India or Bohemia?

In the time I’ve spent in Udaipur since I last blogged, I’ve often found myself with the lyrics to Bohemian Rhapsody stuck in my head. Mostly this is because I’ve been asked multiple times, whenever my coworkers get together in a group whether it be the car ride to the field or a celebration, to sing a song and found myself suddenly unable to recall any song lyrics. Thinking back to my days in my school choir, I luckily remembered how this song went. Although my singing skills are not much of anything, I was excited to share this song with them which has been very representative of my time here.

“Is this the real life?”… After spending the day exploring the wonders of the City Palace in the Old City of Udaipur and saying goodbye to Alexandra who came to visit for the weekend, I called an Uber to pick me up and bring me home. While waiting at the designated pickup spot, two of the FES interns from Uttar Pradesh that I’d made friends with were passing by! How serendipitous that of all people in the crowded Old City and of the millions of street corners they could have been traversing, they happened upon my path. And as happens with Uber, I had some complications with cancelling and arranging the pick up spot and they invited me to wait with them at the restaurant they were headed to and even talked with my driver to sort out the situation. Then the next day I was catching up with a friend who was just trekking in Nepal and we found out that we have a mutual friend here in Udaipur! She knew her as a fellow Fulbright Scholar and I knew her through a friend I met when I visited the nearby NGO, Seva Mandir and we now often cross paths at the local wifi cafe. Do these coincidences actually happen in real life?

“Is this just fantasy?”… I visited Mount Abu this past weekend, which was lovely for getting a bit of a break from the oppressive heat, and here I visited the Delwara temples. These were built around the 12th century out of marble which was carried up the mountains from miles and miles away by a hoard of elephants. And every square inch is covered in unimaginably intracate carvings, including the high domed ceilings. And the 27,000 workers that carved the temples had only hand tools to use. Walking through, barefooted as required in all temples, and in complete awe, I felt like I had walked straight into a fairy tale setting. And after that I had a most amazing sit-down meal of spinach dosa with coconut and mint chutneys in a beautiful location for only two dollars… sounds like fantasy to me.

“Caught in a landslide”… At any tourist destination I visit I get swarmed with obsessive fans. Yes, me, who none of these people know or even care to know. I still have trouble wrapping my head around why all these people want me in their family photos or why each family member individually needs to get a selfie with me. But that’s how it is. They just want a picture with this girl who looks different from them. And once one person gets up the nerve to ask me for a photo, it sets off a chain reaction of photoshoots. I certainly have more sympathy for celebrities who deal with this constantly… certainly feels like being caught in a landslide.

“No escape from reality”… There’s more of similarities between America and India than differences I believe. I do activities everyday that I do back at home like working out in my yoga class, playing games with my yoga teachers little girl, taking bike rides, going to cafes, even getting pizza at a restaurant. With these, I feel so removed from the hustle and bustle and the feeling of all my senses being overwhelmed that I associate with India. I forget where I am, and that I am nearly halfway around the world from my home. But reality always sets back in. The cows appear, I’ve sweat through my clothes, there are crowds of people everywhere and not a single one looks like me. For some reason, it always gets me that most everyone in India is Indian… thought I’d have gotten that by now.

“Open your eyes”… This trip has opened my eyes to countless nuances of understanding and adapting to another culture. I’ve only just dipped my toe in. I’ve adopted the head wobble. I’ve learned how to navigate the streets on foot and cycle. I’ve discovered all kinds of Indian foods that are more palatable for me. I especially love the chilras my host mom makes (they’re like sweet roti pancakes). I’ve learned that whereas Americans tend to live with bubbles around them that provide some personal space in crowded areas or room for passing by each other, this concept does not translate to India. Cars and scooters pass and pull up to each other with only an inch to spare. When waiting on lines the person behind me will stand against my back. Scooters will carry four adults and a small child or two on the one seat. But Indian’s have the utmost care and respect for their guests. Even a boy I met at a coffee shop offered me some of the food he had ordered and even to buy me a coffee because I am a guest in his country and he wants me to feel welcomed. And the biggest understanding I’ve gained is how different the pace of life is here. As with cuisine, language, and traditions, this finding isn’t true across all of India I’m sure with metropolises like Mumbai and Delhi around. But, life has a relaxing pace here (which was not so relaxing when I got here and was used to rushing across campus from class to research to meetings to the gym to the library). It was difficult transitioning from a where I hardly ever had more than a few minutes not scheduled out in a day to a life where we may be waiting in the field to meet up with someone with no idea whether they’ll show up on time or a half hour late and where the drafted timelines I came up with for my project were just words on a page and had no correspondence to the work I would actually do that day. Not speaking Hindi has also certainly hurt my ability to effectively understand when and how things are going to happen. But I’ve learned to adapt to this. I can take my time with conversations here and have often had unplanned conversations with friends and coworkers for over an hour. And there may not be a lot of regularity, but I know I’ll be offered chai three times a day 🙂

“Look up to the skies and see”… In Dehra Dun I witnessed the most spectacular sunset. Meeting up with Safia made me fall into another lapse from reality. It was a strange feeling how comforting it was to just talk easily with someone with no language barrier and a mutual understanding of how the other is feeling. Hiking away into the Himalayas was also such a rejuvenating feeling. For the first time since I arrived in India I didn’t hear cars honking or dogs barking. We saw only a few villagers and our guides the whole trek up. I got so cold I had to put on a sweatshirt! And then of course the sunset was a magical mix of pink and orange and purple and the sun turned an electric pink as it sank over a mountain hidden by the clouds.

“I’m just a poor boy, I need no sympathy”… The most exciting part of my internship has been the field visits. Here we travel to the rural villages of Gogunda, about 40 minutes from out office in Udaipur, and explore FES’s ecological interventions and the communities’ interactions with them. I’ve been mostly exploring Diversion Based Irrigation here which has been interesting to explore the crossover between engineering and environmental work (although this is particularly civil engineering work I’ve been exploring the optimization of the system which is a fairly general engineering principle and getting experience on the field and working in a rural, international setting is supplementing my education more than I could ever have achieved in a classroom). But one thing that especially hit me about these field visits is that I didn’t even realize how poor the people living here were until I had to explore their economic backgrounds for my study. They wear such brightly colored clothing and gold and silver jewelry that they could have fooled me. The culture here is beautiful beyond economic boundaries. But after inquiring further about the poverty I was led into an hour long teaching on the lasting effects on the caste system here I can’t go into all of the details, but I learned that the castes in India dictate social status the way economic classes in America do. The Brahmins (descendants of priests) are the elite, the Kshatriyas (descendants of warriors) are comparable to the upper middle class, the Vaisyas (descendents of farmers and merchants) like the middle class and the Sudras (descendents of servants) like the poor. And these villagers are so far down in the caste system that they are below the Shudras. Because of this they are denied any way of moving up in the ranks like education or marriage into a higher caste, just as all lower castes are.

“Because I’m easy come, easy go”… Although I cannot believe I have been here for over a month, it will be my time to head home soon. I finish my internship on Friday and head out this weekend to explore Rajasthan for my last two weeks. Because it has been almost six weeks now, I suppose it’s no surprise that I feel so at home here, but I still can’t wrap my head around it. The nerves I felt on my first drive from the airport to my host home are so dulled that I no longer even raise an eyebrow when we drive across the middle of the road into the oncoming traffic to pass a slow moving car ahead of us. The shadowy figure of my host mom that greeted me upon my arrival is now my best friend here. The first few times I rode my bike to my workplace after having been shown the way by supervisor, Girdhari ji, I could never tell which turn to make because every street corner looked the same with signs projecting indistinguishable Hindi lettering and similar-looking street carts selling sugarcane juice and mangos. But now I know the route like the back of my hand and can even judge how far I am from my destination by the cows and fruit sellers and familiar faces I pass. I no longer feel like an outsider here. I used to worry about just going outside. The sounds and smells and sheer numbers of people and dogs and cows overwhelmed me. Now, I am a member of this community. I know to take my shoes off before I enter a shop. I automatically greet friendly faces by putting my hands together in prayer and saying “Namaste”. I finally know (almost!) all of my coworkers names. I’ve gotten to that point where I call this place home. Maybe it wasn’t so easy a “come”, and it certainly will not be an easy “go”.