Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Week One: Swagatam and Fellow Fellows

Hello! Swagatam, or welcome, to my blog! As yesterday marked the first week of my departure, I thought it was finally enough time to write about what I have been doing. Until the end of September, I will be living at the Kochrab Ashram in Ahmedabad, Gujarat.

Here, the twelve AJWS World Partners Fellows will be orientated (I am in a former British colony) as to the wondrous ways of India, what it’s like being a Jew in India, what it’s like being a Jew in general, topics on international development, and some more light-hearted conversations, like why the boys completely remove their pants before using the squat toilets (I am not entirely sure why this became a topic of discussion, but “talking shit” is completely inevitable here). Kochrab Ashram is famous for being Gandhiji’s (ji is a marker of respect in Hindi. To refer to Gandhiji as just Gandhi is almost sacreligious) first ashram, or communal living space to facilitate certain living ideals, in India. As Gandhiji lived simply, so do we. There are separate bunks and bathrooms for males and females, but our bathrooms are not attached. It’s been really fun brushing my teeth in an outdoor sink at the end of monsoon season. We have no air conditioning, so we keep all the doors and windows open, which makes it a bit cooler, except the other night I’m pretty sure I slept with a chipmunk, and we often get critters like this:

This is one of the rooms in our bunk:

I had a mosquito net at first too, but it was too stuffy, and the mosquitoes don’t carry malaria here, so I deal with the bites. I also ripped off some of the paint on the wall trying to duct tape it up, so I figured I should probably not do that.

Life in the ashram is really peaceful. We have a big grassy area and just room to breathe. We also get fun visitors, like peacocks and monkeys. It is also a good break from the hubbub of the city, which is surprisingly chill for being the capital city of Gujarat, or maybe that’s just our neighborhood. Typical street scene:

We went for a walk to the side streets and found lots more cows, and this house that looks like it might tip over at any moment:

People are a lot nicer here than in Rajasthan, which I wasn’t expecting, but definitely appreciate. Not to offend the Rajasthanis (you beautiful, colorful people), but Gujaratis, or at least those in Ahmedabad, kind of just notice that I’m white and move on. I would expect it to be the other way around, since Jaipur is a major tourist city with lots of international tourists, whereas visiting Ahmedabad might be like visiting St. Louis (cool city, but probably not on the radar for wanderlusters). It makes walking around much easier, and I feel very safe here (take note, parents and grandparents). We don’t leave the ashram too much. Every day, two of us go to get breakfast at the grocery store and the fruit market, and sometimes we go to CafĂ© Coffee Day across the street to read, enjoy the air conditioning, and I enjoy their dairy free drinks. We went to see a Bollywood movie at an amazing mall with a movie theater that rivals any I’ve been to in the states, AND they serve caramel popcorn and samosas. Since Mumbai is about 89 degrees year round and feels like a sauna, I plan on making such snacks, and movies, a regular part of my diet.

You’re probably all wondering what I do all day in this crazy country. I haven’t really been sleeping, which I attribute to both the heat and the fact that I’m sleeping on a wooden slab. I get up between seven and eight and take my first of two bucket-baths of the day. This is my shower mechanism:

The big bucket gets filled with water, and the little bucket is for pouring. In a way it’s nice, and definitely uses less water, but I’m not entirely sure I can really remove the shampoo from my hair without the pressure from a shower. That being said, I have come up with good techniques to at least try. Also, a note especially for my mom, that brown stuff on the floor isn’t dirt, it’s just darker where the polish on the tile has worn away. After my bucket and donning of proper Indian attire, or just whatever covers my legs, stomach, and breasticle areas, we eat breakfast. Today the grocery store didn’t have bread, so I had some peanut butter on crackers and part of a banana. I used to put these yummy spicy crunchy lentil snacks called sev on my sandwich slice to kick it up a notch, but today I read the label and discovered that 1 serving was 51% of my daily fat content, so there goes the sev. Then we have 2 hours of language study. I am doing Hindi, but I’m the only one in my group who knows it, so I’m going to try to do an independent study for the next week or so, and maybe rejoin the group when there’s more conversation. Then we have a chai break. After that, we have another class before lunch. Today we discussed theories of development, and then ate beans, rice, roti, and gobi (cauliflower). Then we did chavruta study, which is some Jewish thing I didn’t know about. Basically, you discuss a text with a partner (I have two), since it sometimes helps to talk things out and read out loud. The texts don’t have to be about Jewish things, like today’s, which was an Ivan Ilich piece against American volunteers going to developing countries to “save people.” I am happy to report that I think I’m here less to help people than to work for personal growth and use this experience as a means to who knows what. Not that I don’t want to help people, but given how difficult it is to work in India, I’m expecting more personal change than something institutional. Anyways, we then we talked for another hour about privilege and power and what it means to even be able to do a program like this one. We do a lot of talking about feelings, and sometimes it’s exhausting. But then at night we just sit in a circle and continue talking, so there’s obviously some demand. The fellows are amazing, and it’s nice to know we’re all here together, basically asking ourselves what the hell we were thinking. But it’s great, and I’m excited to figure that out eventually. It is now time for dinner (that we eat with our right hand only. Left hand is for wiping butts. Don’t worry, we westerners brought toilet paper). Until later, yaar!


  1. Namaste Samosa,
    Thanks for the first bit of insight. Let's skip over the recycling of urine (let's follow Gandiji's words not all of his actions). Nice to know that you've stayed friends with the rodent population or this could be the reincarnated Sammy, or Ginger.
    Love Faja.

  2. Awesome post, Sami! I can't wait to hear about your further escapades in Bombay haha...I'm sure it'll be a HUGE change from Ahmedabad. On a side note, you are in Gujarat, so please do garba/raas at least once ;)

  3. Amazing!! I can't wait to follow you around India each week!! And tell Alvin to find his own wooden slab :) LOVE YOU

  4. girl you awesome!!!!! so glad someone else is adventuring to this side of the world. check me out at shanghaibec.blogspot.com. greetings from china!!

  5. OUTFUCKINGRAGEOUS! I am in awe of you and your ability to calmly deal with these circumstances. Could I have done as much when I was your age? I suppose there is a remote possibility, but we will never know. I shall enjoy hearing about your experience and NOT being there.

    Thinking of you and sending much love...Vicki

  6. LOVE this!!! Thanks for the detail, feels like we are right there with you (you know except I can take a break and pee in my toilet) -- LOVE YOU!!!!

    PS It says "Zach says" but it's Alissa, obviously :)

  7. Wah wah wah...I love you and your post!!! Such a long day at work today and now I feel like I'm with you :) except..without mosquitos and rodents..because let's be honest, you know I'd never be able to handle that. LOVE YOU.

  8. omg I LOVE LOVE LOVE this blog/post/hearing all about your life! Sounds like things are interesting so far but glad to know that you're taking it as it comes. Miss you tonsss, keep the posts coming!