*Wow, I’ve been sick than travelling and haven’t had time to write this article! Now it’s been over 4 months but this is about my third month living and studying in India!*
Hey! It’s been 3 months that I have been living in India, and I am really feeling now all the contrasts that so many people talk about… especially when that feeling that the place is stuck 50 years back in time while people have access to technologies, smartphones, etc. I used to notice the litter and be “sad but whatever” and now I feel so disgusted by all the trash in nature, especially along roads and railways… how could this ever be fixed?
I spent most of this last month in another campus near Coimbatore. With Simona, we were staying at the girls hostel, which was awesome for meeting some very cool Indian girls, making friends and learning more about the culture!
Going to a local beach
One day, we decided to go out and have a swim at the nearest local beach: Dolphin Beach. We had a lot of fun surfing the waves and getting washed out by a few washing machines. The Indians on shore seemed impressed by the fun we were having in the sea, as most of them don’t know how to swim.
While we walked on the beach, we noticed how the thin sand was sticky under our feet, and hoped it was indeed the sand and not something else. The beach was a local toilet; people come here to poop with a view!
When we were about to get dry and dressed, a man lay down a few metres away, tongue stuck out, staring at us. I was feeling totally uncomfortable but didn’t know what to do and turned to my guy friends in despair: “this guy is totally staring at us, it’s disgusting!” To which they replied: “Which one? The guy laying in front of you or the three hidden in the bush?” I thought it was a pretty good joke until I realised it wasn’t a joke…
We decided not to change and stay in our wet clothes, and I covered up with my sarong. We walked to the end of the jetty, where people were casually eating ice creams and throwing the wrapping into the sea. Dolphins popped in and out of the waves, as well as cameras around us of local people suddenly feeling an urge to take selfies with a nice background (the Westerners, not the sea!)
3D printing a hand
I had a lot of fun 3D printing a hand! It was meant for a prosthetic for a kid in my village who has several limb differences. I started by printing out the fingers, then the palm and then connected everything together with the help of my friend Chris. It was awesome to see it come to life! Well not literally, but it was definitely a cool project to carry on. In the end, I decided not to complete the project as I was missing technical support, medical expertise and experience. If I had at least one of these I think I would have tried taking the project further but I didn’t want to risk hurting the kid or giving him hope and then abandoning him. But it is a project I’d love to try again back home!
Staying in an Indian campus
I was supposed to go to Ettimadai, near Coimbatore, for a couple of days to a week to complete my prototype and testing. Due to unforeseen circumstances such as the death of the Chief Minister and several days of strike, I ended up staying for over 2 weeks! Meanwhile, I made some very good friends on the campus and had a lot of fun with them and Simona!
On the day we arrived, there was a “curtain raiser” for a festival happening later in the academic year. There were some food stalls, live music and hundreds of crazy students who taught us some Bollywood dance moves!
I ended up being totally fed up with Indian food. There was no Western Café to cater for our Western cravings and meals were not as enjoyable as before!
I wrote about my experience living almost like a student on this article (and scandalised quite a few locals).
We also went out for one day in Coimbatore with Simona and greatly enjoyed our day out!
At the girls’ hostel, we learnt a lot about the Indian life. Especially about arranged marriages, we didn’t think it was that common! Our friends also loved dressing us up in sarees and we also got some beautiful henna tattoos on our hands!
I went with Simona to her village and it was a great experience, I also wrote about it here!
Death of the Chief Minister
While we were in Coimbatore, we learnt that the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu was in hospital, dying. Suddenly, at meal times, the TV was on and girls gathered around the screen to hear the latest news. On the pictures, there was a huge crowd in front of the hospital. We couldn’t understand what was going on. We did some research on the internet, and learnt that if she died, there would be a several day strike, people would burn cars and buses, some would even commit suicide! Needless to say, when her passing was announced, we were locked up in the campus and our projects were on a halt for a few days. Unlike the rulers of our European countries, the chief minister was lovingly called Amma and people were so upset by her death they would actually commit suicide!
With all of this going on, my project got late with the prototype building and testing. We had done a first trial that failed. Instead of testing first the tractor then the trailer we tried all the system. A bad idea: the trailer broke and then we couldn’t even test the tractor, which broke too! At that point, I was really annoyed by the quality of the prototype.
I was told the rice seedlings weren’t grown enough for trial of transplanting, so we would have to wait an extra 10 days. But after these 10 days (and the death of the CM) my prototype barely got fixed and we didn’t even go out to the field and try it! This was extremely disappointing for me as I hoped to see my prototype work (or not) but also see the reaction of the local female farmers to it.
With nothing else to do, I also learnt a few new ukulele songs!
And on the train trip back, I played them to some pilgrims while we were stopped in the middle of nowhere!
Back to Amritapuri!
Being gone for that long, I felt like I was coming back home when I reached Amritapuri! Most of my friends were still there and we had plenty of stories to share. It was a great feeling to meet them again!
Amma was back too, and the place was very busy, especially with the Christmas celebration to come! I had loads of things I still wanted to do before my departure, but unfortunately, I got sick…
One morning, I woke up with some terrible stomach cramps. My friend Peppiina was leaving that day, so I tried to go downstairs to say goodbye. But after one flight of stairs, I nearly fainted and retreated to my bed, where I stayed for the following 24 hours. As soon as I got up, I was on the verge of fainting. Whatever I had, I couldn’t get out of bed or eat anything.
I had already been sick in Coimbatore, and for a few days I felt extremely tired and even sleeping 10 hours a night wasn’t enough.
I am still grateful I didn’t catch the worse bugs around!
Once I was feeling better, I attended the RAHA conference about humanitarian robotics and presented a poster about my project, and then my mom came to visit for two awesome weeks of travelling Kerala!
Because most of the time my computer is in my backpack and I don’t have much time for writing and much internet for publishing, I made this post in French! So here are the pictures and maybe I’ll translate is someday, otherwise Google might be able to do it for you 😉
Edit: I reverted the title to its original one: “7 reasons we wouldn’t…” instead of “7 reasons not to…” as this article is entirely about our opinion and shouldn’t be understood as an advice article.
Edit 2: I had a great discussion with some important people from the uni, who explained many things I would never have guessed otherwise. I changed once again the title from “we wouldn’t study…” to “we wouldn’t want to live…” as I have rightly been pointed out, most of this has nothing to do with the quality of education but with the accommodation and lifestyle. Once again, this is from a Western perspective and experience so it probably wouldn’t apply to Indian students. I have been told that some people have felt offended by my post: I wasn’t aware of some sensitivities and would like to apologise for being hurtful. I have written this as an insight of what we felt living in this campus and discussing with local students, but did not want to hurt anyone, please do not take this personally , I really do not mean it.
With Simona, we have been staying at Ettimadai campus of Amrita University for almost 3 weeks. It is about one hour away from Coimbatore (if the train isn’t too late), and basically in the middle of nowhere. We had a lot of fun with the local girls we met at the hostel, who were really cool and taught us a lot about Indian life, even dressing us up in the evening! Although we found it fun to discover hostel life, we often talked about why we could never do what they are doing now: voluntarily put ourselves in this kind of campus for 4 years of studies.
Warning: this article has been thought up by Simona and myself during our long complaints about what we don’t like here; what we say here is from the perspective of us as people used to a certain level of comfort and freedom, and if you don’t come from the same background you might not understand why we’re complaining and there’s a possibility you find this insulting. Sometimes we’re being sarcastic; sometimes we believe there’s a real problem behind.
So hey, whether you feel offended or you totally agree, let’s have a discussion about this!
1. Being denied any kind of responsibility
Students at Amrita University stay in “hostels”, but not our kind of warm and welcoming European hostels with a party atmosphere. Here, the word “hostel” refers to the massive buildings with loads of single rooms or shared dorms. First year students share a room between 3 or 4 people, then they get individual rooms. Students have to be back early in their hostels, depending on the year of studies and gender (see picture below), and are not allowed to stay in friends’ rooms after 9:30pm.
Students are generally not allowed to go outside of campus. The campus is surrounded by walls 2 metres high, complete with barbed wire on the top. I know, I know, it’s to protect us from the elephants. But still. If students want to go outside, they need to ask several days before, with written permission from their parents.
Basically, we feel like students are treated as children here.
Edit: cut out some unnecessary complaints. Also, I learnt more about Indian culture, and the kids (as people under 18 years old) don’t have the freedom and responsibilities that we have in Europe, also because of safety considerations. I still feel that student are treated like kids instead of adults, but now I kind of understand why.
2. Rules are more restrictive for girls
As if it weren’t enough to have super-restrictive rules for students, they make it worse for girls! For example, first semester female students have to be back in their hostel by 8pm, while guys are allowed to stay out until 9pm! Also, these first semester girls are not allowed to go outside AT ALL while guys can ask for a pass. Nope, no days outside in the city, no going back home, please stay inside of your hostel for a semester!
Come on, it’s 2016! The campus feels overprotected and super-secured, why wouldn’t girls be allowed to stay outside of their dorms as long as guys can?
Edit: I could make it more “politically correct” but haven’t received any satisfactory explanation on this one so I’ll leave it like this for now. I still cannot understand this kind of rules. Please comment if you can tell my why it is so!
3. Comfort, or rather the lack of
The hostel rooms are very basic. We were lucky enough to get our own attached bathroom, but this is not the case of most girls here (I’ll just switch to speaking about girls as we didn’t experience the “Boys Hostel”!). Our attached bathroom has a western toilet and a shower above it, with no hot water (well it does get tepid around 11am). The other girls have 3 even more basic bathrooms at the end of each corridor, with an Indian toilet and a tap. A tap. No shower for them, they have to bring their own bucket to “take a bath” as they say.
The beds (“cot”) are basically an elevated sheet of metal with a hard mattress on the top. Some Indians seem used to this, many complain about as much as we do.
There are bugs all over the place and they seem to love our room. We realised that despite being beautiful creatures dragonflies are as dumb as moths when they come hitting our lamp in the evening. Trails of ants cross our room and the corridors. We discover new bugs almost daily! And the mosquitoes definitely love our exotic blood.
Nothing seems to be ever clean, everything is dusty, even when we try our best. Back at the Ashram, we laughed at the “perfectly engineered stone” a woman was using to smack her clothes clean. But when it was our turn to wash our clothes, we were clueless about how to use this wonder of technology. Give me back my washing machine!
Edit: once again, cut out some unnecessary complaints.
You name it. Spicy is on the menu for lunch, dinner and breakfast. I managed to keep up with the breakfast for a while when I had big days at work. But now I can’t do it any more, and we skip breakfast most days. The other options are some terribly un-nutritious white bread with super-sweet jam or biscuits and fruit.
It’s not that the food is not good. But for us, it is always the same thing. Curry and rice. I did come to the point where I recognise the different kind of curries and would be excited if my favourite was served, but it is still the same thing. Rice and curry. We’re craving vegetables by themselves, without being drowned in some spicy sauce. I didn’t miss Western food as much in countries where there was more varieties in the dishes, but here I would love to have a “regular” sweet breakfast and some non-spicy food with fresh veggies from time to time.
In tea and coffee there is always milk, no way no get your hot drink black. I have to deal with my unhappy stomach quite often as a milk-intolerant-and-mostly-vegan person.
We are not the only ones to complain about the food: most girls, especially from other states, complain about the food. They don’t like it; find it too spicy, or not spicy enough.
Last but not least, we students from EPFL miss our beer after a hard day at work! Alcohol is forbidden on campus, and in some occasions we couldn’t imagine what would happen if it were allowed 😉
5. “Modest” clothing
In Ettimadai campus, the dress code is more relaxed than at the Ashram. However, women are still expected to cover their legs and shoulders outside of the hostel. Inside the hostel, many girls seem to spend days in their pyjamas and never leave the hostel; I would do the same if I had to put on “appropriate” clothes to go outside!
For the guys, it seems to be acceptable that they wear shorts, and some of these look more like underpants! Once again, even though the rules are same for everyone, the guys seem to be freer than the girls in clothing options. The girls complain about their uniform, they say it is not comfortable.
The problem with the clothing is the heat. If there wasn’t any dress code, it would make the heat more bearable. And if it wasn’t that hot, I would still be annoyed by having these rules but I wouldn’t complain too much about having to cover myself up.
6. Gender separation
I’m glad I came with a girl-friend here, but we heard many stories about girls coming to uni with their best (guy) friend, and not being able to sit on besides another without being scolded! One girl told us about the “one laptop” rule, which is the distance to be kept between friends of opposite genders.
The girls also told us about arranged marriages. They told us, defeated, that their parents will find a suitable husband for them soon. Our friends don’t seem happy about it, rather resigned. Next generation might be freer to marry whoever they chose in a “love marriage” at least they hope it for their children.
7. The great Firewall of Amrita
Once we managed to get internet access, we discovered there was a great censorship on websites classified as “entertainment and arts”. That means no ukulele tabs, no “opinion” websites talking about the news, no sports coaching websites… I couldn’t even access my bank or the Creative Commons website when I was looking up open source licensing! Surprisingly, we could still access Facebook, YouTube and eBay… but not Skype, WhatsApp pictures, etc.
As I had to go to IT to ask them to unlock my bank’s website, I asked them what the firewall was for: “to block porn”. Okay. Even though I find it abusive, I could understand the block on “entertainment”. But arts?! What is that for?
Anyway, the wifi often happens to be not working at all, and with the frequent and long power cuts we have other problems too.
So these were our main reasons for definitely not wanting to study here for an extended period of time! I hope you are not too shocked or upset about what you just read! Please feel free to comment 🙂
Edit: more than feel free, please do comment if you can explain any of these things that we couldn’t, or if I said something very offending without realising it!
For the last dozen of days of so, I have been staying in the Amrita University campus of Ettimadai, near Coimbatore, and 300km away from Amritapuri. Here, there’s no western cafe, so our only food choices are between different sorts of Indian canteen food. Not that I dislike Indian food, but I do enjoy some variety in my diet so my stomach was calling for a day out.
Our plan for this week-end was to go on a day-trip to Coimbatore, approximately one hour away from campus, depending on how late the trains are. The program of the day would be something like flower market, good restaurant for lunch then mall for saree shopping and maybe even watching a movie!
Poo Flower Market
Yes, it is called Poo. Which means “flower” in Tamil, the language of the state. But it still makes me giggle.
We accepted the “tourist fare” from a rickshaw driver, as we didn’t want to fight for a few cents from back home, for them it is much more than for us. Moments later, after a crazy drive, he dropped us at the colourful flower market.
This wasn’t my first visit: I had been there approximately a month ago, with my supervisor, on my first trip to Coimbatore. But as it was Durga Puja, one of the biggest religious festivities of the year, the place was packed with people stocking up on flowers for the religious functions. I had a great first impression of the place, but it was so crowded we couldn’t move around and I could barely take pictures. Today was a working day, which means the market was less crowded.
Most vendors were friendly at the market, and were happy to pose for a picture. As in my first visit, people would even call us so that we could take a picture of them! We would them show them the picture, which would make them laugh. They knew we weren’t here for buying anything, so most of the time the would not try selling anything to us, or they would laugh while doing so.
Kuchi n Kream: feeling almost like back home!
For lunch, we wanted to go to a nice restaurant for a Western food fix. Our new Indian friend Harshita had recommended to us a few places, and we decided on Kuchi n Kream for the menu, reasonable prices and atmosphere.
When we got there, we weren’t disappointed! A part from the exclusively Indian waiter, staff and clients, it felt like any fancy cafe in Europe. The menu featured both Indian and Western dishes with an Indian twist.
We had a very fancy meal, not trying to be on a budget at all. As starters, I had a salad (spicy, of course) to enjoy the fresh veggies I’d been missing for so long and Simona had a delicious tomato soup. For the main course we shared mango gnocchi (!) which were also pretty spicy and some creamy pasta.
For desert, we moved to the couch to have ice cream, cake, coffee and tea. The air con was rather cold, and with all the Christmas decorations it almost felt like home, snuggling in the couch with a hot drink while winter is slowly settling in outside.
We enjoyed the atmosphere for as long as we could, before heading on to the mall to go to the movies. I went to pay, as the waiter told me we could pay with cards, which is pretty rare in India. But as I pulled mine out, he told me: “only Indian cards!”. So here we are, with a very expensive bill for India (but which would have only paid for a cheap burger back home in Switzerland) and not being able to pay by card. Luckily, I had the exact amount in bank notes, but we were left with nothing at all to get out of the place…
Money problems and rickshaw adventures!
No panic! I installed Uber on my phone, confident that we could get a ride in the city by registering with my credit card. But as I was about to book a ride, the service “temporarily disabled my account”. Well. Now the situation is getting more difficult. The waiter told us the first ATM of the State Bank (the only one working with my foreign credit and debit cards) was a 15 minutes walk away, and strongly advised us not to walk there.
So we went outside to ask help from a rickshaw driver, who couldn’t help us (most of them don’t speak English) and decided to start walking. A dozen of metres further down the road, some drivers asked us if we needed a ride, and we told us we needed to get to a working SBI (State Bank of India) ATM, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to pay them.
We drove to an ATM rather far away, and discovered a huge queue outside. Disheartened, we lined up at the end at what seemed like a one hour line. The driver parked his vehicle, and waved me in front of the line. He said a few words to the people in the front of the queue, and they smiled at me: “Please go! It’s your turn!”. How the hell did this happen?! The Indians seemed to find me skipping the queue perfectly normal, just as if I were a mother with a sick kid skipping the line at the bathroom. A few minutes later, I emerged from the ATM with my note of 2000 rupees (approx 30€), the legal limit per withdrawal.
We asked our driver to lead us to the mall, wondering how to get change to pay him. On the way, he stopped near a guy on a motorbike, walked up to him and showed the 2000 note. If the guy had enough change, he would have changed it just like that. Once at the mall, we went in to try to find a cheap thing to buy and get change, and after a few tries, the driver walked up to us with the exact change we agreed on! Crazy.
Going to the movies: Moana
As there were no Indian movies with subtitles, and we had nobody to help us understand, we went to see the latest Disney: Moana. The movie was awesome! It made me want to go again on adventures but also to go back “home” in New Zealand.
I was disappointed by the Indians though. Last time I went (also for a “Western” movie), the Indians in the theatre were a very funny company: they laughed out loud, encouraged the characters on action scenes and applauded. And in “romantic” scenes, you would have the 14-year-old type of dull-witted people at the back of the room shouting inappropriate things or just blurting out “baaaaaah”. Even when the “romantic” scene is a young man holding the hand of a dying old lady. If you’re in India, it’s an experience you shouldn’t miss!
One reason we wanted to go to Coimbatore was to go buy a saree! We spent the remaining of the day being very annoying to vendors, trying on all the nice colours we could find until deciding they didn’t suit us or the fabric was uncomfortable.
When I had found a colour and fabric I liked, two Indian girls shyly approached and told me the colour didn’t suit. By then, the vendor seemed to start being slightly annoyed: when you try on sarees you do make quite a mess, unravelling all this fabric!
In the end, I decided on a matching saree with Simona, but in grey instead of blue. And then, as it still fitted in the budget we had set, I decided on another light blueish green one.
After dinner, back at our hostel, we went to our friend’s room. She is an expert in saree wrapping, and had offered to dress us up! We spent a long time getting the folds perfect, putting on matching bindis (the dot on the forehead) and jewellery, then even more time taking pictures!
Now I have to try to do this by myself, an expert Indian lady (like those who wear a saree everyday) can wrap it in 5 minutes!
Today I had the great opportunity to go to a nearby village with my friend Simona, who is studying medicinal plants in rural areas. A local student was escorting us for translation, as the villagers speak Malayalam and Tamil but no or little English. He addressed us as “sister”, maybe our Western names were too complicated?
Not long after we sat down at the medicine man’s place, we saw kids approaching the hut to have a look at us then run away. Slowly, the approached us, sat down a dozen of metres away, and yelled at us, pointing at the dog: “very danger! very danger!”. We laughed, the dog hadn’t moved since we arrived. Growing bolder, a kid more fluent in English asks us “What’s your name?” to which we answer “Simona and Rosanna!”. I have taken the habit of switching names according to countries, especially here as almost all Indians, even those who are fluent in English, can’t seem to be able to pronounce “Chloe” properly. I always end up being called with a name that I can’t recognise, and that actually sound closer to the Swiss-German word for “toilets” than my own name.
But the kids pick up Rosanna easily, and call me around: “Rosanna sister! Come!” and proudly show me plants, friends and siblings. The kids were very welcoming and want me to take pictures of everyone, as they recognised me as a “photographer”!
Once the interview with the old man was concluded, we walked into the village, following the kids. On our way, we met a lady in her 90s, who was the medicine man’s wife. She was energetic and smiling, proud of having her picture taken.
We were stunned to learn that the life expectancy in these rural villages was around 90 to 100 years old! In our “modern” societies, we always crave for a healthier life, and want to live older while remaining in a good shape. Who would have guessed these people from some of the poorest places on Earth would have figured it all out? Even though they have very basic facilities and almost no sanitation, they must be living a very healthy lifestyle, and most of all, they aren’t under much pressure like we can be.
The kids lead us to the baby’s classroom. They came out to greet us, and looked like baby models. The tiny kids stared boldly into our cameras, smiling, while their siblings teased them and lifted them up in their arms. The caregivers observed from a distance, happy to see us but shying away from our cameras.
Unlike the adults, the younger kids do not try to display a very serious face on pictures: they laugh, they pull faces and make rabbit ears to each other. I taught them how to take pictures with my camera, and press on the big button until the “click”. I try to hold the camera with them, and sometimes I trust the older ones to take pictures on their own. The most difficult is to get them not to touch the camera lens, but it always happens. Terrible kids.
We ended up taking many pictures and selfies with the kids, they loved following us around and showing us interesting thing to see. They even managed to find a turtle and bring it to us! When it was time to leave, the kids waved us goodbye: “Bye Rosanna! Ciao ciao Simona!” We drove away from the chaotic road, we were still amazed by these super cool kids, who welcomed us as sisters for the day.
And just as I write this article, I realise how cheesy it sounds and how I have just became the “Instagram volunteer”, or the white girl going to a poor country just to take profile pictures with the kids and saying how happy they are despite having nothing. Well to be honest I did not have anything to do there. Anyway, it was cool!