So, first of all, I'm sorry I'm such a horrible blogger but honestly, so much has happened since I last wrote that I barely had time to sit down and type out my thoughts for you guys. And you would not believe what I've been through! One thing is for sure about being on an exchange, it's a crazy adventure. Well, at least that's been my experience.
So, as I mentioned, I've never taken part of a model UN conference before. In fact, I've never even particiapted in Model UN. In the end though, I'm not too sad that it ended up happening. With me in the Human Rights Commission was my fellow exchange student Austin and we got to meet some new people while doing our best to represent our countries views. The fun thing about MUN is that you get to represent views so differently from your own and try to back them up with evidence. In this case, kind of being a bad guy by American standards by supporting censory laws on journalists. We also got to have a few "Movements for entertainment" which was quite fun as we got to watch the Chair being made fun of. Plus, the delegate of Greece had the most amazing analogies I have ever heard, comparing resolutions to creme brulee and lifesavers.
I can't say I made a significant contribution to the committee at all, mainly trying to figure out what I wanted to say as well as trying to remain healthy and awake (sorry you guys). But I had fun with my fellow delegates, no matter how annoying and funny some were. Although, really that's life so I shouldn't complain. Plus, with several of my friends as delegates, chairs, and press, I got to see several parts of the conference. It was a busy weekend, going to the conference in the day and attending to various friends' places at night. That last day I got food poisoning from somewhere and ended up having a not-too-pleasant festivity in the bathroom, if you catch my drift (sorry if you're the sensitive type). But despite that, I'm really glad that I got to have fun with my friends.
Christmas in Gujarat
Because my host family, the Shahs, had planned out their own travel since I had planned to go to Gujarat to see my friend, they wouldn't be back until the 1st of January. 5 days after I would get back. So I had to pack up all of my stuff while packing to go to Baroda, which was a real pain. I honestly could not believe how much stuff I had bought in the past 5 months. In my big red suitcase, all of my Indian clothes made a solid bottom layer, and as my host mom commented, it took up a lot of space. Probably going to be sending some stuff back premature soon. Not to mention, I had bought Christmas presents for my family back home which I needed to send before I left. This included a very beautiful pink rose sari for my mom that I was very proud of. So, in one mad rush, I got the blouse back from the tailor, got my teeth cleaned, and rushed down to send a package to the US. Unfortunately, I didn't have enough money to send everything so I only sent the sari (sorry papi and sis!).
I eventually got everything packed up and the next morning I took a plane to Baroda (Why a plane? Because a) I have never taken the overnight train so would have no idea what to do and b) since the US government is funding me, they want to make sure I don't get killed). Reaching Baroda, my friend Aru and her dad met me at the airport and delivered some surprising news: we weren't staying in Baroda but instead taking an overnight bus to Bhuj, in northern Gujarat, which is known as the Kutch region. Basically, I was really shocked but not put out. I decided that this was an excellent time to pick up on what I was missing out on living in Mumbai: a true dash of Indian culture. I'm not saying that I don't get culture here but there's a big difference in living in the big city and going to a small town.
After dropping my luggage off at their apartment, we went to pick up some snacks and then headed over to her gandmother's flat to have lunch and I met some of her other relatives. After that, she took me to see some of her really good friends, visiting two different houses. If there's one thing that I really took away from Baroda was that it was clean. It wasn't as loud or muggy or smelly as Mumbai at all and... I really liked it. I don't know how it would've been living there, but I know that I got a nice impression of it. As soon as we got back, it was time to make sure we had everything packed and then we left to catch ricks to the bus stop. The bus itself was an experience. There are three options: You can have a seat, a single bed, or a double bed and if you take the bed you then either get one on the bottom or top. Ours were on top and they turned out to be surprising more comfortable than I thought and pretty clean too (if you're a clean freak, don't go to India. It's best not trying to wonder who has been where you're sitting right now). And in all, the ride wasn't that bad, not too bumpy and our conversations ranged into the nonsensical types you usually get into while travelling.
At about 11, we stopped at a roadside restaurant for a quick bite before continuing on. I had to go to the bathroom and took the brave walk to the outhouse. I'm saying brave because, you have to be really sure you can handle what lies in an Indian public toliet. Okay, okay don't get scared now but I'm just saying the truth because I did it myself. First off, there's the smell. I got the first wiff about 10 feet away from the door. When I got in, I saw that I had two options: open squat toliets on one side and out-of-shape western toliets on the other. I swear I will never complain about truck stops again. Getting into the stall, I found that the door didn't close all the way and there was no toliet seat so I would have to bear with it. There wasn't a hose, on a tap so I used that both for the dirty deed and to wash my hands afterward (you need more information, just let me know). There was an air of triumph as I exited the bathhouse, a sort of "Yes, I could do it", like this was some right of passage that I needed to take in order to prove myself. I guess, to me, it was. I had been worrying for a while what would happen if I did have to confront this situation so it was nice to do it and get it over with. Not that I suggest it for everyone but now I can say that I have lived through it.
The food at the dhabba was fine and despite my weak stomach from the previous day, everything went down okay. I didn't eat any of the raw stuff and only took what was hot (my mantra for all outside food anyway) and after finishing, it was straight back on the bus and onto Bhuj. We woke up at the last stop, not ours but close enough to take a rick to the NGO where we would be staying. It was chilly at 6 in the morning but when we got to the NGO we immediately fell asleep under felt blankets. We woke up around 10 or 11 and as I went to go have breakfast, I saw just how pretty the grounds were. Desert flowers among concrete, wood, and metal building, there's actually no way to really describe it. The room's were simple and it was all very relaxing. Since it was Christmas Day, they took me to a near-by catholic church in order to pray or at least get some feeling that it was a holiday. Indian churches are a bit different then those in America and Europe, including the fact that they have a prayer bell you can hit while going in and that you take your shoes off before going inside. Although I prefer to keep my religion as something personal, I would like to say that it was nice just going to the church despite that Santa Claus didn't come this year.
Afterwards, we went to go to some craft makers, where you can see traditional crafts like fabrics and bells being made. Everything was so gorgeously made and all by hand, it was hard to believe. At one part, we stopped at one of the traditional homes where a older mother and her daughter were and they were selling their own crafts, all of which were bright with various tiny mirrors patterned. When we had seen enough, we went back to the NGO for lunch where Aru fell asleep. Aru's mom asked if I wished to see an old Indian palace and I said yes so she, another lady and her daughter, and I went. It wasn't just this palace though but also a fort that the British had built when they gained power. Nor was the palace in the best condition due to an earthquake which had occured several years ago. Despite this, what was left was beautiful. The Aina Mahel, the indian palace, had been turned into a museum so that you could see all of the artifacts, from paintings to beds to jewelry. The walls were covered in old mirrors and you could see remanents of old designs on the walls. From there, we went to look into the British fort which was just as grand although having a few unfortunate pieces of rotting taxidermy. Inside was a grand ballroom open as well as a dining room and drawing room. The ballroom was amazing at two storeys tall with beautiful carvings into the walls. It would definitely need some restoration, but if anyone made it into a hotel, I'm sure it would be quite the draw. Or even just as a cultural site.
The next day, we took an early morning trip to see the sunrise at a famous Gujarati temple which was the birth place of a particular set of hindus who follow the teachings of a revered guru Swami Narayan. It was a huge temple and in the early morning light, everything felt fresh and new. After walking around and seeing a slightly scary talking doll re-enactment of his life and re-birth, we ate breakfast at the worker's quarters before setting back out. That afternoon we went to the edge of the border before the salt desert and went up into the black hills and overlooked Gujarat and into Pakistan. It was gorgeous up there and we visited the Hanuman temple to pay our respects (apparently, everyday they feed the jackles up there at sunset because they helped Hanuman at some point). My most best memory though was of my encounter with a special cow. As many of my friends here kow and my family back home, I love seeing cows on the road and hate it when I see that they're chewing on some plastic bag. But in this case, it was only the former and he (or she) was standing beside the wall which separated us from it. I don't remember why but we all got very excited and ran over to pet the cow. At first, it was being unresponsive and tried to avoid our hands but after we locked our eyes for a few seconds, the cow finally let me pet him. Least to say, I miss the cow :]
So after we left, we went down to the Indian bridge, separating India from "no man's land" aka the beginning of the border. It was here that the salt desert started and late afternoon sun shone brilliantly down upon the vast whiteness. I had another funny encounter while taking pictures of the stray white dogs near the gate. The driver looked over and commented on it, saying the dog was Karisma Kapoor (a famous Bollywood actress). I just laughed and nodded. We stopped on the way back to catch the sunset at a traditional gujarati themed hotel in which you stayed in traditional homes. I got to buy a small doll and hanging mirror mobile. When we got back, we quickly made sure all of our bags were packed and went to eat dinner at Aru's parents' friend's home, an NGO couple who had a very open, artistic home. We had a pleasant time and then we settled back in the car for one last trip to the bus stop.
The ride back was pretty much the same as going, bumpy and a bit cramped but alright in the end. Getting back into Baroda, we got back to Aru's place and I re-packed what I had taken out and prepared to catch my plane, which turned out to be late anyways. Getting back to Mumbai was a dream, I hardly felt like I was there but also that I had come back at all. It was great seeing rural India and it is hard to compare Mumbai to anything I saw there. But it's still India all right.
I spent the next few days lounging around the flat of an AFS volunteer and her daughter, trying to get in as much relaxing time as possible, despite how weird it felt to be between homes. It was New Year's Eve that I was waiting for though, a chance to get out and party with my friends. Despite an invitation to another party, my plans were already set with my friend Sajana, Austin the other exchange student, and her boyfriend. I took a rick to Bandra and changed at her house, before going to her boyfriend's place, where Austin was. Because of a mix up with reservations, we had to re-work our plans and the new place we intended to go had a dress code- white, which none of us were wearing. This lead to a mad rush to find white shirts and, in Austin's case, one that fitted. Finally all 6 of us (2 of her bf's friends joined) were ready and we set off.
We started with dinner in Bandra and proceeded to get into where our reservations were. Because it was New Years, there were a lot of drunk people around and least to say, we didn't have the most mentally smooth time. Now don't get too freaked out, I'll explain. You see, as we were walking down the street back to our car, we had passed a guy who was pretty sloshed by the looks of it and giving us the eye. By now though, we're pretty used to it so we just kept on walking but soon he started walking behind us so we all grabbed each other's hands and walked a bit quicker, but not quick enough because at some point, he touched Austin and it became pretty clear: he was gay. Now I'm not saying that's a bad thing, just that... well a drunk, gay man onNew Years following you? Yeah, pretty creepy. Thankfully, we got far enough away and found our car. But driving towards our final destination, we passed by the same area again and he was still there. I had to feel bad for the guy though, it can't be easy being so out of it like that where everyone is staring you down because you're so obviously drunk and gay. I hope he got safely home in the end.
Our reservation turned out to not have been written down and what could we do really but find a party to crash. It turned out that we did know one person and proceeded to trick them into inviting us over, which went down pretty effortlessly. Despite the fact that we had to spend the countdown in our car (pretty sucky right? Does this mean the rest of the year I will be stuck in one too?), we got to the party and spent the next 30 minutes dancing like mad. It was time to go though, so we said our goodbyes to the host and hopped back into the car. I stayed over at Sanjana's and Austin got a ride back so we were all safe. The next morning I ate dinner with Sanj and her family before taking a rick around 12 to go back to Powai. I spent the rest of my time doing a final check on luggage and soon enough, my new host mom had pressed the doorbell. We said hi, the AFS volunteer thanked her for hosting me and we loaded my insane amount of luggage into the tiny car. My last host mom had called me earlier that day to see how I was, wish me a happy new year and deliver a surprise: a package had come for me. So I asked my new host mom, Rupal aunty, if we could stop by there so that I could pick it up. She said yes so while I was visiting my old host family, she met up with her old college friend.
It was nice seeing them after so much time and to be able to say a proper goodbye. We talked about our trips and new years, and they gave me some leftover cake from the night before. The package turned out to be from Austin's parents for the holidays (curse you Austin! Making me have to send a thank you card to your parents and getting mine to send you one as well!). Our 10 minutes were over soon though and I said goodbye one last time and was off to South Mumbai.
The last few weeks have been good, settling in, seeing some of my new neighborhood, with one exception- school, or more specifically- IOP. Individual Oral Presentations are 15 minute presentations on book read in school and required out of all the English batches. To give them, the school organized a trip to Matheran, a hill station in mainland Maharashtra. I was stressed the week before the trip as I had just been moving, now lived in a new location, and hadn't done any work on my IOP during break. So it was a mad rush to finish everything in time (which I did) and the trip didn't turn out to be so bad after all. While doing our IOPs, we were also checking out the village we were adopting for our CAS hours to help improve its' infrastructure, school, and impowerment.
The weekend was a lot of fun though. The school had bought off an old hotel so we were all in these dorm like room settings. Everyone was running around, hanging out with each other, and eating together. I got to talk to a lot of people that I had barely talked to before and gotten closer with others. The first night a lot of kids were working on their IOPs but the second was spent doing much more fun things. We spent ours watching The Hangover and New Moon (much to the boys' chagrin). The Hangover was just as funny as the first time and New Moon was much worse than expected but it was all in good fun. I almost didn't get to see the village because my IOP was planned to be at 1200 pm on the last day- when everyone would be going. But I spoke to my teachers, did my IOP at the last minute, and in good time, made it down to the village with another teacher and classmate. Because the village was in the valley, it was a steep walk down on a winding path that was at times rock and others gravelly dirt. But it was worth it to see the village, rural India in full force complete with dish TVs and worn clothing. Yes, it was very surprising to see the dish satellites on their roofs. But it was also interesting to find that out of the 3 months they work in a year, they only get rs. 1500 a month. That's a little less than the stipend I'm given monthly on my scholarship. And they have only 2 wells with water coming from a fresh water spring. But the well water gets polluted from various outside sources, making it unsafe. Before we left, we handed out chocolates and crackers to the little kids which was really fun and then we made the horrifying climb back up the hill.
Or the kite flying festival, for those of us unaware with Indian culture. If you've read The Kite Runner, you probably know have an idea what I'm talking about. Makar Sankranti is a festival celebrating the end of winter and a return to work. As my host aunt described it, Makar Sankrant symbolizes the attitude you should have towards works: you should keep your eyes securely on your kite; if you turn to talk to the person next to you, someone will cut yours. My host mom took Austin and I to my host aunt's (masi's) house for kite flying because they have a private terrace that you can fly kites from. My host cousin helped us out, first getting the kite up in the air and then giving it to us to try our hand at. I was pretty good although I didn't cut anyone else's kite. Austin wasn't too lucky though and instead decided to become the kite "doctor" instead of flying them. I had a lot of fun though and it was nice getting to know my new family (I have two cousins- one boy and one girl, both around my age. The boy taught me to fly kites and the girl I had met earlier when we went to see Avatar in 3D).
Earlier today, I finally got to go play tennis again at the club my host family is members at. I thought I would suck horribly but my fore-hand was still good, only my back hand and serve suffered. Hopefully I'll be able to play more now and get back into the game so that I'm in shape when I get back to US :]