Category Archives: India

Back in India

It’s 12:18pm. I’m currently sitting in my cousin’s pink bedroom – still adorned with stuffed animals and horses even though she is now 32 and has long since flown the nest – and looking out the windows at the many palm trees that surround the house. I’m back in Pavoorchatram, a tiny village near the southern tip of India where my aunt and uncle settled down years ago. He is an aerospace engineer, she is a doctor, and they both left their professions because they felt called to start a school here. And today that school is still thriving. So when our group of 10 adults and 2 kids got off the 13 hour bus ride from Bangalore looking a little worse for wear, we all squealed with delight when we saw that my uncle had brought the school bus to take us home in. I love coming back here – electric current only runs 14 hours of the day, bucket baths are a must (and you must carry the hot water from downstairs), and mosquitos are rampant, but there’s a lot of charm here too. My aunt’s property is amazing – plenty of space for the kids to run around and lots of chickens and icky bugs to look at. Today three of us cousins (and one 2 yr old) stood in awe as we watched my uncle skin chickens in a blink of an eye. It was pretty cool until the whole taking out the intestines thing happened – that was enough learning for one day. Last year I watched my uncle chop coconuts for us to drink coconut milk from – hes so resourceful, that one!

Being back in India with my parents is fun too – my dad hasn’t been here in two decades, and for my mom its been about 12 years. My sis and I have been fortunate to have been able to visit a few times in the last 5 years, and seeing my parents see where they grew up and take us to their favorite places is super cute. My mom already did the typical complaining of how much the city has changed since she was there, and how the construction of the new metro has ruined the beautiful streets, etc. etc. And we went and visited my grandparent’s property that my mom grew up on (and my sis and I, for that matter) which unfortunately is now owned by a hotel and several offices including the Japanese Consulate. I saw just how central my grandparent’s house was, and wished we could have kept the property intact with all the trees and the fish pond that I remember so fondly (minus the monkeys that would hang in the trees and terrify me.)

Adjusting to life in India always takes a while, but this time was especially brutal coming from such a long week of finals and just an exhausting fall term in general. Not that I’m complaining – in the 4 months I’ve been in Milano I’ve been stretched so far out of my comfort zone in terms of classes, working with different types of people, learning a new language and just navigating through the daily aspects of life in Italy, that I feel much more confident in myself and what I can accomplish. It’s exciting to see how much my classmates and I have progressed in just a few months together, and in a year when we are graduating together it will be interesting to see how much more we have grown. On Christmas, when I was at my dad’s cousins house with 30 some of his closest relatives, I got into a long conversation with several uncles about social entrepreneurship in India, and the need for smart business models and a solid understanding of the way of life here to ensure success in a program (especially one that is partnered overseas.) It reminded me of, regardless of people’s good intentions, just how important it is to invest the time visiting and traveling through different countries, and connecting with people there to foster mutual understanding. And on that note, even when we travel for leisure, whether it be a trip to Milan or visiting Africa, we are still continuously seeing how other people are living and how other systems work even though its different from ours. I’m still getting used to paying monthly for my phone bill in Italy – its definitely a hassle to have to go recharge my data plan each month. But then when I think about how I don’t have to worry about going over my limit accidentally and getting stuck with a 200euro phone bill, it makes sense.

Two more days in India with my family before I head back to Milano for a day, and then onto NYC for the New Year. I hope 2013 holds this much travel!

 

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Lotus Temple

Lotus Temple, Delhi

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December 2, 2011 · 6:24 am

Shopping Smart in Delhi

I’ve heard great things about Delhi and not so great things. For one, the shopping is supposed to be awesome: great, colorful selection of clothes, good prices, and lots of markets. Also, the buildings and sights are pretty fantastic. The problem was that it can be very unsafe for foreigners or people traveling alone. If they know you are not an Indian (local resident) they will rip you off with everything. The safety issue here is that because they are very pushy with sales, you can find yourself badgered a lot my many different people wherever you go, and some people will take advantage of the fact that you don’t know how things work or how to get around. Originally I wanted to go by myself, but I’m so glad Lydia came with me because she speaks Hindi. The first thing people ask us is where we’re from so they can gauge how much they can get away with, it’s just the nature of the beast. When necessary, I kept my mouth shut and let her do the talking when we were shopping. I’d highly suggest going around with a local if you can, but if not just be prepared to pay a lot more. I know no one wants to be ripped off, so bargain your way as much as possible, and then don’t let it get to you too much. Besides, you’re buying something you typically won’t get back home, so a few more dollars/euros/yen is probably worth it.

Word of caution on shopping: I felt inclined to write about this after a particularly bad experience at one of the more popular markets, Dilli Haat. Lydia and I were both excited to check it out, and when we got there they told us that they didn’t do bargaining at all here. We thought it was odd but went along with it. They had a great selection of clothes with all these beautiful patterns and good material. Lydia had her eye on some sarees and we also saw a few scarves. However, the guy was acting a little shady, and quoting us different prices for virtually the identical item. They said the quality of the material was different, but it was difficult to tell (was probably the same thing.) We were getting annoyed by that, but it wasn’t until we overheard a transaction next to us that Lydia got really pissed. There was a foreigner looking at a nice scarf next to us, and his salesman quoted it at 3600 rupees, which is absurd. Lydia was sneaky and waited until they left and then inquired about the same scarf – the price he quoted her was 1400. That’s when she started telling the guy off in Hindi while I stood to the side, trying to convey my annoyance by waiting by the door and ready to go. The salesman was terrified that we would cause a ruckus and tell everyone around us what was going on and threw in two scarves for free; we only bought some small items which we knew were priced well and impossible to find in South India, and veto’d all other purchases. If you are planning on visiting Delhi to do some shopping. I would check out other markets instead where you can bargain. Don’t believe what they tell you at Dilli Haat – its dirty business! As Lydia said, if they rip you off through bargaining it’s your own choice, but lying and saying it’s the same price for everyone when it’s clearly not is so wrong, and you’ll have a lot harder time getting a fair price in the end. Remember though that Delhi does have great shopping though, so don’t let this dissuade you from venturing out and doing some fun bargaining. Good luck!

 

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Agra

I saw the Taj! And it opened up my eyes, I saw the Taj.

Alright, so I know there’s a lot of hype about the Taj Mahal. And a lot of people think its overrated. But nonetheless, I still really wanted to see it for myself. And it was just as breath taking as I had hoped it would be. The day started off somewhat rough. Our driver was a grumpy man, who disagreed with us about mostly everything. Lydia and I didn’t feel so great with him so we ended up ditching him halfway, and caught a cheap train ride back instead. Word of advice: never use Bagmati Car Service if you’re looking to go around Delhi or Agra. They are unprofessional, and gave inaccurate info when we spoke to them (their 2 1/2 car ride was really 5.) Hands down the best way to go is to catch the 6am express train (there’s two, but one is called Taj Express) and get there around 8am. We would have booked that but we had very limited options by the time we were looking since we were so last minute about everything. These trains fill up quickly so the earlier you book, the better. The train we took back was about 3 hours, which was still fine even though it wasn’t an express. Also, my cousin recommends getting a tour guide from the station because they have official guides – there are many guides at the front entrance but they bother you a lot if you don’t have a guide, and some aren’t really tour guides and can give you false info. Also, Lydia had a hell of a time getting local rate tickets (local rate is 10 rupees vs. foreigner rate of 750) and she herself is an Indian resident! After that whole drama, we decided to dress me up more Indian, which included wearing a shawl, putting my hair up, trading bags with Lydia, and not saying a single word. Either it fooled the guards or they just didn’t care, but we got into the Taj with no problem. I know it can be frustrating having to pay such a higher cost, but if you aren’t Indian (and you can’t fool them) then you’ll have to suck it up. Heads up if you go!

Regardless of the ride over and the madness getting in, I really enjoyed seeing the Taj. It is so peaceful once you get into the garden area. We were there for 2 hours, but I could have easily been there for double that time and taken more photos. We loved capturing the reflection of the building in the water as well. The story itself is pretty sad too. I knew that he made the Taj for his wife, but I didn’t know that he was so sad when she died that he wanted to build a black Taj replica across the river. However, he was fighting with his sons over the funds for the Taj, and so they put him in prison at Agra Fort. The saddest part was that he could see the Taj from his window, and he died in jail. Sigh, how can family be so cruel. The place was super crowded so I’d love to go back when it’s quieter. So happy I can cross that off my Bucket List though of places to see!

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The Taj

Taj Mahal, Agra

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December 1, 2011 · 3:27 pm

Delhicious!

Arun had plans to go to Delhi on business, and I was excited to tag along and see the Taj. However, on Tuesday he got word that his trip was pushed to the following week. I really wanted to go anyway and was planning on catching a flight on my own out on Thurs morning to see the Taj at sunrise on Fri. Well, that plan also got crushed when I found out the Taj is closed on Fridays (remember this if you ever visit!!) As I was taking a second to feel sorry for myself, Lydia took pity on me and came up with a wild plan: we ran home, packed our bags, headed to the airport and found the next flight to Delhi that night. Since she knows the language, she decided to join me. 5 hours after leaving the house we were in Delhi, staying at a posh hotel thanks to Dream-Ality’s Starwood Preferred Guest points. I haven’t seen the other hotels in Delhi, but I absolutely recommend the ITC Maurya Sheraton. It’s gorgeous, has every amenity including a nice pool, and is also a little cheaper than the Le Meridien. It’s also in a safe part of town because all the embassies are closeby (knock on wood.) Once we got in. Lydia made some calls at 1am and by morning we had set up a private car to take us there. She’s so great! I’m so glad she decided to come with me, thanks Lydia! So here we are, 8 hours later after we landed in Delhi, heading to Agra. Bollywood music is playing on the radio, the sun is shining, and we have a yummy hotel breakfast in our bellies: I am one happy NRI. More on Agra later!

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Pavoorchatram

People bathing at Koutralam Falls

 

Koutralam Falls marketplace

 

Say hi to Alfie, Pavoorchatram's cutest puppy!

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November 28, 2011 · 6:03 pm

The Village People – About Pavoorchatram, India

On Sunday night, the cousins and I went to visit our aunt and uncle in Pavoorchatram, a small beautiful village about 12 hours from Chennai. It wasn’t my first time there but I haven’t been back since I was a little girl and it was so nice to return and really appreciate the town. We took the overnight train which is not my favorite mode of transportation but in all fairness it wasn’t that bad. I think had I been traveling on my own it would have been much worse. Pavoorchatram was fantastic – my aunt and uncle have done some really amazing things there. About 25 years ago, my uncle felt called to move there and start a school. My aunt was nervous about it, but trusted and followed along. Today, they have a fantastic school with all grade levels and many, many kids running around. We were able to take a tour of the school, and peek into some classes. It reminded me of Japan and sitting in on Neetha’s class – I really enjoyed it. This past year they also opened a women’s hostel on their house property (which is next door to the school) for some female students. They are doing great things there and impacting the lives of so many children, I’m so proud.

My uncle also took us to his farm where we got to check out his mulberry crops, see his silkworm room (kinda creepy but really cool), take pictures of the many animals hanging around, and walk through a massive chicken coop. Yes, I actually walked through it. I went in first to get up close and personal with the chicks (the things a novice photographer with a mediocre lens has got to do!) and then actually got locked IN the coop by my uncle and had to follow my crazy cousin down the long coop of chicken poop (and who knows what else) to get out. Not cool, guys, not cool.

Later that night we went to Koutralam Falls, a huge beautiful waterfall in their town. I was especially impressed with this one because of how wide it was. They say the water has healing powers that is known to help psychological disorders. Also, many Hindu men do pilgrimages barefoot to Kerala and stop at these falls. There are also separate areas for men and women to bathe in the water. Too bad I forgot my bar of soap!

We were only in Pavoorchatram for 48 hours but I really enjoyed my time there. During down time, baby Taran and I took a walk in their large front yard where I pointed out chickens, roosters and a mongoose family. You definitely can’t find that in New York! The electricity was down for a good part of the day, and we even had dinner by candlelight. It was such a different experience from everything else I’ve seen these last few months and I’m so glad I was able to return for a quick trip.

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Flooding

Because of Chennai’s bad drainage systems, flooding frequently occurs after heavy rains. The streets are horrible to drive in, many being flooded like this one, and others having large puddles from all the potholes in the roads.

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November 27, 2011 · 1:44 pm

The Royal Treatment – Being Pampered in Chennai

Chennai doesn’t have many of the everyday luxuries that folks back home are used to:  instantly hot showers, clean drinking water from the tap, a bug-free/dirt free/mosquito free home. Everyone’s feet are constantly dirty because you just can’t keep the dirt out, no matter how much you clean. But when you really want to just get away and pamper yourself, you can always turn to The Park! The Park is a fancy hotel that has a decadent spa on the top floor that’s one of the best in India. Arun had suggested getting massages a few weeks back, so on Saturday Hannah and I decided to treat ourselves. We each had a fantastic 1 hr massage, followed by a 30 minute sea salt body scrub. A tiny Asian chick got up on the table with me and got all the kinks out of my shoulders and back. Even though I’m sure it wasn’t as bad as when I sat at a computer for 8 hrs a day, I still had some knots from traveling and really enjoyed the massage. It was my first time getting a body scrub, and I also loved the total exfoliation. What a great end of the trip splurge.

After that royal treatment, I met my aunt and uncle on my dad’s side who live in Chennai. They picked me up and took me to a delicious dinner at the Breeze Hotel across town. I loved hearing stories about my dad and my grandma from them. My aunt even said that my grandma was the best mother-in-law ever, and we know that those two don’t always go hand in hand together. It was such a pleasure to catch up with them – because of the distance, I’m not as close to my dad’s side of the family as I’d like to be. I hope that changes soon with more frequent visits.

(Jasmine strands from The Breeze Hotel)

On Sunday, the royal treatment continued as all of us returned to The Park Hotel for their delicious buffet brunch with unlimited drinks. Not a bad way to spend time with my four cousins who I don’t get to see nearly enough! I definitely recommend hitting up The Park Hotel for their spa or restaurants (or actual hotel rooms if you can afford it!)

(Variety of chutneys from The Park Hotel)


Total cost of Swedish massage + sea salt body scrub = $80 (including tip)

 

Quote Book:
(to all those that appreciate dad jokes – this one was especially hilarious because my dad and his brother obviously have the same cheesy sense of humor)

Me: Oh, cows! I really want to take a picture of them, but are they going to charge me??

Uncle: Yes, they’re going to charge you 10 rupees for taking a photo.

::wahh wahh::

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