Marriage concerns and exceptionally old babies

Before I came to India, I had read that a lot of people would ask me whether I was married…just for the informational value. Unsurprisingly then, I have got this question countless times from the locals by now. One guy that I see occasionally at work has asked me this demanding question so often that I have lost count of it, as if he expects me to be married one week, divorced the next and married again in the third week …or something. We have usually had the same routine conversation that goes like this:

“How are you?“

“I’m fine thank you. How are you?”

“Fine. Are you married?”

“No”

“Why not?”

“…I don’t know, I’m not sure…”

I have not yet been able to come up with a sufficient answer to this last question. In fact I think it will require an extensive research on my behalf…I have to decide what to write my Master thesis about within a few days and now I think I’ve got my main research question ready:

Why am I not married?

I will take on extensive research to reach conclusion and not finish till I’ve clinched a concrete and bullet-proof result. Only after that I will be able to provide my colleague from work with a sufficient answer.

Searching for baby clothes at the bazar

One of my best friends became a father recently, so I went to the market (bazar) to buy baby clothes. In my understanding, the word “baby” refers to a brand new kid, maximum a few months old. Google seems to have the same understanding of the word. The merchant at the market had other ideas, as can be seen from our conversation:

“Namaskar…Do you have any baby clothes?”

“Namaskar…Sure, for how old bebe [his pronounciation of the word]? 10 years old? 5 years old? 7 years old?” He stretched his arms to varying lengths to symbolize standard sizes of babies of these age groups.

“No, for a newborn baby”

“OK, but how old? Is it your baby? Are you married?”

“No, I’m not married. It’s a newborn baby, brand new. My friend has it”

“Aaa, newborn OK, yes I have”

Watching a foreigner eat for education and entertainment

Two days before Christmas I went on a field trip with three colleagues from work. We left Udaipur city in the safari jeep and headed out to the rural settings of the district, covering several Gram Panchayat (local government) offices for handing out invitations to trainings and collecting phone numbers of elected representatives.

We stopped for a while in Sarada village, so I was able to open my lunch box and eat at the back of the jeep. Soon after I started eating, a few school kids approached and one said “Aapka nam kya hai?” then giggled and ran a few meters away to an adult, asking him how to say the same in English. The kids then approached again and said “What is your name?” giggled again and ran away. A few moments later, around thirty school kids had gathered behind the jeep and watched me eat my lunch. I was not sure how best to react, but I tried to act like they were not there and just eat. I felt like I was an animal in a zoo, being watched and observed by the children. Some would giggle, others would just stare and a few hit the sides of the jeep (probably curious to see the reaction). They were still standing there in a group when we left the village.

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Desert adventures

My favorite bedtime story when I was a kid was about Sinbad the sailor. I knew it by heart but still I would ask my father to read it for me several times in a row.  This was even before the time of Teletubbies, the children’s TV program that does not hesitate to run the same damn clip three times in a row because the main characters  clap their hands and always ask for repeats of clips of themselves and their stupid activities… “Again! Again!”

Anyway, the story about Sinbad began like this “It was a wonderful day.”  (ísl. Það var ljómandi fagur dagur”) and then it went on to describe his adventures in a desert city. In the stories about Sinbad, he traveled around and encountered some adventures each and every time. Aladdin was also among favorites, not to forget Prince of Persia (a PC game where you were the prince and the mission was to free a princess that was kept hostage at the top floor in a gigantic palace. To do that you had to slaughter the various security guards (bad guys) with your sword, drink magic drinks to heal your wounds etc). What these characters had in common was that their surroundings were very exotic:  deserts, palaces, magic lamps, turbans and magic carpets were things that I never encountered in daily life back then and consequently I found them all very interesting.

A sheep prepares its attack on a fruit stand.

These adventures also made sure that I had unrealistic plans about my future. One of my plans was to have my own big palace in a desert where a princess would be waiting for me when I came home in the evenings and where I would have numerous servants making sure I was never hungry. For snacks they would not serve me grapes though (as in the adventures), because that much grape eating causes diarrhea. Rather it ought to be ice cream and liver pate (I was crazy about liver pate as a kid, ate it with a spoon directly from the box). I was going to have a magic carpet to fly anywhere I wanted anytime I wanted and a shiny silver sword to use whenever bad guys would be in my way. I was going to ride a camel through sand dunes towards the sunset and accidentally run into a magic lamp containing a genie granting me three wishes.

Ever since then, life has mostly been just a series of disappointments. None of the bedtime stories ever mentioned boring duties, hard work, stress, MS Word, Excel, unpaid bills or bureaucracy…Realizing features of a harsh reality one by one has been painful at times: ”WHAT? Can I not have my own palace in a desert nor fly around on a magic carpet? Can I get a refund, please?!”

That said, it might not come as a surprise that riding a camel through the desert for the first time on the last weekend of November was like an old wish being fulfilled, I finally got to see a glimpse of what my plans as a kid would look like in real life. We had two sleepless nights on night buses to get there and back, 12 hours and 14 hours respectively driving through the crappy roads. We went on camel safari for about an hour and watched the sunset from a big sand dune. In the evening we watched traditional show of dancing and a fire swallower. We watched the stars in the pitch black dark before going to sleep in the desert camp. Here are some of the photos from the trip to Jaisalmer and camel safari through the Thar Desert.

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A field visit to Animal Aid

Last Thursday, FSD arranged a workshop to visit an organization called Animal Aid. We got a presentation about how they work as an animal hospital and shelter for street animals. Their aim is to cure the animals (many of which have been hit by cars) and then send them back to the streets. According to the presentation, the animals do not in general have bad lives on the streets, in many cases some people feed them, they have freedom and socialize. Between 70-80% are sufficiently cured, the rest dies there (some come to the hospital in a very bad condition). Below are photos from the visit:

Presenting Animal Aid.

According to the presentation, donkeys are commonly owned by poor people in the city, that use them to carry heavy loads of sand, cement, bricks etc. (upto 90 kg) whereas the offical "safe limit" is 50 kg.

Calf being fed.

Donkeys always look sad.

Feel free to say "aww" or whatever else you might come up with.

A blind monkey.

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Cow dung for cooking

On Saturday, we had a picnic at the Institute. The menu included dal, Indian sweets and these round traditional Indian breads called bati. The way this bread was made caught my attention and photos of picnic preparation can be seen below. By now, I have learned that cow dung is useful in many ways that I would never have imagined before. Take a look at the photos and learn:

Step 1: The bread was deep fried to make it ready for the grill.

Step 2: A cow dung grill is made from lots of dry cowpies.

…and the cow dung burns.
Step 3: Placing the bread on this special grill.

It had to stay there for a while, to acquire the right taste.

Step 4: Take the bread off the grill and wipe the ash off.

The end result. Certainly doesn't look delicious, but it tasted delicious just like the majority of Indian food.

Enjoying this bread and the other food at the picnic.

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Giant sheep, James Bond and the president

James Bond: Octopussy was shot in Udaipur and people are proud of that around here. Why shouldn‘t they be? In fact, they are so proud of it that this movie is shown every night year round at some of the restaurants and hotels downtown. My birthday passed by earlier this week and what better opportunity to head down to the old city to watch this Bond movie at one of the restaurants?

Jagdish Temple (seen from Mayur Café)

As I was walking towards the old city with another intern to meet the third intern, I got this great idea that we could take a short cut and reach Jagdish temple (the meeting point) in like… matter of seconds instead of ten minutes. That was to be done by walking through one of the narrow side streets, so that was what we did. Before we knew, we were surrounded by kids that seemed to pop out of nowhere. They laughed, smiled, screamed, said “Hello!“ and all kinds of words. They ran around us as we were walking, like a tornado except there are no kids in a tornado…but the fast rotating movement and the noise were definitely there. They followed us for a while and more and more joined in but after some time they gave up and left, when they had realized that we weren‘t as exciting and crazy fun as they had thought at first.

A street pig

Soon after that, we discovered that we had entered a maze; there was nothing but more narrow side streets everywhere we looked. But they were very lively, because apart from all the kids we saw on the way, there were hens and roosters jumping out from windows, a woman feeding two giant sheep (double the size I‘m used to seeing) with salad, a cow would suddenly walk out a door right in front of us and block the road etc. In short, our walk through this “maze” was loaded with randomness.

It reminded me of an incident back home from summer last year. A small Icelandic town has established a celebration of the Big Day of Fish, as they call it. It started a few years back and has been growing each year since in terms of attendants. Apparently, many Icelanders see crowding into a small town with their trailers to get fish free of charge as an ideal way to spend a weekend. There are some musicians playing there as well but free fish is the main thing. On that same weekend, I was driving with family members to a big family reunion up north and we decided to drop by at the Big Day of Fish to see what the big fuzz was about. We had been listening to the radio in the car and the hosts who were broadcasting live from the venue could hardly control themselves, it sounded like they were on the verge of wetting their pants: “This is where things are happening! There is fish! There is fun! Some musicians are up on stage, playing jolly songs now on the accordion; people are really having a quality time here at the Big Day of Fish! Hey look! The chef is ready with a new portion of fish soup!”

Unfortunately we didn’t see any fish there when we arrived, the place was overcrowded so we decided to go back to the car after a little walk around. On the way back when we had managed to get away from the fish craving crowd, I ran into the president of Iceland because he popped out of a house all of a sudden as an unexpected obstacle, followed by his wife and then the mayor of this small town (just a wild guess: the couple was invited for a fish buffet at the mayor’s house). This was just as random as the hens, kids and cows that popped out of doors and windows downtown Udaipur the other day. There is some resemblance between Iceland and India after all.

James Bond: Octopussy is easily one of the worst movies I’ve seen, but it was nice to see the scenes from Udaipur and what has changed and what not. The autorickshaws look for example exactly the same as they did back then in 1983.

Diwali is the biggest Hindu festival and it’s going on this weekend. It will be among the topics of my next post.

Sunset from Neemach Mata Temple. Fateh Sagar Lake is below.

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Adapting to hygiene standards and conducting an oral exam

As an Icelander in India, you will need to take your usual standards of hygiene and stick them where the sun doesn’t shine! …at least you will need to adapt to different standards of hygiene:

  • Hot water will commonly not be available.
  • You should eat with your hands.
  • Use a squat toilet and try not to use toilet paper.

Putting these factors into context is quite disturbing for me, but I have adapted to it for the most part. However, I have no plans to adapt to the non-use of toilet paper. The first time I wanted to buy toilet paper here, I had to go to three different stores to find any (one of them was a large grocery store). In the third store I went to I asked if they had any and the cashier went to the lager to check, then came back with one roll after extensive search. When he handed it over to me I felt like I was buying something illegal, half-expecting him to say „Sshh! Sshh! You shouldn‘t let other customers see what we are selling you! They will tell the police!“  Usually, there is only one roll in each pack that you can buy here; toilet paper is (unnecessary) commodity product.

At work I have been conducting oral exams along with my colleagues, who have interpreted for me. The exam is twenty questions based on the Capacity Enhancement Program for the elected representatives of Panchayti Raj (village-level governance). Eight participants (four women and four men) were selected randomly  to be examined at the beginning of the five-day program and the idea was to interview the same eight participants at the end to see how much they had gained from the training (Impact Assessment). Unfortunately, some people were absent today, so I only got to test four participants twice. They all had improved a lot, but it’s not possible to conclude as much with such a few responses. However, there will be a chance to get better results next time at training, which will be in two weeks from now. These are some of the questions from the oral exam:

  • Which work has been given top priority under National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA)?
  • What is the maximum amount of money that can be kept for emergency work in Panchayati Raj?
  • Who are the beneficiaries of Posahar of an Anganwari Centre?
  • One day your daughter in-law informs you that her son has diarrhea and she does not know how to heal him. What would be your advice to her before going to the doctor?
  • Your father has recently passed away. What kind of legal steps will you take? Whom will you notify and why?
  • Panchayat needs money for the repair of a hand pump, but the Sarpanch refuses to sign the check. What should be done?

It was strange for me to sit at the other end of the table for the first time. I am used to being the one who has to answer the questions, but now I had to value answers and give grades. It also felt strange that “my students” were village people of India, all of whom were older than me and half of whom were illiterate (the four women). In general, the women seemed shy and less confident than the men, mentioning illiteracy as a reason for not knowing some of the answers. They haven’t had the same opportunities to seek education, traditionally families have rather encouraged their sons to go to school while their daughters have been encouraged to marry, have kids and take care of the families.

Mahila Sammelans (women's conference) at Mavli village last week.

When 50% reservation to women was introduced in the local governance system (Panchayati Raj), applying from last elections (33% before that), the need for training also increased. The reason is that being illiterate, many women would only act as figureheads, signing their names on agreements while their husbands were the ones making the decisions.

Below are some photos from the 5-day training that I took at the Institute’s Training Center yesterday.

Last day of training.



Grown-ups talking politics...not too interesting.


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Street dogs and special offers

„Hi I am Sunidhi Chauhan and I invite you to enjoy my music. Just dial 51234600 toll free“

I received this text message to my phone every day last week.


Dancing at Dusshera festival on Sunday. Almost enjoying the music as much as I enjoy the music on the phone.

I have to say I am honored that Sunidhi offers me personally to enjoy her music and when I knew it was toll free I didn‘t have to think twice – Now I have been listening (and more importantly: enjoying) her music for hours and hours every day… on the phone. I don‘t mind spending the rest of my student loans on the phone bill as long as it is something that makes me happy and her music does that for sure.

I get many other advertising messages from the phone company, I also get about ten phone calls every day from different phone numbers, where people want to sell me something (I suppose) – typically if I pick up the phone I will hear jolly background music and then even more jolly voice, saying something in Hindi, too bad I don‘t understand what they say, otherwise I would probably buy everything they wanted to sell, I would even take more loans to finance my consumption of these things if necessary.

Enough on the phone company for now. One thing that has already become a routine for me here is going to a voluntary run cultural café on Saturday nights, where mostly foreign interns get together but also some Indians. Sometimes there is live music, in the beginning of Navratri there was Garba dancing (dancing in a circle with wooden sticks) and people can chat and share their ideas. There is no alcohol there, only chai and different food menu every week.

On the way back from there the other week I walked through a dark side street. Before long, a herd (8) of growling street dogs was following me, ready to take their bitterness towards society out on me. I will not admit that I was scared, but I thought about running and possibly screaming also.


This cow seemed a lot friendlier than the street dogs.

Three of them followed me all the way to the home and made their final growls, showing their teeth as I closed the gate, like they wanted to say: “You’ve got your warning mister! Next time, we will rip you apart!” Now I understand why I got a vaccination against rabies before going to India. Occasionally, I’ve heard the street dogs fighting at night and assume that the weakest link is being killed each time.

From work there is not much to write about for now, I’ve just been sitting in the office, working on a brochure that’s ready to be published tomorrow.

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Don’t wash your plate!

Recently I lived in Denmark for one year as a student. I rented a studio apartment there, one of the lamest apartments that I have ever seen. It was painted in dark-grey, except for the anteroom that was pink. There were holes in the walls, loads of silverfish (carpet sharks) running around the floors (occasionally in the kitchen cupboards too), the toilet was hardly working (it really should have been replaced with a new one) and facilities for cooking were very limited. Note to self: Never sign a long-term contract for renting an apartment without viewing it first.

The limited facilities were one reason for lack of variety in my cooking, another reason was that I had other things to think about. By around 6 – 7 pm I usually figured out that I would need to have some kind of dinner if not to starve. Way too many times it ended up being the simplest dishes like pasta or scrambled eggs, some of the ones that require maximum ten minutes preparation. Sometimes when I was eating pasta for the third night in a row, I reminded myself of preparing something better the night after but the next day I had usually forgot. Another thing that seemed to surprise me for some reason was that dishwashing would be needed after dinner.  “Oh no, not again! But I also had to wash the dishes last night!”  I would argue with myself quite often.

Here in India it’s totally different, I never have to think about what to eat because I am served three exotic meals a day. Approximately 90% of the food I have got so far has been marvelous, splendid, sizzling and what not. It has been slightly surprising because honestly I wasn‘t sure what to think when I knew I would be living with a vegetarian family.


One of those delicious dishes, prepared by my hostmother

That has turned out to be unnecessary worries and I think my host mother must be among the best cooks on planet Earth, if not in the whole Galaxy. During orientation week, we (the interns and coordinators) ate at restaurants, usually very good food but what I get here at the house is better, it’s like a class above what I got at the restaurants, believe it or not! On the first day with the family when I had just finished one of these delicious meals I took my plate to the sink and started washing it…my host mother stopped me right away and said there was no need for me to do that, placing it in the sink would do perfectly well. – Then she said these words to me that I will never forget: “Gudmundur, I command you never to do the dishes again, ever! Is that clear?” – For a moment there I thought I was in heaven. (That last part actually didn’t happen; let’s not take it too far). No dish-washing and no grocery shopping for a few months will be very nice though.

I’ve been watching this sitcom several times with my host family. I don‘t understand much of the Hindi, but the people‘s actions and all the different sound-effects make perfect sense to me.

At work I feel like I‘m slowly settling as the days go by. On Thursday I attended Panchayat Mela (e. village meeting) for the second time. There the elected representatives have a chance to speak to some of the higher officials about their difficulties and challenges along with sharing their ideas. This time, a “magic show” was included at the end, where the accountant from the Institute went on stage to show a few tricks.


"Magic Show" at Panchayat Mela

This was not only for the entertainment’s sake, because the purpose is to educate and remove common superstitions among the rural folk; to give natural explanations for some “supernatural” happenings in the villages.

Apart from this I have been setting up a basic website for the Institute, because it didn’t have any. I have also been working on a brochure with mostly the same content as the website: information on this Institute, what it does and why it was founded. Yesterday I was not at work though because of stomach crisis (“Delhi Belly” if you like), the first significant one since I arrived in India, so the CWG contestants in Delhi are not the only ones. I think the cause might be a very spicy fried bread, stuffed with spices, chili and potatoes that I was served at the Panchayat Mela on Thursday, but who knows. Today I’m back to normal, dehydration salts was all it took – I think this will be a good day.

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Creating attention

“Where are you going, sir?…Sir! Where are you going?!“

“I normally don‘t discuss where I am going with strangers on the street“

[Surprised]  ”Oh…but I know a very nice place over there!“ [points towards one of the tourist places close by and mentions its name]

“I have already been there”

[I walk further but the stranger follows]

“Oh…but where are you going, sir?”

“I’m just going to my hotel, OK?”

“OK” [leaves]

This was in New Delhi, as a foreigner there you are bound to get attention. I ignored most of it, but occasionally I responded. The most common question I’ve got is “Where are you from?” and second comes “What is your name?” The majority of people have not heard of Iceland before, so the conversation tends to go somewhere along these lines:

“Where are you from?”

“Iceland”

“No…Where are you FROM?” [I like how they simply deny my answer and decide that I must have misunderstood their question]

“I’m from Iceland”

“Ah, Ireland, ok”

“No, not Ireland, ICEland”

“But it´s part of Britain, right?”

…and so on.

Of the few people that have heard of my country, one said “Ah, volcano!” which wasn’t far off the mark.  For this reason I am slowly but gradually becoming convinced that my country doesn’t exist in reality. Making things up again, even countries, my bad…

Sunset - from hotel Udai Niwas, Udaipur

Then there is my name. Usually it´s hard to pronounce for foreigners, but for the Indians it seems to be extra hard. Gudmundur is my name and Gummi is my nickname, but the Indians have said:

Goormi, Goormondor, Mr. Gud, Mr. Katmandu (“I will call you Mr. Kathmandu, because it sounds similar. You know Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal?”), brother Gudu and more.

I finished my first week at work last Saturday. I have a six-day work week and this first one was strange, summed up shortly below

Day 1: I got some papers to read on what they do at my workplace. I had to ask for some time off though, to go to the Foreigners Registration Office along with another intern and one of my program coordinators. In this office we spent three hours (no time waiting in line though), signed our names around twenty times along with various other information and giving seven passport sized photos, going between offices in the same government complex to get copies of required documents and more. I know I’m not in this country to judge, so I will not comment any further on the procedures at this office.

Day 2: On the next day my boss asked me to read a book of around 200 pages. I did that, but somehow it occurred to me that they had no idea what to use me for – “Oh, shit, one more intern… that we have absolutely no idea how to use! Ah, let’s give him a book to read, that will keep him busy for today!”

Day 3: I went to the field, to be specific it was a hall where elected representatives had the chance to meet and discuss their opinions amongst them, but also with the training staff and officials. This meant I sat and listened to three hours of speeches in Hindi. I had an interpreter that gave me the basics from their talk, but this was for sure not the most entertaining thing I have done.

Day 4: Field visit to nine villages of the Udaipur district. Undoubtedly the best day at work so far, we drove between the villages on dusty roads in a jeep that had no windows on its sides. We handed out flyers about upcoming trainings for the elected representatives, that begun their five year terms earlier this year, after elections. On the way there were many things to observe for me – the people and their activities, women carrying water or fruits around in huge jars on their heads, camels, donkeys, funny looking sheep etc. I had never seen a real camel before I came to India, but they were my favorite animals when I was a kid (based on images and descriptions from books) and when I saw one for real finally, it makes perfect sense.


A camel in one of the villages

How can it not be everyone’s favorite animal, especially when considering its goofy looking teeth sticking out while it´s chewing air, bubble gum or grass?

Day 5 and 6: Developing a work plan for the coming months and a few other things.

As mentioned above, I get a lot of attention from strangers on the streets. Kids often smile and say “hello” when I walk by. I imagine seeing me is for them similar to when I saw a zebra in a zoo as a kid. Before that, I had only seen pictures of zebras and sometimes they had popped up in cartoons. “They couldn’t have been born with these black stripes! Someone must have painted them!”  I thought. Or were they born black and white stripes painted on them by some weird person? This kept me wondering for hours as I recall and I smiled when I saw a real zebra, maybe I also said “hello”, can’t remember. The Indian kids must think that someone has painted me and the other interns in this strange color – and there you have a good reason to smile and say “hello!”

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Introduction

My name is Gudmundur. I am from Iceland and currently I am doing an internship in India, that counts as one semester of my postgraduate studies in International Relations* at Aalborg University in Denmark. I applied for an internship here through a U.S. based NGO called Foundation for Sustainable Development (FSD), that arranges placements for interns with local NGO‘s around the world.

FSD encourages their interns to write blogs during their internships for various reasons. This blog will focus on development as I see it through my work at the Institute of Local Self-Government and Responsible Citizenship. As work is not the only new thing for me here in India, I will also give my perspective on the culture, the people, the food and more in this largest democracy of the world.  Photos will be included every now and then to add to the whole thing.

Why blog?

  • It helps me sum up my experience and put it into perspective.
  • To inspire others to take a break from their normal routine, go out and explore.
  • As a help for getting grants if/when I find time to apply for them

*The official name of my studies and stream of choice is: Culture, Communication and Globalization: International Relations and the Global Order. To keep things simple, I normally say that I‘m studying International Relations.

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