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Travels: Week One, Bhubeneshwar.

It's been nice to hear a few voices clammoring for an update of this blog! I'm sorry to keep you all in suspense; I've been travelling for the past 3 weeks and my access to internet has been limited, if available. But I do have lots of adventures to recount! So here goes!

We left Bangalore on a Tuesday to fly to Bhubaneshwar, the capital city of the state of Orissa. We arrived there late in the evening, after a chaotic rush to get everyone to the airport and on the plane. I recieved my slawar kameez (Indian pants and shirt outfit) that morning from the tailor, so i felt perfectly prepared for an Indian adventure. Our hotel looked deceptively nice from the outside, but the rooms were home to cockroaches and dirty towels. I am soo glad Sandy Wetzel gave me a traveling sheet for Christmas, it has been the best thing I brought to Indian, along with my blanket. Bed clothes, when present in hotels, are NASTY! The city was much different from Bangalore, smaller and less busy, with cycle-rickshaws and tons of humped back cows - everywhere, on the side walks and even sleeping in the roads. Bhubaneshwar is called the city of temples and our first day, that's all we talked about. We had a loong lecture about the city and about the different styles of temples. The most interesting part of this lecture had to be the perfuse ear-hair the professor was sporting- very hobbit-like.
Then we went on the tour, seeing all the temples in the city in order according to their ages, from the earliest, rocky temples to the latest ones with intricate carvings and stylistic architecture. It was interesting to see the progression, but it got pretty tiring. Upon entering every temple, we had to remove our shoes, my feet invariably getting bitten by invisible bugs, and every person in the compound stared our followed us around. At least now I can recognize a lot of the symbology on temples - signs that represent different gods our myths. Some of the temples were really beautiful and interesting, but by the end of the day I was pretty sick of them. This may have had something to do with the final temple being totally infested with pigeons, my nemesis.
After a long day of rickshaw rides from temple to temple, we headed back to the hotel to find some dinner. Our professor, Naveen, had just flown in to meet us in Orissa so we wanted to go somewhere nice. Instead, we ended up in a restaurant we had eaten lunch at that morphed into a gentleman's club in the evening. Needless to say, we scadaddled and found food somewhere else.

On Thurday we visited a really cool NGO that worked to promote Native people's right to use and preserve forests in their traditional ways. The group had lots of strategies to uplift and protect tribal and village people, mostly throught the preservation of their own culture. It turns out that native methods of forest conservation have been as successful if not more so than initiatives by the Indian government. I was really inspired and excited by this group, and not solely because they kept feeding me sweet chai and treats. Also, one of the volunteers was EXTREMELY cute - we all wanted to date him, so that helped keep my attention. But seriously, this group really made me think a lot about strategies NGOs use and the best ways to help people while preserving their dignity.

We saw a few more temples that afternoon- one of them was a running temple where non-hindus were not allowed. Buildings near the temple created their own fruitful business by charging foriegners to climb their rooves for a peek into the temple complex. After viewing all the temples in Bhuneshwar, we headed off for the Ashokan temple. The temple marked the place where Ashoka fought the decisive battle in the Kalinga war. After witnessing the intense bloodshed, the Hindu Ashoka renounced violence and became a Buddhist. Ashoka's conversion and his subsequent efforts to spread Buddhism changed world history and resulted in the Buddhist faith being vastly popular in Southeast and Eastern Asia. So, being the history buff that I am, I was really really excited to see this. But, being in India, I naturally hit a snag. I was in a rickshaw with a few other students and our driver bypassed the site of the battle and the ashokan edict which explained ashoka's principles of ahimsa (nonviolence) and justice throughout his empire, and took us straight up the hill to the buddhist shrine. The shrine was pretty impressive, built out of white stone by japanesse buddhists. The top of the shrine had these weird ufo shaped sculptures on top. It also provided a magnificent view of the valley below - verdant fields in the dusk. I was excited when a priest came up to me and showed me around - I figured he was interested in seeing a westerner and wanted to make sure I saw everything. Stupid! He rushed me out of the Buddhist temple and into what I later found out was a Hindu temple. THen he proceeded to push other worshippers out of the way and begin a blessing on me and my entire family, using incense, money and marigold flowers. I was feeling pretty cool, it can't hurt to get a blessing, right? Wrong. Then he demanded 500 ruppees in donation. Just to contextualize this, I feel like I'm getting a big dinner if I spend 100 ruppees. So this was a big chunk of cash. I didn't know what to do, he had just blessed everyone I cared about and I certainly didn't want him to do the reverse, so I paid him the money. When th e priest tried to take me to another donation spot, I really lost it and walked out. What a weird transaction of money for spirituality. It reminded me a lot of when people used to be able to buy forgiveness for their sins from catholic ministers. It all just had a sickening feeling. Not to mention that Hinduism has long been trying to incorporate buddhists into its folds, historically rewritting buddha as a reincarnation of vishnu. That's why there are barely any buddhists in India. SO it seems kind of sad that after thousands of years, this Hindu priest is trying to do the same thing - draw my attention, and my donation, away from the Buddhists.

So I felt pretty crappy about that, and th en when I realized that everyone except the people in my rickshaw had gotten to see the ashokan pillar, I was really sad. That was something I had really really wanted to see. And everyone gave me a hard time for paying that stupid priest, so I was feeling pretty unhappy at that point in the trip. Those are the times I really wished I had my own room. But instead of sleeping, I got to witness my classmates, egged on by my professors, put on a fashion show in their bedcovers and parade downstairs to show Dr. Kumar, our male professor. It was ridiculous, but it gave us all a good laugh.

The next day we made an excursion to a zoo outside the city. I was pretty excited about this, because our schedule said we would be learning about conservation and protection of endangered species. This wasn't exactly the case. After a fairly disorganized trip to the zoo, and a long wait for tickets, we entered the huge zoo complex. One of the zoo employees took us around - and at first everything looked nice; there was a natural lake, lots of trees, etc. But when we arrived at the animal pens, I started to feel pretty uneasy. Some of the smaller pens were made of wire fence and ply wood without greenery or any natural elements inside. We saw endangered birds, penned inside a wire globe. We was sloth bears, out in open pens, their pelts plastered down with sweat because they had very little shade. The worst were the big cats - tigers, white tigers, leopards, jaguars - all in small pens with few or no trees, some of them pacing back and forth. There were no guards protecting the animals and some of the pens you could easily reach into or throw things in. I saw peole throwing rocks to try to get the animals' attention . Some of these animals were creatures I had always dreamed of seein, like the white tiger, but I would have rather not seen them at all than in those conditions. After walking around the pens, we went on a "safari" where we saw tigers and lions in open spaces. I couldn't understand, though, why 2 or three tigers and lions were allowed this open space, while the rest were penned in. OUr guide couldn't really give me a good answer, but I guess it comes down to the argument between preserving animals in their natural habitat or exhibiting them in order to promote conservationism and education. I'm not sure the zoo made the right choice, but it was theirs to make, not mine.

After the depressing zoo tour, we went to visit the village that had been displaced by the creation of the zoo. These people had been living in the forest area before the government decided to build the zoo. In reward for their compliance to the eviction order, the families were promised land and government housing. The problem was, the villagers recieved the houses but not the land and were thus unable to farm, as they had before. Thus, the village income had decreased and men were forced to go to the cities as day laborers. We spoke, through a translator, to one of the elder men of the village, and it was really sad to hear their predicament. They couldn't get enough representation in the local government to make any real changes in their situation. What they really needed was a lawyer to come in, not for profit, and take their case to court. But at the same time, what would that show? That a powerful, educated person can do what a hundred poor people cannot. And their didn't really seem to be that initiative, among the men atleast, to make something happen. There was definitely a degree of self-defeatism in their situation.
We asked to speak to a woman next, to get a different perspective. THe woman we spoke to was fiery where the man had lacked passion. When asked about the health and prospects for her children, she angrily told us that the government teacher rarely made it out to their village, so how were her children supposed to move up in life? She also complained that she could not afford to get her tubes tied, the price was too high and she'd have to miss a day of work to get the procedure. So she had more babies than she wanted and had trouble feeding them because the men drank and smoked all the money away. We tried to be as encouraging as possible, and gav e all the kids sweets, but it was a draining day.

Later that evening a few of us went along with Anita, the field trip coordinator, to visit the Bakul Children's Library. This library was the first children's library in the state ( there aren't public libraries in India like in the states), and the funds and books had all come from online donations and volunteers. We spoke with the creator, who showed us around and then sat us down for a brainstorming session. He said that people in India don't have the same attitude towards volunteering as americans do - Americans are willing to help out strangers, and Indians aren't - although they will go all out to help a friend or family member. So his mission was to try to foster volunteerism through this children's library, using this project as a catalyst for many others. He asked us for any ideas, and we chatted for awhile about book projects we had been involved in at home and things he might try. It was really great to feel so involved in a project in such a short time, and we all exchanged emails to keep in touch.

The last day of our stay in Bhubeneshwar was definitely the best. Anita had arranged for us each to have a day long homestay with a family. I was nervous at first, but it ended up being really great. My "mom" picked me up in the morning and on the rickshaw ride to her house I learned that her husband worked for the state as a geologist so she had moved around a lot for his work. She mentioned that it was sad for her to be away from her large family. However, when I reached her apartment, I learned that she had created a surrogate family around herself and her two kids. In addition to her young son and college aged daugter, mom (mrs. fatema) play ed mother to three other college students and the woman and her young son who lived upstairs. I was quickly identified as the new daughter/sister. I spent a good half an hour speaking with my dad about politics, and then I was entertained by the neighbor's little boy and the very handsome surrogate son, who was studying to be a neurologist. The women began to prepare lunch, and I had to fight them to let me help - Indian hospitality is all about treating the guest like a god, so i was constantly told to sit down and relax. But I wanted to be involved, so I helped grate coconut and chop vegetables. We had a delicious meal, and then my sister ordered me to sleep. Unsure of what to do, I laid down and the two girls just watched me. I realized they had given me their bed to sleep in, so I told them to come join me. One of them did, and we had a nice nap! I wish I could do that everyday! After lunch they told me we would go shopping. THe mom had already given me more approriate toe rings - I was only wearing one and needed a pair, and one of her own necklaces. But they wanted to take me to the market to. As we readied to leave, the daughter began a prayer. The mom explained that they were Muslim, which was suprising to me. I had seen pictures of hindu gods in the bedroom i slept in, and the mom informed me that she was muslim, and her surrogate children were HIndu, and now she had a christian daughter (me). It was so cool to see these people of different faiths living together like it was no big deal. And i guess it isn't, right Kashmir? So the family all took me to the market, which was an inense maze of stalls. Part of their idea of generosity or bringing me into the family was buying me tons of stuff! I had to quell my uncomfort, but I knew offering to pay was considered rude. Mom bought be two sets of bangles in the north indian style - aka flashy, bindis, and a dupata (shawl) to match my salwaar kameez. When they were done, they decided that I finally looked properly indian. I don't think i have ever been so dolled up -i was wearing earings, a necklave, four bracelets, a shawl, an anklet and three toe rings. I felt like a maharajas daughter. THey also treated me to some market food, these things called water balls that were roles with spiced and herbed water in them. I ate them to be polite, but I was fairly sure i would get dysentry. Happily, I felt fine the next day. I convinced my family to let me buy them ice cream, and then they walked me back to my hotel. I was really sad to leave them, they were so fun and it was such a comfort to be around them. It really made me miss my family at home, but it was great to see that no matter where you go, families are pretty much the same everywhere.

The next day was our last in Bhubeneshwar and we had free time to do what we pleased. I went with Alex to visit the rock caves that Buddhist and Jain monks had carved out of the cliffs hundreds of years ago and then I returned to see the ashokan edict. It was really awesome, and I was so glad I had a chance to see it. After lunch, we boarded our first Indian train and set off for Golpalpur! More later!

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