Tata (Goodbye) India

Many of you know (but some of you may not) that as of Tuesday, February 10th we are officially back in the USA! It’s been quite a whirlwind of tourism, family, friends, love and life-planning since we landed, but I wanted to make sure I sat down and shared some of our last experiences in India (especially some of the wonderful photos we took along the way).

We had a lot of terrific experiences in India, but one thing we did not focus on during our trip was getting around to do tourist activities. But since we had no idea when we would be making it back to India, we wanted to make sure we set aside some time at the end of our trip for a vacation around to a few of the stereotypical tourist attractions. During our last 10 days in India, we travelled over half the country, spending 72 hours on trains to visit the cities of Agra, Delhi, and Shimla. It felt fantastic to let go of any responsibilities and spend 10 days as simple unfettered tourists 🙂

Agra : Agra is primarily a tourist city as it is the home of the Taj Mahal and a few other Mughal historical monuments. We of course came to Agra for the Taj Mahal, but we also came for another unique experience – playing with elephants!

I was lucky to find an awesome organization called Wildlife SOS – check them out here. They originally started as a sanctuary for “dancing bears” in 1996, and over the last 20 years they have saved over 620 bears across India. In 2010 they also started to take in injured elephants, and since then they have rescued 8 elephants at their Agra location. In case you had heard about Raju, the crying elephant, who cried when he was saved from his poor conditions — WSOS was the organization that saved him.

We scheduled a visit to their elephant centre on Sunday, February 1st and it was one of our favorite experiences in India. Our wonderful host, Prathamesh, gave us a leisurely tour of their facility introducing us to each of their 8 elephants (3 males and 5 females). The males were all in their period of heat (which makes them a bit aggressive), so we weren’t able to interact with them up close. The females on the other hand were extremely friendly and gentle. We spent lots of time hugging, rubbing, and feeding the beautiful elephants 🙂

An expected elephant quality: They can hold a LOT in their mouth! One elephant took a whole huge, melon-sized papaya and crushed it in one squishy bite. Another elephant would just sit with his mouth open while you put in banana after banana – he wouldn’t close it until he had at least a dozen!

An unexpected elephant quality: They purr like cats! The caretakers at the elephant centre would come and make an “oooo”ing sound, and the elephants would go crazy: flapping their ears, tossing their heads around, and purring. The noise they made was very similar to the transmission of a car and vibrated their entire bodies 😀

Our next stop was the Agra fort, a Mughal fort that was renovated into its current red sandstone structure back in 1573. Wende and I spent an afternoon walking around the fort and listening to an audio tour. The audio tour was a bit depressing and had highlights like: concubines, murder, imprisonment of a father by his son, dictators, more concubines, and elephant fighting (resulting in their death). Despite a morbid history, it was an incredible structure and definitely worth a visit.

Our last stop in Agra was of course the iconic, wonder of the world the Taj Mahal. When visiting a tourist attraction, you’re never sure if it’s going to be as impressive as it’s cracked up to be. Well, that doubt was misplaced with the Taj Mahal because it was breathtaking like a “teardrop on the face of time” (as our audio tour said :P). In case you were unaware (as I was), the Taj Mahal is a mausoleum that was constructed in honor of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in 1632. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.

Delhi: Our next stop was the second largest city in India – New Delhi. Since this was probably going to be our last vacation by ourselves (without a small child in tow), we decided to splurge in Delhi and stay in a fancy room (at least nicer than our typical choice of cheapest in the city :P). We reveled in the comfort of a squishy bed and hot shower, and in general our stay in New Delhi emphasized relaxation over site-seeing.

That doesn’t mean we spent all 3 days in the hotel though! One stop we made was to the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, a sikh temple constructed in honor of the 8th Sikh guru. We made this stop in honor of our friend Gurpreet Singh, because we wanted to learn more about her religion and to see a Sikh temple in-person. Ideally, we would have visited the “Golden Temple” in the city of Amritsar, but with our limited time-frame we decided to visit Gurudwara Bangla Sahib instead.

I had done a little research about the temple before visiting, but we weren’t sure what to expect for our visit. When we arrived, we were happy to see that there was a foreign visitors office where we were greeted by our tour guide Polly. Polly showed us all around the temple, explaining some of their beliefs as well as the significance of various structures around and inside the temple. In general, I agreed with many of the Sikh philosophies and I enjoyed hearing about the history of the religion. One of the most impressive parts of our tour was a walkthrough of the kitchens used to prepare an astonishing number of free meals they serve every day. Online I read that they serve 10,000 meals each day, but Polly said that on weekends that number can be as high as 50,000. People from all walks come for these meals at the temple including impoverished locals, foreign tourists, and wealthy New Delhi citizens who just want to be reminded of their privilege in life. In addition to these free meals, the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib also runs a full-service free hospital!

Our last stop in Delhi was a temple called Swaminarayan Akshardham. When I read about this tourist attraction online, I got the impression that it was an exhibition of the diversity in Indian cultures. However, I was a bit surprised to realize that the entire complex was built in honor of Swaminarayan, the figurehead of the Swaminarayan sect of Hinduism. The modern complex, built in 2005, is constructed in the style of ancient Indian temples and has 3 exhibitions: 1) An animatronic exhibit highlighting various moments from Swaminarayan’s life, 2) a biographical IMAX film of Swaminarayan’s life, 3) a “boat ride” that basically shows all of the different ideas (like trigonometry, pi, gravity etc.) that India invented before the individual’s who are given credit for their discovery. Sadly, the temple very strictly enforces a ban on cell phones entering the premises (with a thorough patdown/boob grab), which is why I’m lacking photos of this activity and was unable to fact check any of the invention claims.

Overall, even though I felt like the attraction was advertised in a misleading way, we still enjoyed learning more about Swaminarayan and seeing the exhibits/temple created in his honor. But what made the visit completely worth it was the water show we attended at sundown. At this point in life, there are few shows/performances I attend that offer something really unique and captivating, but this water show blew me away! Here’s a teaser of the show (which doesn’t do it justice).

Here are also some photos I did not take –

Shimla: Our last stop in India was the city of Shimla, a beautiful village just inside the Himalayan Mountains. During the reign of England over India, Shimla acted as the summer capital of the country because it was a cooler retreat for the British who were unaccustomed to the brutal India summers. We were in Shimla for a total of two days and spent most our time relaxing (while Austin recovered from a bout of sickness).

I was initially attracted to Shimla from the description of the unique way of travelling to the city. You may reach the city by bus or car, but the most interesting form of transportation is a narrow gauge train that winds its way up into the mountains. Over just 60 miles of tracks, the train climbs 4600 feet, passes through 102 tunnels, crosses over more than 800 bridges, and winds around 900 curves (many of which are full switchbacks). The ride gave me a bit of motion sickness, but the views were breathtaking.

Last night in India: After Shimla, we made our way back to Mumbai with a marathon 26 hour train ride down the western edge of the country. That night, we were hosted by one of our Indian friends, Sandeep Patil. Sandeep is the husband of our boss back at the Gram Seva hospital, and father to our good teenage friend Nandini. Sandeep’s family offered the Indian hospitality that we will deeply miss in America. They made us feel very comfortable during our few hours together until 3AM when we had to leave for the flight.

Airport/Flights: When standing in line at the Mumbai airport, waiting to check in for our Kuwait Airways flight, we had our last instance of standing out as the only white people in a crowd. As we transitioned through each of our 3 flights (India –> Kuwait –> England –> USA), the passenger mix became progressively more diverse. By the time we reached our final destination, we stood in a fantastically motley custom’s line at the JFK airport in New York. Wende and I felt perfectly anonymous for the first time in a long time. 🙂

Back to America: My father was kind enough to meet Wende and I at the airport, embracing us with big bear hugs and welcoming us back to the country. We collected up our plethora of luggage and drove back to my uncle’s house, who graciously offered to host us. Since my uncle has never seemed like an animal person (at least from my experiences), Wende and I were reflecting about how we were sad that the first house we stayed at wasn’t going to have a single pet to cuddle. But when we arrived at the apartment/house, we were surprised by a tiny black & white kitten named Spot. Spot was the newest addition to the family, and Wende and I spent a significant amount of our first week back in the US playing, petting, and holding this adorable and unexpected BONUS kitten.

Full Circle: Since we had just completed a 7 month stay in India, we thought that it felt right to make one of our first stops back the Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island. It seemed fitting to visit the same place that was many immigrants first glimpse of America. In a sense, we were re-immigrating back to the US ourselves. It was fantastic to lay eyes on the iconic green statue, but one of my favorite parts of the trip was hearing dozens of languages spoken on the ferry and seeing the diverse collection of tourists from around the world that had come to visit lady liberty.

Our day of travelling around the English speaking city of NYC made one truth apparent – we’re home. Reflecting back on our trip, it’s hard to believe that 7 months passed so quickly. I can still remember those painfully long first days at the hospital, when we would say to each other “only 299 days to go.” Despite the difficulty of our first days, we grew to love our time in India. We had a wonderfully simple life there, where we could take a nap every day! We made new friends, and we were constantly having new and memorable experiences. We got the opportunity to participate in a number of festivals and to learn about Indian customs. When planning our trip, we hoped that our time would be transformative, providing a new more well-rounded perspective on the world. Well, our time in India provided that benefit as well as many others we had not anticipated. I’m so glad that we took this chance to push ourselves outside our comfort zones, and I’ll always look back on this time as a keystone experience in our lives.

Until next time,

A+W

 

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Kite Fighting & The BEST Indian Festival

You stand on a 3rd story rooftop and take a slow look around. As far as you can see in every direction, over miles of roofs, there are thousands of small paper kites flying through the air. You hear the celebratory whoops of someone who just won a kite fight. You watch the smiles spread on everyone’s faces as new and veteran flyers throw their kites to the wind. This is Uttarayan.


Wende and I just got back from Ahmedabad, the largest city of Gujarat with a population of 6 million. We had gone to visit a friend of ours from the hospital who grew up in Ahmedabad – he told us that we couldn’t miss the city’s celebration of Uttarayan – the kite flying festival. While other cities throughout India celebrate the festival, Ahmedabad is known for having the most elaborate celebrations, to the point of everything shutting down on January 14th (except the kite stalls and restaurants of course).

Our friend was right. Uttarayan was incredible! It was by far, our most unique, fun, and memorable experience in India. Wende and I have already said to each other, whenever we come back to India (in at least 15 years…) we will make sure to come back in time for the kite flying of Ahmedabad 😀

 
To give you a little background, there are two things celebrated through the festival on January 14th: 1) Uttarayan is a harvest festival that celebrates the turning of winter into summer, 2) Makar Sankranti is the transition of the zodiac calendar into the cycle of Capricorn, which is supposed to start with the winter solstice. You may wonder, if this is supposed to all be about Winter solstice, why is it celebrated on January 14th (and not December 22nd this year)? Well, apparently there are a few different ways to measure astrological timing, and one specific method is used for determining the date of festivals. This method just happens to fail at accounting for the tilt of the earth, leading to some calendar inconsistencies.

It’s a bit of a mystery how kites got wrapped up in the celebrations of this Hindu festival. Some sources say that kite flying was initially a form of sport for kings and royalty that was later picked up by the lay people. Others site an influence from kite flying in Muslim culture, which would account for the fact that Gujarat (which borders the Islamic country of Pakistan) is the Uttarayan, kite-flying, hub of the country. The city of Ahmedabad actually hosts an International Kite Festival (IKF) around the time of Uttarayan that attracts professional kite flyers from all over the world. Wende and I got to stop by, but sadly we missed all of the professional giant kite flyers who had come through on the 11th. I had found out about the International Kite Festival online, but when I asked my friend Paresh if he had attended he said, “Why would I attend? I celebrate the wonderful day with my friends and family in our neighborhood!” After observing the family’s festivities, I can understand why they would prefer it over the tourist attraction of the IKF 😀

But no matter how kite flying got started, in the city of Ahmedbad, kites are now ubiquitous. In the days leading up to January 14th, the streets are lined with temporary stalls meeting all of your kite flying needs. Kites and kite line are the main products, but for those little ones too small to fly their own kite, the stalls also sell small balloons. The parents will tie the balloon to a reel, letting the tots join in the flying festivities 🙂

The kite of choice for most Gujaratis is a called a “Patang” or Indian paper fighter kite. It’s a simple paper kite made out of tissue paper and a few wooden supports. They’re cheap, disposable, light enough to fly in zero wind, and called fighter kites for a reason. When I first heard of people fighting kites, I thought of them ramming kites into one another trying to knock the other out of the sky (which would take an awful lot of control). Instead, “kite fighting” is all about the string.

One of the contraptions you see out in preparation for the 14th, are these big metal spinning racks of neon. The devices are used to create “Manjha” or fighter line for flying the kites. The process:

  • Choose line in various thicknesses (chosen based on the size of the kite)
  • Run the line through a concoction of flour (for thickening), bright neon colors, and a powder of glass particles
  • The line is then wound up on these large metal frames to dry in the sun
  • Reel the line onto a spool, and you are ready to fly!

The term kite fighting describes when two kites strings cross each other in midair. Their lines begin to rub against one another as each person tries to keep their kite afloat, and the glass particles in each line begin to cut away at the strings. Whoever’s line is strongest cuts through and releases the losers kite to slowly drift down to a rooftop below. The winners let out hoots of triumph, and the fallen kite will find a new life when someone else finds it and flies it.

While the Manjha is beautiful to look at and very effective at cutting other kite lines, it is also very effective at cutting your hands. You’ll notice veteran kite flyers with fingers taped up in white sports tape to allow maximum speed kite reeling without the nasty paper cuts that come along with it. Wende and I each got a few small cuts, but apparently not enough to be impressive. Our friend Paresh told us that when he was younger, him and all of his friends would come to school bragging about how many cuts they had gotten the day before – “See, I have 7 cuts!”

Notice the racks for Manjha in the right corner, and the bowls of neon string concoction in the middle along with spools of finished line

Notice the racks for Manjha in the right corner, and the bowls of neon string concoction in the middle along with spools of finished line

After a morning full of kite flying, we took a break for a traditional Gujarati Uttarayan lunch. Since the festival is a harvest festival, they celebrate with a dish called Undhiyu, which incorporates all of the vegetables currently available to harvest (which in the middle of January is a surprisingly large number). Undhiyu comes from the Gujarati word for upside down, because the diverse vegetable dish used to be cooked in an earthen pot that was then turned upside down, placed in the ground, and cooked with fire from above. I can’t speak for every Undhiyu, but the dish that Paresh’s mother prepared was one of the best dishes I’ve had in India. I had seconds, thirds, and then I even had a little of the leftovers along with dinner.

After lunch we headed out to visit Paresh’s wife and new baby. This gave us a chance to drive through Ahmedabad and the surrounding country, observing the flying festivities from the ground. Kite fight victims littered the ground and kite lines hung from many of the trees. The hanging, glass coated strings are so prevalent that the kite vendors also sell metal guards that attach onto your scooter/motorcycle. Apparently the lines are quite dangerous (especially for choking), and the guards help to push the string up and over the drivers head. As we made our way to Nirali’s home, I was able to observe a neat phenomenon. You could tell the population density of an area by the number of kites flying over a neighborhood, and as we made our way into the country we passed fewer and fewer flocks of kites.

After a lovely visit at Nirali’s we made our way back to the city for the capstone event. We thought that as the day came to an end, so would the activities, but we were wrong. Apparently a few years back the custom of releasing imported Chinese lanterns in the evening caught on, and now they are just as omni-present as kites during the day. As the sun begins to set, the sky becomes dotted with the light of paper lanterns from rooftops across the city. Within an hour the sky is filled with lanterns everywhere… at first glance it looks like a typical night sky, full of stars. But then you start to notice that the stars are drifting slowly towards the west. You realize that each of those lanterns, from every rooftop, represents a family just like your own, standing on their roof, celebrating together, loving each other, and releasing a lantern together hoping that 2015 is the best year yet.

Fireworks are fired off, hours pass, and the number of lanterns begin to diminish. But as the lanterns go down, the night flyers come out! Dance music pumps from one of the rooftops (accompanied by some club quality disco lights), and the beat bumps while everyone releases fresh kites to the wind. At night, everyone has to use white kites because otherwise they’re impossible to see as they soar up hundreds of feet into the air. The wind picked up at night, and Wende and I were able to get our first solo kites flying (after a full day of enthusiastic attempts).

 

 

After one of our­ most wonderful days in India, Wende and I were left wondering, “How can we bring this holiday back to America?” The kite flying, the fireworks, the lanterns, the fun! At first we thought about just celebrating Uttarayan in America… but January isn’t exactly prime time for kite flying. Then we considered just shifting the date of celebration to some other arbitrary day… but it wouldn’t be fair to the festival to celebrate it on a random, non-symbolic day.

What we’ve decided, is that instead of trying to bring Uttarayan back to America, we’re going to try to twist a current holiday into something new. From now on, 4th of July will not only be celebrated with fireworks, hotdogs, and veggie burgers. It will now also include Indian Fighter Kites, paper lanterns, and some of the terrific spirit we experienced on January 14th, 2015.

Next independence day, if you hear someone whooping in the distance, you might have just heard a kite fight.­

 

*** Witness the magic of Uttarayan***

 

Love & Marriage

In America, we assume that every marriage has its tale. Questions like “Where did you all meet?” or “What’s your love story?” are common, and you often expect the response to be overly romantic and gushy – involving serenades, hidden engagement rings, “love at first sight”, or any of the other cliche things Americans associate with love and marriage. Heck, we all know that “Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage”. Well, that’s not the case everywhere in the world, and if you’re a married couple traveling to rural India, it is likely you’ll be asked, “Are you a love or arranged marriage?”… and if they don’t ask, they probably assume you’re an arranged marriage.

To most people in America, arranged marriage sounds like a crime, or at least it sounds like a very unappealing way to be paired with a mate. Most of us have had that obnoxious roommate at a summer camp, and the idea of the same thing happening in marriage is pretty intimidating. Well, even if arranged marriages aren’t common in America, they are a fact of life in most of the world. In India, 90% of marriages are arranged, with that number dropping to 70% in the more westernized metro areas like Delhi and Mumbai. It’s not just India that’s doing it either: according to UNICEF it’s estimated that 60% of marriages around the globe are arranged marriages.

My personal experience in India tells me that those numbers may even be underestimates. One of my friends here is in a “love” marriage, where he met his wife without any prompting by his parents. He then had to spend several years trying to convince them that she was the right girl for him, and he was only able to get their blessing after making deals to not speak with his future wife for extended periods of time (they assumed he would cave before they did).   This isn’t how a typical arranged marriage works in India, but it’s definitely different from the love marriages we picture in America. Typically, an arranged marriage is set-up entirely by the parents of the bride and groom, and sometimes the soon-to-be husband & wife won’t even meet each other before the engagement. Traditions are starting to relax a bit (as seen by the lower metropolitan rates), but sometimes that may just mean the bride & groom get to voice an opinion about their parents’ choice of soul-mate.

This tradition of arranged marriages is only reinforced by the caste system in India. If you are unfamiliar with the caste system (as I was before coming to India), it’s a social hierarchy like “upper class” and “lower class” but based on a family’s last name, also called caste or Jati. In India, your name means much more than in America – people have commonly asked us, “What does your name mean?” Then I have to anticlimactically say, “Nothing… well, it is a city in Texas, but I don’t think that has anything to do with me.”

Here, your first name has a meaning (similar to Summer or Faith in America), and your last name represents your caste. There’s debate about how the caste system originated, but I’ll tell you what I’ve inferred (from individual explanations and the internet). The caste system in India originates from the invasion of the Aryans around 1500BC, who brought with them an ancestral version of the caste system. The system was split up into four varnas: Brahmins are the priests, Kshatriya are the warriors, Vaishya are the merchants, and Shudras the artisans. All of the modern castes originate from these 4 groups, and everyone knows what varna a certain caste descends from. Originally these 4 castes were meant to be equals, with no single caste dominating the others. However, over time certain castes (like Brahmin) started to consider themselves superior and social divides began to form. Some academics say that these divisions were only exacerbated by British rule in the early 1900’s, when each family was forced to select a varna to which they belonged (despites centuries of interbreeding).

In the Aryan invasion, the indigenous Indians (similar to native Americans) were given the worst outcome of all. These people were ostracized from the caste system and society as a whole – they are called the untouchables or dalit, and they have historically been treated as less than human in India. These are the people who clean toilets with their bare hands or spend their life picking up garbage off the streets. A friend actually told me, “The untouchables used to have to wear a jar around their neck, so that their spit wouldn’t touch the ground, and a broom was tied to their back so that wherever they walked it swept away their steps like they were existed…”

How does this relate to arranged marriages? Well, the caste system encourages endogamy, in which you only marry someone within the same group (or in this case caste) as yourself. This ends up being the most important criteria when parents are seeking out a spouse for their child. Luckily, my friend and his wife were of the same caste, but if they hadn’t been their situation may have turned out a lot differently. It is considered dishonorable for someone to marry (or date) someone outside of their caste, and this manifests itself in the frightening practice of “honor killings.” An honor killing is when the parents of a child kills their own kin because the child has dishonored family in some way through: marrying another caste without their permission, having sex outside of marriage, refusing an arranged marriage, or various other dishonors. It is estimated that between 1000 and 4000 honor killings happen in India each year.

Well, all of this makes arranged marriages sound terrible! That is not my goal, and I do not want you to walk away with that impression. The truth is that you meet arranged marriage couples who seem euphoric and madly in love, while you meet love marriages that seem miserable and ready to duke it out at any moment. In India, I have met many arranged marriages that seem as happy as any of the other love marriages I’ve known in American. Even though this is the case, you may still be wondering, how can anyone ever fall in love with someone they’ve been mandated to marry?

In psychology, there’s something called the Proximity Principle, which concludes that the more time you spend being around/interacting with someone, the more likely you are to develop a friendship. This is the reason children who are sat in alphabetical order in gradeschool end up with best friends with similar last names, or why you are friends with the person in the next cubicle but not necessarily with the person down the hall. You end up spending an awful lot of time interacting with your spouse, so it would make sense that you have a fighting chance to become the bestest of best friends.

The reality though, is that this is just a probabilistic effect and not a guarantee. Sure, there were friends you made who sat next to you in class, but there were kids right behind you that disliked equally as much. You make the same gamble in an arranged marriage, and sometimes the result can be sour, leading to negative outcomes like physical or emotional abuse and isolation from your previous family. The important thing to recognize is that any marriage can turn out poorly, and that means that anyone should be able to get out of a bad marriage with a legal divorce. Whether your marriage turns south in the first week or 25 years down the line, you should have the ability to speak up and express discontent with your current life situation.

Ok, ok, this post has gotten pretty depressing. Honor killings? Physical abuse? That bully who sat next to you in 6th grade? Well, there’s plenty of other fun differences between Indian/hindu weddings and American weddings, and I have not forgotten them!

 

Engagement Ceremony

Did you ever wish you could have a second wedding? It was just so much fun that you want to do the ceremony all over again? Well, in India it is fairly common to have a public engagement party, like a mini-wedding, in which the bride and groom to-be officially commit to officially marrying each other at some point down the line. The events at an engagement party vary widely, but they can include things like a ring ceremony, food, and various traditions like Tikka – in which family & friends take turns to approach the couple, smear a patch of red paste on their forehead, and press some dried rice against the dot. At the engagement I attended, this was also the time at which you gave a gift (of money) to the future bride and groom.

One reason for the public engagement is that sometimes it will be years after an engagement before a couple actually gets married. I was told that this delay is sometimes accounted for by the fact that a family has two daughters (or sons) they are hoping to marry in a 2-for-1 super wedding day special. Let’s face it, weddings are expensive. If you can cut the cost of wedding in half by stalling for a few years until your younger child gets engaged, why not?

Depending on the beliefs of the family, this period between the engagement and the wedding is also treated as a time of courting for the bride and groom. They will sometimes go on dates, talk on the phone, and if nothing else see each other at scheduled meetings between the two families. I must clarify that an engagement party is by no means required, and something more modest is often agreed upon by the families. If a public engagement is not done, the parents of each household will travel to the other with gifts to symbolize acceptance of the proposed marriage.

 

 

Wedding Time!

There are some commonalities between Indian weddings and American weddings, for example: there’s food at the event, people get dressed up, a priest of some sort might oversee the event, and you send out invitations. Well, if anyone gave you that miserable description of a wedding, noone would ever want to go to one… Actually, it would probably depend on what kind of food they were serving… Regardless, the difference between Indian/Hindu weddings and American weddings are pretty dramatic.

One clear difference between the two are the duds of the bride and groom. In America the groom will probably wear a standard suit and the bride a white dress. In India, the clothing gets a lot more colorful and a lot heavier. Check out some of the photos below to see how weighed down the bride and groom get with some of the traditional Indian garb. There’s a good reason that winter is wedding season in India – can you imagine wearing all of those layers in 110 degree weather? In addition to the beautiful clothing, the bride is also adorned with elaborate designs of henna on her arms and legs. Henna is sometimes done for fun at non-ceremonial times, but at weddings it is taken to a whole ‘nother level.

But there’s much more to a wedding than just clothing and food. It’s the events and traditions that really express the feel of each wedding, whether that’s through the toasts, the vows, or the religious practices. A Indian/hindu wedding is no different, so here’s the play-by-play of a potential wedding (mostly thanks to wikipedia and this site):

  • The  Baraat: The groom arrives to the wedding venues in a procession of singing and dancing. I didn’t get to be a part of one of these, but I had the privilege of witnessing one in Navsari.
Baraat in action! This group looked like they were having a blast.

Baraat in action! This group looked like they were having a blast. You can’t see the 100 people preceding their carriage fist pumping to the beat!

  • Swagatam: The bride’s family welcomes the Baraat into the wedding hall with Aarati and sweets, a symbol of happiness and good tidings to come.
  • Prayers to Lord Ganesh: Lord Ganesh is considered the god of beginning and good luck. In order to insure the marriage is off to the right start, Lord Ganesh is praised with items like the sacred coconut and asked to bless the wedding.
  • Prayers to the Heavens: Astrology is very important in Indian weddings, and a wedding often cannot take place without the consent of an astrologer. In the wedding, the couple will pray to the heavens to bless the rest of their wedded days.
  • Vadhu  Aagman: The bride arrives and is escorted to the mandap (or Indian altar) typically by her maternal uncle, along with bridesmaids, and grooms’ men.  An antarpat, or cloth, is held between the bride and groom to prevent them from seeing one another. In the past, when the antarpat was dropped, it would be the first time the bride and groom had ever seen each other.
  • Mangal Ashtakam: A mantra is recited by the Bride and Groom, and then they place a large garland around each other’s necks, indicating their mutual  approval to proceed with the ceremony.
  • Kannyadaan: The bride’s parents literally hand the daughter away to the groom asking, in return for their trust, that the groom promise to remain faithful to their daughter.
  • Hast Melap: The bride and groom join hands, promising to stay together for the rest of their lives. They then tye each other’s wrists with symbolic thread which is called  Sutrabandhanam.
  • Visible Signs of Commitment: At this point in the wedding, some of the visible signs of marriage commitment are performed. For the wife, she will be marked with her first sindoor, a red line on her forehead and into her hair that is reserved for married women. She will also be given a Mangalsutra, a black and gold necklace that she will always wear to symbolize marriage. If the couple decides to use rings, the bride and groom will also exchange rings at this time (otherwise the man carries no signs of marriage).
  • Lighting of the Fire: The couple lights the Agni, the holy fire  that symbolizes light, power and knowledge, and acts as a witness to the many Hindu ceremonies.  Bride and Groom repeat the sacred pledge of marriage and request Agni to be the messenger for their  prayers.
  • Agni Pradakshina: The couple transitions into married life by circling the sacred  fire four times. After  the Agni Pradakshina the Bride moves to the left side of the Groom, indicating  her transition to the Groom’s family.
  • Saptapadi: The couple takes their first 7 steps together, after each step reciting a commitment and aspiration they have for one another. For example:
    • With the first step, we  will provide  for and support each other.
    • With the second step, we will develop mental, physical & spiritual  strength.
    • With the third step, we will share the worldly  possessions.
    • With the fourth step, we will acquire knowledge, happiness and  peace.
    • With the fifth step, we  will raise strong and virtuous children.
    • With the sixth step, we  will enjoy  the fruits of all seasons.
    • With the seventh step, we will always remain friends and cherish each  other.
  • Ashirvad : The married couple are officially declared husband and wife! As they leave the mandap, they are celebrated as a married couple and showered with flower petals.
  • Kanya Vidai: This is the point at which the bride must officially say goodbye to her family. In the past, this moment was literally the last time a girl may ever see her family. However, it is now common for the bride to maintain relations with your family after a marriage. This ending to the wedding is often accompanied by crying by both the bride and her parents as they say farewell.

The life practices on this side of the world may be a lot different than on the other, but in the end we’re all people. The same things are happening wherever you go. People are falling in love, people are having fun, people are having children, people are throwing weddings, and people are just being human. Thank you to all of the wonderful Indians who contributed to this blog post by letting me into their lives, inviting me to their engagements and to their weddings, and sharing their stories. I have a new, more complete perspective of the world (and maybe you do too after reading this blog), and I have all of the people at Gram Seva to thank.

 

 

TATAs of India

Walton (Walmart), Rockefeller, Gates – names most of us know by heart and consider synonymous with wealth or power in America. Almost everyone has been to a Walmart, and we all know about the transformations to personal computing that Gates brought about, but have you ever stopped to think that perhaps we only know these names because we live in America? That perhaps the word Walmart is meaningless in other parts of the world?

Well, it may seem intuitive to some of you, but I was actually surprised to realize that the names I take for granted as common knowledge in America may not be household names around the world. On top of that, I realized that there are plenty of these “super-rich” families around the world that may be household names in their country of origin, but on-the-whole go unknown internationally.

This realization all began with the word “Tata.” In the local language of Gujarati, the word “Tata” means “goodbye” and is a common way for people to part ways. It’s also one of the simplest Gujarati phrases, so children are prone to pick it up early in their vocabulary – like “bye-bye” in America; every day we leave our building to the sound of Aneri (our 2 year old neighbor) screaming “Tata” off her balcony – she hasn’t quite gotten the hang of volume control yet.

But “Tata” is more than a simple farewell. Soon after arriving in India, Wende and I started to notice the word “TATA” stamped on all kinds of products (see the bottom of this post for examples we’ve documented). We would notice it on a car, on a bag of salt at the grocery store, and even on the satellite dish of a neighbor. Eventually we asked someone about it, and they were surprised that we had never heard of the ubiquitous “TATA” (just like we would be surprised if they hadn’t heard of Walmart).

It turns out that TATA has a hand in just about everything in India – on their Wikipedia page it says TATA “encompasses seven business sectors: communications and information technology, engineering, materials, services, energy, consumer products and chemicals”…. That description doesn’t leave much out of the entire human experience. Last year they had a revenue of over $100 Billion, and $360 Billion in assets – as a reference Microsoft had revenues of ~$85 Bil and $173 Bil in assets. Wende actually said, “I think they’re called ‘TATA’ because they make everyone say ‘goodbye’ to their money.”

The legacy of TATA all started with Nusserwanji Tata, the first businessman in a long family line of Parsi priests who went off to Mumbai to make a name for himself.  In 1839, his life was blessed with a little baby boy named Jamsetji. Jamsetji was born in the city of Navsari Gujarat – which coincidentally happens to be the closest city to our rural tiny village of Kharel (a sheer 20 minute drive away). While Nusserwanji senior may have been the first Tata to try his hand at business, it was his son Jamsetji who went on to be considered the “father of Indian industry.” Jamsetji founded the TATA Group in 1868, which has developed into one of the largest companies in India with over 100 different subsidiaries.

Some fun facts about TATA Group:

  • They own Jaguar and Landrover.
  • They donated $50 Million to Harvard Business School (2010), the largest international donation ever received by the school.
  • They still maintain their head offices in a small (semi run-down) historic building called the Bombay House in Mumbai.

During our time in India, we tried to stay vigilant of any time the TATA name made an appearance. Below we’ve compiled a sampling of some of our impromptu TATA run-ins, along with some of the other product offerings of TATA. To see a full list of the TATA companies and product offerings – click here.

Most of the information for this blog post is thanks to Wikipedia and the pages surrounding the TATA family and corporation. To read more, click here. 

Thanks for wasting some of your perfectly good time with the Oslocks – Until next time 😀

#BabyOslock

IMG_2826

IMG_2841

 

We know what you’re thinking. A baby? In medical school? With both of you as medical students?? That doesn’t sound very responsible. Well, we can’t disagree that it sounds a little irresponsible (especially compared to waiting until we’re both 35 year old doctors), but we can promise two things: 1) This baby was intentional (despite what your friends may be saying ;D) and 2) We have given the decision LOTS of thought, which we will give you a taste of in this blog post.

If you have no interest in reading about why we chose to have a baby, then I’d say just wait for our next post. But for those of you who are thinking, “Why would you possibly want to have a baby as an M1 at OSU?” – Read on.

 

Battle of Extremes

Our life has been one of extremes. Sleep our entire day away skipping class and watching movies, or go out and spend the entire day running club meetings and school events. Eat bacon on every food item (from fried eggs to tilapia sandwiches), or become vegetarians overnight. Live by ourselves in a dorm, or within 2 years, live 10 miles from campus in a single-family home with 4 animals.  Just like all of the other decisions in our life, deciding whether to have a child was a battle of two extremes.

The two sides of the battle – either we: never have children and live as a “free” couple for the rest of our lives, or have a child RIGHT NOW and dedicate ourselves to balancing family life with our careers. Well, you can clearly see which side ended up winning out, but it wasn’t something that happened over night (like some of our other decisions).

The reasons to not have a child are both tangible and logical:

  • Increased financial freedom
  • Improved spousal stability and happiness
  • Ability to focus on one’s career and personal impact
  • Sustainability of not adding another overly consumptive American to this earth

On the other hand, the benefits of having a child are a little more abstract and emotional:

  • Someone to carry on your legacy
  • The chance to see the offspring of someone you love
  • The opportunity to be utterly responsible for a human being’s life
  • The happiness of seeing your child grow and succeed

While the arguments for both sides are drastically different, they have the commonality of being filled with “what if’s” and uncertainty. For example, maybe our child becomes a millionaire sustainability junky who offsets her/his environmental impact and allows us more financial freedom later in life. Or perhaps our child is born with limited brain function or some debilitating disease that forces us into the role of intensive caretaker for the entirety of their life, before the child precedes us by passing away at the age 40. Having a child is a gamble, which can lead down an infinite number of paths based on the qualities of your child and the experiences of your life.

 

Our Reasoning

For the past couple years, Wende and I found ourselves committed to the idea of living “Child Free,” or at least very skeptical of our desire to have a child. We are both highly concerned with environmental sustainability, our careers, and the health of our relationship. We felt that being childfree was the way for us to live out our values to the fullest. We had already taken so many steps to integrate our values (from public transiting to school for sustainability, to attending the same medical school for our relationship) – why should the decision to have a child or not be any different?

Despite this commitment to our values, the reality was that Austin and I had little first-hand experience to base our decision off of.  Neither of us have been babysitters, and neither of us have younger siblings that were far from us in age. When we thought of some mythical baby, the only thing in our minds was a blurry outline of a semi-child like creature.  We had no idea what being around and caring for a small child would be like, until these past 8 months turned into a bit of a baby-o-rama:

  • First, our chemistry professor, friend, and officiant of our wedding had a child named Emily who we got acquainted with.
  • Then Wende went to the wedding of one of her best friends, where she got to spend time with a little boy named Eli.
  • A month later, we headed to a wedding of another good friend, where we spent much of our day occupying her 2-year-old daughter, Amelia.
  • When we arrived in India, we became next-door neighbors with a 1-year-old girl named Aneri who is just a bundle of fun.
  • Austin also saw his first childbirths in Gram Seva’s labor room, where he got to be the first finger the newborn baby ever held while it was in the warmer.

Compared to the rest of our lives, this year it’s practically been raining babies! With a sudden influx of baby cultural influence, we found ourselves more and more on the fence. One week we would be completely opposed to children, and then the next week we would be infatuated with idea of a little one running around our house. Back and forth, back and forth.

As we reflected more on our suitability for parenthood, we felt ourselves being pulled more strongly to the idea of having a child. We both feel like emotional, caring, and nurturing people in general and having a child seemed to align with those characteristics. We had adopted four animals during college, and we had been the safe-haven for a young boy in our neighborhood (who we even drove to school a couple times when he missed the bus). We perceived ourselves as natural care-givers who may enjoy, thrive and grow while raising a child.

For Austin, the experience of having a child was another key motivator. Austin has a small obsession with having new experiences – going to new restaurants, trying new foods, going to new places. After reading a book called “Moonwalking With Einstein,” he learned that having new experiences forms stronger memories and in a sense makes your memory (and life) feel longer. Having a baby is the ultimate new experience. There’s flying on a plane, and then there’s flying with a baby. There’s having dinner at IHOP, and then there’s having dinner at IHOP with a baby. There’s riding a bike…. You get the gist. Austin felt like having a baby would recreate every previous experience anew.

Wende had a different set of concerns – her mentality was, it’s either now or never. While she knew Austin wanted to be equal partners in raising a child if we had one, she also knew that American culture is currently set up so that women are left with much of the responsibility of caring for a child. This starts from the moment the baby comes home and the mom is guaranteed 6 weeks of maternity leave but the other partner isn’t guaranteed any. Even if Austin was given an equal amount of paternity leave, Wende is still the one who goes through pregnancy. At work, people would continue treating Austin the same as before we got pregnant, while Wende would become “that pregnant lady” who visibly swells and is simultaneously placed into the “mom” box in everyone’s head. If we waited until we were comfortably engrained in steady careers (around the age of 35), Wende would theoretically experience a large shift in lifestyle and treatment from her peers. On the other hand, the earlier we have the child, the earlier people think of us as co-parents, and the less it impacts disparity between our careers in the future.

What we’ve come to realize from these past 8 months, is not only do we have a nurturing instinct, we also genuinely enjoy parenting and being around small children (which we were a little afraid of before). An abstract burden of a child was transformed into something lovable and enjoyable. We had been pushing ourselves to become childless adults, who weren’t tied down to a child that would prevent us from travelling whenever and wherever we wanted… but the reality is that we already aren’t those people. We abandoned our 4 animals with family members before we left home, we feel terrible for it, and we have spent a significant amount of time talking about how much we miss Aussie, Wally, Danny, and Tiger. We aren’t meant to be nomads who spend each year in a different place, we are meant to have a home base, which we fill with fluffy animals and at least one child.

 

Why Now?

Ok, so you want to have a baby, I get it, but why during medical school? Well, medical school may sound like a bad time to have a kid at first, but you have to look at our other options. The next 15 years of our life will consist of 3 main stages: medical school, residency, and practicing physician.

As a medical student, many of our lectures are going to be recorded and we will be able to select our electives and student clubs – we may be busy, but our schedules will be fairly flexible (at least for the first 2 years). As a resident, we will be required to work 80 hours a week (maximum), in all the shifts that no one else wants to work, with little-to-no control over our schedules. As a physician, it’s hard to tell what our lifestyle will be like (since we don’t know our specialties yet), but since we’re planning on working at a University Hospital, it probably won’t be a flexible work environment either.

So, if your priority is spending as much time with the baby as you can, it makes medical school look pretty good out of those options. Plus, this doesn’t even take into account all the benefits of the gap-year we are currently enjoying. By getting pregnant now: 1) Wende gets to be pregnant when we’re more relaxed than we may ever be again, 2) We both get 6 weeks of dedicated time with the baby before classes even start, 3) We don’t have to dramatically adapt our lifestyle in the middle of a semester, 4) We don’t have to worry about our peers judging a pregnant Wende alone, instead they’ll judge a weird co-parenting couple with a newborn.

Sure, this still sounds like it’s going to be a super challenging experience, but as every parent always says – “There’s no good time to have a baby.”

Other Random Pros to Immediate Babydom:

  • We get to experience the Indian medical system from the perspective of the patient.**
  • Our kid’s out of the house (possibly) in our early 40’s.
  • Our child will remember growing up on a medical school budget and will be more appreciative of the financial freedom our family will experience later in life when we’ve paid off our mountain of loans.
  • We’re able to develop work-life balance (and good budgeting) habits early on.
  • Columbus is a short drive from family for next 4 years, but no guarantee where we’ll be for residency.
  • Parenting will (hopefully) make us better people & physicians: better listeners, communicators, and teachers – not to mention more patient.

 

**We realize this first one isn’t really a reason to have a baby (though it would have been funny to say it was our main reason), but it is still an interesting benefit.

 

Foster Care & Adoption

You’re probably asking yourself, why not foster or adopt a child when there are so many who need a loving set of parents? Or if you aren’t asking that question – you should be (especially if you’re pro-life). While we are HUGE supporters of both foster care and adoption, there are a few things that prevented us from choosing that route at the present time:

  1. We Wouldn’t Qualify: It seems counterintuitive at times, but becoming a foster or adoptive parent is a lengthy and intensive process that can take years. A main consideration during the application is a family’s ability to provide a stable and supportive environment, which includes maintaining an adequate income to feed and clothe the child. Sadly, it’s safe to say that Austin and I, with our massive debt and nonexistent income, would not qualify as a stable household despite having a reliable cashflow of student loans. The lengthy process would also prevent us from fully utilizing the more flexible, first two years of medical school to bond with the child.
  2. No Parenting Skills: Older children are the largest group in need of adoptive or foster homes, but at this time we do not feel comfortable inviting a random 5 or even 10-year-old child into our home long-term. As mentioned before, we are parenting novices, and we want the crash course of raising a child from infancy before we consider adopting an older child who may have intensive needs. After 10 years spent caring for a kid, we will officially feel more like “qualified” parents.
  3. Breastfeeding: Breastfeeding, and the connection it offers with a child, has always been appealing to Wende. If we are going to go through the stress of raising a child, she wants to be able to experience the magic of breast feeding.

We are committed to idea of adoption and foster care, even if it may not be practical for us at the moment. We plan to start out with #BabyOslock, which will be our only child up until we finish residency. At that point, we will be starting our first jobs as physicians, which means we will both have a steady income and can plan to stay in the city for more than 4 years. At that point, we will qualify as a “stable household” (or I’ll be really grumpy) and will become foster/adoptive parents to a child in need. Obviously, this a pretty long-term plan, but it’s always fun to dream 🙂

We also realize that it’s easy to speak of one’s values, but it is much harder to act on them. I mean, given the fact that we only intended to have one animal during college, but ended accumulating more than 1 animal per year on average – we need to be pretty vigilant about preventing ourselves from perpetuating the pregnancy bug. For that reason, after Baby Oslock is born, Austin will get a vasectomy which will always serve as a reminder (or insurance) for our commitment to adopt/foster a child later in life.  An awesome blog post that contributed to this decision. 

 

Moving Forward

So how does this affect our plans? Aren’t we supposed to be in India for a year?! Well, we have had to make a few adjustments to our schedule, but it’s just practice for being more flexible in coming years. 🙂 We will be flying back to the U.S. around the 1st of February, which will give us a few months to find a house in Columbus and get moved in before Baby Oslock is due around June 14th. Ideally, this should give us 6 weeks of good ol’ baby time before classes start at OSU around August 4th. One of the best parts of this new timeline is that we’ll be back for the Wash U 1-year reunion at Thurtene in April 😀 😀 😀 (at which point Wende will be 7 months pregnant!)

Before we part ways, I just want to emphasize that in this blog we are not trying to tell you what is right or wrong, instead we are just trying to explain what seemed like the best decision for us. We believe (and hope) our sacrifices of time, money, and energy will be worth the joy and new experiences #BabyOslock brings, but that does not mean everyone should (or wants to) have a child.  Only time will tell whether the many things we believe and hypothesize about during this rant have any seeds of truth. On with the adventure!

Note: We’ve also updated our “About” page to reflect our new life accordingly, go check it out for some fun ;D

 

 Baby Oslock’s First Photos 🙂

 

 

 Baby Montage!

 

 

Our Original Children – Furry Babies 🙂

 

61 Random, Interesting, and Occasionally Funny Facts About India – (BuzzFeed Style)

Disclaimer: These “Fun Facts” are based on our experience in rural South Gujarat as well as limited experience in larger cities like Udaipur and Mumbai – in addition, these fun facts are all in contrast to America. India is an incredibly diverse country, and we have only seen a sliver of that culture. That being said, for the simplicity of writing, we will use sweeping generalization throughout this blog both for dramatic effect and ease of writing ;D This does NOT mean that any fact is true for all of India or Indian people, but we still wanted to share some of the fun differences with you. If you think we may have gotten something wrong or misinterpreted an experience, please let us know your thoughts in the comments. Let’s start the fun!

 

 

1. No Pandora 😦

Pandora radio does not work in India – or in most countries outside of the U.S. for that matter. Currently Pandora is only available in the USA, Australia, and New Zealand “to comply with the requirements and protections offered by the Digital Millenium Copyright Act. (Wikipedia)” The take away: If you are a music lover and going out of the country, make sure to bring an MP3 player.

How we felt when we realized Pandora had left us.

How we felt when we realized Pandora had left us. (Giphy.com)

 

 

2. Pizza With a Side of Ketchup

In America one might dip their pizza in marinara sauce or even ranch dressing if you’re from our home state of West Virginia, but guess what every restaurant in India brings out with Pizza? That’s right, Ketchup. Yum. I guess its hard to blame them considering the American obsession with ketchup on all kinds of stuff (burgers, fries, onion rings, meatloaf, chicken nuggets, eggs, potatoes of any form, etc.).

Pizza & Ketchup - foodology.ca

Ketchup that comes inside a delivery pizza box, like garlic or marinara sauce.

 

 

3. Spicy Tolerance

If you visit India, be prepared to hear the question, “You can eat spicy food?” about 1000 times. Every time we eat with someone they are blown away by the fact that we actually enjoy spicy food.

What people expect when they see us eat regular Indian food.

What people expect when they see us eat regular Indian food.

 

 

4. NO PDA

You better not kiss in public! PDA is unheard of between a man and a woman, but holding hands between friends for extended periods of time is common. The idea of homosexuality (at least in rural areas) is completely unknown, which makes men holding hands less taboo.

What we look like when we hug in public. (giphy.com)

What we look like when we hug in public. (giphy.com)

 

 

5. No Time for “Please” or “Thank You”

There’s no time for niceties in India. Words for things like “please” or “sorry” are nonexistent in Gujarati, and when we say “thank you” people just give us strange looks. There are ways you can show additional respect through your tone and language, but it is generally believed that you express gratitude through your actions, not words.

 

How people look at us when we say, "thank you." (giphy.com)

How people look at us when we say, “thank you.” (giphy.com)

 

 

6. Common Household Lizard

One day Austin was checking our car insurance policy through Geico, and someone saw him logging in – they pointed and said, “Common household lizard.” It took him a second to realize they were talking about the Geico lizard – Ha! The Household Lizard is indeed common, we see at least one (if not multiple) daily in our apartment.

 

 

7. At the End of the Meal – We Order Rice

Rice is treated like dessert – eaten at the end of a meal, and not served underneath dishes like in America. At the hospital cafeteria, people will often mix their rice into a kind of paste with a soupy daal or buttermilk stew called Khadi. The rice we order at Punjabi restaurants is delicious, with all kinds of mix-ins; personally, we’d prefer to order it with our meal, but everyone gives us the look if we try to.

we order rice - giphy.com

How we look when they give us rice for dessert. (giphy.com)

 

8,People Don’t Smile in Photos. No, Seriously.

We are by far the cheeriest people in our group photos. Sometimes, the photographer will even say, “Smile!” Yet noone will break their serious composure (until they finish the photo, at which point everyone will break down in giggles because they took a photo with us).

 

 

 

9. 1 Dollar = 60 Rupees = 1 Purse

The American dollar to Rupee conversion is highly in our favor. We took 12 people out to dinner at the nicest restaurant nearby – it cost a total of $35 US dollars. We think we know our back up retirement plan now.

 

How we feel in India. (giphy.com)

How we feel in India. (giphy.com)

 

 

10. Left-Hand Traffic

Indian’s drive on the left side of the road. We actually thought this was more common than using the right side, but according to Wikipedia (the unequivocal god of all knowledge) 35% of the world lives in Left-Hand Traffic countries and the other 65% live in Right-Had Traffic countries like America. Check out this sweet map!

Left Hand Traffic - bdesham

(bdesham – wikipedia)

 

 

 

11. Fatty Bagged Milk

We don’t know about you, but when we were in elementary school, our milk came in bags (which led to a lot of messes from “milk cannons”). Well, it’s grade school all over again, because the Milk in India comes in bags. It’s the most delicious milk we’ve ever had, which we assume is because it comes from those happy cows we see roaming the streets. The lowest fat milk we can buy is 3.5% fat MINIMUM. The “Gold” brand of milk is 5.5%..mmmmm.

Fridge at the hostpial Canteen.

Fridge at the hostpial Canteen.

 

 

12.    2 Carriers – 1 Phone

Cell phone coverage varies widely from provider to provider, so many of the phones come with dual sim card slots (some even have 3!); these phones are called “Duos” and allow you to use multiple cellular providers at the same time. Can you imagine asking someone who their provider is in the US and their response being “ATT AND Sprint…” Say whaaat?

 

 

 

13. Forget the Fork

Want a quick way to show you aren’t from India? Eat your food with utensils. Serving spoons might be included with dishes, but food is primarily eaten with a bread like roti or one’s hands. Things can get pretty messy 😀

How we look at the end of meal... especially when we first got to India. (giphy.com)

How we look at the end of meal… especially when we first got to India. (giphy.com)

 

 

14. Appliances are a Privilege

We take our appliances for granted in America. Refrigerators are uncommon here and washing machines are unheard of. Next time you throw in a load of laundry, or drink ice-cold soda from the fridge, just go ahead and give your Maytag a hug.

The gigantic outdoor laundry area in Mumbai called Dhobi Ghat - people spend their entire days beating clothing here. (travelblog.org)

The gigantic outdoor laundry area in Mumbai called Dhobi Ghat – people spend their entire days beating clothing here. (travelblog.org)

 

 

15. There is Only One Time in India

Ever forgot to set your clock back? Well, not a problem in India because there is no such thing as day light savings time. Wouldn’t that be awesome? Know what else they don’t have? Timezones. Turns out, lots of countries don’t have time zones. Most of the time, these countries are small and don’t experience a dramatic effect from their single time zone. However, in China this leads to sunset at midnight on the west edge of the country!

Time Zone

 

 

16. Toilet Hierarchy

Toilets in America are pretty consistent, but in India there is a wide range of toilet experience.

  1. No toilet: 50% of Indian citizens (600 MILLION people), have no access to a toilet and defecate in the open.
  2. Basic: Squat toilet with a bucket of water and cup to “wipe”
  3. Nice: Porcelain toilet with bidet and handle like a water faucet to flush (don’t forget to turn it off!)
  4. Super Swanky: Porcelain toilet with toilet paper and a water storage tank.

 

 

17. Praise Your Right Hand

If someone offers you food, especially at a temple or festival, make sure you take it with your right hand. The right hand is considered holy, and is used for everything religious. The left hand is not sacred (and is used for wiping your bum).

The Holy Hand. (giphy.com)

The Holy Hand. (giphy.com)

 

 

 

18. Buttermilk ‘Erywhere

Buttermilk isn’t something you come by often in America (except in Biscuits), but it is a huge staple in the Indian diet. It is so common in fact, that in addition to asking about water when a server seats you at a restaurant, they will also ask whether you want a glass of buttermilk. If you see an “Alfredo pasta” on the menu at a restaurant, watch out! That pasta’s base may be either mayonnaise or buttermilk.

 

 

 

19. Hinduism is Kind of a Big Deal

Hinduism has the world’s third largest religious following, and primarily thanks to India is the world’s largest polytheistic religion. According to a 2001 census, 80.5% of the Indian population are Hindus – for reference, Christianity in America is 73%. Though this number does vary widely from state to state with 3.6% in Mizoram to 95.4% Himachal Pradesh.

Hinduism

 

 

 

20. Metric Mania

Indians use the metric system of measurement (grams and meters). Think this is weird? Turns out, America is the weird one. The only countries left that don’t use the metric system? USA, Liberia, Burma.

How we look when someone says a weight in kilograms. (giphy.com)

How we look when someone says a weight in kilograms. (giphy.com)

 

 

 

21. People on People on Motorbikes

Cars take two things that are hard to come by in India: capital and space. But Indians are quick to find a solution to any problem, so motorbikes have become the prevalent mode of transportation. These may be smaller than cars, but don’t think they carry any less people. Motorcycles commonly carry 3 people, but the most we’ve seen in person is 5.

 

 

 

22. Rain, Rain, Not Goin’ Away

Rain is a huge part of being in India (especially from July to September). There are 12 different names for rain in Gujarati, and there are only 3 seasons: Summer, Winter, and Monsoon season. A friend here asked, “What is monsoon season like in America?” …”Uh. We don’t have monsoon season – unless you count ‘April showers bring May flowers’”

 

I wish we looked this cute during monsoon season. (giphy.com)

I wish we looked this cute during monsoon season. (giphy.com)

 

 

 

23. Don’t Put a Ring On It

At Hindu weddings, the bride and groom do not exchange rings. Instead there are other symbols of a woman being married (sindoor, mangala sutra, toe rings, solah shringar), but there are no outward symbols of a man’s marriage commitment. This used to be the case in America before a push by the jewelry industry at the end of the 19th century for men to start wearing wedding rings as well (they advertised male engagement rings too, but this never caught on due to the need for secrecy on the part of the wife). And by the 1940s, 80% of American wedding ceremonies involved a ring for both the man and woman. You can see this same push beginning to happening in the large cities of India with wedding ring advertisements.

 

 

24. Everything Takes Longer

The speed limit is lower, ethernet internet works half the time, cellular internet is 2G in many places, and lots of people walk or use bicycles for transportation. At times this can be frustrating, but most of the time you appreciate the low-key attitude of everyone 🙂

 

 

 

25. Technicolor Trucks

America has a lot to learn about truck decoration. All of the “semi” type trucks that are used to haul materials across India are outrageously decorated by their drivers. They are often painted in neon colors, covered in ornamental trinkets, and stamped with “please horn”, “horn ok”, or “blow horn” painted in giant letters across the back.

 

 

 

26. Cheese Monotony

When we got to India, we asked a friend, “Can you get cheese here?”

He said, “Oh yeah, we’ve got cheese.”

We asked, “What kinds?”

His response, “Huh?”

Yes, you can get cheese, but only one kind – white cheese (American). It comes in four forms: Slices, Bricks, “Chicklets”- white cheese squares, and a 400g circular tin. Well, at least we can still make delicious grilled cheeses 🙂

Cheese Monotony

 

 

 

27. Neon Light Affinity

You know what makes anything better? Strapping some neon lights onto it. Indian people love everything with neon lights. Regulations on cars are less strict here, so they will often have rainbow neon lights on the front of cars. During festivals, they bust out these awesome neon kaleidoscope-esque rainbow light bulbs. We wanted to bring one back to America with us, but the light sockets are different 😦

 

 

 

28. You May Now Hold Hands

At wedding ceremonies, the couple holds hands instead of kissing. When someone saw that we kissed at our wedding ceremony they were shocked! When you consider that most marriages are arranged, it makes this fact a little more understandable. Not many people are interested in kissing a stranger.

Kiss at wedding

Look on our friend’s face when they saw our kissing (in front of family) during wedding photos. (giphy.com)

 

 

 

29. Communicability is NOT a Given

Unlike in America, each state in India is like its own little country. When traveling in between states you pay cellular roaming fees, and most states have their own unique language. Sure, Hindi is the national language, but many people only speak their “mother tongue” – local language. The dialects of a language vary so much from region to region in a state, that you may not even be able to communicate well with someone who even speaks the “same” language as you. A physician friend of mine from North Gujarat told me yesterday that none of the Kitchen staff here can understand his Gujarati!

How people look at us when we try to say something in Gujarati. (giphy.com)

How people look at us when we try to say anything in Gujarati. (giphy.com)

 

 

 

30. Rickshaws

Local taxis are small 3-wheeled vehicles called rickshaws. They comfortably seat 6, but we’ve been in one with 13 (both including the driver). All of the drivers take pride in decking their ride out with colorful interiors and giant speakers – sometimes the seats in the back are just on top of the speaker boxes!

 

 

 

31. Don’t Let That Bottle Touch Your Mouth

Another way to give away that you’re from America? Drink directly from your water bottle. Indian people pour water from their bottles into their mouths (like a cup).

How it looks to me when someone pours water in their mouth from 6 inches away.

How it looks to me when someone pours water in their mouth from 6 inches away. (giphy.com)

 

 

 

32. Luke-Warm Juice Please

No need to go to the refrigeration section looking for juice (if the store has a refrigerator) because all juice is unrefrigerated and from concentrate. The biggest exception are awesome juice stands where they throw a quarter of a pineapple into a juicer for $.50 (visit Paps Juice in Udaipur).

Je suis un ananas. (giphy.com)

Je suis un ananas. (giphy.com)

 

 

 

33. Giant Bats!

There are giant bats. That’s right, gigantic bats. The standard “Little Brown” American bat has an average wingspan of 10 inches – the “Short-nosed Indian Fruit Bat” averages 20 in. but can become much larger. Austin thinks they are cute, but I don’t think he’ll be getting one for a pet any time soon (especially if I’m around… which I will be).

 

 

 

34. Remove Those Shoes!

Shoeless is the way to go! Before entering a space (the office, meetings, someone’s apartment, a hospital, a temple) everyone removes their shoes and leaves them outside. At popular tourist temples, you will often pay to leave your shoes outside with someone – and watch out, they can get pretty aggressive about making you take them off too.

 

 

 

35. Don’t Forget to Chew Your Fennel Seed

Fennel seeds are treated like chewing gum or after dinner mints. After a meal, a restaurant will bring out a dish of rock sugar and fennel seeds. You throw back a handful of fennel and voila, no more smelly breath! (at least that’s what they say)

 

 

 

 

36. And I Threw It On the Ground

If you think littering is bad in America, you would be blown away by India. Due to a lack of trash service, some rural villages have a pit where they deposit and then burn trash, but many people just throw their trash wherever they like. The same issue is prevalent in larger cities due to a lack of public trash cans, so the streets are often lined with trash.   CLICK HERE

 

 

 

37. Need a Miracle? I Know Someone…

Need a miracle? Go to your local Bhagat. Every village has a traditional healer, called a Bhagat, who can make you a lucky item / miracle. They also practice some superstitious traditional forms of healing such as branding. Branding may not sound fun, but it is believed to treat many problems such as infertility and pneumonia.

 

 

 

38. Vegetarian Friendly

You probably know that India is vegetarian friendly, but did you know that they have their own symbol for it? Everything vegetarian is marked with a green circle/square symbol. It’s even on the outside of buildings that only serve vegetarian food!

 

 

 

39.  97 Degree High Announces Arrival of Winter

It’s officially winter in South Gujarat. Yesterday’s high temperature? 97 degrees. We still have our windows open and a fan on at night!

Us on a balmy winter day. (giphy.com)

Us on a balmy winter day. (giphy.com)

 

 

 

40. Phone Ringing Off the Hook

It’s become common courtesy in America to silence your cell phone in common spaces, but this trend hasn’t caught on yet in India. Phones commonly go off in every circumstance – from meetings to patient consultations. Instead of ignoring the call, the recipient immediately answers like the call didn’t just interrupt a patient examination.

Silenced Cell Phone

 

 

 

41. Digestion is Key

Good digestion is a key component to daily health – like exercise or brushing your teeth. Someone may avoid practices like drinking liquids while eating, or they may eat various herbs to improve digestion after a meal. Foods like buttermilk, ginger, and fennel seeds are all thought to improve digestions (not a coincidence that these are consistent parts of Indian meals).

digestion - giphy.com

 

 

 

42. My Plate is Your Plate

When sharing a meal, it’s as if everyone has one big plate. What’s mine is yours. Don’t be surprised if one of your friends reaches across and silently takes something from your plate (or dumps something else onto it).

How we feel when someone takes cheese naan off our plate without asking.

How we feel when someone takes cheese naan off our plate without asking.

 

 

 

43. 2:00 PM = Nap’o’clock

What’s the one thing I’m going to miss most? Daily naps! Almost everyone takes a break from 2-3pm during which they rest or nap. If you go to the hospital Kitchen at 2:30pm, all the workers are sprawled out on the floor with towels over their eyes.

All the hospital staff at Nap'o'clock. (giphy.com)

All the hospital staff at Nap’o’clock. (giphy.com)

 

 

 

44. Watch Where You Put Your Hands

When meeting a new woman, watch their hands. If they extend their hand to shake, reciprocate. However, if they do not extend their hand it is rude to shake hands without prior permission. Austin almost made this mistake once, but barely caught himself based on the visceral response of the woman.

The look on someone’s face when you nonconsensually shake their hand. (giphy.com)

The look on someone’s face when you nonconsensually shake their hand. (giphy.com)

 

 

 

45. Okra is the Bee’s Knees

We’re not sure we had ever eaten Okra before coming to Gujarat, but in our area it is one the most commonly used vegetables. For the first few weeks we were here, we had no idea what it was because it’s locally referred to as “Lady Fingers.” Our neighbor, Nandini, bragged to us one day that she could eat 1Kg of “Lady Fingers” all on her own – 2.2 lbs!

Okra - staticflickr.com

(staticflickr.com)

 

 

 

46. Honking is Habit

Honking is used as a 24/7 courtesy when passing anyone on the road. Since all of the bigs trucks and buses have fun & musical horns, this makes the highway sound like a poorly tuned electronic symphony. At night, they flash their lights and crank up the neon lights as well, turning the road into a techno/disco show!

Yeaaaa, Crazy Cat Party... This GIF is meant to represent the roads at night, but it's mostly here because I love it. (giphy.com)

Yeaaaa, Crazy Cat Party… This GIF is meant to represent the roads at night, but it’s mostly here because I love it. (giphy.com)

 

 

 

47. Labor is Very Cheap

The cost of haircut is a common complaint in America (especially from guys). Well, the next time you need a haircut, just come to India! An affordable restaurant meal for two costs 10 times as much as a haircut (300 rupees vs. 30), and this trend is consistent for most services or labor. I’ve yet to research why – maybe this will be a future blog post 🙂

What I expect when I get a $.50 hair cut. (giphy.com)

What I expect when I get a $.50 hair cut. (giphy.com)

 

 

 

48. Optimum Cranial Utilization

In America, if you need to carry a bunch of stuff, what do you do? Pick it up. In India, what do you do? Put it on your head. People push their heads to incredible limits in India, carrying more than I could ever imagine carrying in my arms.

 

 

 

49. Appy Fizz

Of course, Coca-cola products have taken over the world, but everywhere still has its local beverages. One of the most popular soft drinks here is called “Appy Fizz”, a carbonated apple juice. It’s delicious and has a fun mascot that says things on the bottle such as, “I like weekends, blind dates, and being a superstar (in front of the mirror)”

Appy Fizz - tumblr

 

 

 

50. Shopping Carts Are Called Trolleys and Roll in Every Direction!

Pretty self-explanatory.

What Austin looked like rolling the cart sideways around the store. (giphy.com)

What Austin looked like rolling the cart sideways around the store. (giphy.com)

 

 

 

51. Axe, Axe, and More Body Spray

What kind of deodorant do you use? Axe bodyspray? Perfect, because the only deodorant you can get here is aerosol – no roll-on or sticks to be found.

Body Spray deoderant static.guim.co.uk

(static.guim.co.uk)

 

 

 

52. Floor Meetings

Indians are much more comfortable on the ground than Americans. Meetings and meals are often held while sitting cross legged on the ground. Despite this, someone will inevitably pull out a chair and offer it to us alone because we are American (we always decline and sit on the floor too).

Us, when we refuse to sit in chairs. (giphy.com)

Us, when we refuse to sit in chairs. (giphy.com)

 

 

 

53. Resist Ripping Off Wrapping Paper!

You may need to exhibit some self-control when receiving gifts. If someone gives you a gift in India, it’s polite to wait until you are in private to open it (unless directly asked to open it then). We didn’t know this initially, so Wende’s birthday was a bit of a gift opening fiasco.

You want to avoid a surprise like this - instead of a kitten, you may get a box of common household lizards :P  (giphy.com)

You want to avoid a surprise like this – instead of a kitten, you may get a box of common household lizards 😛 (giphy.com)

 

 

 

54. Let it Rip

Body functions are treated like they are a natural thing every human being does – radical! No need to apologize or be excused for burping, sneezing, farting, etc. Plus, women can breast feed in public without a cover and without being given dirty looks – Free the nipple!

Americans could get a little more comfortable with this concept. (litreactor.com)

Americans could get a little more comfortable with this concept. (litreactor.com)

 

 

 

55. Holy Coconut

Every religion has its sacred symbols – the cross, the star of david, the kara. Well, for Hinduism a couple of these symbols are the coconut (representing sacrifice or selflessness) and fire (the eternal witness). You can expect these symbols to make an appearance at every Hindu ceremony, including weddings and festivals.

Holy Coconut

 

 

 

56. Domino’s is All About the Corn

There are a number of American fast food chains that have made it across the world to India. One of the most popular and fastest growing is Dominos (turns out India loves Pizza just as much as America does). While Dominos is still delicious, it offers quite a different menu from the one you may be used to. One of the most striking features was the use of golden or baby corn as a topping on 8 out of the 14 “signature” pizzas.

Dominos - dominos.co.in

“Spicy triple tango – Get ready for a triple flavor treat! Sweet golden corn merged with tangy Gherkins and luscious red paprika will make your taste buds do the tango.”

 

 

 

57. Trees that Grow Potato Clubs

When coming to the GST hospital, you have a chance of being killed by falling potatoes outside the gate… Ok, technically the “potatoes” are the fruit of the Kigelia Africana, a tree that grows giant potato like fruits that hang from vines. The “potatoes” can grow up to a meter in length and weigh between 10-20lbs!

 

 

 

58. Don’t Mix Your Genders

You think women are treated differently from men in America? India takes it to whole new level. At events, at temples, at security checks, women and men are separated. There are even special seats for women on trains and in movie theatres.

 

Wende, every time she realizes we’re being separated by our gender. (giphy.com)

The look Wende has every time she realizes we’re being separated by our gender. (giphy.com)

 

 

 

59. Doggy-Phobia

Almost everyone is terrified of dogs. When we walk our neighbor’s dog (the only pet we know in the area), people will literally run out of its way. We asked a friend about this and he said, from childhood parents teach their children, “If you’re bad the dog will come and bite you.”… He said they also teach children to fear homeless monks and policeman (both of which will abduct them if they misbehave).

 

 

 

60. The Third Head Nod

So you can nod your head up and down (yes), you can shake your head side to side (no), but you can also pivot head your from shoulder to shoulder (like a bobble head). Go ahead, give it a try. This third head nod is so prevalent in India, that if you spend any amount of time here you’ll find yourself doing it. This ambiguous head nod can mean no, yes, or simply acknowledge someone. It’s going to be one awfully hard habit to break when we get back!

Third Head Nod - travllinh.files.wordpress.com

 

 

 

61. Everyone Backs it Up Like a Dump Truck

The privilege of producing your own reverse noise is no longer reserved for trucks; in India, each newer car plays a little unique tune when reversing (We often get them stuck in our head).

 

Thanks for “wasting another perfectly good hour” on the Oslock blog. We hope you enjoyed yourself! I would like to make a special mention of Tom Magliozzi, whose mischevious spirit will always be missed – we’ll never have a live wise-crack hour with you again.

Keep an eye out our for our next edition. 

A+W

Udaipur: Festivals, Foster-Care, and Furry Animals

 Festivals

India loves to celebrate. Ever since we arrived in July, our time has been one giant series of festivals and holidays  – though everyone assures us this is just “festival season” and that the celebrations don’t actually go year-round. Seems like we showed up at the perfect time!

Our first festival was the Ganesh festival, which honors lord Ganesh or Ganpati – god of beginnings. This 10-day festival was celebrated at the end of August and culminated in a lively ritual down by the river. During the festival, many people purchase statues of Ganpati to worship ranging in all sizes from a few inches to something 70 feet tall (the 2011 record)! On the last day of the festival, everyone covers each other in colorful dyes, hops in a truck together, and take a ride with their personal deity down to the river. They dip the statue into the water seven times and then deposit it there permanently, but before leaving it you whisper a wish into its ear for the coming year. Our truck ride was a blast with 20 women and kids in the back, and I even got to dunk my own personal miniature Ganesh (followed by a personal wish)!

The next festival we were able to participate in is called Navratri and lasts for 9 nights; “Nav” in Gujarati means nine, and “ratri” means night. The festival celebrates the triumph of good over evil in the world and is specifically dedicated to lord Durga’s victory over demons in the past.  This festival was my personal favorite, because in addition to ritual prayer ceremonies, Navratri is celebrated by dancing! 😀 Each night, the hospital would get together for a short prayer, and then they would bump some traditional Indian music while performing Gujarati dances. The dances at the hospital were pretty low-key, involving a lot of slow music and simple steps, but on our last night Wende, Nandini, and I went to the orphanage run by Gram Seva to dance with the children. Those children knew how to party! I was dancing hard all night, learning new steps, and enjoying the spirit and energy of the children. We left after midnight, by which time I had completely soaked through my clothes with sweat – yum. So glad I got to be a part of this festival!

Ganesh and Navratri were both good festivals, but they don’t even come close to festivities of Diwali, the “festival of lights.” According to Wikipedia, Diwali is a continuation on the triumph of light over dark & knowledge over ignorance – it represents “The light of higher knowledge dispelling all ignorance.” This festival was like the equivalent of Spring cleaning, Christmas, New Years, and 4th of July all wrapped into one holiday. The festival lasts for 5 days, with each day having its own significance. For example, I believe on the second day you are supposed to buy something of silver or gold to usher luck into the new year.

At Gram Seva, we didn’t realize how big of a deal Diwali was until we found out 5 days before the festival that the hospital was going to be closed for the entire week! For perspective, the hospital has only been closed a single day since we arrived. We also found out that almost everyone was leaving for the holiday and we were going to be alone at the hospital. All of the school children get 3-weeks off for Diwali, so it’s a common time for people go to see their families (much like Christmas). We felt pretty left out, so we started to reach out to other friends in India. Luckily, on short notice our friend Ian Anand Forber-Pratt graciously invited us to visit him for Diwali in Udaipur, Rajasthan. This was a win-win because: 1) We could explore a fantastic city during Diwali, 2) We could check out the groundbreaking work of Foster-Care India, the NGO started by Ian.

Udaipur was incredible! The city was saturated with the festive cheer of Diwali. Everywhere you went, everyone would shout, “Happy Diwali!” Then, on the day following Diwali everyone says, “Happy New Year!” for the start of the Hindu calendar. The festival was much more elaborate in Udaipur than it would have been in our small village, and it made me realize how much more extreme the previous two festivals would have been within large cities. The lesson is – if you have a chance to go to a big city for a festival/holiday, make sure you do. Here are a few of the ways people celebrate Diwali:

  • Cleaning! Part of the worship involved with Diwali is making everything look fresh and new for the new year. This isn’t the regular old sweep around the house, this a the time when everything is moved away from the wall and vigorously scrubbed. In addition, people do minor renovations to improve the look of their home. Around Udaipur (and GST) people could be seen painting the outside of their house, or painting a fresh design along the entrance to their home.
  • Lights! Buildings everywhere are strung up with colorful lights (like Christmas lights). In addition, candles are set out around the city, and some people would even line the roof of their home with candles. Don’t worry – most of the architecture in India is stone or mud, so there’s little concern for fire.
  • Fireworks! On the 4th night of Diwali, people bust out the fireworks. They aren’t technically legal in the city, but that didn’t prevent people from having them 🙂 We went to our roof on the 4th night, and we were completely surrounded by beautiful flashes of color, 360 degrees. I enjoyed the aerial fireworks, but firecrackers were also rampant throughout the city. These large firecrackers were much louder than those in America, and just when you wouldn’t expect it a little kid would set one off behind you! I’m sure the kids got a good laugh when they saw me jump 6-inches off the ground.
  • Gifts! Diwali is THE shopping season in India. I was a little surprised when I logged into Amazon to see a “Diwali Sale,” but these sales are widespread during the holiday season. People buy candy or gifts to give to their family for Diwali.
  • Rangoli! This was one of my favorite traditions. A “Rangoli” is a design made on the ground out of colorful dyes, and they could be found all over the streets of Udaipur. Rangolis can become extremely intricate in design, and some are even colored with flowers instead of dyes.

 


 

Foster-Care

Diwali was a great excuse to come to Udaipur, but an even stronger motivator for us was the chance to visit the organization Foster-Care India. In 2006, Ian Anand did a google search of “Foster Care AND India,” and it returned almost nothing. It was at that moment Ian knew his life’s calling. He packed up all of his stuff and moved across the globe to India determined to start a foster-care program.

Don’t worry, Ian didn’t just jump in assuming that foster-care was something India wanted without asking them first. In conjunction with Harvard, he posed the first formal study of attitudes toward foster-care in India. His conclusions? Everyone thought a foster-care like program was a great idea, but noone knew the term “foster-care.” In addition to Ian’s study, other studies had been done showing that children lived happier, more successful lives when they lived in a family-based environment. Under the motto, “Every child has a right to family,” Ian started his work.

In case you didn’t know, foster-care is just one of multiple ways a child can be taken care of if his/her parents are no longer able to. Here are the standard options for care :

  • Institutional Care:
    • Orphanages/group homes: These homes are often run by the government and will house 40 children in one space. There is a care-giver, but there is no parental figure. There is not a goal of adoption in these homes, but simply raising them until they come of age at 18.
  • Non-institutional Care:
    • Adoption: This is a formalized legal process in which a child becomes part of a family. The process can be quite lengthy and complicated, plus few parents are willing to make this level of commitment to an unknown child.
    • Foster-Care: This is a formalized program in which a family agrees for a child to live with them until the age of 18. This child then receives the benefit of a family environment, but the parent does not have to agree to give legal rights of property etc to the child.
    • Kinship Care: An informal process, in which a family member agrees to take care of a child when the parents are no longer present. This is the most common form of alternative care in India.

So how did these children lose their parents in the first place? Well, there are the possibilities you are probably familiar with such as the death of a parent or incarceration, but there is another situation that happens quite frequently in India. If a married couple has children, but then husband passes away, the wife may choose to remarry. However, if she does remarry, the new husband has the right to choose to accept or reject her current children. Sadly, it is very common for the new husband to reject the children from the previous marriage and they are abandoned to fend for themselves. If a child does not go into one of the forms of care listed above, they become street children – uneducated, unloved, and desperate.

In the past, kinship care was the most common lifestyle for a child away from his parents. But as families in India move away from multi-generational families and toward nuclear family structures, the support of grandparents is becoming less and less common. With the decreasing prevalence of kinship care, more children are being left on the streets or placed into institutional homes, and the need for Foster-Care is becoming more urgent than ever before.

You may wonder, “Why doesn’t Ian just try to enhance the current adoption system, versus starting a new program of foster-care?” One main reason was the saturation of great organizations already working in the area of adoption, while there were practically zero organizations addressing the need for  foster-care. In addition, adoption is already a pretty intimidating commitment, but in India this commitment is exacerbated by the caste system. Tremendous value is given to each person’s caste (or last name/group) in India, and often people will not marry anyone outside of their caste. This means that if a child does not already happen to be part of an adoptive parent’s caste, by adopting the child the parent also passes on their last name & caste – a terrifying prospect for many. However, with foster-care a guardian only agrees to parent the child until the age of 18, with no legal rights to property or name. This difference between the two systems gives foster-care infinitely more potential for impact in India.

Foster-Care India is having tremendous success, and each day brings new victories. They are beginning to be recognized as a formal leader in foster-care and are being asked to help design foster-care programs for cities throughout India. They have created direct support for children with community centers that assist current Kinship families to receive government funds. And the most exciting announcement is that within the next month they will officially be matching their first foster child and parent.

Foster-Care India’s monthly cost of caring for a child is $2.50, the monthly Salary of an employee $150. If you are looking for a terrific organization, that is changing the way an entire country treats its children, consider donating to FCI this Diwali (or Christmas) season: Fostercareindia.org

 “You’re not related to your spouse by blood and you love them, why not share that same love with a child?” – An Indian Foster Parent

 


 

Furry Animals

While we were in Udaipur, we also visited an organization called Animal Aid. It was started in 2002 by a couple of Seattle tourists who noticed that there were an overwhelming number of injured street animals that had nowhere to go… I think I see a future career path for Wende and I ;D Animal Aid is a no-kill animal hospital/shelter which rescues injured animals from around the city. At this point they receive 10-20 calls a day reporting injured animals who need help. The Animal Aid ambulance goes to pick up the dog/cat/cow/turtle/horse/donkey/bull and bring it back to the Animal Aid campus. On the campus, the animals is rehabilitated and replaced back into the community in which it was originally found.

The Animal Aid campus was incredible and clearly full of animal-love. Any animal that cannot be fully rehabilitated or that takes a considerable amount of time to heal (> 6 months), is deemed unfit to return to its original place in the city and is instead kept on as a permanent guest at Animal Aid. When Wende and I visited, we worked in one of these permanent resident areas called “handicap heaven.” This was a place specifically for dogs that had some sort of debilitating injury that left them without use of their legs through paralysis or amputation.

In “handicap heaven,” the workers spend their days massaging the dogs, doing physical therapy, and generally showering them with love. It seemed that Animal Aid also made a point to hire humans with some sort of physical debilitation, so you would see a physically handicapped person doing therapy on a physically handicapped dog. What a beautiful circle of life!

Wende and I loved our time there, and Animal Aid quickly patched up our 3-months of animal withdrawal. They love visitors and are always looking for new volunteers, so If you are interested in visiting Animal Aid, or just want to learn more about it, check out their website here: animalaidunlimited.com 

 “World-Peace includes animals.”

– Claire, a founding member of Animal Aid


 


 

PS – Udaipur was an incredibly beautiful city, so I wanted to share the rest of our photos from the trip. I was looking for an effective way to dsiplay the photos when I came across the “photo gallery” button, which creates the beautiful photo displays you see here. Jeeze, why didn’t I find this before my last “photo journal?!” Well hindsight is 20-20, but you can count on seeing more of these photo galleries in the future.

Mumbai Meanderings

We’re going to take a break from our usual form of blog this week by doing a photo-journal with commentary. We recently returned from a one-week excursion to the city of Mumbai, and we have a bunch of wonderful photos documenting the entire trip. Let’s get started!

 


 

Day 1 – traveling to Mumbai

IMG_2431

The trip to Mumbai was an adventure in itself! Our morning started with a walk to the bus stop, followed by a 40 minute bus ride into Navsari. Once in Navsari we took a rickshaw across town to the train station shown in this photo.

IMG_2430

Travelling becomes exponentially less fun when done on a an empty stomach, so we stocked up on some delicious street food before boarding our 4-hour train. $2.50 for a huge breakfast!

IMG_2433

When I boarded the train, a young man approached me and said “Your name is Austin.”… I was pretty freaked out by the presence of a real psychic, and had a look around my luggage for anything that may have given away my name. Finally I asked “How did you know?” The man proceeded to pull out an official looking passenger log and said, “a friend gave this to me.” The nice man’s name turned out to be Sandip, and he kept me company most of the train ride. He had spent the past 30 hours on the train from Punjab, so I’m sure he had plenty of time to study that train itinerary!

IMG_2434

On Indian trains, all of the doors are either kept open or can be opened easily by passengers. This let me get some incredible pictures from our train compartment.

IMG_2437IMG_2438

IMG_1665

A view from our train as we arrived into Mumbai. Many of the city’s slums are built on government property, which tends to have a lot of train lines. This might explain why 3500 people die every year on or around the local train 😦

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We had planned to ride a taxi to our hotel when we initially arrived in Mumbai, but my new friend Sandip was headed to the area of our hotel and offered to show us the ropes on the local train system. I read a little about the local train before coming to Mumbai, and one of my favorite quotes was, “Get a running start and be ready to shove your way into the train.” This is a picture of a train that has just started to roll out of a station… the train is packed completely full, and those passengers will continue to hang off the sides during transit.

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Mumbai is a gigantic city, and the local train system is it’s circulatory system. The city has a population of 12 million, and the train transports over 6 million passengers each day! Here is a glimpse of a standard station during evening rush our.

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The doors on the Mumbai local never close (unless it’s raining), and that leads to passengers hanging out to catch a nice breeze. After watching one passenger hang on with only one foot and a few fingers, I had to get a taste of the action 😛

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We arrived to our accommodations, a room inside a luxury fitness/country club called Chembur Gymkhana, where we were greeted by this sign. Energy and water conservation seems to be a pretty strong cultural principle in India. Our friends back home know that among Americans, Wende and I are pretty conscious of our resource usage. Well, my lack of true sustainability was put in perspective when we recently received our energy bill at the hospital. Wende and I had been trying to use very little energy, yet our neighbor’s bill was a THIRD of ours… 😦 We have a long way to go!

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We were invited on this trip to Mumbai, so that we could act as representatives for Wash U when recruiting at Indian High-schools. For that reason, Wash U paid for our hotel 😀 The room was extremely nice – way nicer than we would have gotten for ourselves. We got to take our first “regular” hot shower since arriving in India. Sweet!

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The bedding was luxurious! We felt like royalty sleeping in down bedding under an air conditioner, and even though it was only for a few days, it was some of the best sleep we’ve had in a while. And don’t forget about the sweet bed mood lighting ;D

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Everything is space efficient in Mumbai, including the elevators. This was the elevator in our hotel, and it was very full with just Wende and I as passengers. This particular elevator also did not have a motion sensor, so Austin’s arm was crushed multiple times in the making of this photo.

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As we walked around the neighborhood our hotel was in, we were impressed by how nice some of the apartment buildings were. Turns out we were in a swanky part of town and just didn’t know it yet.