Wednesday, January 11, 2006

about india

i think all of us that went on the trip would agree that it is extremely difficult to describe it; we had a hard time discussing our reactions amongst ourselves and we were all there to experience it.
things that are important to note before i venture to explore my own thoughts and tell you about a few things that had happened:
--india is a land of extremes and unlike Japan it is not very subtle about it.
--we were there as volunteers for an English camp at an ashram/school/orphanage--that fact alone colored my experience greatly...i feel fortunate to have experienced some of india not as a tourist but as someone who has come to share a part of my knowledge, energy, and love with a few of its people.
--i was fortunate to travel and work with a group of extremely dedicated, wonderful, stoic, fantastic individuals who have shared with me their wisdom, their humor, their spirits. Thank you, all!

Upon arrival in Delhi we were greeted by dirt--dirt that was ancient and was inescapable, persistent, and i have used more sanitizer in those two weeks in india than i ever thought was possible. Perhaps i was overly precautious, but i didn't want to take any chances..i wanted to be well for the entirety of the short trip.

We spent our first night in India in Delhi's Paharganj disctrict. Late at night it seemed calm enough--in the morning, i stepped into a street filled with people selling things, cows just meddling about, kids stretching out their hands towards every passing foreigner, and inexplicable smells coming out of every shop and restaurant. That day we had to leave Delhi for Kolkata and then Panskura, all by train. Our train tickets were taken by mistake by the group that had arrived earlier and were already in Panskura when we arrived in Delhi. So with the help of one of our fearless leaders and organizers, Elvira, and our then slightly sick friend, Chris we went to the New Delhi trainstation to get our tickets reprinted in time for the 5 o'clock train.
I don't think i could describe the train station to you, filled to the brim with people it is scary and exciting at the same time. I was eager to get on the train, i fondly remembered the days of taking long train rides as a kid through Soviet Union, and wondered what it would be like in India.

Get to the right platform with 20 minutes to spare, even have time to bargain for a chain and lock from a vendor.
Walk along it to get into a good spot to board. Turns out we were wrong and have to walk a long ways back once the train actually arrives. Chris and Elvira are in a separate car and we watch them board as we search for our car. The ticket says A-5, we board and find the seats indicated. There's 5 of us: myself, Ben, Reyhan, Andy, and Ben's sister who joined us in Delhi, Becky. There are obviously only 4 spots, the 5th is occupied by a nice couple. I know what this type of car is called in russian, "platzkart" but have no idea what that's in English. Imagine the train from Harry Potter...take away the sliding doors..actually take away all doors from the entire car except the ones between cars..then add two beds above the two below and then add two more beds in the corridor perpindicular to the four you've already imagined. Give about 30 centimeters corridor space between them and you'll have a picture of what we were in.
We decide to forget about the fifth spot, there are four beds, we can make it work. We have at least two bags per person (Reyhan has four filled with things for the orphans), we pile those on the top beds and try to sit down. Then a man with a family comes up and says that the seats we're in are his. I show him our ticket, he says that "WL" in front of the seats means that we are waitlisted for those seats and don't actually have them. It's 4:50pm. He tells us to check the passenger list posted on the outside of the car. I run out, look through and sure enough, our names aren't on it. I start a small panic.
I run back into the car, Ben is already trying to get our bags off the beds and into the corridor. We say we need to get off this car, we don't have seats..While my companions are unloading onto the platform, i run around trying to find someone who can explain to us where we're supposed to be. I find an official looking guy, he tells me to check the list, i tell him i already did, he glares right past me and walks away. A nice random stranger looks at the ticket i am squeezing in now sweating hand and tells me that the thing written on it in pen does not say A5-5..but actually AS-5. Yes!! We saw a car named AS-5. It is at least 6 cars back..we run!
I see that Becky and Andy, and maybe Ben have already jumped on, i start piling my handbag and the train starts moving. There's a girl behind me, pushing past me to get on with her bags. I am frantically trying to shove my big bag into the openning jammed by other baggage. I scream for the bags to be moved out of the way. The train is moving! It's moving and i'm at a slight run trying to hang onto my bag and climb on. I feel a bag fly over my head, i am on board, the girl climbs up behind me and i realize i don't know where Reyhan is. The train is now moving at a comfortable speed past the platform and i scream out her name... a woman on the platform indicates that she has got on in a car behind me. i thank her and move inside.
Whew! Heart pounding, i regard my companions with frightened eyes. Everyone on board? Do we have our seats? Yes.

The rest of the train journey we spend getting to know our 6th neighbor, Phil, a 19 year old university student from Delhi who is going home to Kolkata. We are in a 2nd class car now, so that in the space for four, there are now 6 people and a nice couple sits across the corridor from us. He is a business man, she is his mother and we learn a bit about them throughout our journey.
We prove to be a loud bunch but have a really good time. We teach Phil and Becky how to "junken" and say "genki" and he tells us to give him a call once we're in Kolkata for New Years.

Here's a bit i wrote down in my yellow field book that night on the train, i wrote some of it in russian, though, so i'll be translating here...i apologize if it sounds awkward:

Dirty and horrible, but it doesn't touch me. Difficult to understand how people live like this, but at the same time don't feel pity. Why is it that i can feel pity towards movies. Perhaps in reality, i can't allow myself to feel the amount of anguish i otherwise would. Our survival depends on us keeping level headed in this whirlwind of a country. I am not focusing on any one thing in particular right now. Just trying to take in the whole thing.

We arrived at the Howrah trainstation in Kolkata and were met by the volunteer coordinator for the camp, Malati. A wonderful British woman who has lived and worked in India for the last fifteen years. She bought us tickets for the next leg of the journey, an hour and a half train ride to Panskura. This train is just open air cars with metal seats and dirty floors. People pile in and out for an hour and a half and we are stared at the entire way. Vendors come through shouting for their goods: packets of nuts, some sort of mixed spices, bags, packets of shampoo and lotion, an endless stream of screams and ignoring them becomes easier with each passing minute. We get out at the train station and push our way to the entrance. Looking out at Panskura for the first time we try to take it all in, but it's too hectic and we are too tired. We find the guesthouse, dump our bags and attempt to relax when a Didi (sister) comes from the school to tell us that we're being expected for lunch and everyone is waiting for us.

Here's a bit from my journal on that day, December 23rd:
the place we're staying at seems nice. clean and yellow walls. the dormrooms are big but Reyhan and i are sharing a double.
first impressions are difficult. There's a lot of color in this country. And poverty and dirt. I thought I could take it but it's too difficult. There were several moments today when i honestly would have hopped the next plane to Okinawa/home.
the kids seem small numbers. There are too many of them and it's chaotic. i was tired after the flight and the overnight in Delhi and then the adventure on the train. The small, hot train to Panskura was almost too scary. People stare here but not like they stare at home [Okinawa]. There's hunger and desparity in their eyes. A huge part of me wants to help; is sorry for their condition but at the same time annoyed by it. And that sounds awful but the system here is obviously not working. There are too many people and the infrustructure is beyond being incapable of dealing with them.

Over the next two weeks i've tried to take in and observe as much as possible. It made my head hurt and my heart ache. It was overwhelming and stressful and i am so glad, once again for the company i was in. We would discuss how to solve the problems we saw, knowing full well that our discussions would lead nowhere. without reading more about the country and it's current political situation, i cannot possibly tell you anything of consequence about the reality of these people's lives. I can only tell you what i saw, and those observations are ignorant of 99% of how india lives, but they're all i've got. :)

perhaps this is only part 1.
i will attempt to write more later. i'll try include more humorous things, like the various teams we placed ourselves in, as a hint they were called, "team solid" "team porridge" and "team liquid." and some of the funnest moments for me on the trip were when i taught the majority of the group how to play a russian card game, durak , which means "fool" in english but within the group also has a new title of "beat off."

give me any feedback. should i be more concise. do you not care to read more? let me know. i am at your command as to how to proceed with the next one or two blogs.
after that it will be back to okinawa life.

P.S. I have uploaded over 80% of my photos to the fotki site. They do not all have titles and descriptions at the moment, but that will change within the next 24/48 hours. I also seem to have lost the other 20% of photos to the whims of my new SD card and my old digital camera. I am very saddened by this fact.
more photos will be uploaded by other members of the trip to their blogs and websites. Check out Chris's, Kelly's and Craig's blog. I know for a fact Kelly has some pics up already. Perhaps at a later date Andy will also have some pics up, but he is on a small island with a slow connection so it might a while.

miss ya all


Craig Mauelshagen said...

Please keep writing! It is awesome you are going into so much detail and so eloquently! It's fascinating to compare your impressions of India to my own. I also experienced feeling terrible about what I saw but also anger and annoyance. I think the country can do more to help itself than we can help them, maybe.

Chiye said...

Keep writing Elina! It's really interesting to hear about your reactions along with everyone else's. For people who didn't go, it is a real eye-opener and considering the many perspectives that we get read, you guys create a good perspective of what your trip was like. Keep up the good work! Missed you! Hope you are having a good first week of school in 2006!

Anonymous said...

Some of u foreigners just complain.You stayed in Paharganj where the really cheap travellers stay and then expect 5 star comforts. Agreed, a lot of what u say happens but no need to get angry have pity. What's the size of your countries ? Tell me any country as varied and big which does not have some problems. We're trying and we're improving. It takes time.

-e said...

i really do hope i didn't come across as angry at India...
i didn't mean to complain either.
i'm not a five star traveler--wouldn't want to be--by staying in Paharganj i saw reality and not a pretty front, and i appreciate that. You're absolutely right, every country has it's problems, but every traveler also has a right to culture shock. Living in Japan, i had to adjust, and even though it's been 5 months, some days i am still not quite set. The first few days in India tripped me up like no other country has ever done, and i'm grateful for that experience. I think i would have began to enjoy the country more if i had stayed there longer, the first two weeks are just needed to readjust and acclimate slightly. I plan to go back someday.

Craig Mauelshagen said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Craig Mauelshagen said...

I would also say we aren't complaining per say, just honestly giving our personal emotional reactions to what we experienced and saw in India.

keldog22 said...

yep me too. and your writing is absolutely beautiful e. it reminds me of things I had forgoten already and paints a picture for those who weren't there! please continue with the story and your journal entries are brillant. thanks for sharing those with us!

Chris said...

it always makes me laugh, because moreover, we read each other's blogs about our adventures teaching in japan and we are always the ones commenting, so it's interesting to get someone else's thoughts.

all countries have problems, and i think we get used to seeing our own. so much of what we saw in india was such a new kind of problem to us that the shock factor makes us focus on the problems. it takes a little longer than three weeks to understand and talk about the impact of gandhi or mother teresa or to comprehend the vast spirituality of india and then turn around and take this impression and make it meaningful for a japanese school student. we're doing our best to understand ourselves, and we're trying to teach what we learned. the most natural place for us to start is the differences.

perhaps then we should be pardoned for our surprise just as Indians should be pardoned for their plight. none of us asked for it, yet we're all dealing with it.

elina your writing is marvelous, and i don't feel you're being angry or complaining. then again, i also have the fortune of knowing you, and i know you're not these things. so we'll have to forgive our other friend for not being as lucky as us.

keep up the writing.


Rosemary said...

I haven't had a chance to read you in a while and am immensely touched by your experiences. At first I must admit that I was jealous of your opportunity and bravery, as I am not in the same situation that would allow such adventure. However, I now find myself engrossed and engaged in your travels and tales...not just as a reader but as someone who feels that I am with you there. That gives real credibility to your talent as a writer.

This post brought tears to my eyes, but not tears of sadness, anger or joy. Simply, they are tears of emotion founded in your sharing. I am blessed to have known you and to be allowed to share in this incredible journey.

As an outsider (non-JET), I must comment that I have not found your posts to be insulting or degrading toward any of the nations or people you share yourself with or observe. As you mention, what you experience is difficult to put into words. With that understanding, we (your readers) must maintain a certain level of openness to perspective.

God Bless.