Monday, November 9, 2009

Travel Break Pictures

Black shouldered kite devouring a mouse for us to see at Bharatpur
Three of us marvelling over the Taj

Susan's new Indian family that she was adopted into at the Taj

Susan and John around the campfire

Three of us riding a camel :)
Dianna is enjoying the super fine sand at sunset!

Jaisalmer Fort at night

The four of us enjoying the sunset in the desert

Sadly, we didn't get a picture of the four of us with Mr. Desert, so we have to settle for our closest resembler (Can you see the resemblance between the two?)

Travel least one group's perspective

Half of us on travel break (Dianna, Susan, Bryan, and John) went on quite an adventure. We all met in Bangalore to visit with global and while they had class all day we spent the day exploring the city of Bangalore. It was an interestingly western side of India with shopping malls and a wonderful NASA themed bar (that only played Michael Jackson music). It was great to see some new faces and old friends before flying to Jaipur the next day. In Jaipur, we visited the largest sundial in the world and the Temple of the Sun God to watch the sunset over the city before we had a nice dinner and boarded the train to Jaisalmer.

Largest sundial in the world...accurate to 2 seconds (local time)
Sunset over Jaipur

When in Jaisalmer, we spent the first afternoon exploring the city and setting up our camel safari! We went through Mister Desert, who is by far one of the coolest Indians we have met. The night before our embarkment we stayed in a 400 year old haveli that used to be occupied by the master teachers of the town. It was inside the fort and yielded some of the best views from the roof. It was a beautiful place to stay and prepare for our adventure. Then, the camel safari was awesome: three days and two nights in the desert camping each night under the stars on some beautiful isolated sand dunes that were far from the main tourist camps. It was wonderful and peaceful and also caused for some sore legs from not being used to saddle riding. Sadly one of us had to leave us early on the second day due to illness, but on the bright side, made a full recovery in a hotel set up by Mister Desert. Our stay in the desert and Jaisalmer will be one to fill the memory bank, but alas, our train came to take us to Agra (and apparently the time table changed, so our train was 25 minutes early, right when we got to the station we got to jump on the moving train).

On our way to Jaipur, we came to realize the Taj Mahal would be closed on Friday so instead of spending Thursday at the Bird Sanctuary, we took a bus to Agra to see the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort. Agra was one of the worst cities we had ever been to when it comes to taking tourists for all the money they possibly can. Rickshaw drivers get commission inj so many places and people are deceitful and cunning when trying to earn your business. There was one rickshaw driver who told us the truth about everything, and after talking with him for a while, we found out he came in from Jaipur and was just trying to earn a living for his family back there. It was one of the few rickshaw drivers we were happy to pay, and even add a little tip for being such an honest person and taking us only where we wanted to go. The restaurants were by far the most expensive we had eaten at in India and that includes the upscale restaurants in Kodai and Vellore. Some of the food was really good, like at Zorba the Buddhist restaurant. All in all, Agra seems overrated (at least in my perspective, I can't really speak for the whole group). Luckily our next day in Bharatpur was worth the trouble in Agra!

Bharatpur: the home of Keoladeo Bird Sanctuary. This was a beautiful place, and luckily John convinced us all to hire a naturalist for the day. Our naturalist, Deepak, was the best tour guide we have ever experienced! He wasn't about just showing us the different sites in a regular tour of the park, he absolutely loves his job and his favorite hobby is bird watching. He brought us around to various spots and would spot birds that we couldn't imagine ever seeing, he would point the telescope at them and it would be like we were inches from the birds. We saw a black-shouldered kite tear apart a mouse, multiple eagles and owls, and a number of other native birds. It was one of the most peaceful days (especially after Agra) being away from people who viewed us as bags of money and being around Deepak who truly wanted to share this place with us. He wanted us to have a tremendous experience for the day. Anyway, after the day was done, we went back to the hotel and got ready for our 36 hours of travel to Darjeeling: Agra to Delhi, and Delhi to Darjeeling!
What a train ride/ finally arrive at Darjeeling. We met an awesome group of Poles who shared a jeep with us from New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling. They were fun to talk to and get to know on the three hour ride. Then, alas in Darjeeling, we have mostly been enjoying the atmosphere of coolness (almost cooler than Kodai), enjoying our three star homestay (very fancy from the guesthouses/apartments we are used to), enjoying the mountainous views (including sunrise at Tiger Hill) and finally enjoying the fine Tibetan culture mixed in with India. We are still here at Darjeeling, and we will take the toy train in the morning to New Jalpaiguri, and from there train to Kolkata and finally fly back to Chennai. Back to the reality of education. But until then, we plan on relaxing and enjoying the cold climate. It's the last we will see until Minnesota/Montana.

Monday, October 19, 2009


Hello from the K.V. Kuppam block in the Vellore District of Tamil Nadu! The three RUHSA researchers (Lisa, Ann and Sara) are wrapping up their projects and realizing, sadly, that there are only nine days left in their stay here. RUHSA has become our home away from home, and there is so much more that we want to see and do before we leave!

Our days here look like this: breakfast is at 7:30, usually idli with sambar or groundnut chatni, along with coffee and a little fried dahl thingie. Then we go about our projects: Lisa has been visiting one local village with her translator, conducting a survey on local knowledge and attitudes towards waste management, Sara visits the milk societies to interview the farmers about milking procedure and economic losses due to a common bovine bacterial infection, and Ann is making the rounds with her translator to interview women from six villages about food security. For lunch we usually avoid the white rice mounds in the mess hall and go to Hotel Paul or one of the small street establishments for paratha or chapati. In the evenings, we go for a bike ride, play frisbee, practice guitar or visit with villagers we have come to know through our projects.

There are so many characters here we will never forget: Immanuel, our advisor who hooked us up with bicycles, travel arrangements, and can make just about anything happen with the push of his intercom buzzer... Anandan, the daytime security man who is like an overly concerned parent... our translators, who each have their own distinct strengths and shortcomings as employees!

Our weekend trips have been amazing adventures. We went with Shruti (another foreign student at RUHSA) and her friends from CMC to Pondicherry for a weekend. There we walked through incredibly diverse fishmarkets, were blessed by an elephant at a Hindu temple, and sampled French pastries at an amazing bakery! The three of us then took a bus to a rural venue to see A.R. Rahman along with Bryan, Dianna, and some of their friends from Karigari. This was quite the experience- imagine 17,000 Indian fans, dozens of costume changes, backup dancers, musical guests, and fireworks along with one of the most popular artists in the country.

We also accompanied Bryan and Dianna to Trichy to stay with some students and celebrate Diwali with their family. Between climbing a huge hill that overlooked the entire village, having a private tour through a Hindu temple, and jumping from a 20 foot wall into a deep well, we will never forget our first Diwali.

In nine days we will be off on our travel break, and though I'm sad to leave RUHSA, I'm soooo ready to start trekking in the cool mountain air and to see some of the things North India has to offer! Poi Varein!
Above: Biking around the village. Below: In Pondy with Shruti

Friday, October 2, 2009

Adventures of the Kodai Roadies

Monkeys, mountains, and Tibetan momo - after a long overnight bus ride the 3 Kodai-bound Oles (Erin, Susan, and John) arrived in paradise! We arrived in Kodai last week, and quickly fell in love with it here! After the suffocating heat of Chennai, the cool, breezy (and at night somewhat frigid) temperatures of Kodai are a welcome relief. We have had to dig out all the warm clothes that we brought, and also visit some local shops to stock up on 1980's-esque sweaters. The local love of colorful sweaters may have already rubbed off on us, but we are staunchly holding out against the pressure to wear camoflage earmuffs.

We have greatly enjoyed exploring the town over the last few days and also meeting the PHCC staff that we will be working with for the next 5 weeks. The past few days have been busy touring the area and looking for project ideas. We visited coffee plantations, shola forests, grasslands, and a 2000 year old farming village! The Palni Hills are absolutely beautiful - when you can see them. The monsoons are coming and we have had some serious rain while we've been here! Despite the rain though we are getting a feel for the unique beauty of the area and an appreciation for the incredible biodiversity of the region. During our hike yesterday we saw over 4 dozen different plant species (all pointed out by Praba, our PHCC botanist friend) in a few hours! It was really quite incredible. We've also had some sweet wildlife sightings while we've been here - more bonnet macaques than we can count, Indian bison, Nilgiri langur, rare birds, and a LOT of cows. Over the next few days we are going to be starting our research projects - more to come on those details! (when we figure them out...)

Other than learning about the Palni Hills ecosystem we've been exploring the town and enjoying Kodai's fine culinary specialties - honey, chocolate, and eucalyptus oil. Well, the last one you can't eat. But the other two you can! And we have...along with visits to our favorite pastry shop, Daily Bread. Is it bad that the owner knows us after only a week here? That combined with the copious amounts of chai/"coffee" that we are drinking will probably send us into diabetic shock any day now...

We are missing our other oles...come visit us soon!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Out from under mother's wings...separated flock

Well, we all graduated from CCOORR, and travelled successfully and independently to our respective sites. Sara, Ann, and Lisa to RUHSA; Dianna and Bryan to Karigiri (both these sites near Vellore); and Susan, Erin, and John to Kodai Kanal. From what's been passed on between us, the accommodations are great, the food is great, and the people are great at all our sites! Out from under mother CCOORR's wing, we are finally independent birds flying free around India, but we had a great week at CCOORR to lead up to it.

We went to a random temple cave that was a very rocky drive and 3-5km hike away, and it was beautiful. Apparently Aman, the wife of Sheva, lives in the mountain, and there are many stories/superstitions about the cave. It is rarely visited and almost never by tourists, so it was very nice to see. There were also huge honeycombs all over the mountainside. It was amazing to see all the bees work.

One day, as said previously, we visited the brick industry, flower industry, and rice patty fields. We actually got to jump into the mud/water up to our knees and stand beside the women planting the fields, and plant half a field of rice with them. It was surprisingly difficult work, and the women were unbelievably fast and fantastic at it. We tried to keep up getting much smaller plots to plant, and it was a very rewarding experience getting to feel what the manual labor is like. Our backs were a little sore afterward due to the bending over and planting rice. And walking through the mud was quite fun :) It was overall a fantastic experience! The brick industry was very fun to learn about. Sadly, they were not in the brick making process at the moment, they were baking the bricks, so we were unable to help with any of the work. But the brick industry workers were such wonderful people. They were all very nice, and were all very happy to be out there doing work each and every day! The people have so little, and work so hard, but they are so proud of what they have! They are more than willing to welcome us, and share what little they have with us. It has really been humbling to see how giving and friendly these people are.

Later this same day, in the afternoon, we played volleyball with the villagers. Four of us on each side, and three village boys on each side. Naturally, Bryan's team (with Sara, Ann and Dianna) beat John's team (with Erin, Lisa, and Susan) :) It was great to play though. They all really enjoyed watching us play because we all have a height unmatched by most Indians. So, they enjoyed watching us spike it over the net. All the village yougsters came up to us afterward and shook our hands and said "super!" "super!" We've come to learn that that is a favorite English phrase for Indian children when complimenting us.

ECO FEAST! -- This was the bizarre name of the day we went out to hang out on an island near a huge backwaters area near the Bay of Bengal. We were the first tourists to ever visit this fishing village and we got to hear all about their industry, and moreso how the tsunami affected their industry. It was all very interesting and very fun to hear, and then they took us out to a "virgin" beach. Our guide, Amalan, called it this because tourists almost never visit this beach. Naturally, me and Ann played frisbee. Also, we were able to find beautiful untouched seashells washed up on the beach! It was fantastic. It was quite a day where we all got significantly sunburned being in the sun from like 10AM until 5PM...we also got to ride on a sweet fishing vessel :)

Visiting the village in general was a fantastic and fun experience. So many of the children remembered our names, and latched on to us like we were the heroes of the hour! They gave us a cultural/dance performance that lasted multiple hours. We sang for them, and it was a very mutualistic relationship :) Then, we went to a house, and jammed some music with them all. Sara played her guitar, they had cymbals/drums for us to play, a harpsichord, and we made fun music, and it seemed like the whole village would just follow us around. Later in the visit we had a meeting with the women's self-help group, and they asked us to stay in the village and to never leave! They said that they would provide us with rice :) So giving, and so caring; it has been so wonderful to meet all these fantastic people, and be introduced to what India is like beyond the tourism. We were no longer tourists this week, we were intitiated into real Indian people! It was warm, welcoming and wonderful, and we are all very excited for the coming months! We all will miss one another while apart, but I'm sure the Indian people will keep us feeling at home no matter where we are!

Hope all is well in the U.S.!!!
(We heard all about the swine flu spreading around campus...luckily we are in India picking up much better diseases than that ;)...)

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Indian Clothing (sorry no lungi pictures...)

Bryan and Susan getting splashed at the beach in India...the undertow was SO strong!
Here's the eight of us with our infamous cook Rajmohan! I think he may have been more of the manager, but nonetheless, he was great to us!

Some girls showing off the henna that the JJI students created for them :)

The large density of crocodiles at the crocodile farm.

Here are the guys showing off the dhotis (a much more formal style of dress than the lungi, the lungi is for around the house, and for the laborer)

The girls with Irene and the nicely constructed sarees :)

Oh my gosh, today was by far one of our most favorite days in India thus far. Who knew we could do SO much in a day? Today was FANTASTIC! We woke up to run early in the morning. Then when we got back, it was tea/coffee time. Then, breakfast…We had this vegetable pizza like thing for breakfast, and our fourth variety of bananas. Breakfast yesterday, they were green and medium length, lunch they were normal, long and yellow, and for dinner they were long and reddish brown…all of them were delicious. This morning, they were super short and yellow! The shortest bananas I have ever seen in my life. They were like bite-sized, and apparently they grow in the mountains. They are all much sweeter than U.S. bananas. Tonight, we made chapatti with jam on it wrapped around the banana…pretty much the best thing ever! We are finally getting to know the many varieties of bananas I kept hearing about from all the India trip goers from last year. We went to a brick making place. They mold the bricks by mixing the clay sand and water, then they let dry for two to three days, then they stack all the bricks in these brick ovens (isn’t that ironic?) and put charcoal on both sides of each stack. Finally, they bake them for three to four hours, and they are ready to go then. There can only do this for three months out of the year.

Then, we went to a rice field and actually hopped into the water, up to just below our knees in mud planting rice seedlings into the water. We actually helped with almost half the field…then we went to see a random couple’s farm who grew jasmine flowers to use for garland amongst other things. And finally, we visited a HUGE joined family system that originated from eight brothers living together, and their significant others/offspring! Their house was beautiful. We visited an orphanage where all the children had the day off of school, and we ended up playing volleyball with a few of them, and all of them watching! Bryan’s team took down John’s team…and we also visited a local government office. We then visited someone who played some music for us, and in all these places we were welcomed, oftentimes served tea or coffee or Fanta, and biscuits (cookies). We miss some of the people at ICSA, like Raj, Irene, Srinivasan, Pownderai, and all of our favorite shop owners, but they have been far too friendly to us here to not enjoy ourselves. We will be spoiled for a week before splitting up forever…but we have quite a week planned: a wedding, a visit to an island on the largest saltwater lake in India (where tourists NEVER go!), amongst performances at the orphanage, and who knows what else is in store! Our week is packed full of fun, and I look forward to it! It should be a grand time.