Thursday, December 6, 2007

Adventures Adjacent to Matrimony

I want to die.

I want the festering stone of curry and bread and the 1978-90 rice crops of Southeast Asia to finishing gaining sentience and claw its way out of the gasping, convulsed hole that is my stomach and leave me be. Once I can fit through my door again, I am going to kill Vijay.

Vijay, with whom I've shared several brief and awkward phone conversations, recently drove 50 km to hand-deliver an invitation to his sister's wedding. When I arrived the next day, I was immediately forced to sit in the very front row, displacing grandmothers and other dignified and closely-related-looking figures. Keep in mind the fact that I still don’t know the names of the people getting married. The bit of the ceremony that I caught through the blasting Bollywood music and the massive crowd always gathered around the alter was lovely--the bride and groom took turns pouring rice, grain, and jewels over each other and saying things in…Sanskrit? The rest of us hurled rice at them as hard as we could--seriously, I think maybe they’re trying to physically harm the new couple to let them know that marriage is no picnic. I’m also pretty sure I accidentally cursed the bride by hurling rice at her with my left (gasp) hand. I was immediately assured by my colleague Ram and his wife that it was ok, but Indians love lying to foreigners, so I remain unconvinced.

Either way, we began the number one Indian party ritual: eating oneself into oblivion. Foreigners are at a distinct disadvantage during this particular tradition, as people REALLY like feeding foreigners. At one point, I had 7 waiters, 2 Rotarians, an in-law who only spoke Telugu, AND the bride all trying to get me to eat more. I was sweating and snotting and emitting extraordinarily undignified noises when they finally stopped putting food on my plate…and dragged me over to the dessert table, where they made me try everything. After I was almost weeping blood, Ram then took me to another wedding to which I had no connection…where I had to eat MORE so as not to be rude or inauspicious. This is why people kill over religion.

The next day, Ram sent me a text message asking me to have an affair with him. I then discovered one of the best things about Hinduism—if you are angry, you can put the fear of WAY more than one god in someone.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Slices of India

I don't think I've much of a soul left. It's scattered all over the subcontinent, held hostage by elements anguished and absurd.

Darjeeling, a hill station famous for tea and Tibetan refugees in the Himalayan mountains, took a disproportionate part of my immortal me. A trip to Darjeeling is a trip through so many ages and aspects of India. It involves stopping in Calcutta, where rickshaws are still pulled by people. It involves seeing people from all over India trying tea in houses that are still reminiscent of the British Raj. Through slices of fog you can see the Himalayan Mountains. Then the fog shifts and you see a community of Tibetan refugees (I hate China). The fog shifts again and you see a grillion point five posters of Prashant Tamang, winner of Indian Idol. A final shift shows a Nepali woman walking up hills that leave me gasping for air, only she is carrying a 50-kilo bag on her head and walking at twice my pace. Darjeeling reflects the incredible mixing pot of India, the chutney of culture that ensures you had best keep your sense of wonder handy wherever you go. You will need it often.

On the way to Darjeeling, my French friend Sam managed to change his pants in the middle of a restaurant. In his sleep that night, he mistook my friend Bobby for his girlfriend, an experience from which Bobby has still not recovered.

But then the fog shifts again, and laughter gives way to something quite different.

As part of my Rotary duties, I got to vaccinate children against Polio. Every day I leave campus, I see people whose lives have been permanently marred by polio, people condemned to a life of lying on the road showing their pain, depending on the humanity of hundreds of people who walk by--humanity that so often goes undemonstrated. Their spines look like punctuation--question marks, ampersands, and tortured brackets. My bones quivered inside my skin as I inoculated children when the consequences of no vaccine were so poignantly around me.

And so the fog shifts once more, and we're left with the frankly nonsensical.

Nagarjuna Sagar, home to one of the largest dams in Asia and college town of my sociopathic postmodern ex-friend, Surya Raju. He said he wanted to show me some Bhuddist monuments, waterfalls, and a fun boat. Instead, he misrepresented my deepest held beliefs to everyone we met, introduced me to a professor who proceeded to confess that his wife no longer "cooperated" with him, then coerced me into speaking at a general assembly of 150 students . . . only male students ages 19-22. I was covered from ankle to elbow and still felt naked. One student said that "itwasaverynicespeechyouaresobeautiful." I suggested that he might just think that because I was the first non-family woman he'd seen for months, possibly years. He just stared at me.

I'm not sure sarcasm translates particularly well.

Since then, Surya Raju has written me a foot-long poem expressing his pain that I have completely stopped speaking to him. He also inexplicably offered me his kidney.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Ind-ventures (Please. Just this once. Let me pun.)

My new policy is to only pose for pictures if someone lets me hold a baby.

You see, somewhere deep within the Indian psyche is a near-uncontrollable devotion to Hospitality Towards Strangers. It's lovely--when it's not deeply disturbing. When said Indian has no recourse to provide hospitality to firangs (foreigners), most seem to resort to maniacal staring.

Case in point: Some friends and I took a trip to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Indian independence. We took a night bus to Hampi, an ancient capital of the Vijayangar...naragarnasomething empire. We arrived exactly on Independence Day, along with about several hundred Indian tourists who had clearly never seen a real live white person. If we stood still for more than a minute or two, we got mobbed. I'm serious. At one point, I was in the center of a group of about 50 Indians, all of whom wanted to take a picture with/of me. I literally had people asking for my autograph. That was cool for about a minute and then it got progressively annoying and scary.

We ran. And like every day in India, we ran into situations equal parts absurd and sublime.

In a country with such a long tradition of concern about purity, I am constantly amused by how little there actually is. Most of the Muslim ruins around Hampi were built on top of Hindu bases, complete with carved depictions of Hindu gods. We climbed huge rocks in the sunset to see a Hindu temple and listened to music from a mosque wafting over Friday boulders. In climbing a mountain to visit the temple of Hanuman the monkey god, a monkey jumped onto my friend Sam's backpack to search for snacks in all of his pockets.

Other noteworthy images and observations: an 11-year old girl sweeping the ground at my hostel, right beneath a sign that said "abolish child labor." Sleeping under mosquito nets still feels like sleeping in a fort of blankets, and I still giggle inside every time I get in bed. On the train back, we met Mr. Kumar, who was extremely proud that he spent "one whole hour talking to foreigners." He mostly just talked about the fact that his mother forced him to get married three years ago, but, due to both of them working on postgrad degrees, they had never spent more than a month together. "I have not had much satisfaction in my marriage." On the train ride home, halfway through the state of Karnataka, all the people, buildings and vehicles turned earth-red.

Several weeks later, some of us took a train to Pondicherry, a former French colony. There, we rented scooters and motorcycles and braved Indian traffic to find a beach near a remote fishing village. The driving was made more difficult by the fact that the motorcycle that I was on did not have a horn, which is like not having a steering wheel, doors, and turn signals on an American vehicle. We compensated by yelling OUR HORN IS BROKEN every time we came up on somebody and feeling extremely classy.

On the way home, the motorcycle stalled like you wouldn't believe and we couldn't get the damn thing started for about 15 minutes. As I looked up in frustration, I saw a statue of what I think was Jesus. Or possibly Krishna. Having exhausted all other avenues, I raised my hand and said. "Can we get a little help here? My mom's been in the God business for quite a while now, and I help people sometimes. Whaddya say?"

The motorcycle immediately started, and now I'm pretty sure I have to be a Christian. Or possibly a Hindu.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

The Toilet Paper in My Hostel Is Hot Pink

And that's when there IS toilet paper. Suddenly, that whole "you only use your left hand for one thing and it's not eating" idea is making a lot more sense.

Even though I'm rather addicted to narrative structure, I'm finding India somewhat ill-suited to blithe encapsulation. Today, I must surrender and convey my experience entirely in blurb format.

Completely uncharacteristically, I get up before 7:00 every day to go to Yoga. And everyday, I make eye contact with the teacher (whom we only know as Sir) and silently giggle with him over the fact that I am nowhere near to touching my toes. The first time we meditated, I nearly hyperventilated in trying not to laugh out loud when he busted out this phrase: "Picture your god, why you admire or emulate him or her. Remember what is beautiful about your god. Remember what is inspiring. If you are an atheist . . . remember something else."

Last night, I went out to a fancy restaurant, where all of the tables are on islands in real water. I didn't notice that until after I had stepped into the damn fountain with both feet and exclaimed at the top of my lungs: "Jesus Christ!" I am so good at increasing international understanding and goodwill--score one, Ambassadorial Scholar.

The coffee here is so weak that even I can drink it.

I volunteer at an orphanage, where I teach random English words like "ant" and "watermelon" and lift children over my head onto jungle gyms for three hours a day. Today, a small girl fell asleep on my lap while I sang songs with the other ones. I pretty much died from an overdose of cuteness. They all call me Didi (repeatedly and loudly), which means sister.

After the bombings in my city, the bus I ride to the orphanage was stopped and all of the Muslim women were made to lift their veils to make sure they weren't men.

A man named Surya Raju came up to me in the library to ask me to translate some French and teach him about Foucault. As we talked, I found out that he was a radical post-modernist who had been expelled from his last university for fighting with the administration about women's rights and the Untouchables. He invited me to the school where he teaches, where the students made me sing for them and sign their arms. I could only remember "The Ants go Marching One by One." (hurrah hurrah). I was then informed I would be teaching a lesson on American Politics. And, inexplicably, Russian history.

Oh dear.

I met a girl named Madhu on the city bus. She invited me over to her one-room house for dinner, where her mother was very distressed about the fact that I am still not very good at eating rice with my hands and tried to make me use a spoon. After eating more rice in one sitting than everyone I know ever has, her mother exclaimed (in translation from Telugu, obviously): "You eat so little!" (Keep in mind that the waistlines of her entire family combined are about the size of my thigh). After dinner and a movie in Telugu with no subtitles (the acting here is so dramatic I could still tell what was going on), I was treated to a 20-minute Telugu yelling match between the two brothers. Madhu insisted I spend the night, made me wear a nightgown that was about 2 feet too short for me, and gave me a spot to sleep…on a blanket on the floor with her entire family. It was the best sleep I've had in India...except that I got a bajillion mosquito bites and a Charlie horse that made me want to weep blood.

On the road home one day, I saw a stoplight that simultaneously displayed a red light and a green arrow pointing forward.

Sometimes, India is really confusing.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

There as many Indias as Indians. This is my version.

The Setting: Hyderabad, Sou'Central India, 2007. A metro area of nearly 6 million people, including its twin city of Secunderabad. A lake called the Hussein Sagar splits the two cities, and has the tallest Buddha statue in the world at its center.

The Scene: The University of Hyderabad, a graduate university 15 kilometers from the heart of the city. Crouched in a diet jungle, U.Hyd is in a lushly forested area complete with monkeys, 40 types of snakes (many poisonous, none aggressive), and 120 bird species. It is not as thick as a real jungle, and contains a few paved paths, campus buildings and miscellaneous small buildings where you can buy things. In the mornings, you can hear the gentle sounds of dogfights. On some afternoons, incense cuts through the smell of jungle and burning garbage like the trickle of sweat that is always running down my back. Because it is monsoon season, it rains a bit almost every day, making it nearly impossible to dry my clothes, which I wash by hand in a bucket. After rain, the jungle smells like crushed pea pods and my hair swells to twice its normal size.

The Characters: Bambi from Iceland, who has memories of his mother stirring a bathtub full of blood in preparation for a good Icelandic dinner; Jhaki from South Dakota, who, despite that, is actually very interesting; Adel and Ahmet from Yemen who like to take people on motorcycle rides; Jyotsna, Swati, Gogo, Manu, Bipin, Jasmeet, Deepthi, and Vaishnavi from India, who adopted me and showed me around the library, which, when it has any books at all, has none later than 1980 (they are much shorter than me, as are many Indians. I am a Yao Ming among.....famous short persons. Like Willow!) ; two long-winded English profs who are frankly not as good as the ones at Augsburg; one young woman from Wisconsin who misses you very much, and, of course, the bed bugs.

My legs itch.

The Events: I arrived in India at two in the morning and saw sacred cows on the road by 3:30. In India, they use horns instead of turn signals, and I spent a few hours thinking that all Indian drivers were incredibly angry. An international comparison: in Italy, you can drive however you want as long as you don't kill anyone. In India, you can drive however you want. Within a week of my arrival, I learned how to play bridge from a half-Indian, half Zimbabwe…an(?) woman, and got my keister handed to me in chess by an old Telugu man in a coffee shop who spoke no English but, with the help of a young man inexplicably named Sampson, told me I needed to practice. Within two weeks, I co-bought a crappy blue guitar that I now give lessons on to anyone who walks past my door, got stuck at the bottom of three hills when my rickshaw flooded, have been adopted as the token white girl by the English department kids, mostly based on my ability to climb trees very quickly, and made friends every time I wander around the English literature section of the library.

People stare at me wherever I go, unabashedly and constantly. The nice thing is that they are almost always willing to walk up to me and be my friend, but it does wear on the nerves of someone raised to think staring is rude. That I must get over quickly! Whenever I talk to someone, I can hear the rumblings of another language beneath their English, which never fails to make me happy. I recently had a bout of violent diarrhea and vomiting, which made me glad they keep buckets so handy here. I was literally sitting on the toilet with a bucket in my lap. At least it was a Western toilet—I've definitely had to ride the brown train on an Indian style toilet which is a hole in the ground with porcelain spots to put your feet. I climbed a water tower at midnight. There are places to dance here if you look hard enough, and the colors, smells and sounds never get old. Once you leave your room, there is no escaping India. Every loose dog you see, every sari that flutters, every smell of chai, dal, and hot people, every drop of perspiration, every person who sees a Westerner on the street and asks them for money...they all tie you to India. And there is never. Ever. Ever enough room, on paper or in the mind, to encompass everything.

The Thoughts: I made it three weeks before I cried because of the beggars and lepers. My friend Alex told me that I needed to remember that I can't solve poverty on a personal level. I told him that was quite true, what an excellent point, and the he needed to go smack himself because solving things on a personal level is how I do things. After a 6-hour visit at my host counselor Dr. Rao's house, Dr. Rao sent me home with his personal driver (umm..what?). Somewhere between Secuderabad and Hyderabad, with all the sudden surity and exuberance of Indian Conclusions, I gave up on the idea of being a professor or a writer and decided to become a high school teacher. I have always been a part of the written word like it's my skin, and this will let me talk about the things I love while helping people who need it.

And that's the hardest thing about India for me. I can handle the heat, even when it gives me rashes on my legs. I can overcome explosive diarrhea with the help of whining and the knowledge that the food is so good it's worth any gastrointestinal discomfort. I can even steel my mind against the corruption and rankest poverty (most of the time). But what is truly trying my soul is that I am of no help to anyone. And frankly, it's as annoying as hell.