Thursday, December 30, 2010

An Ode to my Body

I’m going to take this time to give myself a pat on the back. I am constantly amazed with my body’s strength and resiliency that I think it needs some recognition. From day one, I have enjoyed all of the street foods that India has to offer. Samosas, grilled corn, and even those little delicious potato things that come in tin cups. I also adamantly support my personal philosophy that some of the best food comes from the smallest, grubbiest, little restaurants and stores. I cook my own vegetables from the local market and I never pass on local food offered to me by friends or coworkers. I’ve watched roommates make trips to the hospital, surviving on toast for days, while I order delivery from the local hole-in-the-wall. Now let me not brag, I have experienced minor “bumps in the road,” to put it lightly, but for the most part my body constantly consumes and savors these delectable treats without major problems. In fact, my roommate has dubbed me the “iron stomach.”

But as the saying goes, all giants have to fall (is that how the saying goes?).  Anyways, I knew by sheer odds that it was only a matter of time before I came down with something.  So fall, I did. Literally. To spare you all the gory details, I got sick as soon as we arrived in Jaipur. I passed out the next morning and busted my chin open on the marble floor. A visit from the doctor, three stitches, and a couple of bruises later, I’m feeling much better and left with only a little band-aid. I spent my time in Jaipur, the renowned pink city, becoming intimate with hotel room TV and if I see another commercial for Dettol, Kohler, or some watch company again, I might scream. Bummer I had to miss the sights, but at least I have a cool story to tell now, right?

I think I can forgive me body for this one hiccup considering, as previously mentioned, how much I do “challenge it.” If you haven’t gathered already by my mention of food in every blog entry, India for me has been somewhat indulgent food-wise.  I feel like I talk about food in India the way Elizabeth Gilbert talks about food in Italy in her book “Eat, Pray, Love.” It’s a fascination, close to a point of obsession. But beyond enjoying the flavors and tastes, a big part of eating for me is about appreciating the culture it comes from. Food is such a big piece of every society that to truly immerse yourself, to get the full experience, you need to eat and appreciate the food it has to offer. It’s the same reason that I chose to put my vegetarianism aside when I traveled to Kenya. I didn’t want to create another obstacle between me and anyone else, another reason to define me as different or separate.

I was disappointed the other day when while eating at a nice restaurant geared towards tourists, my family was approached by another family from the US. They seemed really excited to hear I was living in Hyderabad and asked if they could ask me one question. Of course I obliged. Of all things, they wanted to know if I could eat the street food here. That’s the one thing they wanted to know? While some of the bacteria might be different, and for some it might be wise to get your stomach adjusted before you dive in, if the people here eat it, why shouldn’t we? I find that approaching a culture with an open-minded and flexible attitude lends to interesting and fulfilling situations later, like drinking chai with local shopkeepers or eating the Indian equivalent of fast food with my coworkers. Food opens doors, it’s an automatic conversation piece, and something to do. I feel like I would be missing out on so much if I lived my life afraid of doing as the locals do. I would miss out on my neighborhood’s local culture if I didn’t have my vegetable stand guy in the market or my weekly trips to the restaurant up the block. I would miss out on lunch with the ladies from work and homemade dinners at friends’ houses. I would miss out on truly experiencing India. Now this is all to say that you don’t have to love the food, just don’t be afraid to try it.

Maybe my good health has been due to an exceptionally strong intestinal track, but I like to think that a little part of my success can be attributed to a go-with-the-flow attitude.  Whatever it may be, thank you body for (mostly) going with the flow.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Breath of Fresh Air (literally)

Farewell Delhi, you will surely be missed. As my family and I drive out of the city and onto Agra to see the Taj Mahal, I’m going to take a minute to reflect on the capital city of India. While my time here was too short (a mere two nights) I can already tell I really like this place. Being the capital, it is clearly given first access to amenities– things like good roads, grassy areas (you mean there are trees in major Indian cities?), and even a metro! While there was still the abundance of cars, motorcycles, mopeds, auto rickshaws, bicycles, tractors, horse drawn carriages, and the traffic associated with all of them, I could walk around the city and actually breath. There is a lot of history here with old mosques, forts, and markets sprinkled throughout the city. We visited some of the sights like Humuyan’s Tomb and a famous minaret with the oldest iron pole in the world that scientist can’t explain why it hasn’t rusted yet (sad that the pole was my favorite part?). I enjoyed just driving around the city, trying to get a feel for the place. While I had no sense of where we actually were, we drove around New Delhi, and circled the parliament. The government buildings are vast structures with a clear history in the British colonial era and the areas surrounding them were spacious and green.

Humuyan's Tomb, I just like whatever Ben is doing here

The Qutat Minar

We spent Christmas Eve doing what Jews do best, eating Chinese food. We ate at this really nice restaurant in our hotel and were surprised by hotel staff carolers in the middle of our meal. Wearing Santa hats, they serenaded us with classics like Jingle Bells and Dashing Through the Snow, singing with distinct accents and not quite getting all of the words right. It was awesome, especially when I realized that probably no one in the whole restaurant celebrated Christmas (we had some Israelis sitting next to us and everyone else was Indian).

My highlight of the city though was spending the day with Nurit for our work-related meeting. We got up really early to meet our boss at his Delhi home in a surrounding city called Noida. After grabbing coffee and pastries in the empty hotel lobby we took a cab to his place and from there drove to his school in a rural area. The kids were off for break but we toured the building, spoke to the teachers, and huddled together in the office drinking chai. Delhi is freezing by the way. While I kind of always giggle at the South Indians in Hyderabad who start wearing sweaters and jackets when it is anything below 80 degrees, here it is absolutely legit. Manish treated us to some breakfast at an Indian fast food chain where although I don’t know exactly what I was eating, it was definitely tasty. We finished off the meal with one of the more interesting foods I’ve tried here so far- some sort of nutty ice cream topped with squishy yellow noodles. I though it was weird at first and put my spoon down, but who am I kidding, I ate it all. Nurit and I then tried out Delhi’s new metro to meet up with a friend of hers in a touristy market area called Pahar ganj. The metro is really fast and really clean. If it weren’t for some of the women wearing saris or kurtas around us, it felt like I could have been anywhere in Europe of the US. Actually I take that back, the Delhi metro is much nicer than the DC metro. Anyways, we spent the rest of the day checking out some markets, sipping chai with friends, and overeating delicious paneer butter masala and malai kofta for lunch. This whole over eating thing seems to be a reoccurring theme for me on this trip but as Nurit’s friend Johnty explained to me, Hindus believe that food is God and it cannot go to waste. So really, I’m just trying to do my part.
Nurit and I discover the metro

Well I guess to sum it all up, I wish Delhi and I had more time together. I liked her grassy areas and her bustling markets, her tasty food, and her character. Delhi strikes me as a city with immense potential. It a place where the old world and new world meet and a place where the feeling of India’s growth and “emerging world power” attitude feels palpable.

Friday, December 10, 2010

This one goes out to all the vegetarians

I saw a beautiful thing today. I didn’t go on a hike or to some remote village though, I was just eating at TGI Fridays. That’s right, TGI Fridays. I think two parts of that sentence are surprising: 1) the “I” part, as in me, Rachel Kutler, was eating at Fridays and 2) the part where there is a TGI Fridays in Hyderabad, India.  Anyways, we had some LIFE programming in the morning and collectively decided that we were homesick for some simple American food and went there for lunch.

The Fridays looks a lot like the ones you see in the states—random pictures and things on the wall, red and white striped tables, even our server wore the customary suspenders with “flair.” But back to that beautiful thing. I was looking over the menu, noticing some of the same items like potato skins and mini quesadillas, when there on the bottom, a little inconspicuous, beautiful mark appeared: a star to indicate the “non-vegetarian” items. That’s right, non-vegetarian, ie things made with meat. Now since day one in India it has been made abundantly clear that vegetarian food is the norm. It is exactly the opposite of the US so that here, when you go to a restaurant, you’re not sure if they will have meat items. It has been awesome for me, not only is the food already delicious but I can eat it all too! And eat it all I do. Naan, roti, aloo gobi, malai kofta, chana masala, palak panneer, the list goes on. I eat it for as many meals as possible each day, and can’t fathom ever getting sick of it.

So despite eating veg food all the time, seeing those little starred menu items indicating non-vegetarian dishes in a chain restaurant known for its burgers and meat in the US, felt like a little battle won for us herbivores: Vegetarians around the world: 1, Meat eaters: 0!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Most recent happenings

Greetings! I think its been a while, so here goes an update… Life here in Hyderabad has been good. My internship is a little bit of a messy situation, but that’s no fun to talk about, so instead, a rundown on the highlights of the past few weeks:

Thanksgiving- It was a blast. Every roommate made at least one dish and it was a legitimate feast- veggies and tofu, fried rice, mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, chicken for the main course (no tukey to be found), and a Brazilian chocolate dish for dessert. I think India has been tapping into my inner chef because Abby and I embarked on making two fancy dishes- stuffing and pumpkin curry soup- both of which were hits! We invited out country director, Venkat, along with his family. They are absolutely adorable but very traditional in a few ways. His children were weirded out by our strange looking bland food and only ate some chocolate we gave them.  I knew I did my job of passing on the traditions of Thanksgiving when Nurit, my Israeli roommate, immediately went to lie down on the couch after the meal.

Vizag- The seven of us took a weekend trip to Visakhapatanam (otherwise known as Vizag) for the weekend. It is the second biggest city in Andhra Pradesh and know for its’ beaches. After faring a 17 hour bus ride and coming off a little tired and a lot disheveled, we hopped right onto a crowded city bus (literally people hang out of the doors) out to Rushikonda beach.  The beach is a little further away from the city center and known to be a little more secluded. After searching for some deals, Alex, Nurit, and I stayed in this little rustic hut a 5 minute walk to the beach.

Coastal Andhra is absolutely beautiful and the beach itself, while crowded, is nice. The water is a perfect temperature although we didn’t get much of an opportunity to swim seeing as we were a major attraction for the Indian tourists. Hoards of people, mostly young boys in tiny bathing suits, kept stopping us, asking to take photos with them.—we could barely make it to the other side of the beach before sundown.  Then back to our hut for cold beers, dinner at a restaurant with a view, and off to bed to early to wake up for our city tour in the morning. We hired a private driver the next day to take us to all of the sites Vizag had to offer- a mountain with a view, a park with some strange statues, and my personal favorite, the fish market. Although none of these sights gathered nearly as much attention as a group of four white people walking around together. It is not uncommon for me to be stopped on the street and asked to take a photo with someone’s daughter, wife, or entire 6th grade class. Overall the trip was refreshing but lesson learned about traveling via bus: 17 hours  sitting in one place is never fun.
Hut sweet Hut

Rushikonda Beach
Fish until the eye can see (note: this is not the fish market)


Hanukah Party- By Hanukkah party I really mean we threw a party, put gelt  (the chocolate coins) on the table, and called it a Hanukkah party. We invited all of our friends (a total of about 5 people) plus some others we had met at a conference that day. Abby and I called upon our inner Jewish mothers and made potato latkes. I have never been more impressed with myself- they were dee-lish. Anyways, debauchery ensued and we all had a great time. Beyond the shattered dining room table and the fight that almost took place- the night was a great success!

Tollywood Film-  I am now going to be a famous Tollywood star. Just kidding (well sort of). Tollywood is just like its neighbor Bollywood but in Telegu instead of Hindi. There is big movie making industry in Hyderabad and they are always looking for talent (ie white people) to star in their films. We met with an agent who picked us up in the morning and took us to the set of “Ayare,” a movie about a swami but the plot of which, I still have no idea. All I know is that on the set there were a whole bunch of people dressed in orange and a giant poster of the swami looking over us on a rock above. A few people were sent to costume to put on the orange saris and matching red bindis while some of us stayed dressed in our western wear. I ended up spending the majority of my day napping in a shaded area but after a few scenes as an extra and then chatting with the director, Abby and I were given our big break. We acted as the swami’s followers, and had to follow the actor down the center of a parting crowd (her in her sari and me in my jeans and t-shirt). There were a few takes and  at one point the famous actor, Rajendra Prasad, was even asked to move over so we could be seen. We ended up joking with the actors and the director,  taking photos with them that we claimed would be used as publicity, and even made some money while we were at it.

Well that’s it for me in terms of the most recent happenings worth sharing. I’ve got some lists brewing so stay tuned for more soon…I hope all is well at home and enjoy the cool weather for me!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Happy Hampi

I just arrived back home from what I can safely say was one of the best weekends of my life. Four of us- Amy, Nurit, Alex, and I took a night bus Friday evening and arrived in Hampi around 5:30am the next morning. We took a non-A/C bus which although caused some panic in the beginning, was quite comfortable. We drove the whole way with the front door open and a nice breeze flowing throughout the cabin. We arrived in Hampi really early the next morning to be immediately approached by a couple of auto-rickshaw drivers looking for our business. We were trying to feel out the situation to get a good deal but Nurit (the Israeli) was quickly won over by the auto driver who shouted at us “Boker Tov,” or good morning in Hebrew. As I learned later, Hampi, and India in general, is a huge tourist destination for Israeli travelers. The driver took us around to some of the local guest houses near the popular touristy spots and we settled on Archana guest house—a small cement building painted bright pink and green with (my personal favorite) a rooftop view. It became a little more obvious later on that the guest house owner and the rickshaw driver might have had some sort of deal worked out between them. Nonetheless, we took a long nap, showered, met up with Alex’s friend from Brazil, Tatu, and were fresh for the long day of touring ahead. We stopped at a popular bakery/restaurant called the Shanti restaurant for some breakfast where it turned out Nurit’s old friend from her backpacking days, owned and managed. After three years without seeing each other they had a warm reunion, and so the restaurant became somewhat of our home base for the weekend.

We did some shopping along the main market, lost the boys (unintentionally), and explored the ruins surrounding the city. Hampi is known for the ancient Hindu kingdom ruins that now speckle the city center and its’ outskirts. While I don't know anything about the ruins-- like from  what time period they come from or from what kingdom-- it doesn’t really matter in order to appreciate their beauty. They are stunning on their own. 

 Amy, Nurit, and I climbed some smooth red rocks next to the market to discover old stone temples on top that seemed forgotten if it were not for the underage teenage boys drinking beer. The temples offer a breathtaking view of the small city and the surrounding rocks and forest. After some lunch we took a little dinky boat across the river to the other side of the city, a place I am going to dub “Little Israel.” The other side felt like a completely different world from the bustling city center. It has a relaxed resort like atmosphere with palm trees and dirt roads, and every restaurant or guesthouse has a completely open layout with no doors or windows. About the Israelis-- there are signs in Hebrew, every restaurant offers Israeli food, and there is even a Chabad house (basically a place where Orthodox Jews try to get Jewish tourists to celebrate Shabbat or what not—it’s all a little strange to me). Everyone on that side just seemed to spend their days wondering the landscape by foot or motorcycle. After being there for a few minutes and taking in the air and the attitude, I could certainly understand why. 

We took a rickshaw to a place called Monkey Temple and began the 500 step trek to the top to see the views. The land is so green and lush and the juxtaposition of the rocks, stone ruins, palm trees, and green farmland is like nothing I’ve seen before. We didn’t actually make it to the top to see the monkey temple though, for fear of monkey attack. Along the way up the trail you are surrounded by monkeys, EVERYWHERE.  One would appear out of a bush on your right and then suddenly another would land on the railing inches from your left. They were completely desensitized to humans and it was a little terrifying. I mean, we all saw how that movie Congo ended.

 After watching the sunset from my roof that evening we went to a restaurant overlooking the river called The Mango Tree. I demand anyone who travels to Hampi in the future must go there and order the Mango Tree Curry. It was sweet and savory and creamy all at once. Absolute perfection.

Virupaksha Temple and Hampi Bazaar below
The view on the way towards Monkey Temple, notice that little guy on the left...

The next morning we were forced to an early start because the guest house owner abruptly insisted we check out 24 hours from when we checked in. Don’t worry though, we bargained her down to 8:30am versus 6am. I split off from the girls and went with Tatu and Alex in search of a lake they had heard about. We stopped for breakfast at a guest house with a view overlooking a rice field and surrounding red rocks. We got our day started off right with a few beers and were off (beer in hand) to find the lake. We didn’t know how to get there but stopping a local and asking “lake?” seemed to work just fine. After a ride in the backseat of a van with some locals and through a dusty little village we came to big cement wall. It wasn’t until we walked a little closer and peered over that we found the town's vast reservoir, and for our purposes, a prime swimming spot.. Once there a young guy asked us if we wanted to jump. Feeling a little uneasy about it, we insisted he do it first. He led us straight to the top a giant rock, about an 8 meter drop to the sparkling water below, and jumped right over. Now I didn’t have my bathing suit with me and I was scared out of my mind, but I figured, how many chances will I have to go cliff jumping in India again?

After sun bathing on the rock and swimming below we had to get going to make it back to the mainland in time before the last boat of the day. We had a long walk back so when offered the chance, we jumped on the back of the Indian version of a pickup truck for the ride home.  I found myself standing in the back of a truck, hair wind-blown, snaking through the most beautiful country I have ever seen, and holding on for dear life. It was hard to restrain a scream of excitement. The tour was so nice in fact that we completely missed our turn. We were dropped off on the side of the road, a long hike from where we needed to be. Nonetheless, we walked through a quiet little village, played with some children, asked a few people for Hampi, and were pointed down a path towards another river. We were crossing the right river but in a more secluded spot. The boats this time looked like giant but shallow coconuts split in half and made to float on water. They were made of wicker but surprisingly sturdy—they carried two motorcycles plus a handful of passengers over to the other side. We stood in the middle of the coconuts with two men paddling up front as our motor.  Perhaps not the most efficient way of traveling, but definitely one of the more entertaining.
The view from our jump

On the road again
Just to get an idea of the coconut boats

In our roundabout way home we ended up stumbling upon some of the well-known ruins—a big temple and a long row of crumbling columns smack in the middle of rolling green fields. With mango popsicles in hand we crisscrossed our way overtop giant smooth stones, around ancient temples and through dirt paths, passing wild horses and dogs and cows, to eventually find ourselves back in the middle of town again.

That night, after a last goodbye to Shanti restaurant, we hopped on the night bus again to make it back just in time for work the next morning. Despite the exhaustion and fatigue I think Hampi awoke my travel bug- I’m ready to go somewhere next weekend!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Internship, City, Oh My!

Hey guys. Now that I’ve had a little more time to settle into Hyderabad and completed my first official week of my internship I think it’s time for an update.

First on the job. I work for SKS NGO which is the ngo attached to SKS Microfinance, one of the largest microfinance firms in India. The corporation has been in the news a lot lately for some shady business dealings but the ngo is completely separate. The mission of the organization is to eradicate poverty worldwide. No biggie, right? As of now they work in two areas—the Ultra Poor and Education but are looking to expand into disaster relief. That’s where I come in. I am working with the executive director, Sanjay, on the preliminary research needed to develop the new program. If all goes well with a grant we are waiting on, that means a lot of trips into the field to talk to the people who are affected most by floods and cyclones. How are they affected by natural disasters?  What are the disaster preparedness plans in place? Are they getting the services they need? Etc. For now though I am doing a lot of reading about the topic, especially in Andhra Pradesh (the coastal state that Hyderabad is in), where cyclones and related flooding can be a big problem.

The most exciting part about my job so far is that the office is located in the SKS Microfinance building, which for Hyderabadi standards, is like a skyscraper. I have a security badge, I take an elevator to my floor, and I even have my own cubicle! I’ve never worked in such a corporate environment before, which is exciting and new for now but I’m sure will wear off in a matter of days. My first day there was so intimidating, I was nervous to even get up and use the bathroom. I sat at my cubicle all day reading and taking notes, and everyone kind of ignored me because they didn’t know what I was doing there. 

The next day things got a little better when I was invited to eat lunch with the crew. This was an experience in and of itself. The top floor of the building is the cafeteria for all 6 floors below it. The room is packed and loud—very reminiscent of middle school lunch-time. For what cost me less than a dollar I go this huge metal tray with a piece of naan, rice, and four little bowls of different vegetables and sauces, and oh yea, no silverware. I spotted the ngo people across the room and had to weave my way in and out of the other tables to get there. Absolutely everybody in my close radius was watching me. I’ve come to get used to the stares but at that very moment--being the only white girl in a huge room of strangers on my second day of a new job I am already intimidated by-- at the moment, I started to sweat. I pictured myself tripping and getting food all over my clothes, like what happens in the movies. Anyways, I made it to the table ok and ate lunch with some of my coworkers. Everyone eats with their hands, correction, hand (you only eat with your right hand here because the left one is supposed to be used in the bathroom). They seem to have a lot of fun at lunch- they talk and laugh and share each other’s food from home and all of their hands get messy but it’s of course completely normal. Since then I went with some of the education people on two site visits and am feeling much more comfortable at the office. I can tell already that this is the type of internship where I will have to initiate my own deadlines, the specific research to focus on, and even friends within the office.

As for Hyderabad, my first impression of it is BUSY. My house is located off of a main road that is always clogged with tons of traffic. There is a lot of pollution, a lot of traffic, and a lot of honking. Any trip outside of the house feels exhausting because it can wear you down quickly. So far it strikes me as a place with different shopping/commercial areas, packed with people, and connected by traffic-y high ways. I have found some unique coffee shops and hang out spots but as a whole, I am not in love with this city yet. I’m trying to understand what it’s all about, where its’ heart is, like for Charleston I would say low-country culture and the beach. For Hyderabad, I am still searching.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Greetings from Hyderabad!

 I have made it to India and I am loving it. The group and I spent the last week in Mumbai (Bombay) and just moved into our home in Hyderabad a few days ago. Warning: Before you embark on this blog post, I have got a lot to cover so I apologize now for the long-windedness.

First on Mumbai, or as I have been calling it, “Nap Tour Mumbai.” We arrived in the city, after a sleepless five hour flight, at 4am and after a short break, toured the city. We saw the famous Victoria train station (this is where Jamal and Latika meet again in Slumdog Millionaire), a Jain temple, the Hanging Gardens, and Gandhi’s house. Somehow I managed (along with most other members of my group) to fall asleep in everyone of these places along with every car ride that lasted more than 30 seconds. That afternoon we met with Goul, a businessman who is the head of the chamber of commerce for the Indo-Israel Federation. What he really does I am not sure, but the meeting itself was an interesting commentary on Indian culture. He was a very friendly man, brought his wife into the office, served us tea, and referred to us as “the children.” The whole meeting served as a networking tool for everyone involved.  Goul, my program director, and the tour guide spent a majority of the time talking each other up and exchanging names and phone numbers for future business. Goul was so hospitable and friendly that it almost felt insincere. I have been assured though that all hospitality comes from a very genuine place. I think the meeting showed that a lot of Indian business is done this way, with face-to-face connections being vital.

That night our tour guide, Ralphy, invited us to his Rotary Club’s Dewali celebration (the Hindu New Year and celebration of light). Ralphy and his wife Yael served as our guides for our time in Mumbai, they are Indian Jews and some of the most warm, generous people I have ever met. Ralphy owns a software company and both he and Yael run Jewish-themed tours of Mumbai. He is a big guy with an even bigger laugh, and embodies the definition of a “people person.” He treated us as his family for the five days—inviting me to stay at his vacation home in the country, bringing the group to a family wedding (more on this in a bit), even entreating the Lifers with his personal drivers. 

Anways, back to Dewali. The party took place in a banquet hall packed with Rotary members dressed in traditional clothing to celebrate the holiday. We were escorted to our seats and after being presented on stage as guests of honor, we watched a dance/ fashion show that the women of the Rotary Club organized.  I then ate an inordinate amount of food (what was I supposed to do, there was a long wall lined with various vegetarian Indian dishes, in other words, my heaven) and tried to learn some dance moves from some of the women. We talked to one for awhile, who invited the whole group over for lunch later that week.

Day 2 Ralphy took us on a tour of the Jewish Community in Ali Bag, a smaller village an hour outside of Mumbai, reachable by boat. Nap Tour Mumbai continued, just about every one of us fell asleep. Although I am not so religious it was really interesting to see a small Jewish community in a place I would never have expected one. I’m a little cloudy on the story but apparently a boat of Jews ship wrecked and the seven remaining survivors founded the community there, which is currently around 20-30 people. We saw their synagogue and were once again treated like celebrities—the president of the synagogue came to greet us, along with the secretary and his entire family. They brought us this cream-soda-like beverage to drink, made in a Jewish-owned factory (later we walked past the “factory” which was more like a small plaster building resembling a house more so than my notion of a factory). Back to city that afternoon and Nap Tour Mumbai quickly resumed. We went to Friday night services with Ralphy and Yael at an Iraqi-Indian synagogue. It was a beautiful building with bright blue paint and white trim. The services were conducted all in Hebrew with Ralphy’s son leading the prayers as opposed to a rabbi. The girls were forced to sit on the balcony above the ground floor so I admittedly spent a good part of the short service chatting. That night some fellow Lifers and I shared one of those meter high pitchers at the famous Leopold’s CafĂ©, which is known for its mention in the book Shantaram as well as the fact that it was a target for the bombings in 2008.

We had Saturday off, toured Sunday morning, and then went to a Jewish Indian wedding Sunday night. The only way I can describe it is absolutely insane. The ceremony itself was very casual, you couldn’t hear anything and people were walking in and out of the synagogue to get tea and snacks outside. The party on the other hand, felt like how I can only imagine the Oscars feel.  The entrance itself was a long runway, lit with different purples and pinks, with purple carpeting below and billowy tents above.  The room was this huge outdoor area packed with tables in the center and surrounded by food along the perimeter (including a falafel AND ice cream stand). There was endless food and drinks (although it was established early on at the bar the we were drinking a lot faster than our Indian counterparts) and music. We heard a lot of American country music in the beginning, which felt a little funny, but is definitely considered a status thing. The more western you appear in terms of culture and language, the wealthier you are. By the end we were dancing wedding-crashers-style with the bride and groom.

Nurit and I enjoying our first Indian meal
Touring with Ralphy and Yael in Mumbai we were able to see a really authentic, unique slice of Indian life and culture. It was nice to gain insight into the lives of the middle/upper middle class living in the city as opposed to learning soley about the vast injustice and poverty, which admittedly, we did not learn enough about. As for first impressions of Mumbai, it is exactly like what people say about it: lots of people, lots of noise, lots of sound, lots of color all at once. The city is very beautiful in a kind of dilapidated way. The street our hostel was on, for example, was lined with old buildings marked by peeling paint and cracks, but still filled with an abundance of color and life. We stayed for the most part in a touristy part of the city called Colaba, so I don’t have a great understanding of the city as a whole, which people say you can only start getting used to after 2 months.

After touring a bit on Monday morning we hopped on an afternoon bus for our 14 hour journey to Hyderabad. The suggested mode of traveling is via plane or train but because of the Dewali holiday, tickets were sold out and so bus it was. Every person we told about the bus, both visitors and natives, were shocked and I now know why. First of all, there was no bathroom on board. I learned quickly to use the restroom during every break we got, and more often than not, that meant squatting behind a tree somewhere (sorry if that’s TMI). Second, the seats on board were allowed to recline so far that I had to sit diagonally on my chair so my knees weren’t pressing too hard into the one in front of me. Third, several Hindi movies with blaring speakers werepoised right over my head. The icing on the cake though was the driving. Not only are the roads not great to begin with but also our driver was absolutely bat crazy. We were darting in and out of traffic, swerving out of the way of cars only to get caught behind another just to haul on the breaks and horn at the same time. I am told this is somewhat typical. Falling in and out of sleep with the lights of incoming traffic flashing before me was, for lack of a better word, trippy.

But to stop being a negative-nancy, time on the bus passed more quickly than I thought. We arrived in Hyderabad before I knew it when Venkatt, out country director, literally had to board the bus to tell us to get off. We were taken to our home in an area of the city called Begamput, thus beginning the portion of the program I like to call “Real World Hyderabad.” Our house is awesome- it is the second floor of a four story building owned by a family of doctors called the Bakshis.  The parents live on the top floor and their children (along with their families) live on the floors below. We have three bedrooms for the seven of us, each with an attached bathroom. The den, living room, and dining room are all very spacious and were pre-furnished with couches and a dining room set. We spent our first night in the house ordering in and celebrating Nurit’s birthday with cake and present. For the first time since we’ve been together on this trip it truly felt like family.

My bedroom that share with Abby

Phil hanging out in the living room

Anyways, I think my hand is starting to cramp now so more on Hyderabad to come!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

One for the Books

Shalom!  Greetings from the holy land. I’m writing one last installation before Life 3 ships off tomorrow to India (yay!). This past week since Kibbutz Lotan has been busy-busy. We spent a few days in the North of Israel by Tiberias, a small city on the Kineret (a fresh water lake that connects to the Jordan River), learning about some of the first communities that settled on the land. It was absolutely beautiful up there--very green and lush-- and we had a relaxed, group-bonding few days. We came back to Jerusalem for a few intense days of orientation followed by our first free weekend. Here it goes.

The weekend began when Abby and I caught a last-minute ride with Noa, our program director, from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. Considering we were both leaving bags in the area we had to scramble to separate our India clothes from the stuff that was staying behind. After good conversation on the ride there Noa dropped us off in the middle of the city and directed us to the busses we needed to take. Abby and I grabbed some falafel for dinner and when we started to separate (we were headed to different friends’ houses) all of a sudden I felt like a child separated from my mother. It was almost amusing how strange (and kind of scary) it felt to really be alone for the first time. I made it to the Central Bus Station fine though, where my friend Anna picked me up. I spent the night at her place—this roomy house in an everyday Tel Aviv neighborhood.  She lives with 10 other people who are doing another service-learning year in Israel called Tikkun Olam.  I met the whole group when that night they threw a party.  We sat on their wrap around balcony in perfect weather until late at night eating homemade cake and drinking Arack (this Israeli liquor that tastes like licorice). In the morning Anna and I walked to local bakery and split a handful of mushroom, potato, and cheese bareckas… yumm! It was great to be with a friend from home and strange to see her in an entirely different context.

I then took the train with Abby to meet up with Itamar, an Israeli friend of hers that she met doing Birthright. Itamar’s adorable dad picked us up at the train station in Ashdod and took us to their house where we stayed for the weekend. Not only was their house beautiful—tile floors, winding steps, and a huge garden— they were also so welcoming and accommodating, that Itamar’s father literally offered us the pants he was wearing. We were given separate rooms, towels, a washing machine to use, a closet of clothes to wear, and asked if we needed “to douche” (I’m not sure if this was a language barrier slip or what). After some homemade lunch, Itamar took us to a park where we met up with some of his friends who took us off-roading on their motorcycles. It was only a little scary because my motorcyclist didn’t speak much English and I couldn’t remember the words for “slow down” or “I’m scared.” Abby and I didn’t learn until later that this activity is strongly discouraged…  woops. His friends brought a little backpackers’ stove and made coffee. Sitting on a picnic table in the middle of the Israeli woods drinking black coffee at sunset was  definitely one of those “Is this real life?” moments.

We returned home where Itamar’s mother made us a fantastic Shabbat dinner. It was interesting to see how an Israeli family celebrates the holiday. It was very relaxed and much more focused on just eating together and enjoying each other’s company rather than the prayers and the religion (for example, the challah consisted of sliced bread in a plastic grocery bag).  We ate a delicious meal followed by coffee and homemade pastries in the garden for dessert. That night Itamar took us to a club in the middle of the kibbutz that he manages. We hung out in the “VIP” area for a lot of the night which, practically speaking, meant we sat on couches outside trying to figure out how to eat watermelon seeds. Our VIP status translated into free drinks though, so no complains here.

After another homemade breakfast in the morning Abby and I, along with Itamar’s friend Alone, went to the beach in Ashdod. It was a gorgeous sunny day, spent mostly sun bathing and trying to learn how to surf (and by trying I mean failing). Alone’s mother made us a delicious lunch in their beachside home (complete with a view of the ocean from the roof and huge open windows). Afterwards we returned to our host’s house for a relaxing evening of homemade cookies and “The Biggest Loser” reruns.

So if I had to sum up this weekend in any way I would say: Epic. It was delicious and relaxing and unpredictable all at once. I’ve been back in Jeru for a few days now for the last few days of orientation and leaving on a jetplane as of tomorrow afternoon. I’ll write soon with news from Mumbai! Until then, Namaste.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Some of the "Deets" (ie details)

Hey everyone. So I have finally gotten a little less jet lagged and a little more settled so here goes an update.

I arrived in Tel Aviv on Friday and stayed with close family friends, Cliff and Laura Savern and their two girls Jamie and Jill in Ra’anana, until Tuesday. They were amazing—Cliff helped me buy a cell phone, Laura took me out to several delicious meals, Jamie lent me here fashioista nail polish, Jill introduced me to the illustrious “Milky” (a chocolate pudding snack pack with whipped cream on top), and they snuck around me in the mornings when I slept in their living room until 1pm. On Tuesday morning Cliff drove me to a hostel in downtown Jerusalem where I met my group for a day of icebreakers, paperwork, and preliminary seminars.

Some of the specifics: The group consists of 7 people—4 girls and 3 guys (better odds than I though) including one Israeli and one Brazilian. While I’ve only known everyone for a couple of days I am looking forward to getting to know them better. Everyone comes from a diverse background (Israeli army, a masters in counseling, and tracking monkeys in Nicaragua… just to name a few) and is very passionate/excited about the next 9 months. A pic of my Life-mates below on our second day together. On the couch (from l to r): Nurit, Abby, Phil, Gabe. On the floor: Amy, Alex, me

As for the schedule, we are going to travel around Israel for the next two weeks seeing different parts of the country--going to preparatory seminars, lectures, and classes. Right now we are in Kibbutz in the South of the country called Lotan.  It is a community of about 50 people (plus students, volunteers, and tourists) founded in 1983. They live in a socialistic setting with equal salaries, jobs around the kibbutz, and a general attitude of community first. They consider themselves an “intentional community” and an eco-village so they have all of these interesting ways of living to make the place a little Green (in both senses of the word) oasis in the desert. Most of their buildings are made of recycled trash covered with a mud/clay mixture. They compost everything, make their own fertilizer, use solar power, have an organic garden, use their own natural water purifying system, and all of their mud structures are painted with flowers and trees or other hippy-like designs. The best part by far though is the solar oven—a box painted black on the inside with a mirror perched diagonally above it. They used it to bake cookies! Basically, I’m in love.

In general though, it kind of feels like a little bit of a stepford community; there are no streets or cars, and perfectly manicured lawns, and everyone is always talking about community and support. I cannot imagine ever living full-time in such a small, insular place but I can see how it would be a nice place to grow up.

 On Friday night we went to their Shabbat services followed by a communal dinner where everyone on the whole kibbutz ate together. Afterwards all of the kids played on the front lawn and the people my age sat and talked. At 11 the kibbutz’s pub opened which was certainly an experience. I was drinking Goldstar (the Israeli version of Budweiser) with people from all over the world, on a dance floor made of tires, listening to Gypsy techno, all in the middle of the desert. That one goes down in the books. 

We leave Lotan tomorrow for some time in the Northern part of the country and then back in Jerusalem for the weekend. It’s nice to have some time to get to know everyone but I am definitely ready to get to India already…

So with that said, I thought I would leave you with a list of sorts. Who doesn’t love lists? This week’s theme goes off the idea of culture shock and getting used to a culture a little different from the one you are used to.

Israeli Culture I am Struggling With

1. Realizing that everyone isn’t in a fight. Considering I can’t understand most Hebrew I try to gauge social situations by body language. Unfortunately that is proving to be a little difficult with Israelis because they always seem angry with each other. When two strangers are talking they tend to keep a stern look on their face. They speak quickly, with a certain brusqueness in their voices.  For example, an exchange at a coffee shop: Barrista asks a question. Customer answers. Barrisata asks. Customer answers. Barrista asks. Customer answers. Money exchanged. Barrista mumbles something. Exchange over. No smiling, no laughing. Half the time it seems like people are arguing when really they are just ordering a coffee.

2. Reading and talking. The extent of my Hebrew vocabulary is about 20 words, 30 tops. I am trying hard to pick up the language and some of it comes back to me once I am reminded of the word again. It should be relieving that even if I can’t understand everything, at least I can read it. Wrong. All posters, signs, and store fronts are written without the vowels. For non-Hebrew speakers, the vowels are pretty much a pronunciation guide that after about first grade, most people don’t need to use anymore. So after struggling to read the name of a store or a street sign I will say it out loud only to discover I have completely botched the name.

Israeli Culture I Have Not Struggled (nor will ever) With

1.     THE FOOD. Cheeses and vegetables and pita oh my! Israeli food is the best. Period.

2.     The lifestyle in general. I just love how people are always out on the streets talking and shopping and just enjoying themselves. It much more social than anything I can think of in the US. 

Anyways, I’m off for now. Love you all and pictures to come soon!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Fievel and Me

Greeting, welcome to my first ever blog post. For the next nine months I will be interning at non-profits in Jerusalem, Israel and Hyderabad, India (one month in Israel, four in India, then back to Israel for the remaining four) and will be using this medium to share with you all of my experiences, thoughts, feelings, beliefs, vendettas, and personal rantings about the trip.

 Let me begin by giving you a little history as to the name of this blog and my purpose for creating it. First of all, I hope you can gather from the blog's name a certain connection with the timeless childhood film, "An American Tail: Fievel Goes West." It is the story of a cartoon mouse, Fievel Mousekevitz, who immigrates from Russia to the United States with his family to escape persecution from the Russian cats (I'm hoping you get the analogy). Anyways, the title of my blog really has nothing to do with the Jewish mouse other then the fact that I was looking for a creative blog name and this was the best I could think of. However, when sharing the prospective name with my parents, they told me a Kutler family classic I had almost forgotten. When my brother was a young boy he loved Fievel. He had to watch the movie all the time. Around the same time as Ben’s Fivel obsession, Sears was selling an oversized stuffed animal version of the mouse, complete with beret and tunic. My parents tried to get the stuffed animal as a surprise for my brother but the Sears near their house was sold out. My dad ended up going to several stores and then finally acquiring the mouse at a Sears nearly an hour away in northern Baltimore. After working tirelessly to get the toy they revealed it to my brother, who to their dismay, looked at it for a moment and said, “What is it?”

So in honor or my parents, who have worked hard to give my brother and me everything we have dreamed of-- from stuffed animals to a year abroad in India and Israel-- this blog is dedicated to you. Thank you. I hope to explore Israel and India with the same energy and zest for knowledge as Fievel did when he arrived in America.