Eleven Lessons in India

3 April 13

Katie Mendrala graduated from the University of Georgia with a double major in Marketing and Management. She has interned at the Walt Disney World Resort, Morey’s Piers on the Jersey shore, and here at Global Escapes Travel, which she passed daily on Milledge Avenue before joining our team.  Over Christmas break, she traveled abroad for the first time, on a Study Abroad trip to India.  Of the trip, she said: “There was so much allure and mystery to this country that I was drawn to the program the moment I heard about it. My mother put her foot down saying it was too dangerous and my dad agreed saying it wasn’t a good financial decision. They were right, but because the alternative was taking 6 classes my last semester of college, I went anyway.”

Below are a few notes and pictures that Katie shared from the trip:

THE MADNESS BEGINS BEFORE ANYTHING BEGINS

My international flight was crazy.  There was a problem with our original plane, so Air India sent a smaller one hours after the original flight was scheduled to leave Mumbai. Half of our group had to take a plane out of New Jersey, while the rest of us departed from New York City.

During our long delay, we met Banmeet, a Penn State student originally from New Delhi, who goes by the alias “DJ Beardflow.” He introduced us to Indian culture by telling us about his family, friends, and dance group.  (He taught me Lesson One: Don’t apologize for bumping into people in a crowd, or you will be apologizing all day long.)

There were two really cool things about our actual flight: The Hindi movies and the Indian man who sat next to us. I have seen a few Bollywood movies, but the ones available on the flight were really diverse.  Some were very traditional, while others were more Westernized. Both are highly entertaining.

The Indian gentleman sitting next to us spoke very little English, but still managed to give us a geography lesson by drawing on his hand – he didn’t understand that we were already aware of the concept of the equator. He later said “natural things cannot be changed, they are gifts from God.” He gave an example of finger nails: you can decorate them with nail polish, but you cannot change them.  (Lesson Two:  Talk to strangers even if you don’t speak their language.  Some can draw profound things on their hands.)

Once we arrived in India, my initial reaction was “my lungs feel funny.” The air quality in many cities – especially New Delhi – is very poor. Another indicator of the grime came that night when I blew my nose.  Black.  I’m sure my lungs looked the same.  (Lesson Three:  Don’t take pictures of everything.)

Once we crammed into cars and got on the road, I witnessed the worst driving in the world, first-hand. I assume Indian streets have lanes, but most people ignore them. Modes of transportation include cars, bike, rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, pedestrians, and motorcycles. It’s a mess, and we witnessed a few accidents.

NEW DELHI

After a 4-hour class (this is study abroad, after all), we began to explore New Delhi.

Raj Ghat is Mahatma Gandhi’s memorial and spot of his cremation.  This black marble memorial is beautiful and located in the middle of a public park that was filled with children and trash (both are a common site all over India). The school children kept saying “hello” to us, and coming up to shake our hands.  Crowds would follow us and gather around us.  Kids took photos of us like we were celebrities.  Maybe in their eyes, we were.

It is a sign of respect to walk around the memorial in a full clockwise circle (barefoot, of course). Diplomats go to Raj Ghat before going to the Taj, so naturally, we did the same.  On the side of the memorial are Gandhi’s last words: “Oh God,” written in Hindi.

We visited the National Museum, but only for about 30 minutes, which was obviously not enough time to really experience it.  I did get to see some beautiful Rajasthani paintings, which are known to be painted with few hairs on the brush.  They are intricate and cultural anomalies.

The National Museum of Modern Art has a diverse collection of art, and was a really good place to buy good quality prints that were inexpensive.

After the museums, we went to an area in Delhi called Lutyens, which is the main strip between the President’s house and the Indian Gate (not to be confused with the Gate of India in Mumbai).  This was a great area to explore.

Once I got back to the hotel, I was exhausted and ready for sleep, but the toilet was having issues.  The maintenance person was uncomfortable around me, and most likely thought I was an idiot.  Turns out my toilet was fine, I was just trying to flush it wrong.  (Lesson Four: If the toilet has two flush buttons, one is for minimal water and the other is for maximum water.  Don’t push both.)

EYES OPENED

Every day in India is jam packed.  Everything catches my eye, and I am continually blown away by the realization that this is how people LIVE.  This not just something I do for three weeks and then it disappears – it’s a PERMANENT way of life for millions of people.  (Lesson Five: Study Abroad is truly the best way to study.)

This morning we went to see some Qawwali music in an Islamic part of town.  We walked down crowded alleyways where there were beggars and small markets.  I realized here how uncomfortable I am walking through crowds in India.  The whole time I fear being pick-pocketed. People always ask you for money, poke at you, take pictures, blow kisses, etc. I’ve never been anywhere before where I was so noticed.

One shop had some really fresh looking raw meat just hanging around everywhere, which somehow was not (yet) attracting flies and dirt.  We came to a mausoleum and the intricate architecture was beautiful.  Women are supposed to have their heads covered and can’t go into certain areas so I was slightly uncomfortable.  Near a mosque, we had our own semi-private performance of the Qawwali.  We sat down to rest a bit, and of course I accidentally offended someone by pointing the bottoms of my feet toward them.  They didn’t seem terribly upset once I pulled my feet away, but I still felt awful.  (Lesson Six: Keep your feet lower than you knees, and if you have to sit on the ground, sit Indian-style.  The hardest part is remembering this every time you sit down.)

Afterward, we dined and had a lesson with Dr. Chandra Mohan.  He is such a joyful, sweet man.  He told us a funny story about a time when a cat wanted to share his bed and he would have none of it.  I plan to get a cat when I graduate, and I plan to name it Chandra Mohan in his honor.  On the bus ride to his house, Mohan kept holding on to my friend’s arm for support without acknowledging it.  People hold on to each other a lot in India.  I adore him and his contagious smile.

I can’t say I enjoyed Red Fort (Lal Quila) in Delhi, and definitely not the sound and light show, which just didn’t appeal to me.  This site is impressive on the outside, but once you get in it becomes obvious that the site is poorly maintained.  Lal Quila is of great historical importance (Mughal Empire), but sadly it’s hard to focus on this importance when you’re standing in a mound of trash and surrounded by aggressive “tour guides” and beggars.

The last thing we did was walk to a perfume shop, and then go to dinner at a restaurant called Kamir’s (There are multiple locations and it’s pretty well known.  I highly recommend).  To get there we took a rickshaw, which was such an adrenaline rush.  I highly recommend it.  My driver’s name is Amer, so if you go to New Delhi, look for him (ha).

UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SHOPPING

Qutub Minar is a must see!  It is the tallest minaret in India, and is built out of stone from a Jain Temple.  It is inscribed with Arabic inscriptions, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I’ve had two different types of shopping experiences: the normal shops that accompany museums and stores, and the busy street markets.  My first shopping experience was at the National Handicrafts and Handlooms Museum (known as the National Crafts Museum) where I ended up buying more than was necessary.

The street markets were really overwhelming.  We drew a lot of attention when we went to a market in a group, so we broke into smaller groups which made it easier to mix with the crowd.  At one market, a beggar showed me her tattoo and told me she liked my eyebrow piercing, which was better than my parent’s reaction.  One of my favorite things about this trip is talking to people one-on-one.  (Lesson Seven: The street markets take some getting used to.  There is the Indian price, the rich Indian price, and the white man price.  Learning to bargain is definitely a work in progress.)

JAIPUR

We’ve moved on to Jaipur, and this city is a lot cleaner and easier to adjust to than New Delhi.  Jaipur is known as the Pink City because, well, it’s pink.  The buildings were painted this color during the regime of Sawai Ram Singh, to welcome Prince Albert and Queen Victoria when they visited.  It made me feel pretty welcome, too.

For a real cultural experience, we went to an Indian McDonalds, where I got a meal and a McFlurry for less than $4.50.  The entre I selected was a Spicy McPaneer sandwich.  The sandwich was alright, a little on the dry side, but the fries were AMAZING (not greasy and still delicious).  I wondered if all McDonalds fries had gone through a redesign while I was away.  (Upon my return, I investigated this.  The answer is no.  They’re just better in India.)

The City Palace is one of my favorite places on the trip thus far.  It is absolutely beautiful, and rumor has it, the royal women spend a lot of time in this palace, spying on the town.  I think I will design my future house in the same light yellow with white and black accents, colorful window panes, Rajput arches, jaali walls and structures.

We took a jeep ride up to the Amber Fort, which made me feel very adventurous.  This fort sits perched above the rest of city as if on the lookout for intruders (were we intruders?  Maybe.).  We ate lunch here sitting at the back of the fort overlooking the mountains.

Jaipur has some excellent factories, which we visited in lieu of the more typical tourist sites (we are learning business, you know).  One factory called Frozen Music is a stone work company specializing in beautiful inlay.  They let me take a chisel to a piece that they have been working on for 6 months. No pressure.

We also visited Neerja, a pottery company known for their paintings and this certain shade of light blue made from copper.

Later on, we went the nearby town of Chooki Dani, where I rode an elephant and a camel, smoked hookah with my professors, and saw a freakish puppet show with a child balancing dangerous spiky things on his face.  This kind of stimuli felt really overwhelming in New Delhi, but part-way through our time in Jaipur, it started to feel like the norm.  (Lesson Eight:  DEFINITELY smoke a hookah with your professors.)

AGRA

Today we saw the Taj Mahal, and it was just as grand and amazing as I had hoped.

All the stones used were very beautiful, and having gone to Frozen Music (the stone work manufacturing company previously mentioned), I was really able to appreciate the craftsmanship and the marble.

KERALA

Today we flew IndiGo from Jaipur to Kochi in Kerala.  Kerala is breathtaking, and our lighter schedule here allowed us more free time to explore.  We flew to Kochi on IndiGo, which is a new, clean airline with great marketing for Indian domestic flights.

We had a Christmas Eve dinner at one of our field guides’ house, and on our drive there we witnessed a candlelit procession of villagers to the church.  We also saw a lot of houses that were decorated with lights and these big lighted colorful stars.  Driving through Kerala really helped me realize it actually is Christmas, even in India, and some of us on the bus even sang Christmas carols.  (Lesson Nine: Christmas can happen no matter where you are.)

AN ALTERNATIVE CHRISTMAS IN GAVI

After a long transfer to the Kerala Wildlife Reserve in Gavi, we trekked through the forest and up a mountain in search of elephants and tigers.  Luckily we did not find them.  The terrain here is incredible.  I tried to take some pictures, but none of them did it any justice.  When we got to the top of the mountain, we could see hills and mountains rolling all around us.  There were a few villages in the valleys and we could see the smoke coming from family fires.  I wonder if the people here ever feel cut off from the rest of the world.  Or if, to them, this is the rest of the world.

After dinner, there was a bonfire, which isn’t exactly allowed, but it was the perfect end to Christmas.  I just wish there had been curry s’mores.

FORT KOCHI

I walked around Fort Kochi today on my own.  As I walked down the street, I watched a football game getting ready to start, some kids playing cricket, young men on motorcycles, tourists, tiny-sized cars, shops, restaurants, and trash.  When I got to the end of this long street, I was at the Arabian Sea.  Not bad for a private outing.

VAYALAR

I have finally checked in to an extraordinary place that is brag-worthy (this is a study abroad trip, and for the most part, our accommodations were geared more to students than travelers).

The resort, Vasundhara Sarovar Premiere, is remarkable.  Amazingly, we are their first guests.  One of our field guides did the interior design for it, so our group got to open the resort, and I can report that it is beautiful.

The owner told me about how this part of Kerala is known for its prawns.  In the artificial lake, the local people and guests can fish for king sized prawns.  When the resort was under construction, he would stay in the houseboat with his son and fish in the backwaters because it is so naturally beautiful out here.

The owner’s son and seven of his college friends have been traveling around the world recently.  They went to college in London and spent 2 months in South America where they picked up conversational Spanish.  When they came here, to Kerala, the father/owner could tell they were awestruck by its beauty.

As I write this and look around, I am sitting in a small hut beside the back waters.  I am far away from all the noise, pollution and crowds that go hand in hand with urban India.  I don’t know how to share this with the rest of the world because none of the photos I have seen of this place do it justice.  The best I can do is tell you to come here.

The owner also spoke briefly to me about Hindu philosophy and about how the ancient texts tell everything men need to know about life.  The example he gave was about obeying one’s parents first and asking questions later, something I, personally, am very bad at.  The conversation intrigued me to read the Ramayana, the story of Rama and Sita.

Oh India…

The Vasundhara Sarovar Premiere is in the state of Kerala, which has high rates of Christianity.  This means that cows are not predominantly seen as sacred and you can find beef.  I had my first red meat in two and a half weeks at this resort, and it was heaven.

The following day we celebrated New Year’s Eve by going out on the house boat through the backwaters.  I really enjoyed seeing how people live in this area.  Later in the evening, more resort guests arrived to help us celebrate and bring in the New Year.  Awards were given out at the end of the night, and I came home with a bracelet for winning best female dancer.  Woot woot!

EAT PRAY LOVE

Well I am definitely eating.  The food here is delicious, I just hope I haven’t gained too much weight.

I have learned a lot about how other people experience faith and religion.  India has large groups of people practicing faiths including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Christianity, and Judaism, among others.  It’s really cool to see how all these faiths overlap in this country and how their similar roots in the people’s cultures have influenced similarities.  A lot of people drive around Athens, GA with the COEXIST bumper stickers on their cars, and in India, the people seem to really live this ideal.

Love.  This is kind of personal, so I’ll just say that I have been thinking a lot about my family and the people in my life whom I consider important.  (Lesson Ten:  Live like your inspirational bumper sticker.)

MUMBAI

Today we saw the inside mechanics of modern India.  We started by going to NDTV, one of India’s top news channels.  What I really liked about this place and our second stop, RED FM, was that they got me excited about my upcoming career.  The facilities were energetically designed, like the rest of the city, and there was a youthfulness among the workers, who were dressed casually and stylishly.

Taking pictures and walking around made me truly fall in love with this city.  We took a street that bypasses the city traffic by going over the bay, creating a scenic view, on our way to a Bollywood film studio.

After the shoot, we went to Vinay Pathak’s condo and celebrated the end of our “semester.”

THE END OF ABROAD

I had so many mixed feelings about today.  A week ago I was so ready to leave due to holiday homesickness.  Now, as I look out the windows of the bus driving through the city to the airport, I realize that there is just so much more out there for me.  I still want to learn how to dance Bollywood style and play cricket with Indian children.

After our morning lecture, we went to lunch at Britannia, a Parsi restaurant.  The proprietor took all of our orders, for no employee is allowed to take customer orders except the proprietor because he wants to get to know each one of his guests.  He’s about 90 years old.  Apparently he gets a lot of fan mail, even from the Queen of England.  He had a laminated newspaper article to prove it.

After a short shopping stint and time to write up our final exam, we drove through the night lit city on our way to the airport.  I chose the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack to accompany this drive, which was fitting.

I hope business brings me back to Mumbai.  Or even better, pleasure.

(Lesson Eleven: Namaste!)

-Katie

The program was the UGA Global Programs in Sustainability: Nature and the Human Spirit.

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