Tuesday, July 1, 2008

A Year Later

I have been back in the States for about a year now. Initially it was a difficult transition, as one might expect. Then life became...life again. As it should. But I have to say, I am continually amazed - and honored - by the responses I am still getting from people who stumble across the tales of my exploits and insights below. Thank you, all of you. Your words are so incredibly kind and so full of excitement...it is truly inspiring. I think that, perhaps, the reactions I've gotten from people who read my writings has left an impression on me that nearly equals that of my experiences overseas. So...Thank you. For reading, for caring, and for believing in me.

Friday, February 23, 2007

India: A Final Wrap-Up

"So what is India really like?" I always get this question. It's like I have the secret truth, hidden somewhere. I don't have the answer, but after surviving for four months there, I do have a few things to say. And yes, I said survive. Because India is a place to be survived. Lonely Planet likes to convince you otherwise, with glossy photos of temples and shrines, crumbling old forts and soaring palaces that the Mughals liked to erect at every corner of their empire. There are the token photos of women wrapped in brightly colored fabrics and of grinning street urchins. Pictures of far and exotic hill tribes where people still wear traditional dress, and wrinkled faces stare out from the photos with old, wise-seeming eyes.

Yes, I saw all those things. But after traipsing around the entire subcontinent for four months, I can tell you that India is not found in those exotic images. So where did I find it? I found it in the relentless hassling from street vendors who try to sell you everything from samosas to bootleg DVDs to hashish to men's underwear. Yes, they tried to convince me that I needed men's underwear. ("I give you good price, cheap price, best price just for you!") It's in the endless haggling and bargaining with every rickshaw driver, hotel attendant, street food seller, newspaper man, chai seller, train ticketer...on and on. There is no such thing as a fixed price in India, so don't believe it if anyone tries to convince you of such. Many Indians warned me repeatedly to never trust another Indian, because they will surely rip me off. And they did, even though I got the knack of it after a while, I still knew I was being taken for a ride. My only consolation was the hope that I was a little tougher, a little wiser than the next tourist to come along.

I found India in the surprisingly catchy Bollywood film music and movie industry. The bollywood star is the modern day Raj. People love to blast Hindi pop music at ear-splitting levels, out of shops on street corners, through the open windows of cars on the street - and especially during long overnight bus rides when you're extremely tired and cranky.

I found India in the smells. The good: frying samosas, egg roll-ups, every combination of curry and tandori cooking imaginable. The spicy and woodsy, pungent aroma of incense that wafts up from shrines and out through the doorways of temples. And of course, even more memorable were the bad smells: human and animal waste along the paths and roads down which you walk, piles and piles of rotting garbage that line the streets and any open ground space. Open sewer systems (I mean, raw sewage that runs down open channels dug into the sides of roads and alleyways.) The sickly sweet stench of the rivers and streams that they dump any and all trash and sewage into. The exhaust and diesel fumes and air pollution that are a result of a lack of government-managed auto emissions regulations. I will never again complain about having to take my car into to get inspected every year, because I've seen what the alternative is.

But I think the place where you can really find India, in every sensory and experiential way imaginable is through one activity: riding in the sleeper class on an Indian train. The Indian railway system is a miracle of efficiency and organization (considering the state of the rest of the country). There are numerous classes (and prices) at which you can ride the train. Many trips take 12 hours or longer because such long distances have to be covered, so many journeys are overnight and most often your seat is actually a berth, a pull-out bed to sleep on. Most tourists opt for the spacious and clean(er) air conditioned cars. But not Ryan and I. Out of sheer brass, bravery, stupidity, or maybe just plain cheapness, we always rode the lower class of the reserved sleeper car. This put us in with all the average middle-class Indians and families, with a small handful of a very few budget backpackers thrown in. And while we felt pretty tough and hardcore and culturally sensitive, there was also a dash of insecurity over our own white privilege that played a factor (shhh.) Yes, we saved money, but most importantly we got the chance to experience traveling through India as real Indians do.

So what's it like in a sleeper car on a long train journey? We made many considering how friggin huge the subcontinent is. (Our longest ride was a 36-hour marathon from Kolkata to Chennai.) Everyone scrambles onto the train and busies themselves with securing their bags and luggage to their seats with locks and chains (remember, never trust another Indian). People settle in and get to know each other, strangers become friends within minutes. Ryan and I are usually left performing creative hand gestures and charades to try to explain where we're from and why the hell we're not with all the other tourists in the AC car. Books and newspapers and the occasional ipod emerge. And, never fail, there is always at least one or two jovial men who pull out a bottle of rum or whiskey. These guys, understandably, make more friends faster than anyone else. The rum drinkers usually get an upper berth - people like to keep them tucked up and out of the way, as they tend to get a little noisy, laughing and drinking above our heads most of the night. And yes, one time, after much cajoling, I took a swig of rum myself with the men in the upper berth. Ryan thought I was insane, but the Indian guys slapped their knees and howled in laughter at the fact that they got to share a drink with a white girl in a sleeper car.

Throughout the day, every time the train slows down to a stop at a station, different vendors jump on and walk briskly down the aisles selling everything you could imagine. Roasted peanuts, biscuits and cookies, channa massala, egg-and-bread omelets, fried vegetable patties and samosas, water, beer, tobacco, betel nut, paan leaf, bananas, and of course, chai and coffee (which they spell, 'kofi'.) I swear I will never forget the sound of the Chai wallahs yelling out, "Chai, chai, kofi kofi, masala chai, garaam chai, garaam kofi chai." (garaam = hot, masala = spicy) The fun doesn't stop there. People come through selling decks of playing cards, belts, pens, cellphones, cigarettes, collared shirts, newspapers, magazines, little wooden children's toys. One guy even came through selling pens with flashlights built onto their caps - and people actually bought them. Gypsy kids come through with drums and dance and sing folk songs, and then beg for money. Indian drag queens sashay down the aisles and flirt with the straight men until they fork over a few rupees to get them to move on to the next car. It was incredible. This is the real India.

On a different note, India is also the harshest country I have ever experienced. It hardens you. Especially for a white woman with light-colored hair and blue eyes. I couldn't have stuck out more. For four months I was stared at, gawked at, leered at. I had to walk down crowded streets with my head held high through cat calls and whistles, through disgusting sexual advances, both verbal and physical. It has to be said. I won't dwell on it, but India is notoriously one of the most difficult places for a white woman to travel. I felt like i had to grow invisible armor around me, to shield me and protect me. It was by far the most challenging aspect of this entire trip. Women in these countries wear veils and burkhas for very good reasons. I know there were many times I wish I had one.

But finally, the strongest impression that I left India with was the extraordinarily complex and invasive impact of colonialism. Today's India is a product of hundreds of years of British colonial rule. And a colonial power brings in much more than an organized railway system and English-medium private schools. The West has colonized Indian internal identity like no where else I have ever seen. Nearly every Indian I spoke to glorified everything that is western - clothes, music, television, literature, schooling, language. They all dream of someday making it to Europe or, even more so, America. And too many Indians look upon their own culture and history with disdain; as lesser and undeveloped, especially in regards to rural village culture. The greatest sources of pride are the modern (ie; western) aspects of India. The booming technological industry, the emphasis on science and engineering, and places that garner international attention such as Bombay and New Delhi. Globalization, increased access to communication and an overwhelming focus and preference towards western media...it's all changing the world. And it's definitely changing India. I am in no place to judge a country, a culture, a people for what they aspire to be. I just hope that what emerges is not a hasty, desperate imitation of the west, but perhaps, instead, a hybridization. Something that manages to protect and sustain the beautiful, rich tapestry of Indic culture and history, while simultaneously incorporating useful and progressive aspects of western culture. That possible eventuality would be a treasure; for Indians, westerners, and the world as a whole.


Wednesday, January 31, 2007


Holding hands. Resting your fingers on someone's arm. Sitting on laps, arms slung around shoulders, ankles propped up unconsciously on a friend's thighs. For all of India's harshness, she has a definite softer side. Amongst men and amongst women (but not between the two,) Indians regularly show a level of friendly intimacy that far surpasses anything I've seen in America. It is normal to see two Indian men walking down the street, holding hands or draping an arm over the other's shoulders. Chains of school girls, linked hand in hand, usually giggling at me as they walk past. A man sitting at an internet terminal would think nothing of it should his buddy sidle over and flop down onto his lap to read what he has written on the screen. Women that meet on the train who barely know each other for five minutes will suddenly be plaiting each other's hair and passing someone's cranky toddler back and forth. It's a level of trust and comfort in people, in strangers, that I have never seen before.

As a farangi (a foreigner), I am closed out of these circles. And it's lonely on the outside. But, every once in a while, I was given a taste of the inside. I was in
Varanasi one day, sitting on the stone steps of the ghats that line the banks of the holy river Ganges, when an adorable little girl named Abba came up to me with a basket of banana-leaf bowls filled with carnation flowers and votive candles. "One piece, five rupee?” she squeaked at me, in a sing-song little girl voice. Religious devotees and tourists alike purchase these little offering bowls, light the candle, and float them out onto the water with a prayer for the health and wealth of their families. I had no chance; little Abba charmed a 5-rupee coin out of my pocket within minutes, so the holy Ganga has heard my prayer. After it was clear to Abba that she was not going to get any more rupees out of me, she flashed me a cute smile of surprisingly healthy-looking white teeth and inquired, "You give me chocolate?" She twirled her skirt back and forth in an unconscious, endearing 8-year-old-girl type of way. I had no chocolate, and that smile closed up shop in two seconds flat. She studied me for a while with those piercing dark eyes of hers. They looked so big in her small face. Finally, she waggled her head in the distinctly South Asian sign of approval. She clambered up the steps to sit down next to me and, without any hesitation, proceeded to hook her arm around my knee and lay her head in my lap. Startled, I immediately froze; the sudden feeling of physical contact when you weren't expecting it and haven't had experienced it for so long was a shock. But I soon relaxed and then just basked in the easy comfort and trust she showed me in that gesture. Abba and I rested like that, her arm pillowing her head in my lap. I gently rubbed my hand in circles on her back, and we sat in silence and watched the world float by down the Ganges River.

It felt so good just to touch and be touched in such an innocent, friendly way by Abba that my eyes stung with emotion. I realized then the power of physical touch; it truly is one of our most basic of human needs. Traveling as Westerner in
India can be incredibly lonely. But sometimes, usually when I was by myself, another Indian or Tibetan woman would rest her hand on my shoulder as we walked down the street, or grasp my hands in hers while we talked. And every time, my initial surprise was quickly replaced with a flood of warmth and gratitude.

This is one area where Indians have it well figured out. In
America we apologize if we accidentally lean into or move by someone in the subway. Even a slight brush on the arm while walking down the street is cause for an "oh, excuse me." Friends are different. Friends can link arms and hold hands. And unlike in India, in America couples can be affectionate in public. What we are missing is that comfort among strangers. We are taught to mistrust by default. To touch someone you don't know is considered offensive and inappropriately intimate. But give four Indian men in a train compartment a few minutes to exchange names and pleasantries and I swear it would seem as if you were looking at a group of life-long friends. Before long they would be holding hands, slapping each other's backs in humor and passing around food to be shared. And ten minutes before these men had never seen each other in their lives.

Eventually, when I saw a train roll into the station with so many Indians crammed inside that they were spilling out of the doors and windows like a human version of an overstuffed can of sardines, I knew that what looked like hell to a personal-space-conscious American like me was to all of them just a tight and cozy train ride that always filled up like that at rush hour. No problem. Everyone made it off unscathed; and better yet, they left the train with five new friends. Five friends that they may never see again in their lives, but five friends that made the train ride much more enjoyable for all.

Thank you for trusting me Abba. Thank you for letting me in.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

Our Crazy Rooster

In India, you never really leave the village behind. Cows compete with motor bikes for right-of-way in Delhi's busy streets, and chickens and goats crowd sidewalks outside of internet cafes and upmarket western chain stores. In similar spirit, around our hut on the beach in Goa we have an assortment of farm animals, namely cows, pigs, chickens, and roosters. See in India, Old McDonald had a beach...Ohm-ah, ohm-ah, ohmmm.

I discovered something recently; roosters can actually fly. I thought they just clucked and sauntered around, bobbing their heads to some fowl internal beat that only they could hear. But no, they fly. I know this because I saw one the other day, fleeing in utter terror from a rather playful Labrador mutt. The beach dogs here are the most relaxed dogs in India, but they do like to play, unfortunately for the rooster. It made for a funny sight; the dog bounding after the frantic rooster, who ran with surprising speed for a bird, and then took to the air when the dog got close enough to nip a tail feather, crowing up a storm the entire time. When the dog finally gave up its winged quarry, the rooster squawked in a distinctly incredulous and offended manner for quite some time. It was only when I saw the dog chase the same rooster across the beach again the next day that I began to understand the scope of this poor bird's traumatic daily existence.

Later that night I learned just how deeply disturbed this bird is. The rooster clearly suffers from post traumatic stress disorder, the most prominent sign being his heightened startle response. Like a war veteran who jumps at the sound of a car backfiring, our slightly cuckoo cock crows at just about everything. Right now as I write this it's 3:37 a.m. and I swear that damn bird has cockadoodledooed at every goddamn wave that's reached the shore for the past two hours. On top of that, when he crows he sets off all the other roosters crowing down the beach. It's like a horrible screeching domino effect that starts again very twenty seconds, as the waves keep on coming. So basically I live on a very loud stretch of sand populated by a horde of traumatized and confused roosters. (A loud crash of a particularly big wave just sent the rooster off on another rant, which was of course echoed by his confused brethren up the beach.) Granted I know this is probably the cock who shtooped the hen that laid the eggs that went into my tasty masala omelet this morning, but still. India, you are too much.

Monday, January 1, 2007

Monkeys, Elephants, and Indian Aerobics

Indian Calisthenics: The scene was 5:30 a.m., sunrise at the beach in Pondicherry, a postcolonial French town on the Southeast coast of India on the Bay of Bengal. I got up to watch the sun rise, expecting a quiet and deserted beach. Hardly! And it was quite a scene, to my American eyes. Pople were out doing all the things we do when we exercise in the morning at home…just Indian-style. Women power-walked up the promenade in saris and Nike sneakers, often in matching colors. Men were jogging in skintight sweatpants and were wearing sweatbands that I swear were straight out of a 1980’s Richard Simmons video. Others just jogged in their dhotis (white wraparound skirts.) Then there was the aerobics and yoga on the sand. Surprise surprise, Indians don’t look like Americans when they do yoga! Men performed arm circles, lunges and toe touches with such enthusiasm that I was worried they would dislocate something. Then there was this one move where they vigorously pumped their arms together and apart. My guess is that it was to build and gather energy or prana or something, but they kind of looked like a bunch of penguins exuberantly applauding the ocean for reaching the shore again and again.
Best Recent Animal Experience: The holy elephant outside a nearby Shiva temple. Seemingly content and undoubtedly bored, the elephant stands on a sturdy platform to the right of the temple entrance and sports a freshly painted design on his forehead everyday, usually in red, gold, and purple tikka powder. Pilgrims flock to the temple to make offerings and perform puja, and they invariably hit up the elephant for a blessing on the way in or out. Actually, it’s really the other way around. First they buy a 10 rupee banana leaf plate with rice, bananas, and coconut from the wallahs nearby, to give to the elephant in offering. (Note: The elephant is standing under a sign on which it is clearly written in Hindi, Tamil, and English, “Do not feed the elephant rice, bananas, or coconut.” Really.) Then the pilgrim holds up the plate and the elephant swings his trunk and smartly plucks it from their outstretched hands, put it in his mouth, and then swings his trunk back up and thwacks them on the head. And just like that, you’ve been blessed. Also, I bet you didn’t know this: elephants have very hairy trunks. Yes, I petted his trunk. It was very muscly and warm, with leather skin that wrinkled in lines that reminded me of my dad’s forehead when his eyebrows shoot up in surprise or disbelief. A warning: if you ever pet an elephant’s trunk, watch out for the snout. Elephants have snot just like the rest of us, but in much more copious amounts. Otherwise, fantastic animals.
Snacks You Can Get On the Street: Fresh coconut milk. So fresh, it’s still in the coconut. Wagons overflowing with the fruit dot the streets in south India. The seller hacks a hole in the top with a machete, sticks in a straw, and presto; sweet milky drink. Delicious but slightly awkward to handle when you try to drink and walk down the street. (Sloshing is a problem in a mobile coconut.) Other fresh fruits we have here are guava, pineapple, pomegranate, papaya and mango. Another favorite snack of mine is fresh corn on the cob roasted and smoked over charcoal, then coated with limejuice, salt, and chili pepper. Very, very, very hot chili pepper. It was like a 5-alarm fire in my mouth. But so tasty. Then there is everything and anything that could possibly be drenched in sugary syrup and deep-fried. Spicy samosas, made right in front of you, usually served with tomato chutney or relish to dip in. And then, of course, the best chai in the world. Seriously. They serve it in little terracotta clay cups that you are supposed to smash on the ground when you finish your tea, so that they can’t be reused. The whole caste tradition of purity and pollution dictates this. One mouth per cup. P.s. – chai tastes much better in a clay cup.
Best Human-Animal Interaction: Cheeky monkeys. I was sitting on my backpack on the platform at the station, waiting for our train. So much goes on at an Indian train station. People milling around, talking, reading, sleeping and begging. The usual. I was just reading my book, minding my own business when a chapatti (Indian pita bread) suddenly falls from the sky and hits me on the head. Startled, I looked around to see if someone had thrown it (which would make no sense, given how precious food is here,) when I heard some excited chittering above me. I looked up and saw three monkeys literally hanging from the rafters over my head! One had apparently dropped his purloined pita, and was not very happy about it. Not wanting the monkey to come down to me and retrieve it (they’re really big and disarmingly intelligent, and more than a little intimidating,) I tossed the chapatti up at them and one reached out from his perch and caught it! As a former centerfielder I was impressed with his reach, though the form was lacking. And my coach always frowned upon doing happy dances and screeching when we caught a ball, though considering it was a monkey catching a chapatti, I probably shouldn’t be so critical.
Getting food at this train station was a challenge, for certain aforementioned simian reasons. It proved too much for one unsuspecting woman who had just procured herself a tasty bread and masala omelet. The vendor had wrapped it in a page from The Daily Hindu to keep the grease off her fingers. Neither of them saw the monkey that quietly moved along the crossbeam over the woman’s head, and then in a beautiful execution of the classic drop-down/hold-on/swipe-item/get-the-hell-out-of-dodge move, the monkey dangled from one foot and snatched the omelet right out of her hands and scurried off, victorious. The vendor yelled and brandished his shoe at the fleeing criminal, but the monkey just bared his gums at him and happily devoured his breakfast. Hunting and gathering, be it in the wild or at the train station. Only here the kill is nicely cooked, spiced, and wrapped up for you.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

The People Who Live in the Street

I’ve wanted to write about this for a long time, but I could never seem to find the words. Maybe it’s because there really are no words to describe these people, their lives. The word itself, ‘people’. Person. Human. What does that entail? Food, shelter, safety, the ability to bathe? Because the people who live on the street here in India lack these most basic of human needs. Thin bodies, some almost skeletal, wrapped in dirty rags. No shoes. No pillows or mattress to soften the hard ground that they sleep on every night. The most heartbreaking are the children. Dirty and barefoot, clothes caked in filth, eyes rheumy with infection, hair stiff with lice. They look up at me with big, challenging eyes and mime putting invisible food to their mouth, pleading. It’s overwhelming because there are just so many of them. And then there are those people who suffer gross deformities. A man with unseeing eyes, milky with cataracts. A woman with deformed stumps where hands should be, victim of leprosy. People missing fingers, feet, limbs. Men with legs withered and shrunken to twigs by polio, who drag themselves across the ground with their arms to tug on your pant legs and touch your shoes, asking for money. What do you do? What on earth are you supposed to do? I have given money, biscuits, food, clothes; but there is no end to their need. There is no end to them. For the 100 or so beggars I see here every day in Bodhgaya, there are millions upon millions throughout this country, living in slums and tent cities. Anything you give is but a drop in the ocean.
So every day I have to walk by them, and my shoes feel too comfortable, my body and clothes too clean, my stomach too full. They hold up their bandaged hands and their glassy-eyed, malnourished babies and beg me for food and money. And a little part of me dies inside every time I swallow my pity and revulsion and smile at them, placing my palms together in traditional greeting, and say, “Namaste.” Because ultimately that is the best I can do for them; to treat them like people, and greet them in kind.
The weight and scope of India’s poverty is staggering. It is a systemic problem throughout the country that is fueled by a deeply ingrained caste system, corrupt political leadership, and a complete lack of social services. But this large, abstract problem has very real and tragic faces. I don’t have an answer, I am at a loss. But I feel that if nothing else, the first responsibility of any government should be to ensure the health and safety of its people. And in this, India has a very long way to come.

Friday, November 10, 2006

A Lighter Addendum

I left the email terminal in Kathmandu last night a tad bit drained after writing that last post, and I fear the reading of it will be similarly intense. So I thought a lighter coda might be welcome, for both you and me. Here are a few choice observations, one month in…
-Agra has had the most diverse wildlife so far. Mixed in with the humans, cars, motorbikes, bicycles and such in the busy streets of Agra, we saw cows, oxen, donkeys, dogs, cats, birds of various plumage, quite a few cheeky monkeys, a rooster and one rather bored camel. I took a picture of the camel; he looked at me, smacked his lips, and was altogether unmoved.
-The craziest thing about handmade carpets is that they are actually made by hand. We went to a carpet showroom and watched two men at a loom furiously knot and slice the wool thread at dizzying speeds. Then the manager ushered us into his showroom and had his boys unfurl carpet after magnificent carpet at our unworthy feet. Each one took anywhere from three months to four years to complete. After thirty minutes, however, his sales pitches bore no fruit. Little did he know that Ryan and I have thus far only spent money on food, water, shelter, and a few necessary pieces of clothing; it goes without saying that carpets don’t fit into our $6-10/day budget. The owner finally turned to me and asked what kind of carpet I was looking for. So I asked him if he had any that could fly. I explained to him that in that case I could justify the purchase as part of our transportation expenses. He paused and then flashed a hasty smile. All hopes of a sale were dashed, and Ryan and I (and our tight budget) made a quick exit.
-I knew I had really been in India a while when I recognized the tune of a poplar Hindi pop song on someone’s cell phone ring.
-The respect of your fellow travelers in the exciting-and-exotic-and-conveniently-cheap developing world seems directly proportional to the level of your disregard for personal safety. Example of a hypothetical American neo-cowboy: “Yeah, I went to Kashmir. No big deal, not dangerous at all. I wasn’t scared for a second. Next I’m going to Pakistan for a weekend holiday. Then I’m going to Iran where I plan to run through the streets naked, waving my American passport, and yell at them to accept Jesus as their savior.” Murmurs of awe and approval rippled through the dirty and unshaven backpacker crowd…
-Three things that have made me feel really free:
1. Hurtling down jam-packed Indian streets in the back of an auto-rickshaw, a peppy little three-wheeled tuk-tuk powered by a zupped-up outboard lawnmower engine, usually driven by a crazed Indian man with a death wish and a pension for squeezing into nonexistent spaces between cars, motorbikes, dividing walls, massive trucks and cows alike.
2. Deciding after a shower one night that my too-long tresses absolutely had to go, and then taking a pair of scissors and chopping a good five to six inches off myself. I now proudly sport a just-above-the-shoulder-length, randomly layered do that bounces and curls quite nicely and is not such a bitch to clean. And I look really cute.
3. The Punjabi-style genius of fashion that is the kurta salwar. Loose and light baggy cotton pants, a short-sleeved tunic top and a pretty scarf in colors so bright that it looks like a box of crayola crayons threw up on you. It’s cool in the heat and keeps warm air around your skin in the cold, and garners either respect or giggles from Indian passersby. Mom, you’d appreciate it; it’s really just a culturally acceptable way to wear pajamas all day. And the pants make me feel like I’m a genie who’s just busted out of her lamp. Hoowah!