Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Auroville Hat Tournament!

This past weekend was definitely one to remember. Why, you may ask? Because I played in my first ever ultimate frisbee tournament ABROAD. It was a "hat" tournament, meaning all the registered players were mixed up at random to form 12 teams composed of 150 players in total representing every corner of the globe. The tournament was held in Auroville which is a one-of-a-kind, self-sustaining, international township/commune based in southeast India in the state of Tamil Nadu. I went down with a friend of mine from TISS who happens to play competitively back home in Finland. In total, there were seven of us there representing the Mumbai Ultimate team, named the "Storm Chasers"(whom I had met and practiced with for the first time about two weeks ago).

Although I wasn't quite sure what to expect going into the weekend, and, frankly was a bit anxious since I haven't exercised that hard in well....at least 9 months, I had such a GREAT time playing. Playing again after such a long time away from ultimate was like tuning into a repressed desire...after a throw or two, my passion for the sport resurfaced in full-force and I couldn't seem to get enough (which is why I chose to play a total of seven 75 minute games over the course of two days). I was thankful that my body was quick to remember the familiar actions required to accomplish a solid forehand and backhand and it felt so good and so natural to be moving in that way again.

While at the tournament, I learned that ultimate has been in India for about three years now, and interest in the sport is growing quickly. In Chennai alone, there are a total of seven teams and thus the city has been deemed India's frisbee capital. The play is still limited to co-ed teams, but there were many strong female players I played against and I've heard rumors that a few women's teams are beginning to form. Overall,the skill level was more advanced than I would have expected, esp. given that a large majority of the players had only been playing for about one year (!) which really really impressed me since I wasn't even able to throw a solid forehand after one year, let alone have a well-established field sense!

It was really fun playing with my team, the light blue team, which somehow acquired the name "Blue Film" (which apparently is a reference to some rather inappropriate Tamil cultural production). As with any hat tournament I've ever played in, it took us some time to figure out each others' individual styles on the field and begin to mesh well together, however by the end of the first day, something had definitely clicked. We managed to make it into the finals during which we pulled out a heart stopping 12-9 win. I was also blown away by the spirit exhibited by not only our team, but all of the other teams we played. Everyone kept their cool on the field, contributed equally to the team, and seemed to thoroughly enjoy themselves overall.

As one of the more experienced players at the tournament, I had the opportunity to take on a leadership role both on and off the field which was a really nice change from co-ed tournaments I had played in in the past. There was also an all star game I played in which was fun.

Although I noticed my endurance has suffered a lot (well, to be fair, I guess I've never played at noon on a field of red sand under the HOT HOT Indian sun in about 90 degree weather) it was great to be playing in a tournament again. However after playing in a total of seven games which started at 6:30am and continued all day until to 6pm each day, I am utterly EXHAUSTED.

All of this time on the field was highlighted off the field by peaceful, quiet nights in Auroville, thali lunches at the solar kitchen, big dinners at the Visitor's Center followed by ice cream, and lots of fantastic conversations with ultimate players from every corner of India and the world. As per usual after a tough tournament, every single muscle in my body aches so I am limping around like an old lady and am extremely sun/wind burned, but am still high on adrenalin from such a great weekend ;)

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Bollywood Follies!

A little over a week ago I got a text message saying "Hi this is Imran from Bollywood." Assuming it was just another one of the many spam texts I receive on an average day here, I ignored it. After recounting the story to my roommates that evening, they reminded me that we had all recently signed up for a Bollywood extras website service that recruits those interested (mostly foreign expats and tourists) in spending a day on set as extras in a Bollywood film. So, we decided to call back this Imran fellow to see what the deal was...first of all, was his offer legit and second, was it something worth committing to?

After further investigation, we learned that the movie we were to be in was, in the words of Imran, India's "next biggest Bollywood hit" (a line I assumed had been used countless times to recruit extras). Should we accept the offer, we would be featured "dancing with Bollywood actors in a musical number." After getting some more dirt on our expected roles and determining that the offer was in fact legitimate (don't worry, we did our research), we agreed. We were told this was a full day commitment- aka we needed to be across the city on set by 7am sharp and would be finished by 8pm if all went according to plan. In addition to the sheer excitement of being in a Bollywood film, we also learned that we would make $50 each for our hard work.

On the day of, we took a taxi to the studio which was located in a huge gated complex. Once we arrived, we wandered around aimlessly for a little while, trying to spot other lost-looking foreigners, all of whom we soon realized were clustered together in the hair and makeup rooms. As soon as we joined the group inside, we were immediately shuffled over to the costume racks and given our respective Bollywood attire. The dress I received was a bubble gum pink, floor length spandex halter dress with all sorts of gems, rhinestones, and glitter bedazzling the neckline. Oh, and did I mention the slit on the side that ran all the way up my leg to my hip? Scandalous. At least I didn't get stuck in what some of the other extras had to wear- there were gold booty shorts, others sported leopard print tops, and I even spotted several glittery spandex pants. All in all, the costumes exhibited the full glory and sheer "over-the-top-ness" that is Bollywood fashion. I don't think I've ever seen so much spandex, flashiness, and tackiness contained in one room (ok, maybe some middle school dance parties came close, but still...).

As for my hair, the stylists started by brushing it out while it was dry, which, by the way you DONT do if you know anything about curly hair like mine because it will inevitably transform into an unruly afro. Next, they gave me an obtrusively large "poof" in the front.
Surprisingly, the makeup was the most tame of aspect of the preparation experience (other than the hot pink lipstick).

After hair and makeup, it was at last time to hit the set. The set itself was quite impressive. Not knowing what to expect, I thought we might spend the entire day in some small, nondescript room only to have an elaborate background added in after the fact with a green screen. Thankfully, that was not the case. The scene we were in was supposed to be set in a high end London nightclub. The set had impressive crystal chandeliers hanging from the rafters, fake Michaelangelo masterpieces muraled on the walls, a grand staircase covered in a red velvet carpet, and balconies galore. Probably the most ridiculous set design elements were the 12-foot tall spinning champagne glasses decorating the corners of the room and the runway platform lined by goblets of fire and with a waterfall in the background. Oh, and how could I forget the golden cherubs hanging from above? Then there were the two elevated pole dancing platforms which we soon learned were integral to the plot line....

Apparently the film we were starring in was about two men who are battling against one another to be the top pole dancer in this London nightclub (...no joke). Of course the story line wouldn't be complete without some sort of love triangle, so that was another piece of the puzzle. As extras, we were told we had been cast as bridesmaids (I still don't entirely understand how the wedding bit fits into the whole plot, but alas...). The scene was supposed to depict a roaring party at this night club in which the central focus was on the feuding Bollywood hunks and their pole dancing routines, the choreography of which captured Bollywood dance moves at their finest. (Random fact: Did you know pole dancing is emerging in the US as a popular form of exercise that has gathered a group of loyal followers, some of whom have gone so far as to install poles in their living spaces for practice? Learned that while living in DC this past spring...haha).

The best part of the routine was when two extras tore off the actors shirts (don't worry, it was planned...yes, the shirts were designed for the specific purpose of being torn off-- they were sleeveless purple silk dress shirts that had been strategically velcro-ed together along the sides. Once ripped off, only the collar of the shirt remained around their necks...which to me looked totally absurd, but hey, its Bollywood). As extras, we were told to dance around, throw our arms up in the air, and make it look as convincing as possible that we were having the time of our lives at this outrageous party. As props, we were given glasses of champagne, glitter and fake British pounds to shower over the pole dancing duo.

To be honest, all in all, much of the day was spent sitting around. We spent 12 hours shooting what will probably, if we're lucky, amount to about 30 seconds of footage in the actual film. But hey, I guess that's how it goes in this industry! By the end of the day, I realized that I don't think I'm cut out for a full-time career as a Bollywood extra (and believe me, there was a whole group of Eastern European girls there who were making a career in Bollywood), but I think I'll definitely take on a few more roles while I'm here, so expect some more wild stories from this end ;)

Here are some more details about the movie: It's called "Desi Boyz" and I believe the expected release date is November 26. If possible, I'll try and buy some copies for you all to see when I get home!

And YES, I know the anticipation might drive you to insanity, but hang in there, pictures of me on set posing with the actors in my ridiculous costume are on the way, I promise!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Delhi Bound...

As I write this, I am traveling southwest across India, on a plane from Delhi back to Mumbai. My roommate had planned a week long trip to Delhi to visit some friends and escape the hustle and bustle of Mumbai for a few days. Though it meant missing classes, I decided to join her since I've been eager to venture out of Mumbai. I was hoping this would be a good opportunity to escape, gain some perspective, and reflect on my new life here in Mumbai. Although I had visited Delhi a few times before, I'd only rushed through the city, usually just passing through for a few days on my way en route to another destination. Since my past visits have been a bit of a blur, this trip was a really nice opportunity milk the city for all it has to offer. I must admit, I was also eager join my roommate because we were planning on staying in her boyfriend's family's house which meant we'd be able to indulge in some of the creature comforts we had been missing in Mumbai-- delicious home-cooked north Indian meals, a comfortable, big bed with a REAL mattress, riding around in an air-conditioned car as opposed to a rickety rickshaw...not to mention enjoying the company of the newest addition to their family, Ceasar, a 2-month old puppy ;) Though small, these elements of our Delhi trip made me feel as though I was in the lap of luxury. It's amazing to notice the simple comforts you grow to appreciate when you're away from them for some time.

During our time in Delhi, we were fortunate enough to witness two festivals- Rakhi and India's Independence Day. Rakhi is a traditional Hindu festival celebrating the relationship between brothers and sisters. On this day, sisters will bless their brothers by tying a string around their wrists and saying a "puja" or prayer for them. In return, brothers will bless their sisters by giving them presents or money. If a girl is married and living with her husband's family, she will often return to her parent's home to celebrate Rakhi with them as well. As is the case with most Indian functions, Rakhi is another opportunity for the whole extended family to gather together and enjoy each other's company. Although most of the sister's I spoke with felt they were getting the upper hand, excited to receive money or gifts from their brothers, from what I could observe as an outsider at this celebration, Rakhi seemed to be heavily influenced by Hindu patriarchal tradition. To me, most of the celebrations seemed to focus on honoring the brother through a series of pujas and prayers. Despite my expectations, these prayers were not reciprocated for the sister. After being blessed, the brothers simply handed over money or gifts to their sisters who walked away happily, but as far as I could tell, no prayers were said on their behalf. The gender dynamics were also interesting to observe. The men spent most of the day on the couch watching cricket together while the women prepared an elaborate lunch AND dinner for the family (ok, I guess to avoid appearing too critical, the same can sometimes be said about Thanksgiving celebrations in the US...depending on your family of course). After eating, our hosts shared photos of their recent trip to Europe with the guests. This reminded me a lot of how we spend our time at our family functions back home, often exchanging stories and photos from our latest travel adventures (However the difference was their audience didn't fall asleep *cough*cough* haha). I got a kick out of when one member of the family described the Arc de Triomphe in Paris as looking just like Delhi's India Gate (pictures coming soon) and a Viennese palace garden resembling the Taj Mahal's manicured lawns. There you go, Dad, it seems I'm not the only one guilty of traveling to the other side of the world and saying "This looks just like home..."

Aside from Rakhi, we also were able to celebrate India's Independence Day on August 15th. Unfortunately, national holidays in India have developed a negative reputation in recent years due to the current national security situation. Most Indians are on high alert on these days, choosing to spend the day indoors at home instead of out celebrating in public in order to avoid any trouble. (I remember the same was true for Holi, India's fabulous festival of color, celebrated every year in March to mark the end of the harvest season.) Traditionally, people fly kites from their rooftops to celebrate Independence Day. similar to the book "the Kite Runner," those flying kites compete with one another, attempting to cut each other's kite strings in order to be the last kite left flying. As I was watching the kites float across the sky from my window, I realized that I was here for last year's Independence Day celebrations as well. It is crazy to think that exactly a year has gone by since then... Last year at this exact time, I was celebrating India's independence with students at an all girls school in a rural village in southern India, thousands of miles from here.

Since I've been living in Mumbai, I've learned that a playful rivalry has emerged between Delhi-ites and Mumbai-akers. As these two cities presence on the global stage expands, the friendly competition between city dwellers seems to have grained prominence. Those loyal to Mumabi claim Delhi's streets have grown increasingly unsafe and economic stratification is on the rise as disposable incomes among the upper classes have increased. Mumbai-akers maintain that all Delhi-ites care about is status and brand-names. On the other hand, Delhi-ites retort by saying Mumbai lacks a feeling of strong historical and cultural tradition and has become overridden by people, traffic, pollution and poverty. While these are definitely generalizing statements, I was curious to revisit Delhi after having spent time in Mumbai to see to what extent (if any) these stereotypes were based on any realities.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Riding the local trains

In order to get around Mumbai, you need to brave the local trains. At first it can be quite a daunting experience, however the more I ride the trains, the more this mode of transport has grown on me. The local trains carry an estimated 6.1 million commuters each day between downtown and the sprawling northern suburbs. The sheer number of people the trains manage to accommodate each day is astonishing to me.
Once you arrive at the train station, the first order of business is to locate the ticket counter and obtain a ticket. True, it is debatable whether buying a ticket to ride the train is actually a necessity. I have never been asked or seen anyone be asked by a railway official to present a ticket however the system miraculously seems to function pretty well based on trust. Behind the ticket counter are a number of long lines, none of which are clearly marked. I’ve learned that the answer to buying a ticket is to cut the line and request a coupon booklet. Yes, believe it or not, it is allowed, even recommended, to cut the line if you’re looking to buy a coupon book.
Three main railway lines connect the city: the Western line, the Central line, and the Harbor line. The main transfer points are Kurla, Dadar, and C.S.T., the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, formerly known as Victoria Terminus. Also, there are both slow trains and fast trains.
Then boarding the train is another challenging experience. Locating the right platform can be rather confusing since all of the signs are written in Hindi. The flyover tunnels that connect the platforms to the station create a sort of meandering cobweb. Once you find the right platform, look for the ladies. Trains in Mumbai have separate compartments for women, which to their benefit, seek to minimize harassment and help women to feel safe and comfortable when riding, yet I have mixed feelings about since ladies’ compartments are only a band-aid solution to alleviate the symptoms of larger structural issues.
As the train is nearing the station, you have to be sure not to stand too close to the edge of the tracks because gaggles of men hang out of the compartments, arms stretching out in every direction, eager to push one another out as soon as the train slows down. Once the train stops, the true chaos sets in. A mad rush of commuters flood out of the compartments as those boarding fight to get on in time before the train lurches out of the station. When it comes to boarding, survival of the fittest is the dominant philosophy. If anything stands in the way of you and the train, it is socially acceptable for you to take any necessary measures to remove the obstacle. I’ve definitely experienced a lot of pushing, shoving, and even trampling while boarding the local trains. And, believe it or not, this transition of passengers is every bit as crazy and feisty among women within the women’s compartments.
Assuming you are lucky enough to make it onto the train, finding a seat is not always possible. Once you’re on, you’ll be confronted with women selling everything from tacky stuffed animal keychains to chai and street snacks. During your journey, you learn to expect the unexpected—its entirely possible for you to be asked to pose in a family photo or to hold a baby. So, riding the local trains is quite a colorful, exhausting yet equally exhilarating experience.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

On a more serious note...

I regret writing such a serious post, but feel its time I updated everyone on last week's events and tell more about the current security situation here in Mumbai. As I'm sure you've heard by now, about a week ago, there were bomb blasts that hit three different areas of the city. Most occurred in South Mumbai, which takes about an hour to reach from where I'm staying.

My roommates and I were headed across the city in a taxi when it occurred. We had planned to venture over to a neighborhood called Bandra in western Mumbai to visit a doctor whom had been recommended to us. As we navigated our way through the chaotic bumper to bumper Mumbai traffic at the peak of rush hour, all appeared to be normal from our taxi. It was only once we met up with some local friends in Bandra that we learned of the evening's events. The news sparked feelings of disbelief and confusion in us all. Of course everyone was full of questions, questions which would could only speculate about. Not really knowing how to react, I tried to judge how others, especially our local friends, were reacting, and respond accordingly. Although everyone was feeling passionately about the event, I remember one of our friends expressed immense anger upon hearing the news, sharing with us his deeply felt sadness and frustration that his city kept being the target of terrorists attacks and still nothing had been done to bring about justice.

After a hectic and understandably distracted meeting with the doctor, we decided it was be best to get off the streets as soon as possible and camp out somewhere nearby until the city had calmed down. So from there, we went to a friend's house in the neighborhood where we were greeted with warmth and hospitality. The overall mood inside the house that night was dramatically different than the atmosphere in the streets that we had just escaped. Everyone seemed to be quite relaxed and in good spirits. People were eating, drinking, laughing, and enjoying each other's company. I was a bit surprised at how undisturbed they seemed by the startling news, especially given eerily quiet the street scene down below us, but looking back I realize this was the probably the best way to respond to the situation. Spending time at their home was a lovely respite from the confusion and chaos that loomed over the rest of the evening. We stayed at their house late into the night, eating delicious food and "ooh-ing" and "aah-ing" over her daughter's glitzy wedding photos. We left feeling exhausted but much more calm and at ease.

That night, we stayed over in Bandra just to play it safe. The next day I was expected to give a presentation in my 9am class, which, would have meant getting across the city first thing in the morning. Since everyone I spoke to recommended staying off the roads and hunkering down at home for a while, we decided to stay in Bandra a little longer and not head home until later when we were more confident in the security situation.

To be honest, I was quite surprised about the response the bombings received here. Of course news of the blasts were all over the papers, but other than that, the evening's events in no way seemed to dominate everyone's conversations. The day after, Mumbai woke up and went about life pretty much as normal- commuters went off to work, our university held class as normal, and transportation across the seemed to run rather flawlessly. The only major difference I noticed was the presence of police throughout the city. Since last week, many police barricades and checkpoints have been constructed on the roads. (I have yet to see the police stop any vehicles though, most of the time they are just standing around.) Don't ask me how this in any way remedies the security situation, but Mumbai police sure seem to see this as a successful method of heightening security throughout the city.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Mumbai Market Culture

Despite having lived in India before, I must admit this is the first time I've really experienced the whole culture buying groceries in the market and cooking food here. Although I've wandered through markets in both northern and southern India, and, with the help of my host mother in Jaipur and our cook in Vikravandi, have tried my hand at a few Indian recipes, never before have I had the full responsibility of purchasing, preparing, and cooking my own meals here in India. Now, as I look back, that sounds quite ridiculous to admit, but I remember having to do quite a bit of convincing to even be allowed into the kitchen to help with meal preparations while I lived as a guest with host families.

Now that I've been living on my own in India for almost a month, I am starting to realize the advantages and disadvantages of my current situation. Since I am not much of a cook, preparing meals here has been both exciting and challenging. It is definitely great to finally feel in control of what I am choosing to eat. It is also a relief to avoid overeating, since true Indian hospitality really comes out at the dinner table, when hosts insist upon having their guest eat until they're stuffed. On the other hand...ah, what to cook all the time?! For the first few weeks I felt paralyzed upon entering the marketplace. With so many unfamiliar ingredients before me, I struggled to visualize how I could create a meal out of these.

Grocery shopping here has also made me realize how dependent I am back home on grocery stores to provide me with creativity in my cooking. I realized that back home, much of my diet consists of Trader Joes staples such as lobster ravioli or veggie burgers (which, by the way, do a pretty good job of disguising your true cooking ability and convincing company you can cook). Here, however, you pretty much have to start at square one with most of the cooking, which I am learning to do. Thankfully, my roommate is quite the chef and is now working on making a cookbook, so I'm sure that will help me prepare a meal without my "Trader Joes training wheels."

Now more about Chembur market, where I do most of my grocery shopping here. Chembur market is located right next to the local railway station, in the heart of Chembur's bustling downtown. The market itself is situated in one of the most unlikely locations- under an oppressive, cement, elevated highway. Crammed into the streets that run parallel to it, even the market fights for space in a city so crowded that the only direction yet to build is up. The market stalls are constructed of bamboo sticks which have been precariously tied together with twine. Light bulbs hang down from the bamboo, illuminating the path for shoppers to conduct their errands into the night. Some stands even have garlands of fresh flowers hanging overhead to differentiate themselves from their neighbors and attract customers.

In my time here, I've gotten pretty good at navigating the market to locate the groceries I need. I've learned to distinguish which vendors quote to me the all too common "foreigner price" and which vendors will give me a fair price. Given the quantity and diversity of the street stalls, it seems as though you can find just about any fruit or vegetable you could want...that is unless you are looking for something in particular, such as salad greens, which I've unfortunately realized are quite rare here. Chembur market is also quickly helping me to become a mango connoisseur. Since I've been in India, I think I've tried at least four or five different types of mangoes. And I know the market has at least five or six more to offer ;)

At first I remember being quite skeptical about buying all of my vegetables in a market situated under an elevated highway in the middle of the town's craziest traffic intersection. Now, having learned to navigate the craziness that constitutes Chembur market (that is given I have enough energy to do so, because it definitely requires quite a lot of patience and determination), I feel I'm beginning to develop a new appreciation for the India's unique market culture.

Saturday, July 2, 2011


Dinner with my lovely roommates, Julia and Sasha ;)

 Street Scene

Our Apartment Building


 Our Living Room (post MAJOR renovations)

 Our Bedroom