Hello and Namashkar,
Well, as one of my previous posts mentioned, I am currently in South India and I haven’t been writing because I am still trying to adjust to my new environment (even though it's been a while). I had to deal with some serious food poisoning, an eye infection, a rodent infestation and all the work and village visits assigned to me. I will therefore try to summarize bits and pieces of this month's past happenings into a single blog post.
My work with AID INDIA has currently based me in Chennai, Tamil Nadu. Our main office is located here and we organize the macro and the micro projects from this station. Chennai can be called the "Detroit" of India, since it's the motor city of the region: Ford Motors, Volkswagen, Hyundai, they're all right here. It's a super busy and chaotic city with big shopping malls that house expensive (but empty) brand name stores. Sometimes, you'll find people taking pictures outside Marks & Spencer with the logo in the background, but no one will actually go buy anything unless they want to forfeit their monthly rent in lieu of spandex leggings.
Personally, I'm not a big fan of the "big city chaos" but my work does involve a lot of traveling to interior regions (and leaving Chennai), so I always choose the window seat, and stare at the beautiful palm trees that make Disney's Jungle Book a reality for me.
India's rural landscape is breath-taking, If I were to draw the sceneries I saw, I would use every shade of green from my childhood owned Faber-Castell colour-pencil set. Every picture you take is an instant masterpiece, but before you get all excited about packing your bags and booking your next flight, let me tell you that you need to experience all the goods by embracing all the bads. You'll find out below :)
The Price You Pay For Pretty Photos
Now that you've seen what I've seen and what every post-card or desktop background from India will look like. Let me give you the backstory, the hidden secrets, the things they don't tell and all the other dirty details....
I’m writing to you from my hostel right now, just prior to starting this post I killed 15 cockroaches that were chilling in our kitchen; "Chappal" in one hand, bug spray in another. Unfortunately, I only have two hands or else I would go all Durga on them.
Here’s a thing about India (or at least my experiences) – nothing will go smoothly the first time around. Whether it’s about getting a SIM card, an Internet data stick, finding a bathroom where it’s safe for women to use –almost everything is a constant struggle. Even daily activities such as catching an auto-rickshaw (Indian taxi) to get you from point A to point B will raise your blood pressure as you try to save yourself from getting ripped off. I understand that they think of us as tourists or working expats and therefore want to “make hay when the sun shines.” First of all, I am not a tourist but rather I am paying out of pocket to be here, and secondly it gets a little frustrating and annoying when it happens everyday!
Truth be told, I knew what India had in store for me, I knew my line of work would take me to rural areas and put me in situations that would make me beyond uncomfortable. Nevertheless, “knowing” and “experiencing” are two different things. Even after studying India extensively and researching what I was getting into, I was taken by surprise by all the things I came across. For the purposes of this month's post, I will try to fit a few major incidents that occurred to me and hopefully leave the rest for another time.
Our Living Arrangements
The first two days at the hostel weren’t the best. The water had cut off and we couldn’t shower or use the bathroom. The wireless connection was a bit shaky as well, it was really hard speaking to family and friends when you're still a newbie (the hardest days). I wasn't a big fan of the hostel food either: other than the fact it was very poor in nutrition (mostly just carbs (lots of rice or fried bread) and very little vegetables), I found hair in our food multiple times and it was just too much to go through all of a sudden.
But ultimately we knew we were in India on a low-budget, we weren't staying at the Ritz Carlton, so the onus was on us to adjust to our new environment.
There were times I would walk in the kitchen in the night, and I would get completely disgusted with the way ingredients were prepared and just left overnight. I found a dish of chopped up onions left open out in the dark. I lifted my flashlight up only to see 10 cockroaches swirling around in our chopped onions, the same onions we were going to eat in one of those watery dipping sauces they would give us.
Cockroaches became the least of my worries, when we were met with our new roommate: Mr. Fat Rat.
I was on the phone one day and I heard something like a chainsaw under the bed. There it was, the sound of intense gnawing into the metal rods of the bed. That’s when I heard the little rascal for the first time; he was inside the hostel and had roomed with all of us.
Cockroaches are disgusting, but in the end, all it takes is a shoe to end its life. Rats, on the other hand are smart, stealthy and on top of all, they're big and meaty. You can't kill it with a shoe nor can you spray it dead. You need some legitimate manpower for its extermination.
Anyways, let's talk about something else -- food for example. I went through a severe culture shock when I realized breakfast in South India is a whole other story!
Early in the morning, a lady came into our room and placed two food pots on the bed (Visible in the picture).
She hardly spoke any English but she managed to say “break-fast” and “lunch.” I opened one of them and it looked like “lunch” and I opened the other one and it also looked at “lunch.” I absolutely had no concept of what an “Indian breakfast” would look like. Here’s what it sort of looked like. I found these pictures on Google.
The food here is very spicy but mostly vegetarian. The good thing is that I don’t have to deal with pork or seafood (imagine my project was in China??). During the first week, I would scrub my lips with toothpaste after every meal to soothe the burn from the spices; however, by now, I have become a little more accustomed to it. It is advised to stick to vegetarian foods as eating meat in this heat can invite illnesses – food handling/storage becomes an issue in 40 degrees Celsius and the meat can go bad quickly. This is something I learned the hard way after dealing with food poisoning, the emergency room of a hospital, and last but not least, INJECTIONS. I ate some chicken around 9pm at night (which was probably made in the morning) – I spent all night throwing up and went to the hospital the next day. Even writing about it now makes me feel uneasy.
Bad Event; Good Story
I’m sure you’ve have one of those life happenings that leave you with a bad taste in your mouth, and you can’t really do much about it, yet you shrug your shoulders to laugh it off and say “at least I have a good story!” Well, I have one of those, and although it caused me much frustration at the time, I can sit back in my chair now and write about it since time has allowed me detach myself from that experience and look at it in a different light.
The head office usually assigns the village trips along with a translator to accompany you. Moreover, a phone number will also be provided of the “person in charge” to contact when you get to the assigned village. You’re asked to leave early (usually by 5 or 6am) so that you get there on time to get some work done before dusk, and if need be, you are required to stay the night at someone’s residence or on the floor of one of their village station/offices.
I woke up, packed up a bed sheet and a small complimentary airplane pillow I had nicked from Lufthansa Airlines. I met my translator at the main bus station and off we went on the bus stop. It was “supposed” to be a 6 hour ride, but never believe anyone’s time assumptions in India: 2 minutes is 15 minutes, 10 minutes is half an hour and 1 hour is definitely longer than that. So I need to get into the details of how things are done “on time” here.
Well, since I love loud music so much (I don't ! I don't like Tamil Music at all - those who have me on Snapchat can confirm) , of course I had to endure the most blaring sounds throughout the entire trip. We sat in an exclusive bus that had a TV set for the traveling passengers. What was on? A horror Tamil movie with Lord-Of-The-Ring-Orc-looking creatures bursting into choreographed dances every 15 minutes. Not only did I have to withstand intense shrieks of suspense during my “attempted sleep” but there was intensifying and loud music to be the perfect lullaby playing in the background of my journey.
3,4 hours had passed and the bus hadn’t made a stop. There I was sitting with a full bladder trying to concentrate on strengthening my will power and my bladder muscles; however, India’s amazing roads along with their deep potholes wasn't helping my case. I made a few phone calls to try share my misery and try pass the time.
The bus stopped, “yes, thank God, ahh finally.” I get up, flashlight in my right hand, and toilet paper in my left. We stopped at this random midway “hotel” (cheap restaurants/cafeterias are called hotels here). “Excuse me An’na, bathroom Inge-Irkeh?” I ask in Tamil, which is the first thing I learn in every language. It’s along the lines of “Excuse me big brother, where is the bathroom?” He directs me to the back of the hotel, where I am met with my next challenge.
Last Level: Slaying the Dragon – The Guardian of the Bathroom
I reach the bathroom, I don’t think I even needed directions to get there as my olfactory senses were quite on point—I could smell the stench of the bathroom from miles away.
All right, ready to rumble, but no. I couldn’t get to the final stage unless she slayed the final dragon of the game. There he was, green, scaly and fat standing right in front of the bathroom door. He looked at me from the corner of his eye, he knew I had come and didn’t budge an inch. I knew if I gave up now, I would lose a life, and would have to wait another 3-4 hours until I get to the next bathroom. It was now or never, I pulled up my sleeves, picked up a few rocks and prepared myself for battle.
Not going to lie, I was pissing my pants doing this (both literally and figuratively). I threw multiple rocks at him, but the “oedipal polysyllable” wouldn’t move!! My cherry on top was that the bus started to call on all the passengers; people were boarding back onto the bus while I was still trying to deal with a fat lizard and a full bladder. To my luck, he wasn’t one of those fire-spitting dragons, so I was able to defeat him with a throw of a few heavier rocks. At last, he forfeited the battle and waddled away into a nearby bush – victory was mine and I was overjoyed with relief. But the journey continued...
All That Effort; No Fruit
Finally, after 9 hours of travel time, 4 different buses, and all sorts of playlists in the background. My translator and I reach Chidambaram. The block coordinator came to the Bus depot to receive us. The three of us rode his motorcycle for another 20 minutes to reach his house (my poor translator was squished between us). We had to stay the night at his place since it was too late and too dark to work, we decided to wake up at 4am the next day to be at another village by 6am. He was nice enough to offer us his bed, while he and his wife slept on the floor. The whole night was quite challenging: the electricity kept cutting off every 15-20 minutes, thus we had a short span of fan time followed by absolute heat. I poured some water from a bucket on myself to cool down but that wasn't enough either. The bathroom was also worth mentioning: I had to run outside take my shoes inside, use it in the bathroom (while holding a flashlight) and then run back out and put my shoes outside again (wearing shoes inside a traditional Indian household is an absolute NO-NO). I also made sure I didn't touch the walls as numerous amounts of lizards were chilling on their walls and had become part of their general household decor. I must however acknowledge that lizards are actually good since they eat all the mosquitos and cockroaches. Lizards are your friends Mina, learn to accept that.
We woke up the next day at 4 and took another bus to a nearby village to visit a woman who was the perfect candidate for our documentary. We get to her house exactly at 6am (we wanted to shoot her from dawn to dusk) but her daughter refused to let us work with her mother. I was so shocked and disappointed at the same time. The lady knew we were coming, why wouldn't she run this event by her daughter? Why wasn't this discussed prior to our arrival ? Despite my translator's efforts, we were asked to leave and we got zero footage. We tried filming a few more women, but it wasn't the same and it didn't turn out the way we wanted. We hopped onto a return bus and off we were for another 9 hours.
All that effort, no fruit in return :-(
On to Better Things
Yes, I may have had a few hiccups here and there (at times, I really wanted to give up) but it's all about the experience in the end. As cheesy as it sounds "things don't get easy, you just become better at dealing with it". Similarly, I look back at all the good times now and the once-in-a-lifetime opportunities I have been given. I was able to fulfill my lifelong dream of coming to India, working with women, and indulging in some of the most historic and culturally-rich surroundings—that itself fills my heart with satisfaction and reminds me of how grateful I should be for being here.
I have so many more anecdotes to tell and some of them are really funny. It's difficult writing all of them but if you follow me on Instagram you can get a glimpse of my work with the organization with snippets of stories under the captions. If you want a little more detail into what goes on everyday then Snapchat is your best bet (I snap quite a lot and India is too entertaining). Usernames for Instagram and Snapchat are both "minamohit"
I hope you enjoyed reading a condensed version of my 6 weeks in South India.
There are 6 more weeks to go!! Enjoy the rest of your summer & Ramadan Kareem to everyone observing the holy month this year :-)
Until next month---
Mina lives in the chaotic city of London, United Kingdom. She uses writing as a way to bring calm the chaos.
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