nepal), a day in Greece to make my arrival in Albania even more adventurous, a week in Albania with a friend then a month in Turkey (hopefully Georgia and maybe more) with my boyfriend. I’ll return to three days in Raleigh, four days in Minnesota for a conference, a week on the West Coast, less than 24 hours to pack up the rest of my stuff to drive to a wedding in DC and to my parents’ house in Connecticut. My mom’s reaction to this whole thing: “no grass is going to grow under your feet!”.  With all this long-term travel, I don’t think any lawns are in immediate danger since I won’t be standing on the same grass for long. This Gypsy Is Growing Up Last summer, I also traveled for three months but research and teaching obligations for all but a week keep that trip pretty structured. With an enormous amount of luggage- a backbreaking duffel bag and a large rolling suitcase hovering at 49.9 lbs. While the flashlight I packed saved Ken and I during the blackouts in Thailand, I’ve reduced my load significantly (and I still have a flashlight)… check it out! This summer, I’m venturing into the great unknown- purposefully visiting places that I don’t know much about and keeping my schedule flexible and open for discovery.  Yes, that is partially because I didn’t have time to plan every detail but in countries like India and (I assume) Albania, you could spend 5 hours planning a Plan A, Plan B and Plan C or just expect things to go wrong and get ready to problem solve.  Case in point: For a couple weeks, I’ve been talking to a couch surfer who planned to pick me up at the airport in Panama City tomorrow, entertain me all day and send me on my merry way on a night bus/ water taxi/ shuttle adventure to Bocas Del Toro for the retreat.  I planned to pick his brains about my second week in Panama and find out more about his friend’s place on a nearby Caribbean island.  Such a seamless plan seemed too good to be true… which it was since his father fell ill late this afternoon so we’ll see if I have time to scramble together an entertaining back-up plan for Easter Sunday in Panama City… the holiday doesn’t help matters. Even the retreat itself remains a mystery. I know I’m supposed to get to Palamar Tent Lodge before 3:00 on April 21st and leave after 11:00 on April 27th, that its run by a woman named Soyela who “breathes love” (according to her gmail address) and likes to send me kisses from Central America.  But doesn’t like to give me information and that’s about the extent of what I know. I’ve got some people that I may hang out with the second week but I haven’t even tried to plan that. Beyond This Summer In addition to this not-so-little adventure, within the past couple of weeks, I’ve chosen to embrace an uncertain, vagabond-ish future for the next year. I’m finishing up my dissertation and after a little negotiation, my advisor gave me free reign to finish up from anywhere in the world (and threw in a free trip to Japan! Stay posted for that… maybe late August?) so I turned down a job offer for an adjunct astronomy teaching position at the neighboring college and decided to follow my heart to be with a boy in Turkey or Austria or wherever we end up. When I told a friend about this crazy plan, which unfurled itself kind of chaotically over the past couple of days, she exhaled her amazement, “Katie… you’re so good at making decisions”. “Making decisions?”, I inquired, hesitant to check whether this compliment (?) said anything about the quality of my decision-making. For a type A scientist like me who barely believes in feelings, turning down the opportunity to be Ms. Frizzle in a city that I love for a guy I’ve only spent 14ish days in person with seems like a nose dive off the deep end. But, I’ll...

Lessons learned from 13 countries in 2013

Lessons learned from 13 countries in 2013

What a year for travel!  Pretty unbelievable when you’re getting a PhD in physics.  In wrapping up the Europe trip and starting a new year, I thought I’d reflect on lessons learned from 13 countries (Brazil, India, Thailand, (Laos), Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia, Indonesia, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Spain, Portugal and US) and 10 states (NC, TN, CT, MD, DC, VA, MA, CA, OR, WA, NY) in 2013.  All this travel makes me realize how little I actually know but my globe trotting has taught me a few things: (Warning: this post is long. You have my enthusiastic permission to read it over multiple occasions but it should be the last one until Turkey in February) 1. Technology makes traveling easy! There’s no way I would have been able to pull off a transatlantic trip with two days of planning 10 years ago.  Being able to research/ book flights, accommodations and other activities online makes it easy and quick to do yourself.  Exchanging money used to be a pain but ATMs solve that problem. Even if reading maps is a struggle, following the blue dot on my ipad has helped me navigate out of unchartered territory countless times.  I don’t even have a smartphone, for heaven’s sake- with Whatsapp, Mapswithme… I don’t know the details but the sky’s the limit when it comes to travelapps. 2. Travel light Especially if you’re city hopping, it doesn’t make sense to be dragged down by large luggage with failing wheels.  A hand towel can sufficiently dry you off.  Braids tame wildabeast hair better than straighteners and anti-frizz products.  I brought 5 outfits to Spain and I’m wearing the same cheap scarf, blue coat and clown boots in every picture.  Who are you trying to impress anyway?  For the same trip, I lugged around a sizeable first aid kit  but the only medicine I needed (for my cold), wasn’t there.  I know I complained about not having my laptop, but I survived. In civilized countries, you can usually get what you need when you need it.  And if you don’t need it, don’t bring it.  Your feet, your back and your hosts will thank you! Not much room for luggage on one of these things! 3. Keep an eye out for opportunities People are always amazed how much I’ve been able to travel when a graduate student salary barely keeps you above the poverty line.  I’m lucky that specializing in science and science education, opportunities for fellowships and travel grants exist but I’m convinced that with some searching, you can find ways to fund yourself too.  When airline companies overbook planes, volunteer to postpone your trip a few hours and you’ll get a free flight somewhere else (I’ve earned approximately $1000 in flight vouchers this year).  There are countless blogs about ways to travel cheap/for free- when there’s a will, there’s a way! 4.  Doing your job is the easiest part of working in another country That being said, be prepared since getting things done in foreign countries can be a challenge.  Undergoing research projects in Brazil, Singapore and India and teaching in India has revealed what may be written in your job description (collecting data, educating/assessing students) is the easy part.  Getting used to how another country works (and having your salary depend on it), is much more difficult, especially since they don’t write instruction manuals for this type of thing.  Who would have guessed that cooties are still a very serious issue for Indian 7th graders?  That staircases in Singapore lock behind you, causing you to miss meetings as you hunt down a way to bust out?   That a working voice recorder with batteries is essentially too much to ask for in India?  If you are making presentations abroad, have some one from that culture preview it- when I was invited to speak at the “Republic of China” physics conference, I almost used statistics from the “People’s Republic of China” which would have made me look like an ignorant American, assuming Taiwan and China were equivalent.  I already looked a little ridiculous, bragging about how 66% of American students go to college right after high school, when nearly 100% of their population gets a college education right after secondary school. Some of my class in India- boys in front, girls in back 5. Don’t let traveling alone hold you back Yes traveling alone can be scary, inconvenient (having my huge backpack follow me everywhere I go drives me nuts, especially in dirty bathrooms) and sometimes more expensive.  More than half my international travel has been mostly independent and it’s incredibly liberating to do what you want, when you want to...

Customs in India: Total SNAFU!

Customs in India: Total SNAFU!

I just learned that “SNAFU” was World War II slang for “Situation Normal: All (let’s say) Fouled Up”… I think the past two days and the past eight hours to get a form that no one is going to look at falls under that category… As I mentioned, we were initially told we didn’t have to register, but there was a sudden change of heart  as soon as the deadline passed and they decided we DID have register AND pay a $30 USD late fee per person.  So yesterday morning, we had to get our kids going then take off to the Police Commissioners Office with a bundle of any potentially relevant papers, enough passport photos to sink a ship and hopeful hearts.  The office literally has an exposed attic filled with piles of papers, stacked to the ceiling… We’re staring at these unorganized piles, knowing that our papers will soon join the sea… never to be really looked at by anyone ever again. After waiting for awhile, we met with a woman who scruntized our documents, asked a bunch of questions, made us wait longer for an officer.  While we waited, there was actually a bugle call and a formal changing of the guard… I felt like I was in mid-19th century England…. All these offices are in cutesy, 50-year-old beautiful buildings but they housing the most hellacious of all governmental places I’ve been- customs in India! Eventually, we met with the officer (well, I assume we did… the morning is kind of a blur), met with the lady again who listed two stops we had to make before coming back to this office.  And she said Anne would have to come back later in the week to get our Visas stamped.  We raced across town to the first office and honestly no one knew where to send us… bottom level back corner… top level opposite corner… right by the stairs first door on your left… back to the bottom level down the hall from the back corner… after about 8 wrong offices, we ended up where the first guy tried to us before we were intercepted and sent on this wild goose chase, through clouds of incense down hidden hallways.  Finally, we met a woman excited to talk to us and more excited by her mistaken impression that we’re teaching mentally retarded kids.  She brought us to the “Strong Room” us to another man for a stamp and a signature.  We thought they told us this was the treasury room but later, we thought maybe they were laughing because they had us in a stronghold. He found us absolutely hilarious- he asked if we were having a good day getting our paperwork filled out and let out a jubilant  “This is India!” laugh.  He asked if we liked it and said that most Indians want to move to the US.  He was entranced by Anne’s Dan Brown book and sent us merrily on our way to the MAIN BRANCH of the Bank of Mysore. So we got to the Bank… got a signature from someone, they sent us to the Treasury Branch in a small building in the back… waited in a long cue, paid and raced back to the Police Commissioners to hand in our documents in the fifteen minutes before they went on break for lunch.  Fortunately, we caught the lady but now she said we ALL had to come back later in the week to get our documents stamped and no, she could not do it now. Just a random cute house with a decorated sidewalk to bring good things Hopefully the “legal documents” my horoscope referred to will be taken care of! So that was fun.  Raced back to squirrelly kids.  But I was happy to be there.  After work, we had another staff meeting (even though we had one last Thursday and Friday and we were sent 96 billion e-mails about related things) then I raced off to meet Abhi for a last visit before he moves to Mangalore on Wednesday.  It’s hard to believe he’ll be leaving Mysore before me… he’s been like a brother, checking in every day so I’ll miss him when it’s Friday afternoon and time to do laundry.  We talked more about Rumi, his poetry and keeping up with ever-changing life.  He took me to the city center to meet up with Azaf, a couchsurfer from the Island of Kochin. He works as a doctor on a medical ship and I’m honestly not sure how he found me or why he took an epic bus journey to get here.  Maybe he had...

Indian food, Indian temples

Indian food, Indian temples

“This is where the hungry come to feed. For mine is a generation that circles the globe and searches for something we haven’t tried before. So never refuse an invitation, never resist the unfamiliar, never fail to be polite and never outstay the welcome. Just keep your mind open and suck in the experience. And if it hurts, you know what? It’s probably worth it.” -The Beach (2000) Mayukh recommended the Leonardo DiCaprio movie “The Beach” since it takes place in Thailand so I’m watching that, listening to the rumble of thunder from tonight’s passing storm, wishing I was in the US with a long weekend but still enjoying my last day off in Mysore.  The quote’s not really related to this post but I liked it and wanted to share it anyway. Friday night dinner was absolutely delicious even though I vowed to avoid Indian food and ended up getting Indian food: a spinach and mushroom dish with roti.    Sidd and Aseem told me about some of their recent treks around the country and it made me wish I had the time for a hike.  The latest involved a 15 km portion almost straight up and they camped above the clouds and observed a lightening storm from above.  Their pictures were unreal- it looked like something out of the Lord of the Rings.  Most Indian desserts I’ve tried are way too sweet for me but we shared a mashed carrot dessert gajar ka halwa that was perfect. On Saturday, the kids tested their catapults, which passed with flying colors.  The best one launched a mouse ball almost 12 meters!  After that, the instructional staff went to Hotel Roopa rooftop  in celebration of the academic counselor’s birthday.  We tried to surprise her but feigning a need for a saturday night meeting about writing evaluations didn’t trick her… but we got everyone there for a good time.  We feasted and couldn’t even eat everything on on the table and no one had room for dessert but drinks, appetizers and main dishes at a fancy place averaged out to $8 USD per person.  I’m going to miss the exchange rate here! Sunday, I left with some of my colleagues pretty early for a touristy day hitting the final major sites of Mysore.  We started at the Chamundeshwari temple, which I was excited to actually see, even though I enjoyed the view from Chamundi Hill multiple times before.  The temple was beautiful but it was absolutely packed.  We bought a ticket to get in the expedited line but when we got to the actual altars, they had female security guards man-handling people to keep them moving fast.  Mindy saw a guard practically fling the old lady in front of her out the door.  So not the most peaceful experience… but it doesn’t stop people.  There’s religious significance to circling the temple so some people get in a shorter line to complete their orbit and get pushed through the crowd again.  This temple is built to honor the goddess who slayed the beast that haunted Mysore so this place is close to the Mysorean people’s hearts. Chamundeshwari temple Me, Tyler, Todd, Mindy and Asha behind the temple After descending down the hill and enjoying the aerial view of the city, we stopped at the famous Bull statue, the second largest in India.  Jimi performed his adoration and the rest of us enjoyed being treated like celebrities because everywhere we went, people wanted to take pictures with us “Just one snap!”.  Two teenage girls were especially cute and exclaimed “this is the best day ever!” after their photoshoot. For lunch, we had the best dosa (kind of like an Indian crepe with a dash of chili powder in the batter) in Mysore (according to Mindy’s guidebook), made a pit stop at McDonalds for the less adventurous of the group, then proceeded to Mysore Palace.  I had been there for the Light and Sound show last weekend but going inside was even better than I expected (unfortunately, we couldn’t take any pictures).  It’s three-stories with a combination of Indian and European architecture.  There were mosaics on the floors, walls covered with paintings of the Indian army marching, a collection of sandalwood boxes, royal armory, golden thrones and exquisite stained glass inspired by peacocks. After that, we were all pretty beat and headed home.  I was going to meet with Abhi because he has to move to Mangalore at the crack of dawn Wednesday morning (earlier than he expected too!) but I think I’ll save that to look forward to tomorrow.  Speaking of tomorrow, wish us luck at the Foreign Registration Office!...

Thank God for Friday and off-the-beaten-path advice!

Thank God for Friday and off-the-beaten-path advice!

T.G.I.F was undoubtably my mantra today.  And it was a pretty nice friday- the students worked on their catapults all day, no one lost an eye during testing and I got to start working on their week two evaluations.  After meeting #3 this week <!>, I went swimming (between it storming every afternoon because of the advent of pre-monsoon season and too much work this week, it’s been too long), planned tomorrow’s lesson and I’m leaving shortly for Italian food for dinner with Sid and Aseem who I met last night.  I’m trying not to get too excited about eating something other than Indian food… the instructor from last year told me they all went out to Olive Garden which had an extensive American, Italian, Chinese and Indian menu… but everything they ordered had curry in it.  We’ll see if this is actually Italian. Last night was fun too.  Mayukh’s an infosys couchsurfer I’ve met up with several times but he’s pretty elusive… kind of appears when you least expect him too.  He’s leaving his life up to chance and going where the wind blows.   Anyway, last night he took me to the Green Hotel which used to be the King’s guest house.  He told me about the king’s curse… supposedly an old mistress or something said he’f never have children, and to this day, it appears the line might be ending.  It seems kinda surreal to live in a world of kings and curses but that’s Mysore, I guess.  Mayukh prides himself in finding hidden gems that no one knows about.  This place is a gem- calm, serene and practically empty.  They pride themselves on eco-friendly sustainable tourism and even use solar panels.  We went into the French-style bakery.  The bakery is entirely owned by women, which is extraordinarily rare, and they actually find their employees from unprivileged areas and castes, send them to France for training then they work here. The Green Hotel, Mysore For someone my age, Mayukh has a remarkable amount of stories to tell about people he’s met and off-the-beaten-path places he’s been.  He planned out a hippie tour of India for me if I ever come back with a month to kill, and he highlighted some places that almost no one knows about.  We’re both LOST fans and he told me about an island within driving distance of here that is a surreal, almost dreamlike community.  Everyone wears white, everything’s free (free food, free place to stay) and there’s places of worship for every faith and a huge meditation hall.  I barely believe him but he said he’ll take me there on Sunday.  Unless we want to go to the jungle and get trampled by elephants.  We’ll see which way the wind blows. After the cafe closed, we went over the house of some of his aerospace engineering co-workers that I met at the floating restaurant the other day.  Hanging out on their back porch under an almost-full-moon, surrounded by interesting nerds was the perfect way to unwind and felt a lot like hanging out with the physics boys back in Raleigh.  I think I almost convinced the three of them to come in and talk to my class… I think the kids would appreciate the honesty of three young, working engineers. We had one other guest speak in the class, from India’s largest tire company, recommended by last year’s instructor.  I was hoping he’d talk about what mechanical engineers do, what the training process was like, etc. Unfortunately, instead, he gave us what appeared to be a dissertation defense- two and a half hours of graduate level information on tires.   It would have made a perfect university colloquium but seventh graders don’t need to know about finite element analysis.  I was so proud of them for staying awake and staying interested.  When he left, he sent an e-mail saying how blessed he was to have gotten the opportunity to speak to “such intelligent young minds” and that their “active participation made the presentation fully interactive” and that he wishes them “all the best”.  So I’m glad he got something out of the experience because they didn’t understand much and were monsters in the afternoon after having to sit, listening to him for three hours in the morning. It’s time for dinner.  Woot woot for two weeks of teaching down, one slightly shorter week to...