Of Parties, Pizza, and Bollywood

For a weekend with few plans, the past few days were marked with distinctly Indian experiences. I may not be traveling much (something I hope to correct sooner rather than later!), but as my best friend reminded me today while messaging on the oh-so-useful-yet-increasingly-annoying medium of Facebook: “You know that experience is the most important! If that experience comes at the local store and not mumbai that’s okay!” So I’m going to see this weekend as time full of Pune experiences. This place will be home – it already is, to some degree.

One of my favorite memories of Pune thus far is last Friday’s Diwali party with my coworkers at Akanksha. Diwali is Hindi festival of lights. In very simplified terms, it is a celebration of good over evil, of light over dark. This year the holiday actually starts on Thursday, so our party was a warm up to the real event. The dress code mandated at traditional dress, and almost everyone (especially the women) brought out some beautiful examples of Indian fashion. I was lucky enough to borrow a sari from a coworker. (While I fully intend to buy a sari of my own at some point this year, I want time to explore all of the saris. All of them. Then I can pick my favorite(s).) I was also lucky enough to have wonderful coworkers who could put said sari on me and lend me jewelry to complete the ensemble. (It was kind of amusing to see my coworker fold the front of my sari from behind me – the top of her head maybe reaches the nape of my neck. She couldn’t see a thing. Most of the time I don’t feel particularly tall here, but this certainly was an exception!)

A lovely sari paired with my t-shirt, rolled up and tied in the back!

A lovely sari paired with my t-shirt, rolled up and tied in the back!

The HR team really pulled off a nice party. It was a lot of fun to sit and chat with coworkers who I see come in and out of the office but never really speak to. It was also funny to see the shape of the party – it was fantastically reminiscent of a classroom. Everything at Akanksha speaks to people’s past lives as teachers. Every meeting and group gathering – it runs like a lesson, and everyone always comments on how much easier it is to work with kids. How this played out at our party: we spent about an hour making paper lanterns, then competed in teams to make an Indian sweet (basically a dumpling filled with toasted coconut and sugar), and then we ate. It was a lot of fun, and I was vividly reminded of school holiday parties.

Cutting out shapes for paper lanterns

Cutting out shapes for paper lanterns

Everyone hard at work

Everyone at work

Everyone at work

And perhaps not so hard at work! (This gentleman provides support for school leaders and is one of the happiest people I have met. Always smiling and laughing. I am working on getting him hooked to GoT.)

And perhaps not so hard at work! (This gentleman provides support for school leaders and is one of the happiest people I have met. Always smiling and laughing. I am working on getting him hooked on GoT.)

The wonderful Moushi, who helps at the office

The wonderful Moushi, who helps at the office, demonstrates how to roll the dough.

Our contribution to the dumpling contest

Our contribution to the dumpling contest

Chaaaaaaaaaat!

Chaaaaaaaaaat!

After the Diwali party wrapped up, I went out with a coworker and her friends to a fantastic restaurant near my apartment. It was a stunning venue – lights under glass tables, lit ponds, and simple modern tables. To get into the restaurant, you descend a staircase that highlights the space and atmosphere. It was breathtaking. I will certainly be going back – even though it is only open Friday – Sunday and reservations are non-negotiable. It had pretty good thin crust pizza, to boot.

Fancy appetizers

Fancy appetizers

Saturday was an experience, unfortunately not in a positive sense. I had agreed to help run a booth selling Akanksha art products as part of an ongoing fundraiser. The sale was close to my house (5 kilometers), and it didn’t seem like a big deal. The sale itself was fine, but transportation to and from was horrendous. The rickshaw drivers were just beyond awful. I was overcharged both rides, and the second ride was disastrous. Despite agreeing to the meter when I got into the cab, he kept insisting on 100 rupees (an absurdly high number for that distance) and then wouldn’t let me get out of the vehicle. Then he wouldn’t take me all the way to my place – I ended up walking another 15 minutes to my house. The walking didn’t bother me, but overpaying for a ride that didn’t even get me close to my house was infuriating. I actually screamed at the driver, saying that he shouldn’t have taken my business if he was going to cheat me and lie to me. Not sure if he understood, but hopefully he won’t agree to one set of terms and then change his mind halfway through.

Our booth looked lovely at least!

Our booth looked lovely at least!

It’s not really about the money, although I am being careful to stay within my stipend. It’s the lying and cheating and general lack of work ethic that I see in most drivers. In Bangladesh everyone tried to make an extra buck, and while difficult to handle sometimes, I understood the need. Rickshaw drivers here do whatever they want and then expect extra pay for… I really don’t know what. It’s a minor inconvenience, but it’s super frustrating given that I rely on rickshaws for travel.

With the horrible rides on Saturday, I didn’t really want to deal with rickshaws on Sunday. Some distance was needed from those things. So I ended up watching a Bollywood movie at the cinema near my house. Hindi is a beautiful language, and it’s fun to sit and just listen to language. The movie itself was pretty bad. It reminded me of the time I went to see Mission Impossible 4 in Korea with a bunch of friends. It was an awful movie, but the dark theater provided a quiet space to escape for a bit. I enjoyed being in the theater. I think it might be a monthly treat – one afternoon in the theater seeing whatever big movie has come out.

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Honoring Gandhi

With the insanity of moving to a new city/state/country calming down, I finally got to visit the Aga Khan Palace. It is a beautiful place, full of gardens and quiet corners to lie down in. I enjoyed spending a quiet afternoon relaxing and lounging on the grass. Lying in the grass and staring at the clouds pass by is reminiscent of childhood, and it was a wonderful start to my Pune adventures.

Built in 1892, Aga Khan Palace is notable as the internment site of Mahatma Gandhi, his wife, and his secretary from the period of August 9, 1942 – May 6, 1944. Both Gandhi’s wife and secretary died during this internment period, and their samadhis (sites to honor people regarded as saints or gurus) are located at the palace.

I’m glad that I started my explorations of Pune with this historical site, and I look forward to continuing to explore my new city in the weekends to come.

Without further ado, pictures:

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From inside the palace

From inside the palace

Statue of Gandhi and his wife

Statue of Gandhi and his wife

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On the left: aloo (potato) paratha On the right: paneer (cheese) paratha Yogurt and pickle in the small containers. YUM.

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Rather bad lighting, but proof that I was indeed there :)

Rather bad lighting, but proof that I was indeed there 🙂

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Highlights

As of today, I have been in Pune for a full week. I am moving into my own apartment tomorrow. My foreign registration saga is slowly but surely coming to an end. (I’m being optimistic here!) I have been invited to spend Monday at a school event. I have gone for 2 runs, 2 walks, and a yoga class.

There have been challenges as I transition to a new city, but given how nervous I was leaving Delhi and my fellow Fellows, my move to Pune has been wonderful. As such, I thought that it would be good to remember the highlights of my first week here. As I am constantly reminded, it is best to approach life with a sense of humor and patience in India.

1) Getting to know my amazing mentor and colleagues.

Everyone at Akanksha has been so welcoming. My mentor has been SO helpful with my foreign registration process. I seriously could not have done it without his help.

I’ve also been housed by another coworker and her roommates. They have taken me on apartment viewings, fed me, and made sure that I am 100% comfortable here. I’m sad to leave their place tomorrow, but it will be nice to unpack my suitcases after 20 days!

Even going to the Akanksha office is comfortable. Everyone greets me warmly, and it’s been fun to start talking with people. Everyone is incredibly friendly and dedicated. I have been offered more projects than I can realistically take on in 10 months, and I’ve also been extended the opportunity to create my own project(s) as ideas come to me. I have been offered a great deal of freedom in addition to the opportunity to do useful work. I couldn’t have asked for a better placement.

2) Visiting two of the Akanksha schools.

The kids are so cute. And smart. And energetic. Seriously, they have more energy in one classroom than I ever saw in my entire school in Korea! The antics they get into… I am going to have so many stories once I start going regularly. The last school I visited I had to promise that I would come back. And even then I had to give 5+ minutes of hugs before I could escape.

My favorite student comment of the week: “Didi, your hair is like maggi noodles. I like maggi noodles.” And then I had about 6 girls playing with my hair. (Maggi noodles are a specific type of Indian ramen.)

3) Eating lots of delicious Indian food.

Masalas. Dosas. Chapati. Paneer. Enough said.

On that note – palak paneer is so much better here than in the States. Seriously.

4) Finding an apartment.

I am so happy that I found a furnished place that’s within my budget and in the area that was recommended to me. Plus, my new roommates have a cat. So by default I get a pet for my Fellowship year! And apparently there’s a jogging trail nearby…

5) Running.

It’s so nice to run outside again. I’m taking it slow and making sure that I work up to my normal milage again, but the ability to wake up and go for a run has truly been a great normalizer in my transition. I feel like me when I can run.

6) Trees.

Pune is a green city. It’s unlike any other South Asian city I’ve seen yet. And I love it. Can’t wait to sit outside my new balcony, stare out into the greenery, and read. (I’m pretending as though I’ll have time.)

7) Riding on motorcycles.

Motorcycles, or as they are called here, two-wheelers, are the way to travel in Pune. The public transportation system is more or less nonexistent, traffic is busy enough that cars are inefficient, and auto-rickshaws are expensive. So what’s a Pune-ite to do? Jump on a two-wheeler with one or two friends, and off they go!

I never imagined that I would be a regular backseat motorcyclist, but it’s a blast. I still grip the back of the bike with both hands and won’t let go unless we’re at a dead stop, and my heart still pounds like crazy when we hit a clear swath of road and the speed increases, but it is a blast. Although how women sit sidesaddle on the bike WHILE HOLDING THEIR INFANT CHILDREN is besides me. I cringe every time I see that. Just… just no. That can’t be safe…

It’s been a fun week here in Pune. I can’t wait to get my new place looking like home so that I can go explore Pune’s sights! My place is 2 kilometers from a palace – YES.