Sunday, April 17, 2011

I Love Mumbai

Namaste readers! Here it is, my last blog post. I will be leaving India in less than 24 hours. This is a sad event, because I have really enjoyed writing these. I could continue blogging during my return to the US, but let’s be honest -- reading about spending my days in my old bedroom back in New Jersey is far less interesting. Luckily for me, and the parentals, I don’t anticipate a long-term stay. Anywho, as I am writing this, there is a man walking around the Spanish chocolateria where I sit using an electric tennis racket to kill mosquitoes. Summer has begun. It’s about 96 degrees but feels closer to 105, thanks to the humidity that just sucks all of the life out of me every time I leave the apartment. Today I had to take a semi-long walk to find a dumpster, since I can’t throw my underwear out in my neighborhood. The ragpickers would find it and know that it belongs to the neighborhood white girls, and I just couldn’t put Ava through it. So I was walking, carrying bags of garbage and underwear, and just sweating profusely. Beyond profusely. My forehead was like the mouth of a waterfall. I’m not going to lie, I think I’m leaving at the right time.

I haven’t experienced anything really new in the last two weeks, but I have been able to think a lot about what it is that keeps me wanting to come back. I mean, I live in a sauna and there is literally something living inside my body, but I’m already thinking of when I might be able to return. Perhaps I’d just try a vacation first, but still, the question of what makes India so magnetic still begs to be asked. On my walk over here, I passed five temples/shrines in the span of 6 minutes. Today, like almost every fourth day here, is a holiday. I don’t know what it is, and it probably wouldn’t make a difference if I knew, because it’s either some god’s birthday, or some obscure new year. Regardless, the streets are glowing with lights and the smell of incense permeates everything. I much prefer it to rotting garbage and feces. It’s really nice living in a place where Christmas is celebrated every other week. I also like the not-knowing what holiday it is part, because it makes figuring it all out so rewarding. As Ava so brilliantly pointed out the other day, part of what makes India so fun is that you never have any idea what’s going on, and no matter how long we’re here, we can never really know. When we get on the train, we just see a lot of women in saris, but the women in the saris can tell where everyone else is from based on how their sari is wrapped, whether or not she’s married based on her jewelry, and if you can catch a last name, to what caste she belongs. I certainly know more than the average foreigner, but I basically walk around here every day knowing nothing. For someone who sometimes thinks she knows everything, it’s very healthy, and refreshing. It's also especially stimulating being in a place like Mumbai. It's like living in New York, with all the diversity and pockets of ethnicity, but add on ten million people. Despite whatever repercussions I might now face thanks to Qaddafi and his friends who are holding out in my stomach, making the insane decision to come here was the best thing I have ever done for myself. I don’t know if it’s the independence, the utter confusion, being able to get involved in meaningful work, the rewards of getting to know people who live here, or having been a part of the best damn cohort WPF has ever seen, but this has been an incredibly fulfilling experience. Part of me is still very disappointed that I have to leave this early, but I think I’ve gotten everything I can out of this experience. I mean sure, summer and monsoon in India will bring its own challenges, but really, I’ve accomplished what I set out to achieve. Now the challenge will be carrying through these learnings, to use my newly acquired Hinglish, to my new American life. As excited as I am to have a big bed,
Not this:

breakfasts on the porch, an afternoon dip in the pool and Dad’s pizza for dinner, I appreciate what it has meant to live here, and never again will I use more than two squares of toilet paper. I urge you all to try it.

I guess this post isn’t as reflective as I had anticipated, but honestly, I have a very quick shift to make. I will be home tomorrow at midnight, and the next day the entire family will be here for Passover. Then Wednesday I get to make my first hospital visit. Yay. So now I will stop thinking about leaving India and more about just getting excited to be in America, because I think a lot of the India reflection will arise organically, like when I go to get on the subway and don’t understand why nobody is pushing me on, or when I say, “I was in Mumbai only” and nobody understands/laughs with me. I will end with some more pictures of my checking off the bucket list over the past two weeks. More reminders of marvelous Mumbai.

This is the chai stand on my street.

Our vegetable lady! Decent prices. Onions don't always look so good.

Stringing lights up for Ambedkar Jayanti

Two of my neighbors and the alley where my apartment is.

Sea Link in a hazy sunset.

Slums on Mahim creek. I wish I could attach an odor.

Pipe over the creek. People live here.

Begging woman in Khar.

Never touch the rickshaw meter.

Cricket on the maidan.

Kate and me in front of the clock tower on the maidan.

Ayurvedic truck.

Shrine in a taxi.

Victoria Terminus, the second most photographed building in India, after the Taj. Also the site of the 2008 terror attack.

Carrying water from Banganga tank.

Napping outside the house.

Super religious Hindus shaving heads.

Bathing in the tank.


Apparently this is the god Rama.

The sun will come outtttttt

Monday, April 4, 2011

That Time I Saw Shahrukh Khan

Namaste!! So I left you all at my last post probably thinking I was depressed being here and wanted to go home. Well, surprise, surprise, turns out I'm coming home. The doctors figured out what's wrong with me, which is great, but I have to take really strong antibiotics for a couple of weeks, which would destroy everything good in my immune system. Unfortunately, it's really hard to live here without an immune system, particularly as monsoon season is approaching, and the flooding and dampness provides the perfect opportunity for bacterial growth. After much deliberation, and an incredible amount of tears (not surprising to those who know me), I finally decided that I will be returning to America in a few weeks. As upsetting as this is, it made me realize how happy I am to be here, and how sad I am to leave. But this post isn't about that. I will have a final, reflective post when I'm in a reflective mood, but I'm currently too damn excited about the Cricket World Cup to be all sentimental or discuss the finer points of development practice.

This Saturday, India played Sri Lanka in the final world cup match. Most of you (actually I know a lot of my brown friends read this. I exclude you) probably know nothing about cricket, so here's a really quick lesson that might not be entirely factual, but it helps me follow what's going on. So there are two teams. They don't switch on and off like in baseball, but one team keeps batting until there are 50 overs (6 balls to an over) or 10 wickets, or outs. A wicket, other than being an out, is also a set of three sticks with some little pieces of wood balanced on them. The batsman is protecting the wicket by hitting the ball away from it. If the bowler hits the wicket, that's a wicket (out). If the batsman hits a fly ball and someone in the outfield catches it, also a wicket. There are two batsmen on the pitch, and they run back and forth in between wickets. One exchange is a run. So if, while they're running, one of the opposing team members throws the ball at the wicket and hits it, that's a wicket (out). It's not that confusing. It's not always that exciting, because it's more of a gentlemanly sport. There's only so much diving and fast running, and you can pretty much predict who will win, because the team up second just has to be a certain number of runs. Also, sometimes they wear silly hats. So anyway, India hasn't won since 1983, which doesn't make sense, because we have the best cricketer in the world, Sachin Tendulkar. India's been sad about this for awhile, and now Mr. Tendulkar can retire in peace (cricket fans- how am I doing?). I love sporting events, so I prepared for Saturday by getting a jersey and face paint. At one point there were boas, but the feathers were flying. The final match was actually in Mumbai, and the city basically shut down. The match started in the afternoon and lasted for over 8 hours, with tea and lunch breaks, of course. I didn't watch for the whole time because I had other things to do, but while walking down the street, we could see crowds of men watching the game at various stalls, or standing outside stores that have TVs. I watched the match at a friend's who hosts fantastic barbecues, and I counted wickets and overs while eating a steak. Fabulous.
Rachel and I in our gear. Face paint was gone at this point.

Watching partay

Sri Lanka had a great round, and we were all very nervous because one of India's best players got out without even scoring a run. But then things got going and it was evident that we were doing damn well. Then it was clear we were going to win, and the screaming was out of control. It's easy to tell when there's been a wicket or a six or four point hit (six points if the batsman hits the ball past the pitch boundary without it touching the ground, and four if it hits the boundary on the ground), because the entire city erupts in screams. For the final match, important hits were accompanied by fireworks. When the captain hit the sixer that ended the game, the sky was just filled with lights. We danced around the deck for a bit, and then decided to go celebrate. As we were walking to Carter Road, the road that goes down the coastline, people were driving on their motorcycles screaming and waving Indian flags and yelling "INDIAAAAAA" at us, and we yelled it right back. When we got to Carter Rd, it was out of control. There were easily 10-15,000 people lined up and down the streets, and the traffic procession was epic. People were on the roofs of their cars, hanging out of rickshaws, standing on motorcycles- all of it entirely dangerous, but it was worth it. To die for India's win- a most honorable death.

At one point, even though the screaming was at a momentous high, it reached even higher decibels. We looked into the road, and there he was. Shahrukh Khan, one of the kings of Bollywood, was driving down the road, standing out of the moonroof of his BMW, waving an Indian flag.

This is like Brad Pitt driving down the street in your hometown to celebrate with you. And in India it means more, because Bollywood stars are at a whole different level. They don't go places normal Indians go, because the divide is just too great. They also wouldn't go anywhere without air conditioning, which is almost everywhere, because it's just too hot. Especially now. The temperature is consistently hovering around 100 degrees, and it's at the point where my sweat from walking to work can't dry. Terrible feeling, really. So anyway, I was across the street from Shahrukh Khan on one of the greatest days in modern Indian history. That basically sums up everything here.

And that night was my best Indian moment. Nothing will ever match that, and I can't entirely explain why. People in the US can't understand why cricket is so important, and why Sachin Tendulkar is sometimes referred to simply as "God." When the Yankees won the last world series in 2009, I was ecstatic and proud of my city, but it was a different feeling, because I was able to separate myself from the team. In India, that separation really doesn't exist. People here can't choose where they live, what they do, who they marry, or even what they eat for lunch. We're in Asia- it's not individualism, it's the collective. It's karma, fate, destiny - free will doesn't play a role in daily, cultural, or spiritual life. So when India wins the cricket world cup, when when they are the best in the world in something, it represents that for everyone, because the divide between individuals doesn't exist (outside the caste system, of course). And terrible things have happened when cricket teams lose- fans kill themselves, and players and coaches can be murdered. So when India won, literally all of India won. They don't represent the best of India. They represent all of India, particularly the downtrodden who can only experience such pride in these vicarious manners.

I have never been a part of something like that before, and in India it just seemed so right. It was the first time here where I legitimately felt that nothing could go wrong. A man asked to take a picture with me and his daughter, and when he put his arm around his shoulder I didn't even flinch, because I knew he just wanted to experience the moment with me, and not to experience me. I was also heartened by people's reactions to our being there and celebrating with them. A few of my friends and I wore Indian jerseys, and people went out of their way to include us in their moments of celebration. There was only one man who, as we were finally walking through the fishing village back to our house, looked at me in my jersey and said, "but you're not Indian!" And it felt so natural to respond, "Today we all are."

In last week's posting, I said that I just needed something to remind me of why I love it here. Saturday more than sufficed. It reminded me that the pride I feel for India is real, and that when India wants to, it can be the greatest place in the world.

This weekend in general has also been wonderful. It's a 3 day weekend, because today is the Mahrashtrian New Year. Friday was my birthday, which was celebrated with some wonderful friends, Mexican food, dancing, and dirty martinis (obviously). Saturday was Saturday, and Sunday Ava and I went to have a buffet lunch at the Hyatt. Over the course of 3 hours, we feasted on cheese and crackers, sushi, pad thai, hummus, lox, grilled octopus, and pastries. And a dirty martini. That might sound like a weird combination, but those things are all impossible to find here, on our budgets. Then we snuck into the pool. Perfect third to last full weekend in India!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

It's all downhill from here

Namaste! Apologies for the long delay, readers! I spent two weeks off the grid (one in Tamil Nadu for midpoint retreat, and one in SPAIN with some Ritters and a Lupu). I also spent one week dealing with some bodily invaders. That’s right, it is very likely that for almost my entire time in India (or definitely since January), I have a nice little friend with a sucker attached to my intestinal wall. The next month will probably be dedicated to getting rid of him (I’ve named him Qaddafi. He refuses to leave. Not to belittle what’s going on in Libya. I’m with you, freedom fighters.), so I apologize if my posts are not as exciting as they normally are.

Anyway, I feel like I dedicate an absurd amount of time to my bodily functions. For anyone reading this who was at one point attracted to me… well I guess I ruined that for myself, didn’t I? I guess I’ll start with Tamil Nadu. For one week, all of the fellows gathered in South India for a week of reenergizing, reevaluating, and relaxing during our midpoint retreat. That’s right, I am officially more than halfway done with India! It wasn’t all fun and games, though. As a Midpoint Planning Committee member, I was partly responsible for planning sessions that covered a range of topics, from evaluating impact and dealing with power and privilege to Seth’s aptly named “Fuck India,” a venting session, and Shabbat services. However, in between sessions we took a dip in the pool or the ocean. We stayed in a little cottage that unfortunately smelled like feces, and they purchased box springs without mattresses, but those were important reminders that we were still in India.

Learning kuchipudi, a kind of Indian dance

playing in the water

Chavruta studies with my chavrutim

Watermelon. Necessary cooling technique.

In front of Krishna's butter ball.

My new goat friend.

Midpoint also brought one of my favorite moments in India thus far. South India is totally chill, and we felt surprisingly comfortable at the hotel, wearing bathing suits while Indian women swam in full street clothes. Then one day a company had an outing at our hotel, and the men who got a little drunk got a little too close while we were relaxing on the beach. After a very relaxing week, it was just one of those instances that kind of kills moods, and progress, and I tried to keep my cool, but it’s hard when a man in a Speedo stands over you and attempts to have a conversation, when really you just want to focus on Joseph Campbell. We got them to leave but were still seething a bit, sitting there with towels draped over girly parts, when a Tamil woman who collects garbage along the beach came to say hello. Well she didn’t really say hello, because she doesn’t speak any English, and none of us speak Tamil, so we had an entire conversation in sign language. She pointed at her earrings, nose ring, necklace, and ankle bracelet, and then at me, completely without jewelry. Then two of her friends came over, and they all just sat next to us on the beach, and we stared at each other. They pointed at Katie’s nose ring and started laughing, and then one of them ran to the water and started digging a hole. We thought she was going to go to the bathroom, but she runs back up to the beach with a handful of tiny clams. She kept pointing to her mouth, and I was like, we eat these? So then they grabbed us and brought us down to the water and taught us how to dig for clams, which was super easy, since they were about 5 inches under the sand. We brought them to the kitchen to steam them, and unfortunately they tasted pretty bad, but it was one of the best silent conversations I’ve ever had.

Digging for clams!


Ava and our new friends.

My new creature friends.

Fisherman in Mahaballapuram.

The famous shore temple.

I came back from midpoint totally invigorated and ready to attack my work projects, and survive the Indian summer, which officially started when we stepped off the plane at it was 95 degrees. Apparently when I was in Spain it went up to 108, but now it’s back down to about 93. Not bad. I’m not putting jeans on again, though, because the humidity just creates some uncomfortable situations, but I will save the real complaining for May. Now that I’m back from Spain, though, that energy has dissipated a bit. I’m stuck here wondering why I was so convinced I wanted to be in a place like Indian, instead of Europe, where the food is delicious, and safe, and it smells nice, and the wine and squid are free flowing. But I’m here, and I made a commitment to stay, and I’m sure in the next few weeks I’ll rediscover what made me happy here in the first place. I think it’ll be easy, since this seems to be the homestretch. In just a few short weeks, I’ll be at the point where I want to do everything over again and cross off my bucket list, because I’ll be leaving. Our fellowship ends July 20, less than four months! I’m thinking that by the time May rolls around, I’ll covet every train ride, savor every masala dosa and dance outside in the monsoon, just to connect a bit more. That’s about all for now. I must gather all of my medical documents to meet with my colon guru tomorrow. Also, congrats to India for beating Australia in the Cricket World Cup! I know none of you follow, but this is an historic day for my adopted country.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Happy 6 month anniversary, India!

Namaste! On Friday night, Rachel and I went out for our weekly Zagat Shabbat, during which we mark the Shabbos by trying out different restaurants in Mumbai. Some fellows celebrate at Chabad, and I eat my way through this delectable city. I find it an appropriate way to embrace my Judaism. Anyway, on this particular day we felt like we wanted to treat ourselves. I had spent the past four hours campaigning and walking through the slum, and Rachel, well Rachel just likes good food. We decided to check out this place called Souk at the Taj hotel. It was probably a mistake, but we thought we could get something for about $20 each, which was exciting, because I've only spent that much on a meal here once. The meal was wonderful, and it ended up being MUCH more than $20, and I freaked out because spending more than $20 on anything here makes me uncomfortable, since my monthly stipend (rent included) is $426. Rachel's solution? Stop worrying and drink your wine, we're celebrating our sixth month anniversary.

Over the past few days I have been reflecting over what having survived six months here means, and preparing myself for a daunting 5+ months ahead of me. Luckily, our midpoint retreat is next week, so I will get to contemplate many of my concerns on the beach, maybe while eating squid. Not sure if they have squid, but I can dream, right? But in the mean time, my thoughts:

Being in India has taught me a lot about being in relationships. I'm in a relationship with Mumbai. You don't just live in a place, you love it, you hate it, you fight, it gives, you take, you give, it takes. The communication might be different, that's a given, since Mumbai speaks in about 18 official languages, and about 100 others. I often tell India to go fuck itself, screaming at the top of my lungs, or as loud as I can without my neighbors referring to me as that crazy white person (probably already do), and it responds, with horns, with daybreak Hindu chants and afternoon calls to prayer and squawks from chickens about to be slaughtered, with didi, chocolate? biscuit? one rupee?; it forces itself upon you, violently lashing rain, emitting odors that could kill, wrapping your intestines in knots with invasive parasites. In that sense, India is no different than warfare: it permanently marks the enemy, leaves a reminder saying I was here, I overpowered you. But when India gives, does India give. It overwhelms you with generosity, even as it tries to take your every dollar. It's a place where you can connect with every single person you meet, where people seek connections, and don't isolate themselves. Meeting people, touching people, being touched- it's all inevitable. There's no room for it to just be you. Sometimes the touches are bad, but more often than not, they're in the form of handshakes from people who just want to say hello. There's no rush, unless you're getting on or off the train. I sometimes get angry at the lack of urgency, because it's too hot to just be standing around, but then I slow down, too, and look around. There's a mural that a man may or may not be peeing on, a man selling fruits that I've never seen or heard of, women weaving flower garlands for post-temple wear, and children playing cricket in every vacant lot. Granted, this might not be an entirely healthy relationship, but it appears to have a finite ending, so I'm in it till the end.

Here is my India top five list, of things I love and hate most about being here.

The Bad:
1. Dust
Nobody actually likes dust, but I've never realized how much I hated it until I got here. Part of this has to do with the fact that I'm allergic to it, so for other people it's just annoying, but for me, well I haven't been able to breathe through my nose since I got here, and according to Ava (so sorry, my dear), I've started snoring. But I also think the dust here is on crack. According to a recent NY Times article, the amount of dust in the world is increasing rapidly. Now that I'm living in a country in which it doesn't rain for eight months at a time and horrified that it will get worse as we get closer and closer to monsoon, something has to be done. Seriously. Today, I was cleaning the apartment, which we only really get to do maybe once a week, but in order for the dust to be kept at bay, we should do it every single day. I haven't even opened the windows since the rat moved in, and every single surface is streaked with dirt. Which brings me to my next item on the list.
2. Cleaning Supplies
What is up with India and improper cleaning supplies? For a country with this much dust, HOW has Swiffer not entered the market? I am Swiffer's biggest fan, and 1010 can attest to my love for the Wet Jet. Here, cleaning consists of sweeping and mopping, but mostly sweeping. Everyone knows that when you sweep, you move dirt, you don't make it disappear. And I don't believe in mopping. Perhaps I don't know how to mop, but I think that's also a task that involves moving dirt from one place to another. India hasn't really embraced the paper towel, which I guess isn't terrible, because it means less garbage, but it also makes little clean up jobs more difficult. Sometimes I use toilet paper, sometimes I use sponges, but I often use rags that have zero absorbency. The Bounty Quicker Picker Upper needs to get a move on here. Today I was trying to remove dust from the little shelf in the bathroom (not sure how the dirt got there, since we can't open the window because of construction men), and I ended up spraying the surface with our ass-sprayer (normally goes with the toilet) because the rag wasn't doing shit. Two weeks ago I bought a dust buster, because really, enough is enough. It's my new best friend.
3. Men
This isn't completely a generalization. There are a lot of men here who are wonderful, and I have Indian man friends whom I genuinely love. But men who make noises at me like I'm a dog and leer at me despite the fact that I hardly have any skin showing and drape a big scarf across my torso so nobody can see the outline of my chest, well I hate them. I understand that American movies portray women as leather-wearing, one-night stand loving, desperately seeking attention from anyone with gonads kind of whores, but in real life, we're not really like that. So when taxi drivers ask me to move to the other side of the car so that they can stare at me in the rearview mirror, please forgive me if I tell them in Hindi to fuck off (ganpa lath, for anyone in a similar situation). So a tip to any foreigner visiting India- PLEASE do not wear shorts. Do not wear spaghetti strap tank tops. Do not show your cleavage. Do not wear tight t-shirts. I know you think you want to wear as little clothing as possible because yes, it's hot as hell here, but you might feel better if you wear Indian cotton, which breathes really well and doesn't show your figure. Do it for all of our sakes.
4. Bugs
I know I'm supposed to love bugs, since I was that weird child who roamed the backyard finding specimens to keep in my little plastic bug cage, but I don't appreciate them in my house. Luckily we've had few full grown cockroaches, but the babies love the kitchen. The biggest problem is the ants, but surprisingly, when they're dead. At one point we had a bit of an ant infestation, but we filled the hole with chili powder. Works surprisingly well. We have a lot of spiders. I clear the webs all the time, but don't always get to the spiders. Since there are so many ants, the spiders always get them, and then dead, sucked-out ant carcasses fall to the floor. Or into our laundry bucket, or into our clean dishes, and probably all over me. And soon, when it's monsoon, I will hate the mosquitoes, but hopefully just because I'm itchy, and not because I have dengue.

5. Poverty
I know this seems really obvious, but it's not a general "India is so poor. People are always begging, and it's annoying." It's the kind of frustration that arrives when you see poverty everywhere, understand the causes and barriers to ameliorating poverty, and have to live every day without really being able to do anything about it. It's not annoying when kids run up to me and touch me, asking for food, money, chocolate- everything. It's heartbreaking. Technically, I'm not supposed to engage with beggars (AJWS policy) and I don't. While there are absolutely people who beg because they have no choice, there are a lot of people who beg rather than finding sustainable employment, and often use children who should be attending school in order to get more money. What's frustrating is understanding how to deal with poverty from a development perspective and watching as money that is supposed to go to education and employment schemes instead goes into politicians' safes in the form of gold bars, or when owners of subsidized food stores sell grains and other products on the black market, so those who need and have the right to the food get flour crawling with worms. I thought living in Mumbai would be really easy, because it has so much to do and many of the comforts of home. To a certain extent it's true, and this week I got my chick-flick fix (No Strings Attached was amazing) and got to eat chicken fingers at the Hard Rock Cafe. But it also concentrates India's poor and makes it hard to walk outside, sometimes. I don't think I'll ever get used to it, but at the same time, I'm not entirely sure that I ever want to, because that would mean I wouldn't care enough to try to do something about it.

The Good:
1. Women
I would not survive here without them. Oddly enough, or maybe not, my favorite women are the ones I can't really speak to. My Hindi is okay, but not good enough for perfect conversations. The women I love most barely speak English, but they like touching me and putting bindis on my head or inviting me over for chai. They hug me even when they don't know my name, and they want to find me good Indian husbands. This is not to suggest that more upper-class women aren't equally amazing, but I think their familiarity with westerners makes them more hesitant to act that way, since they know that's generally not how we act with each other. But they do try to find me Indian men, but they tell me they'll get me boyfriends, not husbands.
2. Generosity
I could combine this with women, but there are some awesome males out there, too. India is known for corruption, and when tourists are here, they probably feel more acutely people trying to get as many rupees out of them as possible. But if you live here, and sometimes just if you're lucky, you get a glimpse of how generous Indians are. Last week, when I was really sick, my coworkers took turns cooking me the cultural equivalent of chicken soup. Sometimes my boss makes me food if she thinks I might be homesick. Our neighbors invite us to join them for religious ceremonies and feed us more than our stomachs can possibly hold. Sometimes, when I get dropped off late at night, rickshaw drivers wait until I close the gate to our alley so they know I'll get upstairs okay. One time, when Rachel was over and ordered food in, they couldn't understand us over the phone, so the delivery man came over to make sure he got the order right. I really could keep going, but I think you get the idea.
3. Food
This basically speaks for itself. I kind of had to stop cooking dinner, because the food options are endless and amazing. When you think of Indian food, you probably think of samosas and chicken tikka masala, but when you live here, you realize that every community has its own delicious recipe cache. Maharashtra, where I live, is known for fabulous fried fish and sweet-spicy curries. Keralans, in the south, infuse most of their dishes with coconut. Most people in Mumbai don't eat samosas as street snacks, but vada pao or bhaji pao, which are yummy mini-sandwiches. It's kind of a wonder that I haven't gained weight, and I could basically eat here for the rest of my life. I didn't even get to Indian sweets yet... oy vey.
4. Public Transportation
The trains are sometimes a nightmare and there's always a serious danger of being elbowed in the face when you're one on, but I've grown to love Indian public transportation. It's more fun long-distance, like last weekend when I took a sleeper bus to a city called Aurangabad. I booked two berths next to each other, because otherwise I would have been sharing a mattress with a stranger.
I was supposed to share this.

I try really hard not to share my bed with people I don't know. It was surprisingly comfortable, and I almost liked it more than the long-distance trains because I had more than 2 feet of sleeping space. Unfortunately on the way back, my train ticket didn't get confirmed and I couldn't get onto a sleeper bus, so I took a non-AC seater bus for 8 hours. I complained for a little while and went to get a xanax at the nearest chemist shop (less than 5 cents OTC), but really, it wasn't that bad, once they turned off the really loud Bollywood action movie at around 1:30 am. And even if it had been terrible, my bus ticket cost less than $6. Amtrak, take notes.
5. Color
I had to add this. I'm currently wearing some sort of purple, which I would never do at home, and I don't think I'm ever going back to black. My food is a million colors, the saris are a million colors, even the political parties, which I hate, proudly show their bright, bright colors on posters all over the city. I could go blind, but it's a good blind.

Ok, longest post ever? I'm basically done, just throwing in a few pictures from our trek to Ellora and Ajanta, ancient cave temples.

They carved this top-down, which means they started at the top of the cliff, which is only a cliff because a bunch of monks spent 150 years "revealing" the temple.

In front of Kailasa Temple, the largest monolithic structure in the world.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Gay Bombay

Namaste! I write to you after what have been an eventful few days, culminating in a three in the morning visit from a rodent friend. We were hoping that it was a mouse, but alas, there was a rat in the bedroom. I managed to get it to run out the window relatively quickly, but you can be sure that we will never open the windows again, and the shower/bucket drain will be sealed. I understand that dealing with creatures is part of the experience, but I sleep on the floor. And the rat was on the floor. I don't need to be the lead in some cheap horror movie. Coming back to this a few days later (sometimes I'm too busy to write these things, you know), the rat came back. Even though I stuffed the hole, I haven't been able to sleep, even in the living room (hall, Indian English), because I just think it's there. Another fellow in Bhuj, a really conservative city, has mice that people won't exterminate because the god Ganesha is attended by a mouse, so that would be heretical.

Now that I've sufficiently grossed you out, let's talk about happier things, like rainbows. Two weeks ago was the Queer Azad Mela, or Pride Week. It was a week long festival with events like open mics, folk music night, poster-making parties, and plays. It ended with a march on Saturday.

We gave some street kids paper and markers. They drew the Playboy bunny, because nobody gets it here.

Our beautiful artwork.

Sadly, I never made it to the pride march at home, but it was really exciting to be celebrating everything here. I feel like it was probably similar, except people wore clothes, and the bystanders didn't wait for hours to watch. Caught relatively off guard, most looked amused and maybe a bit bemused, but only one was sort of hostile. Even the police were being supportive, which surprised me because in my line of work, police are the enemy. After abusive husbands and mothers-in-law.

And now, I will give you a brief synopsis of homosexuality in India. So back, back in the day, like way before the British arrived, people were getting it on with members of the same sex. Because people have done that basically forever, let's be real. Then the British came, with their recently developed concept of homosexuality, which had become a bad thing, along with other sexual "perversions." So the British codified the Indian Penal Code and added Section 377 in 1860, which stated, "Unnatural offences: Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.

Explanation: Penetration is sufficient to constitute the carnal intercourse necessary to the offense described in this section.

I think Lord Macaulay probably didn't think it would be used to persecute gay people, but that's basically what happened. The British left, the law stayed, and technically, sex between men was illegal. It didn't really apply to women, because, well penetration isn't as easily identifiable. Although there was this one case in South India where they tried to determine if a woman had been penetrated by fingers by her lover in order to charge her under 377, but that's another story. A lot of people here think that homosexuality is a western influence, which is totally untrue. However, if tolerance of gay people if a western influence, I would be proud to accept that. There are a lot of gay people in India (population of 1.2 billion, it's inevitable, no?), but a lot of them don't really know what that means. Those who are of the lower classes might not have heard the words "gay" or "lesbian," and in fact there are people in India called MSM, or men who have sex with men, who don't identify as gays in the same way men do in the states because compulsory heterosexuality is the norm here. In other words, they have sex with men, but they're married to women, because that's the way things are. Lesbians face a lot of hardship because women here have to get married, again, because that's what people do, so after a certain point (her 25th birthday?), her parents might either suspect something, or just marry her off. Also, women don't really have financial resources here, because their jobs are rarely lucrative, so a woman can only come out to her family if she can support herself. Anyways, gays in the big cities started protesting, advocating, the whole shebang, so last summer, Section 377 was written down to basically only apply to child abuse. So now gay sex isn't illegal. Gay marriage isn't really an issue, because a lot of people here only have religious ceremonies and don't get civil marriage licenses. They don't get tax breaks here.

Whew. I'm tired. But still going... I cannot finish this without discussing hijras. And kothis! So hijras, in a reductive sense, are transgenders, or men who dress/behave/are women. Some of them are castrated/have sex changes, but it's not entirely necessary, depending on which hijra family she belongs to. They have their own social structures, and even their own god. They've been a big part of India for hundreds of years and played important parts in religious ceremonies. It's thought that they can bring bad luck if they show up to a ritual and you don't give them money. Now, however, they don't occupy that same cultural/religious role, and a lot of them are relegated to sex work. They also have a very distinctive clap.

Kothis are another subgroup of people who might be considered gay. I'm calling them queer. It applies to all cultures. Actually, LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) in India can kind of go LGBTQHKP... there are lots of kinds of queers. So kothis are men who dress like women and have sex with men, but they're not hijras. They're the feminine halves of kothi/panthi, in which panthis are the more masculine "tops," or the "passive" of the ancient Greek active/passive relationships, if you will. Just an fyi, panthis aren't necessarily considered gay, because they're "masculine."

So that's basically everything I know about queering India. A note for my family who probably wasn't aware that I was so into this topic, I got it from Columbia.

Now the other part of the post... well I'm tired, so this is just going to be pictures of things I've done.

Rachel and I went to Elephanta Island, where there are cool cave carving temple things.

I know this is just a cow, but it's on an island. Just trying to figure out how it snuck onto a little passenger ferry.

Porters. Chilling on their moneymaking apparati.

Heyyy there.

So Rachel and I have this joke (no offense to my lovely friends who live here) that Indians don't really have a concept of lame. This illustrative picture is modeled after a man/boy (ages are really hard to guess here. Could have been 18. Could have been 26) did this approximately 45 seconds before I did. He did, however, laugh when he caught me copying him, so we're cool.

Grey horse for Grandma!

Could be Monmouth Park, no?

In our derby best (I didn't really bring nice clothes to India)

Off on an adventure to see MORE caves for the weekend. And adventure it will be. I'm taking a sleeper BUS. I'm going to feel like Harry Potter on the Knight Bus.