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!