a list, a letter, pretty pleeze!

M-B, this list is for you, because you taught me how to see in new ways. Here’s a bit about this country through the lens of pop culture.

India Is Not Like…

The Darjeeling Limited. Yes, the colors are just as brilliant, but the trains are a thousand times less clean and less comfortable.

Eat Pray Love. Yes, there is spirituality. But there is also corruption and craziness.

Sponsor a Child commercials. Well, perhaps at first glance it is, when you see the poverty and the malnourished children. But there’s not a weepy Sarah Mclachlan soundtrack playing in the background.

Outsourced. Although I haven’t actually seen an episode in its entirety, the IT sector is only a miniscule part of India (see Bangalore).

Slumdog Millionaire. Yes, there is a lot of trash. And they do burn it here. But there’s more to the country than that.

A Bollywood movie. Yes, the clothing is vibrantly colored, but people aren’t always singing and dancing and having love affairs.

The city by night, in all of its strangeness. Made by two friends, Johan Bichel Lindegaard and Jakob Pethick, Danish volunteers who spent the past two months in Pondy. Soundtrack is Lunal by Boxcutter.

Stay tuned for a better quality, full HD version upon their return to Denmark in late March/early April.


Me: So we were at this rooftop bar and hung out there for a bit, but it was closing early, like everything in Pondy.
Patrick: A rooftop bar
Me: Yes
Me: Everything is on the roof here.
Patrick: Why is everything on the roof?
Me: Because their roofs are flat.
Patrick: You don’t talk about that in your tumblr.
Me: I know, I should.
Patrick: You don’t say, “Everything is on the roof.”
Me: Why don’t I say “Everything is on the roof”?
Patrick: Why don’t you!
Me: I will!

Oh The Places We Go

Another list! From the minute to the grandiose, I move around a lot in India, wading through the thick, humid heat. I usually walk or bicycle to class, take the bus into the city, and if I’m lucky, get a ride on the back of a friend’s motorbike. Here’s a a list of nearly all the places we make our way towards with some frequency:

East Coast Road—Generally referred to as ECR, this is the “highway” that our campus is located on, along with numerous convenience stands, tea shops, and tiny restaurants. It links Chennai and Pondicherry.

Pondicherry University—Founded in 1985, the campus has 780 acres to its name and is gated, with three entrances (also known as gates) along ECR. Its tagline is ‘Versa la lumiere’ or ‘Towards the light.’ Light of what? I’m not sure. Perhaps knowledge!

Tea stall—Affectionately known as “Chai guy,” there is a squat, unsmiling man who makes some of the most flavorful tea along the ECR (East Coast Road). A few stands down is actually another tea stall that stays open until about 1am. Chai guy closes shop around 11.

Science & Humanities Block—technically, there are two concrete, 1970s-looking buildings where we go for class, but I only have class in Block 1. It’s a giant circle, with four entrances that is still confusing, even after nearly two months of class.

Foreign Students Hostel—The place that most of our program calls home; “the inmates” as we’re called, hail from America, Canada, Germany, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Afghanistan, Bhutan, and Bangladesh. The kitchen is crawling with ants, we hang our laundry to dry on the banisters and roof to dry, and we have a cat that kills mosquitoes and geckos.

Transit Hostel—a stone’s throw away from the Foreign Students Hostel, this is where five people in our program live. There’s no security guard here, and there are apartment-style suites, instead of standard double rooms.

Post Office—About the size of the closet, the post office generally has six people working there, although only one speaks English. Right next door is an Indian bank, although I generally avoid both places.

Quick Pick and Retail Store—Directly next to the bus stop outside of our campus gate, this place is the Indian equivalent of a CVS or a 7-11, but better. You can get one of just about anything: cold mango juice, packet of water, kids’ notebooks, any variety of packaged snacks, individual packets of shampoo, minutes on our cell phones, and just one cigarette.

Pondicherry—Affectionately and always known as “Pondy,” the town is a 30-minute (or more) bus ride along ECR. In addition to the hustle-bustle part of the city that is typical to South India (no sidewalks, with cattle, bicyclists, pedestrians, cars, buses, and motorcyclists attempting to blend into traffic), there’s the surprisingly peaceful French Quarter. The wide, oak-lined streets and colonial buildings are reminiscent of another era, specifically one when the French colonized Pondy. The whole city is right on the water, the Bay of Bengal.

Auroville—Halfway between campus and Pondy, this European-hippie-turned-tourist town is an interesting mix of local Indians and Western ex-pats who are attempting to create a utopia based on the ideas of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. Founded in 1968 with soil and representatives from 124 countries, hasn’t quite achieved its goal of 50,000 inhabitants. The town itself is quite spread out, but has some neat markets and bakeries on the outer edges, closest to ECR, where I go when I’m sick of Indian food.

St. James Court—adjacent from Gate 2 (for a point of reference, the Foreign Students Hostel is right inside Gate 1), this beach-side resort has a rooftop restaurant that serves beer, cocktails, peanuts, and sometimes food until the late hour of 11pm. Last call is usually around 10pm. Our group makes it here a few times a week, as its just a short walk away and the Kingfishers (an Indian beer equivalent to a heavy Busch) are only 65 rupees).

Kerala Mess—Literally on the side of ECR, near to Gate 2, this is one of the only decent places to eat off-campus. There’s no menu except for a sandwich board with writing in Tamil and some less-than-descriptive pictures—but the chappati are 7 rupees, the amazing banana milkshakes are only 20. You sit on plastic stools, watching the traffic and the cattle lumbering by.

(A version of this post will be published in Carnegie Mellon’s Study Abroad Newsletter.)

A Day in Food.

I promised a blog of list & letters, so here’s the former. This is every little thing I ate on Saturday, February 12, when I took a day trip to Gingee (also known as Senji) with some of the guys from our hostel.

1 banana, en route to Pondicherry’s New bus Stand
1 granola bar, en route to Gingee (a 2 hour bus ride west of Pondy)

2 samosas, in an autorickshaw en route to Gingee Fort

Half a plate of lemon rice, pickled something, and tapioca something, courtesy of some Indian nuns at Gingee Fort

1 cup of masala tea
1 fried plantain and 1 muffin-sugar-bread concoction at the same place where we got the samosas

Half a “Tempted Chocolate” milkshake
2 pieces of fried cauliflower
Vegetable burger on a sesame roll, with tomatoes & cucumbers and French fries at Daily Bread, an Indian/Continental/Chinese restaurant in Pondy

A small glass of Shiraz (thanks James!)
2 crackers with Camembert cheese

Dinner at Bamboo Garden

Miriam, a European volunteer, attempting to order her meal): I’ll take the lamb, please.
Indian server: We are out of lamb, sorry.
Miriam: Okay. What else do you have?
Server: We have chicken. And beef.
Miriam: Okay, I’ll take the steak.
Server: Very good. I’m sorry for not having the lamb.
Miriam: I’m sorry for eating your cow!
(Table erupts in laughter, including the server, who actually gets the joke)

India by the Numbers.

Number of…

Mosquito/spider bites on my right foot/ankle: 14
Mosquito/spider bites on my left foot/ankle: 16
Times I spray myself with mosquito repellent each day: 3
Gallon buckets of water required for my daily bucket shower: 1.5
Chappati it takes to fill me up: 2
Pictures I’ve taken since I’ve been here: 231
Pictures Leah has taken since we’ve been here: over 1200
Blogs started by people in the program: 9 (out of 16)
Times a day my mom checks this blog: several (3? 4?)

Kilometers from Pondicherry University into town (“Pondy”): between 5 and 14, depending on who you ask
Rupees for a bus ride into town: 4
Rupees to the dollar: 45
Candy bars you can buy for 100 rupees: 10
Jars of peanut butter floating around the hostel: 16
Times it takes Alex to put an adapter in the wall: at least 3
Computer Centre IT guys that attempt to fix Alex’s wifi: 3
People that it takes to actually fix Alex’s wifi: 1 (girl)

Days we’ve been here: 20
Vowels in Tamil: 12
Consonants in Tamil: 18
9-year-old boys at our first surf lesson: 6

Vulnerability & Visas.

I was so excited about getting my visa to India that I wanted to take a picture of it and post it here—in fact, I went through the motions: took the picture, blurred out all identifying details, & posted it…only to delete it a minute later, paranoid as I am about Internet privacy

Just know that it is here, it is real, & it is in my passport.