Goodbyes, living for the future, and Photo-taking

As I prepare to leave this country that has been my home for the past three months, I feel my memories have a stronger holder on me than they usually do. All through my travels in India, I’ve been haunted by the question: Do we live for the moment or live for the future? Does our sense of self reside in the unpinnable moment, or in our act of remembering times past? There are some things that are amazing to feel or see in the moment, but fail to inspire once the moment has passed, while there are some experiences that can be returned to and considered many times after the moment has passed. Which of those two experiences is more worth having? Which allow me to develop and grow my sense of self? Is an experience more worthwhile as it is being lived or as it is being remembered?

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View from a trek in Manali, Himachal Pradesh

I’ve always been proud of my ability to appreciate and be moved by beauty in the multitude of forms it can take. I like that I can experience deep connection to nature and its ability to inspire wonder within me. But in India I encountered beauty that surpassed the boundaries I had set up within myself, exceeding my standards of what natural beauty can look like. I found myself feeling lost instead of joy, because I had nowhere to place this sight in my understanding of beauty. Usually I can place a view in my continuum of beautiful things- more beautiful than the sunset I saw in Martha’s Vineyard, less beautiful than the field of dandelions outside my house. But in the valleys of the foothills of the Himalayas, and some of the temples in Tamil Nadu, were more beautiful than anything I had ever seen, more beautiful than I thought a place could be. My reaction to that newness, to that lack of connection, was a scrambling to remember the sight for later. I took hundreds of pictures, as if to capture the moment so I could process it later, like I didn’t have enough brain space to fully feel the moment while it was happening, like I was living for my future self. I also knew that my future self would be nostalgic for the moment that my current self was living, and I didn’t know what to do with that knowledge besides attempt to capture that moment as best as I could, through drawing and journaling partially, but mostly through photo-taking.

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The shore temple at sunrise, Mahaballipuram

I have been wondering what the act of taking a photo, the knowledge that one has successfully “captured” a moment, does to our ability to remember a moment, to capture it internally with all its complexities. Because while a photo can “accurately” capture the external moment, only our brains can capture both the internal and external experience. And does taking a photo decrease our ability to connect with a certain moment? I suspect it does. So I was stuck in these beautiful places, worried that it was too beautiful/ magical/ intense to be felt in the moment, that it needed to be saved for later processing, but my attempts of saving that moment were decreasing my ability to feel and connect in the first place. Not to mention the stress of knowing that my future self will be jealous of my current self. It was a vicious cycle of increased lack of connection and increased attempts to document.

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A literal screensaver from a trek in Dharamsala

Now that I am moving into the “future self” that I was so concerned about in those places, I am much calmer. I recognize that I will never be able to fall back through time and watch the sunset in Kheerganga again, or travelling through fields of rice paddies in the bus, or watching the clouds move behind the temple in Thanjavur. But I know that I lived in those moments, that they gave me joy, and that a moment is never going to be perfect, we are never going to be able to feel it as fully as we want to, never going to be able to capture it in our memory to our satisfaction, but we can put down our phones, and open our eyes and hearts to the sight and the feelings and the people we are with. And while I spent more time worrying than I should have, I know that I did let India in, let its beauty and its people and its confusingness inside me, to some degree. That I leave more kind, more assured, and more open than I arrived. The world has grown so much larger in my mind, and I know I will miss this place, that my future self will be jealous of my almost past self, but I am proud of her for doing her best, for doing her best to live for herself and for the Addi that is to come.

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One of the many ruins in Hampi, Karnataka

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In the Suburbs of the Sacred

Amritsar is hardly the only holy city in India and any attempt to create a list of all the holy places in India would be undoubtedly long and forgetting a number of places. The city however occupies a special place amongst all the sacred places of India as the holiest site in all of Sikhism. Founded by Guru Ram Das, the fourth in the lineage of ten gurus, with the excavation of a sacred pool. The next Guru went on to build the Sri Harmandir Sahib, what most westerners know as the golden temple, although for most of its history it was not covered in gold which would be added later by Maharaja Ranjit Singh in the early 1800s. Since this founding the city has grown to a population of a million people, making it a small city by Indian standards.

Amritsar Gate, the entrance to the city

Amritsar Gate, the entrance to the city

When I planned out my accommodations in Amritsar before I left for India I knew I would be outside of the city proper. I ended up in something very familiar to me, the suburbs. Born and raised in the suburbs and having spent the previous summer measuring suburban houses for my local government, I have spent a good deal of my life in suburbs. The lack of anything interesting masquerading as peace, a conclusion only arrived at when compared to the hustle and bustle of urban life, yet no one thought to replace that bustle with anything meaningful. The rural and urban each side as the space occupies an in-between with a middle to upper-middle class resident in most every home. The suburbs have their universalities.

A quiet suburban street

A quiet suburban street

Although, I am still in India and not everything about the suburb I find myself in is the same as where I am from. Houses here aren’t detached, rather they all abut one another and in each house lives more than just one nuclear family or extended family. In this suburb however, most plots lack a house on them as the land is being held on speculation. Occasionally you can see where two houses have been build next to an empty plot, seemingly waiting for a house be inserted like a missing domino. Every house is required to have a small trough with plants in it. These troughs and the empty plots reveal the fertility of India. Walking around, eggplants, lemons, oranges, guava, okra, curry leaf, basil and green chilis can all be seen growing.

The front of the house in which I stay, the trough contains green chilis, a guava tree and other plants

The front of the house in which I stay, the trough contains green chilis, a guava tree and other plants

A short drive away lies the golden temple. For the tourist or pilgrim their impression of the city becomes immediately shaped by the walk to the temple. At the center of a roundabout stands a statue of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, beginning a road closed to cars for pedestrians to walk to the temple. Beautiful facades stand on both of the street with shops ready to sell juttis (Punjabi shoes), the 5 Ks of Sikhism (a metal band worn around the wrist, a small sword, a wooden comb and a particular kind of undergarment) except for the uncut hair, vegetarian food (meat is not allowed to be sold there), and other gifts. Statues sit in the middle of the boulevard as you walk to the temple taking in the activity and architecture.

The road to the Golden Temple

The road to the Golden Temple

A statue showing Bhangra, a traditional Punjabi dance

A statue showing Bhangra, a traditional Punjabi dance

Earning its name being covered in 750 kg of gold, the temple makes a striking sight. Milky white architecture surrounds the temple as it sits in the middle of the sacred tank. Many bathe in the pool which is also home to large coy fish so used to being fed you can touch the top of one’s head as it swims up to you. Unless you stare at the beauty of the golden temple, the serenity of the space gets lost in the hustle of people and grandeur of everything surrounding you. At the temple complex you can also go and get langar, a free hot meal provided by the temple. Every Sikh temple serves a free meal but the one at the temple is special as 100,000 people visit the temple each day, all of whom might want a meal. The langar is served every day, is always hot, vegetarian and you will be given as much food as you want. No one goes away hungry even with such a massive enterprise.

Part of the buildings surrounding the Golden Temple

Part of the buildings surrounding the Golden Temple

The Golden Temple

The Golden Temple

Beyond the temple and the boulevard leading to the temple lies the walled city, which grew out from the pool and temple when Amritsar was originally founded and enclosed by a wall. The walled city is the heart of the city holding much of the heritage of the city yet it is dense and treeless, with narrow roads standing in stark contrast to my temporary suburban neighborhood named Garden Enclave. Driving away from the city, the urban fades to suburban. I return to a house with a dog, a kitchen, multiple rooms and plentiful living area. I’m still in India, but I’m back in the suburbs.

Rifle, not sure why she decided to lay in the shower

Rifle, not sure why she decided to lay in the shower

Me and my Airbnb hosts

Me and my Airbnb hosts

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The Last Intern Standing

30/7/17
——-

As their summers come to an end, you can see the other interns growing more and more anxious as their next school term approaches. They work extra in their last week to make sure to wrap up their projects properly in the day, but during the night we stay up and talk about how much we will miss Bangalore and the whole research paradigm here at NCBS. Working here has truly been a blessing. We were exposed to a research culture not common in India, or maybe anywhere else in the world for that matter. It was great learning about each lab members’ previous experiences, how they ended up at this wonderful place, and how they have utilized this environment to progress their work.

One by one, each of the other interns boarded their flights to get back home, leaving me as the last intern in the lab. The majority of colleges in India give around two months of break during the summer, so most of them went straight back to school right after this internship. I never thought that, in so little time, I would be able to develop such tightly-bound friendships. It was really sad to think this may be the last time I see any of them again.

My research experience was also coming to a close. Unfortunately, we were not able to start any experiments with the flies because of some technical difficulties in obtaining the proper mutants. However, I was able to continue my work with the other side-project and set up crosses for my wild type (mutation free) flies as controls for future work on the caffeine project.

I also had the privilege of shadowing a Surgical Gastroenterologist during my time in Bangalore. He is actually a University of Michigan alumni that I had met earlier in the summer at the UMich Alumni Meet. He graciously allowed me to follow him and observe a couple procedures. I even got the opportunity to learn about their bioengineering department and get the inside scoop of how crucial their department is to the proper functioning of the entire establishment. As a biomedical engineering and pre-medicine student myself, shadowing this doctor at one of the most renowned hospitals in Bangalore really gave me insight into another fascinating field. Can’t wait to see what the future has in store for me yet!

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Loving the Questions for What They Are

As I near the end of my time here in India, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I’m going to translate this experience into a narrative that I can share with people from home, including advice for people thinking about doing something similar in the future. Of all the lessons I think I’ve learned here, I think the one that is the most interesting and helpful is the management of confusion, something I touched on a bit in my first blog.

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Confused by how beautiful this country is

I am in a state of constant and multi-levelled confusion in India. I mean multi-levelled in the sense that almost every level of cognitive activity there is a seen of confusion. I’m confused about the usual, everyday things that many people talk about, things like physical health, Am I sick or am I hungry or is it my anti-malarial drugs?, for example, and how much I should pay for things. I’m confused every time I try and take a bus/train/ rickshaw anywhere, confused by different hand gestures and head wobbles and whether someone is being polite or rude to me. Often when I travel, I don’t even know where I will sleep that night, a form of confusion I think. All those little confusions used to make me anxious, little uncertainties that build up and have the ability to overwhelm. But I became accustomed to them, recognizing the transient nature of many of these everyday confusions- I will find somewhere to stay, I will realize that a head shake is more of a yes than a no, I will learn to say Hello and I will find the bus I need. I trust myself and the world to resolve the confusion with time, so the anxiety lessons- the uncertainty, while constant in some ways, is ever-changing- cyclical in the emergence of new anxieties and the dissipation of old ones. So the first big lesson I would share is that to manage the every-day anxiety of moving through India, you must realize and internalize their transient nature, and work towards trusting that they will be resolved.

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But some uncertainties aren’t of the “surface level” sort. They don’t arise when you are trying to catch the bus, but right after, when someone is asking you for money through the. I was, and still am, confused ethically, confused at what the right thing to do is, how I can help people while I’m here. I’m confused by the legacy of colonialism here, by the treatment of women, by my place here as a western woman. Do I give money or do I not give money? Who is to blame for the poverty in front of me? Am I supposed to feel guilty? Who is being taken advantage of here? These uncertainties don’t make it much harder for me to physically move through India, but they are just as constant. I don’t know what to expect in terms of treatment, I don’t know how to treat people with the respect I believe they deserve. I don’t know what the morally responsible thing to do is often. I’m confused by how to feel- how to reconcile the joy I feel in connecting with the people and the places here with the apparent suffering that surrounds me? And does poverty necessarily lead to suffering? What is the place of pity here? This confusion of morals and emotions is deeply penetrating and disturbing. To feel like you don’t know how to be a good person, that you don’t know how to organize your understanding of the world, can lead to a host of strange behavior in the foreigners who visit. I have had level-headed foreigners yell at people asking for selfies, complain about paying a whole 20 cents more for a rickshaw because they feel like they are getting ripped off, refuse giving food to children but hand money over to alcoholics. We build our moral structures in the world and sometimes they begin to crumble in a world that is different I think. We feel more sensitive than ever before, more unstable, and so an unknown gesture or a request can send us hiding in our anger and indignation.

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Information helps, talking to foreigners and Indians alike, reading articles and novels, but I found that no matter how much I learn, the base level uncertainty is still there, because it is of a type that a few facts could not resolve. It’s the type to linger even after you leave the place, I think, that continues to educate even after the travelling is over. This is in many ways opposite the confusion I was talking about before. It is not transient, it may even be permanent for some people in some forms. It is strong, and it has shaken me certainly. So, in my experience, to manage this uncertainty requires an opposite reaction as well. Recognizing that it will maybe never be resolved, that the questions I am asking myself may never get answers, that there might not be a right answer in these situation, has freed me from my frantic searching. I’m still trying to educate myself, to move towards a more ethical version of existence, but with a recognition that I may not ever feel like I’ve done the “right thing.” It’s an acceptance that  feeling like a good person isn’t so easy after all- there are no official rules, you have to decide for yourself. That’s a big job, but it’s a wonderful one too, and all of this is because I am in a place that confuses me. I still don’t have any answers, but I’m more comfortable letting the questions fully inhabit me, letting them teach me what they can. I guess that’s my other lesson: Love the questions for what they are, questions.

 

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Travels: Dharamshala

When the Dalai Lama escaped Tibet and began his life in exile in 1957, numerous Tibetans followed him. Fleeing Chinese oppression, they took refuge in India who accepted them. Faced with a massive influx of refugees, India resettled them around the country. One such settlement was Dharamshala, where the Tibetan government in exile is located. The city has become a popular tourist destination for both Indians and foreigners alike who wish to see the Himalayas, the Dalai Lama temple and experience Tibetan culture. So many foreign tourists come to Dharamshala that they have created their own enclaves in the nearby towns of Dharmcoat and Bhagsu. Head to a restaurant/café there with a reputation for being a place where westerners who visit Dharamshala to experience eastern spirituality hang out and you will find pretty much what you expect.

Prayer Wheels along the kora, the circumambulation around the Dalai Lama Temple.

Prayer Wheels along the kora, the circumambulation around the Dalai Lama Temple.

The view from the Kora

The view from the Kora

When I planned to go to India I never intended to go to Dharamshala. My original plan had been to go to Darjeeling, a town in the foothills of the Himalayas known for its tea plantation. My habit of always reading the news however led me to learn that there was unrest in Darjeeling. The government of West Bengal had recently mandated that Bengali would be a mandatory subject in schools in Darjeeling. The people in Darjeeling are Indians, but ethnically Nepali and thus speak Nepali. They responded to the government of West Bengal’s imposition of them with protests, which turned to riots. An indefinite strike was called, troops were sent in and the internet was cut. Although West Bengal backed down, making Bengali an optional subject, the movement to make Darjeeling and the ethnic Nepali areas of India a new state, which has been periodically demanded since the partition seized, the opportunity to make their demands with an already motivated population. As the conflict continued, the elected government of the semi-autonomous authority that governs Darjeeling resigned. As of this writing the conflict has still not been resolved. Reading about all of this in the paper and contacting the person who was to hosting me in Darjeeling who confirmed what I’d read, the other SiSA fellow I was to travel there with, Caroline, and I decided to go to Dharamshala instead. The situation can be succinctly explain as someone said to me, “you can’t take people’s identities away from them.”

A very large prayer wheel

A very large prayer wheel

In Dharamshala, Caroline and I met up with another SiSA fellow, Addi, who was teaching English to Tibetans through an NGO named Lha. Meeting up with Addi, Caroline and I headed with her to the Dalai Lama temple, where she had seen the Dalia Lama, to see the statues there. (You can read about Addi seeing the Dalai Lama here: https://sisa2017.ii.lsa.umich.edu/what-do-we-want-from-the-dalai-lama/. He wasn’t in town when I was there so I never got the chance to see him.) Addi explained to us that part of what she did was to have conversations with Tibetans as a part of teaching them English and that we could join and have a conversation with a Tibetan. Caroline and I eagerly volunteered. That day however we couldn’t find the place where the class was in time. I made it in time for class the next day although Caroline fell ill and wouldn’t recover until the day before she was to leave.

Having made it to class on time this time, I had my heart set on talking to a monk. I had a number of questions that I wanted to ask about the viniya, the rules for monks and nuns, as well as other subjects related to Tibetan Buddhism. Addi told me where to sit to talk to a monk and I was able to speak to monk one on one. I learned that he had been a nomad in Kham, the southeast region of Tibet known for its rugged terrain. He became a monk at the age of 17 and had been a monk for 20 years. He answered all of my questions, yet what stood out to me was how he spoke about situation in Tibet. He asked me if I knew about the self-immolations in Tibet. I said that I did and he simply replyed, “it’s unfortunate.” I found this a dramatic understatement.

One of many rocks with a mantra painted on them along the Kora

One of many rocks with a mantra painted on them along the Kora

The day after my conversation with the monk was the Dalai Lama’s birthday, he turned 82. I joined Addi and some friends that I made through Addi in going to the Dalai Lama temple for the celebration. The Dalai Lama however missed his own party as he was celebrating in Leh, Ladakh. He was probably too cool for us. We still had fun watching traditional Tibetan dances and performances, eating laddu and drinking butter tea. I can only describe butter tea as tasting like drinking a butter cookie. There was of course cake and even though the Dalai Lama wasn’t there, I ate cake at the Dalai Lama’s birthday party. No one can tell me otherwise. After the dances and performances different people gave speeches. They of course spoke in Hindi, which only one of my friends knew so we simply talked to one another. I asked one of the Tibetans that I had made friends with about the Khata, a traditional Tibetan scarf that is given on certain occasions often white in color. Eventually, the rebirth of the Dalai Lama came up. He has said that he would not be born within Chinese control, that he might not be born again and that he might be reborn as a woman. He hasn’t really given a definitive answer on the subject. As we talked another person was called over to help answer our questions. The person who was called over explained to us that the Dalai Lama would most likely be reborn because the Tibetan people need him and that the Dalai Lama is more powerful than he has ever been. What stuck with me the most from the conversation however was when they said, “the people who burn themselves are taunting the Chinese. What can your guns do when I can burn myself alive? Nothing.”

The Dalai Lama's birthday celebration

The Dalai Lama’s birthday celebration

The next day I and some of my friends decided to see the two waterfalls near Dharamshala. Caroline felt well enough to join us, albeit after a visit to the hospital and with a bottle full of oral rehydration salts in tow. The first waterfall proved easy to get to. There were steps as it was a popular tourist destination. To get to the second waterfall we took what was supposed to be a short cut. We hiked up hills moving toward the second waterfall we wanted to see. At one point, we encountered a mule on the path who decided we weren’t to pass by almost kicking one of our group. A man came out of his house and one of us asked him something in Hindi. He looked back baffled and relied, “It’s very strange to just get up and the first thing I am asked is do I speak Hindi?” We managed to get around the mule although later a cow almost decided it wanted to run into me with its horns. Footage exists that shows how close it came to me but I haven’t seen it. The path to the second water fall was comprised of rocks and dirt on the side of a hill with a metal pipe guiding the way that we would grab on to for balances when needed. As we neared the water fall it began raining on us, the second time that day. Fortunately, there was a small café at the water fall. I bought a box of cookies and gave everyone one to celebrate our achievement. We waited out the rain and took our pictures.

The first waterfall we visited

The first waterfall we visited

Us hiking to the second waterfall

Us hiking to the second waterfall

On the way back, I talked to a monk who had joined us on our hike. He became a monk at 4 years old and had been a monk for 20 years. He told how he wished to go back to Tibet so he could visit his grandmother. He was hopefully his request for a Chinese passport would be approved so he could go back and live in Tibet, although his request had been denied once already. I also asked him about the history of Tibet, although we had some trouble with the language barrier. Caroline left Dharamshala the next morning and I left the day after her, each of us continuing our journey through in India. I made a number of friends in Dharamshala and I miss being able to spend time with them, as well as the wonderful Tibetan community, Tibetan food and wonderful cake. I highly recommend the cake.

Me and Tenzin, the buddhist monk who accompanied us on our hike

Me and Tenzin, the Buddhist monk who accompanied us on our hike

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Candid

Picture me this: an office, full of intelligent women clicking away at computers, analyzing data, authoring reports, planning community education, training a fleet of maternal and child health warriors to sail into communities and make a tangible difference. Women in three different clinics in Mumbai slums spearhead nutritional counseling, pregnancy clubs, cooking courses, breastfeeding instruction, and mother-child bonding classes for local women. For my internship, I’m working with the Foundation for Mother and Child Health and the scene is just this. FMCH women are empowered, wise, strong, dedicated, and passionate. They are tabulating statistical analyses in the office and changing lives in clinic. FMCH is incredibly holistic and their dedication shines through everything they do; in an oral health camp last Friday, my coworker and I brushed our teeth 39 times each, because explaining proper tooth-brushing technique is not enough—you have to show people.

The FMCH Oral Health Camp group-- my coworkers are amazing!

The FMCH Oral Health Camp group– my coworkers are amazing!

My teeth have never been cleaner than they were this day!

My teeth have never been cleaner than they were this day!

Day-to-day, I analyze community data and write assessment reports that FMCH will distribute internally and externally to their donors. One of the most rewarding things I’ve been able to do is observe the three local community clinics and their partner-organization about an hour and a half northeast of the city. Talking with community organizers all over Mumbai has really impressed on me how culturally diverse the city is and how creative FMCH has been in adapting to meet unique local needs.

I was talking with a coworker earlier this week and she began to tell me about an atypical family. The conversation really shook me. In the vast majority of cases, mothers bring their children to clinic. If mothers are unavailable, the mothers-in-law bring the children. The fathers very, very rarely attend. But, this case was different. My coworker explained that the father had afternoons off work and he would bring the children in during that time. Interested, I asked why. I mentally primed myself for an example of flipped traditional gender roles, expecting her to say that the mother was working a job outside the home, had uncontrollable hours, or was caught up with busy afternoons.

This mother was different,” my coworker began, “She was not as interested as other mothers about the health of the children, so the father was actively involved in the health of the children. Actually, the problem was, they had multiple children, 4 to 5 … so she was also depressed of the fact that she had all girls. So she wanted a boy child and she had all girls. So then she was not very happy giving proper care to all these girls.” She went on to describe verbal abuse from family and neighbors, shaming the mother for having only daughters.

It felt like lead had been poured down my throat— fiery, boiling, and dense enough to burn everything in its path to a thick, tar-like sap. The sludge hardened into an uncomfortable and twisted rock in the pit of my stomach. I didn’t know how to respond. I still don’t know how to respond. I sit in an office full of empowered and successful Indian women every day; how can both of these extremes exist in the same space? I could not – and still struggle to – reconcile the contrast. Granted, this is a unique case. It is not the norm. But, she acknowledged it so casually, moved on so quickly. It is rare, but it isn’t the only case, and it was mentioned almost in passing.  I’ve struggled to make sense of this disparity and explain to myself why this conversation continues to be so piercingly difficult for me to digest.

Street art near one of the clinics: "They are our sisters. Respect them."

Street art near one of the clinics: “They are our sisters. Respect them.”

And then it hit me. In in a parallel universe, I am one of those little girls. I’m the third of five daughters. In picturing this family – these real little girls, these real parents, these real, living, breathing people – I can’t help but see my parents, my sisters, myself. I hear my dad chanting “girl power” into our ears before we could speak English and I hear my mom chanting “girl power” across the finish line of her 9th full marathon. I think of my childhood and how the five-year-old version of myself never gave gender a second thought. I think of my sisters today, expected to achieve, independent of gender. And my heart aches. Because the root difference between my experience as one of five daughters and that of these little girls is an attitude, a mantra, a value. “Girl power.” My heart aches because these little girls are barely being given a chance at nutrition.

There’s a concept in anthropology called ethnocentrism. It’s the assessment of another culture based on the standards and moral framework of one’s own culture. In its most basic form, it is thinking your culture is superior to another’s culture. As an anthropology major, I so value the validity and importance of different beliefs and practices and have a genuine appreciation for differing frameworks that construct others’ lives.

But, what is culture and what is injustice? How does culture relate to morality? Is it ethnocentric of me to feel that this blatant gender discrimination is not cultural – that it’s inhumane, completely and utterly wrong? Where is the line between respecting another belief system and recognizing something as immoral? What happens when that line is crossed or blurred? Is there an obligation to take a step back, and if so, who has the power and the duty to initiate that step? What is my place in this hierarchy, as a single and fiercely independent woman by herself on the opposite side of the world from her home, completely immersed in another culture?

At times, it feels like I’m inhabiting a different space, delicately layered with surgical precision atop this other world which I can’t fully comprehend. I share physical space with my coworkers. We share delicious chapatti and genuine belly laughs. Together, we work towards the common and meaningful goal of bettering nutrition and health for Mumbai’s women and children. I am genuinely and deeply touched by the strong and empowered women I’ve met at FMCH, but simultaneously shaken by quotes and moments like these.

These stark contrasts and confusing contradictions leave me wondering – what is my place here? People are shocked that I’m unmarried, that I don’t live with my parents, that I’m here by myself, even that I cook and pack my own lunch. People are shocked when I say I went to the movies by myself, did yoga alone, explored Mumbai or travelled by myself. What does it mean for me to be here, integrated and adjusted, but simultaneously, a complete anomaly?

India, it seems, “is” and “is not” simultaneously. It is itself and it is its opposite. It’s mysterious, it’s elusive, it’s just as much an experience or a feeling as a place. India escapes words and words escape me.

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Travels: Varanasi and Saranath

In Varanasi, I would find the real India, according to someone I’d met in Bangalore. The holy city located on the banks on the Ganges is associated with the god Shiva and attracts tourists and pilgrims alike who come to see the Arti ceremony, ghats, temples, sadhu-babas, make an offering or bathe in the sacred river. There with another Summer in South Asia fellow, Caroline, who had just arrived in India. My first day in Varanasi began with a walk on the Ghats, which means steps. We walked along, being continually asked if we wanted a boat ride while we took as much of the place in as possible. The river, the ghats and history of the place provided a great deal to observe. After reaching the last ghat we turned back and headed to the guest house.

Me in front of one of the ghats

Me in front of one of the ghats

Walking along the ghats

Walking along the ghats, taken from the Assi ghat

With the rest of our day we decided to see Saranath, one of four pilgrimage sights in Buddhism and the sight of the Buddha’s first sermon, known in the sutras as Deer Park. The Buddha came to Saranath after achieving enlightenment at Bodh Gaya to find the five ascetics that had rejected him when he discovered the middle way. Knowing they would understand his teaching about the nature of reality and suffering he delivered the Discourse on Turning the Wheel of Dharma Sutra. Stupas stand at the spot where he met these ascetics on the edge of town and where he gave his sermon a short distance way. We wondered around the excavation site seeing the brick stupas and the sight of the Ashoka’s column. (Ashoka was a famous emperor of India who is said to have converted to Buddhism and marked the Buddhist pilgrimage sites. His column, that of four lions, is the symbol of India and can be seen on the nation’s flag.)

The excavation site at Saranath. The large brick tower in the distance is the Dhamek Stupa and once held relics of the Buddha inside of it.

The excavation site at Saranath. The large brick tower in the distance is the Dhamek Stupa and once held relics of the Buddha inside of it.

This Stupa commemorates where the Buddha met his disciples. The tower on top is a later Mughal addition

This Stupa commemorates where the Buddha met his disciples. The tower on top is a later Mughal addition

After seeing the stupas, we went to a Buddhist temple where the Buddha’s first sermon is recited every evening with other sutras. The temple also contained a Bodhi Tree, which was a clone of the tree found in Sri Lanka. Although many people walked around the temple complex, most left when it came time for the puja. Caroline, another person and I sat as the monks chanted. An hour flew by as the rhythmic recitation caused feeling of deep relaxation.

The MahaBodhi Society temple at Saranath.

The MahaBodhi Society temple at Saranath.

The Bodhi tree at Saranath. It was grown from a branch off the Bodhi tree from Sri Lanka. The Bodhi tree in Sri Lanka having been brought there by Ashoka's daughter and grown fro a branch off the original Bodhi tree in Bodh Ghaya, the tree the Buddha achieved enlightenment under.

The Bodhi tree at Saranath. It was grown from a branch off the Bodhi tree from Sri Lanka. The Bodhi tree in Sri Lanka having been brought there by Ashoka’s daughter and grown from a branch off the original Bodhi tree in Bodh Ghaya, the tree the Buddha achieved enlightenment under.

The next day we awoke at 4 am. Our guest house arranged a boat ride and a tour of the city for the day. A French medical anthropologist named Pierre from our guest house who was studying how religion effects schizophrenia joined us. Schizophrenia can often produce hallucinations that relate to god and the dive, thus religion can affect the hallucinations that schizophrenics have. When I first met him the night before, he said to our host “tomorrow, no rain, boat ride. Rain, tea and cigarette.” I quickly knew he was European. Even now I miss his jovial personality and sense of humor. Our guide met us at our guess house and we saw the morning ceremony on the Ganges at the Assi Ghat and drank chai from small clay pots. As the boat moved along the ghats, the guide told us about them. Some were former places of maharajas that now stood abandoned. Although one former palace was now a hotel with all the trappings of a palace, the interior still covered in gold and silver. You could spend a night there for 70,000 rupees. At the current exchange rate that’s 1,087 USD.

Pierre taking pictures of sadhu-babas.

Pierre taking pictures of sadhu-babas.

Former palace of the Maharaja of Rajasthan, now a hotel.

Former palace of the Maharaja of Rajasthan, now a hotel.

Our boat ride stopped at the Manikarnika Ghat, the largest burning ghat. Every fire that you see there has a body in it. People save money their entire lives to be burned here, the guide explained. Cremation costs at minimum 150,000 rupees and to be cremated there meant that you would achieve moksha, the reunion with god that is the goal of Hinduism. Although some people aren’t burned there such as Sadhu-babas and those who are bitten by a cobra. Women are only allowed on the ghat if they haven’t seen the face of the deceased. As we observed the ghat we saw a family bring another body to be burned there and a burnt bone be tossed into the holy Ganges. Only lower castes work on the burning ghats. Even the Brahmins, who are the highest priest caste are low caste there as there are sub-castes within the four major castes. These Brahmins can only preform pujas on the burning ghats and not in the temples which are reserved for the high caste brahmins. The high caste brahmins don’t even want to step into the homes of low caste brahmins who work on the ghats, believing them to be unclean.

The Manikarnika Ghat, a burning ghat

The Manikarnika Ghat, a burning ghat

Returning to the guest house, Caroline and I broke our fast on mangos bought from a street vendor. You can only get mangos when they are in season here, something foreign in the US where you can get fruits and produce in the store all year round. We continued our tour of the city seeing some of the numerous temples throughout Varanasi. We went to the Hanuman temple on Hanuman day to find it incredibly busy. Hanuman is the god with the face of the monkey who helped Rama in the Ramayana by lifting a mountain. Every day of the week has several gods associated with it. Friday and Tuesday are both days dedicated to Hanuman. All monkeys are considered to be incarnations of Hanuman and monkeys could be found all over the temple. Monkeys, while cute, are notoriously aggressive. Don’t get close to one. We also saw the Tulsi Dargi temple, the Durga temple or red temple and several others. We ended the afternoon at silk wholesaler who showed us beautiful silk blankets and scarves after having seen the hand looms on which they are made. The sheets were nothing short of works of art, and outside of my price range. I did still however buy a kurta, a traditional Indian garment resembling a tunic.

The Tulsi Manas Temple

The Tulsi Manas Temple

Me wearing the kurta I got in Varanasi

Me wearing the kurta I got in Varanasi

We returned to the guest house to avoid the heat of the day. In the evening, we ventured out again. While in Bangalore I craved a good lassi and was disappointed the few times I got one. Lassi is north Indian. In Varanasi, I found what I was searching for and our evening started with eating lassi in clay pots. As we walked through the narrow alleyways of the tourist market, our guide told me that Goldie Han had been to see his guru and had made astrological predictions for her. He asked me if I would also like such a reading, which would tell me what would happen in my future. I declined. After lassi we headed to the Kashi Vishvanath, a temple dedicated to Shiva known as the golden temple, although not to be confused with the one in Amritsar. While I could have tried to enter the temple, they ask that only Hindus do so. I chose to respect that. It still makes a striking sight from the outside earning its name being topped with gold. We saw the even arti ceremony which like the cremations never stops, rain or shine.

The evening Arti ceremony

The evening Arti ceremony

As the day turned to evening the ghats gained new beauty awash with light and changed from a religious space to a social space. People played cricket and teenagers looked for a place to hang out. Pierre, Caroline and I settled on one of the ghats to converse with our guide after the arti ceremony. He explained that if he wanted to be married he would ask his parents to arrange it. Although he had some desire to visit Europe he wanted to stay close to his family in Varanasi and felt fortunate to be born there because he didn’t need to go anywhere when he was to day and could be cremated there.. I also learned from him the saying “no hurry, no worry, no chicken, no curry.” He was an excellent guide and I was glad to have him show me the city as I never would have seen as much of it as I did without him.

The ghats at night

The ghats at night

Our last day in Varanasi was spent simply walking along the ghats once last time and heading back to the market, where I bought a few things for friends back home. We left our guest house 2 hours before we needed to catch a bus to Delhi where we would spend a day before heading to Dharamshala. When the auto dropped us at the boarding point we didn’t see the bus but the auto driver assured us it would be along shortly. We waited an hour and half. The bus hadn’t arrived. We pulled out our phones frantically trying to figure out where we needed to go as the bus was scheduled to depart in 20 minutes. With the help of strangers, we figured out the place we actually needed to be and managed to get there and board our bus. Without helpful strangers, I never would have survived for as long as I have here in India. I hope to become one someday as we could always use more of them. Odes ought to be written to them, but I‘ll save that for another time.

The Buddha and his disciples at Saranath.

The Buddha and his disciples at Saranath.

The Ganges, known as the mata ganga, or mother ganges

The Ganges, known as the mata ganga, or mother ganges

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Travels: Goa

Attracted by its reputation for collegiate fun, I met up with friend from U of M at Bangalore airport for short plane ride to Goa. On the western coast of India, Goa is known for the beach, trace music, Russian tourists, and as I said, collegiate fun. Additionally, it’s the former Portuguese colony of India with historic forts and churches. Goa’s reputation only partially applies to the off season. Torrential rain, 90-degree heat and humidity so high you swim through the air keeps most people and the Russians away. We went to a tourist town, in the off season to find most of it closed. December and January is the time to go.

My friend and I in Goa

My friend and I in Goa

With a hostel to match the reputation of the state for our short stay in Goa, we meet an interesting number of characters. I met a computer science major from Gujarat blowing off classes that talked my ear off, a britisher who drove trucks in the US illegally and was later deported and banned from the country, a guy who used to work at the hostel and now got payed to gamble (not sure how he managed that but it was what he said,) all in my first two night in northern Goa. The first night we slept in a non-air-conditioned room. You learn to appreciate AC went you are trying to sleep in 90-degrees and what feels like 100% humidity as your tee shirt clings to your skin. Fortunately, after that first night we moved into an air-conditioned room. The power would go out every evening with the torrential rain that preceded it but the insulation kept us cool.

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Early in our trip my friend and I met three medical students from Kerala. They happened to be staying in the same room in the hostel as us and we quickly befriended them. We got up to go to breakfast at the same time and joined them in finding a bit to eat. In selecting a place to go one of the medical students said, “South Indian first,” and that’s what we had. While I ordered idli, everyone else got Dosa. My friend, who had just spent the last month in rural Karnataka, and the medical students said they have idli every day and wanted something else. I needed to satisfy my desire for it before I can’t find it back in the US. The medical students from Kerala confirmed what I thought about the food however, it wasn’t very good. One of many attempts I would make to eat Indian food in Goa and be disappointed.

After breakfast, we rode on scooters up to a nearby fort to have a look around the only sight nearby. In a famous Bollywood movie that no one could remember the name of, three characters posed on the walls of the fort and everyone there wanted a picture of the three of them to imitate it. The vantage point of the fort reviled the lush green beauty of Goa and provided a gust of the sea breeze, the only relief from the heat and humidity. After seeing the fort, we returned to the hostel and I added the medical students on Facebook before they left to continue their four-day vacation from school in another part of Goa. (If they are reading this I wish them all well.)

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Shortly after the medical students from Kerala left, we met an iOS developer from Mumbai. He had an Android. My friend and I hung out with him during the rest of our time there and returned to a beach we’d seen a few days before to find Siva’s face carved into a rock there. During my time in Goa I was always puzzled as to why I couldn’t get good Indian food. Once I ordered a thali and nothing on my plate was spicy. Nothing. People wore shorts and that was socially acceptable. Trance music played at the oddest times. It played when my friends and I sat down to enjoy dinner. At a sea side restaurant while families looked out at the ocean and kids ran around on the outside deck a shirtless DJ played to an empty room. All of this of course has a simple explanation: Goa isn’t in India. Although, I was later told, “forget your time in Goa.”

Shiva's face carved into a rock on the beach.

Shiva’s face carved into a rock on the beach.

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What Do We Want from the Dalai Lama?

Though Mcleod-ganj is officially the home of the Dalai Lama, he does not spend much time in the town to which many foreigners flock because of it’s relationship to him, as he spends most of his time travelling around the world, delivering talks and engaging in conversation about Buddhism, Joy, and Tibet’s situation. That is why I feel particularly lucky to have been able to attend two of his teachings- a one-day initiation into compassion and a three-day introduction to Buddhism that I believe he does every year for Tibetan youth.

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The first time I saw the Dalai Lama was my first full day in Mcleod-ganj, almost two months ago. It was also the first time I saw the temple in which the Dalai Lama gives his teachings and the monks do their daily practice of meditation, mantras and dialectics. I would come to love the large but relatively unassuming building, one of the first places of worship I had ever been that always felt thrumming with life, but that first day it was a confusing and overwhelming place, seeming at times set up to make it harder for me to access the elusive teachings of one of the most recognizable religious figures in the world. I was separated from my host mother, as there was a different entrance for foreigners, and left to my own devices to find space large enough for my body and my bag. As I was standing and looking, I realized that everyone around me was bowing and holding their hands out. I turn and suddenly, 10 feet away from me, is the shuffling and yellow-robed form of the fourteenth Dalai Lama, surrounded by people but powerfully present nonetheless. He was shorter than I had imagined, and smiling. Soon he had disappeared from my view, entering into the small central chamber that serves as the beating heart of the body of the temple. It was only a moment, but I must admit I found myself to be a little breathless as he walked away and I was left to find my seat.

In most videos I have seen of the Dalai Lama speaking, in conversation with John Oliver and other curious westerners, he is speaking in a slow and cheerful English. I knew better than to expect him to be speaking in anything other than his native language when speaking to his people in the capital of Tibet in Exile, but I was still surprised to hear him speak quickly and confidently in a language that I never really heard until that point. I scrambled to find another westerner with a radio that I could share in order to listen to the English translation. It was difficult, both to find the right radio station on the cheap FM radio, and to hear to the halting English translation over the speakers blaring the Dalai Lama’s teaching in his cheerful Tibetan. I would watch him make jokes, laugh heartily along with every other Tibetan speaker, and then wait eagerly for our English translation to translate the joke for us, only to be disappointed by a complete lack of anything that seems like a joke as I understood them. It was also physically exhausting, sitting on the floor on a small, thin pad, balancing my cup of traditional butter tea (which tastes like melted salted butter) on my knee and hunching over to fit the earbud of my neighbor into my ear.

The teaching lasted four hours, and I left feeling overwhelmed and mystified, a sort spiritual and emotional hypothermia, like I had just been to the top of a mountain and seen all the little people and now walked among them once again. I found my foreigner friends at a local café, and found out that not one of the 6 people had stayed the whole time, like I had. The Buddhism was too complex, the floor too hard, the English translation too difficult to listen to for an extended period. “It clearly wasn’t meant for us” they said. A month later, the Dalai Lama returned to his yellow throne to deliver his three day introduction to Buddhism for the Tibetan high school and college students. My foreign friends’ reasons for leaving early were much the same- it wasn’t an introduction to Buddhism that they could follow, they weren’t getting much from it, it was too hot.

What do we want from the Dalai Lama? For many of peers, it seemed, they wanted his presence near them so they could say they had seen the second most famous religious figure in the world, the first being the pope. For others, they wanted him to move them, to take them places and deliver wisdom to them wrapped in a bow. They wanted a step by step guide to spirituality. They wanted to listen to someone make arguments and deliver teachings in the way we are all used to. The Dalai Lama instead presented arguments in almost a circular way, slowly orbiting his point, falling closer and closer with every rotation, until all of a sudden, we are delivered a truth that can sit in our palm like a small but living seed. Many people, I think, find it hard to follow, to let it just wash over them when they don’t know where the Dalai Lama is going. But his teachings were a lesson in how to absorb information presented to us in ways we are unused to.

They wanted to feel included in the teaching, they wanted his words to make sense in our western context, they wanted the teaching to be “for them.” After all, the clips many people see of the Dalai Lama are like that- simple and in English, clearly crafted with westerners in mind. But we were in his home now, amongst his people. How could we expect to be the target audience? How could we expect the old Tibetans spinning their personal mani wheels and fingering their prayer beads to sit through the Dalai Lama walking us uneducated westerners through the life of the Buddha and the four noble truths? I suspect many of us are unused to not being the ones a teacher is catering to. This isn’t our religion, our history, or our story. So we struggle to know what to do, we feel that if something isn’t for us, we should not be present. But what a gift it is to be present for something that is not intended for us. To know that there is a world of understanding we had not, until coming to Mcleod-ganj knew about. That there are ways of thinking, speaking and being that push the boundaries of what we thought humans do and don’t do.

It’s understandable that us westerners (including myself) were confused by and struggled to understand the teachings given by the Tibet’s “living god.” Metaphors were more confusing than the topic they were supposed to illuminate, jokes didn’t translate, the ground on which the Dalai Lama’s words walked was just sky in our heads. So you try to learn to fly, I guess. Or you just let his words fall through you until something lands. Or you give up, you recognize you are not yet ready for the teachings. But the most worrying thing isn’t what we want, it’s how we want. How in our minds he is the one with power, the power to release us from our pain, to make us feel smarter, to educate us. We want his help. So how are we going to react when the seemingly transcendent man asks us for help? Because in the current global climate, we have more power than the homeless king of 150,000 refugees. We are citizens of the global superpowers, we are safe, we know who we are. When we write the story of the world, we cannot put the Dalai Lama and his subjects into a position of givers, because then we fail them, and in doing so, we fail ourselves.

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Time Flies in Bangalore

3/7/17

As the initial part of the bee project comes to an end, we have gained enough preliminary data to move into a different animal model: Drosophila melanogaster, or the common house fly. These insects are quite similar to humans genetically and, as a result, have been very useful in the study of human genetics. However, it takes time to obtain the proper flies with the right mutations, so time just flew by. Overall, it has been an interesting experience learning to handle them. They are not as annoying, almost cute even, when they are contained in vials as compared to when they are flying around your food…

I began helping with another project in the meanwhile, in which I was able to utilize skills from my previous research experiences, while also gaining a better understanding of various molecular biology assays. It is really important to know the basics when you want to delve deeper into something. With this other project, I got to learn the basic molecular biology techniques I haven’t had the chance to study previously.

It was a wonderful opportunity, not only because I got to work with others in the lab but also because I was able to more seamlessly interact with other interns my age. I was even able to get a good picture of a researcher’s path in India. Although there are many similarities, there is one striking difference. From my understanding, a good number of those entering into a career in research may not have had the opportunity to intern and learn more about this career path during their college time. Some enter into their Master’s Degree without ever having worked in the laboratory setting before. Having been working in a research lab since the beginning of my freshman year at the University of Michigan, I was a bit shocked. I am grateful to have this opportunity to explore potential career options and get my foot in the door through fellowships like SiSA. Even though I have experience working with stem cells, this internship at inStem allows me to approach research from a different side. Animal models are crucial to understanding many biological processes and their applications to humans. Experience working with honeybees and flies will go a long way in my future as a researcher. I really look forward to what the next few weeks have in store for me!

**A quick side note is that this post was written about 2 weeks ago, but I hadn’t had the chance to post. To add, the date here, in India, is written with the day first and not the month. Although it doesn’t take long to notice, it takes a while to get used to, especially in regards to expiration dates on food items…

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