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india, let's not get smushed by elephants

passage to india

India hits you like a sucker punch to the gut.

Taking the bus to school in Aligarh

You are now constantly alert. Your senses are in hyper drive because, if you dare let them slack, you may run the risk of being flattened by a auto-rickshaw or an errant elephant. It’s a visual and audio buffet. You are constantly evaluating — and re-evaluating — your surroundings against everything that you’ve ever known. Every guidebook will tell you that India is synonymous with old adage to ‘expect the unexpected’… but even then, this predictable ‘unexpected’ is never something that you could possibly compute to expect.

Got that?

View from a bicycle rickshaw in Aligarh

You find irony and juxtaposition on every street corner. You’ll spy a provocative billboard advertising that latest in Western women’s fashion just as a burka-clad woman walks beneath it. You’ll think you’ll hear the call to prayer on the station platform and realize that it is simply a blaring iPhone ring. You’ll be sent all over hell-and-creation in search of official stamps and seals and signatures, only to be told to write out a formal letter on the back of someone else’s crumpled up visa photocopy. You’ll pick up a magazine headlining India’s Independence Day in Hindi and open it up only to read a review of Justin Beeb’s latest and greatest in English. You’ll be told that Iranians and Americans hate each other, only to break bread and break fast with these new friends at sundown that day. You’ll be trucked around by an autowallah and realize that you feel safer than driving in New York City because, hell, in order to have survived in India this long, these people HAVE to be good drivers.

I braced myself for my landing in New Delhi: this, I was told, would be the supreme wake-up call. But, when I arrived in the airport: all was quiet. Where were the bustling bodies and drum and hum? No where to be seen. We silently exited the terminal and passed through customs without a word. Okay, I thought…it must be coming. Soon.

It didn’t quite come when I realized that we would be having orientation at the Taj, the crème-de-la-crème hotel in all of New Delhi. Fabulous digs, lots of good eats, and tons of conversation with fellow grantees. We attended sessions on how to avoid contracting the bubonic plague, why getting arrested here is a terrible idea and how yes-means-no and no-means-yes. Then, wrapping up orientation as quickly as it started, we were farmed out to our respective locations.

From there, I went to Aligarh to register with the local government — the fabled and dreaded FRO process of expat lore — because I am affiliated with a university there.

Riding top bunk zee train from New Delhi to Aligarh, or, "How I got to my first day of school."

I rode there in the top bunk of a dark train sleeper car, snaked around all of my luggage. Inside, it was roughly 95 degrees with at 200% chance of humidity. About two hours had passed by the time we had stopped. I waited a minute. Out of curiosity I looked down to the man below me and asked, ‘Aligarh?’ to which he nodded and replied ‘Aligarh!’ WHAT?! So I threw myself off the bunk, hurled my luggage down and tried to scoot out of the car as fast as I could. A bumbling fool I was, a woman in a lime green sari came to my rescue. I hopped out of the car just as it started rolling again. And then, I looked around. I stopped. Have you ever had hundreds of sets of eyes boring into you? And that’s when it hit. I won’t give you the week in detail, but let’s just say it involved guesthouse rooms with dead-bolted steel doors and bars on the windows, bribery and dead puppies. (Contact me about this great vacation destination)

And now, I’ve made my way down to Pune for some rugby action.

Fancy pants dance

The outskirts are lush and green and on the way from the airport I saw kids playing soccer in empty lots and women selling clay pottery. I saw more pet dogs than stray dogs, and I figure any city that can take care of its animals must be alright (right?). Today I hopped in an auto-rickshaw  to try to get a cell phone and internet stick, but had no luck with either. After some charades and some broken Marathi (heavy on the charades), my very nice rickshaw driver lead me into a few shops and I came back with some clean (ahh…) garb. I was hoping to make progress on the housing front, but no such luck today. Hopefully I’ll find some language classes, or at least a speaking buddy to help me along in the event I have an impulsive urge to buy street mangoes or the find need to yell obscenities.

But now, from the bed of my temporary hotel room, all is quiet. But, while writing this, I turned on the TV only to find ‘A Passage to India‘ playing on the old MGM movie station. I have to laugh. India has had a funny way of keeping me on my toes in large and small ways. I guess India initially hits you at once, like they say, but it keeps coming back in seismic waves. It has a constant way of reminding you that, sorry sista, you’re not in Kansas — or at Marist — any more. It’s these funny little things that happen here: the unexpected kindness and the cross-cultural communication missteps have been more shocking for me than seeing an elephant saunter down the street. It’s been a whirlwind week. To think that, this time last week I was home snuggled asleep seems so far off. I can’t even begin to fathom — or expect — what lies ahead in these next 9 months…




5 thoughts on “passage to india

  1. Robin! a long lost friend! I can’t believe you’re in Pune! That’s were I lived for 5 months during study abroad. I am equal parts incredibly jealous and super happy for you 😉 Pune (as I’m sure you’re finding out right now) is a challenging but beautiful city to live in – (not always beautiful on the outside however:). One of the best parts of India is the secrets – I was never bored living there, and just when I thought I had come to expect the MOST bizarre juxtapositions and street scenes, there was something to take my breath away. It sounds corny, but it’s true. Pune is such a cool city because (aside from some ashrams around Koregaon park) there is very little tourist culture. iiiieeee!!! I’m so excited for you! are you doing your research at the University if Pune?
    I remember first arriving and not being able to hold a conversation when walking down the street, because all my senses were so overwhelmed already. I feel you on that! I can’t wait to hear more about your adventures, especially come Diwali. Make sure you’re around Laxmi road to see the fireworks! It’s the most surreal experience I’ve ever had.
    good luck with everything Robin! I’ll be thinking of you!
    ps – most funny marathi phrase – ajibhat nahi = absolutely not. It’s real fun to say.

    Posted by Meryl | August 21, 2011, 11:27 pm
  2. so proud of you cousin.. go get em!

    Posted by Colleen | August 21, 2011, 11:54 pm
  3. Awesome post Robin–I totally got you on the reams of paperwork required to do anything here–especially getting a cellphone which I am also still working on. And registration. I look forward to hearing about your encounters with women rugby players in Pune 🙂

    Posted by alexandramouche | August 22, 2011, 6:38 am
  4. Hey Robin…Kristen sent me your blog…so cool! I’m real jealous I’ve been wanting to go to India for ages…if you find yourself in Chennai…south east India let me know I have a very good friend who lives there and would be able to help you out if you need it…he would be a great contact for you…also his uncle owns a hotel there so he could help you with that too…let me know! I’ll keep having her send me your blogs…excellent writing…are you sure you weren’t an english major?> hahha


    Posted by Erin Albohn | August 24, 2011, 7:50 am
  5. Robin, just checked out your blog and loved your entry. Esp the head bob video. You got writin skillz girl, so I’ll def be following ya! Hope everything continues to go well for you!

    Posted by Jenny Geiger | August 24, 2011, 12:06 pm

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The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of State, the Institute of International Education or the Fulbright Program.


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