Today was orientation day. After flying for twenty hours, moving into my dorm at four-o'clock in the morning, and sleeping for two hours, I had my first Indian breakfast of masala dosa. Then I received my class schedule, signed papers, and listened to an explanation of the rules and customs of India. Then I toured the Christ University campus, ate at various campus food vendors, and explored a nearby mall. In twenty four hours, I’ve already learned so much. Here are just a few observations and lessons from today.
Bangalore is dark at night. There are very few lights, and street lamps aren’t always lit. At five o'clock in the morning, the call to prayer resonates throughout the city. An ethereal sound that pierces the dark morning and holds you absolutely spellbound. I don’t understand the words, but that doesn't matter.
Listening is enough to feel the spirituality.
Power outages are common. During orientation today, the electricity spontaneously cut out several times. “Welcome to India,” was Mr. John, the resident director’s, response. Even when the power is working, the lights never just come on. When a light switch is flipped, the bulb stutters, flickers, chokes on the surge of electric current. Power outlets have to be turned on. You plug in a cord, and then the switch beside the outlet has to be flipped into the “on” position.
The sidewalks are a chaotic mismatch of stones, layers of poured cement, dirt, and holes. Every few feet or so, the path is pockmarked by crevasses so large you can see down several feet to the bottom where trash is piled in various states of decay. You have to concentrate on every step to avoid tripping.
There is an omnipresent, omnipotent smell that can't really be described. If you focus on something else, you can almost forget the constant bombardment of aroma. But the smell always comes back to you. Not specifically repugnant, yet very distinct, it's a smell you can really only understand by walking through the streets of India.
Everyday is characterized by “Sunday best” attire. Despite the intense humidity, nearly all the men dress in button down shirts and dress pants. All the women wear saris or kurtis, and their scarves ripple in the breeze. Amidst the garbage littering the streets and the sidewalks missing chunks of sidewalk, the women walk along dressed in beautiful, brightly colored silks and cottons.
People want to take pictures of you. As I watched a dance audition in the middle of an outdoor aviary on the Christ University campus, a group of Indian students approached me. “Will you take a selfie with us?” one girl dressed in bright yellow asked. “Because you're a foreigner.”
Cross walks are called zebra crossings.
No one ever stops honking. The sharp staccato pulse of car horns is a constant background noise.
Specific laws govern the behavior of rickshaw drivers. Drivers must use a meter, and they cannot charge more than the meter rate. Up to three passengers are allowed to ride in one rickshaw, and the driver is only supposed to charge for one group, not individual people. If a driver does not behave accordingly, riders are encouraged to take a picture of the driver’s license plate number and post it on the Bangalore City Traffic Police Facebook page. If a driver is stopped by the police, the police can analyze the Facebook feed to determine any past offenses. If the driver’s plate number was posted previously, the driver must pay a fine for every violation ever reported. If the driver fails to pay, the police confiscate the driver's rickshaw. This particular method of law enforcement is experimental, and is being implemented in Bangalore due to the city's advanced technological capabilities and resources.
There are pink taxis driven by women exclusively for women. Trains, buses, and even airplanes have reserved seating areas at the front for women. This is an attempt to protect women in India from harassment, particularly those who travel alone. Some women in India carry pins, so that in the case of sexual harassment from men, they can stab the men as a warning.
There is vegetarian food, and non-veg food. Vegan is vegan, there are no special subdivisions. Vegan food does not contain eggs, but dairy products such as milk and butter are included because dairy is the main source of protein for many people. At restaurants, even western chains such as KFC, the vegan and non-vegan food is prepared separately. There are different kitchens, different dishes, different cooks for each type of food.
The Indian government is currently trying to outlaw the sale of cows for slaughter. The practice of avoiding beef, a dietary restriction initially rooted in religion, has now been shaded with political undertones. It is offensive to go into a restaurant and ask for beef or pork. If those meats are on the menu, then you can order them. But you don't ask for them.
Coke and Pepsi are banned on university campuses.
Street vendors sell freshly made cane juice, the cane stalks stacked precariously next to the glasses used to serve the juice. Lime and watermelon juice are common beverages on many menus. Coffee is served hotter than boiling in tiny paper cups that fit perfectly in a cupped palm. I detest coffee. But I was pleasantly surprised by how wonderful Indian coffee tastes. Coffee is served with milk, whether or not you ask for it. The milk is 80% fat, so maybe that's why it tastes like a small slice of heaven. Meals cost 20-40 rupees, or about 31-62 U.S. cents. Honeybuns, freshly baked sweet buns, are one of the most popular food items on the campus.
Waste on the campus is separated into “dry waste” and “liquid waste.” The liquid waste contains food that is collected, composted, and used to fertilize the trees and gardens on the campus. Paper is recycled, and used to make various products such as folders, picture frames, and other crafts. Student volunteers help with this process, and Indian employees who make the products are paid with the money generated from the sale of these items.
Bug bombs are deployed in the buildings during the evening. The hallways fill with a thick haze that smells vaguely of burnt rubber. Some girls cover their mouths with scarves, but most people stroll casually through the dense chemical fog completely unfazed. In the cafeteria area, there are four red buckets hanging on a stand. These buckets are labeled “fire” and are filled with sand.
India is a country of extremes. Breathtaking beauty and heartbreaking ugliness. Incredible opportunity and devastating poverty.
"Life in India is a struggle, life is a challenge. But if you love India, you’ll love India forever.” – Mr. Jacob John