Things I learned (to live without) while in Southern India

A view of the surrounding hillside from outside the local bakery

I was born and raised in the Northwest, United States, but I now am married to a Swede and living in Sweden. My first adventure in living abroad was when I lived for a year in Southern India, in a town called Kodaikanal that is situated at 2,133m or nearly 7,000ft. It’s a town of about 35,000 people, that is referred to as a hill station, so the climate is rather temperate compared to the plains sitting at the foot of the mountain. Tourist season is the spring and summer when the record high temperatures hit the plains and everyone in India wants to go to the mountains to escape. It was during this time of year that I wrote this as it’s also the most annoying time to be a female foreigner as you achieve celebrity-level attention and unwanted harassment everywhere you go. I worked at the international school in town, teaching orchestra, but I also got to visit many people in their homes where they lived with their whole family with 2 small rooms of a house, cooking meals and heating homes by wood-burning stoves. I loved being in the lush green of the hillside and feeling more in tune with nature and more connected to people.

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Standing in my living room in my sari that my neighbor helped me to try on after I got the top fitted.

The things I’ve learned (to live without)

#1 A Washing Machine & Dryer — In India, it is very common for people to wash clothes by hand and hang them out to dry. Many families do have a washing machine, but a dryer would be much less common. But, here there are no laundromats for those without. Instead, those without machines at their house either wash clothes themselves, have their household help (an Ayah) do the washing for them, or hire someone (a Dobi) to take the clothes and wash, dry and iron them and then bring them back. When I first arrived last semester several people told me to hire a Dobi and gave me a referral. I used his services for several months, only washing my underwear still myself as I wanted to control the laundry soap used for something that would be so close to my skin. Since I wasn’t busy washing, ironing and waiting for clothes to dry, I enjoyed more time to myself. However, sometimes when he brought my clothes back, things were missing. Sometimes, I ended up with extra socks or towels that belonged to someone else, often another staff member on campus. Other times, my socks were missing and they happened to be with someone else as well. I found certain stains weren’t removed and after a few more socks went missing, I just decided to give the hand washing a try for everything. It took a bit of getting used to, as I had to plan time on the weekend to soak the clothes and then remember to come back and rinse and wring and hang them out. I had to string an extra clothesline through my place and on my front and back porch so that I had enough space to dry the pile of clothes once they were washed. But, I do really love the smell of the clothes freshly dried outside.

#2 A Bathtub — at one point, when I was filling out a dating profile in my list of the 7 things I couldn’t do without; bathtub was a prominent one. Yes, in the US, I actually turned down several otherwise perfectly good housing options because they lacked a bathtub. Here, there was no choice. My house here was simply assigned to me and there is a shower, but no chance for a bath. Sometimes, I pretend by soaking my feet in the bucket I have. But, it’s not quite the same as immersing your whole self. But, I think at this point, when I go home and do take a bath, I would probably use the water after to either water my yard or do some laundry. I am definitely more aware of how much water I consume here, as every spring there is a shortage of water, so even those with a bathtub can’t use it.

The front steps to my house. Notice the front door is secured by a padlock.

#3 Central Heating at Home– This is a hard one to do without when the temperatures get fairly cold at night. And, when I first arrived, I was no good at making a fire. Occasionally someone would come to visit and light the fire for me, but for the most part, I would just pile on the blankets and my heavy duty, cold weather sleeping bag, some wool socks, and pajamas and try to fall asleep. But now, I feel so accomplished as I listened to everyone’s tricks for fire starting and made use of my favorite tip: candles. I bought a huge supply of candles and I light a little bit of one in with the last fires’ coals and then surround it with logs in a crisscross fashion. Sometimes with a bit of paper/sometimes not, I am now able to often get a fire going with only lighting one match. (That’s if the match actually lights — sometimes the boxes here get damp and you end up using 3–4 matches before one actually lights long enough to use it to fuel the fire.)

#4 Well-insulated Homes — this sort of goes with #3, but at home, if I didn’t want to turn on the central heating, I used to use small electric heaters. Here I have 2 or three electric heaters and you turn them on and they might sort of make the one corner they are in warmer, but it doesn’t do much to heat the whole room. Maybe that’s due to the 1⁄2 inch plus gap between my wall and the ceiling and the smaller windows, up out of my reach, that are permanently open. But, the air is fresh and if you use enough blankets, you will eventually warm up.

The work in progress of my office as I tried to sort and organize the piles of music and instruments.

#4 Central Heating at Work — When I was in the Northwest, I would only wear my big heavy coat over fairly lightweight clothes and that was to get you to and from your car. But, once inside buildings, you didn’t need extra layers of clothing. Here it is often warmer outside in the sunshine than it is inside in the stone buildings. We joke that you take off your coat to go outside, and put it on to be inside. I’ve learned to layer my clothes with long underwear and sometimes I wear two pairs of pants. Sweaters and scarfs are always helpful as well. And, my favorite things from home are my wool socks. I hardly ever used them in Seattle, but here it’s my everyday favorite footwear. (Except when I am teaching a dance class to my fellow staff members. One night I forgot to switch to normal socks and I about roasted after 45 minutes of dancing.) I find the big wool coat isn’t as useful here because you can’t play the violin while wearing it.

Me conducting the high school orchestra for a concert

#5 Constant Electricity — Even though we are very lucky compared to most of India (where they might experience regular daily power cuts and others that are unscheduled) we have very few times without power for more than a few minutes while we wait for the generators to kick in. But, there are still meetings and teaching times where the lights go off and then come back on. This is especially exciting when I’m working with my high school orchestra on the stage, where there aren’t as many windows. One day a student had to climb up a ladder and walk around and open all the top curtains in the hall, so we could actually see the music when the power was out. There are times where you are on the computer and everything turns off, but not the lights (because they are on different circuits). I’ve learned to keep flashlights in many different places and also how to get around my house (mostly without crashing) in the dark. Since the culture here is used to not having steady power, a gas stove is used for cooking. At home everything is freezing without power, but here you can still eat a hot meal and stay (relatively) warm in your home. And, I learned how to have a hot shower without power — heat boiling water on the stove, mix it with some cold in your bucket and pour this over you using a small scoop to take a shower.

#6 Kleenex & (sometimes) Toilet Paper — I have reduced the number of trees I consumed during my stay here. One simple thing different is that I bought some hankies and have been using them instead of Kleenex. I realize how many boxes of kleenex I used to buy on a regular basis and how easy it was to eliminate from my world. (And, when you have a runny nose from being sick, cloth on your sore nose is so much better!)

As for the toilet paper, in traditional society here, they use squat toilets. Next to the toilet is a water bucket with a smaller scoop inside. Some of the fancy toilets have a sprayer hose for them. Water is used instead of toilet paper. Some places even have separate stalls with “Indian toilets” and “Western toilets”. Sometimes they even have pictures on them as to how to use the western toilets, so those who aren’t used to them won’t actually stand on the toilet seat to use it like a squat toilet. Or in one mall bathroom, the toilets were labeled “Dry toilet” and it had a picture of a roll of toilet paper and the other was labeled “Wet toilet” with a picture of the sprayer hose. I will say that at my home, I do still use toilet paper, but on occasion when in places without, I have figured out how to adapt. But, I do stick to the rule that other westerners told me, if you want to use toilet paper — you better provide it yourself. As many places will be without.

Kodaikanal Lake

#7 Privacy — I think the hardest thing for me still here is the stares that you get from the men. I can’t ever just go somewhere without being offered 10 taxis and without everyone staring at me. It feels like a dog looking at a really good steak in the store window that he wants to steal, but will never get a taste of. It’s a leering stare that we get more often than not. Sometimes accompanied by catcalling, whistling and/or then laughter from the group of men who are doing this. The more they are tourists from another area or the more they have too much to drink, the more invasive and prying the stares feel. Sometimes it comes from an innocent place of curiosity and interest in the one who is foreign, like the children who just want to say “Hi” to you and ask “What is your name?” because those are the phrases they learned and they want to practice (especially if English is not their mother tongue).

But, I can’t take a walk and be lost in thought, and stop to read a book by the side of the lake; without being stared at and interrupted in my thoughts. I can’t just blend in. I miss that.

Me — standing by the tree at the K-8 campus. Most of the year it was bright and sunny like this.

I will leave you with my poem on my summary of reflections about the culture.

A Wish For Home, With Lasting Memories of Here

I wish to go home and feel the comfort of heat on a cold day, yet not forget those who are without any source of heat.

I wish to feel my body soak in a warm bath, but not forget those who have not enough water to drink — let alone bathe.

I wish to sleep on a soft, cushy mattress, but not forget those who share a bed with their whole family.

I wish to have a family, but not forget those who have many more children than they have food to feed them.

I wish to be free to choose where I want to live and work but not forget those who society has caste into a set job and status.

I wish to write, but not forget those who don’t have access to an education.

I wish to read things written in Roman letters, yet not forget what it’s like to be illiterate in a strange land.

I wish to be surrounded by people who don’t stare at me for being different, yet not forget to have empathy for those who are treated the same way at home.

I wish to be in a land where women who are independent and free thinkers are the norm, yet not forget the women who silently run things behind the scenes but are never recognized or paid what they are truly worth.

I wish to be free to take any public transport or go anywhere on foot and not worry about harassment, yet not forget the plight of those who are still harassed.

I wish to be in a place where there isn’t constant noise from car horns and loudspeakers at all hours, yet not forget the sanctity of the daily calls to prayer.

I wish to remember the love of living without a car and being able to walk most places in my daily life.

I wish to remember the freedom to eat in the school cafeteria and not be subjected to tons of processed foods or foods I’m allergic to.

I wish to remember the feeling of being welcomed into many homes for tea, and being treated immediately like family.

I wish to live simply and be content with what I have.

I wish to continually treasure friendships more than possessions.

I am humbled by the awareness of the upbringing and opportunities I was born into, and I hope to help others to share in the abundance that our world affords.

A pattern in the grass I found fascinating.
A little flower blooming at the bottom of the stairs to my house.
The monkey that decided he wanted to join in with our dance music in the classroom.

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