Posts Tagged ‘Pictures’

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.

Kites.

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.

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South Tour: Goa – The beginning of the end

January 2, 2011

11 Dec – 14 Dec

NAGPUR: In the three days since boarding a Nagpur-bound train in Mumbai, I’ve spent more time asleep than I have awake.

Sleep debt is the reason I’ve waited three days to write my end-of-tour recap, which I’d planned to write on the final leg of our journey, and the reason I penciled nothing in Mumbai or Goa – two destinations which gave me much to say and little time in which to write. I could have taken out my laptop to finish these entries, but it seems more prudent and appropriate for me to write these by hand first.

Now that I’m back in Nagpur, well-rested, well-fed, and more comfortable than I’ve been in weeks, here’s what I did before I got here.

–

Our train from Kochi to Madgaon arrived before sunrise on Sunday – the only time of day, in retrospect, when Goa actually seems to sleep.

I think it’s safe to call Goa the beach and party capital of India. Nowhere else on the tour – save perhaps the hill stations – can match the natural beauty of the beaches we visited. From the cliffs where we parked our bus, the beach looked just as it was billed beforehand: relaxing and beautiful.

As we made our way down from those cliffs, however, relaxing didn’t seem an appropriate word anymore. Unlike the beach at Mahabalipuram, tourists clogged the shores of Goa – especially after morning turned into afternoon. Rather than lying underneath a palm tree sipping coconut juice, I took an active approach to enjoying the beaches we visited: tossing around a small ball that Amanda [Washington, USA] had been “given”, taking a brief but exhilarating ride on a jetski, and attempting (and failing) to bodysurf the gentle waves that rarely came in higher than my head. Goa was the setting for a lot of great memories that day – and that night. I fell asleep before we could finish watching Scream together – at 4:30 a.m.

I woke up late Monday morning, and the day seemed much more relaxing than the day before. It was late afternoon before we drove to the beach and buried Jakob in the warm Goa sand. Our attempts at bodysurfing failed once again.

Mostly what I’ll remember from this day is the sunset.

Having missed it the day before, and having not seen a true sunset since the Golkunda Fort in Hyderabad, I was eager to watch the sun set over the Arabian Sea. After half a day enjoying the beach, I stood facing west with my arms crossed and my shirt over my shoulder as the others gathered their things, ready to head back to the hotel for the night. The sun crept lower in the sky.

“What are you doing, Chris?” someone asked me.

I’m brought back now to a lecture we had at the Grand Rapids conference in July. The speaker cited a survey wherein adults were asked an interesting question. I don’t remember the exact wording, but the jist of it was: How much time in your life have you spent really enjoying life – blissful, exhilarated, and purely happy?

The average response: ten minutes

For about ten minutes, I watched the sun fade into the clouds just over the horizon. It was a dull orange sunset, the kind that brightens the nearby clouds and makes them glow in multicolored streaks and puffs of light. The sun grew darker and darker as it went down, to the point that I could stare at it without holes being burned through my eyes. As we walked back along the beach, it grew fainter against the clouds until it nearly blended into them. I plucked my eyes away for a second, looked back, and it was gone.

What was I doing for those ten minutes? Just enjoying life – amidst some of the best friends I’ll ever have. Some were snapping pictures of the moment, some were chatting with each other, and some stood like I was, just looking, caught in the world’s best timepass. It was just one of many moments from this tour where I could put my happiness atop the scale from 1 to 10.

I feel bad for the people who’ve only been happy like this for ten minutes – not because they’ve never seen the sun set in Goa – but because moments like this aren’t about where you are in the world, they’re about who you’re with when you have them.

–

By our third and final day in Goa, it was becoming clear our time together was coming to a close.

Even for a tourist destination, Goa seems less like India than anywhere else on this tour. We found items we hadn’t found anywhere else in India – Oreos and Pringles for some, Gatorade and a Frisbee for me. Combined with the chips and pizza we so frequently consumed on the tour, we may as well have been in a different country.

The highlights of our third day in Goa were the two cavernous churches we visited in Old Goa that dwarfed the one we’d seen in Kochi. In a cathedral large enough to hold several houses, it was hard not to feel a sense of awe, however out of place a building seems amidst rickshaws and palm trees. Seeing this, combined with the imminence of our departure, was too much for some of us to stay composed. It was just too much like home.

I don’t remember much from our train ride to Mumbai except the arrangement of our seats. Normally when we traveled by train, our compartments were separated, sometimes even on different cars. This time, however, our three compartments sat next to each other, and we spent our last train ride together closer than ever before.

If for no other reason than symbolism, it was a nice arrangement.

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South Tour: Trivandrum, Kanyakumari, Kovalum and Kochi – Kan-ya sea the paparazzi?

December 30, 2010

3 Dec

KOCHI: Sometimes, it seems like all of South India is just one big suburb.

There’s no apparent hub city from which all of these towns emanate, but it’s been impossible to go more than half a kilometer in this part of India without finding pockets of human life. I first noticed this on Tuesday (30 Nov), as we traveled from the backwaters of Alleppy to the southernmost town in India – Kanyakumari. As I looked out the window after the sun had set, I kept expecting the city lights to give way to darkness and the bustle of city life to disappear, but that never happened.

I can’t complain about the quality of the roads we drove on that day so much as the traffic that covered it. Our 80 kilometer journey down a two-lane national highway took about five hours to complete. I can ride my one-speed bike around Champaign more quickly than our 27-seater drove us through Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The highways, rather than weaving around the cities, cut through them, doing little to ease the heavy congestion.

I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated the American interstate system as much as I do now.

–

In most cities on this tour, foreigners have not been hard to come by. Compared to Nagpur, Indore, and the other cities in which we’re being hosted, the sites we’ve visited have catered to tourists with ease. In general, the people by the temples, zoos, museums and palaces we’ve visited have all seemed comfortable in the presence of non-Indians.

Not so in Kanyakumari.

I’ve gotten very used to being stared at in India. As awkward as staring seems, it’s nothing more than looking. The initial unease I felt from the looks I’ve gotten everyday has disappeared. With other exchange students, the looks are distributed evenly, although we attract slightly more attention than we would alone.

The problems really begin when people start taking pictures of us.

Kanyakumari is the only place in India from which the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Bay of Bengal can be viewed simultaneously. On clear days, Sri Lanka can be seen far off in the distance. Although the beaches are little more than walls of rocks, they’re great places from which to catch panoramic views. Ferries took us to three small islands south of the coast, which featured majestic seaside temples and statues. Naturally, many cameras were out, poised to take pictures of the surroundings.

Except were these cameras really taking pictures of the three seas? We were witness to several 360Β° videos that seemed to point towards us much longer than they were pointed at the sea. Cell phone cameras would be aimed just over our shoulders until thumbs clicked down on them – just as they swiveled in our direction. Most often people would just point and click without making any effort to be inconspicuous.

I looked behind us a few times, the optimist in me guessing we were blocking the views those pictures were trying to capture. Most often though, that was not the case – rocks, barricades and other people usually made up the backgrounds of pictures stolen of us. Only once do I think permission to take our picture was asked. Cameras would be poised as people stood in groups whispering to each other. Staring at us. Pointing at us. Laughing at us.

I think I can be forgiven for loudly singing Lady Gaga’s Paparazzi, although I doubt many of the picture-takers recognized the song. We devised several ways of dealing with our own paparazzi. Sometimes looking them straight in the eye would be enough for them to become flustered and turn the camera elsewhere. Sometimes we mocked their attempts at subtlety, holding our cameras in obvious places and clicking photos while looking away from them. At least twice, Jordan walked straight towards the picture-takers and told them flatly to stop. Our best (or worst) idea was charging people for pictures with us, but for some reason no one was willing to pay our Rs. 500 fee.

There’s a lot more I could write about being a foreigner in India, but I’ll save it for another entry. Kanyakumari, despite the day’s troubles, was still worth the visit.

–

For the first two weeks of this tour, almost every day was a busy day. Museums here and temples there. Botanical gardens left and spice gardens right. Hill stations in the morning and palaces in the afternoon. The incessant rain we’ve had since arriving in Mysore did little to ease the chaos.

Then we spent two nights in Kovalum, and we had to find the chaos ourselves.

All of our time yesterday was free, and a lot of it was spent on the beach, just as in Mahabalipuram. Although expectations for the beach were moderate, and rain tried to dampen our moods, Kovalum was too fun for us to have low spirits. The waves never exceeded a meter in height, but the slope of the coastline was so slight I could walk 100 meters through the water and jump off the ocean floor like it was the surface of the moon. I spent at least three hours on the beach, just enjoying the feeling of being in the water.

And for two days we were actually able to sleep in. This of course meant most of us chose to stay up late into the night, but for once most of my sleep came in a bed, not on a bus.

Today we did nothing. We spent six hours driving to Kochi, ate Western non-veg fast food for lunch and dinner, and watched TV in the hotel. Kochi, from my limited views of it, appears to be quite a modern city – I’ve seen more high rises here than anywhere else on this tour. The nightlife and modern amenities are like those of Bangalore and Hyderabad. I’m surprised I’d never heard of Kochi before this tour, save the loss of their IPL franchise.

Tomorrow, for the first time in two and a half days, we’ll be going sightseeing. It should be an interesting day.

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South Tour: Alleppy – Recollections of a blinking night sky

December 28, 2010

29 Nov

NR. ALLEPPY: I’ve spent most of the last 10 hours staring at palm trees swaying in the warm winter wind, flocks of birds flying over fishing boats, and the beautiful blue backwaters of Alleppy.

But all I can think about right now is what the sky looked like tonight.

I’d forgotten that stars actually twinkle. Had I not seen them tonight, I may have even forgotten the stars exist at all. With the sky devoid of moonlight, and the light of the other houseboats across the waters barely visible, those stars were my only source of light, if only for a few moments.

Even so isolated from the outside world, we made some excuses for chaos this evening. The temperature somehow went up after sunset, making our clothes rather uncomfortable. Once I leaned against our other boat precariously, and had to leap monkey-like to avoid falling in the water. And of course we had our now-routine late-night bonding session.

Yes, I’m on a boat – this time a houseboat – and it’s another life experience I won’t forget and don’t regret. In spite of the mosquito breeding ground that is our main room, the aura of today’s journey has far outweighed any of its pitfalls. (Don’t worry, my bug spray works quite well!) We were welcomed on the boat with fresh coconut juice – straws sticking out of the coconuts themselves. Sabrina [Austria] and I couldn’t resist reenacting a scene from Titanic – inspired by the movie’s music playing from someone’s iPod. The views, the sounds, and the smells from the day were all ones not to be replicated. As Jordan told me: “I wish I had a moment camera.”

However many words I write, and however many pictures I take, some things in life just have to be experienced. Being on a houseboat is one of those things. The view can be captured, but what about the gentle, subtle sway of the boat? What about the enticing smells of fresh fish and roasted bananas? What about the songs playing in my head, reminders of our post-dinner group dance-meeting that’s become so routine but is always so…indescribable?

What about the view tonight? It felt odd to stand alone – if only for 3 minutes – and a bit awkward to peer around the ceiling for a half-view of the sky. The stillness is captivating, similar to the one earlier in the afternoon, when seven of us sat quiet on our deck looking at the scenery, light music in the background, the boat carrying us not to any particular destination, just onwards, ahead, somewhere. We didn’t need words to enjoy the moment.

Words can only take me so far…

I’m going to turn the lights off now, and think about the stars shining a million miles over my head. I’ve already touched the sky on this tour. Can the stars be that far out of my reach?

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South Tour: Chinnar, Munnar & Thekkady – Rain clouds not reflective of our moods

December 27, 2010

28 Nov

In spite of the incessant rain and our inappropriate footwear, our two-hour trek was an enjoyable one.

NR. THEKKADY: Let’s play the good-idea-bad-idea game:

Trekking though the jungle in sandals? Bad idea.

Climbing a precarious-looking steel tower in the rain? Bad idea.

Feeding wild monkeys Parle-G’s? Bad idea…but well worth the risk.

We spent half the day at a wildlife sanctuary in Chinnar on Friday (26 Nov), but we hardly saw any wildlife. True, you could see elephants and buffalo on the hill across the river (if you had 20/20 vision), and yes, we saw tracks that definitely belonged to elephants, but as far as it came to seeing mammals in their natural habitat, we had to settle for monkeys.

Deep into our hike, we approached the Chinnar River, which separates the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Getting there had been surprisingly uneventful – compared to the paths we’d tried to climb in Ooty, the ones here were easy to navigate. It was raining, however, so most of the hike was spent with my head down. And I probably should have worn socks, although some sported footwear even less practical than mine.

The monkey we saw by the river was the first and only animal to approach us. In fact, monkeys have been the only wild animals with the courage to approach us. We’d run into some earlier, and each time they’ve willing accepted our Parle-G’s, crackers and fruits. Even though a monkey once came two steps from passing through our open bus door, members of our group always light up with glee in the presence of monkeys. The reactions are similar with cats and dogs, as most of us come from cultures where such animals are pets, not pests.

I was struck at several times on our trek by inexplicable poignant moments. They usually occurred when we were too tired to talk, when little could be heard but the soft patter of rain and our dull footsteps. Even from the tall steel tower, our views weren’t spectacular – it was more what I couldn’t see than what I could. There was no doubt that something had been there ahead of us.

–

Yesterday I rode an elephant.

Riding an elephant is one of those things that you shouldn’t go to India and not do, like eating chapatti for dinner and visiting the Taj Mahal. My ten-minute ride was unremarkable and devoid of any unusual happenings (although two French tourists did take pictures of us). Our elephant carried Michelle [Germany], AnaΓ―s [France] and me a few hundred meters down an asphalt road for five minutes, turned around, and took us back.

I was asked what it felt like to ride an elephant. My answer?

“It feels like I’m riding on an elephant.”

The experience is about what you’d expect from such a creature. Elephants walk slowly, trundling along at about five miles an hour. We swayed a little from side to side as one massive hind leg was placed in front of the other. Our elephant also had much more hair than I’d expected. The ride was enjoyable, and the Rs. 150 was well-spent.

It was just another first-time experience that this tour has given me.

Just because I’ve grown used to having new experiences, however, doesn’t mean I enjoy them any less.

29 Nov

An already crowded traffic situation got worse when a bus got stuck in the only small passage.

An already crowded traffic situation got worse when a bus got stuck in the only small passage.

NR. ALLEPPY: Yesterday was the most boring day of the tour.

We braved the rain to visit a spice garden, saw a traditional Kathakali dance this evening, and waited in line for a boat ride through the jungle – only to be turned down at the ticket counter.

On the bus ride to Thekkady, the crowded roads became even more congested than usual. Just seconds before our bus was to pass by, a ten-meter tree fell across the road, presumably because of weight from the incessant rain. As our bus was at the front of the long queue to pass through, we all had a good view of the effort to clear a path. Dozens of people got out of their vehicles to help, and within minutes they’d cleared a path thin enough for small cars to drive through.

That initial effort was wasted, however, when a small bus tried squeezing through. The ground was too muddy for it to gather any traction, so traffic once again came to a standstill. We could only wait for an emergency vehicle to come with a machete and clear more room. After 20 minutes of tree-climbing, picture-taking, cable-avoiding, branch-chopping and leaf-dragging, the road was once again clear – the only casualties two power lines to which I assume (and hope) the power had already been cut.

Most of the remainder of our journey was spent asleep. I passed out on my bed at 9:30 that night, too exhausted to write.

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