A Passion for Peace

Responsibility, respect and a loving connection with all beings and for this Earth we share.

Now That's What I Call Customer Service

Last week my landlady didn't sign for a package for me, I got a delivery attempt notice the next day, and thus precipated a series of calls, at least five calls and 20 minutes/day because I was either hung up on, put on hold and then hung up on, put on hold and transferred to someone new I had to start over with, put on hold and transferred to someone new I had to start over with and then hung up on...etc. Every time I finally got through I was promised the package would be delivered that very afternoon for sure. I was promised that on Thursday, and Friday, and Saturday, didn't bother to call Sunday, and on Monday was told the package was returned to sender in Calcutta. My response to this was to call exactly a bazillion times, insist I speak to a manager and refuse to be put on hold. I think this strategy just caused even more transfers and allowed for exciting eavesdropping of employees fiddling with wrappers and munching on their lunches. I also refused their first solution that I needed to call the sender and see if they received the returned package and can remail it. I said, it's your (TNT, evil courier) fault, you figure it out. Finally, I was told actually it wasn't returned to sender and a local carrier would call me. If you think I got a call, I have some oceanfront property in Switzerland to sell. Then tonight I got home and found a package on my bed. The card reads:
To Jenifer Peter JOhn [typo intentional]
Wish You A Very
Happy And Cheerful
Birthday. God Bless
You Chellam.
Selvaraj P.
and contains a plastic candy dish, bag of cashews and bag of raisins. Upon consulting my friend who surreptitiously asked "how the dried fruit was" a few days ago, I discovered this was intended to be a sweet Christmas gift and what I eventually received was not what he ordered. His turn to yell. (Photo: two angles of yet another flower I can't identify)

Then again, when a friend and I went to midnight mass on Christmas Eve the chairs were being stacked, because it had been held at 9 o'clock instead. And to top off the Scrooge-i-ness, on Christmas during a game of table tennis at the sports' club, someone stole my friend's phone out of her purse (we suspect the light-eyed watchman who kept walking in and out and made us keep the purses by his desk, because when we first called her phone someone answered and we heard music in the background of a holiday party in another part of the club, clearly the work of his co-conspirator!). A coworker keeps saying, "I promise, we're really normal, we Indians. I don't know how you meet so many weirdos and have so much trouble." I know by now when a store tells me they'll order a book and call me I better ask another store to do the same, and that between them I have about a 10% chance it'll come. I'm onto you, Indian customer service! The irony is, India is the outsource hot spot for US customer service. I know it can be done well here. Maybe it's another instance of doing something better for the white folks... (Photo: random local Christmas cheer)

Cleaning being done well, however, I'm not so sure. The concept of using different rags for, oh, say, the bathroom and the kitchen counter hasn't caught on, nor has using cleaning products other than water unless I buy an unopened bottle and hand it to the maid, which guarantees she will go product-crazy and use the entire 2 liters (litres, India?) in one small bathroom. Also, cleaning appears to be like the proverbial tree in the forest: if no one's home, she doesn't have to clean or do dishes, and somehow thinks we won't notice when we get home? Try again. My roommates seem to believe this as well: today I put a fresh roll of toilet paper in the bathroom, it disappeared around noon, and reappeared at night as an entirely empty roll. 

Also, despite poor customer service at the previous medical center, either I am the universal giver (O-), another lab is wrong, my blood type changed, or my US records have been wrong for a really long time. Knowing one's blood type is a useful thing, and not just for Japanese horoscopes. Public service announcement of the day: next time you get a blood test, throw in a blood typing. While I'm at it, turn off your appliances when you're not using them, yay florescent light bulbs and rechargeable batteries and fans instead of a/c and all that climate jazz. And I like Thomas Friedman.

Ad in a magazine: "I only want to marry a man who's too smart to marry me!" I have no idea what it was advertising, but I laughed out loud in the beauty parlor and garnered more stares than on a normal day. Then I walked outside and saw this:

I'm off to Thailand tomorrow--Happy New Year and full blue moon (whether you see a rabbit or man, or neither like me)!

Posted byValerie at 3:47 AM 4 comments  

Avatar Foreign Policy

SPOILER ALERT: Today I went to see the new Avatar movie in 3-D. To those who say the true star of the film is Pandora, the planet, and the mise-en–scéne Cameron created, I say right on. The bio-luminescence and gargantuan interconnected banyan and willow forest of fantasy foliage are truly awesome. While I liked the physical connection of living fibers as representations of the idea that all life forms are a part of one universal energy, I found the element overused, as if audiences wouldn’t buy the idea without a physical representation. The story, an outer space Dances with Wolves set in an alien Ferngully, leaves much to be desired. In a nutshell: (1) white man learns native ways for white exploitation, (2) white man betrays other white men to help natives (the Na’vi), (3) natives feel betrayed by white man when other white men attack, (4) white man easily manages feat few natives have managed in order to re-earn their trust, (5) white man leads natives to victory and joins native life for good. When one of the Na’vi says, “We have tried to teach sky people. It is hard to fill a cup that is already full,” the sentiment certainly rings true not just throughout history, but ironically in this movie, and not in the way Cameron intends. By pivoting the plot around a white man-cum-savior who quickly learns and takes advantage (from reporting on the sacred structural design of their home base to using Na’vi prayer to try to save his scientist friend after the deaths of so many Na’vi), and is ultimately able to rally all natives on Pandora to fight against the white men and win their collective freedom from commercial mining exploitation (insert obvious Middle East oil reference here), the Na’vi and other native peoples may as well be another herd of hammerhead rhinos, rather than humanoids. It seems Cameron is saying a problem created by white people requires a white person to solve—but not just any white person, a “thoughtful” one who sees the value of another culture to the extreme extent of ditching his own in favor of saving it.

Could this be more black or white? Where is the gray area for people who try to be open to other cultures, to the point of, oh, let’s say, moving to India to, perhaps idealistically, help be a force of positive social change by using their Western knowledge and not-yet-full cup to further a project of local design, scope and impact? People committed to making a positive impact while recognizing as much as they try to learn from locals, they cannot possibly solve local problems, especially conflicts? And that local issues are best solved by home grown solutions by those who are really in it, and outsiders’ best help is imparting their knowledge and experience as and when locals ask for it? Instead we have another perfectly imperfect white man who first ruins and then (if not saves) salvages native life. I hope nothing I work on makes me later think I should’ve kept my hands (or more likely in my case, my research, discussions, endless over-thinking and mad-typing fingers) out of it altogether. Let’s stop this stereotype. Isn’t electing Obama supposed to be a sign that we Americans are at least ostensibly trying to stop the mistaken-American-turned-hero method of foreign policy? Isn’t that why he got the (albeit a bit ridiculous) Peace Prize?

I think the greatest way to help is to empower people to help them develop ways to solve their own problems (hence mediation over judgment), and be available to listen and offer one’s own knowledge and experience when and how others ask for it. In any case, I try to live by that. Maybe someday Hollywood will agree. Until then, Avatar is entertaining, and my advice is to get lost in the scenery and not the story.

Posted byValerie at 9:09 PM 1 comments  

A Bombay Holiday

Today was one of those perfect Bombay alone days. I got a good chunk of work done in the morning, wandered the streets to my personal one-eared ipod soundtrack (bought new headphones because one of my earbuds went out, and two weeks later one of the new ones has gone out too, so I think it's meant to be), browsed a bookstore for longer than I should admit, stopping myself when my books-to-buy pile hit five. I’ll need more for rural South Africa, and I’m such a nerd, they’re all non-fiction and mostly world-medicine-related tomes I can reread and study. Strange hobby, I know. That, and I want to work on my language learning. (Photos: look, look! I decorated the chair, since I can’t tape to the walls)
Speaking of strange, some friends and I attended Khai fest 2009, the local Hanukkah fest which was a cross between a community talent show, a Holi show and a fundraiser. I have never been to a Hanukkah fest, and certainly not with belly-dancing, Hindi comedians, Indian classical singing, bollywood dance, and even a tacky auction to light the menorahs that only some sucker white people in the audience participated in (insert Jewish money joke here). My favorite line was when one young man said he needs to find a good Jewish wife, but whenever he meets an Indian Jew he first asks, “Are we related?” To cap off Hanukkah, aka Jewish Diwali, I had a Hanukkah dinner (which I called my Jewish birthday so friends let me pay, because the birthday girl treats here instead of the other way around), where I taught the dreidel game, and we took turns lighting candles in little bowls as a makeshift menorah over Jewish/Lebanese/Greek snacks. (Videos: Jewish belly dancing and Indian dance)
Then I went to an expensive Western-priced mall (as in $40 tops expensive!) all decorated and lit for Christmas, although I have yet to hear any Christmas songs besides a few reggae ones on my computer a friend sent. As much as I grow weary of the same twenty songs in repetition for the month following Thanksgiving, it doesn’t feel like the holidays without them—nor in 90-degree heat at night. I’m pretty sure any nostalgia for cold weather could be quickly cured by one visit to India’s first ice bar. It’s just so expensive…well, $16, but I could travel by train across the country for (less than) that. Also, being white automatically merits me ‘Merry Christmas’ wishes, and people are very proud that they know Christmas is coming. Today I was invited to a midnight mass in a nearby garden. I’ve never been to a midnight mass, either, so I suppose I might as well. The most Christmas-y conversation I’ve had involved an argument that Santa is the best marketer in the world, which I suppose is fitting in a country where the business section of a bookstore is nearly as big as the fiction section. (Update: I am sitting in a Tea Leaf and Coffee Bean in South Bombay listening to a choir caroling with a guitar, keyboard and amp system, and half the choir appears to be Hare Krishna)
Now, a quick thank you to enteroquinol (which is banned in the West due to eyesight damage claims I shall ignore) for ridding me of whatever crazy dizziness-inducing bug I had. And the random observation of the day: TATA, a private Parsi conglomerate that’s in every industry from tea to steel to telecom to the Taj hotels (and began in the 1860’s in opium trade in Bombay), owns India. As I was marveling this to a friend, he informed me that actually, Reliance Industries is the second-largest private conglomerate in the world (started in just the 1960’s) and accounts for 3.5% of India’s GDP. So I guess I take it back. Reliance owns India, but Reliance, you need to advertise better. I didn’t know. (Photo: random Parsi architecture)
While Reliance and TATA duke it out, I for one am not a fan of conflict, and I am not a fan of blame. The instant response to conflict here (to generalize of course) seems to be to blame the other party, even if it’s something straightforward like a nurse telling me, “Go. Follow that woman.” I get up, follow, walk into a room I apparently shouldn’t be in, return to the waiting room, and the nurse says, “No, you didn’t understand me. Follow her in a few minutes. Sit now.” I sit for one second. “Follow her now.” We walk the other direction. Of course, my bad. As pushy as I find Indians (especially when disembarking from trains), Israelis I encounter are even more so. And I thought I was blunt. I can say directly, “I am not interested in dating. I feel uncomfortable,” and that doesn’t even end an Israeli’s pursuit. I don’t understand the Israel-India connection either, but tons of Israelis holiday here, and they even have special beach houses set up with Kosher food and everything. Israel is apparently the largest military supplier to India, and a study earlier this year found that Indians were more sympathetic to the Jewish state than even the US. Still, assertiveness is a tricky balance; I like how this article puts it: like salt in the sauce, if done well, no one notices it, and if too little or too much, it can wreck the balance. On the other hand, there’s Buddhism and yoga and meditation and so many beautiful and profound religions and philosophies about the meaning of life and how we are all "striving to join the infinite current,” and the immense comfort in the knowledge that “everything is nothing”... I have not even begun to scratch the spiritual surface of this country. If the temples and ashram retreats serve as the opposite to everyday aggression, then India (and Israel!), could work on spreading the salt around more evenly as it’s shaken. 

Posted byValerie at 1:40 AM 2 comments  

Amoeba Mediator

I want to thank my heart for not being broken (literally, healthy ECG), and my Dr. friend for putting me on anti-amoeba pills that within hours cracked my 101 fever and severely reduced my dizzies (I'm trying not to think what that means was/is inside me). A week of dizzies and heart palpitations, a day of fever and some bed bug bites don’t seem like much. However, I am not going to tempt fate and ask for India to “bring it on” or anything. It’s like Goldilocks and the Bears—I’ve got juuust the right amount of stressiness, India, so that I don’t tip over the edge.

Such sweet friends: one made me a favorite food for dinner, and another took me to tea at a lovely outdoor cafe aptly called Under the Banyan Tree. (Photo of another banyan tree) Even my roommate is talking! I always know my roommate is home, because the bedroom door is locked when I get in. The signal is kick twice to rouse her. Tonight the landlady got her angry, and she finally opened up a little: she has a sister near here and has lived in this room for 1.5 years, and we got a/c the day before I moved in, and it was painted just a week before (that I knew). She also blames the stain on her mattress on a pigeon flying in and peeing on her bed (a warning since I leave windows open for "fresh" Bombay air), and fears lizards will rush in and attack us. In her defense, the maid probably wouldn’t clean that up. (Photos: look what a good job our maid did today because I left before she was done)

I am amused by Indian marriage mania (which is easier for me because I am not in it, aside from a grandmother who told me I am too old, no man will want me). A number of friends here seem to be in marriage crunch mode (or at least their families are) and typical entries on what I am calling Indian marriage resumés include: “wheatish” complexion, the following # stats: (age)/(height)/(salary), “homely” (girl who’s good at housework), native language, caste (often disguised as “highly placed” or “status” family, employer (corporate or family business empire seem best), “teetotaler” (non-drinker) and non-smoker, if open to resumé responses from abroad, education level and work field of prospective spouse, mini bios of all family members (including where they live, if married, ages, education levels), a hobby (I know one who put water sports, and since I have yet to meet an Indian who can even swim, this is possibly more limiting than matching native language, caste and salary—which one middle-class man told me in Bombay has in 9 years matched him with just 25 local prospects, only one he even considered). Men should be a few years older than the women, divorced women are in way more trouble than divorced men, resumés are often exchanged more frequently between mothers than potential mates. I was invited to an Indian wedding, but alas I will be (better be!) in Cambodia. (Photo: Muslims heading to Haji Ali for prayer, excited I caught a crow mid-flight with my slow-snapping camera)

I can’t tell at times if people offer me extra help because I’m foreign, a woman, white, or some combination of the three. Like today, spending a day in and out of the South African embassy while everyone else sat in the waiting area, I sat on a sofa where South African nationals wait, so I didn’t “wait” like the Indians there. I thought it was because I was a woman, but then I saw an Indian woman in the other room. And employees kept coming to talk to me (“madam”). Of course, they won’t guarantee to return my passport in time for my Thailand trip and they tried to add a 15th document that would take days to get right after I’d paid and gotten a receipt, so I am not exactly confident about this. But then, I am American, so I know I have a better shot. (Note: Somehow the embassy got my cell and called the very next evening to say my 8-month visa is ready, and "Now, you are not so worried, right?" I so got the royal non-Indian treatment.) Like this recent to-do about a Häagen Dazs opening in New Dehli that didn’t allow any Indian nationals inside. A friend here sent me this picture, which I think is a perfect farce of the American mindset (click on it to make it bigger/more legible):

I’ve been listening to some very interesting PRI (Public Radio International) podcasts called America Abroad. Fitting with a general trend of response instead of prevention, I found the piece on Shortchanging Foreign Aid particularly enlightening (also since I applied for a USAID job, there are many empty offices for years now, and my application that the website said would be processed in 1 month has since been outsourced to a company to contact me within 1 year). There is no such podcast about any other country. There is, it seems, not to be high-and-mighty, no other such country. As for the universality of English, we owe much thanks to the UK ahead of us for exploiting the world. Here's hoping and working towards our not following that trend further.

Speaking of any other country, nowhere else have I found ants in my bed—which I later realized was due to ants in my computer! My response, as with the possibly-bed-bug-infested clothes, was for my sheets, nightie and sweatshirt to all chill in the freezer with the peas and homemade frozen juice desserts (as in, I freeze juice in little tupperwares and eat them like containered popsicles). And whenever one of those little buggers popped out of the keys or the vent today, I squished ‘em right quick. Take that! Speaking of which, I decided instead of reporting my “friend” at the Internet company, I would use him to remove my late fees from not being able to pay my bill on time because of my stolen credit card. Let’s just say, all I did was ask, and 6 hours later, over $40 in fees were gone and someone is coming to my house tomorrow to pick up the payment. (Photo: flower shops near a temple)

To come full circle on bugs in this post: my roommate also told a funny story about another anonymous roommate note left for her one day. 'You have killed a cockroach in the bathroom. It will take a rebirth and get back at you.' Does that mean the amoebas are coming to avenge me or the quinine?

Posted byValerie at 1:55 AM 0 comments  

Whose Blood Is This?

On and off for the last few weeks I’ve been feeling dizzy, especially when I wake up. It generally starts to fade by evening (meaning it’s hard to work and stare at computer screen). As this became more on than off, I began to navigate the Indian medical system. (Completely unrelated video: German oompah musicians at the Bombay Weinachtsfest singing what they called a traditional German song with the refrain "Snow, snow, snow, beer, beer, beer!")

On Tuesday I went to a clinic doubly recommended by friends for some blood tests (not the one pictured). First they couldn’t spell my name correctly (Valne Gaimeon) while copying it from my passport. Twice. Then I finally got the results, and realized they listed me as O- blood type. I am B+. So I went back and argued, got new blood drawn, and they assured me of swift results. When I went to pick up those results, they argued that the new blood sample was also O- and that my previous 26 years of blood typing must be wrong, since 15 people in their lab typed this blood. This resulted in my creating my first scene since age 1 when (according to my parents) I simply had to have a red rubber ball with a star on it, complete with screaming and near-crying at the NM Medical Center where I spent my week being alternately told to, “Sit, Madam” and that “You must not know your blood type” and “You seem to like creating a scene.” Sure, yeah, I love having blood drawn, and I love not being able to go to the doctor because I don’t have results to show. I love being dizzy and not getting work done. And sure, my blood type has changed after 26 years without a single transfusion or organ transplant—not just type but from + to – (which is even less possible). More yelling resulted in their retesting everything again. When I shared these (somewhat different, actually) results with the doctor I saw on Saturday she was not surprised and suggested that I go to 3 different clinics to ensure accurate results—assuming that 2/3 will be similar and more likely correct. I think I’ll stick to getting blood drawn at the hospital. I’m feeling like enough of a pincushion.

This has all set me a bit on edge, and as usual, Bombay taxi drivers have been out to cheat me in force this week. No, I will not agree to pay 3x what I should and not use the meter; no, I will not pay 2x the fare that the card says. And when you’re spitting your spiced tobacco out your window it should not be surprising that it comes back into my window behind you. Lately some vendors have come up with a new game wherein they pretend they don’t have the right weights to balance the amount of fresh food I’ve picked, so they heap more onto the scale for me to buy. Also, I have no interest in paying extra for duck eggs—if it’s possible for eggs to taste gamey, those do. And the yolks are scary big.

I notice more and more that I walk around wearing my assertive face, and while walking and on the train my boob block has become so second nature, I sometimes realize my arms are up in the punch-like block position even in nice grocery stores. It’s my subconscious crowd response.

Since I’m in rant mode, my flatmates have gone a bit mad. I came home from Mysore to find the front door broken, unable to lock, and the girls had not yet told the landlord. When that was fixed, I came home to see the door closed and keys dangling next to the lock. When I said I did not feel safe with that solution, the new response has been massive doorbell-ringing (which in these girls’ defense, the tiffin-deliverer and laundryman also do) at any time of day (3:30 am, anyone?). No, I'm not answering. You crazy lazies let each other in. Granted, our building is small and safe and we are the only flat on our floor. We also have watchmen 24 hours a day, but the 3 watchmen who are presumably supposed to work in alternating 8-hour shifts usually set up plastic chairs and sit chatting in a circle by day, and all sleep at night, often not even near the entrance booth. 9/10 times when they see me reach my hand though the gate to open it from the inside, they just go back to sleep, and at least ½ the time they don’t see me at all. But you never know when a nutter like the man who stopped in the street last night to offer me a bow and a “Namaste” or the one who followed me around Chowpatty Beach repeating, “Curly hair, I photo, madam” will parade past the watchmen. How hard is it to carry a key? (Photos: not even close to sardine-packed trains)

Speaking of keys, I carry my parents’ house key on my keychain here. It’s a subtle smile of a reminder of home, of which I had a much larger and lovelier reminder this week when I opened holiday packages with my parents watching on Skype. They sent dreidels, a Happy Hanukkah banner, a tiny Christmas tree, a couple candles, and even a few small ornaments. My brother sent a journal, fancy NASA space-and-underwater-writing gel pen, and some of my favorite comic books (Pearls Before Swine) to elicit some giggles; it’s as if they predicted my medical madness of a week. Thank you, wonderful family! I also got my first card in the mail from a friend, and my aunt sent some adorable pictures of my mother as a young teen. Thank you, thank you everyone for the mail, email, and facebook love! I apologize for the turmoil surrounding some of my packages trickling to you (including a few reports of their being slit open, and one with some powder inside resulting in drug dog drama).

Lest this post appear too negative, I want to assure you dear readers I am/will be fine, and have been having some fun as well. I went to Bombay’s only (outdoor) climbing wall this week, where three of us watched little kids deftly roam around the wall while we struggled to stay on for more than a minute at a time. It was fun, and I still feel the wimp burn in my forearms. It’s been a while. We followed the climbing with a delicious fishy dinner. The following night I think I My-Big-Fat-Greek-Wedding culture-shocked my friend taking her to a Shabbos Hanukkah dinner typical of any Jewish holiday: tons of food (grape-y wine, challah, hummus, etc), loud talking of the friendly speak-over-each-other and never-ending story variety, an amazingly unfussy baby (awake way past her bedtime) diverting everyone’s attention, and a bit too much Hebrew and prayer. The following day after a doctor friend's opinion over breakfast Under the Banyan Tree (a cute cafe), and an afternoon at another doctor, at night a friend and I visited another nearby rooftop establishment with a lit-up wedding view, then wandered SoBo (yes, I moved from South Boulder to South Bombay) complete with a delicious fresh juice stop at Bachelor’s. You may think all fresh-squeezed juice is fresh-squeezed juice, but I can assure you, these people know how to squish their fruit. If only that cured the dizzies. Current mantra: Hebrew song

Posted byValerie at 2:21 PM 0 comments  

Elephants and Tigers and Yoga, Oh My!

“Our vision is that we are staying in the animal’s home.” After a bumpy 3-hour car ride due to our driver (whose phone ring was a song with lyrics “Sing me a song, and you won’t be alone, forever and a day…”) not following clear signs, telling us he’s lost because he wanted to stop and have a coconut and make us pay, as well as driving on slow dirt streets, we arrived at an eco oasis, greeted with cool scented towels, coconuts, and a delicious lunch. 24 hours and 2 safaris later we were lucky enough to have spotted: the ever-elusive tiger (context: an Indian wildlife photographer friend has had just 8 sightings in the last 6 years), a leopard, barking deer (they sound like dogs), wild boar, wild cattle, peacocks, monkeys, many birds I can’t identify, spotted deer, a crocodile, elephants, and a little toad named Norbert who snuck into our cottage. (Click on the collage below to magnify it.)

Despite a comedy of errors complete with my being attacked by bed bugs, from which I am still sporting sexy red welts and in slight itch-o-rama mode (I was just growing spots to fit in with the leopard...), being in nature and breathing clean air was a relaxing and very welcome respite. The night before I got bed bugs, I said, “With all the cheap trains I take, it’s a wonder I don’t have lice by now.” Insert obvious karmic joke here.

So about that tiger: cruising up the Kabini River between Nagarhole and Bandipur national parks, our naturalist guide heard birds chirping fiercely to warn each other of a predator’s presence. We waited and watched as a mid-sized female tiger sauntered out of the trees to the river’s edge. She lapped up water in a way I can only describe as the tiger equivalent of daintily sipping tea with a pinky held out from a porcelain handle. We watched for 20 minutes as the jungle queen gracefully drank, surveyed her kingdom, and then slowly strolled back into her forest. Our guide, whose nickname is Mowgli, was high-fiving me, as excited as a little boy at Christmas; the way his face lit up I could tell he is in the right profession. If we could only all be so enchanted with our work. The leopard was spotted the next morning a bit far from our jeep in the forest, lounging in a tree watching potential prey on the ground, and only looked up once when our guide made repeated calls. He was so good at calling the animals, I told him to teach me to call an elephant to use for summoning Bombay taxi drivers. We can all practice with this video:

I also spent some time in Mysore, the birthplace of yoga, now a Western-comfortable retreat of a city with a beautiful Maharaja’s palace, easy pace, relatively clear air and warm assortment of international souls, complete with organic smoothies and idyllic French bed-and-breakfast feasting opportunities.

Then I spent one night in the Silicon Valley of India, Bangalore, which both more polluted and slow-paced than I expected. A friend took me to the 13th Floor where I sipped fresh lime soda and dined on tandoori appetizers overlooking the city, then to an Israeli trance DJ spinning at Club Nero where I saw an Indian who looked so much like a pirate (read: all in white, long curly brown hair, chest hair overflowing, adorned by gold necklaces) we named him Johnny Deepu as we watched 20-somethings standing in neat formation, one foot apart and facing the DJ, doing what I call the Indian T Rex dance (elbows to your sides, alternately lift your arms, and if you’re brave also shift legs slightly side to side)—all before the 11:30 city curfew. I was impressed with and endeared by the attempt, MG Road. It’s better than much of Bombay “dancing” with two people awkwardly facing each other shifting from side to side, girls shaking their heads and hair back and forth and avoiding eye contact. Two questions, though, Bangalore: (1) why do the ric driver info cards list a category for driver blood type, with no types listed on any I saw?, and (2) why do you refer to servers and rickshaw drivers as “Boss” when they are mostly so rude?

The following day I was lucky enough to meet two more amazing American women, one who let me fly with acroyoga http://www.acroyoga.org/ which was not only fun, it delightfully also stretched and back-cracked me in ways a chiropractor can only dream of (and flattered me by calling me “flexy”), while the other served a delicious lunch of rice, cucumber, sambar, and Jamaican fried fish on her rooftop balcony. (Photo caption: Deep breath out with an ahh)

Before I moved to India I was a careful, bike-helmet-wearing sort of girl, and now I'm riding on the backs of scooters without a helmet, and ignoring old women who likely rent the babies they’re holding when they start poking my arm to ask for “Change, madam.” India doesn’t tap on the glass of one’s boundaries, she completely shatters them. When I left for this little sojourn, I was feeling stressy with a lot on my mind (work, visas, lost wallet…), and the 9 + 3 hours from Bombay to Mysore to the park wasn’t exactly relaxing. Sometimes India takes so much out of me, and then when I let her, she puts so much more back in...

Posted byValerie at 1:39 PM 0 comments  

“Where do you get vegetables?”

So asks my flatmate, who orders food and doesn’t answer the door when it arrives, leaves a glass of open milk in the fridge for days til the stench more than wrinkles the nose, or an open bowl of half-eaten noodles til it’s all so crusted together she tries to heat it in the bowl in the toaster oven, which clearly doesn’t work, so she leaves it on the counter and I throw the resulting concoction away.  Sometimes I think she doesn’t need to grow up, she needs to start over at age 7 and try again.
I tell her, “I get them at the market.”
“At the shop down the lane?”
“No, the market by the train station.”
“The train?” She is confused, gives up and walks away. Why would she know where the train is? It’s a 7-minute walk, and if she ever leaves the house she likely takes a taxi or a friend’s car. She’s probably never bought groceries in her life. And in her defense (or as Indians would say, defence), doing everyday things is like having another job here. (Photo: hypnotising English class advertisment)

(1)    Buying groceries. Yes, you can have them home-delivered, but I don’t know exactly what to ask for, phone conversations in Hinglish are tricky, and I want to pick out my own fresh food and not be sent a box of unripe tomatoes. This requires different stores for different types of food: dairy store, dried fruit and nuts store, snacks store, eggs store, grain and flour store, open farmer’s market for fruits and veg, or a grocery store with some combination of the above, like one called Nature’s Basket so comparable Whole Foods you can easily pay $5 for a box of imported organic cereal. (Photo: Subway's tandoori chicken salad is supa)

(2)    Mailing. I spent a day at the main post office to send holiday cheer by registered air mail, so I can track packages and there’s the least chance of their disappearing because they go from there directly to the airport. Some have to be packaged in cloth, so I had to go across the street and pay to have someone sew cloth around them, and I had to have customs forms filled out for each one. It’s cheaper to send fewer, so I tried to bundle some for people who live near each other. And the worker had to type so much in the computer for each package, when he saw my stack he laughed and put up a CLOSED sign to work on mine alone, for hours, and told me to sit in the back office and wait. And this is the most efficient post office—no wonder people have to bribe to get the bureaucracy moving.

(3)    Shopping. Speaking of sitting, sitting is considered very polite. People always want you to sit. Standing seems to make them nervous and feel rude. In the nicest stores you sit and say, “I want jeans,” and the staff bring it all over for you to look at, and then some. Even if I walk in a store and say no, I don’t want help, I’ll stand and look at a display, and suddenly two or three staff are hovering and telling me what the sign on the wall says, like, “This row is slim fit, and this is straight…” I know I get away with a lot being white, like touching the wares myself. I know it’s weird I pick up the shoe myself, turn it over, feel how much it bends. I should be sitting and pointing and saying, “That one, size 38.” Plus, there are areas of the city you go for certain things. Like, clearly you buy books and movies in Colaba, auto parts near Charni Road, wood beams and boards near Grant Road, jewelry at the bazaar near Crawford Market—and all the stores are in a row selling the same thing; I don’t know how to tell them apart, which are best.

(4)    Fixing things. My parents suggested that chains like Nokia must sell inferior products here to make up for lower profits here. I think so, or why would my one-month-old $90 phone screen break after sliding off the chair it was charging in, falling a mere two feet? First I found one store to go to, then I had to physically find it which took a while; next, they sent me to another store; and they in turn sent me to the official Nokia repair shop, where I waited 2 hours and was told I dropped the phone so it wasn’t a warranty-covered repair, and waited for a new screen.

(5)    Stolen/lost things. My wallet was (likely) stolen on Friday, and luckily I’m careful and keep my driver’s license, passport, and extra cash separate, so I just lost about $9 and an easily cancelable bank card (so getting a new card and a Western Union money transfer have become the new life/job adventure, in addition to the appropriate South African visa). (Photo: Uh oh, Gillette, you've been beat!)

While the operational inefficiency makes managers like my mother cringe, there’s less incentive to prevent the over-service and bureaucratic stumbles here, because it all provides jobs, and there’s a very different business culture. This is why servants are so useful: you don’t spend a day at the post office, your servant does, and he gets paid, so you both win. People don’t have hobbies; there’s little leisure unless you’re a rich housewife perhaps, which means you organize your days around lunching and weddings, yoga, facials, pedicures, massages, shopping, and other social and family obligations. A rocking Saturday night for the average person consists of walking, sitting, chai-sipping and people-watching on Marine Drive. And even though people often work 6 days a week, they go out Saturday and Sunday, not Friday. I don’t see why to choose Sunday over Friday, but so it goes.

There were eleven of us assembling a Thanksgiving dinner last week, and not an oven between those of us cooking, but the finished product (albeit veg, minus turkey) was still mighty fine. In sum, doing your own laundry and dishes in the U.S., as we'd say in the South, ain’t no thang.

Posted byValerie at 12:44 AM 0 comments  

Dear India,

I never thought I’d be woken by a marching band in Bombay; and for a wedding, no less. Healthier than a jolt of coffee, I suppose. You always find a way to surprise me. Which reminds me: last night I unpacked my dinner package to find the restaurant mixed my mint and coconut chutneys in one bag! You wouldn't mix chutneys for an Indian's meal, that's for sure. I complained to a friend who agreed they are “mad people,” and then I found hidden toothpicks in the paneer (cheese) in the sauce—to which she replied, “Gone case.” Perfectly put. Speaking of which: all the food in India is so flavorful, except the cheese. Why is the cheese so plain, India? I know you love your dairy! Yes, I’m used to European cheese—but even Amul’s gouda and mozzarella flavors taste like little more than a slight variation in texture of paneer. Reminds me of Cochin, as a friend and I quickly walked past the local fish market stench and responded to sellers with a no-we’re-veg, a particularly persistent fish-walla yelled after us, "Veg fish, veg crab, veg prawn!"

On Thursday an American friend is hosting a veg Thanksgiving dinner (not only would it be tough to find good turkey here, none of us have ovens, only cook-tops), and more significantly, it’s the one-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks, where the trial for Kasab and other gunmen is progressing significantly faster than the one for 9/11. Kudos to you, Indian democracy! (Photo: Tree of Life Memorial at the Taj Hotel)

Now I have a question. “Hello? Hello? Hello?” Can you explain why when people can’t speak English instead of passing the phone to someone who can, they repeat “Hello?” as if they can’t hear me, until they either understand my poor Hindi or I give up and call back? I know my tongue isn’t used to pronouncing certain words, and sometimes, I admit, my ear can't detect the difference between what I’m saying and what I’m supposed to be saying. I’m sorry! I’m trying! And repeating “Hello?” (or occasionally hanging up on me) is not a very helpful response.

Speaking of language, “Come!” is another popular phrase, as opposed to the polite “Please follow me” I’m used to. I laughed the other day to learn an American friend’s helpful neighbor always answers her door with, “Yes, tell me!” India, you’re very direct. Friends have told me numerous times to stand up for myself, be more forceful, lodge complaints. I’m sorry, India, I'm just not an arguer. I find most conflict unnecessary and stressy (yes, I know I went to law school—but for policy and conflict resolution!). But last weekend I finally had my first argument. With a taxi driver. (Photo: from a modern art exhibit at Jehangir Art Gallery)

I got into a taxi, told the driver where to go, and he started in the wrong direction. With a “Bas! Bas! Bas!” (Enough!) I immediately made him pull over and let me out. Then I got into another taxi, said where I wanted to go, and the driver replied in English,  “Yes I know where it is.” I didn’t believe him, but I knew how to get there, and at least he started driving in the right direction. Now, I’m concerned if you can’t correctly navigate to a neighborhood 15 minutes from me (hence leaving that first taxi), and if you don’t know exactly where you’re going, you could at least follow my directions when I say and then yell and then wildly gesture for you to turn left or right instead of pulling over, getting out (meter running) and asking people on the street who make directions up to be polite. At one point the road had been blasted, we stopped, and I thought surely he’ll turn around now and listen to me, but no: he rumbled that taxi over the rubble and continued on his own insane invented path (by which point I had no idea where we were and there were no other taxis around). Fifteen minutes from home and one hour later, he wanted 4 times more than I should’ve paid. India, I’ve been kicked out of taxis halfway to my destination and told they don’t want to go any farther, turned away because they don’t feel like driving somewhere, driven in circles just to make extra money, and dropped somewhere completely wrong which the driver argues is right, and this morning I’d had it. I told him I’d pay him 50 rupees ($1) or nothing. This of course led to an argument that quickly morphed into the main neighborhood attraction, and at least ten people hurried over to see the scene and intervene on my behalf in Hindi and Marathi. Like pedestrians, taxi and rickshaw drivers are also always at fault (except in a collision between the two, I think pedestrians would face more blame).

So, to avoid a repeat of further drama (and to partake in a deliciously fishy lunch), a friend drove me home. Along the way an officer pulled him over for a dubious traffic offence, for which my friend offered to “settle things,” meaning a small bribe. When the officer saw whites in the car he waived us on with a license check and a warning. Thanks for the appearance of legitimacy and legality in front of me, India! I like to think things can work that way—especially since I'm in law.

Also, India, I’ve meticulously assembled holiday packages and cards, and I’m finally ready to post them today. Please don’t steal my mail. There’s no money or anything exciting inside; I'm just sending some love.

One last request: I live in a Silence Zone. It’s also a one-way. Please stop honking when you’re one foot from me and I’m walking on the side of my street (right); I see you, and you’re not supposed to be driving that direction anyway. Not even if you’re trying to be more legit by backing your car up the entire block. The next street over is one-way the other way, and you can drive by Gandhi’s house (left). So try Laburnum instead.



P.S. I know I don’t go through a huge roll of toilet paper in a week. I’m onto you and your increased usage of the extra bathroom, flat-mates! But you probably by now know I won’t start an argument to save a mere dime, so just consider yourself On Notice (like Colbert and the bears).

Friendly tip: if you use dashboard, you might like to follow my blog by clicking the follow link on the top of the screen, which may be more convenient than randomly checking to see if I've posted something new. xoxo

Posted byValerie at 2:43 PM 0 comments  

My Roommate the Mistress?

Over the last few weeks as the mystery around my roommate grew, I started laying it all out to a friend:
her sheets are dirty and haven't been changed since I've been here;
she works in a department store in the suburbs where it would be much cheaper to live;
she sleeps here maybe 2 nights a week, leaving at 7 am and returning at 11 pm, often with a suitcase of clothes and shoes;
she appears to have just 1 nightgown, a yellow flowery number;
she evades yet asks me questions about family and job, which are highly popular Indian topics of conversation (the most popular is where you’re living and how long you’ve been there);
she says she has no family in Bombay;
she clicks around on her phone in bed at night and rarely has calls, seemingly only with one man and her mother;
she keeps no food here;
I’ve never seen her shower here;
she doesn’t appear to do laundry besides occasional rinsing out panties.
(Photo: totally unrelated, the cutest cell phone cover a friend gave me)

My first thought was that she has a boyfriend and works long hours and travels for work a lot, and a friend pointed out that she could be a professional mistress. As I wrapped my mind around that explanation, an American friend reminded me of the popularity in the US of websites like http://www.SeekingArrangement.com (NYT article) where typically young college women find sugar daddies to help pay their way through school. It’s a feminist debate: when women “choose” such arrangements, or when we legalize prostitution, are we empowering them or enabling the furtherance of social male dominance?

(Note: I have since learned some answers to the above curiosities: 
her sister got her the place in South Bombay to be close by and because they knew the landlady;
her sister lives near and just got married, hence some travel;
she "works like a crazy monkey" and travels a lot for work, only day off is Saturday if she's in town;
she's very shy? or slow to open up? one evening's rant about the landlady turned her on and now the tap is flowing and she is answering questions and telling funny stories about our silly college roommates;
she has a boyfriend in her home state;
she uses the other shower early in the morning;
I've spied Toblerone in her wardrobe and she is so tiny I don't think she eats much;
still confused about the laundry.)
Speaking of male dominance, the value of male and female children was instantly apparent when I volunteered today for an elementary school-style Field Day. The kids are all thin and it’s nearly impossible to guess their age due poor nutrition and the resulting improper growth. The difference is, after every race (of maybe 5 or 6 heats) of the girls’ 200-meter dash, at least two collapsed on or before the finish line, and few had to actually be carried away. Some boys fell to the floor after their race, but none passed and wheezed with such apparent pain from lack of food to sustain such unusual and extreme exertion. I thought they should not have held that event, especially in the mid-day sun before lunch. Throughout the day kids ran and played soccer barefoot, in socks, in loafers, in jeans, in dresses, in saris—they were thrilled to compete. And when they won, if they didn’t pass out in the process, they jumped up and down slapping high-fives and shrieking with delight. This was also the only such event I’ve been where the volunteers and staff raced as well, much to the delight of the children (and they also were in jeans, loafers, and other such attire).

It reminded me of Olympic Day in my elementary school, where each class was assigned a country to learn about and represent as we competed. I don’t remember my class ever being India, which reminds me of some amusing recent interactions with friends and family back home, such as, “Do you need me to mail you shampoo?” or “I got your card in the mail, and my dad made me to wash my hands after I read it.” Yes, I ride the trains, I walk through who only knows what, I eat even rice with my hands, I drink tap water through a filter; no, I don’t eat street food or use public toilets. A girl’s got to have some healthful limits. In the US I was a vegan/veg local organic free-range hippie, and here other than limiting myself to meat just a few times a week at only expensive ($4+/dish) restaurants, I know the greens from my local market are bunched into sellable bundles every morning on the sidewalk by street and slum-dwellers amidst the Dadar cows and traffic; I’ve seen the sad chicken-laden trucks trot by spewing shit; filtered (and often also bottled) water has many heavy metals and pesticide residue; open sewage and barges of trash flow straight into the sea (which also explains why Indians don’t swim). I take a low dose of a natural antibiotic and anti-parasitic, and heavy a dose of acidophilus and vitamins daily. I figure spending a little more on food is worth not getting really sick. Yes, an 8 rupee fresh-squeezed juice (17 cents) is crazy cheap, but like fast food in the US, if you wear your body down with chemicals and germs, your quality of life and medical costs will rise to probably much more in the long run. Being out on the streets, in crowded trains and eating out taxes my immune system enough. I’m still building my energy reserves to be able to regularly exercise here, something I really miss from my former hiking-biking-climbing-dancing life in Colorado. (Photo: Hare Krishna temple near my house would've been a lot nicer without the proselytizing.)

To remind me of the holidays, this weekend I made my first foray into the bazaar, where hours in a silver shop with some friends shopping for wedding jewelry, I scored some lovely holiday presents, and my first nice little presents for myself: a giraffe ring to remind me of both India and Africa, and some geometrically diverse bangles to have a reprieve from my probably-not-real-silver bracelet leaving green lines on my arm. This past week I am a mad woman, up every night until 2 or 3 in the morning writing cards and putting together packages and wrapping and being my usual overly-ambitious loves-to-give-presents-and-feed-people self. I haven’t even managed to squeeze in another grime-removal pedicure so that, as one friend put it, “your feet can be their normal shade again.”

Other than noticing the ease with which I speak in a different version of English (specific diction and sentence structure with the occasional Hindi word) and having used my first spur of the moment yar, language skills are still sorely lacking. The other day, while buying carrots my mind momentarily blanked and the only number I could think of was seven. Loathe to re-resort to holding up fingers after having completed the rest of the transaction in Hindi, my vegetable-walla raised his brows but made no comment as he counted out exactly seven long, almost beet-colored carrots and wrapped them up. Lucky for me, fresh carrot-lime raita sure is tasty.

Posted byValerie at 10:13 PM 4 comments  

E is for Earthquake

The infinite importance of hair: shiny and not oily; hair oils and pills and doctor treatment to combat thinning; traditionally long or at least thoughtfully styled; in lieu of plain hair elastics, a myriad of metal and plastic hair baubles and flowers and jewelry; ideally falls with a slight bounce; eyebrows perfectly threaded; legs and arms meticulously waxed in a hair-here-not-there mentality. India is the number one exporter of human hair in the world. The English word shampoo comes from a Hindi word for kneading. “Whether you are male or female, young or old, your hair is a reflection of who you are. Everyone envies long beautiful hair. Caring for your long locks is essential Healthy hair isn't only about looking good. It also can make you feel good.” This, cutting your hair is considered a way to overcome ego. There are even documentaries about this (check out the guy’s face in the screenshot), about how hair is given as an offering in a temple and then sold for profit unbeknownst to the offerer. In two minutes I could easily walk to at least four salons and even in an expensive one a full leg wax would only set me back $5. Also, for less than it would cost in quarters to do my own laundry in Colorado, I can have my clothes so thoroughly washed the shirts are impeccably pressed around newspaper, delivered next day in a lovely bundle like this. However, the relative cheapness of labor and such services as the $3 in-home massage make it easy to raise very spoiled children like the college girls I live with who sprawl their daily delivered dinners all over the kitchen.

Bombay shut down on Wednesday for a supposed cyclone that resulted in brief but welcome off-season rain, and then a few days later rocked from a 4.6 earthquake instead (which was centered at a fault line south of here on which India’s tallest dam is built). I felt the rolling from my bed while my wardrobe danced tentatively from side to side like a shy concertgoer afraid to truly move to the music. Alas, I have decided to temporarily hang up my salsa shoes. Opposite sexes don’t really touch here, and certainly not in partner dance. I’ll leave the dancing to Lord Vishnu. I took myself on a tour of a couple art galleries instead, and met a friend for tea who had another friend in town, and this other friend just so happened to have attended my elementary school, while the first friend’s husband just so happened to be from the same small German city my dad is from. Earthquakes née cyclones, neighbors in Georgia and Germany, twice passing out due to low blood pressure and inadvertent gluten poisoning due to massive msg intake (don't worry, I'm fine), my first ever intentionally after midnight supper—it was an interesting weekend to say the least!

On a more thoughtful note, I find it beautiful that despite how heavily-Hindu India is people really respect different religions. Muslims can have multiple wives (which is a debate in Islam way outside the scope of this post). Jains, who profess a nonviolent ideology extending to no digging up of root vegetables like potatoes and whose monks and nuns walk barefoot and sweep a broom in their path to prevent stepping on insects, prevent the moss on the steps of my friend’s apartment from being removed. Parsi have a Tower of Silence on a hilltop of my neighborhood where they place bodies of the deceased to be disposed of by the elements of nature and to feed birds of prey, because cut hair, nails and dead bodies are believed unclean. Although my friend and I did binocular-spy albino owls, wild parrots and bats from her seventh-floor terrace yesterday, birds of prey are not exactly flocking around Bombay.

Someone asked why there are no pictures of me on the blog, why I put up pictures of artifacts like ancient Indian board games instead. So I took a typical getting-out-of-the-house-in-daylight-hours picture of myself. Notice all the covering in an attempt to block that darn sun in stifling yet refreshingly humid ninety-degree weather (another sign of my Americaness, thinking in Fahrenheit).

Only in India do I get asked to take photographs with people like a celebrity; are the snacks already stale when you pop the plastic seal; do the rechargeable batteries last just 2 hours; do dogs obey traffic police when told to stop and go before crossing the street; am I always eating yet always hungry; do people actually believe me when I tell them my name is Priya because I’ve tired of repeating V for Violet, A for Apple, L for Love, E for Elephant, R for Rome, I for India, E for Elephant over the phone. India: aap ka javal be nahi! (I hope that transliterates sensibly to India, you are cool!)

Posted byValerie at 12:00 AM 2 comments  

Rain and Toilet Paper

My one-month anniversary in India coincides with my first rain. Cyclone warnings not coming to fruition are proving a welcome respite from the regular ninety-degree humidity that shrinks my hair into Shirley Temple ringlets. An evening with my dear friend lounging with a breeze off the Arabian sea is pure bliss.

As I ponder taking some ayurvedic medicine my friends swear will help my digestion since everyone is shocked I can’t eat bread or sugar (they don’t realize how much of an improvement that is for me!), I realize my health has actually improved here. Maybe my immune system just needed more of a challenge. I think the hot weather and spicy food help. And I’ve started eating a smidge of meat, since I have to be more of a carnivore in South Africa, I want get my body used to it. Odd to give up years of veg in a land famous for it.

Despite common perception of Westerners, I like my food mirchi, or spicy, but in some ways I am so Western. I do a double take when I see a date written 15.10.09. I think of light switches facing up as on. I prefer toilet paper. I can do without a disposal, a dishwasher, a washing machine, hot water, a/c…all the things I used to look for in an apartment. And I am lucky enough to have a/c (though I rarely use it, because electricity is quite expensive) and occasional hot water—heck, I’m lucky enough to have water coming from the tap and electricity all day long, which was not true in my first place, and is not true in most of India. Also, Indians sure have strong bladders—even most restaurants don’t have bathrooms. Occasionally in desperation I pretend to “consider” a nice restaurant or hotel, and instead use the restroom and leave. Part of the benefit of being white is I can look a mess and still walk into a five-star hotel. I’ve been told to milk this and use the Four Seasons pool sometime.

“You’re not American. I understand your accent!” I’ve been getting that a lot lately. I try to be understandable: I speak slowly, choose my words deliberately, and use Hinglish (Hindi-English) where helpful. For example, the Mercedes Benz showroom landmark near my house is pronounced Murse-eh-deez Ben-zuh. I never thought of being American as exotic, but rather as generic. Yesterday I was on the phone with my internet provider trying to make a payment, and I texted my address to the worker so he could send someone to my house to collect the cash. India is very into home delivery. The next day I get a text from the guy: ‘How r u today dear?’ (And a follow up call the next day asking why I didn't answer.) After last weekend and some other experiences, I’m wary of meeting anyone (especially men) except through a chain of people I somehow know. It’s just not part of the culture.

I think I'm a split personality sometimes—part of me wants to settle down and part of me wants to be all over the place. Maybe I'll quench the wanderlust over the next few years and the settle down part will slowly take over. I’m enjoying settling in here and not quite wrapping my head around leaving in January. Seems so soon. Maybe someday Bombay can afford to actually pay me living wage for my work. Or as friends half-laughingly suggest, I’ll marry rich, to which I reply, I could win the lotto. But then, I was born a middle class American with loving family and friends: I already have.

Posted byValerie at 12:13 AM 3 comments  

My Definition of Love

Is giving. I think the ultimate form of love is giving, and giving in the form the other person wants. For me this means truly listening when someone speaks without composing in my head what I’ll say next; trying to see things from someone else’s perspective; asking questions; considering others when making decisions for myself; making a real effort to surround myself with positive people and to act positively towards them; and working to making a positive contribution to others in the world. Yes, it’s idealistic. I want to believe better in people than they believe of themselves sometimes. Like this guy I met in Bombay…

Who admires Rambo and the Dark Knight, left his Muslim family and moved here alone and has effectively cut himself off from relationships with anyone in a city of 15 million. I listened as he shared some deeply personal thoughts. I’m no therapist; I just find that people respond really well to being listened to. Sometimes I play a game: how many questions can I ask and how much can I listen to someone before they ask me something in return? Sometimes when the conversation is over the other person apologizes that we didn’t “get to me,” and I smile and think, ‘I win!’(Photo: monkey scratching his bum before he stole my empty tupperware, opened it, found no food inside, threw it down and hit me on my leg to scold me)

Which leads me to another part of giving: responding in a way the other person can handle; if someone can’t handle listening to me, I work to let them know I understand their side and don’t try to explain mine. And this guy reminded that some people don’t give back at all—they are in a place where they need so much, and so they take and take. It drains my core, because I want to give, and then when I need something back and don’t get it, I get mad at myself for giving to a black hole. I don’t need people like that in my life. Like this guy who said, “I’m so proud of myself, I listened,” after interrupting during the pivotal part of my story, or, “It’s good you’re upset, it’s how I’m getting to know you,” after I cried for the first time since I left the US because he just couldn’t get over his selfishness.

So, my weekend trip to the hill station of Matheran, aka some nearby nature, turned out to be an exhausting rather than relaxing mountain retreat. It’s hard to enjoy light hiking and scenic surroundings when someone is pounding you with his drama 24/7 and planning every minute of the day around what he wants to do. I said I came here to relax and hike, so let’s talk about something less serious for a while (or help me with my Hindi like you promised), and he replied, "You came with the wrong person.”

Sometimes it feels like a catch 22—easier to be a woman in India with a man, yet being with a man is acceptable only in certain situations, and a weekend trip is not one of them. “It’s just not in the culture,” my friend said, and he’s right. Slogging home early and alone, the trains down due to construction, thereby doubling my trip, I thought, why do I make it so hard on myself? I so love people. And I believe in the good in everyone. And I forget that sometimes there is real beauty in being alone, being selfish in a nurturing and positive way. Like moving to India to chase a career dream that I hope in the end will help people like this guy by reforming society, which should ultimately be more help than any one listener can, however well-meaning, can provide. And thankfully, for the most part, I am surrounded by wonderful people who give back and I like to think that we lift each other up in a cycle of mutual giving. So to all of you reading this, I’ll be an annoying American who says ‘thank you’ for that one more time…

Posted byValerie at 4:37 PM 2 comments  

"You Live Here, Madam"

So says the guard on a tree-lined street in one of the most posh parts of the city, just ten minutes from the former red light district and what Good Broker (Broker #3) called “the slum” where I was last week. My dear friend and now neighbor helped me house hunt, and this Good Broker, who even went with me to collect my things from my former place and told them he was with the police so I could at least get my deposit back, found a fabulous flat for twice the price and ten times the quality. I share my room with a working woman, and the other two rooms have two college women per room; three bathrooms and a kitchen complete the picture. I can still walk to the office, to Chowpatty beach, to the beautiful Hanging Gardens Park, to local markets and the train station, and I can cook (which will be more useful when I get internet at home and can stop frequenting the free wifi Veg Falafel place). Decorating with what I have, below.

Saturday I went to a Halloween Party at the American Embassy. Dubya and a swarm of secret service agents were at the infamous Taj Hotel, but oddly he didn’t show. I dressed in a black slip with a boa and sign that said ‘Freudian.’ It was the cliché of Westerners in India: rich, corporate partiers; friendly, yet not my scene in the US either. Mostly the Indians I’ve befriended are more my speed. Getting in touch with alumni, and their connecting me with even more friends of friends of friends has acquainted me with such wonderful people, and I’ve met a few other fun friends on my own. Picture of the Taj, not the dark rooftop party not conducive to photography.

However, the Americans did teach me one vital thing: in a Borders-like bookstore called Crossword (walkable from my new flat) is the only map of Bombay. Now as I walk or am driven around by taxi drivers who pretend to be lost, I follow in the book to better learn this city where road signs are for new Hindi names instead of the British names they’re known by--and the book even has landmarks, since that’s how most people navigate. Typical directions begin with, “In (neighborhood), do you know the ___ near the ___ restaurant? How about the ___ store?” My current landmarks are: I’m one block from Gandhi’s former Bombay home, now a free museum, and one block from a restaurant called Café New York.

On the weekend my friend who laughingly attempts to help me with Hindi pronunciation, and I were wandering around Colaba, past cricket fields and sketchy markets swarming with flies where vendors snot into the street, and we ran into a work colleague of his who introduced his companion with a, “This is my girlfriend,” the way you’d say, “This is my bike.” Saturday morning as I sat on the very busy Marine Drive reading the Times Of India to the sound of the Arabian Sea, a man pulled over his sports car and walked over to me to try to convince me to go for a ride in his car. This is not atypical—and I dress very conservatively. I have also gotten, "Are you working today?" and "How much?" and other gems. On the other hand, India Vogue may be entirely focused on the import of wedding fashion, yet the models are realistic-looking. Beauty here is epitomized by fair skin, long glossy hair, and a ‘toned yet soft’ body. All models have a little bit of gunch on them. I also get daily “health tip” text messages, like ‘Fat should not be totally eliminated from our diet as it is required to maintain a healthy body. Avoid saturated fat’ or ‘Women Problem – You will get a great relief from menstrual pain, if you have a gooseberry daily.’ Yet women are expected to work and still do cooking and care-taking at home, which is no different from the reality in the US. In general, the wealthier and more educated my surroundings, the more Western clothes, preference for Hollywood over Bollywood movies, English speaking, more powerful women--and air conditioning. Even in liberal Bombay, India is an interesting mixture of an evolving culture vis-à-vis sexism.

So if last week was the bottom, this week I’m climbing back up, complete with my first celebrity sighting, Aishwarya Rai, former Miss India, now a very wealthy and famous Bollywood actress, in the recent Steve Martin Pink Panther movies. She had a press conference at the Vie Lounge where another kind Colorado alum took me to dinner. A poor picture of her to the right.

Thank you warmly to everyone who reached out during my rough week with emails and calls, and to all the kind locals who dropped what they were doing to help a freaked-out American. The adventure continues...

Posted byValerie at 2:54 PM 2 comments