Posts Tagged ‘Health’

RYLA, Part one

June 20, 2011

From 8-10 November:

Five days before my tour of South India. I’m standing by the only swimming pool I’ve seen in four months. My costume, which has been given to me minutes earlier, consists of jeans, sneakers, and a purple sequined long-sleeved shirt about two sizes too small for me. A crowd of small school age Indian kids has gathered around me, some costumed and sitting quietly, others in plainclothes and joking loudly in their native tongues. The choreographers of our Bollywood dance have their cameras out, and they’re pointing them at me. The sun has set. Loud speakers are blaring loud Hindi music to entertain the hundred or so parents of these children, but the stone bleachers on the other side of the enormous pool are mostly empty.

Funny. If the people sitting forty meters away knew they were about to see a 6′ 3″ blond-haired foreigner perform a choreographed dance to Anjaana Anjaani Ki Kahani, there probably wouldn’t have been any empty seats.

The three-day Rotary Youth Leadership Award camp, otherwise known as RYLA, has culminated in this performance. My group has spent the last three days learning a dance to a recent popular Bollywood song, and several other students – including the camp’s only other foreigner – have dances to perform as well. I’d been coerced into the optional performance just 32 hours before, under the impression it was compulsory. Thus I was shocked when all but three of the boys my age opted out. Now it’s too late.

I didn’t realize I had a choice.


In the weeks before RYLA, the Nagpur exchange students and I had been bombarded with requests for activities, usually on one or two days’ notice. We attended some. We turned down others. Some were interesting. Some were awful. It was always better when the others were present, so at least if the proceedings were unbearable, we’d have each other. But I was relying on the other exchange students for my RSVPs. I needed assurance that I wouldn’t venture into the unknown alone. Otherwise my response to an invitation would be “maybe.” And “maybe” normally becomes “no”…

Franzi, who had turned into a courier of sorts for these activities, was the one to break the news of RYLA to us. In fact, she’d given us a week’s notice, enough time for us to discuss amongst ourselves whether or not we should go. But except for Franzi, we’d all decided not to go, unwilling to subject ourselves to the attention we’d receive. It wasn’t worth it.

My host dad had found out about the camp the day before its onset. I told him I didn’t want to go. “Why aren’t you going?” he said. A legitimate question. I had no reply. For a month and a half or so, I’d been caught in the daily timepass I’d vowed to avoid. And indeed, I had no valid reason not to attend. So it was set. I packed my bag, and the next morning I was out the door. But reluctant to leave, I couldn’t help but think:

Why am I doing this?


Indeed, I considered that a legitimate question as I ventured the grounds of Bhonsla Military School just outside Nagpur on the morning of 8 November. I was the tallest and oldest in a group of about two dozen boys, but I was having trouble standing up straight. The sanitation of the breakfast that had been provided was suspect, and the bus ride in had violently jarred the contents of my stomach. Now my innards were in disarray; even though the Hindi-speaking army officer in full military regalia was instructing us to stand straight, I couldn’t.

I wanted to go home. I wanted to quit.

But a military camp is not the place to be weak, show weakness, or quit.

As the day went on, I was relieved to learn RYLA wasn’t really a military camp. Saket-dada had told me stories from camps in his childhood, how he’d been forced to run for miles on end and had been deprived of sleep for nights on end, unsmiling officers in the background shouting and pushing him on. But quick glances at the other members of the camp showed me it wouldn’t be like that. Though some of the boys came within an inch of my height and a year of my age, many of the boys and girls stood about two-thirds my height and looked as if a 100 meter jog would exhaust them – let alone a 10,000 meter one. So we spent the morning walking, not running, through the Bhonsla grounds and Vidharba fields, stopping at regular intervals as much for our rest as the attractions we were stopping for.

My stomach settled as morning gave way to afternoon, which was good – otherwise the day’s swimming and horseback riding would have been impossible for me. There was nothing significant about these activities to me – I’d ridden horses before, and I’d spent regular intervals each summer in swimming pools. But seeing the excitement of the younger kids vanquished my apathy. I saw it as the small kids smiled proudly on horseback – probably their first rides on such steeds, maybe their last. I saw it as they splashed wildly in the swimming pool large enough to accommodate five times as many campers as it did – especially in India. I saw it in the dingy Spartan sleeping quarters – a place where ones goods mattered not as much as the good friends around you.

Naturally, these kids took an interest in me, the likelihood of an ulterior motive correlating with age and ability to speak English. I was surrounded at every available moment, asked the normal foreigner-in-India questions: What’s your name? Where are you from? How do you find India? Do you like Indian food? What kind of music do you like? How do you find the heat? After dinner, the crowd around me had swelled to 30 and the questions had ventured into dangerous territory: Indo-Pak relations. Which country do you like more, Chris?

I was relieved when the group dissolved to assemble for the night’s nature walk.

Day two was more of the same. An early morning run through an obstacle course. Some laughably inaccurate attempts in riflery and archery. Military men teaching us about guns. People trying to teach me the prescribed steps to Anjaana Anjaani Ki Kahani. Again, I was unintentionally surrounded by kids for an evening interview, and again the questions ceased to relent.

This time I tried taking a different approach, seizing the opportunity when a brief lull arose. I turned the same questions back on the people asking them: What are your names? What are you all studying? What are your hobbies? These were group questions, and their replies were curt; they seemed uninterested in giving me the same information they were requesting of me. Most of these students were in the higher standards; the younger ones generally stood idle, either unconfident or unwilling to try their English on me.

It soon became clear there were two rather distinct groups of boys. The first group mostly consisted of 9th or 10th standard boys who would ask me peculiar, often crude questions and follow up my answers by turning to the others with laugh-arousing remarks in Hindi or Marathi. Unable to understand them, their remarks didn’t frustrate so much as confuse me.

(And these were only boys. The girls were strictly separated from us for almost every activity of the camp. My contact with them was limited to the occasional brief conversation with Franzi or a quick five-second self-introduction. It was probably better that way. Most members of the camp were wrongly convinced Franzi was either my girlfriend or my sister.)

But whatever this older group was saying, it was clearly affecting the members of the younger one. Most of the younger boys were in my camp – at least that’s the way it was made to appear. On the eve of night two, a group of older boys were sitting on bunks 12 feet away from me, telling jokes in Marathi that I couldn’t understand. The young Hindi-speaking boys around me couldn’t understand them either, but they’d gathered the older boys were speaking of me unfavorably. These small children – none probably higher than 8th standard – had firmly chosen righteousness, and to them, that meant sticking with me. Despite their difficulties with English, they sat in the bunks surrounding me, trying to communicate to me the atrocity of some things that had been said against me, surprised that I remained unfazed.

I reassured them that I was fine. I was.

They were just trying to help. But I didn’t need it. Not this kind, anyway.



“Foreigner!” – The saga of standing out in India, Part one

February 11, 2011

There are precisely three things that I don’t like about India.

The first is mosquitoes.

I’m heavily armed against them. I take a malaria pill every week. A mosquito net adorns my bed. In spite of the searing winter heat, I always wear long pants. But no matter how thick the bug spray in the air, how strong the waft of my repellant, or how fresh the GoodKnight plugged in the wall, I always seem to find my arms, ankles and neck in various degrees of bumpy, red itchiness.

I can get used to them, though.

The second is food poisoning.

My stomach had more trouble adapting to India than any other organ in my body. Every exchange student has had some kind of sickness since coming to India, and most of us have had several bouts. Even though I’ve rarely been sick for more than 36 hours, there’s nothing pleasant about the symptoms Pepto-Bismol is meant to cure. Even six and a half months after arrival, eating outside food remains a risky proposition.

I can get used to that, though.

Third is the blatant, shocking contrast of my appearance with every other person here.

It takes some getting used to.

Look. I stand out in India. I am six feet, three inches tall. My skin, though tan, pales in comparison to every Indian with unchanged skin. My hair, which was dirty-blonde upon arrival, has been naturally bleached a few shades lighter.

The sheer number of xenophiliacs in India amazes me. I’ve never thought of myself as a celebrity, but most people who have seen or met me treat me as one. The vast majority of attention foreigners get is positive, but the pestering for attention never ceases to persist. Here’s a far-from-complete list of the reactions I’ve drawn:

– Several times, random passers-by have attempted to shake my hand – not with the mere extension of their own, but by shoving their appendage into my forearm. Arm contact without eye contact.

– Physical contact with strangers is otherwise rare, but the other day a man actually grabbed my arm while I was on my bike. He rode away after I shouted back in R-rated Hindi.

– A different man on a motorcycle once drove past me with each forefinger and pinkie extended downwards, an attempt of the American “yo!” (whatever that’s supposed to be). Fortunately, this man was not the driver.

– At least the aforementioned hand gesture is superior to one that requires only one finger. Although uncommon, I’ve seen it too.

– Many a hand has covered a mouth as groups of friends – usually girls – whisper, giggle and smile amongst themselves while foreigners pass them by.

– At the other end of the spectrum are the groups of friends – usually boys – who shout at me in me in rapidfire Hindi and laugh when I don’t respond. As my knowledge of the language has increased, I’ve become more aware of what they’re saying, and I’ve had to refrain from yelling my own choice words back at them.

– At least every other day, someone will ask me (in English) where I’m from and why I’m in India. The age of the questioners ranges from primary schoolers to retired old men, and the honesty of my answers vary depending on the context and my mood. At various points in my exchange, I have temporarily become Danish, French, South African, Liechtensteinese, Chinese and Latvian.

– Twice, men have started singing Sheila Ki Jawani at the sight of me, in particular the line “I’m too sexy for you.” I’m not sure if I should be more confused or amused.

– As I recounted in my tale of our venture to Kanyakumari on the South Tour, people are not shy about taking pictures of us. At least it’s harder to shoot a moving target, so photography is much less prevalent in traffic.

– However, no one has asked me for my autograph. Yet.

Mostly, all people do is look. And there are many different ways of doing so.

The Look-away
Probably the most common kind of staring is The Look-away. These people are intent upon looking at me, but remain too coy to make eye contact. Their heads turn with me: as soon as I look at them, they allow something else to capture their interest. When I turn back, their heads swivel towards mine again.

The Blank Stare
I honestly can’t fault anyone for gaping at me as if I were a green-faced three-eyed Martian with tentacles sprouting out of my eyelids. Given how many foreigners show up in Nagpur, I might as well be one! The Blank Stare conveys innocence – such lookers are simply shocked by my presence, thus they often aren’t intimidated by eye contact. I usually have no problem with it.

The Double-take
One look isn’t always enough.

The Triple-take
One look? Understandable. Two looks? Fine. But three looks? Keep your eyes on whatever it is that’s in front of you!

The Quadruple-take
I have advice for these people: pull over to the side of the road, make yourself comfortable, sip some chai, and stare at me for five minutes. It’s safer than trying to drive in my presence.

The Look Back
Passengers on the backs of two-wheelers have a tendency to swivel their heads quite unabashedly in my direction. The lookers may be in autos or on trucks, and sometimes even the drivers can’t resist turning around. Variations include The Look Back Double-take, The Look Back Triple-take, and the Look Back Quadruple-take.

The Rear-view Mirror
Not every moped has a rear-view mirror, but I’m often presented with a peculiar sight when such equipped bikes pull up in front of me. The driver – often wearing sunglasses – will be looking straight ahead, but as I look at the mirror, a pair of eyes will meet mine. I usually stare back until the driver realizes the subtlety has been lost and looks away.

The No-look
I can tell my presence has registered in the minds of these people by the intent with which they look away from me. They’re trying to be considerate, to show they could care less that a foreigner just pulled up next to them. Maybe they’ve even seen others before. But their attempts at normalization fail – they try so hard not to care about my presence that it becomes apparent that they do.

The Over-my-shoulder
I find it amazing and amusing that there’s always something interesting happening over my shoulder, and yet I’m never able to see it myself. There must be. Why else would Bharatiya eyes so consistently be fixed far in the distance behind me, everywhere I go?

The Dekho!
Dekho is the Hindi word for “look”. Thus it’s a word I often hear as I pass a group of people, usually school-age kids. At the sight of me, one will lean into another, and either whisper or shout the news that a non-Indian is present. Thus one dropped jaw becomes at least two or three.

But dekho is hardly the word or phrase I hear most often as I roam around Nagpur. That distinction doesn’t belong to a Hindi word like bapure (My God!). It’s not “Hello”, “Hi”, or “Hey dude whassup?” It’s not even the curiously ubiquitous “yo!”

It’s the word I’ve heard 512 times in the last 26 days.



To be continued…

Something to make you smile

January 29, 2011

Thanks to a team of doctors from England, 100 small children are now able to do something they couldn’t before.


With the assistance of a Nagpur Rotary club, a group of English doctors flew to Nagpur for the week to repair cleft-lips and -palates of infants and small children. For upwards of 12 hours a day, the team rarely left the hospital, working around the clock to improve as many lives as possible. For free.

And we got to watch.

After Hindi class on Monday, Michelle and I went to Memorial Hospital with Franziska, eager to see this act of charity firsthand. Michelle and Franzi had already been inside, but this was my maiden visit. In fact, it was my first visit to any hospital in India, and it was unlike any I’d seen in the U.S.

I grew up accompanying my M.D. mom to work, so I know what hospitals are supposed to look like. Large, modern, sterile structures impenetrable except through a pair of automatic glass sliding doors. Patients sitting two or three in each well-ventilated room, guests only allowed with a prominently-placed visitors pass. An anthill of activity: bustling with white coats and blue scrubs, teeming with clipboards, stethoscopes and blood-pressure cuffs.

This hospital was nothing like any of those I’d visited before, although given the relative wealth of its patients, it could have been worse. It was like a well-polished black-and-white TV – carefully maintained, but outdated and limited in scope. The three-story main building looked like it was constructed sometime between the first and second World Wars. The recovery room wasn’t quite overcrowded – especially by India’s standards – but it was still just one room all the same. Without ventilators available for the patients, an assistant had to do the breathing quite literally by hand.

That said, I never would have been allowed to see such an operation in America, so for me this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I put on some of those pale blue scrubs and – careful not to touch anything – joined the others in the operating room.

The Englishmen actually referred to the operating room as the “theatre”, which seems appropriate given the spectacle we saw. We had to be careful not to trip over any trailing wires, but other than that the room was an oasis of modernity in an otherwise aging hospital. Four or five doctors were crowded around the patient, as was most of the high-tech equipment you’d expect in such a situation. One of the off-duty doctors was kind enough to give us an overview of the operations, talking to us about the room’s cords, clamps and clefts. The atmosphere was much more relaxed than I’d expected, but the aura of concentration remained a constant ubiquity.

But the most remarkable thing about these operations was why they were performed. Comparable surgeons were available throughout India, but at a price the families of the patients couldn’t afford. Three of England’s 25 doctors specializing in this field were in Nagpur for the project, and they stood in three neighboring rooms, implanting smiles surgically into their patients, and indirectly on the faces of the parents waiting outside.

This time, the smiley face at the end of my post has an added meaning. Because thanks to this program, that’s what 100 children will now be able to do.



South Tour: Bangalore, Hassan, Belur, Halebid & Mysore – It’s not my eyes that are sore

December 20, 2010

22 Nov

The Maharaja’s Palace, in Mysore

MYSORE: I woke up today with my stomach in pain.

That statement certainly worried some people more than others. It was a routine stomachache, nothing more, although it didn’t help that I’d only gotten four hours of sleep the night before. Food poisoning had afflicted me about three times since coming to India, so I knew the symptoms well.

I asked my roommates how they were feeling. Jordan, too, was sick. From several conversations in the hallway, I gleamed that about a third of us were legitimately sick. Another third, like me, had some symptoms of food poisoning. We’d most certainly eaten something bad yesterday.

I normally eat a larger breakfast than any of the other students. Breakfast is the only meal included in the cost of the tour every day, so I normally take 2-3 plates of South Indian food. Today, however, I had one piece of toast and two glasses of juice. Throughout the day, I took nothing else more than a bowl of soup, a liter of water, and the largest prasad (food offering) I’d ever taken – enough to fill a plate – but the smallest dinner I’ve taken on the tour.

Being sick is by far the worst part of being an exchange student in India.

From our night halt in a Hassan hotel, we visited two impressive stone temples in Belur and Halebid, decorated so as to leave no part blank. As nice as they were, the architecture was similar for both. As we approached the second, some of us groaned, unwilling to depart the bus. Had we been healthy, none of us would have complained. As it was, we got out and spent some time with our hands on our knees, sitting, or leaning against pillars for support. A lot of us slept on today’s bus ride.

I woke up a few kilometers from our hotel in Mysore. Although it was raining, the city still looked beautiful. Like Hyderabad and Bangalore, Mysore is very modern; I saw no sidewalks used for walking, but the traffic moved smoothly and I could see an abundance of Western stores. Mysore somehow made me think of England, even though I’ve never seen the country.

I was rushed through the Maharaja’s Palace – given barely an hour this evening to see it before it closed. Worse, cameras weren’t allowed inside. My free audio tour headset was broken too.

Nonetheless, it was among the most beautiful manmade structures I’ve ever been in – just behind Wrigley Field, the Eiffel Tower, and the Statue of Liberty. From outside, its majesty was apparent. The inside was full of rooms so detailed, decorated and colorful I could have stayed for hours…days…weeks… It would have been nice to live there.

Mysore also looks exquisite at night. Our view from the hills above the city was spectacular. Although about half the size of Nagpur, the city seemed much bigger when lit up in all directions.

I got a good vibe from Mysore. My stomach doesn’t seem to be bothering me as much anymore now.

The two previous days featured some nice attractions – an animal park in Bangalore where I snapped pictures of tigers and bears (but no lions), a flower garden wherein plants of varying sizes combined to form jaw-dropping views, and a Jain temple atop a hill not unlike Golkunda and Sinhagad that took over 600 steps to climb, the world’s largest monolithic statue – Gomateshwara – at the top.

However, the theme of the last three days was, and remains, the people. The past three nights have featured “parties” in hotel rooms lasting late into the night – the reason our sleep has been so limited and I’ve written nothing from Bangalore or Hassan. Almost every waking moment is spent with the other students, and over half of those are filled with interesting conversations, some on which I can’t elaborate. Suffice to say we’ve learned a lot about each other.

I’m going to miss everybody when this tour is over. Have we really just spent a week together?


Click to enlarge

On the digestion of Indian culture

July 31, 2010

For days I’ve been telling myself to write another blog.

I wanted to write something pithy here, like ‘Everything’s the same, despite being halfway around the world’ or ‘Everything is different because I’m halfway around the world’ or even ‘I can feel the earth spinning more quickly here.’ (I can’t, by the way.)

Then again, I’ve only spent ten days in India, and I’ve been blessed with each of the five symptoms treated by Pepto-Bismol for the last four of them. At the moment I’m completely healthy, but as I laid in bed earlier this week, I thought about what I could definitively say about India.

Here’s my pithy statement:

India overwhelms your senses.

All five of my senses – sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch – have been in overdrive since I got here, as I’ve digested the culture both literally and figuratively.

I’ve heard mosquitoes buzzing and birds chirping. Our family’s two dogs bark, and the three parrots squawk. Chainsaws buzz next door and a man calls out prayers from the street each morning. The air-conditioner, however, always hums loudly enough to keep me asleep.

In the streets, burnt gasoline from the cars, rickshaws and scooters dominates the air. In my house I’ve encountered dozens of smells – from wafts of bug spray to the now-familiar smells in the kitchen. The nighttime air in Mumbai had a distinctive fresh smell, one shared by parts of Nagpur. Of all the senses, smell is the hardest to describe.

The food – when I can safely digest it – has been wonderful and often surprisingly similar to Western food. Not all Indian food is spicy, by the way. Unfortunately I’m not well enough versed in the food to describe it well either, but I’ve had potatoes, rice, toast, cereal and some delicious pizza. The pizza, however, has less sauce and cheese, and more fresh vegetables. Milk, tea, and juices are also very common.

But my eyes have worked harder than any other part of my body so far, even my stomach. Everywhere I look, there is competition for my attention.

People vied for my attention – arms outstretched – when I approached a currency exchange booth in Mumbai. Signs vie for my attention in the streets, each more colorful than the next – written in both Hindi and English to make sure everyone understands the meaning.

There’s no shortage of things to see: cows, motorcycles and colorful people in the street. A palm tree sits just outside my bedroom, as do a dozen other plants. Everything seems more bright than in the USA, just painted less thoroughly.

In time, this will all become ordinary, rather than overwhelming.

For now though, I’m in the process of giving my eyes, my stomach and my head some time to digest it all.


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