Julie in India

The blog in which I will obsessively (and excessively) document all of my experiences in Asia


1 Comment

Fast Forward

Okay – instead of forcing myself to sit still and recount things that happened two months ago, I’m going to fast forward to the present. Creating a coherent narrative of my travels felt too much like a homework assignment for me to enjoy it. I’d rather blog more frequently than procrastinate on writing posts that feel obligatory and stale.

So, to catch you all up, in early January I spent two weeks in Thailand doing all kinds of fun stuff with my buddy Rob, then came back to India for week, realized I needed to leave the country ASAP, and hopped on a plane to Kathmandu, Nepal where I spent 10 days waiting for my Indian visa to clear. Nepali people are the friendliest people I’ve ever met. So friendly, in fact, that by halfway through the trip I kind of hated them. Not them personally, I guess, just the fact that I couldn’t walk 10 feet without someone trying to engage me in conversation that became increasingly predictable as the days passed.

General structure of a conversation:

Nepali: Hello! Where are you from!

Me: United States.

(This would sometimes elicit a look of confusion, in which cases I would quickly add ‘America,’ which is the name by which most people in Asia know the US. When I would say America, no one would ever follow with the question, ‘oh and which country?’ It felt as if South America, Central America, and even Canada and Mexico did not exist to these people. Either that or they were considered to be exceedingly irrelevant.)

Nepali: America! Ahhh, Barack Obama!

Me: Yes. Barack Obama is our president.

(Sometimes, in the place of Barack Obama, they would begin naming US cities. Example: America! Ahhh, New York City! Washington DC! Los Angeles! Chicago! And I would smile and nod as if impressed.)

Nepali: What part you from?

Me: California. West Coast.

Nepali: Ahhh! You know Red Hot Chili Peppers?

Me: Yeah, they’re great.

Nepali: *sings* Dreams of Californication…

(I’m not kidding, this exact scenario happened at least four times. It seems that due to the universal agreeableness of their music, the Red Hot Chili Peppers are the artist of choice at roughly 97% of the restaurants in the tourist district.)

Me: Ha, yeah. Great song.

Then the conversation carries on predictably to questions about how long I am staying in Nepal, if I plan on doing any trekking, and would eventually (designedly) happen upon the topic that my conversational partner was an artist/travel agent/tour guide/jewel seller and that I should really come to their shop and pay them money for stuff that I don’t want.

I began to develop the rather cynical attitude that the only cultural exchange these people were interested in was the exchanging of bills from my pockets to theirs. As much as I enjoy touring, I can’t help but think that tourism as an industry really cheapens cross-cultural interactions. Of course, as a privileged Westerner with stacks of cash, I can afford to have this kind of attitude.

Don’t think this means I didn’t love Nepal, though – I LOVED Nepal. I couldn’t recommend it highly enough. The Himalayas are the most beautiful and majestic things I’ve seen in my entire life. I’m not kidding. I can understand why back in the day people would look up at their mammoth faces and say ‘yeah, the gods definitely live up there’ or, alternatively, ‘gonna climb that thing even if it kills me.’

I love the answer that George Mallory, one of the first men to attempt an ascent of Mt. Everest, famously gave when someone asked why in God’s name did he want to climb that mountain – He said simply, “Because it’s there.”

I can sympathize. On the other hand, in pursuit of this dream Mallory managed to fall to his death and his body wasn’t recovered for some 70-odd years, so perhaps I really can’t sympathize all that much.

In addition to its natural marvels, the culture of Nepal is absolutely fascinating. The cities are filled with temples, both Buddhist and Hindu, that are hundreds of years old but still actively used. Tradition is fastidiously maintained. Incredibly, to this very day Hindus and Buddhists alike continue the tradition of worshiping a pre-pubescent girl as kumari, or living goddess. When the girl reaches puberty, she is no longer a goddess and goes back to her regular life. I imagine this would be a bit of a bummer. The whole thing is very bizarre. I recommend the book Living Goddess by Isabella Tree to those of you who find this as titillating as I did.

Anyways, now I’m back in India. It was quite a relief to be able to settle down into a normal routine again. The semester has been interesting so far, in a good way mostly. I’m teaching a class called Science, Objectivity, and Values which is essentially a course on the philosophy of science. I had a really great time getting together materials and organizing lectures because I love the subject, but the actual experience of teaching the class has been very challenging and often frustrating. It’s exceptionally hard to interest students in philosophical analysis of science when they have almost zero interest in or understanding of science itself.
rabbit duck The most interested response I’ve gotten out of my students was when I showed them the rabbit-duck illusion (left) to demonstrate how two people looking at the same thing can interpret it two different ways. The purpose was to help them understand one philosopher’s claim that scientists interpret data not objectively but rather under the influence of their respective paradigms and thus may come to different explanations of the same phenomena. Understandably, they weren’t all that interested in the theory I was trying to clarify, but they did think the duck/bunny was cool and talked about that for a while. Small victories.

All the while, the time ticks away and my return home draws ever-closer. Only two months left. I have to admit that I am looking forward to coming home tremendously, but it is sad to see how short the time can feel between the beginning of something and its ending. Leaving will be bittersweet. Won’t miss the mosquitos, though. That’s for damn sure.

Julie, out.

Advertisements


4 Comments

Thailand Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

Blogging is intimidating when you get behind at it. I am resolving myself to catch up with current events so that blogging no longer feels like a chore and I can sit down and write about whatever meets my fancy.

Note: Unfortunately my laptop is giving me problems so I don’t have access to the totally excessive number of picture I took in Thailand and am therefore limited to what I can access via Facebook. Hopefully my computer will begin behaving itself and I’ll be able to update with a more complete and compelling set of photos.

Where did I leave off –

So on one of our days in Bangkok, Rob and I decided that we wanted to hit all the major temples in the city, which luckily are mostly clustered near a river to the west of the city proper. My (3 pound) guidebook detailed a nice walking route complete with a map, so it should have been easy, right? Well, in a word, no. I think we started out lost and only ended up getting more lost along the way. We did manage to see a couple temples though. To my untrained eye, each temple seemed much like the others – Buddhas everywhere. As I am no expert in Buddhist iconography, I wasn’t able to pick out which were the primordial buddhas or the transcendental buddhas or whatever other kind of buddhas there are, but all of the statues were lovely and the variety was immense. There were fat buddhas, skinny buddhas, buddhas made from jade or gold of black stone, buddhas covered in gold flakes that flutter and shine as they catch the breeze, buddhas lying down or standing up or sitting, all with a blissed-out, peaceful look on their faces that I assume came from eating a big, steaming plate of pad thai. Exhibit A:

Thailand 058Thailand 066Thailand 0501890374_1528240517439055_1635519771743393008_o

So many buddhas. In the profound spiritual rapture that overcame Rob and myself in the presence of a divine enlightened being, we were inspired to rework the classic Bubba Sparxxx hip-hop anthem ‘Ms. New Booty’ (school yourself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=znUS2KqPYCw) to express the stirrings of our souls. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the original tune, Sparxxx speaks for an entire generation in his lyrics, ‘BOOTY BOOTY BOOTY BOOTY ROCKIN EVERYWHERE.’ Since booty and Buddha are so similar phonetically, it was quite natural that Sparxxx’s overwhelming passion for women’s bottoms should be transferred over to the welling of emotion that Rob and myself experienced in the presence of so many of Buddha’s varied forms. Music video to follow.

Good god, I wish we had thought to film a music video..

We got thrown even more off track in our sight-seeing route when a genial old Thai man who worked at one of the temples informed us that we were much further from the river than we had assumed and offered his nephew to give us a ride, so that the boy could practice his English. We took him up on it because it was a million degrees outside (I don’t know if I’ve mentioned the heat – January is supposed to be winter, isn’t it? Here it felt like the height of summer), but as soon as we were securely contained in the car, me and Rob both looked at each other with eyes that expressed the tacit understanding – ‘we could be being totally complicit in our own kidnapping, couldn’t we.’

I don’t know if anyone else had the same response to seeing the movie, but after watching Taken I have become absolutely certain that, if I am anywhere outside to the United States, there is someone out there who is trying to kidnap me and sell me into a life of sex slavery. And I don’t have any Liam Neeson-type relations who would be willing or able to bash skulls and kill baddies in order to get me back. My fears were somewhat alleviated when a friend told me that I was too old for a sex slave – apparently in order to qualify for human trafficking you have to be around 15 years old. This should have been reassuring but I couldn’t help but feel as if I was a carton of milk that someone had walked up to and said, ‘I don’t know if you realized this, but you’re two weeks expired.’

Anyways, instead of getting kidnapped we got taken to a weirdly derelict tailoring shop where a guy tried to convince Rob that he needed to have a suit fitted for this trip and me that I probably needed some kind of fancy dress for something, right? We made excuses awkwardly and told the man that we would stop by when we returned to Bangkok in a week or so and then exited the shop. Up until the point that we were back out on the streets, I still felt like there was a high risk that at any moment someone was going to sneak up behind me with a napkin soaked in chloroform, so as me and Rob walked away from the shop we breathed a big sigh of relief. Rob pointed out that I had eaten a sweet that the old man had offered me back at the temple and was probably drugged already, and I thought to myself ‘GOOD GOD I’ve made this to easy on them.’ With the ‘them’ referring to my would-be kidnappers, who still exist out there somewhere in the world, I’m sure of it.

After relaxing in a coffee shop for a bit and making up all kinds of kidnapping worst-case scenarios, we attempted to resume our temple trek but realized that we were now hopelessly lost. We fortuitously bumbled our way into the most exciting temple of the day, and the only one whose name I managed to retain, the lovely Temple of the Golden Mount. The temple is situated on the top of what seemed to be a man-made hill, and in order to make it to the temple proper we had to ascend a couple hundred stairs. Along the stairway, however, there was all kinds of weird, fun stuff to look at including my favorite thing that I saw on the entire trip, pictured below:

I call it a Merephant. Or maybe an Elemaid.

I call it a Merephant. Or maybe an Elemaid.

A Google search for the words ‘merephant’ and ‘elemaid’ didn’t give me quite the results that I’d hope for, so if anyone can get their hands on a statue like this and give it to me for my birthday, I would be much obliged.

The other fun thing about the walk up to the temple was all of the bells! At most Hindu and Buddhist temples, there will be at least one decently-sized bell that worshipers can ring as they enter. My understanding of this is that the purpose is either to ‘wake up’ the gods or to frighten evil spirits away. This place, however, had DOZENS of bells. So, of course, I rang every bell I saw, while Rob put his face in his palm and wished that he had come to Thailand with someone else.

Little bells!

Little bells!

BIG BELLS

BIG BELLS

Even got to ring a gong, but the sound wasn't as brassy or harsh as I expected/desired.

Even got to ring a gong but it was one of the really low-pitched ones whereas I’m more of a fan of the loud, brassy sounds made by the cartoon gongs in Mulan.

But even more exciting than making noise was the top of the temple, and open air patio with a panoramic view of the city and a huge golden stupa at the center, which photos can do more justice to than my babbling descriptions.

10911243_1528240557439051_1016431033787246706_o 10899989_1528240570772383_4388004274025230236_o (1)

10818362_1528240607439046_5345238645221606907_o

Miniature model of the temple

Miniature model of the temple

We rounded off our day with our first taste of Thai street food, which is ever-present and always pretty weird looking. We never learned the names of anything and the sellers didn’t have enough English to explain what things were so our strategy was usually just point and pray. The only time strategy failed us was when I got a skewer of what I thought was beef or some kind of dark meat and it turned out to be some kind of chicken organs. I reacted maturely, of course, and, instead of swallowing, scraped every last bit of that foul flesh off of my tongue. I have never had positive relations with any kind of internal organ and as a rule distrust anyone who believes that they are edible.

More to come later this week. Next we head south to the largest island in Thailand, Ko Samui. Stay tuned, folks.


3 Comments

Thailand Episode 2: In which I actually talk about Thailand, a little

Some of my readers called me out on the fact that I didn’t actually talk about Thailand at all in my last post. I thought I would be able to sneak that past everyone… No such luck. I have been procrastinating because I know that it will take a long time to write out all the details. To illustrate my level of avoidance, I was on the phone with Rob earlier this morning and went so far as to ask him if he would write a blog post about the trip and just pretend to be me. But here we go. I have sat down at my desk and promised myself that I will not get up until I have made a substantial dent in recounting the trip (or until I really have to go to the bathroom, whichever comes first).

We started out our trip in Bangkok, the capital of Thailand – a concrete monstrosity of a city that impressed me with its cleanliness and organization, in contrast to the few Indian cities I had seen. Our flights got in late at night, mine a couple of hours before Rob’s, and Bangkok immediately got on my good side when I realized that you could buy beer at the airport coffee shop. Rob’s flight finally landed, about an hour later than expected, and we hopped in a taxi to head to our hotel. We had no idea where we were going, and we very quickly realized that our driver spoke almost no English, so we were kind of just crossing our fingers and hoping that we’d end up in the right place. Our driver was an interesting first specimen to encounter – we would say something to him, and he would respond in a garbling of Thai and English and punctuate every sentence with a bout of giggles. It was somewhat bewildering. We made several wrong turns and ventured down a couple of dark back alleys, our driver speaking incomprehensibly and giggling all the way, but eventually we made it to our hotel and were finally able to relax after a long day of traveling.

Thailand 049

Pictured: The nirvana-like bliss afforded by a plate of pad thai.

The first couple days of our trip were spent relaxing, exploring the city, and eating as much pad thai as we could get our filthy little hands on. If for nothing else, I encourage everyone to visit Thailand for the pad thai. It’s a lot like pad thai in the states, but better because I assume Thai people have been eating it since the dawn of man. So they’ve pretty much perfected by this point.

Despite all the pad thai, Rob was still pretty jet-lagged. It is to his credit that he was nonetheless a total trooper. That being said, it is important to note that he didn’t really have a choice about this because I wasn’t all that sympathetic. My mentality was that if I wasn’t jet-lagged, he shouldn’t be jet-lagged. The fact that India and Thailand are in the same time zone whereas his days and nights had been essentially flip-flopped made no difference to me.

Bangkok is a pretty funky place. Thai people will not hesitate to tell you that it is the “New York City” of Thailand. It certainly was very fast-paced and modern, but despite the heavy advertising and fashion-forward youth (puffy sleeve are thing there? Also, t-shirts with marijuana leaves on them), there are still aspects of the city that hint at a simpler past.

Not pictured: a simpler past

Not pictured: hints of a simpler past. (The large public square outside of a mall was inexplicably filled with dozens and dozens of Christmas-themed Snoopys….Asia.)

From what we observed, religion seemed to be a big part of daily life, even for city-dwelling Thais. Thailand is primarily Buddhist (with a decent amount of Hinduism and ancestor worship mixed in for good measure, it seemed) and temples are scattered all over the city. In addition to that, it seemed that on just about every block there would be a miniature temple of birdhouse proportions that people would leave offerings in front of or give a reverential nod towards when they passed by. Even outside of many shops and restaurant, there would be a small offering placed out each for auspicious fortune. Offerings would consist of anything from flowers and statuettes to food and beverages. From the freshness of the more perishable offerings, we concluded that people were pretty active in their worship. We also learned that the beverage of choice for gods in Thailand is red Fanta. After sampling it, we had to admit that the gods had pretty good taste, all things considered.

A lovely example of how modern and ancient world collide.

A lovely example of how modern and ancient worlds collide.

All the neighborhood birds come here to make little birdy offerings.

All the neighborhood birds come here to make little birdy offerings.

Notice the red Fanta in the bottom left corner.

Notice the plethora of red Fanta in the bottom left corner.

More to come soon. In my next post I’ll recount how we attempted to hit the major temples in the city on a “temple walking tour” recommended by my guidebook, but only succeeded in getting really lost and almost kidnapped (probably not, but it felt like it for a second there).

^This is called a “cliff-hanger” and I’ve heard it keeps people coming back for more. Worked for Dickens, I think.


2 Comments

Thailand Episode 1: The prodigal blogger returns

Slaughter the fattened calf and all that jazz. Sorry for the hiatus. Life and busyness (and procrastination) took the wheel for a while there, but I have gotten back on the horse and finally sat down to hack away at the story of Thailand. But, in the way that life tends to be, the events following my trip have been such a whirlwind of activity, so it is rather hard to tell the story of what happened in Thailand without first explaining a little but of what has happening SINCE Thailand.

For starters I ended up in Nepal for about two weeks.

This was something I had neither expected nor planned for. My plane ticket was purchased less than five days before my departure date. The bag I’d used in Thailand was hardly unpacked before I started stuffing clothes back into it. Instead of tank tops and shorts, however, I was shoving long sleeve shirts and woolen socks into the deep, dark recesses of my backpack.

Let me give a brief summary of the series of misadventures that led to the materialization of this trip out of thin air:

  • I had planned to renew Indian tourist visa while in Bangkok
  • The Indian embassy was closed while I was in Bangkok due to New Years
  • Frantic internet research done by a me who really, really did not want to change her flight leads to the mistaken conclusion that a visa can be renewed from within India (all other forms but tourist may be renewed from within)
  • Could not renew visa back in India. Realized I was only a few days away from becoming an illegal immigrant (which I still think would have been cool).
  • Bought last minute ticket to Nepal with plans to renew at the Indian embassy in Kathmandu

I am now back in India, sitting in my comfy little office while the sun shines on the palm trees outside my windows. It is a far cry from the chilly backdrop of the Himalayan mountains, but I won’t get ahead of myself; Nepal is a story for another day.

Part of the reason that it’s taken me so long to write a post about my trip to Thailand is the somewhat paradoxical fact that there is simply too much to write about. Where to begin? What to include? How many of the silly details and stories are relevant to communicating the experience? In my opinion, all of them, but unfortunately my attention span for typing has its limits and other responsibilities vie for my attention (giving my first exam next week, am worried it will be a disaster).

Summary for those who don’t want to flit through the following body of text: the trip was absolutely awesome. This was mostly due to the awesome company I had for its duration. Gonna take a moment here to give a big shout out to my best bud Rob who was hands down the best travel companion I could ever ask for. We spent almost two weeks together, with no breaks, and I didn’t even want to kill him by the end of it all. This, I think, is a sign of true friendship.

To give a little background on this guy, Rob has known me long enough to know that traveling with me in Asia is probably a real bad idea. I won’t detail the origins of our friendship because it is a long and strange epic tale (think the Aeneid, but our friendship is Rome and odds are I’m probably Alecto), but I will suffice it to say that he knows me pretty darn well and surprisingly still tolerates my company. Despite the fact that he was a front row witness to the catastrophe that was me trying to organize my thesis, he was comfortable with leaving me to organize most of the trip (By the word “organize” I mean, “put together a vague itinerary and excused any inconsistencies by saying ‘we’ll figure that out when we get there.’”). In his defense, he was working a full-time job, so he didn’t have much of a choice. I think the fact that we both managed to make it back to our respective countries is a positive testament to my ability to function as an adult.

I think the best way that I can really organize a commentary on the trip is to appeal to the 1000 words of pictures, and then add however many thousand more I deem it necessary to explain what’s going on in those pictures. It will be coming soon, I promise. I know I will not be able to finish today, so I’m publishing this post separately, just so everyone can start salivating.

Love and hugs to all!

[Sidenote: I had started writing a post about Thailand just after I’d gotten back to Bangalore, but unfortunately it was never finished since things started getting hectic. The original opening line for this post was:

“Ah, Thailand. What a trip I have had. I flew back into Bangalore from Bangkok last Saturday night, and man are my arms tired. “

That was a joke I read in a joke book when I was around 8 years old and have been waiting over half my life for an opportunity to use. I hope that it is well-received.]


1 Comment

Don’t worry, I have excuses.

I HAVE NOT WRITTEN A BLOG POST IN FOREVER. I am sorry, America. Sincerely, really, and truly sorry. And it’s not because nothing has been happening here. Quite to the contrary, the month of December has been chock full of fun events. Here are my excuses for not taking the time to sit down and type:

  1. Applications, applications, applications. Grad schools and volunteer programs alike require quite a bit of writing. Especially volunteer program. I feel like they amp up the amount of writing you have to do for the application just so it will dissuade people who aren’t all that serious about the program. One of the programs I am applying to require the following documents: a 3-5 page autobiography, a two page commentary on the organization’s mission statement, and one paragraph for each of ten short answer questions. And because of my weird, semi-compulsive need to make myself understood through writing, I ended up spending hours and hours writing and rewriting. For my top choice grad program, I wrote three separate essays because I didn’t think I was getting my essence across to the admissions board. For the second essay I had to stop myself when I got to seven pages, because their website had said the limit was three. I AM SUCH A KOOK. Anyways. This made me want to avoid staring at my computer screen any more than possible.
  2. Planning my class for next semester. I have come to the realization that making a whole semesters’ worth of powerpoint slides is a loooot of work. Plus I find it hard to strike a good medium with myself. If I have fun making my powerpoints (goofy but pertinent images, clever examples and animations) I spend an obscene amount on time and don’t make any real progress. If I limit myself to basic text, I get really bored of making them. Ah, life is hard, you guys.
  3. In addition to planning my classes, I, Julie Fitz, have been planning a trip to Thailand. If a blog post pops up about two weeks from now, you’ll know I have been successful in my planning. I am stuck in that weird young adult mentality right now where I’m convinced I’m not really mature enough to be taking care of all the details involved in travelling to and returning from a foreign country, but I do it anyway and just hope for the best. To illustrate how seriously I took this planning I will mention that at one point I considered making an EXCEL SPREADSHEET to keep all of my information all organized and neat. This is impressive, no? I am especially motivated to eliminate any possibility of logistical fuck-up because I know that if anything stupid ends up happening, I will never be able to live it down with my family. They’re convinced that just because I was shockingly irresponsible and lacked common sense while in the United States, I will be equally as irresponsible and lacking in common sense while in Asian countries. Would someone who is irresponsible and lacking in common sense think about making an Excel spreadsheet? I think not.

But yes. This is why I have not written. And I leave for Thailand tomorrow at oh-dark-early for two weeks of backpacking around and eating pad thai with one of my dearest friends ever, ever in the entire universe, Mr. Robert Poston. As a short biography for this new character in my Asian adventures I will say only this: he is really, really cool. Cool as in, he’s the kind of person that you can just as easily talk about the Higgs Boson particle as you can about burping. This is a quality that I respect in a human, and even more-so in a travel companion. If this description is appealing to any of you readers and you find yourself wanting to pay him gobs and gobs of money for no particular reason, please contact me at juliefitz27@gmail.com.

I don’t have time to write much more, but Christmas here was totally awesome. After midnight mass, people have a cup of coffee and some snack and then start dancing for hours. I left at two in the morning, and they didn’t show any signs of stopping. The next day, the staff went out to a nice lunch together and I came to the odd realization that somewhere along the way I have come to regard all of the people I work with as good friends. Despite the age difference and the fact that they are all professed religious, I feel more comfortable spending time with these people than I did with most of my friends in college. This was very pleasant to realize. At night there was a community social to celebrate Christmas, and one of the young brothers got so drunk that he knocked over the Christmas tree. The night ended with one of the community directors (I won’t specify which) rolling around on the floor laughing and trying to do yoga poses while tribal drumbeats were being played. I couldn’t stop laughing. All in all, it was a good time, though knowing my family was all together made me miss them quite a bit, along with all the silly little Christmas traditions that have developed over the years.

Much love to all! Enjoy New Years!


3 Comments

Episode 2: John Cena and Orphan Annie take India

The rest of my time in Khammam was delightful. At the morning assembly the next day, I got to see all of the students in one place for the first time. They were adorably resplendent green, red, yellow, and blue shirts (according to which group they were in) and little white shorts and skirts and looked with curious eyes at all the newcomers. Father Xavier gave me a rather embarrassing introduction in which he praised my beauty, outstanding character (we had just met the day before), and lineage (Shout out to my Uncles Butch and Jim for being such reputable Marianists. I get a lot of street cred for that here). He made a nice speech about how the niece of his brothers is his niece as well, so he wanted to welcome me like family to their community. I thought this was a particularly nice sentiment to convey.

After introducing the brothers, the assembly proceeded as I can only assume it does every day, and I must confess that it struck me as oddly fascistic. The children were told to stand at ease, then at attention, then at ease again, and they executed these commands quite efficiently. Next they recited prayers and pledges and sang songs with an eerie seriousness and fervor, some with their eyes closed and a strained look on their face. This has no real significance in the grand scheme of things, but it made me vaguely uncomfortable and reminded me how impressionable children can be.

Once the assembly ended, however, the seriousness dissipated and the children came alive in the excited, chaotic way of youth. I was immediately swarmed by a group of the oldest girls who began talking incessantly in rapid, heavily-accented, but comprehensible English. The school is an English medium school, so by the upper grades most students are speaking pretty fluent English. One of the girls gave me a half-eaten piece of chocolate, which I ate to be polite. Father Xavier had generously offered that I could take over his 6th, 7th, and 8th grade English classes to work with them on phonetics, so the girls ushered me up the stairs and deposited me in the classroom where I would be teaching the first period of the day. All of the students stood up when I entered the room and chorused “Good Morning, Ms. Julie”, and I was really kind of overwhelmed. They continued to stand as I talked about what I would be working with them on, and I finally realized that they were waiting for me to tell them that they could sit down. I told them they could sit, and they sat down obediently. I felt a strange and uncomfortable sense of power. It was the first time that anyone has ever been, like, deferential to me. I decided I didn’t like it. To me, politeness has always seemed rather guarded and artificial. Those who came to class late would even wait at the doorway and say “Ma’am, may I come in?” and not enter the classroom until I said yes. It was weird. If I had it my way, everyone would just be casual about things.

 I waited for a moment for Fr. Xavier to come in and give me some instruction on what I should actually be doing with them. When I realized he wasn’t coming, I found myself put on the spot to improvise a lesson in phonetics, a subject I hadn’t thought about since probably the second grade. Things started off rather clumsily as I tried to get my bearings and figure out what in god’s name I would try to teach these kids, but I think that the lesson ended up rather decently. I thought about writing about it in detail here, but then the “boring” alert went off in my brain, so I’ll skip it for your sake, dear reader.The good news is that I even found an excuse to put on my English, French, and Russian accents for the students. This was, of course, all for the purposes of their edification. I realized that I like teaching middle school students very much, simply due to the fact that they are not so jaded and bored older students. They still get excited and laugh while in the classroom, which is something that I loved. I think, at times, that I was rather excessively silly, but I was having a blast feeding off their energy.

At one point, I invited the students up to the board to write down words that they wanted help pronouncing. After a few girls had come up and written words, one of the boys came to the board. The word he wrote was “SMACKDOWN.” I pronounced it for him, and he nodded his head seriously. A bit later, after chaos had erupted and been quelled several times, another of the boys came up and wrote “John Cena.” I laughed and asked if they were wrestling fans or something, and they said yeah, that they watched it on TV. After class, all of the boys approached me and asked, “Ma’am, is wrestling real?” I laughed, because it was such an eighth-grade boy thing to ask, and said “No, no it’s entirely faked.” Later I wondered if I should have lied to them, like parents lie to their children about Santa Claus. Part of me wanted to preserve that innocence. But then again, we’re talking about WWE here.

The younger students I didn’t get to interact with as much, which was a bummer because Indian children are so darn cute. When they saw me, the preschool aged kids looked confused and vaguely terrified, which is generally the reaction I get from young Indian kids. The little ones couldn’t speak much English; their knowledge was mostly limited to numbers, the alphabet, and certain nursery rhymes. As I walked past one of their classrooms on the first day, I was lucky enough to see them practicing their numbers. One little girl stood at the front of the classroom and the others sat on the floor in front of her. The girl in the front shouted out with all her might “ONE!” and the rest of the class responded with equal enthusiasm “ONE!”, “TWO!”, “TWO!”, etc. I heard them doing the same exercise the next day, while I was on the third floor of the building (they were on the first), which gives you an idea of how powerful their little lungs were. On my last day at the school, I spent a little time with the young ones and had several very polite conversations with some of the less shy ones that consisted mostly of: “Good morning!” “How are you?” “I am fine” (they always say fine, it is never ‘good’ or ‘I am well’, but always ‘fine’ and sometimes ‘very fine’). If I tried to ask any other questions, they would look at me blankly before turning to their teacher in askance. The teacher pulled a few of them to the front and had them sing me a song (‘twinkle twinkle little star’ in that adorable shout-singing voice that is so charming in little children) and recite a nursery rhyme (‘hickory dickory dock’, why this one out of all of them?). I tried to teach them the itsy-bitsy spider, complete with hand motions, but I think it was mostly an exercise in futility.

As I was about to leave their classroom, the teacher called me back and said that the kids wanted me to sing them a song. I had never been given this kid of request before and did not know how to respond. My response was “uh” because immediately every children’s song that I knew fled from my head. Briefly an image of me singing Beyonce’s Single Ladies complete with dance moves in front of a class of 3-year-old Indians flitted through my mind. I quickly dismissed this as not an option. After a quick mental pep talk (‘come on Julie, they’re only three, they can’t judge you too harshly’) I launched into an abridged rendition of “Tomorrow” from Annie. Why was this the song that came to my head? I will never know. The kids seemed to like it, but I quickly fled the classroom anyways. My darling sister Anne, I now know how you feel every time people ask you to sing.

There are innumerable other details of the trip that I could recount, including the food (delicious but very spicy), the evenings spent talking with the brothers, and my trip to Hyderabad (eh.), but as always I find that I have written far too much already.

I have been busy preparing for my course next semester and finishing up applications, but whenever I get the chance I will write again, since this past week has been quite eventful.

Love and hugs to all!

PS I saw my first monkeys! They have red faces and butts. For your information.


2 Comments

Episode 1: Stinky Julie Hits the Road

Ah, how hard it is to sit down and be productive after a vacation. I have no excuses for being so tardy on this blog post. I’m sure everyone has been sitting at the edge of their seats wondering how my trip was. My sincerest apologies, friends. You deserve better than that.

For those of you without attention spans, I’ll sum it all up right here: the trip was rad. The scholastics’ first semester had just ended and an intensive term around three weeks in length was about to begin on our campus. Since the third year scholastic brothers were far enough along in their studies, they didn’t have to take any courses during this term, so they were being sent to do apostolic work for the duration of the term at a Marianist grade school in the neighboring state of Telgana (formerly Andhra Pradesh, for those of you who are fans of Indian geopolitics). Without waiting for an invitation, I said “hey I’m coming with you guys” and they said “uh ok, sure”, which was good enough for me.

We set off on a Sunday night and took a bus into the city where we hung out at the main station for a couple hours, waiting for the “luxury” AC bus that we would be spending the next 15 hours on. It was fun to be off campus for the first time with the brothers; they seemed to relax around me a little bit more and we had a good time talking, eating cheap samosas, and drinking coca-cola as we waited for our bus to arrive. Most of the buses that were pulling in and out of the station were rusty heaps of metal, but when ours arrived, I was surprised at how nice it was. The seats were padded and comfortable and could recline so far back that you were practically laying in the lap of the person behind you. After we’d boarded, they began playing a film on the TV screen at the very front of the bus. Since we were only in the 7th row, we had a pretty decent view. The movies were in Telgu, so I had no idea what was being said but I still had a fun time trying to piece together what was going on in each film. I have come to the conclusion that Bollywood movies are thoroughly goofy in a very fun kind of way. Everything is over-acted and over-dramatized; I don’t think realism has made it here yet. Every once in a while there will be a break in the story and all of a sudden a dance scene will happen, out of nowhere. Though only vaguely related to the plot, these scenes were very fun and well-choreographed. The girls in these scenes were surprisingly scantily clad and doing sexy dance moves, which seemed unrealistic to me because in real life I’ve never seen so much as an Indian girl’s ankle, much less the bottom half of her bum.

After a delicious meal of tomato rice and a nice cold beer, I knocked out and drifted in and out of sleep for a majority of the trip. Every two hours, the bus would stop at a rest area and the lights would be turned on, which would wake me briefly. The driver would also yell out something in a language I didn’t understand several times, which my sleepy self did not quite appreciate. Morning came quickly, which I was happy about because I could stare out the window and get a glimpse of the Indian countryside. It is really lovely and peaceful-looking once you get out of the cities. Everything is green and natural looking, though much of it has been turned into farm land. We drove through several villages and saw the stirrings of early morning life: mothers getting their children ready for school, people clustered around small shacks selling fried breakfast foods and tea, old men sitting in that uniquely Indian way with thin, flexible brown thighs.

The only downside to the bus ride was that at some point between our departure and our arrival, my iPhone disappeared from my bag. I wasn’t really all that upset by this, except for the fact that I had planned on using the phone’s camera to document the trip. Unfortunately this means there are no surviving photos, except for some grainy ones that I took on my Indian cell phone. For those of you who know my history with phones, I think we can agree that this a much more respectable death than most of my phones are afforded. Generally they meet their maker following ritualized sacrifice in the murky waters of a toilet bowl. I hope that my late phone is out there in the world right now, providing some poor Indian with a little bit of happiness in an otherwise dismal world. On the other hand, he probably saw the embarrassing amount of Lana del Ray that is in my music library, said ‘this is shit’ and threw the phone in a ditch somewhere.

We arrived in Khamman, the city our school is located outside of, between 9 and 10 in the morning. It looked very similar to Bangalore: crowded road, dirty sidewalks, and small shops with brightly colored signs that filled block after block, selling everything imaginable. And it was HOT, much hotter than Bangalore, with an accompanying humidity that immediately makes you feel sticky, like you’ve begun the slow and uncomfortable process of melting. I had been warned before leaving that Andhra Pradesh only has three seasons: hot, hotter, and hottest. Since it was winter, I only got to experience “hot.” Nonetheless, I was sweating almost the entirety of my trip, so no part of me is interested in seeing “hottest.”

Father Xavier, the head of the Khamman community, met us at the bus stop with a car, since it was still an hour’s journey from the city to the school. I liked Father Xavier immediately. He is a big, dark man who speaks quickly and laughs quickly and makes joke after joke, you cannot help feeling comfortable around him. He drove us out of the city, and the cotton fields began. They looked like they would never end. They sprawled out in every direction. Cotton and cotton and cotton; the pride of India. I could see the shapes of people walking down the rows, slowing making their way from plant to plant to harvest the small tufts of white. The sides of the road were strewn with little fluffs of cotton that must have been blown from the trucks that transported the harvest. In the midst of all that cotton was our school. It was much bigger than I expected, a full four stories, and they claimed their enrollment was around 400, though when they gathered for an assembly the number looked quite smaller. We were all shown our rooms and took some time to freshen up, since we all, admittedly, stank.

I’ll break this trip into manageable hunks, both for my sake and for yours. Episode 2: Pronunciation and Exaggeration will be coming your way later this week.