A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: Ivory

Travel Blog cum Soap Box

Warning, this is long, and disjointed, and semi-preachy, and potentially without a point, but perhaps still worth thinking about

(Sorry, thought I posted this long ago, never clicked publish. Will update soon on Zambian exploits and get some photos uploaded, I promise. Internet's slow in these parts, be patient. Also on a side note, as you've undoubtedly read being the loyal blog followers you are, my dear friend and one time travel companion has returned to the states. I've till got another month or two in Africa before I too will be forced to throw in my hat and return to those pesky responsibilities of normal life, like earning a living. I'll do my bet to keep up my end of the bargain over here in blog land but I can't make up for the burning vacancy we all feel in our hearts at the loss of Lauren's contributions, so just bare with me.)

I left South Africa with a mixture of incredible relief and incredible loss. As I said before, the country as a whole is ridiculously beautiful, but more than that, it's unbelievably complex and interesting. It's pulsating, it's dynamic, it's growing, and yes, it's dangerous. The job as it turns out, wasn't for me, and on May 23rd I hopped on a plane to paradise on the coast of Mozambique and left Johannesburg's cauldron of crime, its opulent suburbs, its vibrant sprawl of tin shack townships, its intoxicating sense of a city where anything can happen, behind. Before officially waving goodbye to South Africa though I had a one night return to the country to catch my flight to Zambia. I took advantage of the extra time and rented a car and headed west across the city in search of the Apartheid Museum.

After hours lost on the massive highways intersecting across the city, passing endless miles of townships without a single off ramp (one of the many legacies of the apartheid gov't is their carefully, maliciously calculated infrastructure designed to restrict movement by the black majority. The result is that many townships still lack access to the major arteries that would allow them to travel to other parts of the city), I finally arrived at my destination. Upon arrival I was surprised to see that the museum's parking lot was completely empty, but I was immediately happy I had come. The building is a beautiful modern design with interesting use of lines and water, once inside inside the design and presentation never failed to impress.

When I entered the museum I felt prepared for what was to come. I had read Mandela's book, I had had countless conversations with South Africans of different races and political opinions, I had mulled the facts over with fellow travelers, I felt that I was in a good position to process and handle the history that the museum would present. I wasn't. To say it was appalling would be a grave understatement. To watch the interviews with apartheid government officials as they lamented the hardships of having to "care" for black africans, claiming that without the white minority there, the people would run themselves into the ground. They waxed on and on about about how useless it is to give them education which they'll never use, "Why teach them math if God didn't intend that they should ever use it? Once they understand that their lot in life is one of servitude, once we teach them to value hard work and understand their place, they'll be much happier" they claimed.

Of course, what was worse than the mindset of the white minority was the way that it was acted upon. The savage abuse, the absence of rule of law, the complete lack of humanity that existed in that regime, it makes one question the entire idea of a common understanding of right and wrong. I saw video footage of police men with whips beating men, women and children during protests, beating them with so much hatred, so much unbridled animosity, it was terrifying. When I walked into the cells that were used to put political prisoners in solitary confinement - windowless cells just big enough for someone my height (5'5") to lie down on the floor, but not to spread my arms out - I got chills. That humans put other humans who had committed no crime other than believe that they are equal to those of other skin tones in such conditions is unfathomable. That this happened so recently and the world let it, that my own government refused to impose even economic sanctions until the 11th hour, is just too awful.

I left the museum feeling like I had been punched in the stomach. Of course there are modern and historic atrocities on far larger and more destructive scale, but the length of time this went on, the systematic approach, the maliciousness of the planning, and I guess the familiarity of South Africa's social culture to my own, somehow made this part of our living history harder to swallow.

On my way back from the museum I drove for hours, lost in Johannesburg trying to find a place to stay. At one point, I took a wrong turn off and found myself scared out of my mind at a stop light, at night, in one of the worst parts of the city. I kept thinking of a description I had heard that compared driving into downtown Joberg to "crawling into the belly of the beast." There's no better way to describe it. As I compulsively checked and rechecked my doors were locked, gripped my pepper spray, and prayed frantically under my breath for the light to change, I was looking around me thinking about the people that have to live there in that environment, mostly immigrants from nearby countries, people who are fleeing their own country's terrors, thinking about how unfair it is. Thinking about the fact that I could guarantee that in a 5 mile radius I was sure to be the only white person stuck in such a dangerous situation, thinking about all the other white people, sitting cosily behind their electric wire fences and guarded security gates, sitting in large homes with beautiful shade trees on quiet streets, thinking about how completely unjust it all is. I was angry I was there, angry I was scared, angry that the people who in many ways deserve to feel fear, rarely have to face it.

I guess what keeps nagging at me about the South African situation is that somehow I had always believed that everyone has something inside them that tells them the difference between just and unjust, that what is "fair" is in a way intrinsic to us as humans. Even monkeys know when equal treatment is not being given and will routinely refuse food if it is not as good as the treats his neighbor is given. How is it possible that in our modern world, an entire population of people, a whole race if that's what Afrikaners can be called, came to be without an internal moral compass (granted there were surely those who did have objections, and of course if you ask now, there's not a single white person in South Africa who admits to voting for the apartheid government for its 48 years of power, but still). I just keep wondering how is it possible that anyone could drive from their mansion with lush surroundings and beautiful views past the disease filled poverty stricken masses in cardboard and tin shacks and think "this is right," how could anyone dare claim that there is a God that could approve of this? An Afrikaner woman I met told me with a smile on her face that during the apartheid era her grandfather used to always say that "Only the angels in heaven live better than the Boers of South Africa." She looked happy, remembering a lost era of grandeur. All I could think was "how could you?"

Since then I've been thinking more about this question. I recalled a British woman I met in S.Af who was married to an Afrikaner man. Starved for conversation with another foreigner she quickly released her frustrations about living in what she felt was an incredibly misogynistic and racist environment. She then asked a question that surprised me "Is America really as racist as it is here, is it as racist as we see on t.v.?" I was taken aback. I had been horrified by the continued segregation in South Africa, by the poor living conditions of the black majority, by the racist attitudes that the white minority - who in my opinion owe their lives in large part to the black majority who gave them undeserved peace and forgiveness following the transition. I had never imagined that my own country could ever be compared on the same level. My immediate reaction was "No! No, not at all. We're not like this. We're not racists. We're the land of equality, of justice. Even though there are racist people in America, society doesn't accept it as they do here..." The more I explained though, the less convinced I became. Am I treading along a well worn path of white liberal delusion?Am I kidding myself about the realities of my own country because none of my friends would ever judge someone on something as arbitrary as the color of their skin? I thought about who my friends are, how representative that is. I work with refugees, my best friends also work with refugees, or in inner city schools, or with people with disabilities. My family's not racist but then again we grew up in Vermont - there are no black people. It's not even a topic of conversation. The more I thought about it, the more I realized how out of touch my world in America is from the reality.

Sure, people of color are not living in shantytowns on the outskirts of the city. And yes, our obsession with political correctness ensures that people do not express opinions of racist nature, at least not in public. And yes we've taken strides, we're making headway in our country in terms of race relations and representative government. But on the ground can we really claim to have a nation built on equality when the people building the nation, the people laying the cement, cleaning the floors, picking up the trash, providing domestic labor, washing the dishes, working in the factories, are all people of color? I live in a country where between 65% and 85% of the prison population consists of people of color, where in supposedly "liberal" states like California, a young black male is statistically more likely to go to prison than to a state college, where 24.7% of black families live in poverty (as compared to a mere 8.7% of non-hispanic whites). Knowing this, I am forced to stop asking myself "how could they?" and start asking "how could we?"

Now, I'm not entirely naive. It's not as though I've never thought about this before or that it's just now occurring to me that race relations in America are far from equal. I work with newly arrived refugees, I see this inequity day in and day out in my country, I've had countless conversations with friends and colleagues and fellow travelers about the ills of America, but seeing it through the foil of the South African context somehow showed it in a different light. I think for the first time it made me truly angry - not angry about a single injustice, a single racist joke, or single ill treatment of someone I care about, but angry about the entire thing. Angry I'm not doing something more to change it. Angry that the vast majority of white America doesn't feel a responsibility in anyway to do something to change it. I hope that if nothing else, South Africa has instilled in me a strong enough aversion to complacency that I use this anger productively when I return home to the states. And I hope that I, and other travelers traipsing about the globe learning about other people's problems and pitying their situations, remember from time to time what they say about people in glass houses, and look at how it relates to our own countries.

Posted by Ivory 02:10 Archived in South Africa Comments (1)

Welcome to South Africa

Let me show you to your jail cell.

It was late. I had been travelling for 26 straight hours on three hours sleep. I had just flown into Cape Town from Qatar which was disconcerting enough -- it's a very strange feeling to be on the ground in a place you know you couldn't find on a map. All I could think about was my first hot shower in 4 months. So when I arrived in South Africa a month ago to find myself surrounded by belligerant customs officials threatening to throw me in jail and deport my sorry self straight back to India I was not in the mood for politeness. I won't lie, as I wearily pondered my lack of options with the 700 pages of Long Walk to Freedom weighing heavily in my sack, I briefly romanticized the idea of spending my first night in S.A. in prison. Something inside me wanted to raise my right fist toward the sky and shout "iAfrika I'm with you Nelson". As I thought about this picture and cursed the s.a. establishment for always trying to keep the black man down, I soon remembered three important facts: first - a night in the Cape Town International Airport Holding Cell isn't exactly Robbin Island; second - I am in fact not an oppressed black man so much as I'm pastey and priveleged and will never understand the struggle; and finally that prison fantasies tend to be of the type that almost always dissapoint.
Mandela at Robben Island:Mandela_94.jpg

So, quelling my inner protester, I put on my best takepityonmei'mjustapoortiredgirltravellingthishardhardworldonherown face and managed to convince my personal security guard to beg the slowest airline ticket counter lady in the world to reopen her stall so that I could purchase something other than a 7000 rand one way ticket to Amsterdam and get myself the hell out of the airport. Several hours and a fallen dream of being a South African freedom fighter later, I snuggled into a nice warm bed with my own bathroom with actual running water nearby and an English speaking family and dogs and a cat and television and the huge vacancy of being in a place without constant noise, sights, and sounds impaling me from every angle (oh, India, I miss you). And so, the moral of this story is as you can plainly see is: don't come to south africa without a ticket out of here. Even a seasoned briber like myself couldn't finagle so much as a secret handshake of understanding from these grouchy customs guys.

In any event, since that first night however things have been remarkably easy here in South Africa. In the wake of India, Africa has felt remarkably empty and peaceful, abeit equally as bemusing and complex. In my first three days in this country (a country whose white african population constitutes a mere 10-15% of the total), the only dark skinned people I saw were the ones taking out the trash and cleaning our toilets. I have to admit my inital thought here was "this is the 'new south africa' "? But while my first impression was definitely a cynical one, as the days and weeks have gone on I've begun to see more and more of the many layers of this country. There have been moments when I've paused to look around me and have been completely in awe of the beauty and complexity of the culture where in a room of 20 people there could easily be 20 different skin tones and 20 different languages. Race relations are a definite focal point and I'm nowhere near getting a grasp on all of the currents and friction involved but I am uplifted by the country's apparent willingness to face their issues head on. It seems everyone, in all race groups and social classes, are thinking about and talking about ways to make their country a better place. There are public service campaigns toting South Africa as the land of possibility and honestly, I sort of feel it.

So, after several weeks here, travelling around, learning, reading, talking to people, my hope for the 'new' South Africa is significantly lifted - so much so that I'm taking up residency; I've accepted a job in educational development that will keep me in S.A. indefinitely so new ideas and experiences are sure to unfold. Certainly the added bonus that South Africa might be the single most beautiful place on the planet doesn't hurt ...

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Posted by Ivory 10:46 Archived in South Africa Comments (1)

Ode to village life

A day in the life of a conspicuous foreigner in the middle of nowhere south India

It's 5 am, the sun is not up, but half of Tiruchuli is. Lights are on, tea stalls are open, and women everywhere are sweeping. I am nestled in my bed with a pillow over my head, cursing an invisible holy man as his whiny call to prayer pours into my room from the all too closely situated loud speakers (what village would really be complete without a PA system?) What makes the cacophonous sound of what is quite possibly the oldest most vocally inept Muslim prayer caller of all time all the more pleasant is the harmony provided by the village's ample dog population who join in with their howls.
Village loudspeakers:
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And so my day begins. Luckily, after three months of this, my body has learned to go back to sleep when it's over, and sleep I do, until the affects of the morning power cuts set in. With India heating up like a furnace, electricity is patchy and my poor weak western body withers and drips through those restless morning hours when my fan is not running. By 7 I've had enough, I get up and begin the arduous process of making myself look presentable to India.

With layers of baby powder and jewelry in place, hair sufficiently shellacked with coconut oil and neatly plaited, I take a few moments of silence to remember the glory that was once my travel wardrobe. Oh grubby t-shirts and ripped pants of my past, how I mourn for you. Despite their dangerous lure, I do not give in; instead I turn off the fan, shut the shutters, and begin the layering, folding, pleating, turning and pinning of my sari in place. A process which I can now complete in 7 minutes flat -- I realize that this is not impressive to those of you who have never tried it, but I assure you, it is a marvelous feat of dexterity, patience, and determination, and a talent worthy of global envy.

Looking at last like a proper Indian girl, I tread out into the world and around the corner to Manjula's house where she cooks me yummy breakfast and makes me coffee and chats with me until it's time for us to go to work. Most of my days are spent creating the new volunteer program, designing manuals, responding to email inquiries, reading applications, designing project plans etc. On any given day I may attend a women's self-help group training session, take part in an NGO network organic cotton planning session, or be taken to an event where having a white person in the press photos will be advantageous for whomever is involved.

Me speaking in front of a member of parliament and 7,500 women at International Women's Day (yikes!):
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Because Indian work days are incredibly long and power cuts are frequent, plenty of time throughout the day is dedicated to innumerable coffee/chai breaks, fruit breaks, paper reading, chatting, napping, errands and general staring into space. In the mid afternoon everyone heads home for lunch and then takes a couple hours of rest to let the soporific effects of the rice set in. It's too hot to focus anyway. I admit, it was hard for my overly efficient western mindset to get into this groove, but now that I'm accustomed to it, I can see the benefits of combining work and leisure. There’s something about the the head bobbliness of it all (a reference those of you who’ve been to India can surely appreciate, for those that haven’t, come to India so you can appreciate it!) that makes work seem a lot less like, well, work.

Office staff at work:
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In the late afternoons, I head back to the office. A few days a week I teach a staff spoken English class which is always fun as the staff English levels vary wildly and much enjoyment is gained in making fun of ones friends and co-workers. Occasionally I’ll pick up a tutoring session for the boys class that meets at our office in the evening as well. It is on my way home from these classes that I face what is perhaps my most critical decision of the day. If I have any hope of reaching my destination in a timely manner, I must choose (of the three streets in town) my path very very carefully, for there is a mob in the wait.

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Admittedly, it is a mob of overwhelmingly cute children, but it is still a mob. In America we have public campaigns to teach our children to be afraid of strangers. In Tiruchuli they take a different tactic -- teaching them to surround strangers in huge groups, demanding to know their name, their mother's name, their native village, and anything else they can half form a question about in English. On any given day, I shake approximately 8 million children’s hands and wave to innumerable others who call out from windows, doorways, alleys, schools, and cars in earnest -- "Auntie! Auntie! Auntie!". Of course, no matter how long it takes me to get through the crowd or how many dirty little hands I shake, it's impossible to stay annoyed for more than a few seconds because here in Tiruchuli, even the naughtiest of children, still manages to be the cutest kid on the planet.

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And so my day comes to a close. I climb the steps to my top floor room, pause at the top to take in the ridiculous beauty of the night’s sky unadulterated by lights, and sneak into my room to change into what has become, hands down, my favorite Indian trend – the “nighty.” This all covering, loose fitting, gift from God is worn my women young and old at all times they're not in the restrictive, heavy and undeniably beautiful sari. If you had asked me a few years ago if at 25 I'd be crouched down on a concrete floor in 110 degree weather, wearing a moo moo, happily washing my clothes by hand in a bucket while listening to the jarring sounds of tamil pop music or the local wandering drum group blaring through my windows, I'd have thought you were crazy. And yet here I am …
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Posted by Ivory 00:45 Archived in India Comments (7)

What culture gap?

Everyone loves Arnold.

"What's different?"
"Everything."
"Yeah but what is different between America and India?"
"Everything."
Below, telephone pole, America:
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Below, the electricity/telephone pole/street lamp outside my room in India:
telephone_pole.jpg

Seeing skinny 17 year-old boys sigh dramatically and roll their eyes in this way never fails to amuse me.
"Well, not everything. It's like comparing rice and dosa. In their essence they're exactly the same - rice. But in every other way they're different. They look different, they taste different, and you eat them with different foods. America and India are basically the same. It's just people and families trying to survive and love one another. But in every other recognizable way they're different." I look out at my once adoring class and one thing is very very clear. Metaphors are lame, particularly my metaphors.
I try a different tactic.
"Okay, okay. Let's see. America is cold. At this time of year it's freezing and there's snow. And even when it's not the climate, it can be really cold there. It's the people. And it's very ..." I scrawl their new vocabulary word on the board: INDIVIDUALISTIC. "It means that everybody wants to be independent, wants to do everything on their own. Here in India, it's all about community and family, in America it's about individuals and their personal successes." They practice saying individualistic several times unsuccessfully. I can see them throwing this into casual conversation "What is your name? Are you individualistic?" Perhaps this wasn't the best approach. Still, they ask for more.
"Well, in India you share things. Everything. In America, people are incredibly wasteful. Wasteful means they do not use everything they have. It is connected to being individualistic in a way." They are clearly confused. "Okay," I continue, "here's an example: On a train or a bus, an American will throw out the rest of their biscuits or fruit or whatever they're eating rather than share it with the person next to them."
They look at one another as if for clarification on the joke.
"I'm not kidding guys. People throw things out that are perfectly good rather than talk to a stranger. Everyone in America has boundaries that are completely different from Indian boundaries. Even within a family each person will drink from a different cup. They will wash a cup. With soap before using it again."
They laugh.
"You think I'm joking, but it's true." (For reader's perspective, at the Madurai airport there is a large drinking water tank upon which sits 4 tin cups to be shared by all who pass through the airport's restaurant and need a drink. The idea of individual utensils, even in this most public of contexts, does not exist in this part of India).
Seemingly satisfied with this explanation of why America is not like India, why America is in fact a very strange alternate universe, probably inhabited by space creatures who carry hand sanitizer and wear sunglasses and listen to mp3 players on public transportation so they don't have to interact with society, they venture on.
"Are you married?" they ask.
"No." I brace myself, I wait for it ... but it doesn't come. There is no communal gasp. No pitying looks and the appearance of minds racing to their next opportunity to rush to temple/church/mosque to pray to whatever God is best suited to save my soul and bring me a husband. I smile. I knew I liked these boys for a reason.
"How old are you?"
"How old do you think I am?"
They discuss animatedly amongst themselves before agreeing on a number: "18."
I smile. That explains the apparent acceptance of my marital status. I shake my head no. "19? 17?" they guess.
"I just turned 25" I say, to which communal gasp, concerned chatter, and calculations of time available after class before the temple closes to pray for my mortal soul immediately follows.

Here are some pictures of the many folks across the world who continue to pray for me, not including my entire refugee client base in the US who are undoubtedly making deals with cousins and uncles and arranging bride prices as we speak:
Sikh_worsh.._temple.jpg
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"The average age for marriage for a woman in America is 29," I lie. I have no idea what the real number is, probably lower but this seems to suit me. "First child at 31" I continue without any clue what I'm talking about.
"It's 21 here. First child at 21 is very good for Indian woman" They reply.
"I know," I say, "it just takes longer for us I guess. We don't have arranged marriage like you. No one to find our husbands for us. In America, only love marriages." I say this without the superiority I once thought the statement inherently carried. Things seem to work out pretty well here on the arranged marriage front. There are problems of course but for the most part I see a lot of examples of strong, committed, happy families.
"You all have love marriage?" they ask in disbelief.
"Yes, all Americans (unless they're Indian-American perhaps) have love marriages." They smile at this idea. "They're not quite like yours though. Indian love marriages are different. In America, they're all love marriage, but they're not all happy. In fact, in America you can stop anytime you want. End the marriage. End the loving." It is impossible to explain this concept to them. In the area I'm living in here, a love marriage is a sacrifice, a rebellion, the culmination of years of secret conversations and exchanges of knowing smiles. It is hidden photographs and dreams of the future. It is not dating as we know it. And it most certainly is not sex. And it absolutely doesn't end in divorce. Sure, it has its problems (any arranged marriage enthusiast, and there are many, will tell you this) but in comparison to many of the examples we have in the states, it's hard not to be a little awed by marriages here -- both arranged and "love".

After all this discussion, they look dejected at this new picture of the Promised Land. I don't want to depress these kids. I pick up my tone. "But..." I say, "We have a lot of really good things too. Like cheese, and i-pods, and baseball, the wonders of which I cannot put into words but I can assure you, they are absolutely amazing. And also it is because I am from a place like America that I am here at all. I came to India alone, and when I leave I will keep going, to other countries, for a year, without any men to put me on each train and scoop me up each time I land."
They are a bit impressed by this (as impressed as 17 year old boys will admit to being).
"Do you have credentials and a profession too?"
"Yes!" and I explain what I do, or what I did because, come to think of it, I'm quite unemployed at the moment. "Most women, especially if they are young like me have jobs. And we can have good jobs too. And move about freely inside our country without any help. We are free to do as we please..." I want to say more about this, to believe what I'm saying is true. But as the words come out I'm already doubting their veracity. Yes we can move about, yes we are free to wear jeans and t-shirts and attain higher education. But we're still doing a huge portion of the domestic work; we're still only earning 75% of the salary of men in our positions. We can't even elect a female president for crying out loud! At least India can do that much. I throw in my cards. No more high horse to ride on the gender issue. I return my focus to the students and my unwavering ability to disappoint them over all matters related to cricket and my unbelievable lack of knowledge on the subject...
"No, I don't know him either. Why don't you just pick a favorite for me and I'll go with that... What else, we have time for one more question."
"Have you ever met Arnold?" they ask with anticipation.
"Who?"
They make big (tiny) muscles. "The Govinator!"
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I smile. My mood is sufficiently brightened.
"No" I say, mocking a deep seated regret at this unfortunate fact "but I read in the Hindu Times last week that he broke his leg..."
They all break in to join this conversation topic on which they are all experts. Tamilnadu has washed up actors as governors too. So naturally, the entire state adores him. We discuss our favorite Arnold Schwarzenegger films until class is over. Listening to them imitate lines from The Terminator in heavy Tamil accents has made my week.

Posted by Ivory 22:04 Archived in India Comments (1)

Life After Toilet Paper

Surrendering to India

My first Indian experience was in the relatively modern city of Bangalore where high class night clubs, five-star restaurants, and top-end shopping centers juxtapose themselves seamlessly upon the trash filled, ox-cart lined streets of India's technological center. This initial experience had so altered my vision of what India would be that when I took this next step, traveling overnight on a crowded train to the remote village of Tiruchuli in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, I brought with me no expectations of what I would find. Scooped up at the train station by a jeep full of non-english speaking Indian men and carted off to a smallish rural village an hour and a half from the city, I tried to summon all of the strength and courage that had sent me on this trip in the first place. Upon arrival, I sought comfort in my new home - a concrete cell with a bed, a hole to pee in, a bucket to wash with and a friendly neighborhood of cockroaches living in the bathroom (I’ve since upgraded to a concrete cell with windows and a cockroach free hole!) As I lay my head down and close my eyes to rest that afternoon I attempted to conjure up some thoughts that would take the uneasy turning of my stomach away. I recalled the advice I was given by a Swedish woman I shared a cab with in Bangkok on my way to catch my flight to India. She told me reassuringly, "Don't worry about a thing, you will absolutely love it there, once you make up your mind to surrender, it will all be okay."
My bathroom:
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Every facet of life is different - I can not think of a single thing about my daily life that resembles any other life I've known, or a single scene in this village that recalls images from another I've lived in -- and yet being here feels strangely like home. The complete and utter lack of privacy is, in a way, like living in a crowded house filled with extended family. Every walk I take, every purchase I make, every meal I eat, every person I speak with is noted and discussed by the community that surrounds me. Like family, my new friends are as free and frank with their criticisms as they are lavish with their praise. In a given day my face is pinched by women in approval, my taste in sari material is repeatedly commended, my hand is shaken in excitement by dozens of school children. I am also, however, reminded time and again, of what is missing -- not enough bangles, my earrings are too small, my plait not long enough, where are my flowers, why haven't I a nose ring, and so on. Yesterday in fact, I was invited to a meeting as a guest speaker and told upon arrival that I ought to dye my hair black because I look like an elderly woman with such a strange hue (a comment which was confirmed by a room of 90 village women).

Photo: Posing with my Tamil mama, Manjula, and her mother and father in their home. This woman is my saving grace, an absolute magician in the kitchen, and starting this week, my culinary advisor as I begin as her apprentice/assistant to accommodate new volunteers.
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To my great pleasure however, each day since that first difficult entrance has been truly joyful for me here, so much so that I decided early on to extend my stay as long as possible. When I lay in bed, awoken at 5am by the blood curdling sound of an out of tune Tamil call to prayer, accompanied by the ever so melodic backup of the entire village’s dog population, and find I am still happy to be here, I often asked myself how is it that adaptation comes so easily? Yes, I've had to say goodbye to luxuries like running water, toilet paper, timeliness, and the idea that I will ever be truly clean again. And sure, I've had to toughen my skin to face the attention of minor celebrity status. But really it has all been far less of a shock than I had imagined. What does it mean to "surrender" and why does it feel so natural? The other day walking through town I came to my answer - it's that glaringly obvious, yet somehow always shocking realization that we Westerners find ourselves making time and again whenever we visit countries less developed than our own -- that life simply goes on. Toilet paper or not.

With students at a child labor reintegration school sponsored by the org I work for:
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Posted by Ivory 11:28 Archived in India Comments (3)

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