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!    

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Photos and Videos

I have a few new videos on my youtube blog:

Fun in school: meet a few of my friends:

I convinced my host brother to do this video in exchange for me buying him a cookie at school. He goes around doing this in the house, especially the "Michael Jackson" dance and then "rooster."

Also, I have made some of my videos private. I feel strange putting up videos of my host family and their house on youtube. You can still watch them by following the links.

A tour of the house:
Introduction to the family part 1:

Here are some photos. There are more on facebook, but I know not all of you have facebook, so I posted some here.

With my friends Nandhini (left) and Nut (right). They weren't wearing their uniforms because they were marching in the parade, called "March Past." I was a volunteer, so I had to wear the white uniform.

With my friend Kritika. She is so sweet. Her family is from Chennai, but she grew up in a different part of India, in the North. She just moved back to study here a month ago, and is living with her aunt and uncle. Because my class section is the last one, most of the students in my class are new to the school this year. Also, because of the curriculum system here, students have to be in the same school for 11th and 12th grade, but many start new schools in 11th grade. Also, a lot of the students in my class are from different parts of India, or some of them are technically from Chennai but have lived in other places.

This is my host family!!! On the left is my host uncle. He is my host mom's younger brother (we would say cousin, but they call it a brother here). Next is my lovely host mom, Sujatha. On the right is my host mom's business partner who is pretty much part of the family. His name is Anbu.

This is the founder of my school. Her name is Meena, but we call her Meena Aunty.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A month in India....I can't believe it!

How To Write A Blog...

I mentioned in my last post that I have no idea how to go about writing a blog. I just wanted to point out a few things about the nature of this blog. One thing we learned a lot about in orientations was "the ups and downs of being an exchange student." We were told again and again that it is normal as an exchange student to experience extreme highs and lows as we deal with the challenges and successes of living in and adapting to a new culture. Please understand that whatever I write is coming from wherever I am in the particular moment that I write the post, and does not necessarily sum up my experience here. As for what to write, I have read some of the past blogs of YES students and I think I should include a combination of events as well as descriptions of India and Indian culture...which leads me to my next point...

In my last post, I did not just write about events, I attempted to touch on some aspects of Indian culture and society. I would just like to clarify that I am completely aware that I barely understand these myself. As I mentioned before, even beginning to understand the deeper aspects of this culture will take time. My only qualification to try to write about things which I don't even understand is that I am a student of Indian culture seeking to make people who read this blog back home also students of Indian culture. Through this blog, I hope we can learn about India together.

An Update of Recent Events:

Model UN
I mentioned in my last post that I participated in my school's Model UN. It was a big event, as we hosted students from other schools as well as many from our own. I represented Libya in Security Council. I did my best, and I ended up getting a special mention award in my committee, as well as recognition at the closing ceremony for doing well as an exchange student who had prepared under short notice.

Yes, I was in the hospital for two nights. It wasn't anything serious, though.  I just had some kind of food poisoning which led to stomach troubles, dehydration and a fever. I'm fine now, though.

School Culturals
Schools here have intercultural competitions for all types of disciplines which they call "culturals". They have been going on for a couple of weeks but are almost over now, I think. They compete in dance, singing, acting, cooking, Henna art, trivia, fashion, sports, and much more. My school took the three of us AFS students, (Jenny, Nut from Thailand, and myself) just for the experience to one of the culturals, although we weren't competing. It was a lot of fun. There were students from schools all over Chennai there.

School and Friends
Making friends at school has still been going well. I'm really enjoying meeting new people every day and getting to know everyone better. I tried to go to see Harry Potter with some of my friends, but we didn't book tickets in advance and couldn't get tickets that day. We ended up just going to the mall. We haven't had a chance to do anything else because we were so busy with the culturals and sports day, and our cycle tests start this week (a week of exams in each subject, which are a big part of our grade). School the past few days has consisted mainly of sitting and talking, since teachers haven't been teaching class because of the students missing for sports day practice. Sports day was this past Sunday. I'm went as a volunteer with some of my friends. We didn't have school Monday because of it, but we had a full day of school on Saturday. Something interesting about school is that sometimes the teachers don't show up to class or come and just give us a free block. Because we have 9 blocks a day and only five subjects, we might have a subject two or three times a day, so the teacher may decide not to teach during each block.

Sports Day 
Sports day was pretty fun. Our school has four houses: Ruby House, Pearl House, Emerald House, and Sapphire House. I am part of Ruby House. My 14-year-old host brother is the Vice Captain of Pearl House, which is a very respected position, especially for someone in 9th grade to have. He had to apply and go through an interview process to get it. Sports Day is a school competition between the houses, as well as just an all-around huge event. The best part were the a presentations. There were a whole series of dances and two yoga pieces presented to the Chief Guest, the school principal, and Meena Aunty (the founder of the school) by students. As I mentioned before, I was a volunteer. The day before Sports Day (Saturday, we had school), a teacher came into our class and recruited five of us to be VIP volunteers. It seemed exciting at the time and my friend kept saying "Yay, we were promoted to VIP Volunteers!". We were in charge of serving refreshments and presenting gifts to the people of honor at the ceremony, namely the Chief Guest, the school principal, and "our beloved Meena Aunty," the founder of the school. That part was exciting, as I got to present flowers to the Chief Guest. And then we got to watch the dance presentations from close up. But after that, we were working hard the whole day, and laughing at ourselves for being excited at the "promotion." Our job was to keep people from walking in front of where the honored guests were sitting, which was basically impossible because it was the only way past. All in all it was a fun day, though. I did take pictures, but I took them on my friend Kritika's camera because mine is still broken. Either she or I will post them on facebook soon.

I got my first sunburn during sports day. My host mom had warned me to put on sunscreen even in cloudy weather, but I completely forgot. That morning we were running late, the sky was full of clouds, and it was drizzling--I didn't even think of putting on sunscreen. After only five hours outside on a cloudy day, I was so surprised to look in the mirror and see my nose, cheeks, and forehead completely red! It was a little amusing to see people's reactions here. They have heard of sunburns I guess, but have never actually seen one or gotten one. When my ten-year-old host brother Hashish came up to my room to get me for lunch after we got home, I casually remarked "I got a sunburn." He stared at my face for a second before turning around and running down the stairs yelling "Ma! Ma! Zoe has a sunburn!!!" At school people kept asking if I had been to the doctor yet. I explained that it was perfectly normal and it would go away in a few days. Today a few people were really freaked out because it was peeling a bit. I think they thought my skin was coming off.

Tamil Classes
I have now finished learning the 216 basic letters of Tamil! Of course, that's not including the other letters, like the Sanskrit letters. It's actually not as hard as it sounds, though. I can't remember if I explained this on my last post. There are 12 vowels, and 18 consonants (written letters, that is, there are many more sounds in the spoken language) which are combined to make syllables. But most of the vowels have specific add-ons to the consonants. For example, to make k into ki, it's almost the same as making m into mi. க் + இ = கி , ம் + இ = மி , ல் + இ = லி. But others are irregular: க் + உ = கு, ம் + உ = மு, ல் + உ + லு, ச + உ = சு 

Another Note....

Something sweet which happened recently was that Anjali, the maid here who is only two years older than me, was getting me a glass of water about a week ago, and as she gave it to me she pointed to me and then herself and said "friend?". And since then I guess we have "officially" been friends. I'm not exactly sure how to have a friend who does my laundry, cleans my room, braids my hair for school, serves me food, carries my backpack upstairs despite my protests, speaks a different language, randomly comes into my room without knocking and does things like rearranging my closet or redoing my hair, gets me anything I need, and oh, yeah, happens to be my family's maid....but I guess I have one!

Video Blog
I have also started a video blog of my year here. So far I have posted a few videos of sports day, a tour of my house, and an introduction to my host family. I have a few more to post in the next few days. I'll give the link to one of the videos and you can find the rest from my account, ZoeInIndia:

The picture above is from my first day in India, when we had our orientation. It is my whole AFS Chennai group except for two girls, Alessandra from Italy and Alexandra from Germany. From left to right are Edoardo "Edo" from Italy, Anastacia, Cee, Jenny, Tenaya, (me), Theresa "Resi" from Austria, and Warinthon "Nut" from Thailand. I have posted a few more pictures of our journey here on facebook.