My Year at Agastya

To date, most of my blog has spanned my travel experiences in India. Before I end this blog, I wanted to share my experiences working with the Agastya International Foundation.

At Agastya, I spent much of my time designing animations for scientific inquiry, that allows children to interact with phenomena and learn/observe the science behind them. In addition, I worked in Kuppam, trying to structure a new 3-year program where some of Agastya’s students can train in a variety of science and leadership skills. And, maybe some of the most rewarding work was adapting activities from Olin Engineering Discovery (and others), and teaching students at Agastya –overcoming language barriers and experiencing Indian culture on a completely different level.

Here is a photo album that gives you a little picture of what I spent most of my Adventure in India on:

Year at Agastya
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Auroville Retreat

After a few weeks of hanging out in Bangalore, I decided to venture back to Pondicherry to visit Stephanie. Except this time, she was house-sitting at a gorgeous place in Auroville and I got to sleepover! Considering it takes people years to become a member of the community, being an insider guest was quite a treat.

Auroville is a city founded by Mirra Alfassa (aka “The Mother”) who believed in the teachings of Sri Aurobindo, practicing teachings of love and universal harmony in the early 20th century. The city founded in 1968 was set up as an international community striving to achieve community living, peacefully and sustainably. The community right now is home to just a few thousand individuals, but they hope to achieve a size of 50,000!

The house I stayed in

While I am unsure about the spiritual aspects of Auroville, the ecological aspects appear to be working quite well. The members recultivated the land in the 60s and 70s and it is now thriving with 100s of species (Agastya actually practices many of these methods its own ecological development). The house we stayed at was nestled among trees –so beautiful! Also, the woman who “owns” this house (in Auroville people don’t own land but hold it), constructed this beauty out of her own imagination –it’s a fusion of Western sun rooms and Indian houses.

The house was gorgeous. The upstairs was an open-air bedroom with just a roof to protect from the rain. My favorite part of the house was the shower: there is no back wall, so you get to just shower among the trees! Can you imagine a better weekend retreat from the dusty streets of Bangalore?

The Matrimandir

At the heart of Auroville lies the Matrimandir (“The mother’s temple”). While most of my weekend did not revolve around spirituality, Stephanie and I decided to go inside the Matrimandir, whose architecture is quite unique. The Mother imagined this temple to be a place where Aurovillians could meditate in peace. The Matrimandir looks like a giant gold “sticky ball” emerging from Earth. The inside is a giant glowing rose-red orb with white carpeting and a ramp that leads up to a meditation room at the top. Visitors are given white socks to put on their feet, and are greeted by Auroville volunteers dressed in white. Visitors are unable to take photos inside, so you’ll just have to imagine.

The architecture is based on the Mother’s vision: she had imagined a prismatic room that catches the sunlight and directs it into an orb set at the center of the room. Sound a bit sci-fi? Well, the Mother had her vision in 1971. Star Trek began its television series in 1966 and Star Wars premiered in 1977… I think its possible there were external influences.

Fooding in Auroville

Just like Pondy, there are amazing, delicious, and foreign food options aplenty in Auroville. Most of our weekend involved frequenting coffee shops, cafes, restaurants, and bakeries. Chocolate croissants, baguettes, open-face hummus sandwiches, cold coffee shakes, iced green-tea, vegan pizza, and spaghetti were all on the menu. Oh, and yes, we did have a dosa breakfast one day…after all, this is still South India Smile

 

All in all, another excellent weekend in South India!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Celebrating Holi in Bangalore

This past weekend was the celebration of Holi, the festival of colors. While the Hindu mythological origin of the celebration is debatable, the fact that it is a celebration of the end of winter and the coming of spring is agreed upon. Some say that Holi is the festival marking Lord Krishna’s love for Radha and the celebration of the season of love. In any case the tossing of colors and merriment can certainly be flirtatious; many pop culture depictions of Holi are in pursuit of loved ones.

Some YouTube Bollywood to get you going:

Silsila: Rang Barse
Sholay- Holi ke Din

Holi is a day where you can be ambushed by people throwing colored powders, using their squirt guns, or water balloons at any moment. However, South India doesn’t get as into the scene as the North. While I would have been happy with a house-celebration, in Bangalore, sometimes its better to hit up a 5-star event. I went with a group to the LaLiT Ashok hotel, which had unlimited everything (food, color, etc.) from 11-5 for a 20 dollar cover (way cheaper than New Years events). The event turned out to be quite possibly my favorite party experience in India, to date.

First the outfit: I checked out commercial street and got a kurti, dupatta, and leggings for <$7. Note how white my kurti is.

Now the party: The hotel was happening. They had trays of food hanging in baskets from trees (sweet and salty snacks), food vendors whipping up pav bhaji, fresh deep fried sweets, delicious potatoes and pepper pakodas…DELICIOUS. There were also trays of powdered colors sitting out, getting scooped up quickly –tossed, smeared, and patted onto friends and strangers alike.

My favorite part was the dance floor though. The DJ was playing old Bollywood songs mixed with new beats, the dance floor was big, and there were sprinklers and a giant fire hose spraying down people! We called it the “Rain Dance”. Wet white shirts are not always ideal, so I skillfully moved my purple dupatta over Winking smile.

After a day of dancing, eating, and coloring this is what we looked like:

After a dozen showers, I am still a little splotchy colored…totally worth it In love

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Some mobile uploads

Okay, I’m officially going Indian with my technology –syncing my simple Nokia phone to my computer via bluetooth so that I can move photos and music around. Man, why aren’t cheap US phones more high-tech?

Anyway, Mike and I had trouble with my camera during the early part of his trip here, but we did take camera photos. So here’s some updates to previous blogs (us in Bangalore and at Mysore Palace):

 

Now you know we’ve actually been there :)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Fulbright South and Central Asia Conference in Goa, 2011

After spending 7 months in India, Fulbright rounded up all the scholars and researchers in South and Central Asia (India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and more!) to share their experiences on the grant. As an added bonus, the conference was in Goa and they put us up in a Taj hotel (a 5+ star hotel chain) –the life of a Fulbright can be very rewarding. It was a nice break from the day-to-day grind of living and working in India.

The 3 day conference was a busy whirlwind of talks, dinners, and late-night conversations with other Fulbrighters. It was really exciting to meet people working on renewable energy, water, waste management, art, language, history, business, and education. One speaker gave a talk on the history of chai in India, and how it evolved from a high-class British drink to the everyone’s drink. I listened to a brilliant woman researching Mirabai for her new fiction novel and another talking about the impact of supermarkets on fruits and vegetable consumption in India (learning that the organic grocery store I frequent locally grows their produce and is considered one of the best). Another scholar discussed how global electronic waste is disposed and recycled in India (there are no standards, and the hazards are many… I am eager to see his documentary).

I gave a talk about my subject as well: the role of science education in rural India

I really enjoyed the talks in my room because my co-presenters gave talks on elementary education in Bangladesh, university teaching in Kirghizstan, and the changes in history textbooks in the past 40 years in Bangladesh. Having an international group to talk about education in Asia, made for a phenomenal discussion. I had no idea that 1-room schools in Bangladesh enroll 500+ students, or that history books are rewritten every time a new government takes power.

Even with all the dynamic discussions, Fulbright gave us an afternoon to sight-see around Goa, so I hit the beach with a bunch of others :-)

And finally, the whirlwind adventure came to a close with a dance party and a rooftop pool party.

 

Now back to work and just a couple months to go! Soon to come: a few entries on what I do in India at work…

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

ICC World Cup- India v. England (the match)

While the getting in was difficult, the actual match was quite fun to watch. As luck would have it, this was an epic game for the world cup. Notes on how the game is played are given at the bottom of the page.

The match:

We rolled into the match during the 17th over with India at bat. Suprisingly, only 1 wicket had been taken at this point in the match. We proceeded to watch Sachin Tendulkar, the King of Cricket, bat a handful of 6ers and 4s, scoring 120 of the 338 points India scored during the match. India batted very strongly, and it wasn’t until the 30th over that a second wicket was lost. Finally, in the 38th over, Sachin gets out. India played awesomely, but even at a high score like 338, the game was still anybody’s.

image

The game started at 2:30 PM. Halftime went on at about 6:30 PM. I thought the game’s halftime would be exciting with games, songs, etc. but actually nothing happened. Perhaps the game is so long, everyone just wants to use the loo and grab another pepsi before the opposing team bats.

Dan and I weren’t planning on staying through the entire second half (he had a bus to catch, and I had no desire to be part of an exit crowd madness…once a day is enough). However, the British started their batting equally strongly. The fans around us said that if the Brits won, it would be the third highest chase in the history of the World Cup. Captain Strauss scored 158 points, surpassing Sachin’s brilliant batting. I admit, I had to watch the last 10 overs from home, but what a crazy ending. England didn’t look like it was going to get through, and then suddenly Swaan and Shahzad hit 6-ers in the 48th and 49th overs completely changing the entire pace of the game. It came down to the last bowl: a double to win was all the Brits needed. You could feel the world on edge. And…the Brits hit a single making the 8-hour match a tie!

image

Americans are always trying to compare their cricket-watching experience to baseball, and I admit I did the same. It was really nice to sit outside and watch a field game, relaxing with friends, casually chatting and watching the action. When players bat sixes or strike someone out, there’s cheering and dancing and merriment. There is quite a bit of strategy with how players run and are positioned, and how the batting order is given. However, there seems to be some level of spontaneity missing because there’s not as much baseman strategy. Watching a World Cup game was great fun though: the patriotism and fans make things SO much fun (and there was a scattered British representation to the game as well). I’m not sure if I’m going to become a cricket fan, but I can see how easy it is for cricket to be the 5th major religion in India. I know I would love to see more World Cup games (maybe next time it can be football/soccer)!

image

Some quick notes on the rules for cricket in a world cup game:

1. An over=6 balls (pitches). Each team gets 50 overs to score as many points as possible. There is a coin toss before the game to see which team will bat first (setting the bar for how many points the defending team needs to win the game). India won the toss.

2. Scoring: most hits will get you a single or double (1 run or 2 between the wickets). If the ball rolls out of the field it’s a 4-pointer. If you bat it out it’s a 6-er (the equivalent of a home run…sort of)

3 Powerplay 1: during the first 10 overs, the defending team can only have 2 players in the outfield, making the first hour much more high scoring than later. As the game progresses, more defending players can move between the infield and outfield.

4. Power play2 and 3: The batting team can call two “Power-Plays” which last for 5 overs each during the game. The number of players in the outfield is restricted to 3.

5. Getting batters out (aka “Taking a Wicket”): You can hit a wicket off when the batter is not at the base or when pitching try to hit the wicket. In turn the batter must protect the wicket only with his bat (if he uses his body to block a ball, the umpire can say it would’ve hit the wicket and declare the batter out).

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

ICC Cricket World Cup- India v. England (getting in)

This past Sunday, my friend Dan and I were spending a leisurely weekend in Bangalore, when we decided it was high-time we tried to go watch a cricket match at the Chinnaswamy Stadium. We got super lucky! We were able to buy a pair of tickets from college students who had gone broke and didn’t have time to watch the game. So an hour and a half before the first pitch, we got in line to enter the stadium. And what a line it was!

In true Indian fashion, there were vendors of all kinds posted along the street. Dozens of vendors carrying bottles of watercolor in green, white, and saffron were walking along painting flags on faces (Dan and I had that done). Others were selling t-shirts, wristbands, flags, “I love my India” armbands, etc. It was awesome to see everyone decked-out for the match.

image

However, we soon discovered that the line was VERY VERY VERY long. It was 1 mile in length, and that’s not even an exaggeration. The stadium seats 38,000 people; in our section there were 3000. In order to get people at their seats in a timely manner they would need to average about 50 people entering/minute, but they were averaging 5-10 or something stupidly low.

Our crazy line

The excuse Bangalore gives for such horrible planning is that the India v. England game was moved at the last minute from Calcutta –however, entrance to the stadium should’ve been the number 1 priority plan. Why? Because people that have paid good money to see the biggest match of the season, who are religious about cricket, will definitely get angry about missing the first pitch.

Dan and I entered the line at 1:30, praying that we would get in by 2:30 PM (the game’s start). By 2:30 PM we had only traveled as far as the blue line in my map depicts (roughly 1/3 of the way to the gate). At 2:35 PM a group of college students tried to cut us, and similar groups started jumping the queue. At 2:40, chaos broke loose. In true Indian fashion, the crowd turned from an orderly line into a human stampede. And the police who could’ve maintained the calm by stopping the line-jumpers were actually egging it on, suggesting we all run forward to keep our places in line.

The scene looked roughly like the image below, except without the baton threats from cops (ironically, this was taken on Feb 24 when tickets went on sale for the game):

image

For about 40 minutes, Dan and I were wedged into a queue that seemed to have its own momentum. We held onto each other, rolled up our pants to prevent tripping, and just pushed through with all our strength. It felt like hours. We jumped out and ran alongside the street a few times to avoid the crowd, taking advantage of our foreigner status, by tagging along with some of the British fans, who thought this was f**king insane (which, it was).

What really ticked me off was that the individuals creating chaos, jumping lines, and started the riot, were middle-class educated people. And, the ones who should be managing order, the police, were egging it on. And finally, not a word of the lack of planning by the stadium or the corruption in the police department was mentioned in the newspaper the following day. Not in the Times, the Hindu, or even any British publications I came across. The worst part: the stampede indeed worked to get us in faster…we covered double the distance in less time. So, did anyone learn a lesson?

Stationing 2000 cops in and around the stadium to maintain safety and finding that 80% of them are sitting in the stands just watching the game is pathetic (as Pinky Madam would say What a fucking joke). I know that corruption runs deep here, and this was probably the strongest, in-your-face, showing of that I have had here. I do hope that the stadium gets its act together for the next India game in the ICC cup.  Just because no one was hurt this time doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen next time.

Suggestions for preventing a stampede:

1. Have more than one turnstile to enter the gate. Also, utilize hand-held scanners to scan more tickets quickly.

2. Allow seating to begin as early at 10 AM.

3. Allow guests to enter from other gates and just check the ticket again when they enter the appropriate seating section.

4. Put out ropes to create multiple cues.

5. If the line has exceeded 1/2 km in length, have a backup plan.

I hope this reading has been somewhat illuminating, and I hope that if you have also been involved in a similar experience that you write about it, make it public.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Fooding in India

The one thing that really is great about India is the food. Its easy to get filling food from street vendors, delicious South Indian breakfasts, international fare (italian, chinese) in classy restaurants, or fast food from the many chains (American and Indian brands).

We might not be good at taking photos on the street, but Mike is quite good about capturing every meal. Warning: these photos might make your mouth water and bellies grumble.

Breakfasts (mostly South Indian food)

South Indian food consists of many rice-and-lentil dishes, such as Dosas (rice-lentil pancakes) and Idlis (rice-lentil steamed cakes) usually served with sambhar (lentil soup) and chutney (mashed up coconut, usually). During our travels we liked to top off breakfast with fresh fruit juice (watermelon, pineapple, or mosambi/orange) and a South Indian coffee (milk+sugar+instant coffee).

Fancy Dinners

While in Mumbai, we hit up some very classy and delicious restaurants.

 

 

 

Indigo, pictured below, was probably my favorite place to eat since I’ve been in India. The waiters were honestly friendly and the food was out of this world: ravioli is a sage+goat cheese sauce, vegetable risotto, and a delicious soufflé to finish.

Snacking

In India, when you want a snack, you can always find it. In addition to the tasty treats we had at Chowpatty, we basically bought fruits or chaats (snacks) whenever we wanted. In the South, there are lots of fruit available: green mangoes, strawberries, watermelon, and even starfruits!

We also found plenty of street vendors serving up Bhel Puri in Mumbai.

Fast Food

Also, when I’m tired of cooking and just want take-away, I usually default to fast food. The chains have the best websites for ordering meals (I don’t risk any confusion about what I want like when I chat over the phone). Also, fast food outside the US is a much cleaner, professional affair. Usually, I order domino’s, but Mike insisted that his last meal in India should NOT be domino’s. So, we ordered from Kaati Zone; kaati rolls are popular street food in Delhi…the chain is bringing the street to the door. We ordered a Vada Pav (a veg cutlet between 2 buns), which looked surprisingly like a White Castle slider, but way less disgusting.

Alright, this entry has made me hungry. I’m off to lunch!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Holiday in Goa!

After celebrating Christmas in Gokarna, I was really looking forward to hitting up a beach for a few days, especially with my best friend in tow. Goa is a popular tropical beach holiday destination, for Indians and foreigners alike. The North is known for its parties and the South for its calm. We decided to head to Palolem Beach in South Goa for a 3.5 day adventure.

I think Goa is best told in photos with captions, since beach days are just glorious and lazy.

We decided to take one afternoon to go exploring. A boat offered to take us on a dolphin cruise and then drop us off for a couple hours at Butterfly Beach. While Palolem is peaceful, there are still lots of shops and pestering people trying to sell you things while you are lying on the beach. Since Butterfly is only accessed by boat and is tiny, it’s a small private haven, with just a handful of other tourists.

Goa was amazing and I’m excited to visit again in March for the Fulbright conference! Mike and I headed back to Bangalore on an exciting overnight train to Bangalore where we spent a couple days wrapping things up. And just like that, my vacation was over, and I went back to work.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Mumbai- Becoming a Bollywood Star

One of the most exciting things about Mumbai is that it really is a city of many possibilities. Walking around Colaba Saturday afternoon, while waiting to have lunch with a friend from Billings, Mike was approached by an agent: Imran Khan of Casting Planet. Lonely Planet mentions that this happens occasionally to the beautiful fair-skinned Westerners touring Mumbai.

“Would you be interested in being in a Bollywood movie?”

Mike and I exchange glances. “Maybe, what movie?”

“Don, with Shahrukh Khan.” Wow, this is a big film…classic action and big stars!

“What kind of scene is it?”

“Oh, it’s a bank robbery. Explosions and action.” Okay, now we HAVE to check this out.

“…And Heena can come too?”

“mm, sure. She can chat with you when you’re waiting.” Maybe they don’t want Indians for the scene, but I could go see Film City! Finally, Mike is using his skills for doing sight-seeing.

And just like that (plus some google searching to make sure Imran was legit), we woke up at 6 AM to join a group of 30 tourists to head to Bollywood.

For the first time in 5 months, I was a minority, and it was odd to be standing with so many non-Indians. I wasn’t sure what my place would be during the day, but for now I was excited to just tag along. In fact, the bollywood staff I met that day, also wasn’t sure where I fit into the group, but were too timid to ask how I’d come to join this group.

We arrived at Film City around 8 AM. We were dropped off at one of the scenes under construction to get ready. I was amused to find that rather than using garage-like studios like in Hollywood, they construct make-shift huts using poles and tarps –similar to how cheap huts are constructed.

Now, Bollywood staff aren’t the most hospitable people I’ve met. They just kept herding everyone back and forth for about an hour without giving any information about the movie, schedule, etc. It turns out, the only people who knew anything about the day’s filming were me and Mike –because we asked Imran questions the previous day. So, I told everyone about the original Don from the late 70s.

Finally, one of the casting guys came out and told everyone they needed to practice their facial expressions: “Act like you’ve just seen an explosion and someone gets killed.”

They liked Mike’s facial expressions. We thought they might keep him to the front of the group. They also asked me to make a “scared” face, so I thought maybe I’d be in the movie too…but I think they were just trying not to be awkward by skipping me (in turn making it more awkward). Maybe I would’ve been in the movie if I was supposed to give a “skeptical” or “warm, friendly” look…Or maybe if I was blonde-haired and blue-eyed.

The scene they wanted the extras for was a German bank robbery. So everyone got dressed up business style. It was really interesting to watch Lonely Planet style backpackers (we’re talking real hippies) go from bracelets, ponytails, and genie pants, to designer suits. I suddenly realized that the people India seeks out to be slutty-looking in dance scenes or just be “white” to portray a homogenous West, are actually just very chill free-flowing people. Next time you watch a Bollywood movie, see if you can spot an odd piercing or tattoo.

Mike got dressed extra snazzy too.

By 10 AM everyone was dressed up and ready to go. And so we waited to be called. They had to first film the explosion with the stunt doubles.

I finished reading my book. So did Mike. And we still kept waiting. Finally around 1:30 PM we got called back into the hair and make up tent. Maybe they wanted to freshen everyone up? …Nah, it was just time for lunch.

After a lunch of channa masala, roti, and hakka noodles, finished off with kulfi, we were energized and ready to…wait some more. [Apparently a stunt double had broken a leg and the explosions needed to be done bigger…basically, the filming was going to take even more time.] We started socializing with other travelers: a US couple who had just landed in India for a 1-yr adventure, a girl from Denmark working in Nepal and on holiday with a friend who was heading home after a semester in Australia, and more types.

Finally, at 2 PM, I got bored and annoyed with waiting around. We hadn’t even seen anything else in Film City. So, I walked up to the #3 guy and asked in English:

“Don’t you at least have a TV or something. We could watch a movie.”

“Sorry, we don’t have one here.”

“Okay fine,” I switched to Hindi. “Can’t you at least show us the set or something?”

And a lightbulb went on. He walked to the gate, instructed us to follow, and took me and Mike up the road to the set! As we walked he chatted in Hindi, pointing out landmarks (the filming school where people learn technical skills for lighting, set-planning, etc.), and just asking if I was in Indian and how I managed to be part of the “foreigner’s group”. We weren’t allowed to take any photos, but we saw the Bank, and people planning the scene. Unfortunately, Shahrukh was at lunch when we came over. It was great to see the set. Sometimes being Indian and speaking Hindi has its advantages.

The rest of the day turned into a waiting game. Around 6 PM, Mike and I realized if we stayed much longer we’d miss our train to Goa, and there was no way were going to let that happen. Before, we could decide to bail though, the Casting director announced that the filming was done for the day (director’s birthday), and everyone could change and go home. Sadly, an uneventful day, but we got some insight into Bollywood, and met some new traveling friends in India.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment