Friday, July 2, 2010

Logistics: Life in Bangalore

Medalis and I have finally adjusted to life in Bangalore, and want to share some information about our daily routine, navigating the city, and cultural differences. We’ve adopted a “when in Rome” attitude, and have enjoyed immersing ourselves in Indian culture.

We are staying in a hotel in Jayanagar, which is a residential neighborhood in one of the oldest sections of Bangalore. Jayanagar is extremely safe, and we are able to return to our hotel at night without concerns for our safety. Our accommodations are very comfortable, and the hotel is similar to what one would expect in the US.

In terms of transportation, we have relied on rickshaws for most of our travel within the city. A couple words of warning to those who visit India: make sure that your driver knows how to get to your destination, and as soon as you get into the rickshaw make sure he puts on the meter. Many drivers will attempt to charge you exorbitant fixed prices, and using the meter ensures that you will be charged a fair (and much lower) price. Finally, beware of the metal bars on the roof of the rickshaws. The roads of Bangalore are riddled with speed bumps, and I had a couple of near-concussion encounters!

Bangalore offers an overwhelming variety of food which we have really enjoyed exploring. For breakfast, we usually order a dosa (essentially a pancake rolled up with some type of savory filling, a classic Indian dish) or kesari bhath (India’s answer to oatmeal – semolina prepared with sugar, ghee, almonds raisins, cardamom, saffron, and water). For lunch, we order some type of rice dish. We have eaten dinner at a different restaurant each night, sampling everything from Indian-Chinese to chaat (another classic Indian dish, usually consisting of some type of fried dough, potatoes, yogurt, onions, and spices). My favorite simple treat is a coconut, purchased from a street-side vendor for about thirty cents. After sipping the sweet coconut water, the coconut is sliced in half so that one can scoop out the sweet flesh.

In spite of the warm weather, one must dress conservatively in Bangalore. Short sleeve t-shirts are appropriate, but tank tops, sleeveless shirts, and anything low-cut is frowned upon. Another word to future visitors: leave your shorts at home. Even venturing out in capris will draw stares, so it’s best to wear long pants. Most Indian women wear a salwar kameez (a three-piece outfit consisting of loose pants or tights, a long shirt, and a scarf) or a kurta (a long shirt) and pants. Medalis and I wear kurtas and jeans or pants, a comfortable option that doesn’t draw too much attention. Sandals are a necessity in Bangalore, as the heat doesn’t lend itself well to wearing sneakers. Upon returning home from work, most Indians wash their face and feet, the latter of which are usually quite dusty!

Bangalore has much to offer. I would advice future visitors to plan on spending at least a month here, and to embrace Indian culture. If your experience is anything like ours, this warm city will welcome you with open arms!



Mysore: Part II

The second trip to Mysore came about unexpectedly in the middle of the week during our second week in Bangalore. According to the program coordinators it was really important that we register with the local police within fourteen days of arrival to Bangalore. Eva and I immediately rushed to collect all the necessary documents to present in the police station. We were told by the SVYM program coordinators that processing our documents in Mysore would expedite the process. Since we had been here for more than ten days and we were closing to hitting the fourteen-day mark we had to travel to Mysore. Thanks to the resources of SVYM we were provided with a driver that would take us to Mysore for the day.

Upon our arrival to Mysore we visited the Mysore Institute of Indian Studies, another project launched by SVYM. We met with Dr. Balu’s sister-in-law who helped us through the process. By the middle of the day, we had registered with the police. We were told that a couple of years ago, a student had not registered with the police and upon his departure he was forbidden to leave the country. Days later, after the paperwork was cleared he was finally able to leave. Needless the say, a blog from a detention center would not be a pleasant experience!

Later in the afternoon Eva and I visited Brindavan Gardens. Since the Cornell graduate students were also lodging in the same hotel where we were having lunch they joined us. It was a lovely place, with many fountains and a lively crowd.


Saturday, June 26, 2010

Evening at the Temple

Our second week in Bangalore has been phenomenal! The many experiences that Eva and I have lived through have been unforgettable. I remember Eva mentioning that she wanted to get a bike the first week we were here, however after a quick glance at the traffic she quickly changed her mind. If you think the NYC roads are dangerous, Bangalore will surely surprise you. Motorcycles are becoming more popular by the day, I still remember the first time I saw a woman in a saree driving a motorcycle! Eva and I opted for a different mode of transportation, an auto-rickshaw. A terror on wheels, which could otherwise be described as a golf-car with three wheels that usually has a plastic cover in case it rains. The first time we got into an auto-rickshaw we were both hoping that we would make it to work safely. These auto-rickshaws are also equipped with a meter, so if you ever visit India and don’t want to be over-charged ask the driver to use the meter.

Aside from our fun adventures on the rick’s (a popular name for the auto-rickshaws), Eva and I have been witnesses to the immense hospitality of Indian families. Our first Thursday in Bangalore, one of our co-workers invited us to her home and the temple her family attends. We went to her home right after work, where she introduced us to her mother, father, and younger sister. We had not even sat down yet, and her family was already bringing out delicious chai and fruit. We did not stay in her home too long because we had to arrive to the temple early. Our co-worker’s father gave Eva and me a small introduction to the temple through a brief story about Ganesha (the god they worship). Ganesha is said to have the body of a human and an elephant because the elephant’s trunk symbolizes concentration on details in life. Although an elephant’s trunk is opulent, it can pick up the minutest piece of grass. In the same way humans should follow Ganesha’s example to ignore distractions and only focus on the tasks that are important.

The atmosphere in the temple was very relaxing and peaceful even when the temple was situated outside in the middle of the buzzing Bangalore streets. All of the members sang and took turns passing the microphone around. Our co-worker’s father had a beautiful voice! No wonder he has toured all of the USA. After an hour all of the members began to pack up the equipment and food was shared by all the members. Afterwards, we went to dinner and Eva and I had a feast of North Indian and South Indian dishes. It was truly an unforgettable day.


Friday, June 25, 2010

Visit to Mysore

Last Friday Medalis and I traveled to Mysore, a neighboring city in Karnataka which is approximately three hours from Bangalore. SVYM is centered in Saragur, a small village about an hour outside of Mysore. The organization has several facilities in Mysore, including the youth hostel we stayed at, where many master’s students and international students of the Vivekananda Institute of India Studies live for the duration of their studies.

We arrived in the evening and visited St. Philomena’s Church and the stunning, illuminated Mysore Palace. Early on Saturday morning, we drove to Saragur and were joined at the central SVYM hospital for breakfast by Dr. R. Balasubramaniam (Balu). After touring the hospital, we visited the nearby Viveka School of Excellence. Medalis and I were both amazed at the comprehensive variety of services offered at SVYM’s extensive facilities in Saragur.

In the afternoon we traveled to the Vivekananda Memorial Hospital at Kenchanahalli, about twenty minutes from Saragur. The hospital provides a combination of western and ayurvedic medicine, catering primarily to the surrounding tribal population. The final stop on our excursion was the Viveka Tribal Center for Learning at Hosahalli, where approximately 400 tribal children live and learn. The tribal school bridges India’s most traditional populations with modern education. One section of the school features a cluster of open-sided hexagonal buildings, somewhat resembling huts. Students can literally climb in and out of the classroom, returning to their villages when necessary and attending school whenever possible.

On Sunday, Medalis and I toured the inside of Mysore Palace and visited the Chamundeshwari Temple atop Chamundi Hill. On Sunday night, Dr. Balu and three other visiting Cornellians joined us for dinner at the hostel. We returned to Bangalore very early on Monday morning.

Our trip to Mysore exposed us to the enormity of SVYM’s endeavors. Witnessing the scope of their projects was awe-inspiring. Dr. Balu is a remarkable man whose vibrancy and humility have withstood his 25-year journey building SVYM, and whose vision has served millions. We are incredibly grateful for the opportunity to play a role in this extraordinary organization.


Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Hello from Bangalore!

Hello from Bangalore! I arrived early on Friday morning and met with Naresh Bala, director of the PremaVidya project, before heading to the office for the first day of my internship. While in India, Medalis and I will be working with an established NGO with offices in several cities in Karnataka, the Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement (SVYM). Led by Dr. R. Balasubramianiam, SVYM encompasses a wide variety of projects relating to health, education, advocacy, training, and community empowerment. At present, PremaVidya is SVYM’s largest undertaking. The education-based project contains three primary components: increasing the average percentage of students who pass their SSLCs (exit exams which tenth-grade students must pass in order to matriculate and be eligible for pre-university courses), providing additional support for the most academically promising students, and enabling economic uplift through structured tuition savings systems and vocational training programs.

The first day of my internship proved exciting. Naresh escorted me to the PremaVidya office, where I was introduced to the seventeen staff members currently working on the project. Thirty SVYM employees, who work at the central Bangalore office on the same block as the PremaVidya office, offer further support. Thirty-five teaching assistants from various regions all over Karnataka receive training on how to implement components of the project; on Friday, the TAs gathered at the central SVYM office to discuss the successes and obstacles they encountered in their schools. Most of them speak and understand English, enabling me to learn a bit about their backgrounds and experiences. The passion, conviction, and bravery with which the TAs approach their work is inspiring.

Medalis arrived early on Saturday morning. We received further orientation to the program, and were given supplemental project materials with which to familiarize ourselves. Over the past few days, Naresh and Pavithra (our program coordinator) have met with us several times to discuss PremaVidya’s current needs and the type of work in which we are interested. They arranged for us to spend a couple of mornings visiting the pilot schools, where we spoke with teachers, principles, and students about the Indian schooling system and the progress PremaVidya has engendered thus far.

Currently, we are preparing a report on the most effective English language acquisition strategies. PremaVidya operates 25-day summer spoken English courses designed to improve language skills and increase self-confidence. The program, which was launched in 2009, will be modified based on our findings and suggestions.

Bangalore is an incredibly vibrant, welcoming city. Several PremaVidya staff members have spent their evenings escorting us around the city, exposing us to the Bangalore’s wide cultural array. On Sunday, we visited several parks, palaces, and places of worship. Naresh has suggested we visit the SVYM office in Mysore, a neighboring city. We look forward to continuing our adventure in the weeks to come!

Finally, Medalis and I would like to thank Donna, Arun, Prof. Kuruvilla, Naresh, Pavithra, and everyone at ILR who facilitated this wonderful opportunity – we are extremely grateful, and are certain this will be a memorable and transformative experience.



First Step: Obtain a Visa

Before embarking in this incredible experience a couple of procedural steps were necessary, among those was obtaining an employment visa to India.

Obtaining a visa to India is typically not problematic; however, it may be difficult if you are applying for an employment visa. The Indian embassy outsources the document collection procedure to a company, Travisa. The first step is to apply online by creating an account that will be active for seven days. The application must be filled out online, and to expedite the process it is better to specify that one will drop off the documents in person. Although it may be bothersome to make a trip to New York City to apply for a visa, it will be a worthwhile decision. I say this because as a resident of Maryland I applied through the Travisa’s DC. I made an appointment for early morning and tried to arrive 20 minutes before my appointment. I waited for an hour in the line, and came to learn that the appointment time was not important. Instead, it is better to arrive to the office as soon as it opens to avoid the long lines. The first time that I went to the office I was told to return the next day because I had not applied for the correct visa. The second time I went to the office I was also told that I did not have all the necessary documents. According to the DC office even if I was participating in an unpaid internship my ‘employer’ needed to provide a contract letter, and many other documents. Even after explaining that the program’s coordinator had called the embassy to verify that one letter explaining the nature of the internship would meet all the requirements, the employees in Travisa refused to accept my application. After many calls, and e-mails the best option was to present my documents in the New York City office.

At the beginning of the online application, the documents necessary to apply for an employment visa will be enlisted. For those students applying for an internship, only the following are necessary: a printed version of the online application, a valid passport, 2 passport-sized pictures, a proof of address (you should use your Cornell campus address), a birth certificate, and a letter from the organization where the internship will take place. The fee to apply for a visa is $133. If the documents are presented to the Travisa office before 11:00 AM, the visa will be ready that same day after 4:30 PM.

A brief note, for those students of naturalized citizenship status, there will be no delay in the process. This was one of my concerns when I applied for a visa in New York City because I was worried that I would have to remain in the city an additional day. The only reason a visa application is delayed until the next day is when the paper work is submitted after 11:00 AM. After many e-mails and trips, I obtained my visa a day prior to my trip. Thus far, my experience in Bangalore has been worth the long lines in the Travisa offices.