Into the Onion


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Ever since the first day of orientation, our professor has encouraged us to dig deeper into the onion that is India. While I can’t help but think of the scene in Shrek (“ogres are like onions”) every time he makes this analogy, it’s a very worthy challenge- explore the depths of India, don’t take anything at face value. After seven and a half weeks of classes, research and sightseeing, I’ve made it into the onion…maybe not the core,                                                                                                  but at least part way there.

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Last week, I completed my final five-day stint in Sangat. This time I focused solely on my big research project where I investigated women’s interactions with and perceptions of government-provided maternal health care. Meenal, Mohini and I conducted household interviews with 21 women in Sangat and another village called Amra Ji Ka Guda, which has a larger population than Sangat and more

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women in the target population for our research. We sought out mothers who had given birth in the past year; government schemes are constantly changing, so we wanted to speak to women who were beneficiaries of the most recent developments in the Indian government’s provisions of maternal health care.

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I loved the research. Women were happy to talk to us about their experiences and show us their babies. We were almost always offered chai when we visited women in their homes, so if the dentist finds a new cavity or two when I visit this summer, I’ll know why. For the most part women were satisfied with their experiences, but in some cases women saw changes to be made to the system.

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More than research, though, I loved just     being a part of Sangat. This time when Meenal and I came back for our third and final visit, we had friends we looked forward to seeing and anticipated our host mother’s delicious meals. As we walked through the village, it felt familiar. I no longer felt like a total outsider, a white girl from a Minnesotan suburb plopped in the middle of a rural village in India.     Well, I still looked pretty out of place, but I didn’t feel so alien. I recognized people, and they recognized me. Practices that felt strange during my first visit in Sangat no longer fazed me. I got used to the custom of women veiling in front of their in-laws. I stopped trying to understand the complicated family webs that existed in the village. Interviews and our early to bed, early to rise schedule became routine. I knew what questions to ask women during interviews and when to expect our host mother to wake us up with a fresh cup of chai every morning.

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One thing I never quite got used to, though, was the extreme tranquility and ease I found in the village. It’s a type of feeling I’ve only gotten in a few places in the world: Harlan, Iowa and Santa Elena, Costa Rica both come to mind. All of these places exude an essence of simplicity and routine that only an intimate farming community can provide.

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We passed countless sari—clad women with huge bundles of branches or metal jugs of water on their heads. Small kids herded flocks of goats, cows and buffalo. I can see why Gandhi was such a proponent of Indian village living. It’s pretty incredible, and I’m still not really over the fact that I lived it for two weeks. Definitely an inner-onion experience.


ImageSince coming home from Sangat, I’ve been busy wrapping things up for the India-portion of the program. We had our final classes on Monday and then free time to pull together our final papers and presentations for the rest of the week. A general routine several of us adopted was morning work time and afternoon fun time.

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Previously, much of our sightseeing was guided by the program coordinators and staff who work full time arranging our village visits, guest lecturers, homestays and weekend excursions. This week, though, we started to branch out and explore on our own. We caught a boat out to Jagmandir Palace, a lush hotel complex in the middle of Pichola Lake, one of Udaipur’s quintessential features.

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We took a 3-hour class on miniature painting in Old City. We climbed to Neemach Mata Temple for sunrise. We ate at street vendors and nice restaurants in town. And we did a lot of shopping.

ImageOver the past seven weeks, and especially the last two, I’ve worked my way into the layers of India. I’ve lived with Indian families in Udaipur and Sangat. I know what food I like and don’t. I’ve come to recognize others who commute to school or work at the same time as me every morning. When my friends and I go to the markets in Old City, we wave to our shopkeeper friends. We know which places have good deals and which don’t. We’ve mastered the auto system and know how to bargain. I still do touristy things like shopping in Old City, and I still look fairly foreign, although plenty of time outside is working in my favor. I may not be at the core of the onion, but I’m not far from it.

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Pieces of home

A few exciting pieces of home found their way to Udaipur over the past couple of days…

ImageI went to McDonalds with friends yesterday afternoon and got a dipped cone!!! Anyone who I spoke with this summer knows that I was obsessed with McDonalds’ $1.29 dipped cones. Well, here they’re only 29 Rs (about 50 cents) and just as good. It was an excellent discovery.

ImageI also introduced my host parents to some of my favorite American foods at lunch today: grilled cheese, tomato soup, and Asian slaw. It was a struggle to figure out what food to make: it had to be vegetarian, something that only required a stovetop because they Imagedon’t have an oven or microwave, and simple enough for me to find all the ingredients in an Indian supermarket. Luckily, the meal turned out to be a success! My host dad remarked, “It’s much better than I expected!” (I think his expectations were very low). He called me an “expert chef” and is threatening to take my passport if I don’t make it another time before I leave. Tonight they’re having family friends over and have asked me to make pancakes…for dessert. We’ll see how this goes.

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Another big highlight came when I Skyped into the crew team’s movie night. It was so fun to see everyone and get back into that world for a while even if just for a half an hour. Being away from my friends and family has been a challenge, but moments like these make being half way around the world not so bad; they’re little pieces of home in a place that has become my new, albeit temporary one.

To Bowdoin

Since arriving in India, I’ve done a terrible job following current news events. I’d like to think it’s because I’m too busy or trying to conserve my limited 3G Internet access, but neither is true. I haven’t been keeping up with news because I actually like the feeling of getting away from it. It’s nice to escape. This week, though, it was hard to get away from one news story.

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Last Friday night, a fraternity at Duke hosted an Asian-themed party. The email invitations for the party included insensitive and demeaning language. Later images showed partygoers dressed in costumes that promoted Asian stereotypes. Everyone on the GSA program got word of the party soon after it happened. They vented their frustrations, and one girl even drafted a letter to Duke’s student newspaper, The Chronicle. Two days after our discussion, I opened my Facebook and noticed a featured article on my feed: it was a Yahoo News story about the party. Shocked that the party was making national news, I sent the article to my parents. They said that they’d heard about it on The Today Show that morning.

The party has been a constant topic of conversation this week among my friends on the program. They were all embarrassed and appalled by the event. It’s an unfortunate incident that only represents the insensitivity of a small portion of the Duke student body. It does not at all reflect the intense compassion and kindness that I’ve experienced from the other 17 students on this trip, all of whom are Duke students.

ImageBeing the only non-Dukie has been something I’ve been conscious of the whole trip, but it hasn’t bothered me. It’s only natural that conversations involving a handful of Duke students will center on Duke-related topics. I’m learning a lot about Duke and am often asked about the way things work at Bowdoin. It’s been fun to learn about Duke and introduce the others to a school that many had never heard of or known how to pronounce before the trip.

At the same time, I’ve been included as a Dukie myself. This morning, I donned my Duke t-shirt and cheered for my first Duke basketball game. We all arrived at school early (7:30) to catch the live broadcast of the Duke-NC State game. The game brought out a team spirit unlike anything I’ve seen at Bowdoin. There have been moments on this trip where I’ve realized what I’m missing out on at a school like Bowdoin: no arenas filled with thousands of fans, no “tenting” (sleeping in tents for nights on end to snag tickets to a big sports game), no sororities, no fast food joints on campus, and no majors in topics like Global Health or Public Policy. But more than anything, this trip and especially this week has made me realize how proud I am to be a polar bear.

ImageOver the past four weeks, Bowdoin has come to define who I am. Some people have started calling me “Bowdoin.” And at a birthday celebration this week, the birthday boy even included “to Bowdoin” in his toast. I’ve loved telling people about traditions back at school and explaining what life is like there. Before leaving, people told me that study abroad would make me really appreciate Bowdoin. And especially in this group, Bowdoin has come to be something that distinguishes me from the rest in a way that I’ve never experienced before. Now, I’m really owning the school rather than sharing it among the other 1,700 students there.

The news story that broke earlier this week cast an unfortunate, dark shadow over Duke, for which I feel sorry. The 17 Dukies whom I’ve come to consider close friends have all been incredibly thoughtful, welcoming, and considerate. They’re some of the best-traveled, intelligent and interesting people I’ve ever met, and the party does not reflect any of their morals. And while I’ve come to enjoy wearing the title of pseudo-Dukie myself, this week, it’s been nice to fully embrace my Bowdoin identity.

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Collin is visiting Bowdoin for the weekend before he leaves for Tasmania and has been updating me as the campus hunkers down for what is predicted to be a historic blizzard. All I can hope is that everyone there stays safe, gets a snow day, and that the blizzard begins to take the place of the Duke party on the news. Things continue to be amazing here in India, and I’ve loved getting a glimpse into life at Duke. I will be very happy to return to Bowdoin in June. All I can say is, the salad bar better be ready for me.

Back in Action

 

After a week and a half long blogging hiatus, I’m back in action. I started writing this post last Sunday, and I’m glad I stopped. Having just returned from my first two-day stint in Sangat (the rural village where I’m conducting research), India finally got even with me, and I cracked. I was tired of the incessant poverty I witnessed, caste-based discrimination that seemed so accepted in Sangat, never being able to choose my own food, feeling uncomfortable doing menial tasks like bathing and walking down the street and just generally missing home. Fortunately, my bout of frustration ended by Monday morning, and since then, my infatuation with India has continued to grow.

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It’s been a big week and a half, but a really good one. Here are a few moments that stick out:

-Sitting on the floor of my rural host family’s warm, dark kitchen preparing dinner over a fire with my host-grandma, host-mom and host-sister


-Getting to know Mohini, a health worker who Meenal and I will work with while in Sangat. A 5 foot, 100-pound maverick, Mohini boldly disseminates reproductive health information and contraceptives in seven rural villages. She empowers women by allowing them to make their own decisions about family planning in a society where those decisions are usually decided by the husband or left undiscussed.Image

-Meeting the Sarpanch of Sangat. He’s the elected head of a cluster of five nearby villages; it’s a big-deal job, and his ego shows it. I thought it wise not to mention the fact that my host mom told me that he got the position by default because no one else ran for the position.

-Finding out that I’ll be working at Bowdoin this summer!! I’m going to organize all the service orientation trips for incoming first-years through the McKeen Center.

-Watching the official Indian Republic Day celebrations at the government arena. I had no idea what was happening the whole time or how we got hooked up with VIP seats, but it was fun to attend.

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-Climbing the Tower of Victory at Chittorgahr Fort- we had to navigate through tiny staircases made from marble that has now become grooved smooth by the feet of thousands of visitors. Traffic goes both directions on the staircases and in some places there are no overhead lights or handrails. It really was a victory to get to the top.

 

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-Seeing a painted elephant for the first time

-Turning in my first paper of the semester

-Cramming 14 people in an auto rickshaw built for 6 on our way to and from our first birthday dinner of the trip.

-Visiting Mohini’s house. She lives in a one-room structure made of rocks and mud with a thatched roof. Her family has one light bulb that works only certain hours of the day. She and her husband make about 6000 Rs a month (just over $100). They are rarely able to save money, but insist that all three of their children go to school.


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-Riding home from Mohini’s house with Meenal. We’d called a transport service number that Mohini had given us. A man picked us up in his van, and we headed back to Sangat. On our way, we stopped at a school and before we understood what was going on, 15 first graders piled in the back seat with Meenal. Apparently the taxi van doubles as a school bus. It was an adorable surprise.

-Sitting on the roof with my host sister and her friends while Meenal napped. We struggled to communicate without Meenal’s translating help, but with their basic English and some sign language we were able to talk a little. The funniest moment came after a lot of whispering and giggling when one girl sheepishly asked me if my boyfriend and I ever hug. They thought it was hysterical when I said they we do in fact hug.

-Exploring Old City and Hathipol, two big shopping areas in Udaipur, after school

-Attending four wedding-related events:

Wednesday- Sangeet in Udaipur (Bachelorette Party equivalent for the bride’s 300 closest friends and relatives…the cousin of one of the program managers is getting married, so 14 of us milked the connection and attended)

Thursday- wedding reception with my host parents at a resort 30 minutes outside of Udaipur. By far the nicest wedding I’ve attended so far- strawberries, kiwis, brownies and ice cream, Chinese food (think I’m craving food from home a little?) At one point, the bride and groom were raised on a rotating platform as music blared, lights flashed and confetti guns went off; it was really like an Indian-wedding version of a Coldplay concert.

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Friday- pre-wedding party (complete with dancing- see below videos) in the village.

Saturday- wedding day in Sangat. Meenal and I were invited to attend the ceremony, but had to leave to do research after the groom arrived on horseback followed by all his family and friends. When we returned six hours later, the wedding was still going on, so we attended for the last five hours. Every part of the process was steeped in tradition. The saddest part came at the end of the night during the vidai when the 20-year old bride said goodbye to all of her family and friends in the village; she’s lived in Sangat (a tight-knit community of 100 families) her whole life and has not gotten to know the groom or his family with whom she’ll be spending the rest of her life. The wedding was really fun to watch, but the vidai was overwhelmingly sad.

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-Getting mehndi/henna done by Pinky, a new friend we’ve made in Sangat. Pinky is friends with my host sister and is the resident mehndi expert in the village; the night before, she spent 5+ hours painting the bride’s arms/legs.

-Returning home to my host family in Udaipur, relieved to be back and ready for a warm bucket shower (I can only get cold bucket showers in Sangat) and Deepti’s cooking.

When I started this post last Sunday, I wanted to write about Indian culture, making a sweeping claim about how its survival has been prioritized over the country’s economic development. But I still have no idea about India as a whole. I’ve been here a month now, which is halfway through my stay and long enough to know a little bit about the little bit of India I’ve seen and experienced. India’s an incredible, beautiful, vibrant, loud, unjust, and smelly place. And it’s constantly surprising me. While I don’t know much, I am slowly learning that the only way to navigate it without going crazy is to just relish its beautiful aspects and roll with its frustrating ones. It’s been an incredible four weeks. And now with my sanity renewed and my blog up to date, I’m back in action and ready for another month of Indian adventures.

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