A Reflection On The First Day in India

I am dutifully attempting to keep a daily journal of my experiences in India.  As I make it to the side of the hospital that has WiFi access, I will be periodically updating the blog with parts of my journal I find most compelling.  Please pardon any typo’s, misspellings, or grammar issues 🙂

The following entry concerns my first day in India.

May 7, 2015

I landed at Bangalore International Airport around 1:20am after which I fumbled through customs (showing my American Passport and not my Indian Visa), faced the decision of whether or not I should lie that I brought Indian rupees in excess of 10,000 to avoid a duty, and nearly walking through a metal detector with a bookbag full of electronics.

Yet, in this first hour there were glimmers of beauty. In the security line to enter India, I met a Michigan alumni wearing the signature block “M” on his shirt. We spoke briefly, each inquiring into the travels of the other. It was at this point that I felt a glow.  Some connectedness. I think this was this first moment in my history that I felt as a global citizen. I do not just belong to a city, a state, a school, or a nation. I belong to a species that inhabits nearly every nook and cranny of this earth. We are connected by this common thread. We share hopes. We share labors. We share dreams.

But, as our conversation subsided, so to did that glow. It lost its luminesce. Throughout the rest of my travels I will work to find it again.

After finally walking on Indian soil, I refused one man who offered me a taxi before I met the driver hired by VIIS (Vivekananda Institute of Indian Studies). We were both exhausted, but I think him more so, as it was 2am IST and 7:30pm EST (I am still on EST). Although we were together in excess of two hours, we barely spoke. The largest conversation we attempted was focused on where I should sit in his car. I convinced I should sit in the back. He convinced I should sit in the passenger seat. It appears it is proper to sit next to the driver in India, however, this was a very long journey and that may have influenced his preference for me to sit next to him.

Of all the exhilarating automobile and roller-coaster rides I have taken, the drive from Bangalore to Mysore was surely the most exciting. While the Dragster and Millennium have their twists and turns, they pale in excitement and risk to one’s first drive in India between the hours of 2am-4am, traversing several hundred kilometers. I saw men parked and enjoying a fire by the road side. At least five-hundred roadside shops. Housing facilities I couldn’t have imagined existed. Speed bumps that are larger than any hill in the Midwest. Road obstacles that didn’t appear to serve any purpose but to make one’s drive a little more difficult. And in India, the general flow of traffic and the checkered lines on the road are mere suggestions, not steadfast rules – on more than one occasion we were 15 meters from a head on collision. (Side note: the roads of India are densely packed, but their quality supersedes that I see in many American cities. Less pot holes. Smoother. And the lane designations are very clear – if anyone cared to observe them).

The technique of driving itself, in India, is altogether dissimilar to the American way. But I want to suggest that the Indian way is more about a community struggle to get where we are going, than the American struggle to get where I am going. What influences this, I think, is that, in India, you can often see the entire body of your fellow commuters. This is not true in America where you generally only see, at a maximum, the chest up of the people around you (variations on the Milligram studies suggest the more we see of a person, the more empathetic we are with their thoughts and pain).   In India, a vast majority use motorcycles or mopeds, making it much more difficult to ignore the person to your left and right. You see their entire body. You can reach out, and not only touch them, but put your arm around him/her and shake the hand of the driver on the other side of him/her.

There is also plenty of transparency. If I do not like where you are on the road, the way you are driving, or I just want to be in front of you for my own ego, I will honk at you. Most communication is done via honking. I would have guessed that verbal communication would have been popular given how easy it would be with virtually everyone driving motorcycles, mopeds, or rickshaws, but that is not the case. On rare occasions someone will use a hand gesture, but the “honk” is the way of communication. (Side Note: Oddly, many larger trucks (what I take to be India’s version of a semi-truck) say “Please honk, please”. I am not sure if this is in order to inform the driver someone is intending to pass, but that is my best guess. I will ask someone tomorrow why this is so common to see above the license plate).

**Addition May 13, 2015**

After another 4 hours being driven, I have noticed an assumed collaboration. Everyone is willing to move to make traffic go fast – I think that is the jist.  Drivers will make risky moves with the understanding that oncoming traffic will comply with maneuvers to avoid collision.  This is done in the US as well, but not at a scale at frequency with which it is done in India.

Generally, the one who has the right of way is the one going the fastest. If a tiny road, a cattle driver will move over his entire herd so that a car may pass. More than once in the MHU (Mobile Health Unit), we literally left the road to accompany a large bus that required most of the road.

To add on the horn honk – it is more simply an audible signal to let others know one is intending to pass them.

**End addition**

I want to reflect on the silence of the drive. Initially, I felt compelled to overcome the silence. I asked about the languages he spoke and if he was tired.   His answers were short and to the point, conveying to me conversation was not required. I have heard from fellow Americans that silence is honored in South Asian cultures – I wish I would have recalled that as I tried to navigate the first 15 minutes of my first social interaction in India. After those 15 minutes, I relaxed and waved the white flag. We were both exhausted, and I just wanted to stare out the window.

After arriving at the hostel (which I could barely see from the road) a man showed me in who slept by the door (I don’t know if he does that regularly, or because he knew I was coming late). I went to a room much larger than my dormitory and began to enjoy privacy not afforded on plane rides or in airports. I looked in the mirror. The mirror told me I looked like a man who had been sweating for hours and would be for over a month. The mirror did not lie.

Jetlag is an interesting thing. You naturally are up when you shouldn’t be, but everyone understands.

At 5am, I was pacing the room wondering what I should do before it was reasonable to be awake. I tried using a restroom without toilet paper by using water exclusively (what I anticipate using in Saragur; most Indian plumbing is not set up to accept solid paper products like toilet paper. You have the option of using toilet paper, but you must save the debris in a waste basket.  Not the most hygienic affair.)– what a mess. I retreated to the use of toilet paper after I could not figure out how to make my self-clean. This may be odd, but I am excited to try again. I felt like I almost had it… Maybe not, but hell, I have a bit more time to learn.

Once I saw the sun, I wanted to go outside, and go outside I did – about 250 feet. I didn’t know where to go and, I am ashamed to say, mildly frightened. Instead I took a lap around the hostel and explored its three floors. I found a way to the roof and looked at the scenic picture of Mysore. Since Mysore is mildly hilly and mountainous, I could not see far, but what I did see was beautiful. Flowers and animals in the most radiant hues. The ground here is this brownish-redish-orange that is very pretty – probably my favorite thing about India so far.

At 6:40am I received a call from my contact person basically telling me what to do for the day. I went to my room and rested until 7:30am at which point the canteen opens – essentially a dining hall with better food. I ate some type of rice, an egg, a squishy yellow bread (very interesting, I need to get the name of this again), and some of the best chai tea in the world. In my brief 20 year stint on earth, no one in the world does tea like India. Even the coffee tastes more rich. I don’t know. Maybe I am thinking it is better than it is, but damn, it is pretty good.

I met a group of Americans from Wartburg College in Iowa. We spoke and I felt very enchanted. Here I was in India, drinking chai with Americans. It was the first time I spoke English to an American in 24 hours – the longest absence since I learned English as a child. To digress on language, virtually everyone speaks kannada. Ignorantly, I expected kannada to be more or less secondary to Hindi, but even in Mysore, an urban center, kannada is used nearly exclusively. On the plane, when instructions were given in Hindi/Urdu, I understood, at most, what the topic of the sentence was on. But here, I am completely unprepared. I did not know there was food in the hostel and tried in Urdu/Hindi and English and hand-gestures to convey “Food” to the security guard – I failed. Without Dr. Reakha’s call I may have just gone hungry.

With breakfast ended I tried to kill time by going to my room, cleaning, and walking around the hostel again, before going to the VIIS at 9:30am. Once at VIIS, I went through paper work, a brief orientation to the facility, and watched a film on VIIS.

The most interesting part of this excursion at VIIS was “Coffee Time”. Sociologically, to me was beyond amazing with such rich social interactions – I wish I could have time to study it ethnographically. In the simplest terms it is a time 10:45-11:15am in the morning (and another time in the afternoon, I forgot), where everyone at the institute is invited to get coffee in the “coffee corner” (or chai of course).

I think, as a foreigner, the first impression is one word “Cute!”.   This was my first reaction, and it was the context with which I interacted with others – I was partaking in this cute event. But this is an incredibly ethnocentric view, I think, and, after reflecting on the experience, I think there are many hidden understandings of this coffee corner.

For one, nearly everyone from both buildings, in every department and walk of life in the organization is in one spot. This leads to rich social interactions, but I think the commercial/administrative/economical impact is quite large and positive. Anyone who needs anything from anyone can wait until coffee time to have those conversations. This is not possible or done in the states, is it? But how easy would it be to communicate across departments and specialties if everyone in the office all got together (not by force) for 30 minute segments twice a day. This would be useful in a lawfirm, a hospital, or an insurance agency if done monthly or bi-annually. Here it is done daily. In my case, the person who was walking me around successfully had business related conversations with people in IT, and two other departments. Did I mention the coffee was phenomenal?

I retreated to the hostel again, and walked around in an effort to fight off jetlag. I maybe walked a half mile away before a younger driver swerved to act as if he were going to hit me. I cannot hide my whiteness nor my foreignness. I turned around and walked back to the hostel, moderately frightened. I gave into jetlag and napped until 12:12pm when I was called and told to go eat. Again, the food was extremely good. There was some warm spicy stew, rice, and a potato mosaic. I received a bread similar to a tortilla but less sweat and a larger styrofoamy, crunchy chip thingy. The rice and stew was very good.

I am getting sleepy again. Good night.

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About Jacob Anderson

Jacob Anderson is a sophomore studying Cell and Molecular Biology in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts. Jacob plans to pursue medical school after graduation and has an interest in international and urban health disparities. Jacob will be spending seven weeks working with Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement (SVYM) at the Vivekananda Memorial Hospital. SVYM, in collaboration with other stakeholders, started the hospital and continues to oversee it. The hospital works to provide cost-effective health care services to rural and/or marginalized populations. Jacob will have the opportunity to not only shadow doctors, but work with administrators on a public health campaign. Jacob’s research project will involve collecting patient volumes on preventable health issues before and after the public health campaign to explore its efficacy and to make suggestions for future campaigns.

2 thoughts on “A Reflection On The First Day in India

  1. Hi, Jacob! Thank you for sharing such an observant post about your first impressions or India. It is evident that you are reflecting and thinking deeply about your experiences! Your blog post made me feel like I was there – I could picture your initial drive, the pacing of jet leg, coffee time, the communication barriers… And what a feeling it must have been to recognize yourself as a global citizen for the first time!

    I hope you continue to journal during your time there! The journals I have kept on my international travels are sacred to me. I am certain this practice will document so much of your personal growth and help you recognize how much your perspective has changed as a result of this experience! Sometimes it was painful for me to take time out to journal – whether it was because I was exhausted or because I felt an urgency to utilize the valuable time I had ‘experiencing’ instead of writing. Looking back now, I am so thankful to have these keepsakes. Journals are the ultimate souvenir and well worth the effort!

    I cannot wait to read more!


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