Zach, outbound to India

Hey there everyone! Sorry for the long wait between journals, but I've got a lot to talk about.

I've been here four months as of 7 December and they've been truly unique. I've had considerable highs and lows and I'll relate them here since this is, well, my journal. I'll do my best to make my thoughts clear yet thought-provoking, so that any interested readers (or future outbounds) can get a good picture of what it's like here. I'll begin with the negatives and then end on a high note.

People I spoke to before I came always said that India was the most challenging exchange. I haven't been to any other countries, and I suppose I might be a bit biased, but I think this assumption is correct. The conception in the West is that India is, with the exception of Bombay (Mumbai), a dirty, backwards, and overall unpleasant place to live. I must admit that this, too, has some truth to it.

There's trash that is literally stacked a meter high on the side of roads, which they dispose of by burning with open flame. There's dust and dirt on everything, which I guess is a part of living in a desert/plains area like Gujarat (my state). For the people who are wondering, yes I have used Indian toilets (literally a small platform with a hole in the center) - even while on board a train, which was extremely uncomfortable yet made me feel like a great exchange student! There are mosquitos of a propensity I have never known, even in Florida. There's cow dung (holy to the Hindus) on every street, beggars at every bazaar, and cracks in most pieces of glass.

But these are just the superficial problems, beauty marks really (I love this place) of my adopted country. There are deep issues here which have come to, if not define, seriously impact my exchange, as well as my view of America and the world.

I have discovered that there is a type of oppression that is unspoken, invisible, and hidden, but no less impactful. A kind of oppression that can span generations without slowing down. I am referring, of course, to the Indian caste system.

Most people, and almost all Indians (save those, I think, who are most limited by it) will tell you that it doesn't exist, or that its effects are minimal. After all, caste-based discrimination was outlawed many years ago by the Indian government. But after four months here I can see it's influence everywhere. Some Indians only do business with those in their caste, or give higher prices to those outside it. Some only socialize with those in their immediate subcaste. The homeless are ignored because of their status as untouchables.

The worst example of this, I think, exists in my college. My two best friends are Moslem girls (who are also best friends), one Shiite and one Sunni. They are incredibly intelligent, very studious , and routinely score the top marks in the class. One was even elected to what I guess is the equivalent of a class president. The only problem? They will get their degrees and then be arranged to be married off to strangers, condemned to the life of a housekeeper, completely unable to reap the benefits of the degree for which they work so hard. Their jobs will include cleaning and raising kids, instead of being innovators and leading businesses.

Yet, for all that, I doubt I've ever seen a more beautiful country. I awake every morning to the sound of roosters, songbirds, and squirrels, of Moslem prayer, pooja, and bells. When I throw open the doors of my bunglow (large house) I'm greeted by sunlight shining in rays through the trees, squirrels scurrying along the ground, and sparrows taking flight high above. Its difficult to comprehend how there could be such lush jungle only meters away from complete dust, but such stark contrast characterizes Bharat (India) - a point I will expound upon later.

Like an annoying sibling, or your first car (the one with really bad gas mileage), I can't help but overlook the flaws of my new home, and admit that India has my heart. Since my last journal entry, I went on a three-week tour of south India. The things I saw were like something out of an Indiana Jones movie. I went inside a 100 meter tall temple in Madurai that was built almost one thousand years ago. I saw rolling hills of tea trees in the mountains of Karela that looked like a cracked green painting. I toured a palace in in Mysore that could have outmatched any mansion in the USA.

But the beauty of my adopted homeland is not constrained to its natural assets. There is, among the architecture and fashion here, a disparity of color and construct the likes of which I have never seen. Buildings are crafted in Mughal, Hindu, Portuguese, British, and modern style, and in colors ranging from dull nila (blue) to bright lal (red), with every shade making an appearance. The clothing is much the same, with saris, kuttis, and even modern clothing chosen to display the most color possible. This all makes for a breath taking sight when walking through the city, with long streets of ancient homes accompanied by masses of people, each house and person showcasing every color imaginable.

This is reflective of a general mindset of Bharatiyan (Indians), that beauty is, in a way, quantitative rather than qualitative. A sari with less than around five colors and a similar number of designs is seen as a plain thing. This extends to ghana (music), where more beats, voices, fluctuations in sound (they have around seven sub-tones used to convey emotion in music) equates to beauty.

This philosophy extends also to food. All Indian food, even sweets, have some degree of spiciness - even as spicy food has trace amounts of sweetness. Indians do not think a food is worthwhile if it doesn't have more than a few distinct flavors. Whatever the case, I will say that Indian food is fantastic, both in taste and composition. I have tasted more sweets than I knew existed and consumed whole chili peppers raw (emerging unscathed). I have taken rice with every meal, yet never have become satisfied, such is the quality of Indian cooking. I've eaten food so good that my mouth waters to think of it, even now. Some of my favorites... pao bhaji (a roll that's heated on a pan, dipped in a kind of bean sauce), vada pao (the same roll, except with a kind of veg pattie in the middle ), pani poori (a small hollow fried dough ball, which you hole with a thumb before placing food and spicy water inside, and then eat) rice with curry and veg served on a banana leaf ( and eaten with hands), and my favorite, SAMOSAAAA! (Basically potatoes, beans, chutney, and everything delicious and vegetarian, stuffed inside of a thick crust shell that's fried until crispy. On the street you can get two for the equivalent of twenty cents.)

Asha-behen, the servant who cooks for my host family, is a cook whose only equal may be my mother at home in Jacksonville. She is not the only servant on my premises. Housekeepers, drivers, a watchman, and more are in the employ of my host family. They reside inside the wall of my premises, albeit in much, much worse status than that which I'm accustomed to. One weekend, I took dinner with the family one of the servants - Jasee, her husband Bhurut, his brother, and their children. I attended, expecting light fare with little occasion to the meal. Instead I found them refusing to eat until I was satisfied, filling my dishes whenever I set them down with food they had used all day to prepare... and this from a family who lives in a one-room house.

I've never been honored so in my life. Who am I to receive this treatment? I'm not worthy of it. I've learned so much from the servants since I've been here - they've taught me a kind of humility I never knew, how to honor those above you, and how to make the most of any situation. If I can live to be half the man they are, I will count myself blessed.

Every Indian family has servants, and my host family assures me it's normal... yet I can't help but sense an injustice here. Servants are condemned to a life of hard labor simply because their fathers and mothers were servants as well. I don't assign any blame to my host family - They are upstanding people who do more for the poor than most here. People close to me tell me that I need to accept it (otherwise, they say, I will become upset), but is accepting a bad condition not the same as assenting to it? I don't give money to the poor, but I give them time and love, in hopes that these gifts will provide a more lasting impact than money ever could.

My language is coming along well. I could read and write Hindi before I arrived, and now my speaking is progressing to the point where I can hold complex conversations on politics, religion, and the like with my host grandmother, who speaks no English, and understand about fifty to seventy-five percent. I have a long way to go but screwing up is the best way to learn... and I've screwed up a lot in Hindi!

I wrote before about the contrast between jungle and dust, and of the disparity between rich and poor (one that buries any notions I had of wealth inequality in America)... this is why: India is a country of polar extremes, which are often located abreast of one another. Fabulous wealth and crippling poverty. Jungle and lifelessness. Legal freedom and societal immobility. Even the seasons - monsoons for months followed by some of the hottest weather in the world. It's hard to rationalize, at times, how the owners of a mansion can live next to the homeless, or how a vibrant, fertile plot of land can exist next to what is essentially dead land. There is little to no middle ground.

But I wouldn't have it any other way. I love this place, and I'm blessed to have this opportunity. Thanks for reading all this, I'll try to put another one up soon.