It’s all coming back to me…

After spending several days in Mumbai, I was feeling restless. I’m not totally opposed to the tourist experience; but given the choice between staying with friends or a behind-the-scenes tour from a local that leads to traveling to their home town outside of the original destination and meeting their family and staying with them for a few days or the conventional tourist experience, I’ll choose the former options, for sure. For me, the conventional tourist experience is more appealing with at least another tourist or two, and I wasn’t having any luck flagging any down on my jaunts around Fort, the area where I was staying. I also wasn’t giving off the “I’m-searching-for-companion-tourists” vibe, because, let’s be honest, I wasn’t really looking for them. 

I was feeling ready to get going with my project. I was more in the mood for…well, not continuing to spend a lot of money every night on a hotel and then more money to get around and do touristy things. I was beginning to feel like having no plans for a whole week in Mumbai was a waste of time and money. If I had had friends in Mumbai, it would’ve been a different story. Or even if I was more familiar with the city…but felt so big, so noisy, so overwhelming, and mostly, so expensive. I wasn’t feeling it. 

  Fortunately at the peak of my feeling ready to move on, two things happened. I found out that some friends from Pune had moved to Mumbai and I got the approval from AIIS to come to Pune for a few days and sit in on Marathi classes for a few days. I checked out of my hotel on Tuesday morning and headed to the Mumbai CST train station to buy a train ticket to Pune. A few hours later, I was enjoying my first India train ride of 2015 – sleeper class (no a/c and no designated seats, which means that you could have as many as five people sharing a bench in one berth, plus someone stretched out above you and five across and someone above them – and oftentimes more people than that!). I hopped on the ladies car – no men allowed. Just women and kids. 

 The train ride was a bit longer than expected due to some delay (who knows…) but it was pleasant enough. Five hours after leaving Mumbai, I had arrived in Pune. I had tried to make arrangements to stay with some current AIIS students, but relying on my Marathi teachers to communicate my request to students that I had never met before proved to be trickier than I thought it would be. About 3/4 of the way into the train ride, I did get a call from a former student named Jake who is completing his dissertation in Pune and has a flat in the Koregaon Park (KP) neighborhood. Unfortunately, due to the total last minute nature of my arrival, he wasn’t able to host me Tuesday night. So when I arrived in Pune, I whipped out the Lonely Planet and looked up a hotel (I’ve since decided that this book must weigh at least 5 lbs and why lug it around when I can easily buy a digital version?! I’m leaving it in Mumbai.) I ended up at a pretty nice place in KP…pricier than I wanted but it was close to school and it was only for a night. It’s all part of the experience, right?

I was able to sit in on classes at AIIS on Wednesday and Thursday. It was so good to be back and see my teachers, meet new students, share my 2 cents with current Fulbrighters, and try to articulate what exactly I will be attempting to do in a week or so. I was surprised with how much Marathi I remembered but also feeling overwhelmed with how much was locked away in the deep recesses of my brain under a rusty lock whose key is lost under a pile of three years of English and AmeriCorps and St. Louis… 

  Before coming to Pune I had been wracking my brain trying to remember how to say “to the right” and “to the left.” But hard as I tried, I couldn’t remember. Then Wednesday morning I checked out of my hotel and argued a rickshaw wala into driving me to school, saying I would pay him 10 extra rupees for my bags. I was anxious; would I remember how to get there? I had gone every morning for 4 months. Surely it would come back to me. Muscle memory is a powerful thing. The minute I was sitting in the rickshaw I remembered. “Oojwikade ani nunter dawikade. Ha, ha. Tithe za. Ha Deccan College ahe. To the right, then to the left. Yes yes, go there. That’s Deccan College.” 

I spent Wednesday and Thursday in class and getting to know a smattering of students (one of whom had actually read my blog before when he was looking into coming to AIIS). It seemed like hardly anything on campus had changed. Not so for the rest of Pune. There is now a Starbucks in KP. Globalization. Sigh. 

Friday classes were canceled and I headed back to Mumbai to meet my friend, Noor, and her family. After a brief scare of losing my phone (it fell out of my pocket when I stopped at an ATM) I finally caught a bus to Bombay. By 10 on Friday I was at Noor’s place, with a hot, home-cooked meal, a cool shower, and a freshly made bed waiting for me. It was the best sleep I’ve had here so far.

  Today, Saturday, was a chill day. I slept in, read the paper, caught up with emails, did a bit of research, and then went to temple with Noor and her family. This evening we went out and managed to find some postcards. It seems in this digital age, the art of sending postcards is quite passé. But I promised about 30 people a postcard from India. And I will deliver! After a bit of walking and shopping, we had chaat (delicious Mumbai street food) and then walked home. Over some snacks and wine we reminisced on how we first met and all the adventures we had the last time I was here, missing our friend Robin who had been a part of it all. As we walked home from the market tonight, I told Noor,  “I am finally feeling relaxed and comfortable here.” With good food, the comfort of a friend’s home, and the familiarity of the pace of life here in urban India coming back to me, I am starting to feel at home.

Tomorrow morning I’ll wake up early to head to Jawhar, where I will meet Shubada, the woman who will be working with me as my “translator” (read collaborator, co-conspirator, companion) for the next several weeks. There is a seed festival in Jawhar in the afternoon. We will take a day or two to get to know each other and sort out the details for our upcoming journey. Then it’s on to Nagpur to reunite with Ajay and Yogini. And from there, back to see Pournima, and then Sangita, and all the rest of my Mulgavan friends. I. Can’t. Wait.


दापोली (Dapoli)

The thunderous booms from fireworks being lit all across the city have mostly subsided and I can now hear myself think. Happy Diwali everyone! Earlier this week I packed my bag and went on my first AIIS overnight field trip. Our first stop was Dapoli, a small town on the Konkan Coast.

We arrived in Dapoli after a lovely (and long and bumpy) drive through the Western Ghats. Our hotel, the Sea Princess, was right by the beach. As soon as we dropped our bags in our rooms we headed out to the Arabian Sea. I know I was just on vacation on a beach in Goa, but it felt so good to walk around barefoot in the sand.

The water was calm, warm and felt delightful! As soon as the first wave hit my feet I began to look forward to an evening dip.

After a little walk on the beach, we headed into town to the fish market. Every evening the fishermen bring in their catch and auction it off. The beach was busy and colorful. Our assignment was to ask what the names of the fish were in Marathi. I have to admit, I was more caught up in the colors and the bustle than trying to remember how to pose questions in Marathi. The other AIIS students did most of the talking…
Here are some pictures from the evening:

In the distance you can see the larger deep sea fishing boats. The shore was lined with small row boats that transported the fish to the shore. Then these carts were loaded up and they would carry the fish to the shore.

There the fish were lined up and laid out for potential buyers to examine and bid on. 

The swordfish were huge! And heavy! And expensive! These gentlemen answered our questions, their faces letting us know that they had better things to do. Everyone on the beach was very busy and had only enough time to quickly say the name of whatever fish we were inquiring about before giving us a look of “quit bothering me, I’m working.”

Squid ink!

These men are asking about the price of the squid during the somewhat chaotic auction. At one point David turned to me and said “Don’t make any sudden hand motions. You may find yourself with a kilo of fish…”

This woman wanted to know why we were asking so many questions about the fish and how much it cost but that we were not at all interested in buying any from her. Good question!

The AIIS gang! Naz, Shantanu, David and Patrick.

This is where they kept the giant blocks of ice that they sold to people to keep their fish cool and fresh. This guy was chipping the huge block into smaller more manageable blocks. Then they ran those hunks through a machine that crushed and ground the ice up, bagged it, and hauled it off to sell it. After the fish market we returned to the hotel. I took one look at the inviting sea and the warm tones of pink that were settling into the sky as the sun set and grabbed my towel. It was so nice to be able to rock back and forth as the gentle waves brought in the tide—a great way to unwind! The next morning we got up early and made our way to Raigad Fort, where Shivaji was coronated. Hopefully I’ll be able to post about that soon.

a smorgasbord

Thank goodness for my roommate Robin. Aside from her, most of the other Fulbright and scholarly people that I see regularly in Pune are in the midst of pursuing their masters or writing their dissertation or have accomplished much to be proud of in their academic careers. And so, occasionally, when I meet someone new (who fits into the scholar category) and tell them what I’m doing here inevitably they ask me if I’m pursuing my masters or my PhD. To which I timidly reply, “Nope. I’m not really sure where this will lead me. I’m just working on this project because it’s something that I really care about.” When I spell that answer out, it doesn’t seem silly. It even seems kind of noble, a little bit precious. But when I’m sputtering out that reply to someone who is in Grad school and has spent the last 2 years trying to find funding to come back to India to continue their research or studies, I sometimes feel a little frivolous. At first this bothered me. But then Beyonce started singing to me one morning as I was getting ready for school. Her chorus was stuck in my head and as I walked along the little path to my language class, I realized that I am really loving the fact that I am learning a language not for a degree, or to further my educational development, but to be able to communicate with people, to use! I felt a fresh sense of purpose and energy. After all, who needs a degree when you’re schoolin’ life?


Last Friday we took an AIIS field trip to Kaas Plateau, a newly declared UNESCO World Heritage site. Kaas Plateau is situated just east of Satara, a small city located about 120 km south of Pune. Here is a little photo tour of some of the beautiful sights that I saw.

Ganesh, remover of obstacles, is a good god to have sitting on your dashboard. Especially when your driver is in a bit too much of a hurry to get somewhere and everyone on the road is an obstacle.

In the dry season, the plateau looks a little more like this.

गेंद (gain-duh), a rare white flower that looks blue in my photos…

Drosera Indica, a “non-veg” plant which is endangered and found only on Kaas Plateau. It’s little tentacles are poisonous and sticky, trapping little bugs and devouring them.

Smithia (aka Mickey Mouse!)

अबोलीमा (abolima)

गौरीहार, gaohrihar

Didn’t catch the name of this one! How about purple fuzzy flaring fan flower?

The Marathi name for this tree breaks down to “teeth” and “fall out.” It’s bark is poisonous and if the twigs are used to brush teeth, like many twigs are in more rural areas, your teeth will fall out!

सीतेची आसवं (tears of Sita) another non-veg plant. The flower produces a sticky secretion that resembles a dew drop. Unsuspecting insects drop down for a drink and get stuck, a tasty snack for the flower.

Tinny, pretty and purple! Lovely.

Sea of violet

Flowers and sky

खाली (spider or fisherman, but in this case, spider). All of these endemic flowers made me wonder what kind of insects might be creeping around my feet. Love me some bugs!

हत्तीची सोंड (elephant’s trunk) :)

Dam! Over 160 years old! This water supplies the whole city of Satara (about 110,000 people)!

This divinely green slope helps to naturally filter the water. Nature! So many amazing processes!

This is the canal, over 100 years old, that channels water to Satara. Gravity…what a simple process.

The water was so clear and the sun was beating down on our backs. We wanted to jump in so badly!

So inviting!

From right to left: Naz (AIIS student), Sujata (my teacher), and me. The lovely folks to my right accompanied our guide Ajit. I can’t remember their names…

The trip was refreshing and informative. I’m looking forward to more excursions and being able to practice my Marathi!


Speaking of speaking Marathi, I’ve mastered my rickshaw directional vocabulary. In fact, the other night Robin and I took a rickshaw home. At the end of our ride our driver turned around and smiled and said, “You speak Marathi?” In Marathi I replied, “Yes, I’m learning Marathi. I speak a little.” And this is the part that made me dance a little victory dance inside my head. He then asked me how many years I’ve lived in Pune. “No, no,” I replied, smiling. “Only one month.” “One month! Very good! Very good!” And that’s exactly how that interaction made me feel. खुप छान!

Learning मराठी (Marathi)

णमसकार. मी अॅरन अहे. मी अमेरिकन अहे.

Namaskar. Mi Aaron ahe. Mi American ahe.

Hi. I’m Aaron. I’m American.

I’ve learned new languages before, but this is the first time I’m tackling a new script AND a new language. I’m learning to read all over again. I sound like a 6 year old sounding out new words. For instance:

पुणे. P. Not Puh. No aspiration. Just a p sound that sort of stops in my throat. Oo. Not Ooooo. A short long ooo. N. Not a dental n. A retroflexive N. Eh. P-oo-N-eh. Oh. Pune. The city I’ve been living in for the last 12 days. Just like a little kid learning how to read, it takes me a couple minutes to make out a word with only 2 consonants, 2 vowels and 2 syllables.

It’s been interesting. The nice thing about Devanagari script is that it’s completely phonetic. So I don’t have to learn any rules about vowels and when they say their names or anything. I just have to memorize all of the different symbols and sounds. And now that I have memorized the basic consonants and vowels, I can pretty much read any word I see. Sometimes they are English words written in Devanagari script. After spending a few minutes identifying the characters and sounding it all out, I’ll say something like “Dawk-tu-rrr. Oh. Doctor.”

I love the quaint little building that is AIIS 2. This is where all my classes take place. The campus itself is beautiful…very green! My friend Rachel, a former AIIS student, put it well: “A double I S. Farm or college?” I have to try to not get too distracted when the wild mama pig and her herd of babies pass by the window in the middle of class.

Our dictation classroom

Our listening classroom

Sujata and Shantanu are the jovial pair of teachers that make up AIIS, Pune. Sujata has said several times “We love our students.” And it is so evident! They are both wonderful teachers and compliment each other very well, making a very dynamic team.

We are three students in all so far: Greg, a PhD student who is fluent in Hindi and spent the summer bolstering his Marathi skills, and David and I, both total beginners and here in Pune, Maharashtra as Fulbright-Nehru student researchers. The academic year long program starts this week, so more students will join us. I’m happy about this. I have been starting the days at 9 a.m. and my schedule looks something like this: Grammar from 9-10:00, Listening from 10-11:00, Tea break from 11-11:15, Pronunciation and Dictation from 11:15-12:15, and Script practice from 12:15-1:15.

An impromptu moment of learning: Greg tells us about the origin of languages in India. (note: this is the classroom where grammar and script practice takes place usually)

There’s just something about transitioning from no school and sporadic part time work to 4 almost straight hours of sitting in class. Fortunately there are two groups of students, beginners (David & me) and advanced (Greg). So we play musical classrooms and swap teachers. It helps break up the long morning. Now that the academic year long program is starting, I will be coming to school from 12:15-5:00 p.m. every day. It’ll be nice to have the mornings to sleep in (something I’ve only done once since I’ve been in India), have a nice breakfast, maybe eventually practice yoga (waiting for a potential teacher to get back to me on that one), and most likely get that last minute homework done, etc.

Where we take our chai and later our lunch (delicious home cooked meals! YUM)

I have a feeling that this shift in my daily schedule will make the days pass more quickly. And in turn, the weeks. It’s hard to believe that I’ve been in India for 3 weeks. Where has the time gone? It must creep away from me with every rickshaw ride, with every trip into a shop to look at kortas, with every spur of the moment jaunt through a new part of the city, with every delicious meal, with every glass of cold coffee.

Krishna Janmashtami

It’s Tuesday afternoon. I am producing a record amount of blogs! Go me! But the pace will slow down a lot and very soon. Things are about to get busy for me. Tomorrow morning I set out for Pune, a short 3-4 hour bus ride from Mumbai. I’ll be staying with a friend of a friend there for a few nights and then, hopefully, moving into an apartment (or flat, as they say here) with another Fulbright student researcher, Robin. All this on top of beginning language school at the American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS). Needless to say, things will be very busy over the next few days.

So, while I have the time, I will let you all have a glimpse at the life that is unfolding for me here in India.

I was supposed to meet with my advisor, Dr. Ritambhara Hebbar, today. Unfortunately her mother has been very ill the past few days and it was not possible for her to come see me at TISS. Lucky for you, that means I can tell you about my adventure yesterday!

Baby Krishna!

Yesterday, Monday August 22, 2011, was Janmashtami, or the celebration of the birth of the Hindu god, Krishna. I don’t know much about Krishna, except that he is often depicted with a flute (like in the picture above), and he is often portrayed as “a god-child, a prankster, a model lover, a divine hero and the Supreme Being” (thank you wikipedia). Sounds like a god worth celebrating!

I grabbed my camera and a few other things and headed out to explore the area surrounding TISS. I didn’t have to walk far before I heard loud joyful music and saw a crowd gathering. I stuck out like a sore thumb, being basically the only woman and the only white person. But I couldn’t help lingering. Garlands of gold and orange marigolds were strung on rope that suspended a decorative clay pot. One of the Fulbright coordinators had told me that it’s tradition for boys and men to climb up and try to break the pot. The pot is filled with a sweet sugary curd that is often died orange. Krishna liked his sweets! I really wanted to see a group of guys successfully break the pot!

There were crowds and clay pots everywhere! I walked about a 3 mile loop. I think that each neighborhood was having their own celebration. Some were very big, with stages and news cameras. I kept walking and soon it was pouring rain! Hello MONSOON! I was prepared with my purple umbrella. I finally stumbled upon a smaller more secluded celebration. And I spied a group of women and girls observing from across the street. One of the girls spoke English and explained to me that they didn’t know when the guys would successfully break the pot. Part of the celebration was waiting with anticipation.

I was amazed! The pot was at least four stories high. When I had heard about this tradition, I thought that it was a scramble up something to get to the pot. Not at all! This festival combined the ultimate human pyramid with the ultimate team challenge. I later found out that these guys had been practicing and strategizing for weeks! The team that finally breaks the pot wins a prize. Every attempt that each team of guys made had me standing on my tippy-toes. How dangerous and exciting!

"It's too high up! Lower it a bit!" the crowd shouts to the women in command who sit atop the building.

After dumping buckets of water onto the crowd, they laughingly comply.

Success! I was so lucky to see them break the pot! I thanked the little girl (whose name I’ve forgotten) for explaining everything to me. “No, no,” she bobbled her head. “It was my pleasure.”

As I continued to walk the three mile loop back to campus, truckloads of teenage guys in orange and white shirts passed by on the street. As soon as one of the guys saw me, they’d start to shout and cheer and all the other guys in the truck would follow suit. Normally I’m not the biggest fan of being the center of attention like that, but the joy of the festivities was infectious. I smiled and waved at every shouting, waving orange truckload of boys that passed.

I got back to campus, hungry and soaked. And I was just in time for lunch. I finally made a friend in the dining hall. Sajid sat down next to me and started a conversation. He’s from Pune and when I told him I am going there tomorrow to start learning Marathi he beamed a smile back in my direction. “I will start to teach you,” he said. I smiled and thanked him. I can’t wait to walk into Marathi class on Thursday morning and ask my teacher, “Kashi Ahes?” (kah-shee ah-hace, How are you?).

I’ve been hunkering down in the library, starting to think more about the direction of my research. The more I think about it, the more excited I get. And now, every time I feel like this living adjustment has been one of the most difficult I’ve ever had so far and I start to get down and miss my loved ones back at home, I think about how important my project is. It’s worth it!

Well friends, next time I write I will be in Pune. Hopefully settled into my own apartment. Until then!