Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Settling into Manali

The first few days in Manali were an adjustment time, especially for the students, most of whom had never been overseas. Arriving in India is an assault on the senses. Manali is a fairly compact, crowded, dirty and polluted city nestled at the foothills of the Himalayas, and is a bustling honeymoon destination because of the scenery outside town and the lovely summer climate.

Pedestrians share the crowded, pot-hole pocked roads with motorcyclists, auto-rickshaws, trucks and buses, as well as an assortment of dogs and cows, and the occasional goat. There is the rank smell of sewage and piles of garbage balanced by spices and sizzling fried dough and meat from the sidewalk vendors. Destitute children and lame beggars contrast with the vivid colors of the rich fabrics worn by even relatively poor women, and the carnival like atmosphere of the pedestrian Mall Road.

Our hotel could euphemistically be described as “modest.” The students quickly adjusted to the spare, but colorful rooms, and to the routine of heating water for bucket baths, but had a harder time with Indian food and difficulties with reliable internet access. By the third day of paranthas for breakfast and some combination of roti with lentils, rice, and paneer in tasty sauces, the kids were ready to riot. Fortunately, the hotel staff were quite accommodating and broadened the diet to include chicken and mutton stews, though the recognizable body parts were a bit disconcerting. The students discovered that if they hiked ~45 minutes up the road to Old Manali, they could go to fancy restaurants catering to tourists with pizza, pasta, crepes, and a variety of ice cream dishes, accompanied by pop music or karaoke. They made a bee-line for “Drifter’s,” “Dylan’s,” and “Bella Vista” every evening thereafter. So much for our plans for evening bonding experiences and cultural activities for the immersion in India experience…

The immediate tasks for the weekend were to obtain Salwar Kameez “suits” for the girls and cell phones or sim cards. Buying clothes in India is a treat for many women. There is such a beautiful array of material, now with many lovely embroidered patterns on them. You walk around town, find the material that appeals to you, barter with the shop owner, then take the fabric to a tailor who measures the suit and sews it for you.

Obtaining a sim card was a bit more complex. Because of terrorist activity, in order to buy a sim card, we had to have additional passport photos taken and show proof of residency, as well as fill out several forms. Fortunately, we had Sunny, who capably guided us through this process and attested to our identities. Every hotel now also required copies of our passport. That reminded me of visiting Hungary during it’s communist rule.

While still exhausting, getting settled in, it was fun seeing kids' excitement and dismay. With the initial mundane tasks accomplished, we settled in for our work and study at Lady Willingdon Hospital and the villages.

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