As you may have read in my last post, I was incredibly lucky that I made it to India in one try. Now, let me give you an overview of what else happened during the month of January.
Going to school the Indian way
The first Monday was, just like in Antwerp, all about formalities: we had to fill out several forms and were explained the school’s rules in detail. Some examples:
- Be back on school grounds by 11PM
- Fill out a permission slip if you want to make a trip and explain in detail where you will be going and staying
- Alcohol, drugs and smoking are not allowed on campus
The next few days we had classes, which varied between Sustainability and Innovation Management. The first week we had classes from Monday until Sunday (!!). I am not kidding. After that, we also had yoga classes in the evening. Which wasn’t nice to see if you are standing behind a stiff like me. But after this week the worst was over for the month.
In the second, third and fourth week of January we went on company visits at two steel plants and a seafood company – none of these were incredibly interesting to me, but I have to admit it was nice to get a free, cold beer after the first company visit. Especially in these temperatures!
When we went on these trips we either used the yellow schoolbus (with rails in front of the windows – why?!) or an AC Sleeper Bus (which had beds above the regular seats).
Furthermore, we got to choose the subject for our new master project of this semester. We choose Bhubaneswar as a Smart City as our research object and will focus on how they manage waste, which is a significant and well-known problem in India. I am curious to see what all I will find out during this project!
And to round it up, we also went to visit the Asha Kiran girls, which is the girls’ orphanage we have been supporting for a few months now. We made sure the girls had a few hours with any cares or worries in the world by playing games with them, practicing Engels and sharing our snacks (and phones) with them. A very rewarding, exhausting and memorable day!
Discovering rural India
For some reason, many of us – including me, I guess – thought that visiting rural India meant visiting “the real India”. But if you think about it, isn’t that the same as saying that visiting the rural areas in Belgium is the same as visiting “the real Belgium”? That’s kind of stereotyping to the extreme, no? City life is just as much “typical India”.
Anyway, during our third week in India we already headed for our first big adventure. I think we were all more or less expecting to end up in little huts in the middle of nowhere, but we arrived at a “research hotel” where biology researchers who come to this area usually stay. The mattresses in our rooms were even harder than the mattresses at school, but at least we had a bed! And toiletpaper! And a toilet! We were all learning to appreciate the little things, I guess. The view over Chilika Lake – the biggest lake in Orissa – from our room was just an added bonus.
The first day we already hit the road… or should I say “hit the water”. All 26 of us climbed into one little boat… which is normally meant for 10. But that they only told us afterwards of course! We had to work together continuously to keep the boat balanced. I thought it was kind of funny actually. After what seemed like hours we reached a little island in the lake where we spent about half an hour birdwatching, doing photo shoots and enjoying the view. Then we went back on our perilous boatride.
That same evening the local kids came to the hotel to put on a dancing performance for us. After that we spent some time sitting down in the grass with the group, drinking beer and enjoying the fine evening temperature while fighting the endless stream of mosquito attacks.
The second day we split up into three groups. Each group would head out on a different expedition in the Chilika area. My group went to Mangalajodi, where we learned more about how they go about ecotourism, dealing with the illegal fishing problem and attracting more birdwatchers. We saw how they make the boats that they use to go into the wetlands. We actually went on one of those boats to do some birdwatching. It was a very relaxing experience for most of us and our guide Sanjay was also great.
By the time we came back to the hotel we were all starving of course! Thankfully the food that was served at the hotel was all very tasty (although I mostly ate like a vegetarian – as was to be expected, there was a lot shrimp, fish and crab on the menu). But I was told those dishes were very tasty as well.
In the afternoon we got some time to work on our presentations.
On the third day, we went out on the water again. But this time, we took two boats. We went to another island in the lake this time. This one was extremely touristy, partly because the locals like to visit the temple there. We strolled around a bit, ate some streetfood (such as the typical samosa)… When we went back I learned we were lucky to be on the “good” boat – apparently the other one had a leak!
The last day started out quite hecticly. One girl’s iPhone had mysteriously disappeared. To most of us it was clear someone from the personnel must have taken it, but the Indians of our batch didn’t want to believe that. The staff of course pretended not to know what had happened. There was a whole scene where the staff could provide whatever security tapes we wanted but not those of the timeslot during which we knew the phone must have been taken. Only once we started threatening to take the case to the police, the phone magically appeared again in the place where many people had looked like 25 times. Yeah, right…
After all this hoopla, we were able to enjoy the beach at Gopalpur for an hour or so. The guys played football, the girls got their tan on and I went to try some typical Indian beach snacks. Before finishing up our rural exposure trip, we enjoyed an extensive lunch at a hotel in Gopalpur.
The zoo and the sea
Besides the visit to rural India, we also took off twice on our own. The first Sunday – after class – we went to Nandan Kanan Zoo, which is the oldest zoo in India. It is so huge! We only saw a small part of it, because we didn’t feel like going on a packed, unairconditioned safari (or should I say sauna?) bus.
It was a peculiar experience. First of all, we, as foreigners, had to pay Rs. 100 entrance fee (€1.5) while the Indians only paid Rs. 20 (€0.3)! We call this the foreigner tax.
In the Zoo itself, we soon discovered that it was not the rare Bengal tigers that were the main attraction… it was us. Whether they politely asked for it or not, I think I must be in at least one picture of every visiting family that day.
After a few hours, we were completely exhausted from walking around in the humid hot climate while posing for pictures, so we returned back to campus where we freshened up and packed our backpack for our next adventure: we were taking the train… in India… in general class… to Puri!
Now, let me take some time to describe the trainride for you. When you arrive in the trainstation of Bhubaneswar you have to be careful that you don’t step on anyone’s limbs when you make your way to the platform. On every possible surface people are lying down or sitting, waiting for their train. People of all types and social classes.
Obviously we were openly being stared at again. And this went on for 45 minutes extra because our train was late.
In the end we were finally able to hop on our train with our ticket of 40 rupees (€0.7). Can you imagine going to the beach in Belgium for that price?! We had to struggle for a seat in general class. The pathway was also full of locals with bags, cases and I don’t know what exactly they were carrying on their heads (simply because there was no other place to put it). In between the crowd, men wurmed their way through selling food and drinks. The things I saw them selling most often were:
- chai: the typical tea that I mentioned before
- pani: water (also often named after one popular brand Bisleri)
- biriyani: a typical Indian rice dish
But I also saw large metal plates full of fresh vegetables that didn’t even look all that bad.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that we were all quite impressed when, upon arrival in Puri, we experienced the Indian phenomenon called “planning”: the hotel where we were supposed to be staying wasn’t even booked! There we were, all sixteen of us, crowding the lobby. Luckily, they still had two suites vacant where we would all be able to sleep after they put in some extra beds. However, as soon as the staff saw that the group contained so many white skinned people, they of course charged us with the notorious foreigner taks. And even though it is not that much to us Europeans, in India Rs. 1000 (€14) does make a big difference!
In the end we had no other choice than to give in – where else would we find a place to crash with such a large group of people? We were also tired of carrying our bags around and getting hungry on top of that. While some of the boys went out to find a liquor store – maybe I will tell you how the liquor store system works some other time – the rest of us headed out to the beach to look at the stalls and have some snacks. After dinner we returned to the hotel where we had drinks and interesting talks until early in the morning.
The next morning the pool was eyeing us seductively and some of us (including me) couldn’t resist its siren call. Others went to visit a temple. In the afternoon, we visited the town a bit and admired from outside the Shree Jagannath temple that Puri is so famous for. It is a huge construction where only hindus can enter – and they come from all the corners of India to visit! It was super warm that day, so after a few hours all non-indians went home. I stayed behind with the Indians to enjoy the beach some more.
I guess it just had to happen that way… I finally got the opportunity to ride a camel! Even though it was only for 10 minutes and even though I was incredibly ripped off (you guessed it, foreigner tax), it was an amazing experience. Riding a camel at sunset by the beach… Sounds quite romantic doesn’t it? If you aren’t scared of camels…
To put it in simple words: whether it is a company visit, a day-trip to the zoo, a day at the beach or a lake… everything is one big adventure in India. Nothing comes easy. That makes living here incredibly exhausting but interesting at the same time. I am so happy I get the chance to experience all of this. Every day is a challenge, it makes you feel alive. And I am loving it so far!