Posts Tagged ‘Host Family’

Holiday update: New Years, Makar Sankranti & Republic Day

January 27, 2011

31 Dec – 1 Jan: New Years

After a Christmas that left hardly a moment to catch our breaths, my celebration of New Years was comparatively tame. With Prajyot, Saket, their parents, and my host parents, I went to another outdoor club to celebrate the end of 2010. We sat with some friends of my host dad and their families, including a 13-year-old boy named Akhilesh.

On our tickets were lists of 15 random numbers between 0 and 99, written in three rows. In the third to last hour of 2010, the 200 or so people in attendance played bingo while the emcees called out number after number. As my card filled up, I gathered from their Hinglish that there would be cash prizes for those with a completed row, and soon I needed only a “50” to win. Akhilesh, too, was waiting for a specific number. Two or three people had already won prizes, but numbers were still being called, which was a good sign.

Then I heard it. The number of Test centuries Sachin Tendulkar had recorded: 50.

(Tendulkar, an Indian cricket legend, has since recorded his 51st Test century. I’ll have much more to say about cricket in February.)

Egged on by several people at the table, I went up to the stage and handed over my card. What followed was probably the most embarrassing conversation of my life:

Emcee: “What’s your name?”

Me: “Mera naam Chris hai.” (My name is Chris.)

“Aap kya karte hain?” (What are you doing?)

[Pause] “I don’t understand, but my New Years resolution is to learn more Hindi!”

“Ok, we’ll stick to English. Chris…can you tell me what you’re doing here?”

“I’m a student. On Rotary Youth Exchange.”

“No, I mean why did you come up here?”

I pointed at my card and the completed row of numbers.

“Ah, I’m sorry Chris, but we’re done with the prizes for completed lines. You’ll need to fill out the rest of the card if you want to come up here again.”

I went back to the table disappointed but not distraught. After all, it was New Years Eve! How could I be sad? As fireworks went off around midnight, I stood on the stage which had become a dance floor, and shook hands with Saket-dada, Prajyot and Akhilesh.

I would have sung Auld Lang Syne, but I couldn’t remember the words.

14-15 Jan: Makar Sankranti

It didn’t have the pomp of Independence Day, the lights of Diwali, the exploding idols of Dussehra or the personal touch of Maha Laxshmi at our house.

But if only for the view of the sky one afternoon, Makar Sankranti was the most beautiful holiday I’ve been a part of in India.

Makar Sankranti, a festival of kites, celebrates the beginning of the sun’s northward passage in the sky. Although the winter solstice is about three weeks earlier, Sankranti always occurs on the same day each year. And what a day it is.

I made my way to the top of a six-story apartment building two Saturdays ago with Vedant and Akhilesh, among others. Awaiting us there were about two-dozen kites and probably enough string to circumnavigate the city of Nagpur. Soon enough, several of those kites were in the air, although most were eventually lost to the January sky.

But while the kites were still attached, they provided quite a show. A gibbous moon shone high in the Western sky, and several of the kites we flew appeared a fraction the size of Earth’s largest satellite. Once, our kite topped every other in our area, the taut string our only proof of its existence as it flew out of sight. Looking around the city, about 80 percent of the rooftops were occupied, with at least one kite flying from each.

The sky was so crowded, I had to remind myself several times what I was looking at: Not birds. Not planes.


26 Jan: Republic Day

Wednesday was Republic Day in India, the 61st anniversary of the Indian constitution being signed into law. Like Independence Day, Republic Day is also a federal holiday, and flags and patriotism were again visible throughout Nagpur. In Delhi – the capital city of India – a parade was held that morning, and I watched some of the celebrations on TV.

But for the most part, the day was uneventful. I didn’t even hear that many firecrackers.



South Tour: Mumbai & Nagpur – It’s not “Goodbye,” it’s “See you again”

January 3, 2011

13 Dec – 14 Dec

NAGPUR: I’m trying to remember when I first fell in love with the city of Mumbai.

Was it when I walked through the train station to see the facade up front, after passing through a lobby that was the most crowded, bustling room I’d ever been in?

Was it when the skyline of the city’s downtown suddenly appeared on our bus ride in, a maze of skyscrapers sandwiched by pale blue sky and pale blue sea?

Was it when our bus pulled up between the Gateway to India and the Taj Hotel, as if one historic monument wasn’t enough for the moment?

Whatever it was, it was enough for me to seriously consider buying an I (heart) Mumbai t-shirt, although I ultimately decided to pass.

I think the consensus we reached is that Mumbai is like New York, Chicago, Miami and Toronto – like New York as a country’s metropolitan hub, like Chicago with its iconic skyline, like Miami in the glimmering marriage of city and sea, and like Toronto because…Toronto is also a big city that people know. Whatever city Mumbai most resembles, we spent our time enjoying the world’s largest city, not dreading our departure at the end of the day.

And that’s the way it should be.

Although our breakfast at the train station was probably the worst of the tour, that hardly mattered, given what we were to see that day. Our decision to skip the Elephanta Caves was a good one, as it gave us a full day to enjoy the city. Our morning was filled with great opportunities for photo ops. Both the road coming in and a park overlooking the sea provided outstanding views of Mumbai’s skyline. The Gateway of India, of course, looked great no matter where the picture was taken from.

While staring at the Taj Hotel, I was overwhelmed by poignancy as I realized what I was staring at. Saddened as I was by my memories of 26/11 and my recollection of the events from those days, I was equally inspired by the scene Wednesday – of people milling about as normal, Indians and foreigners alike. All the while the Taj Hotel stood monumental as ever, unscarred, as if nothing had ever happened 25 months before.

The rest of our afternoon was mostly spent shopping. Some of us got early starts on Secret Santa shopping, while others picked out souvenirs for themselves. We also visited a mosque at the end of a 500-meter long pier before splitting up and spending our afternoon in three separate groups. Our final four hours together were relaxing and free of obligation in one of the busiest cities in the world.

And just like that, the tour was over. One last walk back to the bus. One last group photograph. One last ride to the train station. Outside the terminal where the Indore kids were dropped, everyone from one district had a goodbye hug for their friends in the other. Some eyes were glossier than others, but I think we all agreed our goodbyes were too abrupt, and a narrow street next to heaps of trash was not the ideal setting in which to bid each other adieu.

Except it’s never “goodbye” with Rotary, they say. It’s “see you again”. When will “again” be? That’s the question.

But I know that day will come – for everyone on this tour.

Until next time, whenever that is, I have the memories inscribed in this journal to fall back on.

For me, “that day” has already come for fourteen in our tour group. For the nine others from District 3030, it came soon hereafter, as everyday practices began the next Monday for our Christmas Day presentation. For Sabrina, who left the tour early to attend a wedding in Mumbai, it came the day after the tour ended, in Nagpur. For Jordan, Amanda and Kelsey [Vermont, USA], it came about two weeks later, as they also came to Nagpur to prepare for the presentation. For RK, it was Christmas Day. For Nikolas and Hannah [Germany], it will probably come when we embark on the North Tour in February. That only leaves Sebastian and Aafreen [India], who I’ll be sure to meet on some future date.

You know home won’t be the same when you spend a month away from it.

Even though the home I came back to is my second home, halfway around the world from my first, a lot changed in the 25 days I was gone. Saket-dada, my host brother, is now staying in his hometown of Pune as he enjoys his school holidays. A new ping-pong table sits next to Jojo and Diana outside. A new rug lies upstairs, a MacBook Pro is my host dad’s new laptop, and the TV that used to sit idle in my bedroom is now featured by the dining room table.

It’s also a lot colder here, to the point that I actually wore my jacket – for five minutes. The 60-degree (F) nights will have everyone back home jealous, but here such weather is cause for two sweaters, a woolen hat, and a scarf.

Several nights, the temperature has dropped into the 40s, cause for me to wear my jacket to bed on more than one occasion. My tolerance for cold, while still higher than that of anyone I know here, is lower than it was in the US. It has dropped below freezing in parts of India, and there is snow in Kashmir.

This past week has been my vacation, not the 25 days before coming back. Because at the end of a vacation, aren’t you supposed to feel relaxed? Aren’t you supposed to be rejuvenated? Aren’t the monkeys supposed to have climbed off your back, leaving you ready to once-again face the world?

It’s because of my last week in Nagpur that I’d argue this tour was not a vacation. A departure from normal? Yes. But not a break. The only fatigue I’ve felt comparable to this is that of the first days of school breaks each year, following months of uninterrupted study. And this tour was just 25 days.

These were my thoughts as I lay in bed exhausted my first day back, my body still swaying to and fro as it had on the train, happy to finally be lying on a stable, familiar bed. You can’t make these kinds of memories in the places we did and call our tour a vacation.

That’s the best argument my mind can make right now, anyway.

As for my body, it’s too tired to argue. I’m bas.*


* – Bas is Hindi for “enough”. Although not proper Hinglish, we often used the phrase on the tour to say “I’ve had enough”.

Click to enlarge

“It’s kind of like Christmas in India” and other Indian festivities

September 13, 2010

I’ve come to the conclusion that three things are more important than anything else in understanding Indian culture: food, family, and festivals.

While I plan on giving food a post of its own sometime, I’d like to talk about the latter two of those, since all three are inseparable from Indian culture, and all three were a big part of this past weekend.

I was told earlier that the reason Rotary places us with host families is because the family is at the heart of every culture. And they’re completely right about that with India.

Prajyot and his parents came into town from Pune on Friday, and this weekend has had a certain energy that hadn’t been present for a while. Since Mayank left for Michigan, life had been a little quiet; the energy in the house had lessened after the months-long buildup of preparing for his trip came to a climax with his departure. We weren’t exactly sad, but things felt a little stale.

Festivals bring flavor to life in India, so things never feel stale for long.

Here’s a sampling of the celebrations we’ve had since Independence Day:

August 24: Raksha Bandham

I was confused the first time I heard Mayank refer to Saket as his “brother”. Since they have the same grandparents but different parents, that makes them cousins, right?

But “cousins” are considered brothers and sisters here, which means I, an only child in America, have several “brothers” and “sisters” in Nagpur and Pune. Our extended family here is so large I’ve lost track of all the aunts and uncles, and I don’t know most of their names. When addressing an elder brother, we’re supposed to say “dada”, which means Saket is “Saket-dada”.

Raksha Bandham is about the relationship between brothers and sisters. One of my “sisters” tied three bands – rakhi – around my wrist to symbolize our relationship, and did the same for Saket, Mayank and Vedant (a 12-year-old “brother” who lives nearby and visits almost every day). In return, the brothers offer gifts to complete the ceremony and vow to always protect the sister.

Of course, we had a feast as well.

September 2: Dahi Handi (Krishna’s birthday)

Since I attended college like any other day, I didn’t realize anything was happening until I heard the celebration that night.

My host mom, Saket-dada and I went to the nearby field, where over 100 people were gathered around a long rope stretched 15 feet high. Tied to the rope was a pot filled with buttermilk. As drums were rhythmically pounded, water and pink powder were thrown into the crowd. About a dozen people closed in beneath the pot and formed a human pyramid in an attempt to break the pot.

Of the many attempts, only about three or four times did a group succeed. I kept my distance and stayed dry, but Saket contributed to some of the successful efforts, earning him several buckets of water splashed on him.

I’m not sure what it all had to do with Krishna’s birth, but it was a lot of fun to watch.

September 10: Eid ul-Fitr

Our family didn’t celebrate this, since our family is Hindu, but this Muslim holiday was celebrated around the world and India was no exception. Eid marks the end of the Islamic holy month Ramadan, which here is called “Ramzan”. (Romanization of many of these holidays, by the way, can be inconsistent.)

September 11 – present: Ganesh Chaturthi

This is the holiday that’s confused me the most.

I usually don’t hear about these holidays until the day before or the day of, so they’ve lacked the buildup and suspense of holidays I’m used to, like Easter or Thanksgiving. It’s probably because this is my first time celebrating them. Ganesh is no exception.

For ten days, people celebrate the Hindu Lord Ganesha, probably the most recognized of the Hindu deities. It’s impossible not to immerse in the festivities – drumbeats from a parade thundered through our living room the other night and we’ve already had two well-attended feasts with friends and family.

Now we’re in the process of decorating part of our dining/ sitting room. Where before sat a swing-like bench there is now a space for an idol of Ganesha, which comes in tomorrow morning. The surrounding frame is decorated with leaves, flowers, and several kinds of lights in many colors. It’s not finished yet, and it already looks quite flashy.

It’s kind of like an Indian Christmas tree.

Actually, it’s kind of like Christmas in India.

Seven days to go. There’s much more to come. And we haven’t even had Diwali or Holi yet…


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Pune, cricket, and transportation in India

August 8, 2010

I’m dedicating this blog entry to my grandma, in honor of her birthday last week. Happy (belated) birthday!


Why do we only get 24 hours in a day?

I wish I had more time for this blog. I’d like to be able to post a new entry every day. This last week has been so busy, I’ve been clamoring to share everything I’ve done immediately after I’ve done it.

The irony is bittersweet. When I have less free time, it means I’m busy, doing something I want to share. But the less time I have that’s free, the less time I have to write.

Let’s get caught up.

I’ve spent the last five days in Pune, a large city 880 kilometers from Nagpur. The second largest city in Maharashtra, Pune is beautiful. Tall, green, coconut trees line many of the streets. I stayed at the house of my host dad’s brother with his wife, his sons Prajyot and Saket, my host mom and dad, my host brother Mayank, and a German Shepherd named Rocky.

School doesn’t start for about two weeks, but I’ve been doing something interesting every day. On Thursday we visited Sinhagad, a fort just outside Pune. Words do little good in describing the view from the top of the hill. I’ll post pictures from that trip here soon.

Twice, I played cricket in the alley beside the house with Prajyot, Saket and one of Prajyot’s friends. To play, you only need a ball, a bat, two tires and two people. Prajyot, eight, enjoys cricket about as much as I enjoyed baseball at that age. As we played, Prajyot frequently hit the ball into the neighbors’ yards, just as I did with wiffle balls in my backyard in Champaign.

I’ve found the learning curve for cricket to be short. With the game on TV, in the newspapers and in the streets most of the year, it’s hard not to immerse in cricket. Just as my fondness for baseball was parlayed into baseballbaseballbaseball, you now may as well turn to me and say cricketcricketcricket at any mention of the sport.

This morning I got back into Nagpur after an overnight train ride with Mayank and my host mom and dad. (Saket took a bus back on Thursday.) The contrast between that ride and the Indigo flight into Pune was vast. Tuesday’s one hour flight was uneventful – I doubt the rectangular bags by each seat reading “Get Well Soon” are ever used.

The return trip, however, was a 16-hour affair. Even the relatively less-crowded AC sleeper car we were on had nine beds in a nook of about 18 cubic meters. Do the math.

That said, I enjoyed the experience. As I stared out the window at the cities, the trees, and the fields of sugar, I felt a part of India. From 30,000 feet at night, India hides behind the clouds, with only the city lights shining through. From the ground, India is close. You’re pulled in. As the train rattled along, India no longer seemed a faraway place. It was, and is, a second home.

In Pune, I had access to the internet only once in five days, but I didn’t miss it, save for this blog and those of you reading it. Keep asking questions. So long as I have the time and the internet connection, I won’t stop writing.


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Hinglish, soccer in the streets, and Indian video games: Answering your questions about India

July 25, 2010

August 12, 2010: UPDATE: Marathi is also commonly spoken on the streets in Maharashtra. Hindi is a secondary language for most people. See this post for more updated information about language in India.

Ask and you shall receive.

How many host families will you have?

I have only one host family the whole year. So I’m very happy that I got placed with a good one! Everyone in the family has been supportive and helped me learn all the new facets of the culture. One of the students I met at the conference had five though, if I remember correctly, so the number of families varies from student to student and country to country.

Are you going to go through an intensive language week or two through Rotary during your first few weeks? I know they do that in some of the European countries.

No, but I actually wish I did. Almost everyone I’ve met speaks English, and most speak it well. When someone wants to talk to me in English, I’m usually able to understand what they’re saying without any difficulties. I have become self-conscious of my American accent, since it’s quite distinctive.

But almost everyone here speaks three languages fluently: English, Hindi and Marathi, the latter two of which are quite similar. I find it remarkable how so many people are so fluent in all three languages. In the house, Marathi is commonly spoken. On the streets, everyone understands Hindi. Friends often talk amongst themselves in Hindi and Marathi, so I wish I had learned more of each before I came. They’ll interchange between Hindi and English a lot, so I guess you could say everyone speaks Hinglish.

Are you taller than anyone you see?

Yea… In fact I haven’t seen a single other person with blond or brown hair since I left the Nagpur airport. But I haven’t gotten as much attention for my difference in appearance as I thought I would. A small child noticeably pointed at me a couple days ago, and a baby girl stared at me as I rode by in the car, but if adults have been looking at me, they have been discrete. No one has come up to me and tousled my hair or anything like that.

Are there kids playing soccer in the streets?

Cricket is the big sport here in India, but it’s definitely not the only popular sport. Basketball and football (I’m just going to call soccer football, so hang with me) are very popular. Field hockey, badminton and volleyball are also played a lot. But these are all played on well-maintained courts and fields for the most part.

So no, I haven’t seen kids playing soccer in the streets. 🙂

As for football, I was going to go play this morning with my host brother, cousin and friends, but it was raining too hard.

Have you got a phone yet that works?

No, not yet. Everyone I talked to beforehand said I shouldn’t bring a phone, so that’s why I remained one of those weird people without a cell phone in the months before the trip. One of my friends here recommended I just change the SIM card on a phone from the US, but I really didn’t know enough to do anything.

I don’t know if I’ll be getting a phone eventually, but seeing as I survived 15 of my 17 years without one, I’ll think I’ll be able to survive one more. 😛

Watching tv??? What about… video games ?

TV is to India what the internet is to the US. Actually that’s an overgeneralization. But TV seems more influential here than in the US. My host brother, cousin, and friends watch a lot of movies in their free time, clicking between HBO, Cinemax, Showtime, and the Indian Disney Channel. We’ve also watched the WWE.

Yes, I know. I didn’t come to India just to watch TV…

As for video games, some people play video games on their PCs. Internet cafés, I’ve heard, are filled with teenagers on World of Warcraft and Age of Empires. I haven’t had the chance to play anything yet.

I did, however, sing YMCA and We Are The Champions on the family karaoke machine…

Did you take your malaria pill?

Only you would ask that, mom. Yes, of course! No worries.


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