Expat Adventures: Ana in India

Posted in Adventure| Capoeira| Expat| Work
Like my last Expat Adventure subject, I met Ana (aka ‘Atrasada’) through the amazing martial art of Capoeira. I had traveled to New York for a Capoeira event in 2006 and met her there during a night of workshops.  We kept in touch and a few years later we met up at another event in Rio de Janeiro.  You just never know where this art form will take you if you let it.  

A few years ago, I heard she was packing her bags and heading off to live and work in India.  India is one of those places on the globe where I know I must go one day. Though I’ve traveled to over 50 countries, I somehow feel like I can’t really call myself a traveler unless I have added India to that list.  I’ve had a number of people tell me, in various ways, that they had a true passion for the country, but at the same time it was one of the most difficult places they have ever traveled.  When I decided to begin incorporating the Expat Adventures Q&A’s on my blog, I just knew I had to include Ana and her story. So sit back, read and allow yourself to get sucked in. When I first reviewed Ana’s answers I swear I smiled, then I laughed and before long I had tears in my eyes.  She has a beautiful way with words and she’s renewed my interest in visiting one day soon.  

Ana with two local kids who would often hang out with her and her friends, Prakash and Ishwar

Q.  How long did you live in Pune, India? 
         A. I lived in Pune for 2.5 years.

Q.  What was the thing that made you decide to get up and leave your life in New York City to head to Pune?
A.  I have always had an itch to travel and in graduate school I decided that I really wanted to work in international development with a focus in education. I found a great organization to work for and figured now was a good a time as any to just get up and go. The reasons to stay would still be there when I got back; I had the support of my friends and family. I also knew that if I wanted to continue with this career dream I would have to move at some point. The location was happenstance. Anywhere would be good. I’m glad it was India. I loved it.

Q.  Aside from location, what’s the biggest change you’ve noticed in yourself since moving overseas?
A.  There are many, however, I feel like I have the ability to appreciate people for who they are and not who you want them to be and especially who you perceive them to be. Even the weird person who you avoid because you’ll have nothing to say probably comes with a great story and something worth while listening to. I have the ability to sit down and listen much more and it’s really great. The other really huge change is my perspective and ability to take everything as it is. I went through a meditation course called Vipassana (also available in the US) and it really helped me to accept things the way they are and be ok with myself and life in general. I highly recommend it to anyone and everyone. 

Q.  There has been a lot of negative press about the treatment of women and their safety in India over the past months.  Did you ever feel victimized or unsafe while you were there?  As an American woman, do you think you were treated better or with more respect than local women?
         A.  Luckily Pune is a very safe city. I had one incident where I was groped, and although it was an awful feeling, it was almost laughable. There was some differential treatment that I got as a foreigner, but there is also a saying in India that the guest is God. Any foreigner would have gotten special treatment. However, my friends would always joke that I would get special treatment for being a foreigner. It’s probably true. 

Q. What is a typical day like for you in Pune?
         A.  My job took me all over the city. It was easier (and a little frightening) for me to get around because of my motorcycle. I would assess and monitor after or before school programs around the city. Usually I would wake up at 7 and go to a center and do my observations before heading to the office. Lunch is much later in India, typically around 1 or 1:30. After lunch, if
the need arose, I would go to another center. If not, I would work in the office. After work I would go home for a brief amount of time. Sometimes my friends would come over, sometimes I would get some time to myself. We had capoeira gatherings three times a week. If there was no class I would probably end up hanging out with my roommate for dinner. When writing this down, it seems pretty similar to my life in New York.

Ana working at a local school while the kids preformed a skit

Q.  When you first arrived, was it difficult to meet friends?
         A.  It was horribly difficult. I found myself trying to make friends with whoever I could. Luckily I found a salsa community and that started to ease loneliness. I made friends fast, sometimes because I think people just wanted to be friends with a foreigner. However, those friendships dissolved quickly. I met a girl at the gym and we became very good friends. She’s one of my best friends now. It took about 8 months for me to feel like I was at ease and had some kind of community. Capoeira helped a lot. I went to Bombay almost every weekend (which is around 3-5 hours away depending on traffic, rain, and/or train and bus schedules and delays). I started training in the park in Pune and some people gathered and started to hear about it. We moved indoors and they became my friends. Now my friends and I are inseparable, even by an ocean. 

Q.  What things will you miss most about life in Pune?
         A.  I loved my life there. I could come home exhausted and still feel good. Like I said, I made some of the best friends I’ve ever made. Maybe that would have happened anywhere else – it was my first time away and on my own for such a long duration which allowed me to kind of reinvent myself and who I wanted to spend my time with. I loved feeling badass (can I say that?) on my motorcycle. It was the easiest way to get around – public transportation is confusing and after about 4 months of rickshaw rides you can’t really take it anymore. Girls in general don’t ride motorcycles, and neither do foreigners. I loved the look of shock when people saw me get on my bike. In all the disarray, confusion, noise, crowds, people (lots and lots and lots of people), electricity cuts, and other things that make India what it is, I found calm and order. It works even in all its craziness. It’s amazing. 

People, at least the ones I hold close to me feel a sense of responsibility when it comes to resources. We turn the water and lights off when they’re not absolutely necessary. I like ceiling fans. When it’s not monsoon season, sometimes you can go weeks without seeing a cloud in the sky. When it is monsoon season, everything is bright green and beautiful. The diversity is one of the most fantastic things ever. Amongst my friends, even in a group of 5-6, we spoke over 11 languages. Pune is great because people from all over the country go there. There’s still a smaller town mentality to the city in certain parts (it’s only started to develop in the past 5-10 years) and then there’s a whole “modernized” part which is quite chic. 

The clothing is amazing. I wore Salwar Kameez almost every day in colors and combinations I never would have thought I could pull off and wish I could wear it here. Street food! All food actually. Luckily I never had any stomach issues. Pani puri and bhel are two foods (called chat) that I’m having a hard time living without). There are small roadside shops set up all over and after testing them all out I found my favorite ones, made friends with the chaiwalas and dukanwalas and stayed loyal. They remember you and always have a smile. Freshness of everything. No one stocks their fridge, everything is one or two days old maximum. The milk is better. I feel like I could go on and on forever. If you want more, I have it.

Although it was difficult at first, Ana made some life long friends while in India

Q.  You recently returned to Pune with a group of students visiting India for the first time. What were their first impressions of the city? Were they similar to your’s when you first arrived?
         A.  The students were high school students who got a scholarship to study Hindi for 6 weeks. They were a little outside of Pune City and had a much different experience than I did. Most of them lived in bungalows (large houses) in a very nice neighborhood. They kind of got a royal treatment from their host families. Sometimes when I would meet them they would remind me that the kids were guests and guests are god. They looked for what they thought India to be, and not what it
is. It’s hard to take away your stereotypes of what you think India is. I’m not saying it’s not those images one has in their head, but it’s so much more than that, and sometimes it’s not. I think they came away with a different impression. 

Q.  If you could have put ANYTHING in a care package from the U.S., what would it be (this can truly be anything…even if you wouldn’t normally put it in a box and send across the ocean.  Food, things, people…whatever you want)?
         A.  It’s weird, but I don’t think there was much that I really wanted. When I came home for a visit I would always take back chocolate chips (dark chocolate) and coffee. In terms of food I was just so happy with Indian food (I never lost any weight) that I didn’t miss any American food. There were also places I could go to get good cheese or non Indian food. In the beginning I really wanted someone who knew me for longer than a couple months around. I think I turned that into my strength though and took it as an opportunity to really figure myself out.  My mom’s hugs would have been good every once in a while. A teacher for capoeira. A quiet cafe to read books.

Celebrating Holi with a little added color for their outfits

Q.  Where else in the world could you see yourself living? 
         A.  Seeing as I just picked up and moved without any real prior knowledge about India, I think I could do that with almost anywhere. I’d see my self in Central America. I’d even consider Europe, but it’s not high up on the list.  I’d love to live in Japan and have even considered applying to jobs in Pakistan (it’s supposed to be beautiful, except for the whole dangerous issue). 

Q.  Did you ever had one of those “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going back to the U.S.” kind of days. If so, what was it that kept you in Pune?
         A.  Never. I’m really lucky. 

Q.  What has been your most memorable experience to date? 
         A.  2.5 years makes a lot of memories. I made a family there. Family isn’t biological. On my birthday my friends made a scavenger hunt for me for the day. It was long and comprehensive and I’ve never felt so amazingly loved and full of love. In the morning I had to go get milk (we got fresh milk almost every day), which I thought was strange because my roommate wouldn’t let me get it the night before. I missed two clues on the way because the watchman and the store owner didn’t really understand their role. When I got home my roommate told me it was too quick and asked me to go back out. I had to ask the watchman for my envelope and the same from the store owner. My entire day was filled with clues and phone calls, traveling around the city and suspension. The end was a roda [circle where you play the martial art, capoeira] in the park. My friends from Bombay came, the kids from the slum who hung out with us dressed in their best clothes and came to the park. I was showered with take downs and cake in my face. After we got pizza and hung out at my house through the night. It was the most fantastic thing ever. They were my family and took care of me. I took care of them and it showed in everything we did for each other. 

Celebrating her birthday with a family of friends. 
Q.  From 1 – 10, how would you rate your language skills when you arrived in India?  What about now?  How did you go about improving your skills? 
         A.  Zero upon arrival. Now maybe a 5. I can have full conversations with many grammar mistakes. I did a lot of self learning, got a teach yourself book. I registered for a class once but the teacher kind of sucked and spoke a lot in English. My friend at work tried to teach me and we read children’s books in Hindi. After work got busy I went back to self learning. Usually I would ask how to say certain phrases. A lot just happened through exposure. 

If a friend were going to visit Pune for the first time:
Q.  What 2 famous landmarks would you recommend visiting?
         A.  Pune isn’t a great historical place and a lot of the main places I don’t find “incredible”. Gandhi has a house that he lived in but it’s a short visit. I like Shaniwar wada which is in the city. 

Q. What 2 neighborhoods should they wander through?
         A.  I’d recommend just walking around the old city as well. Each street is “expert” in different items. There are rows of stores that just have lights, then rows that just have car parts. It’s crowded and most of the buildings are from when the British were there. It’s a good place to get lost. They’re made up of different names, it’s called the peth area. There are also neighborhoods that are more Muslim and it’s great to walk through to see the mosques and the changing outdoor decorum. I also like M.G. Road. There’s fun shops on it, good street food, lots to see and do. 

Q. What 2 restaurants can they NOT miss?
         A.  If your stomach can handle street food there’s a pani puri place off M.G. Road. It’s a cart right outside a temple. They say the temple came up because an orange rock appeared from the ground. It’s the best pani puri in the city. I think. My friends and I went to a small South Indian restaurant which is in Rasta Peth. I don’t know the name of it. We went almost every weekend. They have the best idly and sambar. I brought Tamilian friends to test it out and they gave their stamp of approval. The owners are great and the older man will engage in banter with you just for a few minutes. They also have great South Indian coffee. Breakfast ends at 11 and then lunch will begin at 12ish. Every third Sunday they have a thali feast where they cook a huge amount of dishes. I never made it for the thali.  

Q. What 2 nightlife spots should they check out?
         A.  I have to say that I have no clue. My friends and I weren’t night clubbers. We usually got a beer or whiskey and hung out at home. Salsa venues are nice but only when salsa people are there. Nightclubs usually consist of bad (in my opinion) techno and house music. (I’m not saying all techno and house is bad, but there it is). 

Q.  Pune in 1 sentence…what would you say? 
         A.  Pune is where I found myself and my home.

Not long after leaving Pune, Ana returned to Pune for 6 weeks leading a group of students traveling to India as part of a scholarship program. Now she’s back in New York City and looking for a job in international development focusing on education and outside of school programs. She’s readjusting to living in a big city while reuniting with friends and enjoying as much salsa, capoeira and yoga as possible. 


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