Right now, I am getting cozy in a Moscow airport for my last layover before returning home. I have officially joined the flocks of sunburnt tourists sporting t-shirts and sandals, wincing at the biting chill of the airplane’s AC in preparation for the winter awaiting us at home. My final blog post seems as good a place as any to reflect on just some of what I’ve learned about traveling/generally being in the world.
Before going abroad, I often found myself hesitant to ask questions for fear of coming off as uninformed. However, living in India and traveling independently, you have no other choice but to admit that you do not know a lot of things (and believe me I did not and still do not know A LOT of things about living abroad) and ask the people around you about how you interact with new spaces (i.e. how/why spaces may be gendered, or even simply the unspoken etiquette for things like crossing the street or eating).
Over the course of this semester and my post program travel I have learned to be more comfortable asking questions and engaging with more people. This is a skill I would also like to translate over when participating in discussions surrounding socially relevant and significant topics such as inequalities/injustices and cultural differences.
...continue reading "Going Home (see: WHAT??)"
Being abroad has been different from any other travel experience I’ve had; I am a student, and a tourist, and a traveler, and those multiple identities play a huge role in shaping your experience interacting with new people, cultures, and topographies. In Madurai, I very much felt like a student: I had a routine, was practicing the local language, and was not a part of the hoards of French tourists that I occasionally saw bopping around the Meenakshi Temple.
However, I was by no means an integrated part of the local community. Not being a tourist does not erase positionality or your status as an outsider, but it does mean that you might have the chance to get even a fraction closer to the heart of a community through occupying local spaces, engaging in dialogues you may not have as a tourist, and incorporating community routines into your own life.
In Sri Lanka, the first leg of my post-program travels, there was some feeling of familiarity. Signs had some Tamil writing, autos (or tuk tuks) were the same albeit a variety of colors, and the cuisine was not unfamiliar territory. While my friends and I participated in a number of explicitly tourist activities, I did not yet feel like a tourist. In Malaysia, the number of tourists we were surrounded by definitely increased, but I did not yet feel any particularly striking distance between the community of tourists and residents of Malaysia; there was in many ways a coexistence that I felt made my experience there ultimately more meaningful and educational in understanding and learning about a culture and community I had never even thought of before.
...continue reading "Adventures in Thailand: Being a Tourist"
My post-program travel has officially commenced, and it’s already going by too quickly! After being in Madurai for so long (well it was really only 3 ½ months but it feels like a lifetime!) I definitely felt myself expecting the rest of my travels to mirror Madurai (maybe minus the salwar and plus some beaches), but thus far each of these new experiences have brought a new palette of delicious food, different cultures, and different colored autos (which in Sri Lanka are called tuk tuks).
My travel companions are two students from my program, which is sort of magical because before studying abroad we had never even heard of each other before! (and now, we find ourselves meandering the streets of Sri Lanka and Malaysia and trying endless new food items together—pretty neat!)
My first stop was Sri Lanka for 5 days, staying mostly in Mt. Lavinia (a beachside town about 20 minutes outside of Colombo) and Colombo (the capital of Sri Lanka). My fellow travelling companions and I also took a day trip to Galle, which was colonized by the Portuguese and is home to the Galle Fort, a very popular tourist destination featuring a lighthouse and colonial Portuguese architecture.
Along the way, we stopped at a turtle hatchery run by the Sri Lankan government with the intention of preserving the widely diverse sea turtle population as well as a mask and puppet museum featuring traditional Sri Lankan puppets and masks hailing from Kandy (often referred to as Sri Lanka’s cultural capital).
...continue reading "Adventures in south Asia: first stop Sri Lanka!"
When I arrived in India, it was August, and I was chock full of enthusiasm and suffering from a pretty decent case of jet lag (pictures from the first day we arrived can attest to this). I had gotten cozy with the Delhi, Mumbai, and Chennai airports, and had my fill of airline samosas. I was thrust into a group of 9 other new faces similarly marked with jet lag. Torn between wanting to make a good first impression and sleeping for a million years, I remember feeling frantic, excited, grateful, and overwhelmed. Now, looking back at that moment, I cannot believe how much has happened in 3.5 months.
I would like to note here that being in India is NOTHING like the Eat, Pray, Love fantasies that Western travelers often anticipate (and for the record I find these images/expectations of India highly problematic; while it is not my job to police how people experience India, you cannot be a foreigner and stake a claim to a kind of spirituality or cultural identity that is not yours, and before trying to make it applicable to your life make an effort to study, experience, and appreciate these various cultural components). It’s hot, there are mosquitoes, the toilets are different, and sometimes you just drop all of your rice on the floor because you’re learning how to eat with your hands!
I have collected some pretty awesome memories in my time in Madurai. Here are some just to name a few:
petting my friendly neighborhood cow on an evening walk with my appaa,
playing peek-a-boo with my host nephew,
tickling Ganesh’s belly with Dr. V,
eating jigarthanda for the first time,
recreating the image of Vishnu, Srilakshmi, and Bhudevi at a local cave temple, ...continue reading "Leaving Madurai and On to New Adventures!"
Holy moly I have one week left in India! It feels as though I just got here and it’s pretty hard to imagine being somewhere without auto-rickshaws, casual cows, and endless coconuts (and my ammaa’s cooking). As our time is coming to a close, my friends and I are trying to get the last of the remaining items checked off of our “India bucket lists.” Last Saturday, we had a full day that included paying a visit to the Gandhi Museum, heading to the tailors by the Meenakshi Temple, and eating some jigarthanda (guess what my favorite part of the day was).
As someone who really enjoys frequenting museums at home, I really enjoyed paying a visit to Madurai’s Gandhi Museum. The museum is a colossal white building with ornate pillars and a two-part staircase welcoming visitors. The museum is dedicated to the life and times of Gandhi, and provided context for the political climate in India leading up to Gandhi’s rise to fame as well as showcasing artifacts from Gandhi’s life. Next to the entrance of the first exhibit hangs a painted text the size of the wall itself, celebrating Gandhi’s ability to unite India in a time of political turmoil and unrest. The first exhibit was a series of 26 hand-painted panels, organized in a chronological order and outlining India’s history of colonization and its subsequent impacts on India’s economy, military, and day to day lives of Indian citizens. The following rooms were full of manuscripts, letters, and books that belonged to Gandhi. We also saw a piece of the dhoti Gandhi was wearing at the time of his death. Being so close to artifacts from Gandhi’s life was a very powerful experience.
...continue reading "A Saturday Afternoon in Madurai and End of Semester Vibes"
Being abroad for this election cycle has been somewhat of a surreal experience, and the decisions that have followed holds so much social significance for the world over that it seems like the only thing to write about this week.
I watched the election results come in last Tuesday sitting in the conference room of a local hotel with my nine other students and my resident director. We started watching at 6:30 am, and I found part of the whole situation a little funny as the blonde haired BBC news lady said that we may be up into the “wee hours of the night” waiting for a final result. We enjoyed a free breakfast buffet complete with some extra soft idli, tomato chutney, sambar, Choco Flakes, coffee, and hard boiled eggs (these are just some of our favorite things at the hotel breakfast buffets we have encountered thus far).
The general vibe of the room was pretty tense, but we made small talk in between reports of closing polls reassuring one another of its predictability (“Oh, Trump was projected to win those states from the beginning, “XYZ county hasn’t been counted yet and they are definitely going for Clinton,” etc.). Despite these assurances, you could feel people cringe a little bit as the numbers next to Trump’s blazing red name went up, while Clinton’s blue had been unchanged for minutes at a time. I stayed and watched until 1 pm, and finally walked back to campus to gather my thoughts and do some work before the final results came in. Shortly after, I saw the New York Times headline that named Trump as the winner, and I took off on an hour trek to a bakery in a different neighborhood.
...continue reading "Experiencing the Results of the 2016 Election While Abroad"
One of my favorite past times this semester has been watching Tamil television with my ammaa. While I do not know nearly enough Tamil to understand key plot points or jokes in any of the movies we watch, my host mom is extremely patient and utilizes transitional scenes and commercial breaks to explain what’s going on. I find that action movies in particular are incredibly hard to follow, not only because I can only understand maybe one out of every fiftieth word (and that word is usually “go”, “I”, or “like”), but there is so much happening!
One minute the hero is running from a car explosion, and the next minute he’s leading a highly choreographed dance number on top of a snowy mountain with his intended love interest. Then, before I can even figure out where this snowy mountain top is in relation to the rest of the film’s landscape, there’s been a violent altercation with the main villain followed by victory on the part of the hero and a tender embrace with his lady love.
...continue reading "Watching Tamil Movies with Ammaa"
Diwali season has descended upon Madurai and your uncoordinated American is back to report on her forays into the exuberant, powerful, absolutely astonishing world of Tamil and Bollywood dancing. For a little context, Diwali holds different meanings across the different states in India. Commonly known as the festival of lights, Diwali in south India is a celebration of the vanquishing of demons (how cool is that?!). The studio where I and other SITA students take dance class hosted its own Diwali celebration on Tuesday, and they invited us to partake in the festivities and perform the dance we have been working on (much to our surprise, our dance instructor had full confidence that we were ready to perform in front of an audience of talented dancers).
The studio had been decorated with a multitude of pastel balloons, sparkly fabrics, and a beautiful kolam in the reception area surrounded by little flames and flowers. We were offered coffee with cardamom, milk sweets, chocolate cake, and samosas. Sweets are a big part of Diwali festivities! We were the first to perform our dance, and made it through the whole number with enthusiasm and minimal errors (at least that’s how it felt; perhaps our dance instructor would beg to differ).
...continue reading "Diwali, Dancing, and Soan Papdi"
Something that has been a big adjustment in my day to day life in India has been figuring out which spaces I can comfortably and appropriately occupy as a foreigner and as a woman. In Madurai, I have learned that spaces I would normally frequent in the U.S. (cafes and coffee/sweet stands, restaurants, etc.) are largely male dominated spaces.
Even in my daily interactions at a samosa stand near campus, I am often the only woman standing in a crowd of men having their afternoon coffee, reading the paper, chatting with friends, and observing the activity on the roads. This ratio is not an uncommon occurrence. In restaurants, walking on the road on my way to school, and even at the local shopping mall, the environment is largely male. At first, I didn’t really notice this unfamiliar social dynamic, and simply assumed that the isolation I was feeling in certain spaces was do primarily to my distinct “foreignness” (namely my whiteness).
However, after several weeks, I began seeing this isolation in a new context. Not only was I the only foreigner in a crowded public space, but I would also often be the only or one of a handful of women present. Some of this awkwardness and uncertainty has been significantly mitigated when I am out and about with my ammaa, who’s familiarity with these spaces makes my interactions with it much more comfortable, as well as providing me unique and meaningful access to some of these spaces.
...continue reading "Navigating Public Spaces as a Foreigner"
The Prithu Mandapam Market is a destination souvenir shop for tourists in Madurai. Located across from the iconic Meenakshi Temple, the market is framed by massive stone columns and a smattering of vendors selling silver anklets, bracelets, and jasmine. The dark interior made cool by its smooth stones provides a stark contrast to the blazing heat just a few steps outside. Here, you can find rows of tiny bronze colored Ganesh statues, each one just as gleeful and impish as the next.
Other vendors boast yards of colorful fabric, many sporting elephants of all shapes, colors, and sizes. Tapestries with a reclining Vishnu flutter into the aisles, and the smell of burning incense for sale sets the tone for this fast paced (and overwhelming) buying experience. Each vendor’s booth is deceptively small, but is overflowing with trinkets enough to make tourists go weak in the knees.
Walking through the market, I am reminded of the Indian (and even more broadly Southeast Asian) icons that crop up in the most unlikely of places at home: Home Goods, TJ Maxx, Urban Outfitters. I have seen giant neon Ganeshes on Urban Outfitter tapestries, busts of Buddha in various pastels sold in the “home décor” section of TJ Maxx, and lotus flower votive candle holders in numerous styles and sizes. These items are mass produced and reasonably priced to satisfy the stylistic curiosities of Western consumers. Shoppers pass through the aisles everyday, often without context for what they are admiring or buying.
...continue reading "Commodifying Culture: Elephant Pants, Ganesh Statues, and the Western Consumer"