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.


  1. Happy 6 months! You and your adventures continue to amaze me. Thank you for opening my eyes up to such an incredible and different experience. Miss you!

  2. PS...NO IDEA why my name is "Greek history"...sorry about that!

  3. Samosa,
    I can attest to how long you've been away from home because of how much you're missed and only at the midpoint of this adventure? There seem to be many references to how India, in all its contradictions, takes hold. You seem fully in its grasp but the calendar will force a release. I suspect this will be a geographic return. The experience (not the parasites) will become a part of you; you will maintain a wonderful respect for people and attempt to keep your living space clean and orderly. Life is good!
    With much love and admiration

  4. Roti,

    I LOVE this entry. I love the way you describe what India says to you in a relationship. Everything you've written resonates deeply deeply and I only wish I had time/energy/motivation/commitment/quiet time and space to write something like this. lovely lovey lovey.

  5. Sami,
    My favorite post to date. You were right about needing to remain aware of beggars even if you don't engage them - being numb is much worse than choosing not to act at that moment. Your ability to take the good with the bad and continue to respect and cherish everything around you is awe-inspiring. You are motivating people in India and at home. Love you very much and can't wait to see you in just 3 weeks!


  6. Sami,

    I'm in awe of you and this life-changing experience. To get to live it with you through your blog has been a much appreciated gift. You are very missed so when you get back you will have to deal with hugs (yes, plural). I know though that you have much more time there before that happens and I look forward to seeing what else comes your way, though I hope the bugs and dust are a much smaller part of that. Jared misses you and can't wait to talk to you. Enjoy your time with the family!

    Love you!