“Oh, it’s only about a 12 minute drive.” It was my first ever trip to France. And to think, I had only been in Switzerland for four days! I woke up later than I had planned so I had to skip the shower (oops). Oh well, I thought, Europeans shower less anyway, right? Okay maybe that part was wrong but either way, after I jumped out of bed I staggered downstairs, still half asleep. Finding my host mom and her partner, Noel, chatting on the balcony overlooking Commugny, Switzerland, I was greeted and shown breakfast. Now, in Switzerland, unlike America and unfortunate for me, there is no big, greasy, multi-plate breakfast that overflows with carbs and protein. Instead, what I have been eating the past few days has been an assortment of yogurt, oatmeal, bread (lots and lots of delicious, crusty, white bread), cheese, and deli meats. And of course jam and butter. The next thing I knew I was sitting in the backseat of my host mom’s red sports car and we were on our way!
When we arrived, the first thing I noticed was how people in France parked; they didn’t just parallel park on the side of the road. They parked their cars halfway up the curb onto the sidewalk because hey, there’s room there, right? We entered the market and Noel acted as my personal tour guide and showed me the many fruits, vegetables, and spices, and meats from around the world. Walking through the market was wonderful. I felt like I was a trader on the Silk Road, looking for the spices of life that would sell big back home. I saw buckets of vinegary smelling olives, stacks of sweaty socks smelling sausages, and blocks and wheels of cheesy cheese!
My favorite booth was the spice booth. It had all sorts of spices from all over the world and it looked and smelled like foreign and exotic lands. Surprisingly there were also many booths dedicated to bras, underwear, clothes, and purses! But like any farmers market, those weren’t too popular. The most popular stands gave samples, and boy did I take advantage of that! I tasted olives (bleh), ginger (very strong), almonds (meh), hazelnuts (not very strong), sweet brioche bread (mmm), sheep cheese (soft), and nougat (kind of like light fudge)!
By the end of the three hour trip I had seen dead chickens with their heads still attached, dead and skinned rabbits, a man playing accordion (a typically French thing to do), and the oldest running hydro-electric plant in France. We returned back to the apartment where I sat on the balcony and gave some quality “TLC” to Ronja, my host mom’s black forest cat. Her balcony overlooks several other apartments, villas, a school, and the town hall. In the not-so-far distance you can even see Lac Léman! For reference, and to not sound like a tourist, Lac Léman is the actual name of the lake that is shared between France and Switzerland, not Lake Geneva. School officially starts tomorrow and I better go see if I have any readings to do. But I also may take a stroll around town… good thing class isn’t until 11:15am!
Here in Telangana State, Southern India, the locals have been a bit unsettled about the weather. Although Monsoon Season technically started about three weeks ago from today, my 7th day in India, we have yet to feel a single drop of those mythical waters swinging in off the Arabian Sea. Monsoon is an essential part of life in India, bringing much-needed relief after three months of the brutal Indian summer. However this year more than ever, and particularly here in Telangana, Monsoon is crucial. An unprecedented heatwave enveloped the state in May and June, pushing temperatures upwards of 110 degrees Fahrenheit for days on end and claiming more than 550 lives. While temperatures have undoubtedly cooled off, the earth has become a dry, rusty red dust.
However unsettled they might be, however, the Indians remain unafraid. “The rain will come,” assures one local after the other with the gentle bobble of the head so characteristic of this country. I watch at the same time day after day as the blistering white sun quietly disappears behind a massive bank of dense, grey clouds that seem to appear over Hyderabad from out of nowhere. The clouds linger for a while, watching over the city like uniformed army sentries, and a hush seems to fall over Hyderabad as people take a seat on porch steps and wander into stores, heads turned toward the dense, swollen sky. And then, just as quickly as they appeared, the clouds vanish, perhaps off to bless some other thirsty city with the gift of rain. The sun reemerges and the city comes back to life, loud, bustling, and hot as ever.
Amidst all this, the constant heat is making me restless. Last night I tossed and turned for seven hours, unable to sleep for more than ten minutes in the oppressive humidity. When I finally sat up in bed at dawn, admitting defeat, I found myself to be literally dripping in sweat, as though I had just run a half marathon through Death Valley. Just the day before, a billboard advertisement depicting two tourists swimming in a pristine (not quite realistic) Ganges River sent me into a frenzy of trying to locate the nearest pool. I started daydreaming about being allowed to wear a swimsuit to orientation, or the international students’ dining hall serving huge bowls of mango ice cream instead of actual meals.
And yet the locals carry on, perhaps a little unsettled, but overall, unafraid, optimistic, resilient. Meanwhile, I lie awake in the dense, hot darkness of my room and stare up at the swirling fan for hours, terrified that I’ll never adjust — not just to this stifling weather, but to anything about life in India. Everyday, it seems, a dozen new challenges await just outside my door from the moment I wake. On the first day of orientation, it was standing by the gate of my homestay waiting to be picked up, doing my best to shoot an imposing glare at the possibly rabies-infected stray dogs barking at me just feet away. Learning to cross the street a few days later meant silently praying to every deity imaginable and sprinting across the lane-less highway in a pack of my fellow petrified foreign students, dodging motorbikes, auto-rickshaws, 14-wheelers, and taxis before collapsing against a rusty sign post stuck in the dirt on the other side.
But the biggest challenge of all that had been looming over my head since the day of my arrival was learning to get to and from campus all on my own. The directors of my CIEE study abroad program had been mentioning the idea to the three girls living in homestays almost constantly since the first day of orientation, but we had been able to blissfully ignore the idea as a campus car reserved just for us would pick us up one by one and drop us right at the CIEE program building each morning, and would leave us at our individual homestays every evening. Our biggest challenge was waiting outside our houses and remaining calm as we were gawked at, accosted by stray dogs, and caught in the walking paths of cows. We all knew the day would come when we had to find our way to the University of Hyderabad without anyone to help us, but we had vehemently denied the idea in our minds. Unlike the eleven other girls living in the international students’ dorm on campus, each of us homestay students has been placed in a separate home, in three neighborhoods located in completely opposite directions of each other. We wouldn’t even have the comfort of tackling this challenge with another foreign student; it was each of us against the world.
I knew, at least at base level, what I was expected to do. The directors made the task sound simple. First, cross the two lane road outside the University’s main gate (a road which in the US we would probably be considered four lanes, but which here consisted of two massive hoardes of motor vehicles swerving around each other, making U turns without warning, and incessantly honking their horns at each other). Next, stand in the dirt path on the side of the road and wait for a seven-seater shared auto to come by. These “shared autos” are basically little rectangular boxes on four wheels, with two upholstered benches in the back and a shotgun seat up front next to the driver. About three people are supposed to sit on each bench, and one person would legally sit up front, hence the seven-seater concept. However, in most cases, about eight people will squeeze into the back, two more hop into the front with the driver, and at any given time the auto might stop to let two or three stragglers jump into the “trunk” area, an open section between the second bench and the back of the vehicle, about 2 feet wide, and open to the elements (these things pretty much never have windows). If he’s really feeling daring, the driver might let a friend cling to the back of the auto from the outside, so that the vehicle tumbles over the bumpy Hyderabadi streets like a barrel of monkeys with miscellaneous arms and legs hanging out of windows and women’s dupattas (head scarfs) billowing in the wind.
Just flag one of these things down and hop in, no big deal right? Shout your destination (in my case it’s Indira Nagar, abusy area for shopping and restaurants about a fifteen minute ride from the university) at the driver, make sure to tell him when to stop at the side of the road, jump out into the dusty feeder, toss him a ten rupee note, and swear your life away as you cross that river of traffic once more to your street. No big deal.
I spent most of today wanting to puke. Nothing we did was remotely enjoyable because the idea of getting back to my homestay in the dreaded auto rickshaw wouldn’t leave my mind. The afternoon chai and biscuits break I loved so much was spoiled, as the tea turned into muddy street puddles and the biscuits transformed into spinning motorbike wheels before my eyes. Maybe the directors would change their minds and drive the three of us home one last time. Maybe I could stay over in the dorms tonight. Could I call my homestay parents to come pick me up? Anything to avoid literally sitting on top of complete strangers in one of those accidents-on-wheels. Even the mile and a half bike ride from the CIEE office to the university’s main gate seemed too short. I would have gleefully continued the cardio workout in the sweltering heat for another four miles if only I could postpone this journey a little longer.
But it was hopeless. My hands shook as I chained my bike to the gate and made my way to the main road with the other two homestay girls, Sara and Caroline. Caroline, the smallest of all of us but easily the bravest, lived close enough to walk home. She shot across the street in a flurry of flowing blue and green cotton before Sara and I could even catch our shaky breaths. Just like that she was gone, as another wave of traffic rushed by and blocked her from our view. Sara didn’t need to cross the street to take an auto home, but I stood with her anyway, letting countless opportunities to dodge my way across the street pass me by as I tried to steady my breathing and push back the metallic taste of fear rising in my throat.
But finally I couldn’t wait any longer. A split second of bravery washed over me and I shouted “I’m crossing, I’m doing it!” as I sprinted to the other side, a hundred foot journey that felt like a hundred miles in my mind. Even so, I had only completed the first part of my task. Hailing a shared auto was a completely different story. Within seconds of reaching the other side, a swarm of smaller auto-rickshaws pulled up to me, their drivers shouting various locations across the city or simply “Madam! Madam! Auto-rickshaw!” I shooed them away, my eyes flashing back and forth at the chaos all around me, craning my neck for some glimpse of the a little white box on wheels rolling by. Finally, I saw one, raising my arm as high as I could and waving it frantically so as to be see over the hoard of yellow, beetle-like rickshaws surrounding me. Instantly the auto pulled over to the side of the road and I ran through the motions: shout “Indira Nagar,” jump inside, and pray that if there is an accident one of the eleven bodies squeezed up on every side of you will prevent you from flying out the open windows, since seatbelts aren’t really a thing in India.
With a rumble and cough of thick black exhaust, we’re off. My hair whips into my face as we barrel down the street and the air rushes into the vehicle from all sides. There’s a baby practically sitting in my lap, someone’s stepping on my foot, my knees are touching those of the woman in front of me, and I’m pretty sure there’s a guy asleep in the trunk. Eight sets of eyes are trained on my face as I hold my breath and stare at the rush of life outside the window: barking dogs, herds of water buffalo, men with kerchiefs tied around their faces whizzing past on noisy motorbikes, honking trucks painted in a kaleidoscopic swirl of neon “Om” symbols and Hindu deities, patches of jungle that give way to crumbling sandstone structures next to glossy new shopping centers. Somewhere between desperately trying to avoid awkward eye contact with my fellow passengers and shouting “Yahan par rukiye!” (stop here) to the driver, I lose myself in that outside world and for the first time since I’ve been in India, it finally hits me: I’m really here. I’ve made it. This is India, and I’m smack dab in the middle of it all.
I’ve got two blocks to walk before home, and another, even busier, road to cross, but once I jump out of the auto and pay the driver, it’s as though I’ve left any fears I had right there in the backseat. I watch the little white auto haphazardly swerve back into traffic and I could almost swear that I catch a glimpse of that petrified version of myself from just a few hours ago poking her head out the window. She’s only a wisp of a girl, and she dissolves into the thick summer haze as I turn my back and head for home.
As I trudge through the dust and cacophony of street noise toward my homestay, the Ramanan household, I chuckle to myself at how this terrifying experience somehow managed to help me finally place myself in India. It wasn’t the breathtaking tour of the 16th century Qutb Shahi tombs, viewing the entire city from the incredible height of the Mughal Era Golconda Fort, drinking chai on the promenade of Chowmahalla Palace, or even sharing the road with a few cows on my bike ride to orientation. It was this ride, this task that had filled me with so much terror, this smelly, noisy, bone crushing, chaotic trip, that somehow made me fall in love with India, that somehow made me realize that I had started to find a home here.
I turned the corner onto my street, catching a glimpse of the magnificent vermillion-blossomed Gulmohar tree that I so often gazed at from the balcony of my homestay, and felt a sudden change in the air. There was an iota of coolness, the tiniest breeze rustling through those lush green branches, the thick scent of dampness in my nose. I looked down, and there they were: dark spots, blooming before me in the dusty dirt road, appearing faster and faster. With a gust of wind and a wash of grey above me, the sky opened, and the rain began. Gentle though it was, far from any monsoon storm, I giggled out loud, beside myself with joy. I practically skipped down the road to my homestay, water droplets trailing over my sun-dried cheeks, wet hair clinging to my temples. The gate to the Ramanan household had never looked so beautiful as it did in the grey haze of Monsoon season, with glossy raindrops clinging to its black iron rails.
The rain continued on for the rest of the evening, picking up speed and spicing things up with thunder and lightning, a true Monsoon storm. Even now as I sit on my balcony typing away, I watch as the long-awaited flood rushes down my street, a river of moonlight flowing by in the darkness, and I poke my bare feet through the balcony rails to let India wash over me.
My identity has long been a place of confusion and resentment. I'm a Palestinian-Greek American. Three vivacious and similar yet so different cultures wrapped into one person. It doesn't stop there. I'm also a convert to Islam. I was raised with my mother who is Greek, Christian and attended Greek School and church from a young age. I didn't know anything about my Palestinian culture because I didn't even know I was Palestinian until I was around seven years old. I knew I was half Arab because of my different last name and foreign father, but that was irrelevant to my life because I didn’t live with him. As far as I was concerned, I was a Greek, American girl who for some reason didn't feel complete with my Greek friends and felt different from my American friends. Little did I know that identity crisis was soon to take a more dramatic turn. ...continue reading "Identity Crisis"
Oi gente! (Hi everyone!) It’s been a little over a month since I first arrived here in São Paulo and it feels absolutely surreal! The 30th –the day I left- I was on an emotional rollercoaster, vacillating between feelings of excitement (to be embarking on this new journey), nervousness (over what awaited me), and sadness (about leaving behind my family and DC). The moments between when I entered the TSA Security Checkpoint to when I arrived to Gate C12 to board my plane are all blur. All I remember is arriving at the Gate and suddenly hearing virtually EVERYONE speaking Portuguese. I remember thinking, “Where did all these Brazilians come from??? Aside from those working for the Brazilian embassy there are few of them living in DC.”
I barely slept three hours during the nine and a half hour plane ride. The awful combination of my nerves and the small, cramped seats kept me wide awake. When we finally arrived at 9 am, I quickly made it through Customs and grabbed my bags. I was anticipating that my exit would be quick: instead it was long and mazelike. What seemed like the exit from the baggage claim was really an entrance to a bazaar-like shopping area of luxury, Duty-Free, international goods from Lindt chocolates to Victoria’s Secret lingerie to Givenchy perfumes.
After what seemed like an eternity, I finally found my way out of that Duty Free tourist trap. I breathed a sigh of relief before realizing that I had yet to accomplish the daunting task of finding the shuttle to my hotel. I soon found an airport employee and in the best Portuguese I could muster I asked her where the stop for the Ibis Hotel shuttle was. To be honest, my question was more in Spanish than it was in Portuguese but somehow she managed to understand me and proceeded to direct me to the old airport terminal, which is where all the national flights land. “Obrigada (Thank you),” I told her in my heavily accented Portuguese before proceeding to cart around my luggage cases.
When I got to the old terminal, I asked the man at the information desk to direct me to the Ibis shuttle stop. With an expression of total and utter boredom, he waived his hand and pointed at a set of automatic doors that led to a street full of bus stops. To my dismay, there was no shuttle stop for the Ibis hotel shuttle anywhere in site, so I proceeded to ask another airport employee who happened to be walking by. This time, this employee directed me to the floor above where the Departures where.
For the next hour, I struggled to find the shuttle stop: everytime I asked someone, they would point me in a different direction. I was so frustrated that I finally settled on waiting on the top floor where the Departures were. Just when I was about to give up hope, a mini bus with the hotel’s logo plastered on it arrived. I quickly hopped on and buckled up for the ride.
During the bus ride to the hotel I noticed that Guarulhos, the city where the airport is located and which is part of the São Paulo metropolitan area, was poorer and underdeveloped. On some sides of the highway it was possible to see decaying factories and even what seemed like favelas in the surrounding mountains.
Thirty minutes later I finally arrived at my hotel. As I stared out the window of my room on the 14th floor so many tall, sprawling buildings. In that moment I was finally able to visualize and comprehend São Paulo’s magnitude: 12 million people lived inside the city itself and another 8 million people lived in the metropolitan area, thus making São Paulo the most populous city in Brazil, in the Americas, in the Western Hemisphere, and the twelfth largest city by population.
Throughout my struggle to find hotel’s shuttle bus, I noticed that many people had a thick accent where they pronounced the ‘r’ strongly like we do in English rather than softly as it usually is in Portuguese. I later found out that it was because most of these people were from the interior of Sao Paulo State and from the nearby state of Minas Gerais. No doubt many of them migrated here in search of better work opportunities.
When I arrived at the hotel nearly at noon, I was already starving. On the airplane they had served a light breakfast of bread, butter, and coffee –which could only do so much. Since they did not serve lunch at the hotel and the only thing they had was ham sandwiches (I do not eat pork so I could not eat the sandwich) I basically had to survive on water and Ritz crackers until dinnertime. However, it was so worth it. The feast of typical Brazilian foods in the buffet was absolutely mouth-watering. And of course the main star of these foods was pão de quiejo, a small baked, cheese-flavored roll which Brazilians love to eat ALL THE TIME. If you ever get a chance to eat it, you will see why it is a national favorite.
Well, that is it for now. Até a próxima! (Until next time!)
Hello! Welcome to my first blog! My name is Sherin Nassar, a junior majoring in International Affairs and Economics! This semester I am studying abroad in Istanbul, Turkey! I am so excited for this journey because I firmly believe it will lead me to a greater understand on myself.
This blog post revolves around identity-how we each view ourselves and how in return people see us. This past year, I've learned my identity changes with each challenge I take on. I see myself as ambitious, always wanting to take on more to see how I can further develop. These ambitions are firmly rooted in my parents' immigrant background. They come over twenty five years ago from Egypt in search of the American dream. Their pursuits and passions as well as their hard work are ingrained into who I am today: someone not only looking to make them proud but to make people believe that the future is truly yours for the taking. ...continue reading "Lost in translation"
Welcome to my first foray into the GW Blog-From-Abroad-o-sphere! My name is Robyn, and I'm a twenty-year-old junior hailing from Brookfield, Wisconsin. I'm studying Political Science and English Literature with special interests in comparative politics, human rights, ethnic conflict, and women's issues. After I graduate, I hope to go to law school somewhere in the Midwest; I'm still working out what comes after that!
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