Wednesday, March 24, 2010

My Very Own Press Release!

We interrupt the (ir)regularly scheduled India Blogs to bring you this piece of VERY EXCITING NEWS!

One of my regular gigs is writing for the college website,, and I came up with an idea two weeks ago for a series of posts called Major Breakthrough. I am interviewing recent grads about why they chose their majors, and if they have found jobs right after college that use their majors.

I am really excited about this series, and not just because it's mine. I haven't found any other book or article that focuses on recent graduates' opinions of their majors and their job prospects upon graduation. Recent is important because these are the young adults who have gone through the current system and are struggling in this job market. Anyone can find already successful people and ask them what their majors were, but interveiwing early 20-somethings who are just finding out the ramifications of their majors on their post-college lives is unique.

Here is the press release about my project as it is posted on Choosing a Major Made Easy with New Web Series.  

And here are links to the two Major Breakthroughs that have been posted so far - a new one goes up every Monday:

Major Breakthrough: When you Major in Biology, you Major in Life

Monday, March 22, 2010

Pasta Italiano in Delhi

Connaught Circle looks like the British colonial version of a shopping mall that has been bombed out and left to rot. Formerly white pillars hold up peeling stores and the streets are dirt; the inside may be modern but the outside hasn’t seen paint or repairs since the British left. Connaught Circle is one of the main shopping malls in Delhi and our destination for lunch after shopping at Dilli Haat.
The blocks of Connaught Circle are labeled alphabetically, sort of. You might find that M block is next to E block, for instance. It doesn’t help that most anyone you ask for directions will tell you that wherever you’re going is “closed” due to some made-up reason or other, but you should try this other place down the street… Truth is a moving target in India.
We eventually found our lunch place on M block at a restaurant owned by a friend of Sumitra (Beth’s tour partner in India – that’s not a perfectly accurate description of Sumitra’s role but it will have to do). Sumitra’s friend thought we might like food that was easier on western stomachs since we would be spending 12 hours on a train to Varanasi that night. So she had her chefs make us something special, off the menu: Pasta Italiano! With garlic bread and virgin mojitos.

And I have to say, everything was incredibly good. I think Indian and Italian cooking go very well together. It was incredibly sweet and considerate of her to make special Italian food for us, and it was some of the best food we had on the trip (and we had some really good food). I wish I had written down the name of the restaurant because I’d love to give them a shout-out.

After lunch, half of us went searching for FabIndia, also in Connought Place. I had been waiting to get to this store since I landed. Prices are fixed, so no haggling, and everything was reasonable: like $6-$7 for a scarf, maybe a little more for a shirt. I went a little crazy, practically buying a whole wardrobe of long tunics, a skirt, another scarf (please don’t try to keep count, I didn’t). It all came with me on the train to Varanasi because I couldn’t fit all of it into the suitcase I left at the hotel (we’re coming back to the Park Hotel after Varanasi so many ladies opted to leave their larger bags there and bring smaller bags with us for the short trip).
That night, we took the overnight train to Varanasi…

*The picture is not mine. I sadly didn't get a picture of Connaught Circle.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Dilli Haat and the Bargaining Dilettant

Sarah is a shopping Goddess – I’m sure she has been added to the Hindu pantheon by now. Just look for the statue of a petite vivacious blonde deity carrying packs of scarves and bangles. I think she single-handedly brought the idea of discounts for buying-in-bulk to the markets of India by grabbing handfuls of figurines, showing them to the merchants and saying through an enormous smile: "I'm getting all of these, so I think you should give me a special price." Sarah is one of the ladies on the trip, the CEO of a non-profit fundraising company where she professionally persuades people to donate their money and feel good about it. She is one of those rare people who can make everyone fall in love with her without trying. These, incidentally, are great skills for bargaining.

I first saw her in action while trying out my own haggling skills at Dilli Haat, an open air market in the middle of Delhi. For my part, I fought hard for my silver bangles, eight scarves, silver cobra arm band (that I fully intend to wear, someday), and two anklets with matching necklaces for my little sisters. However, the fact that I failed to record the price paid in my travel journal suggests that I was too embarrassed to write down the hard numerical truth. I’m sure everyone who leaves Dilli Haat market fancies themselves a good bargainer. After all, the salesmen look so pained if you manage to haggle them down by a few rupees. But, I am pretty certain that we all got fleeced. Except, very possibly, for Sarah.
Sarah had the right perspective on haggling. She knew that she would get the tourist price, but I think she enjoyed the challenge of seeing how far she could whittle it down. In the end, it was all about whether she enjoyed her time and was happy with the price she paid.
Dilli Haat allows for maximum haggling enjoyment. The small entrance fee keeps out beggars and pickpockets, making the place disarmingly deserted. It’s a nice place to walk around; It’s what you picture India will be like before you get there.
Tourists like to test the bargaining waters at Dilli Haat and I saw a number of Europeans wandering around. European and Australian tourists in India all have this dust-covered, unwashed, tan-faced, chic look. They look worldly. They look like Lawrence of Arabia or Lara Croft. They look sexy. I was jealous. It’s enough to make a girl go out and buy khakis and a tight shirt, and then roll in the dirt (that seems to be the dress code).
After scarf number six, I tried to stop buying. But when I was beckoned by a scarf seller who was my age, cute, and spoke fluent English – I stopped trying.
He showed me scarves that were entirely hand-stitched, with stitching so fine that the design looked printed on them from only two feet away. He told me his own grandmother worked on one for eleven months, but they usually take nine months to complete. I also learned that he liked “Obama better than Boosh.” He was so much fun to talk to, and I could tell he was enjoying himself also. I told him where I was from, he told me about his family business making textiles and running the stall. What struck me most was how intelligent, articulate and confident he was, in a totally Westernized way. He reminded me a little of one of my cousins actually, something about his casual-cool.
But, when it was time for bargaining, I got down to business. He asked what I paid for the other scarves I bought, and I happily told him a price that was a few hundred rupees less than I actually paid. I sheepishly told him that I probably paid too much for them, silly tourist that I am. So he offered 300 rupees below the price I quoted. This may seem shady, it may look like lying, but believe me all is fair in haggling. Don’t worry, he still made a profit. It’s like gambling in Vegas: The house always wins, but it’s still a lot of fun.

*I found this excellent article on how to haggle - so if you want to know how to do it, click Here.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The flash dance, and being “followed”

October 17th, continued and finally finished

Buildings intended for tourists are built like mini-fortresses. You’d think they were embassies instead of hotels and restaurants. The barriers are necessary however, and getting out of the chaos of the streets is worth the lapse in egalitarianism.
For lunch, we went to a restaurant in the middle of a stone courtyard with benches and white chairs surrounded with tropical large-leafed plants. A walled garden. Our group was led down to a room with chairs set up facing a dance floor and the guide explained that we were being treated to a pre-lunch show of traditional dance. Pictures were Ok.
Three female dancers, young Asian women with beatific smiles, spun and waved their hands in graceful, yet aerobic, motions. Then a petite young man wearing a bright blue and gold costume walked onstage and set up three bicycle wheels and a silver tray. His smile was enormous and proud. He looked at us, smiling and exuding pride in his performance and the sheer joy of doing it. American Idol contestants could learn a lot from him on how to connect with an audience. His lively, dark, almond eyes connected with each of ours as he struck a pose and began spinning the silver tray on one finger. Then he picked up one of the bicycle wheels and began spinning that, resting it – still spinning rapidly – on his chin. He had to tilt his head back for this, and it was the only time during his act that he lost eye-contact with us.

Then it was back to spinning trays and wheels on each upturned palm, now and then on top of his head, and all the time he acted like he was having a blast. He was so in his element that the spinning appeared to take no concentration at all. It was effortless. His attention was on us, and my attention was completely given to him. Even now, I am half in love with him. And that is the effect every great performance should have.
Remember when the guide said “taking pictures is Ok”? In my opinion, using flash photography in a dark room aimed at a guy spinning a wheel on his chin is unappreciative, not to mention potentially dangerous. I can sympathize with the desire to capture the experience on film, but when your eye is stuck in a viewfinder, you can’t really appreciate, or be in, the moment. And performance art is about fully involving yourself in the moment, suspending disbelief and allowing yourself to be wrapped in someone else’s world of magic and amazement. You cannot do that with a camera stuck to your nose!

The cameras did make us laugh though – one woman recorded one of the dances on film and, during a brief break, played it back to make sure it worked. The woman in charge of playing and stopping the music records for the dancers was completely baffled by the sound. The poor woman thought her machine was broken until she saw the camera. I think she shook her head and laughed.
After a few more traditional dances with the three girls and young man in varying combinations, the dancers asked us to come up and try a dance with them, using sticks as percussion instruments. I am generally terrified of audience participation-type shows, and demurred when one of the girls motioned with a stick to come and join. Then the beautiful young man handed me two sticks, and I could deny him nothing.
So we all danced very clumsily next to our graceful hosts, completely embarrassed at first, then warming to the patterns and remembering how to play. We were all kindergartners again, following the leaders. And isn’t it fantastic that grownup women can do that? In a foreign country, aren’t all travelers much like children? Everything is new, exciting and unknown.
The afternoon finished with henna artists drawing swirls and flowers on our hands. The henna artists were dark young women in jewel-tone saris, with feet encrusted in black. They were accomplished artists, swirling and dotting organic designs like vines and flowers so quickly, as if it were nothing. We just had the on-the-go version, but henna designs can be very intricately detailed and are painted all over the palms and backs of the hands.
I’ve never played with henna before, so I was surprised that it comes in a thick dark brown paste squeezed out of a pointed tube. The paste dries to a crust on your hand and you let it flake off on its own. The stain is a light carnelian orange. You can use black tea bags to darken it, and lemon to make it last longer. I liked the effect so much that I asked for a henna kit for Christmas – I still need to try it out for myself; maybe with my two little sisters also. They love activities that involve mess.


Later in the day, between lunch and dinner, Beth (our fearless leader) and I struck out to try to find internet. I still hadn’t been able to contact my anxious mother from India, so I wanted to reassure her that I was alive. With crusty henna still drying on my hands, we walked out the high prickly fence of our hotel-fortress and turned the corner. Beth had heard that there was an internet café nearby that cost a lot less than the ridiculous rates our hotel charged to use their computers (and I mean ridiculous by London standards, much less Delhi).
As we walked, Beth pointed to a man in front of us and said to me in a low voice “that man is following us.” You would think that in order to follow someone, you would have to be behind them. But the street men of Delhi have caught onto that expectation, and they follow in front of you. That way, if you choose to go into a shop, the man will have gotten there first and will happily tell the shopkeeper that he brought the foreigners in and deserves a “finder’s fee.” Beth, being an expert traveler and hailing originally from New Jersey, had no problem asserting herself in this situation. I mention that she is from New Jersey, because in my experience, women who come from NJ and NY are extremely nice, and just as extremely assertive. She yelled at the guy to stop following us and left no doubt that she was on to him. This didn’t deter him in the slightest, but at least he knew that we were aware of what was going on. I never would have noticed him if Beth hadn’t pointed him out. I think in that moment, I took a big stride towards being a better, smarter, more assertive traveler. I always try to be very aware of my surroundings, but this opened up my mind and my eyes to the unexpected. And in India, it’s all unexpected.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Bahá'í Lotus Temple

October 17th 2009 afternoon continued

After the Qutb complex, we dodged the street sellers and filed back into the bus that took us through the weave of Delhi highways to the Bahá'í Lotus Temple. We walked the long brick path to the temple sharing what little we collectively knew about the Bahai faith. I will consult a higher authority on that now: Wikipedia.

In the Bahá'í Faith, religious history is seen to have unfolded through a series of divine messengers, each of whom established a religion that was suited to the needs of the time and the capacity of the people. These messengers have included Abraham, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad and others.

Bahá'í notions of progressive religious revelation result in their accepting the validity of most of the world's religions, whose founders and central figures are seen as Manifestations of God. Religious history is interpreted as a series of dispensations, where each manifestation brings a somewhat broader and more advanced revelation, suited for the time and place in which it was expressed.

Humanity is understood to be in a process of collective evolution, and the need of the present time is for the gradual establishment of peace, justice and unity on a global scale.

I like the idea that the world is collectively evolving and that each religion is a reflection of what populations and civilizations needed in their times. I like that Bahais are accepting of different religions. But what I find very interesting about the Bahai faith is that almost all of its followers are highly educated and are also usually well-off. This has nothing to do with the story, but I thought a little background might be interesting.

Once we reach the steps of the temple in our bare feet, we are instructed in multiple languages to not speak once inside. No cameras, no talking, just peace, prayer and meditation. Everyone is welcome to visit the temple, and sit, pray, meditate, or just absorb the tranquility after the maddening streets of the city.

The temple is built in the shape of a lotus, a reminder that one can rise from humble beginnings. The lotus flower grows out of mud, the stalk rising above the muck to end in a perfect bloom. This is an especially poignant image in India.

As we are driven around Delhi, women, babies and children tap on the bus windows and ask for money. Many make the graceful motions of putting imaginary food to their lips, almost like a dance of hunger. We see people living their lives on streets and under overpasses, but the homeless people here are very different from the ones I’ve seen in the U.S.
The U.S. homeless are almost always insane, mentally handicapped, emotionally disturbed and/or have drug addictions. They are mentally incapable of working. But the women here are young and beautiful. They are just uneducated. Their society, religion and background, everyone they’ve ever met, have told them that this is their lot in life and that’s it. Beth says the caste system, now officially banned but still evident, is largely to blame for that paradigm.
The first thought a westerner might have is “why doesn’t someone just go out and tell them they can do better, find a job, educate themselves, stop having so many children?” Because surely, if these women were told this, they would try to improve their lives. But imagine that someone with all the conviction of a zealot told you that your paradigm was wrong, and that you had no hope of ever changing your life situation. Being an American, or westerner, you would look at that person as if he were crazy, or an idiot. Reaching for success is so ingrained in our culture, particularly the American culture, that this mentality of passive helplessness is inconceivable to us. But, that’s India. Or at least, that is one part of India.