Wednesday, April 25, 2012


            India’s traditional mode of transportation, the “rickshaw bicycle”, is well known around the world. However, what many people don’t realize is that this old-fashioned method of traveling is long outdated. Nowadays, people get from place to place in a handy little vehicle known as an “auto-rickshaw”, but more commonly referred to as an “auto.”
            I love autos. Coming from a small town where the only public transportation is a small bus called the “Green Mountain Express” that runs a few times a day, autos represent independence and adventures. They are small and cute and bright yellow, and conveniently squeeze through traffic better than a car. They take you to your doorstep or wherever you want to go, but are much cheaper than American taxis. They have open sides rather than doors, so when I’m in one I feel like I’m one with the city. I can smell everything, hear everything, and see everything that I pass. The multitudes of people going about their daily lives, the other vehicles honking non-stop, and the mixed smell of street food and garbage are just a few things that I love about this city. There’s no better view of Chennai than from inside an auto. I can feel the rush of warm wind as we speed down the highway and the creeping of lethargic humidity when we’re stuck in traffic. I never feel more connected to this city than when I am in an auto.
Autos represent my transformation into an Indian. The first time I took an auto, I shyly tried to bargain with the auto driver, although I had no idea what the correct rate was. These days, I unashamedly haggle with the drivers, and even pull out my Tamil auto-lingo when necessary. “Rombe adhigam, Anna. Kami pununge” I tell them. Translation: “It’s very expensive, brother. Lower the price”. Once in a while an auto driver will give me a good deal just because I spoke to him in Tamil. The first time I gave an auto driver directions back to my house, the accomplishment I felt was unrivaled. I was amazed at the fact that I could get home from anywhere in the city without having to call someone and ask them to speak to the auto driver!
I’ll never forget the auto drivers—the moody ones, the cheerful ones, the ones who blast music and the ones that think they can sing. The ones that have no idea where they are going and the ones that just won’t shut up.  Some of my best Tamil conversations have been with auto drivers. They never fail to be impressed with the fact that I came to live in India, am wearing Indian clothes, and can speak (well, barely) Tamil.
When I first came to Chennai, I loved autos because of their novelty. Ten months later, the novelty has worn off (somewhat) and I still love them. This evening I took an auto back to my house for what felt like the millionth time. It is often when I am in an auto that I realize how at home I feel in this city. I belong here. I call this place home. And I really love autos.

Friday, March 30, 2012

A few pictures

During the festival of Pongal. with my host brother Hasish, cousins Shruthi and Sona, and grandmother

With Hasish's NCC bulbul friends, which is basically like girl scouts

Picking up trash with AFS volunteers and other organizations at a city-wide beach cleanup

With my brother Hashish on his birthday

My aunt and mom dressed up for an engagement party and showing off their saris

With my friend Nandhini at school during a free block

With Hashish's 5th grade class after giving a presentation on the U.S.

Playing around with my fellow exchange student Nut from Thailand after school

A Trip To Tirupati

About a month ago, I went with my host family to the city of Tirupati, in Andhra Pradesh, for a day. After driving for a few hours, the first indication that we had crossed the state border from Tamil Nadu into Andhra was that all of the road signs were suddenly in Telugu instead of Tamil. I admired the round and curly Telugu script as we drove along, and even tried deciphering some of the letters in places where the words were written in Tamil and English alongside the Telugu. 
            As we ate breakfast in a hotel in Tirupati, I listened to the sounds of Telugu, my host family’s mother tongue, float around us. It seemed so incredible that after only a few hours of driving, we were surrounded by a different language and different traditions. A few more hours of driving in another direction, and the road signs would be written in Kannada, or Malayali. Every new experience that I have in India just proves even more that 10 months is hardly enough time to learn about a fraction of this country.
            The amazing thing about Tirupati is that there are actually two parts— Upper Tirupati and Lower Tirupati. Lower Tirupati is a large city full of people going about their daily lives. Upper Tirupati is the home of a grand Golden Temple, and is on top of a mountain. There are no residential homes in Upper Tirupati, as all the buildings there relate to the Temple in some way. However, Upper Tirupati is a bustling little town that comes alive with multitudes of different people every day. It is believed that people can only go to Tirupati if the Gods “call” them there. You might plan five or more trips to Tirupati, but if you haven’t been called by the Gods, each time something else will come up and you won’t be able to make it. Only when the time is right will a trip to Tirupati work out.
            In exchange for their prayers, many people offer their hair to the Gods. Following this pledge, they must travel to Tirupati, shave their heads on top of the mountain, and pray in the Temple. In fact, so many people commit this act of devotion that there is a whole “head-shaving station” in Upper Tirupati. It is a small, stone-floored room lined with men shaving head after head, and not with anything electric, but with a simple knife. This is where I watched my 14-year-old host brother Sanjay’s hair fall to the ground in submission. I saw more hairless people in Tirupati than I have ever seen in my life—women, men, elderly people, children, whole families of bald people (my host mom explained to me that a mother can offer the hair of her children as well as her own hair). To me, every newly shining head posed a question, and I wondered what it was that they had prayed for so fervently.
            Masses of people literally poured into line waiting for entrance into the Temple. Due to the high demand and limited space, there is a lot of waiting involved before actually praying. The line is contained by a closed-in route which is packed with people. Actually, there are two lines—the 50 Rupee per ticket line (about $1.00) and the 300 Rupee per ticket line (about $6.00). The 300 Rupee ticket line moves much faster than the 50 Rupee ticket line. My family was in the Rs. 300 line, and we had a connection in the Temple, and it still took us hours of waiting to get in. I couldn’t help but admire the perseverance and devotion of the people in the Rs. 50 line, who were willing to wait all day just for a glimpse of their God in the Temple. There are actually some people who pay a ton of money to book a spot in the front of the line years in advance, the best offer being a ticket guaranteeing no wait at all that must be booked 20 years in advance. It seems pretty crazy to me, especially considering the likelihood that the Gods might not call you on that day!
            The wait in line would certainly not be pleasant for anyone with claustrophobia. It might also be extremely uncomfortable for anyone who has an issue with being very tightly pressed up against other people, especially when the people in back of you want to go faster than the people in front of you are going. I was actually worried for some elderly women who I almost thought were going to get trampled once or twice. The line would stand still for long periods of time, especially in the Rs. 50 line, where I could see people sitting for ages in the corridor next to us. When the line did start to move, the whole procession would start chanting “Govinda Govinda” which became a kind of hymn. You can actually hear the line moving before you can see or feel the bodies in front of you shifting.
            The reward for this long trek is a coveted moment of prayer in front of the God of the Temple, who is an idol decked out in jewels and flowers. Each person only gets about five seconds or less to stand in front of the God, lips moving fervently in prayer, hands pressed together at the chest, before the next person in line pushes them onward. With everyone squeezed so tightly as to almost become one writhing being, I can only describe the intensity of the prayers as a kind of collective entering into another state of consciousness. When it was my turn in front of the God, I tried to take in as much of the moment as I could before it was over. I had at least twice as long as everyone else, because the guard thought it was so amazing that a foreigner was there praying to his God that he let me stay there for a little while.
            After, we visited the other areas of the Temple, praying to different deities and making various offerings. We ate food from the Temple along with everyone else and drank purified water from the water fountain. The whole day was a wonderful experience and one which I will never forget, but I have to say that the moment which will always stand out in my mind is the moment where I stood in front of the God. If I had seen the idol out of context, it would have appeared to me as a rather small statue, beautiful and full of history, but with no significant meaning. In that Temple on top of a mountain, surrounded by people who were offering their most vital prayers to it, watching my host grandmothers lips move animatedly in silent prayer, with the chant of “Govinda, Govinda” in my ears, I couldn’t help but feel that I was standing in front of something truly sacred.

Amazing Ahmedabad

Just found this post that I wrote ages ago but never posted. 

I went to a city in North-West India, called Ahmedabad, in the beginning of October. Here's a brief description of my amazing time there!

The trip was made possible by the AFS chapter in Ahmedabad, who planned an event for exchange students all over India to be hosted in their city for three days. It was a lot of fun not only to see another part of India, but also to connect with the other exchange students around . The Ahmedabad chapter brought us around the city, put us with great host families, helped us learn traditional garba dancing, and taught us about the festival of Navratri. Every night I was out dancing with either AFS or my host family. During the nine-day Navratri festival in Ahmedabad, people stay out until early hours of the morning decked out in colorful clothes and dancing a circle dance called garba to the rhythmic music of Western India.

When I was in 11th grade, a girl named Karishma Vahora from Ahmedabad, India was hosted in my town through the YES program. We met in class on the first day of school, and she soon became one of my best friends. I still vividly remember saying goodbye to her and the other exchange students at the airport more than a year ago--all of us crying, not knowing when we would see each other again. Fast-forward a year later, and I found myself calling Karishma to tell her that I had been accepted into the YES Abroad program and would be spending a year in India! I was thrilled when only three months into my stay here, the AFS returnees in Ahmedabad planned an event for exchange students all over India to be hosted in their city for three days to see the festive Navratri festival. For three awesome days I got to re-unite with Karishma, and I even got to spend time with two other old friends, Nilly and Sid, who were YES students at my school four years ago! I went to Karishma's house for a few hours one day and was welcomed with warm and open arms by her sweet family. I know it sounds cheesy, but the whole thing really was like a dream come true. The whole time, I could barely believe that I was actually seeing Karishma, Nilly, and Sid again. I can't wait to return to Ahmedabad and for Karishma to come visit me in Chennai. It is life-long friendships like these that make the YES program such a wonderful thing.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

An Indian Rosh Hashanah

This post is very late but I've been waiting for the pictures to go along with it and haven't been able to get them until now.

At the end of September I celebrated a very sweet Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) in India. After our first term exams ended, we had a ten day vacation from school. AFS planned a trip to a North-Western city called Ahmedabad for four days, and since my host mom and brothers were going to Kerala (a neighboring state) for a wedding, I spent the first four days of holiday at my host mom's older brother's house. I had a fun time with my host Uncle, Aunt, Grandmother, and two cousins Shruti and Sona. I mostly just relaxed and read books, as Shruti and Sona were still in school.

A traditional part of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) is a round Challah (traditional bread). The problem was that most Indian families don't have ovens, since most food here is cooked on stove tops. The ovens that do appear in homes here tend to be mistaken for microwaves by foreigners like me--in fact, many Indian ovens actually double as microwaves. My Aunt and Uncle don't have any kind of oven or microwave in their house, so I went to fellow YES Abroad student Cee's house to bake Challah and celebrate Rosh Hashanah!

I'm glad to report that my first time baking in an Indian oven was very successful! I'll admit that I was a little skeptical that the microwave sitting on the counter was also actually an oven, but it actually worked out really well. When everything was ready, we had grape juice, apples and honey, and the Challah, and I said the traditional prayers and lit the candles. These are all traditional elements of a Rosh Hashanah dinner. Challah should be round on Rosh Hashanah to represent the round year. Apples, which are round like the year, and honey, which is sweet, are eaten together to represent a sweet new year. Afterwards, I went home and did the same thing with my host grandmother, aunt and cousins. Although I didn't get to hear the shofar, I had a great Indian Rosh Hashanah, and I got to welcome in the new year not just once, but twice, with two wonderful families.

Me braiding the Challah

Cee's host mom cutting apples for apples and honey

Cee braiding a Challah for the first time!

Challah, grape juice, and Shabbas candles

I'd say the Challah came out pretty well!

Monday, September 12, 2011

My First Indian Wedding

The wedding actually happened ages ago, but I haven't had a chance to write about it. It was my friend Nut's host mom's cousin's daughter's wedding. She generously invited all of the AFS students so that we could experience an Indian wedding!

The morning of the wedding, I got suitably dressed up (maybe a little too dressed up for my taste, but this is India...) I was getting a ride with Tenaya (exchange student from Seattle) and her host siblings, since we live very close to each other. The funny thing was that her host sister thought she knew where we were going, but when we walked into the wedding hall, we soon realized that we were at the wrong wedding! Luckily, no one really noticed. The wedding ceremony is very long, so while it is taking place, everyone besides the immediate family and friends just sit or stand around and talk. Tenaya's host brother said it's not a big deal to walk into a random wedding, but it looks very rude to walk out. As you can see, that caused us something of a dilemma, since we were already late for the other wedding. Eventually we just explained the situation to the guard at the door and tried to leave without anyone noticing.

When we arrived at the right wedding, the ceremony was taking place on a stage at the back of a long room. Our friends and Nut's family were up on the stage already. As we were taking our shoes off at the edge of the stage, about to go up the steps to greet everyone, we started wondering why there was a guy pointing a huge video camera at us. Just as Tenaya and I started to discuss this, we looked behind us to see the bride and her procession about to come up the stairs! We dashed out of the way, trying to look inconspicuous pressed against the wall, and hoping that no one would notice anything funny in the wedding video...

The wedding was very interesting. It was a love marriage and the groom was from another state called Kerala (pronounced Care-la). The bride was from here in Tamil Nadu. In the U.S., it is normally assumed that a marriage will be a love marriage, unless the family has roots in another culture where arranged marriages are practiced. Here, (or at least in this part of India), love marriages are specifically identified as such. Only a few of my friends parents have had love marriages. If someone mentions a love marriage, everyone wants to know how they met. My friend Lavanya is half Australian, and to say that she is tired of telling the story of how her parents met would be a huge understatement.

Indian weddings are very elaborate and there are many rituals involved. The days before the actual wedding are also filled with ceremonies, such as the Henna ceremony, where everyone gets fancy henna designs on their hands and feet and dances. The wedding takes places in the morning, and the reception takes place that night. The reception is basically where the couple takes pictures with all the guests and receives presents, and everyone eats.

Marriages differ a lot from one part of India to another. At this wedding, traditions from Kerala and Tamil Nadu were woven together. We got to try food from Kerala. I noticed that almost every single dish was made with coconut, which was fun, since I love coconut! I asked my friend Shruty about it at school since her mom is Malyalam (a Malyalam is someone from Kerala) and she told me that Kerala is famous for coconut.

All in all the wedding was a lot of fun! Sorry for the late report!

I've been meaning to mention, because I wrote about Anjali (the maid close to my age) earlier on my blog, that she is no longer working for my family. She is getting married in a few months.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Kodaikanal and Raksha Bandan

Last week we had a four day weekend. Friday was a special Hindu puja (ritual) and Monday the 15th was Indian Independence Day. We decided to take a trip to my host family's farm house in a hill station called Kodaikanal. Since I've been here, people keep talking about hill stations, and no one was able to really explain what they were. I guess they thought it would be too obvious to just say a hill station is a town on top of a mountain, which is what it turns out to be! They are popular vacation spots because they are a nice escape from Southern Indian heat due to the altitude. This particular hill station is seven hours south of Chennai. I was in high spirits as we drove hour after hour through cities, towns, villages, and empty land. At the bottom of the mountain, we stopped in the town for lunch, and I ate off of a banana leaf, which is the traditional way of eating here, for the first time. On the way up, we stopped to eat fresh jackfruit, or jaggery. Jackfruits are huge and round, with rather spiky outsides. Each one is more than a foot long. You have to cut open the fruit, hollow out the sticky inside, and cut off the seeds which come out of the "shell". Each seed is encased by the part that you eat. There was a woman running a small stand cutting jackfruit and putting on a plate for us to eat. We stood there for a while eating jackfruit and enjoying the light rain.

When we got to the top, we started driving through one of the most adorable towns I've ever seen. Kodaikanal is a small but bustling town nestled in the sharp hills of the top of a mountain.  It is actually quite chilly there, even for a Vermonter like me. On the other hand, it may have just felt especially cold because I had been getting used to South India heat for about six weeks. After we came back down from the mountain, the heat felt twice as hot.

My host family's farm house is a cute cottage with a great view of the surrounding mountains. Sometimes it gets so misty there you can barely see. Next to the house is another small cottage. The family who lives there takes care of my host family's house, and the mother cooks for us.

Because it was raining a lot of the time, we only went out one day. Mostly we just relaxed and played. There was a small yard where we played with a frisbee I had brought from home, an idea suggested to me by who else but my dad, an avid frisbee player. The frisbee was a huge hit with the two sons of the couple who takes care of the house. I didn't ask them how old they were, but I think they were around seven and ten. The younger one especially loved playing monkey in the middle with the frisbee. He would come find me with the frisbee in hand and beg "Akka, game!". "Akka" means older sister in Tamil, but it is not just used for an actual sister. It is also a respectful way to call a girl or woman who is older than you but not old enough to be your Aunty. Little kids at school will call "Hi Akka!" or "Akka, what's your name?" or "Akka, will you be my friend?".

I hadn't seen green grass since coming here, so I shocked my host uncle by taking off my sandals and going barefoot, as the two young boys were doing. It was so nice to feel the fresh grass under my feet again. It was sweet to see how much their father enjoyed watching us all play together. He would just stand at the window watching us and smiling. In the end, I gave them the frisbee, since they liked it so much. I told them that when I came back we would play together again.

The Saturday that we spent in Kodaikanal was a holiday called Raksha Bandan. It celebrates the relationship between brothers and sisters, specifically the protective nature of that relationship. I did the ritual with each of my host brothers. I also did the ritual with my host uncle, Bubesh "Bubee", who we call "Anna" (brother) because he is in his twenties and he doesn't want us to call him uncle because it makes him feel old. We put a variety of things on a tray, including incense and a candle. I first waved the tray around their faces in a circle to bless them. Then I took rice mixed with water and a red powder and drew a line on their foreheads. In return, they sprinkled rice on my head. I then gave them each a piece of chocolate and tied a special bracelet called raki on his right hand. At the end, they each gave me a gift.

We came back from Kodaikanal very late Monday night. Since we were all pretty tired and my host brother Sanjay was sick, we decided to sleep in and take Tuesday off. I didn't go to school much that week...Monday was a holiday, we took Tuesday off, and Thursday I went to a wedding. More about that later!