February 5, 2008

India, Part 2 - Culture Shock

There were a number of things about our arrival in Bangalore and the subsequent drive to the school that shocked me more than I, at the time, was willing to admit. Upon our arrival, however, the thing that did not shock me was that British Airways lost one of Richard's bags. That the rest of us made it with ours all in one piece is, I suppose, modestly shocking, but since that's the job of an airline, it barely deserves an honorable mention.

Upon retrieving our bags, we all waited in a big clump for Richard to fill out the appropriate forms. I noticed a bathroom, and after asking Steph to guard my stuff, I ran in to put my contacts in; I didn't want to miss any of the trip out to Salem because I couldn't see anything. But as I started putting them in - wash my fingers in some saline (don't use the tap water!), remove contact from case, insert - I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, a guy staring at me.

It was to be a pattern the rest of our trip.

That's what Indians do when white people go past them - they stare. I say this in the most loving way possible, because they don't see white people as often as you might think. We in the west have it pretty cozy, and while we might think that we have racial troubles, India barely even has "diversity" (and what diversity it has is along religious lines rather than racial). As far as the eye can see, dark skin, dark hair, dark eyes. And I really do mean "as far as the eye can see" - India is the size of Texas but has a population around 1.1 billion and growing. So to see a patch of white skin is a bit shocking, never mind the occasional blonde or redhead. Anyway, he stared at me as I put in my contacts, and as I finished, though I was completely wierded out by this, I turned to him and said "better than glasses" and walked out of the restroom.

Seriously. I don't know what I was thinking.

It was along the drive that I began making generalizations about the environment around me. For one, I was shocked at the sheer amount of rubble laying everywhere. Nearly the entire route out of the city was under construction of some form or another, and looked like it had been that way for many, many years. Housing lots sat, useless, heaped with piles of old bricks and garbage. Once we were out of the city, it wasn't a whole lot better; even along country roadsides, there were plenty of brick piles, stone piles, and endless fields of garbage in and around the rocks and shrubbery.

I think that was the hardest part - the garbage. The way Indians took care (or didn't) of their chunk of dirt was disheartening, enough to make any staunch environmentalist from the west keel over in shock. If that wasn't bad enough, those that did want to dispose of their garbage in a manner not involving kinetic motion did so by burning it in large piles, the dark smoke lazily drifting across the countryside. I think most of us suffered, if only mildly (though some hard a lot of trouble), from allergies due to this smoke through the trip. I mean, I'm upset that our apartment complex doesn't have recycling bins available, but this was way above and beyond.

But on the bright side, it did make for some spectacular sunsets.

There was one day when I got a chance to see that sunset from above the treetops. There's a place we called the "watchtower," though it was actually a five-story apartment tower around a staircase, which was the tallest thing around, and the only building that rose above the level of the surrounding trees. It just so happened to have an observation deck at the top, accessable by four flights of stiars and two ladders. Dr. Martyn and I had walked up to the top on our way back from delivering Dr. Keith and some supplies to the hospital several days earlier, and tonight I'd decided to gather a few of the team and we all got up there together to watch the sun go down.

It was absolutely beautiful. While the pictures taken by our cameras that night may look nice, they were nothing in comparison to actually being there. I stick to my statement from last post about the country looking better from above; the garbage fires had all burned out for the evening, the birds had settled down (and so it was fairly quiet), a cool breeze was stirring the moderately humid air, and all was well. The sun sank into the horizon, and as dusk settled over the treetops, we made the trek down the stairs and headed back to our dorms to get some sleep; we had to get up early again for chapel in the morning.

(to be continued ...)

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