A Travellerspoint blog

India

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:
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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:
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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!"
arnold.jpg

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)

A Tale of Two Bus Rides

Misery and Woe on the Backroads of India

The thing about any overnight journey is that involves a certain amount of luck. You're always rolling the proverbial dice, wishin and a hopin. The same way men in Vegas are praying for sevens, we pray for particular traveling companions. In train and bus stations around the world, we can be heard begging the gods...

Cooooooommmmme ooonnnn young female professional!
Biiiiiig moooonnnneeeyyy family with young (but not too young) children!
Ollllld ladies who knit and sleep quietly!

Sadly, this often seems to have the inverse effect.

From the very beginning, we seem to have been cursed with bad overnight journey karma. There was the infamous "2 old men with sleep apnea and a long loud night" incident. The "four friends and a case of beer in under an hour" evening. The "three old men slurping raw meat and talking at the top of their lungs when they awoke at 4am" journey.

Sufficed to say, it's been dicey. However none, none have compared with
what India had in store. I now submit for your approval, a tale of two bus journeys...

I. Working Title...No Patty Fingers...(maybe only clear to those that have seen "The Quiet Man...")

In January, I embarked on a journey to Hampi with a few friends. For those of you who haven't been, it's an amazingly beautiful town with ruins of the last great Hindi empire. Anyway, I digress...

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Riding buses in India is an adventure because of the complete chaos. There's no real terminal or schedule posted. So far as I can see, the best way to find your bus is to walk around and show your ticket to anyone who will look at it. If you're persistent, someone is bound to point you in the right direction. Our bus from Hampi back to Banalore was delayed that night, but no one could effectively communicate that with me...so we spent hours wandering around, showing our bus ticket, only to be dismissed.

We finally crawled on the bus tired and irritable. We were three gals in need of a good nights sleep. Sadly...it was not to be.

I sat down next to a man in his thirties with a sneer on his face. He would not stand up to let me into the window seat and thus I was forced to crawl over him. He also insisted on placing his elbow on the common elbow rest. Perhaps most distressingly, he covered his whole body, including his face, with his blanket. Ominous, ominous signs.

I woke up about an hour later with his hand on my leg. In the spirit of good fellowship and best intentions, I assumed he mistook my leg for the elbow rest. I picked it up and placed it back on his side. An hour later, I awoke to the same state of affairs. I rather harshly shoved it back and went back to sleep. About an hour after this, I awoke to find my leg being...well...stroked is probably the best verb. I ripped the blanket off his head said, "EXCUUUUUUSE ME!" and threw his hand over. Surely, I had taken care of it. Humiliated him. Called attention to the matter.

But strangely, he didn't even look at me! Just rolled over, covered himself with his blanket and pretended as if I wasn't there! The man across the way chuckled and suggested I, "guard my treasure." Would that I could say "bite me" in Hindi.

Dear readers. Dear, kind, forgiving readers. I tried to stay awake. I tried to guard my treasure. But it was late and the bus was so soothing...I fell asleep. And woke up with his hands in between my legs. I kicked. I yelled. I screamed. I elbowed and hit.

He ignored.

My treasure and I were not pleased, I'll tell you that much.

II. Working Title...Two Americans and a bus full of Tibetan monks head to Dehli.
Sounds like the start to a pretty promising joke, no? I know there's a punchline to be found...just can't get the bat off my shoulders...

Your favorite bribers spent a week up in the Himalayas...Mcleod Ganj to be exact. The home of the Tibetan government in exile and a huge refugee population, it's an amazing place. Beautiful, serene, fascinating.
Just sitting in a cafe and having former political prisoners come around to talk to you and enlist your support...wow.

Prayer flags and the Titanic pose in the Himalayas:

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Anyway, we took an overnight bus from Mcleod back to Dehli. Upon entering the bus, it would seem our prayers have been answered. After numerous journey with miserable companions who tested both our sanity and good will, the gods smiled upon us....and stacked the bus with Tibetan monks. We grinned at our good fortune and settled in for a pleasant night.

And a pleasant night it might have been...had it not been for a little thing called food poisoning. Having a solid head on my shoulders, I decided the best possible thing I could do before said 12 hour bus journey would be to consume a large cheese pizza.

I'm going to now give you all two important pieces of advice:
1. Before an overnight trip, don't eat dairy. Or meat. Or any food product that will likely poison you. You know what? Don't eat at all.
2. If you choose to ignore these sage words, please. At the very least...check to make sure the bag you plan to vomit in is free from holes at the bottom. I beg of you.

Once the storm began, I failed to notice said gaping holes. As I made my way to the front of the bus to ask for a pit stop, said vomit dripped. On me. On the bus. All over my bribing companion. There was dripage.

Lights were turned on. Damage was assessed. There were groans.

Though I must say. Under the circumstances, your friendly neighborhood Tibetan monks are by far the most forgiving audience a gal can ask for.

And so the night passed. With waves of nausea and sweat and fever. Covered in my own dinner.

Under such circumstances, one should be able to move past the absurdity. To see it as a reminder of the human condition. Of our own frailty and inability to control life's curve balls.

Unable to sleep, I should have spent the evening reflecting. Coming to great realizations about life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. Past mistakes. Future hopes. The presence and/or absence of a higher power.

Sadly, pathetically... all I could come up with...

My love affair with cheese may be drawing to an abrupt end.

Posted by lbassi 16:52 Archived in India Comments (1)

A Triumphant Return

I'm Bring Blogging Back...

So I've received a number of complaints about my lack of blogging in the last few months.

A few words of hostility before I explain myself:

Do you have blogs? No. You all look to me for your jollies, hound me when I cannot provide and yet you don't entertain me in return. Did it ever occur to you that I've been out seeing the world, without time to throw you mere mortals a bone? No. It's all mememe, write write write, I don't want to work so I'll play solitaire and read Pay the Bribe. I resented your nagging and I simply raised you one two month boycott.

Alright. Truthfully...I've been creatively blocked. Seriously. We seem to have developed a niche here on Pay the Bribe. Sarah writes honest, thoughtful reflections about the world and I pop on for smart ass comments and amusing anecdotes. And I was simply without and quips. Unthinkable, I know. Lauren without an obnoxious sarcastic remark to share with the world.

I think it might be all the traveling. Meeting people, seeing new places. I've left behind my old ways and have embraced world love and unity. I'd like to teach the world to sing. In perfect harmony. I'd like to hold it in my arms, and keep it company. In fact, I'd like to buy the world a coke.

Anway, I'm back. A few tales about India to follow before I head to Paris and fill you with tales of culture shock and the joys of life's little pleasures. Like toilet paper. And fixed prices.

No real news here. Just my triumphant return.

Oh and to announce that my charming and talented sister will be joining the Pay the Bribe community as a major contributor! That's right. The Bassi girls meet up in March to take North Africa by storm...in the meantime, Alison will undoubtedly be filling our heads with captivating tales of Cambodia.

She is a little concerned, however. Having observed that both Sarah and I seem to have clear niches on said blog, she isn't sure where she will fit in. She's not the loquacious reflector or the obnoxious pundit. What will she write about?

No one knows. Suggestions are being accepted however...Please send them to your favorite bribers as soon as possible.

That's all the news from the heartland for now...

So to recap:

-Get your own damn blog if you're gonna hold me to such ridiculously high standards
-Creatively blocked. Apologies
-World love and unity. Hold hands. Sing Songs.
-Ms. Bassi the elder...someone find this woman a niche!
-Return. Triumphant.
-Goodnight and good luck.

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(Your favorite bribers are pictured here. We realize that with two of our bribers now having the same last name and given the inability of many of our readers to decipher between authors, this will be a problem. We have included said photo to help you distinguish. Remember: Sarah is the one that is obviously not related to the other two. One Bassi has jewlery coming out of her nose. I hope this clears up any confusion.)

Posted by lbassi 15:03 Archived in India Comments (1)

Bam. Bam. Bam.

Another Another Another one bites the dust...

So surely, you read the blog for more than updates on our electronics.

But as your loyal blogger, I feel the need to update you all on that which is near and dear to my heart.

And thus, I am duty-bound to inform you:
Ipod number three has past on.

Cause of death unknown. Likely an electricity surge while charging.

My traveling soundtrack now consists of off-key humming. And all the horns honking. And people screaming. And general assult on the senses that is India.

Woe is me.

Posted by lbassi 14:54 Archived in India Comments (0)

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