Sunday, July 31, 2011

Happy Valley

As you may remember, while at the old George Everest House, I had the opportunity to look down into Happy Valley, a small Tibetan settlement a couple kilometers down hill from Mussoorie.  Naturally, after hearing about it, I wanted to see it.  So, along with one other ETA (Nick) and a Dutch Hindi school student (Sita), I ventured down into the valley.

And it was beautiful.  Very peaceful, and not at all touristy (the place isn’t even in Lonely Planet!).  The first place we visited was a small Buddhist temple.  I have only been to one other Tibetan Buddhist temple before: the one in McLeod Ganj, the Dalai Lama’s current place of residence.  Both temples are lavishly decorated, and covered with beautiful paintings, depicting scenes from the Buddha’s life.  The McLeod Ganj temple was much more well-tended than this one though; it seems that the Dalai Lama’s first home in India receives far less money than his present one.  The Happy Valley temple was still beautiful though, despite the peeling paint and rickety scaffolding.

The Temple
Entrance to the temple
Tibetan lion

Peaceful scene

A nice sign in the SOS children's village

As we walked around the community, we noticed several schools, and a number of “hostels” which were part of the SOS Children’s Village, an orphanage for Tibetan children.  (There are SOS Children’s Villages all over India.  I believe the parent organization is based in Germany.)  The whole place had a different feel to it; I really felt that I had left India for a little while, and possibly entered Tibet.  Much quieter and less showy than McLeod Ganj, but every bit as beautiful.


Before this blog post begins, I have an apology to make.  Mr. Craig Williams, if you are reading this, I am so sorry.  Against your good advice, I went to Rishikesh.  But though I certainly understand why you cautioned against it, I am very glad I made this trip.  Below are the details.

For our final weekend in the Himalayan foothills, we ETAs, restless travelers that we are, decided to leave Mussoorie for a bit.  The debate on where to go lasted a long time: Haridwar (the extremely spiritually significant city where the Ganges emerges from the Himalaya) and Rishikesh (also a holy city, where Vishnu appeared under a mango tree, to which thousands of yoga obsessed hippies flock) were the first options that came to mind, but we were told that this was a bad time, as this was a very busy pilgrimage time for both cities.  Chopta was a beautiful Himalayan paradise, we were told, but we were also (eventually) told that it would take fourteen hours to get there.  Ultimately, we decided to take the road most travelled: the winding road to Rishikesh.

A few words about Rishikesh before I begin.  As I said before, Rishikesh is a very holy city in the Hindu religion.  Due to its place of significance in Hindu mythology, it is home to several large temples and numerous ashrams known for their top-notch yoga and meditation courses.  Rishikesh is in fact where the Beatles spent some time, after deciding that they needed some spirituality in their lives.  And if the Beatles are doing it, it’s gotta be legit, right?  It is for this reason that crowds of spiritually starved Western hippies descend upon Rishikesh every year, hoping to purge themselves of Western materialism.  And smoke a little hash while they’re at it.  Due to these kinds of visitors, Rishikesh has earned a bit of a reputation with travelers.  Nevertheless, I was curious to see what the city was really like.

Ganga banks

After our (for me at least) nausea inducing drive down from the tranquil hill station of Mussoorie, we arrived just outside of hot, humid Rishikesh.  (Due to the huge influx of pilgrims, cars were not allowed all the way into the city.)  Instantly, the sweat started flowing.  Once we gathered together, we began our walk into the holy city.  Accompanying us were countless pilgrims, nearly all young men, all wearing bright orange.  We were exceedingly interesting to many of them; or at least, that’s the sense I got from the many video and camera phones that magically materialized in the hands of those surrounding us.  I am sure our sweaty American faces are now gracing the facebook pages of many fine young gentlemen.   But these men were not actually in Rishikesh to see us.  Nearly all of them carried small bottles, which would soon be filled with water from the Ganges.  The pilgrims would then carry the water up to a temple dedicated to Shiva, high on a hill behind Rishikesh, and leave it as an offering.  As it was Shiva’s birth month, it was a particularly auspicious time to make this pilgrimage. 

Shiva on the Ganga

After checking into our hotel (which took a little while to find), we walked to one of the many temples along the Ganges.  Soon after taking pictures of the enormous Hanuman and Shiva statues, we were ushered down to the ghats.  Before we knew what was going on, we found ourselves taking part in a pooja.   The priest chanted beautiful Sanskrit prayers, placed flowers into our hands, which we subsequently placed into the Ganges, and marked our foreheads with red powder and grains of rice mixed with Ganges water.  I still am not sure how to feel about this.  I felt a little bad: I, the non-Hindu, was up front and center.  All of the people who had actually come to the temple for the pooja were behind me.  I did not know what to think.  Was my participation valuable and welcome, or was I intruding?  When the priest plunked us down in front of him, was he sincerely welcoming us into his service, or was he simply hoping for a Western sized donation at the end?  I still don’t know.  For now, I’m trying not to over think things.  I am happy to have been included in this event, which I found both interesting and beautiful.  I can only hope that my interest and earnest participation was accepted as such.

Soon after our arrival, we discovered that Rishikesh’s balance between holiness and tourism is constantly shifting.  This was not tourist season.  Contrary to the large signs around our hotel, there were no yoga classes, no elephant safaris, no trekking tours, and no rafting trips.  We also found that walking around the city was not practical.  It was far too crowded, and, as a big group of videshis (foreigners), we were far too conspicuous.  We weren’t even allowed to visit the abandoned Maharish Mahesh Yogi Ashram, where the Beatles had once “om”ed, along with their lady friends.  We opted instead to take a walk up a hill to a waterfall a few kilometers outside the city.   Though I realize I did not need to come all the way to India to see a waterfall, I felt the hike was well worth it.  Rishikesh is much more peaceful when viewed from several kilometers above.

Bird's eye view of Rishikesh

That night, we went back to the same temple we had gone to the night before.  There we heard more beautiful Sanskrit prayers, accompanied by harmonium and tabla players.  We also saw what looked like a big school group of white girls, many of whom were wearing shoulder and leg baring garments.  I suppose this type of crowd is what gives Rishikesh a bad name.  That evening, we got a small glimpse of the spiritual commercialism that is also an undeniable part of Rishikesh.  I’m a little ashamed to say this, but I was a little relieved to discover that I’m not the most ignorant videshi out there.  

Pooja crowds

More than anything, this weekend showed me that the real Rishikesh is very different from the Rishikesh I had created in my mind.  I had been told that Rishikesh was a hotbed of commercialism, where trustafarians hoping to buy a little spirituality would come to hide from the world, do a little yoga, and maybe purchase some bangles.  This however, was not tourist season, but pilgrim season.  We were seeing Rishikesh for what it really is: a sacred Hindu city.  It appears in the Ramayana as the Rama’s place of penance after killing the demon Ravana.  It also appears in Skanda Purana.  What I’m trying to say is, Rishikesh was a spiritually significant place long before the Beatles checked in to Rishikesh’s Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram.  So, despite my disappointment at missing the Beatle Ashram, at the cancelled yoga classes, and the unraftable waters, I am very glad that we went during the pilgrimage time.  We got to see Rishikesh relatively untainted by commercialism.  Sorry Paul, George, John, Ringo.  Maybe next time.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Monsoon Trekking

17 July 2011

Currently, I am sitting in the dark, with only the light of my computer to see by.  I am used to the very, very frequent power outages by now, but am still frustrated when they occur.  Anyway, today, four of us went on a hike (or trek, as it’s called here) up in the hills above Mussoorie.  As we had all heard stories about people getting lost and horribly dehydrated on these hikes around Mussoorie, we made the decision to hire a guide.  And I, at least, am so glad we did.

But it was not our original intention to hire a guide.  Originally, Aileen (another ETA) and I, headed over to “Trek Himalaya,” a mountain adventure type of company, to ask about trails, and possibly purchase a map.  Well, the owner was not about to give us any useful information (if we hiked by ourselves, he would miss out on the money we might have paid for a guide), and the map we found was incomprehensible.  Eventually, we agreed to take a guide.  The owner convinced us that the two main sights, George Everest’s House and the Jwalaji Temple on Benog Hill were “not a problem” and “very possible” to see in one day.  I was a little skeptical, as all guide books had described both as day hikes.  Additionally, when the owner communicated with our guide on the phone, I understood enough of the Hindi to know that there was a little disagreement as to how much was possible in one day.  Still, we agreed.

So, on the appointed day, Aileen and I, along with two other people, headed over to Trek Himalaya, where we met our guide, Kuldeep, a Mussoorie native and a true nature lover.  The monsoons began as we started walking, and seemed to follow us on our way.  Someone else who chose to follow us was a very friendly, black shaggy dog, who we named Shadow.  Our soaked clothes (and probably, Shadow’s soaked coat) were uncomfortable at first, but eventually, we all got used to it.  And really, despite the monsoon rains, we really did luck out with the weather.  The rain continued as we hiked up hill, but stopped almost as soon as we reached our destination: George Everest’s House.  George Everest, Kuldeep explained, was a surveyor in India during the Raj.  (And yes, Mount Everest was named after him.)  His house and office are now somewhere between “in disrepair” and “in ruin.”  Additionally, the floors are now littered with cow dung: symbolically an interesting end for an old Raj era general’s house to come to.

George Everest House

Besides the house itself, the peak upon which the George Everest house sits provides beautiful views.  On one side was the town of Dehradun, on the other, was Happy Valley.  Interesting fact: Mussoorie was the Dalai Lama’s first Indian home before Dharamsala, and Happy Valley is a fairly large Tibetan settlement.  In the far distance we could just barely make out the peaks of the Himalayas covered with fog (or maybe those weren’t the Himalayas quite yet, but I’d like to think so).  We enjoyed our lunch up on Everest’s survey point, salted our leaches (yes, leaches) then continued on along the ridge, where we observed more beautiful views.  All the while, Kuldeep answered all of our questions about the plants, animals, and history of the area.  Again, I am so glad we had him!  There were many, many trails, and all looked alike.  While hiking along these remote paths, we passed by a number of tiny dwellings, mostly pieced together with sticks, rocks, and tarpaulin.  Kuldeep (who knew nearly all of the people we met along the way) explained that the majority of them were subsistence farmers.  When asked if the children went to school, he replied “sometimes.”  It really is a very different way of life up there.  Surrounded by beauty, but poverty as well.

A View

Eventually, we reached a paved road, which led to a place called “Cloud End Forest Resort.”  There, we rested and took shelter from the fresh torrent of monsoon rain (again, we really did luck out with the weather!).  Cloud End was really a very weird place; truly a relic of Victorian British India.  Inside the Hotel was a small gallery with photos of Mussoorie during the 1800s, Victorian crockery, watches, flasks, and other sundries, and a huge tiger skin hanging from the wall.  Once the rain stopped, we left the 1800s for the 21st century once again, and hiked back down to Mussoorie.  Shadow, our faithful guard dog, followed us the entire way down, and stayed with us until we entered the taxi to take us back to our guesthouse.

The group
With Kuldeep

As it turns out, the Trek Himalaya owner was indeed a little too ambitious; we never did make it to Benog Hill or the Jwalaji Temple, though we did see them from a distance, and were able to make out the clang of the temple’s bell.  Oh well.  All the more reason to return to Mussoorie and hike once again, perhaps after the monsoon is finished!

Mussoorie monsoons, Hindi bhasha, and Manoj’s birthday.

15 July 2011

We have now been in Mussoorie almost a week, and are starting to feel at home here.  It really is a beautiful little town, despite the frequent rain.

Pretty Temple

Nice view


The views are perhaps slightly less spectacular than they might be without the dense fog, but they are stunning nonetheless.  The entire town is built along the mountain slopes, so we do a lot of steep uphill walking whenever we go to school, to the main downtown area, or just wherever our feet take us.  The thin mountain air means that I get out of breath pretty quickly, but at least I get to enjoy some nice views whenever I have to stop to allow oxygen into my lungs.
Hindi classes are going well.  The teachers here are very nice, but move very quickly, so I have to work hard to keep up.  There have been moments when I’ve cursed myself for taking Conversational Hindi, rather than Basic Hindi while in Hyderabad, but I’m finding that the Devanagari script is quickly becoming the least of my problems.  Now, often I will know in my head what I want to say, but my mouth still trips over the new sounds.  Even though my mind knows what to do, my tongue just doesn’t want to flap retroflexively.  Oh well, practice makes perfect I guess.  And that’s the nice thing about Mussoorie.  Because the town is home to one of the oldest Hindi language schools for foreigners in India, the locals are not only used to tourists; they are also used to tourists who want to practice Hindi. 

In terms of Hindi practice, we ETAs are lucky to be staying in a guest house whose managers and workers are happy to let us practice our meager Hindi with them.  Sometimes they laugh—I once accidentally said pacchas instead of pacchis (50 instead of 25) which was particularly hilarious—but it’s always good natured.  Besides, now I’ll never make that mistake again, and imagine how much that mistake could cost me while bargaining!

Today, the 15th of July, was our guest house manager Manoj’s birthday.  The day before, I went into the main area of Mussoorie with two other ETAs (Jo and Jess) to order a cake.  We went to a nice little bakery called Casa Mia (recommended by Lonely Planet, but NOT the only reason we went there) and ordered a black forest cake, to be picked up the next day.  Well.  The next day rolled around, and so did the thunder clouds.  Jo and I, not wanting to walk twenty minutes in the pouring rain, called a cab.  Riding in that thing was like riding one of those log flume amusement park water rides.  The narrow winding roads looked like rivers, and when I looked out the window, I could see the valley far below us, with only a flimsy little guard rail denoting the edge of the embankment.  Once we got into the very beginning of the main part of town, our driver informed us that he could not go any further (this explanation took a while; our driver spoke no English, and though my Hindi is improving, it still has a long way to go).  Not knowing what else to do, Jo and I decided to split up: she would walk to the bakery to pick up the cake, and I would wait with the driver.  Once Jo had walked out of sight, the driver told me that we could not wait in that area.  He then proceeded to driver away, far up the road.  Then he hopped out of the car and ran out of sight.  Great.  I also had no way of reaching Jo, since our phones didn’t want to connect with one another, so I used another ETA as a go-between (her phone magically worked while ours didn’t).  Still though, I had no idea where Jo was, and was so worried that she was wandering around, thinking I had left her, holding the cake.  When I was just about out of patience, and about to jump out of the car myself, the driver returned, and drove back to where we had dropped Jo off.  I feared that she had already begun the long walk back to our guest house.  Fortunately though, I soon saw her walking up the road and screamed her name.  She was soaked; the bakery was much farther than we remembered it.  That girl is my hero.  So, despite the rain, the anxiety, and the miscommunications, we had a happy ending.  As so often happens in India, chaos resolves itself.  Happy birthday Manoj!  Janm din ki subkamnae!!

Manoj feeding birthday cake to the owner of the guesthouse

The cake!

Returning the favor

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

In Mussoorie

Hi everyone!  Sorry it’s been a while.  No internet, and very little time.  I’ve been typing up entries in word and saving them though, so, enjoy!

June 5th 2011

Today was a day of welcomes.  We had welcome remarks from Dr. Diya Dutt, the Deputy Director of the United States India Educational Foundation, and from Michael Pelletier, Minister-Counselor for Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy at the American Embassy, New Delhi.  Both spoke very highly of the ETA program, stating that, very often, it is in the primary and secondary school classrooms that Fulbright’s goal of promoting mutual understanding through cultural exchange is best accomplished.  They spoke of the earnestness of Indian youth, of their curiosity and their zeal for learning, and contrasted them with American students who, though often just as earnest, are more likely to take their educations for granted.  Both of these high-ranking people sang the praises of the Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship program in India.  I only hope that I can live up to these expectations. 

Today was also a day of house hunting.  The Delhi cohort of ETAs was carted round the city, along busy streets and narrow neighborhood streets.  We saw enough houses for me to lose count.  I must admit that it was nice to get away from the un-Indianness of the Taj.  We passed by some cows, breathed the smog, and got to see some accommodations that actually belonged to reality (as opposed to the heavily air-conditioned fairytale world of the Taj).  Driving through the winding streets made me, unfortunately, quite nauseated, so I probably wasn’t quite as discerning as I should have been about the apartments we saw.  I think they were all nice though…

Little else to report.  Here are some snapshots:

1) USIEF is being very good about feeding us.  Our dinner especially was huge: we all tucked into a huge meal at a kabob restaurant in Connaught Place.  After the attentive waiters loaded our plates with various kabobs and rotis, we were stuffed.  Then we realized that our “meal” was actually only the starter course.   Biryani, naan, daal, paneer, and four different kinds of dessert followed.  My belly is still recovering.

2) I swam in the super fancy Taj pool!  I’m trying to get in all the swimming I can before we get out of here.

3) I got to practice my Hindi with a rickshaw wallah.  After we talked about our families, he declared himself my bhai (brother).  It’s nice to feel the Hindi slowly coming back.

4) I had idli with sambar for breakfast!  Yay South Indian food!

July 11, 2011

Hello everyone!  Sorry for the delay; internet access has been a bit spotty.  Anyway, I, along with my fellow Delhi ETAs are now in Mussoorie.  For those who may not be so familiar with Mussoorie, it is a Mountain town in Uttarankhand, and was a hill station in the days of the Britishers.  It is truly beautiful, and a nice break from hot, smoggy Delhi.  Usually, it is a very touristy area, but we are currently in the off season, so it’s not too bad.  Unfortunately though, there is a very good reason that this is the off season: the daily torrential rains.  As my semester in Hyderabad happened between December and June, I did not get to experience much rain.  This trip to India will therefore provide me with my first monsoon.  To be honest, I can’t say I’m a huge fan of all this water soaking through my shoes, my jeans, and, well…everything.  Intellectually though, I understand that the monsoon is extremely important for farmers, animals, plants, and the whole ecosystem, and I do hope to come to a less grudging appreciation of it.

Something that might be worth mentioning: Several days before we left for Mussoorie, I visited the school that I will be teaching at once I return to Delhi.  I have to admit, I was a little nervous, so, in the hope of making a good impression, I dressed up in my nicest salwaar kameeze suit, and made sure that my hair was neatly braided.  Mansi (our Fulbright ETA coordinator) introduced me to the Principal, and the Principal immediately told me: “You look so Asian!  If we give you a bindi you will be Indian!”  She then went on to tell me that this might make things easier for me; previously, she had worked with an a light-haired blue eyed American English teaching assistant, whose features had been a distraction for the children.  I honestly don’t know how much this long black hair is going to help me, but I’ll take any advantage I can get. 

After meeting the principal, I met my coordinating teacher, who was really friendly and wonderful, as were all the other teachers she introduced me to.  Everyone who met me commented that I looked very young, and far more Asian than American.  We sat in the staff room and discussed my time in Hyderabad, all the dishes I hoped to learn how to make, and our families.  We had a very interesting discussion about parents’ duties to their children, and vice versa.  In India, it is the norm for children to live with their parents until marriage; quite different from the American ideal.  I think I surprised them with my information about America, even as they surprised me with their belief that parents really should support their children for as long as was necessary—provided that the children were working hard.  What in America is “failure to launch” is, in India, simply good preparation for true adulthood.  Speaking with these women may not have changed my mind, but it certainly opened it up!  In addition to pleasant conversation, I was fed rajmah dal and chappathi (the woman who offered it kindly translated chapatthi as “tortilla” for me), as well as samosa and gulab jamun.  Apparently all the female teachers pack lunches and share everything with one another.  It seems that the teacher community is very close-knit and friendly, and I’m looking forward to joining it.  And the most important part, the kids?  The teachers told me that the children are “naughty, but very affectionate” and that I would “love them.”  All in all, a great visit.  I know it will be challenging, but I am definitely looking forward to teaching.

Monday, July 4, 2011


Monday July 4th.

It is the 4th of July, America’s Independence Day.  I have just arrived at the Taj Mahal Hotel in New Delhi.  I do not quite feel as though I am in India yet-- smiling women in beautiful saris draped jasmine flower garlands around our necks as we entered the posh, air conditioned hotel lobby and attentive men in uniforms offered us cold juice and insisted on taking our bags.  I am currently sitting in my impeccably clean, ornamented room, with soft music playing in the background (I reeeeeally hope I can turn it off before going to bed…)  But the reality of being in India is starting to sink in, and I am very excited.  As I exited the airport terminal, I was enveloped by the Delhi heat.  Soon after, I recognized a very familiar scent.  I can’t quite place it; it is vaguely sulfurous, and also a bit sweet.  All I know is that I haven’t experienced that scent since my last time in India, and I was so excited to smell it again!  Anyway, more later.  I need to sleep. 

Saturday, July 2, 2011


It is Wednesday, June 29th 2011.  In less than a week I will be leaving for India once again, this time on a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship.  I have been jabbed with countless needles and swallowed many pills, all in the name of immunity.  I have excitedly dug out my old but forever beautiful salwaar kameezes.  I have attended a very thorough pre-departure orientation at the swanky Renaissance Marriott hotel in Washington D.C., where I met my fellow Fulbrighters.  These people are exceedingly talented and accomplished, but warm and friendly at the same time.  Meeting them was both enjoyable and humbling, and I am honored to be traveling to India with this extraordinary group of people.

I am of course extremely excited to return to India, where I had an eye opening, challenging, frustrating,  exhilarating, wonderful, semester abroad in Spring 2009.  I look forward to once again dodging cows, monkeys and camels while walking down the streets.  I look forward to the smells of paan, jasmine flowers, curry, and cow dung.  I look forward to smiling children addressing me as "Didi."  I look forward to idli, dosa, paneer, and malai kofta, to "chaiiiiii...chaichaiiiii...garam chaiiiiii," and to fresh pineapples and papayas.  I look forward to learning from the people I meet, and hopefully teaching them a little about my own culture.

I have to keep in mind however, that this trip to India will be an experience in and of itself, not merely a continuation of my semester abroad.  I have changed since then.  India has changed since then.   Hyderabad and Andhra Pradesh have certainly undergone a number of dramatic changes, with much uncertainty remaining.  But I am sure that subtler changes have occurred in India.  Though I still hum "Guzaarish," I am sure that the people of India are now singing other songs.  Though "Ghajini" is still the most prominent Hindi film in my mind, I am quite sure that India as a whole has moved on; I am willing to bet that much has happened in Bollywood since Aamir Khan first bared his eight-pack.

A huge difference is that this time I will be in Delhi, in North India.  Quite different from the South Indian city of Hyderabad that I grew to know and love.  Dosa and idli may be harder to come by.  (And although I tend to think with my stomach, I do understand that the differences stretch far beyond the culinary!)   Additionally, I will be a teacher this time, and not a student, a situation that will bring a whole host of new challenges and opportunities.

Something else to remember is that the wonderful people I met in Hyderabad, both Indian and American, will not be such large part of this experience.  I will have to navigate the country without Mr. Das, Kalyan, Madhuri, Kavitha, and Mamatha, though I do plan to visit them in Hyderabad.  My Indian classmates are also spread out around the country now, though I do hope to visit them as well.  I'll also have to do without my CIEE travel buddies, who became a vital part of this experience.  I could not have hoped for better companions by my side while walking into the bat infested caves of Ellora, bangle shopping, wandering forlornly around Pondicherry looking for lodging, gorging on delicious food, chugging pepto-bismol, and trekking through the Himalayan foothills.  

Looking back, this post reads as a rather sappy love letter to my junior semester abroad, but I am glad that I wrote it.  Naturally, I hope that my year as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in New Delhi is a wonderful experience in and of itself.  However, I also hope to build on my past experiences in India, and to learn even more about this fascinating, colorful, stressful, infuriating, delightful, beautiful country.
Some of the people I worked with while in Palampur in May 2009

This blog is not an official U.S. Department of State website.  The views here expressed are my own, and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the Department of State.