Journal from India

I’m experiencing it– a phenomenon that writers sometimes have.

Writer’s block.

Maybe it’s the change of place. Or maybe it’s still the jetlag–it’s almost a 12 hour time difference between home and here.

I am, after all, over 8,000 miles from home (the calculated flight distance from Chicago to Bangalore, India is 8,543 miles). It’s about 16-18 hours of flight time, one way, not including the several hour layover in Europe. And while here, by the time this trip is done, I’ll have added another 1,000 miles because of traveling within the country. The total mileage when I’m back home and sleeping in my own bed will be over 17,000 miles. Wow.

On a bus safari at the Bannerghatta National Park in Bangalore, we spotted Bengal and white tigers. Here is a Bengal tiger stretching on a tree. Exciting!

Speaking of beds, I’ve slept in six different beds so far in 3 different cities, in 3 different homes. Not that I’m counting… LOL. :)

I’ve also eaten lots of rice. I normally don’t eat rice every day, but here, they eat it every day. Even breakfast consists of a steamed cake made of lentil and rice flours, or a flat pancake made of the same. If it’s not the rice-based breakfast, it’s a wheat based hot cereal cooked with spices and vegetables.

Big bins of various types of rice at a "wal-mart" store in Bangalore that was called "Easy Day"

The cuisine of north and south India varies, and even varies among state to state– so if I were visting the north, we’d have chapatis or rotis for dinner. They eat that sometimes here in the south, too, but it is a different diet and way of cooking curries. They cap off their meal here (rice with vegetable curries) with just rice and yogurt. Oh– and they eat by hand in the south. No spoons or forks needed. Just hands. I’m still using my spoon, but my kids really like this eating by hand thing– really, how often have I told them in their lives to please get a fork or spoon and not just eat by hand! So this is a fun experience for them. It is culturally acceptable to eat this way here.

Even though this is not my first time to visit India, it feels different because all 3 of my kids are here, too. Although the older two were here 10 years ago (one was four years old, the other was only a year old), it is like their first visit here. I feel a tremendous amount of responsibility for their health and well-being, and maybe all of the changes, the environment, the diet, the heat, the language differences, all of it– sometimes puts me more in a cultural shift/survival mode than a sit-back-and-enjoy-the-vacation mode.  It isn’t that kind of a sit-back-and-relax-vacation. I realize that my idea of a true vacation is a carefree, swing in the hammock under the palm tree kind of vacation– the  kind I see pictured in magazines– and I never have to see the inside of a kitchen! Ha! I’ve seen hundreds of palm and coconut trees here thus far, but no hammocks are to be seen near the majority of them. :)

Speaking of trees, I’ve been keeping a list of the types I’ve seen so far– at least the identifiable ones (there are dozens of others.) Here’s the list:

    • Almond
    • Coconut
    • Palm
    • Mango
    • Papaya
    • Banana
    • Guava
    • Fig
    • Pomegranate
    • Neem (not a fruit tree– a highly valued tree that has medicinal value)
    • Bamboo
    • Eucalpytus

I’m forgetting a few–and just reading that list makes me hungry for fruit– yet many are not ripe at this time of year. We have gotten pomegranate, papaya and guava, and coconuts seem to always be in season, as well as bananas. Mangoes are small on the tree and mostly not even seen yet, and we’ve heard grand stories for years– like legends almost, the way they talk about mangoes–  about the variety of the mangoes available and how deliciously sweet they are in season. I don’t care much for papaya, but I do like mangoes. Too bad that mango season is also in the hot season– when I prefer not to visit, so I can’t confirm whether any of the legendary mango stories are true or not! :)

Coconut tree (Bangalore, India)

I did get to eat a sweet fruit that is not available in the states– here it is called “sapota”, in north India, it is called “chikoo”. It looks something like a kiwi on the outside, but the inside is a sweet brown flesh, unlike any fruit I’ve ever had. I first tasted it over 20 years ago and never forgot how much I enjoyed it. I have no clue what the English word might be for this fruit.

Horns beep constantly on the road (it’s customary here to honk the horn if you want to pass, to warn someone, etc.). And the pollution here is horrible– it’s not uncommon to see people on motorcycles cover their noses and mouths. There is a visible dusty haze over the city, obscuring buildings and the view. I am sure Hyderabad is no different from other cities. Bangalore is the same. Pollution is most definitely an issue.

Fishermen at sunset on the Krishna River in Vijayawada, India

A country of one billion also needs to address waste and plastics– and I’ve noticed a most definite push against plastic bags. Utilizing reusable bags are highly encouraged and people are heeding.

It’s noisy. If it’s not the cars, horns, or construction noise, it’s the people. People selling their goods on the streets will shout to let the neighborhood of the opportunity.

The "auto rickshaw" is like the Indian taxi-- very common mode of intra-city travel. It's a three wheeler vehicle and seats about 2-3 people.

It’d take some effort to live an isolated life here, at least it seems that way. The doorbell rings several times a day, whether in a city or in a village. If it’s not a visitor, neighbor or relative, it’s the house cleaner, the lady who washes clothes, or the person who irons the clothes.

Many people hire household help for cleaning and washing. In one village, a house servant still washes clothes by hand. This was the norm until recently, as more people can afford washing machines now and have the water set-up in their homes or flats to accommodate them.

In the village I visited, the house was so close to the other house (a few feet perhaps), I could hear the baby crying. I could hear the servants who rose before dawn and began their daily work.  I saw green parrots flying among banana trees just across the street. Now, that’s not a sight anyone typically sees in the Midwest! It was most definitely a vacation-y type of moment! :)

Power outages change the daily life of those who do not have inverters or generators to rely on for some electricity when the power cuts off. The power goes off daily here for a few hours.I’ve been to 3 cities so far, two of them with a population of 7-8 million, one with a population of over 1 million, and the story is the same in each place. In the village (next to the 1 million sized city), the power outage was more obvious (even with an inverter providing some electricity)– lights and any unncessary electrical appliances are all switched off. In large businesses and some more modern homes, the power outages are not even noticed because generators kick in automatically when the power is turned off.

Typical Indian kitchen. The stove is a portable gas appliance, connected to gas cylinders behind the cabinet doors. No dishwashers-- they are uncommon. Also in the kitchen in a pantry closet, and a door leading to an area outdoors, where dishes are washed and dried.

And in some places, the water shuts off for a while, too. In Bangalore, we experienced water loss in part of the house. The power even goes off on an unscheduled basis as well. The microwave and the computer couldn’t operate at the same time– one has to be unplugged it the other is in use. Not all flats are like this– but issues like this are very common.

It’s colorful here.

Women dress in colorful saris and kurtis (long tunics). I went to a department store the other day and marveled at the fabrics– beautiful fabrics (silk, chiffon, cotton, you name it, in every color and in hundreds of different designs) that are sold for custom tailoring into women’s clothing. Each ensemble was unique and colorful– so much variety. No one wears the same thing. In the stores, one won’t see rack after rack of the same shirt or outift in different sizes. Quite the opposite. Expect to see a variety in one size. I suppose for people who care about being seen in the same outfit at a public event– they’d feel quite safe that is not so likely to happen here! :)

Okay– and that’s just the clothing. The interest in jewelry, and gold in particular, is another subject entirely.

Each morning, in order to have a hot shower, a switch must be turned on to heat the water, which is stored in a tank.  I suppose if someone is running late, she’d have to deal with a cold shower. Some areas of the country are so hot (especially in the summer) cold water is probably what most people prefer anyway. I’m visiting in the “winter”, and in two of the cities, the temperatures are in the lower 80s, and one city in particular is quite hot. (Homes don’t have air conditioning, although now some have units installed in bedrooms. People use ceiling fans to cool off and open windows to get cross ventilation in their dwellings. 80s sound wonderful to me, but it feels hot! The seasons in Bangalore are “summer, rainy, and winter”. I’m not sure if that is true everywhere. In the extreme north, in Kashmir, they have snow right now. And remember, “winter” is a relative term. Here, in south India, winter means temperatures in the 70s and 80s. For the people here, it is cold. It is not uncommon to see people in sweaters or scarfs in the winter, in 80 degree temperatures. In the Midwest, we get excited when it reaches 50 in the winter! I could get used to this kind of winter!!

Drinking tap water would be an invitation to some unwanted ailments. Even the people here boil their tap water and drink it. Some people have water filters in addition to the boiling. I’m not even drinking the boiled water– only drinking Aquafina– since that just happens to be the first kind we found after arriving.

Here is the advice I’ve been given: don’t just buy any bottled water on the street. Don’t buy from a very small shop. Purchase well known bottled water brands from larger stores, and make sure the bottles are sealed and never been opened. Stick with the same brand of water for the entire duration of your stay. Don’t use ice. Don’t drink fountain sodas (only drink from glass or aluminum containers).

It was so much fun to drink coke from glass bottles– boy did we get a kick out of it (more advice– don’t drink straight from the bottle, use a straw). Perhaps it sounds a bit picky to take precautions, but believe me, after having experienced unwanted illnesses here in India in  past years, I know the key to enjoying a happy visit here is to be cautious. It makes the trip enjoyable for all concerned! :)

My daughter enjoying drinking coconut water straight from the source. This is one thing safe to consume from the street-- street vendors sell these all over the place. The coconut in cut in half with a very sharp knife right in front of you, they put in a straw, and you can drink right from the coconut. It's what the Indians drink to cool off-- like a natural kind of Gatorade, keeps people cool and refreshed. You can see the large pile of coconuts in the background. It's a fun thing to enjoy if you're in India.

I’m also avoiding eating any food prepared outside the home. No restaurants– although some would be safe, clean and hygienic. And absolutely no street vendor food! Eating something from a street vendor over 20 years ago has left an indelible mark on me– I will never forget the illness that resulted from that one. Lesson learned!

So while it seems less spontaneous to live this way, and I carry bottled water everywhere, I can tell you that in the past two weeks, thus far, my kids and I have not suffered from a serious “Hyderabad- I feel bad” syndrome (also known as “Delhi Belly” if you happen to be visiting Delhi). I hope we continue to have success during out stay here. It isn’t perfect even with our precautions– we’ve had a few very minor stomach disturbances. Of course, it works for us to only eat home-cooked food since we are only staying with relatives and friends and not in hotels.

Well, I guess I wrote a lot for someone who has “writer’s block”–  I think when I’m back home I’ll have a different perspective and will continue to process all of this.

There’s so much more to say, this is all for now!

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5 thoughts on “Journal from India

  1. HA, you can have writer’s block any time! This was great. I loved hearing the details, all of them. I think saris and kurtis are so beautiful, and I would love to see the stores with all that fabric. This made me laugh, “I realize that my idea of a true vacation is a carefree, swing in the hammock under the palm tree kind of vacation– the kind I see pictured in magazines– and I never have to see the inside of a kitchen! Ha! I’ve seen hundreds of palm and coconut trees here thus far, but no hammocks are to be seen near the majority of them. ” – you can always put up a hammock at home, but your trip is special!

  2. It is very good your children can be there to experience a different land and culture. Don’t drink the water is true in most countries. Only drink the Living water that comes from above!

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