A Day at St. Xavier’s

By: Mitchell Petit-Frere

How fitting it was that the morning we visited St. Xaveir’s College I wound up learning a valuable lesson.

It all started with a bus ride that took us up north to the town of Mapusa, where St. Xavier’s is located. Two minutes into the ride, I received a tap on my shoulder. It was a middle-aged woman informing me that I was sitting in a “ladies seat.” My face immediately flushed red, and I scurried out into the aisle so the woman could sit. As I adjusted my grip on the pole hanging overhead I peered down at my old seat’s new occupant. She was looking out of the window; and on that window was a worn out sign. It read “Ladies Seating.”

Moral of the story: always check for signs.

***

The bus ride into Mapusa took about 30 minutes, and once we arrived, we each travelled up to the college on a vespa. Our modes of transportation that morning were befitting because a large number of St. Xavier’s students get to and from school via motorbikes or bus.

As we made our way onto campus, I was surprised by the sense of familiarity that came over me. Even though we were in a country nearly 8,000 miles away from home — one that surprised us time and time again during our stay — there was a palpable feeling to St. Xavier’s that was reminiscent of walking through campus at St. John’s.

Nevertheless, as we were shown the campus by our student guides, there were obvious differences from the campus we call home in Queens compared to the one we were traversing. The most obvious being the quality of facilities. At one point I headed to the bathroom and right as I finished washing my hands, I realized that I couldn’t turn the water off. No mater how many times or how forcefully I twisted the handle, the water kept running. Eventually, the water started to flood over onto the floor. Just as I was about to guiltily leave, having no idea what to do, a student walked in. I said something along the lines of “I think it’s broken.” All he did was smile, and then proceeded to gently tug on the handle. The water instantly stopped.

I’ll never forget what he said next: “Stuff like that happens here a lot.”

However, regardless of faulty sink faucets and computer and science labs that aren’t quite as high tech as the ones we’re used to in the States, I soon realized that the passion for education at St Xavier’s far exceeded what I was used to at home.

Take for instance when we met the college’s principal, Dr. (Fr.) Walter B. de Sa, in his office. The first thing I noticed after I stepping foot into the space were the dozens upon dozens of trophies adorning the walls. Interestingly enough, the awards didn’t represent athletic accomplishments — as so many trophy displays do on American college campuses. They were representations of academic accomplishment.

We were privileged enough to see the academic prowess of the students first hand when we made our way to the Psychology department to meet up with a group of graduate students. They spent about an hour showing us various clinical tests usually administered to patients. The tests were a lot like brain teasers and it was hilarious watching the Goan students break into bouts of laughter as we weaved our way through each challenge.

But other than the simple joy of sharing each other’s company, it was obvious that the St. Xavier’s students were proud. Proud to be hosting us; proud that a group of students from America were so enamored with the happenings of a University in India’s smallest state.

And looking back, that visit to St. Xavier’s serves as one of my proudest moments from India. I was proud that the administration and students of the college awarded us the chance to visit, and see, first hand, how much education transcends geographic location.

Crossing the Street

By: Mitchell Petit-Frere

When you think “adrenaline rush,” what usually comes to mind is something along the lines of skydiving or bungee jumping — maybe even rollercoasters. But let me tell you, one of the most heart-wrenching things you can do as a tourist in India is cross the street.

You know in New York when you’re walking through Manhattan for the first time and can’t help but hesitate when the timer reaches single digit numbers? In India, there’s no time for hesitation. If you’re not proactive in deciding when you start your descent through a maze of cars, vans, trucks, bikes, tuk-tuks and other pedestrians, you’ll never get across the street. Oscar wryly likened the venture as “Real Life Frogger.”

The hardest part is taking your first step. There’s so many different opportunities that arise where you think you have enough room and time to beat the oncoming vehicle(s), but you more often than not get cold feet and tell yourself a better chance will come.

…it never comes.

So, in order to kickstart your trek across a [busy] road in India, you have to muster the courage to take that first step.

As the initial vehicle nears you, put your hand out toward it like you’re a makeshift traffic guard. That’ll slow it down [at least] a little bit — as well as the cars, trucks, etc. behind it — to give you some breathing room. But be prepared, you’re going to get intimate with the smaller vehicles as they breeze past you. I still consider it a miracle that I haven’t witnessed a single toe being run over since I’ve been here.

In many cases while crossing the street you’ll have time to take a small break at the road’s center divider. Don’t fall for the trap. If you let your guard down for even a few seconds, you’ll be stranded on an island where the water is pavement and the sea creatures are beeping metal beasts.

So, once you reach that middle divider, keep walking. But don’t abandon your freelance traffic guard alter ego. Remember when I said you might have to get intimate with smaller vehicles? Well, if you don’t put your hand up toward the tuk-tuk on a beeline to the general area you’re occupying, you’re going to get your first kiss. From there, you’ll probably break into a full blown sprint to safe land (ie: the sidewalk). However, there is a chance you’ll have to zig-zag through a few bikes, scooters and maybe a cow or two. But, rejoice! The hard part is over.

With that said, if you’re ever in India and looking for a good old fashioned adrenaline rush, please don’t ask your hotel concierge (or hostel front desk person, host family, etc.) where to sign up to go on a Well of Death ride. All you have to do is find a busy street and let Jesus take the wheel.

Godspeed.

 

 

Oh, India

By: Mitchell Petit-Frere

*This post was posted after we safely arrived in Goa earlier today.* 

It’s 11:02am and we’ve been waiting for about 2 hours at the airport to board our flight to Goa. But in true Indian fashion, the flight has been delayed another two hours. The worst part is that we were supposed to leave yesterday afternoon, but that flight was cancelled because of low visibility from excess smog.

After a very smooth first four days, I think our beginner’s luck has finally run out. For every ounce of wonder that India instills into you, it also inserts an equal amount of frustration. It’s safe to say that we were high on wonder during the first leg of our trip, but now that we’ve finally been dealt a few ounces of frustration , we’re entering into the realm of a truly authentic Indian experience.

It’s a bummer that we’re missing a significant portion of the Graduate Symposium that serves as the primary reason for this trip. And it’s downright sad that we — as Dr. Monteiro’s students — won’t experience a large chunk of the symposium he has worked so hard to prepare. But there’s no point in fretting. We’ve been dealt our cards and now it’s up to us to knuckle up and embrace the chaos that gives Delhi — and India as a whole — its distinct character.

Regardless, one way or another, we’re going to reach Goa and experience a region of India that is lauded for its natural beauty and meditative environment.

I liken the past 24 hours as being a novice driver in the streets of Delhi, stuck in standstill traffic, but not possessing the assertiveness to honk your horn and rage past the tut-tut in front of you. But when we finally step on that plane, it’ll feel like a euphoric and cathartic first honk.

But here’s one last laugh for the road: as we’re waiting to board the plane after the delay, Kristen pointed up to a banner that read: “World’s Number One Airport.”

Oh, India.

*We’ve only been in Goa for a few hours now, first impressions point toward it being an incredible place.” 

The Taj and me

By: Mitchell Petit-Frere

When you visit the Taj Mahal, your first glimpse of the structure is framed through an archway that you have to walk through in order to make your way into the complex where the tomb is located. I kid you not, as I caught my first glimpses of the Taj, I got goosebumps on my neck and shoulders.

On our drive to the Taj, our tour guide told us numerous times that pictures don’t do it justice. And he was absolutely right. I don’t think I’ve ever physically seen anything more awe-inspiring in my life. There’s not a better way to describe it than perfect. You can imagine my surprise, then, when I realized how [initially] underwhelming the interior of the Taj is.

For starters, it’s much smaller than what you expect after seeing the exterior. The reason being because you can only occupy an octagon of surface area located directly in the middle of the structure. Everything else is closed off and/or empty space.

Nevertheless, there was something mystical about being inside. It might have been because we went during the evening and it was very dark inside, which added a bit of spirituality to our trek around the interior. It might have also been because our tour guide used a flashlight app on his smartphone to illuminate the different carvings on the walls so we could clearly see what we were touching.

I remember of sense of awe coming over me as I glided my fingers across the marble carvings, trying to contemplate how such exquisite work was created some 400 years ago — not to mention how perfectly intake it has remained.

Alexa said something along the lines of “Can you believe we just touched something from the 17th century!?” And she was right. It was mind-boggling that we were connecting with a period in history that is almost impossible to conceptualize because of how long ago it was.

There’s not many famous monuments that fully live up to their respective hype. The Taj definitely does.

 

Lessons from Agra

By: Mitchell Petit-Frere

Agra is rough around the edges.

While Delhi’s a charmer, Agra is more of a “get in your face” kind of city. The reason being — in my opinion — is because the poverty is more pronounced. There are prolonged stretches of land dominated by dirt and dust, filled with shack homes and people huddled around fires during the cold hours. Don’t get me wrong, there are signs of moderate wealth, but a majority of the land is dominated by obvious poverty; some moderate and some extreme.

There’s also a more aggressive initiative within the locals to coerce tourists for money — whether it be via begging or a makeshift business plans. You can’t really blame them, though. If I lived in the same city as the Taj Mahal, I’d milk it for all its worth, too.

Speaking of the Taj, we visited it two days ago (Jan. 5). Our tour guide — who was nothing short of incredible — warned us of the locals who would try and sell us various Taj-related trinkets as we made our way toward the monument. He told us that the best way to avoid someone nagging us was to cold shoulder any seller who made a pitch. And we all did just that.

However, as we made our way back to the van after our time at the Taj concluded, this one guy started walking beside a few members of the group trying to sell what looked like small posters of the famous tomb. After being ignored, the guy sped up, strided right past our entire group and stationed himself by the door of our van. I thought he was going to pitch each of us as we made our way into the van. But that wasn’t the case.

Instead, he let all of us into the van without a word before saying something — in what I assume was Hindi — to our tour guide. Our guide then explained that the guy had pictures he wanted to sell us. But they weren’t generic pictures of the Taj, they were pictures of us at the Taj!

The guy stealthily took pictures of all of us — both group and individual shots — and then more than likely followed us around the complex to make sure he could make a sales pitch before we departed. Incredible, right?

We wound up buying the pictures (they were only 100 rupees), so his plan wound up working.

Nevertheless, for every clever scheme, there are three or four heart-wrenching ones. As we were standing in a semi-circle waiting for our van after a trip to the Agra Fort, a boy of seven or eight, with ragged clothes and skin highlighted with dust marks came up to each one of us with his right and cupped, as his left fingers pointed to his mouth. He wanted money to buy food.

For more than a couple of reasons, we’ve been instructed not to give to beggars. But following that direction is so much easier said than done — especially when the beggars linger next to you until you finally leave the scene.

Forgive the cliche, but the whole process of cold-shouldering beggars pulls on your heartstrings. In your mind, you want to help, but in reality, are you really helping if you don’t know where the money is going once the beggar leaves? Plus, it’s impossible to calculate the consequences the beneficiary will have to face if fellow locals get jealous of what he/she receives. There’s so many different layers to society — in India and all over the world — that sometimes the best thing to do is nothing; especially if your time in the area is temporary, as you won’t be around to either clean up your mess or build upon your progress.

So, you’re left with a small sense of defeat, but also an inherent sense of appreciation for your own “blessings.” I know you can’t quantify appreciation, but sometimes it’s better to get in tune with your personal situation before you can lend a helping hand to another’s.

Like I said before, Agra is rough around the edges. But it taught me a lesson. And, after all, no meaningful lesson is learned without any bumps in between.

*Pictures will be added once/if the WiFi improves.*

First Impressions

First Impressions

Words by: Mitchell Petit-Frere
Photos by: Oscar Diaz

I’m typing this very sentence in bed at The Nitesh Hotel in Delhi. It’s 9:20pm local time and I’m operating on something between traveler’s adrenaline and the desire to express an unforgettable first day in India. (*disclaimer* this post went up the following morning)

Our journey started Saturday night with a 12-hour flight from JFK to Dubai — where we endured an 8-hour layover — before catching a roughly 3-hour flight to Delhi. We landed in India around 10am local time Monday morning.

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Our exhaustion in a nutshell.

But let me tell you, for all that exhausting travel, our first full day in the country was well worth the wait. After going through customs, baggage claim and exchanging currency, the 7 of us who traveled on the same flight together (Oscar arrived much earlier and checked in the hotel hours before we touched down in India) were greeted by a representative from the travel agency who set up our accommodations. We were then whisked into a large, white van with a spacious interior, a steering wheel on the right-hand side of the vehicle and a friendly non-English speaking driver named Monu. Monu was tasked with taking us on our first ride through Delhi en route to our hotel.

That first ride will stick with me forever because of the countless jaw-dropping moments triggered by the things I saw looking out my window.

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A small taste of Delhi traffic.

As soon as we made our way off the highway and into Delhi’s streets, a woman walked straight up to our stuck-in-standstill-traffic van — probably liking her chances of swindling a group of starry-eyed foreigners — and tapped on our windows, trying to convince us to buy the balloons she was selling. We respectfully declined her offer.

But that’s just an isolated example. The more provocative personifications of life in Delhi came via trends. Trends such as men urinating on the sides of the road (I think our count got as high as 8 or 9); constant car beeping that puts NYC to shame; a diverse mix of buses, vans, cars, motorcycles, tut tuts, bicycles and pedestrians navigating the roads; the flocks of people “picnicking” on open patches of green land, whether off a highway or in the middle of the city; the absence of fear illustrated in the bodies of mothers and children as they ride on fathers’ motorcycles; and the overlapping dispersement of obvious poverty and obvious wealth.

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Everyone loves some Monday afternoon downtime. 
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Just another day on the road. 
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Delhi is a city perfectly in tune with its chaos.

The Delhi trends I witnessed today made me want more. The unabashed nature of the city’s inhabitants was intoxicating. So, when Monu couldn’t immediately find our hotel during that first van ride and ended up prolonging the drive, I was ecstatic because it meant I had more time to stare out the window at a city so uniquely and refreshingly in tune with its chaos.

Here’s to Delhi for welcoming us to India with such distinctive charm.

This morning, at 7am, we’re headed off to Agra to explore the Taj Mahal. Until next post…

p.s. A special thank you to Heena, the person who booked all of our accommodations and travel arrangements, for making the experience that inspired this blog post possible. 

India Beckons

India Beckons

By: Mitchell Petit-Frere

‘Ello everyone.

Tomorrow’s the day! I’m embarking on a trip to India with a group of fellow International Communication graduate students from St. John’s University.

The reason for the trip is to attend a Graduate Symposium on Sustainable Development in Goa, hosted by our program director, Dr. Basilio Monteiro. However, Goa won’t be our only stop in India. We’ll also take time to explore Delhi, Agra and Jaipur (ie: the Golden Triangle).

I have no idea what to expect, but I’ll do my best to keep you in the loop via this blog with pictures, videos and as much writing as I can muster up. 

Even better, I won’t be the only contributor. Various students in our group will supply content throughout the trip. With that said, enjoy what we post and feel free to comment! We couldn’t be more excited for this journey and to share as much of it with you as possible.

Here’s a basic outline of our itinerary:

January 2: Departure from the United States
January 4: Arrival in India (!!!)
January 4-8: Stay in Northern India + Exploration of the Golden Triangle
January 8-16: Stay in Goa
January 9-10: SJU Graduate Symposium on Sustainable Development
January 17: Departure from India

p.s. Shoutout to Oscar for the phenomenal [and #punny] blog name.