Thursday, September 30, 2010

home as a village

I've been trying all day to start a post about the culture shock I feel in Beawar, how the differences in outlook on hygiene are strange, how looking out the window and seeing cows remains bizarre, how it veers between frustrating and relaxing to understand so little of what people around me say, how it pains me to see young boys working and girls pulled from school after 10th grade to prepare for domesticity. But I haven't had the time to organize my thoughts, because this house is endlessly chaotic. It has a central courtyard square open to the elements via a grate overhead that also forms part of the roof, and there are rooms around the periphery, some of which are occupied by Prati's mother and others which are rented. The square, the roof, the bathrooms and sinks are shared, and visitors and  maids traipse in throughout the day.

For most of today, one tenant's two children and three or four of their friends have been playing with the computer, watching downloaded videos and playing games. Most of them have probably never seen computers before. At this moment, three of them are sitting beside me on the bed I share with Prati and Cayden playing with Cayden's toys even though the boys are  older, perhaps 10. It's always necessary to keep an eye on Cayden, I was taught to (and failed to) make battis, dough balls local to the area, a friend of Prati's mother oiled my hair (and tried to braid it before Prati intervened), and the mom called me over to watch one of her prayers. Since I began the previous run on, Prati came over with kheer and began a conversation. I understand, now, why Prati has zero sense of privacy; this house is more village than independent structure, with everyone in everyone else's space and business.

This makes reflection difficult to us westerners used to living and being in spaces with individualized purposes. Asanas are practiced at yoga studios; breakfast is eaten in the kitchen; and there are no lizards lurking on bedroom walls or hairless baby mice mewing in living rooms where I grew up. Here, I do my quick yoga practice (yes yes, yoga is a constant practice; I mean poses and concentrated focus on my breath) while Cayden naps, cows moo just beyond the wall, children play on the ledge outside the window and I wonder whether the woman who cleans the floors will enter mid-downward dog to shoo me out of the room. If I can learn to focus here, everything else will be cake.

photo psa

I add new photos to my India Facebook album every few days. The link that should allow everyone (with or without Facebook accounts) to view the pics is here.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

two wheels in beawar

When Prati and I both lived in New London a few years back, we had a nice symbiosis in our relationship: she fed me and I drove her places. She didn't learn how to drive until adulthood, whereas there were already many, many years between me and those times I drove into the garage door frame and over my brother's heel. Plus, agreeing to drive Prati to the supermarket most always worked in my favor.

The only time she drove us, she was visibly pregnant with Cayden as she non-nonchalantly ran a red light by the mall in Waterford. When the police pulled us over, she explained that the light turned yellow quickly and she was not willing to stop short and risk the seat belt impact harming the baby. The officer let us go.

Fast forward to this week. We're staying in her mom's house in Beawar, Rajasthan, full of cows, water filtered in clay pots and trash tossed out windows. At her mom's, everyone eats and prepares food on the floor, hand-washes clothes and doesn't blink when the power flickers at random intervals. And when we want to go out, to drink hot milk warmed for hours in fire-heated cauldrons or bring Cayden to a daycare, we travel there the local way, on Prati's late father's moped, she driving, me in back, and Cayden sandwiched in the middle.

It's terrifying, trusting one's welfare to a rickety bike and a friend with a... questionable... driving record on roads that are often unpaved and lack discernible rules. (In India, people honk to alert pedestrians they're about to be run over, to express impatience, to navigate blind curves and to create impromptu passing lanes.) Further, in this out-of-the-way locale, two tall women--one white and both dressed in Western clothes--create a stir wherever we go; ratchet that up every time we put in an appearance on the moped, dodging cows, auto rickshaws and men hauling carts full of produce.

More on Beawar ASAP, I hope; for now, we're off for lassis!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

nothing, or everything, sacred

We toured various Hindu and Buddhist temples on our last day in Gangtok (where I also ran into a guy who'd been working at a newspaper there but was leaving the following day to start a local editor job at Patch in Missouri). I've always felt out of place in eastern houses of worship; they're formidably adorned and beautiful, vast spaces with ritual objects, protocols and rules I don't know. I do know visitors are supposed to remove their shoes, remain silent, put away cameras and generally express reverence, which isn't difficult for adults in spaces where the deities are huge and shimmering.

Toddlers, however, are another story. Cayden is boisterous, enthusiastic and curious, and the sight of a room full of novel objects spurs him to explore. In the first temple we visited, a Hindu space dedicated to Ganesh with a shrine at the top of some white marble stairs, Cayden instantly approached the gate separating the shrine and tested it to see if it would let him at the "elephant." Any adult acting like that would elicit a glare, but Cayden is adorable, and people flock to hold him and give him high fives everywhere we go. So in this case, as other visitors watched, the man minding the temple reached over the gate and handed Cayden a prasad, or ritual offering (in this case a sweet, grainy laddu), and a banana from Ganesh's offering plate.

"He's taking food from the gods now?" I asked, as the temple's fellow visitors chuckled. (I didn't know that prasad's are later eaten and said to contain the god's blessing.) Prati continued to chat with the man and I fed Cayden the sweet, spilling its orange grains all over the pristine marble floor. Everyone was unfazed by the ruckus, and the man reached over and took laddus and bananas for Prati, Blonde Kim and me before we left. We came in, disrupted the temple's tranquility and left blessed by the gods.

Our next stop was a the Lingdum Monastery, a large, colorful complex that was quiet and vacant in the afternoon rain. Our quartet climbed the steps to the plaza outside the main temple. We heard drumming and chanting in the distance and followed the sound to a small side room where a young monk sat, pouring over a prayer book, marking his progress in one hand and keeping the other free to beat a drum or ring a bell. Kim sat to meditate, I sat beside her to observe the room, and Cayden toddled up to the man and began banging on the drum, not quite in proper cadence with the chanting. The oasis of chanting was overlaid with a clanging, thumping, screeching chaos, and I looked apprehensively at the monk, hoping we wouldn't follow our Hindu blessing by being booted by Buddha.

But the monk thought the whole thing was funny. Every time Cayden beat the drum with his tiny, plump hand, he gave himself a quick round of applause and exclaimed "yay!" while standing in front of the young chanter, who grinned without breaking stride.

When we walked around to the main temple, there was a sign requesting silence. But we were the only ones there, and talking to a toddler is quieter than not paying attention to a tadpole who sometimes screams when he's bored. So we showed him the Buddha and the wall adornments, letting him run through the aisles. A monk came in when he picked up a bell and scolded him. Then Prati asked him a question about the temple's statues, and he stopped mid-explanation to take a call on his cell phone, never returning to impart the  rest of the information. Meanwhile, Cayden was loud and squirmy, but he was also entranced by the golden Buddha, and fully enjoyed the space, albeit it as a new playground to explore as opposed to a house of worship. And (sorry to be making the point with so much cheese, but said baby is cranky and we need to turn the laptop into a Sesame Street machine) the fact he brings so much joy to all the people he encounters is arguably just as holy as maintaining silence for a deity that probably couldn't help but smile himself.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

happy valley

The five-second lady
Our final full day in Darjeeling fell on Biswakarma Puja, a Hindu holiday dedicated to the god of machines and tools. we toured around, passing makeshift temples with incense and music blaring, to see some monasteries and watched the Toy Train stop at a war memorial. Then, Prati and Cayden returned to the hotel and Blonde Kim and I headed out through the rain to visit Happy Valley Tea Estate, one of about 84 tea plantations in Darjeeling (the touristy one). The sign at the entrance says that the tea harvested there exclusively goes to Harrod's, though a quick website perusal is inconclusive.

The driver inched up a lonely dirt road toward Happy Valley. It was rainy and dusk, and nobody else was there. Kim and I descended the stairs, following signs to the office, which was made into another celebratory temple with loud music and a few drunk employees dancing in the small room.

One of them came out to greet us. He told us the factory wasn't running that day because of the puja but that he liked me, so he would show us around. He led us into two fragrant, silent warehouses where tea  leaves are normally being processed and swept his hand in an arc that encompassed the whole thing.

"This machine is from Belfast," he said between hiccups. The supervisor, whose permission we would normally need to tour the facilities, barely glanced in our direction, indicating to our guide that he was going home. He packed his things and closed the metal guard door to the entrance halfway.

The last thing I wanted was to be stuck in a dark room in a remote place with one innocent abroad and a drunk man leering in my direction, so we backed out, only getting back up the stairs after the man, grasping my hand too hard for me to pull away, kissed it multiple times, told me he liked me and asked if we wanted to join their celebration.

We were searching for the driver when a short, elderly lady with light hair and a gemstone bindi walked out of a small cafe on the hill above the factory and hailed us.

"Want to do a tea tasting?" she asked, after we told her about the partiers downstairs. Kim and I followed her into the cafe's cozy back room whose walls were edged with built-in benches with a table in the center filled with a platter full of tea leaves.There was a lone guy lounging back there already as she ushered us in, bustling around in the kitchen in front to boil some water. We chatted with the guy while we waited to see what was happening; he was from Japan and had gone to college in the U.S. and was at the tail-end of a year-long, 'round-the-world voyage.

When our hostess, Kusum Rai, returned, she picked up a tea plant clipping, explained its different parts and then challenged us to guess which tea leaves on the platter came from which part of the plant. I had some trouble understanding her accent and waited gamely for the quizzing to end and the drinking to begin. She gave us tea made from the young part of the plant which, as she demonstrated, only takes five seconds to brew. The "five-second lady" is world famous, she assured us, adding that the tea sold in the cafe was brewed from leaves picked by the workers beyond their quota, so the little man got any profits.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

diff'rent rates for diff'rent folks

Is it discriminatory or looking after their own when Indians charge exponentially higher prices for foreigners than for residents to enter tourist destinations?

That's the question that Donnie, Blonde Kim and I debated with Prati and her sister, Priti, late into the night in Delhi after we returned from our whirlwind Taj Mahal trip (coming to you now from Darjeeling, by the by, which involved a cross-country flight and a car ride up a steep, treacherous and lushly beautiful road above the cloud line).

It cost 40 Rupees (less than $1) for Indians to enter the Taj Mahal, while foreigners each pay 750 Rs. (more than $15). Coming from the states, Donnie, Kim and I felt it discriminatory that different people are charged different amounts. In the U.S., we argued, we may have different rates for children, seniors and veterans, but it doesn't matter how rich or poor or what color folks are--any old person speaking any language and hailing from anyplace will pay the senior rate to enter a given attraction.

Prati and her sister argued that India is so dependent on tourism and its own population is so poor that it depends on foreign cash to bolster its economy, that tourists make so much more money than the average Indian per month that it's really no burden to pay more and that, even if it is morally wrong as we three Americans were claiming, it's how the system works.

I don't dispute the fact that Indian citizens are much poorer than people of many other nations, especially with the Rupee-dollar exchange rate working against them. But I maintain that it's logically flawed to say that all Americans (we focused on what we knew in our argument for why foreigners shouldn't be charged more) are wealthy. I'm not wealthy. My dollars go far here, but my return to the U.S. will mean a return to paying  U.S. rates for everything. I'm just lucky. Most "poor" Americans would never get to come here at all with a variety of socioeconomic factors working against them. And the "Indians are poor" reasoning is a valid argument for instituting government-funded assistance programs or the like, but viewing cultural sites like the Taj Mahal is in no way necessary for existence. Tourists--Indian and foreign--make the effort to travel here to see and learn and, yes, to spend some money. And we should all be treated the same when we do.

I'm open to other viewpoints (Hi, Prati!) in the comments.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

takeaway from traveling to agra and back in a day via two endless road trips through gridlock with cows

Apparently, it's a thing to pose for photos making it look like the subject is touching the tip of the Taj Mahal. Seeing a whole row of people doing this and photo takers crouching at odd angles to catch the perspective didn't look absurdly amusing to me at all. Not a bit. (Facebook pals, see more Taj Mahal pics in the first 20 photos of this album.)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

welcome to india (courtesy of le' blackberry)

We woke up this morning in our rented rooms in the Delhi suburb Gurgaon, drank three cups of chai like the Americans that we are (we're used to such big beverages that a "normal" drink here feels like a sip, something that became a running joke last summer), watched Cayden enraptured by "All the Single Ladies" and then headed out to Cafe Coffee Day for a "thank goodness we're in a metropolitan area" caffeine fix. I asked Prati to get me an iced coffee. Their first attempt was a Frappuccino equivalent; Prati's husband Donnie pointed out that, generally, if it's not on the menu here, it's a puzzlement.

Then we were set to head back--leaving Donnie to get a much-sought pedicure :)--when the skies opened. The infrastructure in Delhi, while it's constantly being expanded and improved, is mostly sketchy, and a downpour floods the roads' potholes and indentations with an amount of water that, in the U.S., would close the road. We had walked to buy coffee, on roads that were now lakes, and the baby was getting tired and cranky. So Blonde Kim stayed to get a pedi too and Prati hailed a bike rickshaw for her, Cayden and me. Those things feel unsteady on a good day. Today, the driver couldn't see the submerged potholes and speed bumps, and I was sure we'd end up tipping over and swimming. I gripped the side with one hand and my purse on the other. We made it, of course, but shakily, passing a few roaming pigs. Kim, meanwhile, thought the salon guys didn't like her nail polish selections, since in India they indicate assent with the sideways head tilt we use to mean "meh."

Fast forward a few hours: like every other time we've spent together, Prati decided I needed a haircut. Last year, I had my hair done at the air force base where her sister lives. This time, we went to Prati's favorite hair magician, a beefy, fabulous transvestite named Sylvie with a couple little sparkles attached to her front teeth. In about five minutes, Sylvie managed to give me the cutest haircut of my life and smack my ass, this in a country where queerness is not part of the mainstream narrative.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

goodbye to all that


Today at Rosh Hashanah dinner, I must have been asked 20 times where in India I'm going and what I'm going to do there for two months. The response remains: I don't know. I'm India-bound tomorrow (!!) because I miss my pretend older sister and my godson, and it's a fascinating country that's so different from everything here. It's fun to let Prati do most of the choosing, because she knows what's there, what I enjoy and how to combine them. Not knowing exactly what's going to happen doesn't bother me. Unlike that family trip to San Francisco where it was necessary to book tickets to Alcatraz months in advance, in India the most basic things are so different—monkeys instead of squirrels! Saris instead of jeans!—that just taking a stroll feels interesting and new.

That said, the follow-up question to explaining away worried puzzlement that I mostly don't know where I'll be in the next couple months is, "Are you excited?"

Surprisingly, no, not yet. I hate going through customs and sitting still for the amount of time it takes to get from New York to Delhi. And I still miss Ridgefield a heck of a lot more than I ever thought I would. What 25-year-old former city dweller on a reporter salary falls for an affluent bedroom community full of older folks and young families? This one does, it turns out. A friend recapped earlier:

 Friend: you can live many places
 me: sweetheart so can anybody
Friend: nope
me: ok then explain in more words
 Friend: nope
 me: people our age who have lived in ny are not supposed to like suburbia
  full of old people
 Friend: yes. but you are good at finding people and making them feed you
 me: yes, because otherwise i'm hungry
Friend: doesn't matter why
 me: is that not a normal skill?
 Friend: nope
 me: i actually didn't realize that. people are so willing to feed me
so now i know: i need a cute baby, a good yoga studio and a few friends around with a job i like and i'm good
  so that shouldn't be too hard
 Friend: nope
 me: oh—and a coffee shop
Friend: yes yes
 me: but contrary to recent practice, my yoga teacher doesn't actually have to be married to its proprietor. that was just an added bonus

I miss said yoga teacher and her studio's atmosphere. Even though I've carved out time for practice these past few days, and I now have the same necklace she and one other yogi regularly wear as a reminder of the person I want to be and the practice I want to be devoted to, I already feel disconnected, untethered. (The necklace says "truth" in Sanskrit, which I'm hoping doesn't make me one of those wannabe Indian westerners if I continue to wear it during my trip.) There's no getting around the fact that my moving out ends my consistent study there. I miss, too, my yoga pal and his wife—both entertaining, quirky, smart and kind—and their two amazing children. I miss a friendship that grew just before I left. I miss living two seconds from an organic farm's roadside stand, open seven days a week.

My job was untenable, and I didn't have the time to do anything as well as I'm able, and I leaped because I want to try and build a future closer to the one in my dreams (Hi Harper's and New Yorker and Wall Street Journal, I love you!). But I'm friends with and respect my former Fairfield County coworkers, I believe in the importance of what the journalism folks at Patch are trying to do, and I unexpectedly grew ever so fond of my adopted town. I chose to leave, but it's turned out to be the hardest choice I've ever made.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

a life in (other people's) letters

Is this a dorky, incongruous compendium of a life or what?

Thursday, September 02, 2010

so lucky

Grandpa George: There's plenty of money out there. They print more every day. But this ticket—There are only five of them in the whole world, and that's all there's ever going to be. Only a dummy would give this up for something as common as money. Are you a dummy?
-Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (the film)
Yesterday—funemployment, day one—I felt like my job had slapped me with a burlap sack full of bricks on my way out the door. After 10 months identifying as "the Patch lady" 24-7, just being me was disorienting and a little off-putting. My work is such a large part of my identity. I stayed up until 1 a.m. on Wednesday morning to write my final story.

Also, work's absence allowed all the other stuff I have very little time to accomplish to rush in and demand mind space: sell furniture, realize the landlord and I had a misunderstanding and I might pay for all of September even though I won't be living here, pack my apartment, pack for India, change addresses, work out billing... all those common-sense lifey things I hate.

I woke up this morning (funemployment, day two) feeling about the same. It's a good thing I live alone; I hopped from bed with the urge to create a shiv with a glass-shard flourish and then stick it to an unsuspecting passerby. I reached for my Blackberry, and there was a message from Ridgefield's State Representative playing the inside joke card on my Facebook wall.

Then I confirmed a meeting with someone I love and haven't seen in many months and opened an e-mail from the parent of a former babysitting charge, who said her daughter woke up this morning in Manhattan asking about me, though I haven't seen them in many months either. I'm headed to yoga as soon as I stop this babbling, and I'm meeting an old journalism pal who lives near my parents next week. My sense of being overwhelmed and angry was pushed out by a sense that my heart, well, overfloweth. (This is where you turn, get the gagging noises out of your system and then accept the cheese factor and move on.)

Maybe this is just life and happens to everybody, but I have a tendency to amass a contingent of beloveds as I move from place to place. What's half a month's rent when I get to reconnect with some of them and then travel across the globe to see others? Pattabhi Jois famously repeated, "Do your practice and all is coming." One way I interpret the nugget is in the karmic sense that the universe returns what you give, and I am so lucky to get this reminder—that my giving may not be perfect, but the love and intention are there—at a moment I needed it.