Friday, January 30, 2009

Feeling Blessed

Even though I sometimes get depressed/fed up with my school and job (see the previous post), I want to express how blessed I feel to live in Spain. No matter how frustrating my job can be, I try to remind myself how lucky I am to have a job in this economic climate. Furthermore, who else gets to work four days a week, have health insurance, and have enough money to travel?

Recently, a friend of mine was in car accident. Her car was totaled, but luckily she is okay. When I heard this news, I was so surprised and felt like the wind had been knocked out of me. This reality check made me take a step back in my life and think about how lucky I am and realize how quickly things can change. It reminded me not to waste my time in Madrid but to really take advantage of it, and do and see as much as possible. Who knows when I will ever come back to Spain?

These past few weeks I have been feeling antsy, wanting to get out of Madrid and travel. Unfortunately, my plans have fallen through a couple of times. However, today I was able to find a cheap ticket to Lisbon so next weekend I will exploring Lisbon by myself. While I am slightly nervous to travel on my own, the prospect of traveling solo kind of excites me. I won’t have to compromise with anyone and I can do whatever I want. Over my winter break, I went to Porto, Portugal for five days and loved it. It was very relaxing, had an historic charm, tons of wine cellars, and was pretty cheap. As a result, I decided I wanted to see another city in Portugal.

Over the past couple of months, I have slowly been refining my list of places I want to go. Up to this point, most of my travel has been influenced by where I have friends and people I know. So far outside of Spain, I have been to Paris and Toulouse, France, Porto, Portugal, and India. In the next couple of months I have travel plans to Lisbon, Munich, and Andorra (a tiny country between Spain and France) and would like to go to Morocco, Greece, Turkey, and Italy if possible. Within Spain, I have gone to Toledo, Segovia, Avila, Cordoba, and Seville. Before I leave, I hope to see Granada, Barcelona, Valencia, Santander, and Galicia. Clearly, I am going to be quite busy these next couple of months! However, because my list of places to go is constantly revolving based on recommendations I would love to hear your suggestions on places to visit in Europe.

It must be my dad’s interest in airplanes and airlines that sparked me to list all the airlines I have flown on since I started my journey in September: United, Air Canada, Easy Jet, Ryan air, KLM Royal Dutch Airline, King Fisher, Jet Airways, and Northwestern. I cannot believe I have been on eight different airlines and how connected/small the world really is. I feel so lucky to have this opportunity to live abroad, see new places, and meet amazing people.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Back at it

For the past three weeks, my life has been relatively quiet after all the travel I did in December. Things at my school are going pretty well. I have come to accept my job as just that a job and nothing more. Some days are really great and others I feel completely worthless. The problem that makes this challenging is that I don’t have much control over the tasks I am given so it is difficult for me to improve the situation. For example, on Wednesdays, I pretty much spend the entire day translating a textbook from English to Spanish. Now, this seems like a waste of my time for multiple reasons including the fact that history textbooks quickly go out of date and are no longer used, I could compile the equivalent information from doing a couple of google searches, and most importantly I am not spending any time with the students. A large part of the reason I am here is to help students with their accent and oral comprehension and to teach them about American culture. These areas cannot be addressed if I don’t see the students. Thus, on Wednesday I often feel like a mouse on wheel spitting out translations that I don’t think the students will ever see or really use.

However, not all my days are like this. Some days are great. Last Tuesday, inauguration day, I walked into a class and my students started cheering Obama. Because the actual teacher had not arrived yet, I started a discussion about Obama and what they knew. When the teacher arrived a couple of minutes later, she let the discussion continue for the entire period. It was so nice to see my students enthusiastic about a topic and also quite knowledgeable. Many of my students mentioned that they hoped Obama would close Guantanamo and I found myself thinking how many 7th graders in the US even know Guantanamo exists.

Right now my school is gearing up for a model UN conference. Bilingual students from all over Madrid will participate in the conference. It is a lot of work for the students and the teachers. The students are assigned a country and must research their country’s opinion on the given issue which is TB, malaria, and infectious diseases. They will need to be able to discuss and defend their country’s position which is not easy considering English is their second language. For the teachers, it can be quite difficult because if the students do not do the research it is impossible to help them.

Currently, the students are writing position papers regarding how their country views TB, Malaria, and infectious disease. During this process, it is becoming quite clear that the students have never really been asked to write a research paper or for that matter a regular composition before. Most papers completely lack organization but what bothers me the most is that the students don’t understand what plagiarism is. Not only are they copying other people’s work, it is clear they do not understand all of the concepts in their paper and do not actually understand the material. Therefore, the next couple of weeks will be devoted to helping the students improve their position paper and teaching them how to research more effectively.

Outside of school, things have been pretty low key. I have started to tutor a four year old girl in English. Basically, we play games, and I read to her. The other day I was doing an alphabet puzzle with her and she told me it was missing pieces, that the ñ was missing. Then I had to explain that in English there is no ñ but I thought the girl was pretty perceptive to notice its absence.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

India Part 3

December 27 – Udaipur
Udaipur is known as the city of lakes. There are five small man made lakes that surround the city. The city like most of the cities in India is composed of an old city and the new city. The old city is composed of old streets that are not meant for cars or modern life and a newer section with wider roads and more modern homes. Generally we have stayed in the new city and then go into the old city to see the famous locations.

In the morning we stopped at an active Hindu temple. People were immersed in prayer and everyone must take off their shoes to enter. This temple had a guard for the shoes which I had been wondering about because due to the extreme poverty in the country I wouldn’t be surprised if someone tried to steal the shoes outside the temple. Its not that I don’t trust the locals, but I could understand them taking shoes out of necessity.
lady selling marigold flower chains, to use as offerings outside a hindu temple

As we were talking with our guide, he reiterated a fact that we have heard many times. Most of the marriages in India are still arranged. I have heard between 60-80% of marriages are arranged for Hindus and Muslims. In contemporary times, the children have the right to refuse a spouse but generally the children accept who their parents have chosen with them. A large percentage of children continue living with their once they are married. It is traditional for the girl to go and live with her husband’s family and for all the males of the husband’s family to live with their parents. Thus, many homes have three generations living together. While the caste system is technically outlawed, in the smaller villages I get the impression that it is still followed and that marriages are within one’s class and that it can be difficult to obtain a prestigious job if one is from a lower caste. With regards to marriages, the bride’s family still pays a large dowry to the husband’s family and as a result, India has more males than females. The government has outlawed embryonic testing in order to find out the sex of the baby because many couples were aborting female embryos. We were told the male to female ration was between 1000 males to 800-920 females depending on t he state in India.

After visiting the Hindu temple, we went to see the City Palace. It is the largest palace in Rajastan which is a state in Northwest India. We only saw a portion of the palace. Part has been turned into two different hotels and one section is still occupied by the royal family. India’s economy is largely based on tourism and many former royal palaces, hunting lodges, and other buildings have been converted into high end hotels. One day I was one the street looking at pashimas and was bartering with a man. Once the price had been reduced significantly he said please buy it, since November 26th my business has been down greatly, please help me. I felt so terrible I bought the scarf even though I probably could have bargained some more but it is quite evident that there have been major chances in India since the attacks in Mumbai. Most of the hotels are in compounds with private fences surrounding them. Before entering hotel grounds, the cars are stopped and the use a mirror attached to a rolling cart to check if there are any bombs on the underside of the car. In addition sometimes they inspect the trunk, and engine of the car in addition to confirming our names before letting us enter the premises. All of these regulations are new since the attacks.

The city palace had beautiful views of the Lake Pichola. There were separate quarters for men and women with interior patios. Unfortunately at this point in my trip I have seen so many forts, palaces, and mausoleums that they all blur together. In everyone, the intricate detail is amazing. There is a lot of hand carving of marble and sandstone to produce beautiful screens and columns.
view of Lake Pichola
After lunch we went to the Garden of the Maidens where members of the royal used to spend their time and relax. During the 18th century, men were not allowed to enter the garden which featured a swimming people for the women. My favorite part about the garden was people watching. Currently, most Indians have off from work this week (Christmas week) so most of the sites are overrun with Indian tourists rather than foreigners. In the garden we saw one dad place his son (about 2 years old) on the top of a five foot fountain in order to get a good picture. This made me crack up because the kid was close to tumbling yet the father seemed unaware.

While taking a moment to enjoy our surroundings, my mom and I saw a group of school children. They were all well dressed and behaving very well. As they walked by our tour guide asked them where they were from and if they attended a private or government school. The girls were from a neighboring state and attended a free government school. After pausing for a moment, the girls about 40 of them asked to take a picture with my mom and me. I don’t think they had met or seen many foreigners before. It was cool to be able to make someone happy by just taking a picture. The girls instantly clamored around trying to be in the center of the photo and then some of the girls with their own cameras (film, not digitial) took individual pictures as well.

December 28th Saturday
On Saturday, we flew from Udaipur to Mumbai and then Mumbai to Trivandrum. From Trivandrum we drove one hour to Kovalum. The entire journey took about five hours. Trivandrum and Kovalum are located on the southwestern coast of India in the state of Kerala.
The feel in Kovalum is completely different than the feel of the other cities. Kovalum and Trivandrum are beach communities and the feel Caribbean or Hawaiian in feel, as opposed to the cities in the north that feel more religious and more “Indian”. In Kovalum there are a lot of palm trees and it does not a typical urban center. There are no large multistory buildings but rather a lot of single family homes. I did not see any apartment buildings and the main industry seems to be tourism. In the northern cities, tourism was definitely important but so was agriculture, handcrafts, and merchant shops. In Kovalum, I have not seen any cattle standing in the middle of the road and the temperature is about ten degrees warmer and more humid.

Our hotel is a series of bungalows located on hill that overlooks the ocean. It is gorgeous and really secluded. To go down to the beach, there is an elevator that goes down about three stories to the beach level. It is really interesting the mix of tourists that come to India. There are people from all over the world. There are a lot of European, Australian, American, Chinese, and Japanese tourists in addition to the large number of Indian national tourists. I love hearing the mix of languages spoken and trying to guess where someone is from.

I am definitely getting used to Indian food and finding more and more dishes that I like. Some of my favorite drinks include fresh lime soda and lassi, a yogurt based drink. The fresh lime soda is a mix of pure lime juice, with club soda, and then you add in as much sugar as you want. The drink is very light and refreshing. I also enjoy lassi which helps me cope with the spicy Indian food. As for food, I really enjoy garlic naan, most chicken dishes, and tandori.

December 31st – good breaks, good horn, and good luck
On December 29th dad arrived. He started his journey from Beijing on the 28th and flew to Delhi, however due to fog dad’s flight was delayed 8 hours and he didn’t arrive in trvandrum until 1 am. He tried calling us on three different cell phones but because we were on vacation my mom and I did not have them on so luckily I saw an email from him.

The hotel we are staying at, the Travancore Heritage is quite quirky. The land is beautiful but some parts of the hotel remind you are in a developing country. The power outlets in our room only work if the switch next to them is turned on. Its like having a light switch by each outlet to ensure power isn’t wasted. The weird thing is that after you unplug something you can’t replug anything in unless the outlet is reset. I was having trouble with the outlets so I took the plug out of the tv because I new that worked. However, when I tried the plug the tv back in, it wouldn’t work. When we called the reception to let them know about the problem they sent someone from maintenance. He has a metal device that looks like a screw driver which he sticks into the outlet in order to reset so that something new can be plugged in. I freaked out the first time I saw this because he was sticking metal into the outlet but after the fact I realized he had used the switch by the outlet and turned off the power before doing so. The outlets at the hotel are not very stable so off times to get a connection you have to wiggle the outlet for a while to find the correct angle to plug things into. Then my dad jimmy rigged a contraption to maintain the angle.
sunset view from our hotel

Yesterday we went to Kayakummari. It is at the southern tip of Indian where the Arabian Sea meets the Indian Ocean. The drive there and back was the most frightening ride we have had. The lane road is a two lanes one in each direction but cars are constantly passing and making a third lane in the middle of the road. On the way there, I had fallen asleep and I heard a distinct thud, now this not something you want to hear while riding in a car. I am not sure what we hit but I think it was a telephone poll. We only hit the side view mirror and are driver did not hestitate and kept driving. On the way back we were forced into the shoulder about 4 times when oncoming traffic that was passing other cars came into our lane. Let me tell you, it is frightening to see a big bus coming directly at you.My dad and I at a temple in Kayakumari which is the southernmost tip of India.

Yes you have to pay to use some bathrooms. When traveling in India it is essential to carry small change and toilet paper with you at all times.

January 1-3rd
The rest of the time in Kovalum we spent relaxing by the poolside and down by the ocean. New Years was very low key. There was dinner by the beach but I ended up going to bed around 10 pm because I didn’t know anyone and my parents had already left the party.

On January 2nd, I started my way back to Madrid. I flew from Trivandrum to Mumbai but because I had a 10 hour lay over my parents arranged for a driver to take me into the city. The only problem was that I arrived around 3 pm and didn’t get into the city until close to five so not everything was open. First we stopped at Dhobi Ghats which is where over a thousand workers wash laundry in stone troughs. At first my tour guide said we were going to Laundry which I think is the most literal translation of Dhobi Ghats and I was quite confused wondering if he was taking me to do my laundry or if I just wasn’t understanding him. Despite the fact that all of our guides spoke English, some had quite thick accents and at times, I could barely tell they were speaking English. I would just nod politely although a couple of times I said yes and it was clear that they had not asked us a yes or no question.

At Dhobi Ghats, there were a lot of beggars. It was heart wrenching to see, and I am sure for as long as I live, the words “Madam, baby” will make my stomach turn. I hate ignoring the beggars because I don’t want to treat them like they are no human beings, but there are many organized begging rings which I don’t want to support.

After Dhobi Ghats, I toured the Gandhi Museum which is located in what used to be his house in Mumbai. The museum was really interesting and informative. Then we drove to the Gateway of India which located right by the Taj Hotel. The entire plaza around the Taj was blockaded off and only official guest staying at the Taj can enter it.

Afterward, I got an amazing garlic tiger prawn meal before returning back to the airport. At first my tour guide tried to take me to McDonald's in an attempt to cater to my “American” palate, but I kindly asked to go to a normal Indian restaurant. Although, I currently wish I had gone into a McDonald's to see the menu because I am wondering if they serve hamburgers considering almost no restaurants in India serve pork or beef. The ride back to the airport took two and a half hours. Luckily, I had plenty of time because my flight was scheduled to leave at 1:50 in the morning but we didn’t end up leaving until close to 4 AM. As a result, I missed my connecting flight in Amsterdam and got back to Madrid after 36 hours of travel.

All in all, I had a great trip in India. When people ask me to describe it, there is no one word. It was exhausting, but at the same time relaxing. It was beautiful and gut wrenching. There are incredible palaces and forts which are juxtaposed next to endless slums. To get an idea about what idea is like I recommend reading White Tiger which won the Mann Booker prize or watching Slumdog Millionaire. While they don’t’ compare to seeing it in the flesh, they provide a pretty accurate depiction.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

India Part 2

December 23

The next day we drove from Agra to Jaipur stopping in Fatehpur Sikri along the way. Before entering the site, we saw a snake charmer sitting outside. Tourists can take pictures and give him a small tip. After the fact, I learned that the snakes are usually venomless but it was still cool anyways.

Fatehpur Sikri was the capital of India for fourteen years under the rule of Akbar during the 16th century. The emperor Akbar who ruled had three different wives: one who was Muslim, one Hindu, and one Christian. As a result he was able to able to bring the entire region under his rule.

December 24 jaipur

In Jaipur, we visited the Amer fort and palace. The city used to be along the silk trading route so large wall was built to encompass the entire city in order to keep the traders and merchants protected. The fort sits on the top of the hill and while we drove up to the entrance, in olden days people used to ride elephants up the hill. While this is still option, we decided against it, because some of the guidebooks mentioned that the elephants are treated poorly.

As I mentioned, it is normal to see four people crammed onto a motorcycle. Here is a photo I took after our tourguide made a funny face at one of the girls.

In addition to seeing the Amer fort, we also saw the largest sun dial in the world. The park had about 15 different sun dials which were used to figure out a person’s horoscope. Because most of the marriages in India are arranged based on people’s horoscopes matching, it is critical to know the exact time of birth when matching horoscopes.

December 25th jodhpur

On Christmas day, we flew from Jaipur to Jodphur. In Jodphur, we visited the Mehrangargh fort and the Jaswant Thada marble crematorium.

The crematorium had excellent views of the city and is where many members of the royal family have been cremated. Traditionally, their ashes are then scattered, often times in the Ganges River but the crematorium acts as a burial site in that people can build monuments and return to the site to honor their loved ones.

photo from the Mehrangargh fort

kids enjoying a camel ride

December 26th

Today we drove hours on hectic Indian roads from Jodphur to Udaiper. I have come to the conclusion that the most dangerous part about driving is the animals. On every road there are tons of cows, water buffalo, sheep, dogs, and boars. Cows are the most common animals and sometimes they will just stand in the middle of the road and some even lie down. This makes driving really crazy because there is no way to predict whether an animal will be crossing the street or which direction it will go. As a result we came to a couple quick stops when cows decided to stop midstream and stand in the middle of crowded busy roads.

On the other, the other drivers seem to have a controlled chaos system going on. Most of the roads we have been driving on have been two lane roads with one lane and in each direction. As a result, cars are constantly going into oncoming traffic to pass the rickshaws, autorickshaws, and bicycles. This systems works pretty effectively except on curving roads in which case in order to pass a car one must honk their horn before going around a corner to ensure no one is coming in the opposite direction. Occasionally it looked like were going to hit oncoming cars but at the last minute are car would finish passing another car and go back on the correct side of the road (which is the left side, a remnant from British imperialism).

Along the way we stopped at a Jain temple. The temple was made of white marble. Inside is an interesting mix of being inside and outside there are no walls just pillars and over hangs so there is an interesting play of light. No leather is allowed to be worn inside the temple and shows must be taken off. In addition there is a sign that says women who are menstruating should not enter the temple. Again, the temple was intricately carved with fine detail along the columns, interior walls and ceiling. I was entertained by two boys who were racing their match box cars along the walls of the temple.

One interesting thing is that you often have to pay to use a camera. The fee is not large only a dollar or two but this different from the other traveling that I have done. The money goes to restore the and maintain the buildings so I don’t mind. When I saw these signs, I was surprised that the Chinese have not started to charge to use a camera.

When we left there were tons of monkeys on the road. Someone had recently fed them and they were eating carrots. Monkeys seem to be pretty common in India but I am still fascinated by most of the animals they are not disturbed by cars or people and are scared by the noise they make.