Saturday, June 23, 2007

not just any gypsy, he's the king

Jaipur is easily my favorite city so far in India (other than Rishikesh, but that was more of a small hill town than a city). Within hours of arriving, a bunch of us run into gypsies- one with an amazing mullet and one (his brother) who called himself the King of the Gypsies. Although the King had been long banned from the premises of the hotel, he wasn't discouraged from pouncing upon unsuspecting goris and gores and trying to get them back to his camp. Although I was constantly afraid someone was going to try to throw a baby at me and then take my wallet, they were really interesting people. They showed us a photo album of puppet shows they had done in France, and had a grasp of a ton of different languages. Actually, that seems to be the case for a lot of people in Jaipur - I was even speaking Thai with a jewelry salesman yesterday.

Speaking of, the shopping here is amazing. I've been kind of disappointed so far the amount people refuse to bargain because of the color of my skin- but here, there's so much competition that salesmen will chase you down the street before you even start bargaining with them. Then they give you free cokes while you look around.

We went to this veritable Disneyworld of Rajasthani attractions the other day, called Choki Dhani. It was an "authentic" village setting, complete with mechanical dinosaurs, harsh hookahs, an especially abusive massage man, and camel rides. It was the first time I had seen Japanese tourists on this whole trip, even including the Taj Mahal, and it made me sad (despite the dinosaur). Anyway, there may not be too many more cultural updates left in me because there's only a week left, which is back to Delhi. If there's any last minute shopping/legal things you would like from India let me know!

Saturday, June 16, 2007

aligarh and family life

After being in a homestay for the last week, I can say now I have a much better idea of what (so-called) authentic Indian culture is like. Interestingly, the caste system and constant hierarchies in every aspect of Indian life are what stand out. When a woman, such as my host family's daughter in law, Neha, married the son of the family, Anshuman, she became the lowest on the totem pole of the family, and was always being ordered around by the other family members. Part of it is the female deference to males (women stand up for men when there are not enough seats), and part of it is an age hierarchy (Neha was the youngest member of the household). I'm not sure how much her not being a "real" member of the family played into it. Although she was sweet by nature, her only way of exerting power was through passive-agressive means, since she couldn't defy the authority of anyone else in the family. Servants, however, were fair game for her to order around. It's odd to think that she must look forward to the time when she is the mother-in-law ordering around her son's wife. She struck a particular chord with me because she's my same age (21) and has already finished her MBA but plans to do nothing with it. It's a pretty common thing in India, where degrees for women are procured in order to make them better marriage material (it's one of the first thing listed in personal ads here for both sexes). It's funny to think that at my age, if I had been born in India, I could already be in an arranged marriage with a degree collecting dust. On the other hand, her husband is a really sweet guy, and they seem to like each other. Arranged marriage is one of those things that I feel like no matter how hard I try, I won't be able to understand it completely.

This was sort of the culture shock part of the homestay, but in general I was sad to go. I will miss the food, Anuja's sweetness, and the humorous and frustrating constant introductions to extended family. I won't miss the no-AC power outages or sleeping in a living room and being awakened at 6 am by what seemed to be intentionally loud dishwashing. I still feel like it wasn't the "real" India though: my family kept their life savings in kilo gold bars, for pete's sake! They let me hold one, and it was surprisingly heavy. Time has gone so fast in the past two weeks, it's hard to believe that was almost a week ago! I'm off to Jaipur tomorrow - the riots have ended luckily - and I'll update again from there. I do want to mention though about the monsoon starting yesterday, so don't expect much more whining about the heat. The storm clouds were some of the most ominous I've ever seen (and I've been through hurricanes) - a yellowish brownish color from the dust of the desert. It was one of those rainstorms that everyone goes outside and watches. From now on it'll be raining on and off for the next few months, more humid but much cooler. Til next time...

Saturday, June 2, 2007

the hidden treasures of Old Delhi

I feel like I've reached a new stage of culture shock. Most of Thursday we spent in Old Delhi, a place where Westerners rarely go - even taxi drivers won't normally take non-Indians there. I didn't think it was possible for anywhere to be more chaotic than what I had already seen of Delhi, but I was wrong. Old Delhi was like walking straight into the middle ages. The winding labyrinth of streets, markets that have probably been there for centuries, and the historic Red Fort and temples in the area made "normal" tourist attractions (ie. anything in Paris, New York or London) seem like Disney World. Old Delhi has its own culture that is completely separate from the rest of the city: I mused that there might be people there that had never left the maze of alleyways to see the rest of the city in their whole lives. Pastimes there are those of the genteel Urdu ways of yore; kite flying and pigeon training especially. Every so often you'd see flocks of pigeons flying in formation, directed by some invisible trainer. I feel like a lot of Delhi is that way - this city is not overrun with tourists, and one of our guest speakers told us that there are so many hidden or decrepit historical sites of interest that the Preservation Society can't keep up with them. Is it a lack of interest in history in favor of pure survival? Has Delhi just been relatively undiscovered because it is so intimidating? (save the sections of the city that were razed and remade by the British of course). It's a fairly difficult culture to break into or go unnoticed anyway - and the resentment toward anything English is still here. I feel like it takes a lot of work even to begin to understand the culture, and many times more work to feel a part of it. But as the excursion to Old Delhi exhibits, the rewards are very much worth the catcalls, dehydration and chaos involved in getting there. I hope that I'll start to get even the first hint of that by the time I leave.

In other news, the heat has been unbearable the last few days - 41 degrees celsius or higher (that's 112 to those of you stateside). The car hiring companies that get us around town keep running out of cars with AC because they're so in demand. Beggars have stopped asking for money and started asking for a drink from my water bottle. There's this wind that blows in from the desert this time of year and it feels like you're sticking your head in a furnace (a really dusty furnace). We're not even in the desert yet, either - where actually, they are having caste riots at the moment. Stay tuned for more on that...

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

ringo left because he hated the bugs

And now the story of my excursion in Haridwar and Rishikesh, the second of which is the place where the Beatles went all transcendental meditation in the 60's. It was full of ups and downs, the highest of which was the coolest scam artist ever and the lowest was the bed bugs.

The scam artist (...or was he?) was this ascetic with perfect British accented English who said he had been a secretary for the Indira Gandhi administration and then later renounced all his possessions. He also said he had a granddaughter in Alabama going to college and he himself had gone to horoscope "school" in New York. Then he gave us some delicious chai in dirty glasses (he told us not to take any drinks from holy men since they would be roofied. I drank his chai anyway.) After that he told our fortunes - this is what he said about me:

I am ruled by Saturn, and I should wear a lot of black. I would have one marriage, but not until after many lovers. I would die at 65 UNLESS I changed my name at age 60 (then I would live to 100!). I should be an actress - and this was an ingenious plan if I say so myself - I should start in Bollywood and go to Hollywood. Like Aishwari Rai.

The other cool part of the trip was bathing in the Ganges, which was not as dirty where we were (the foothills of the Himalaya) as it is in other places. I'm actually pretty glad to be back in Delhi, something I thought I would never say. They don't take as many photos of me as a tourist attraction here.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

not in kansas anymore

This is going to sound weird.

Never in my life have I felt so aware of being female. It's not just the stares or the fact that people want to take pictures of me with their families for the sheer novelty of it. It's to be expected especially in an area relatively free of tourists- to them I look weird (especially my eyes which scared a small boy away today). I think I underestimated the Muslim influence here, for one. At the Sufi temple earlier this week and today at another mosque there were places women were simply not allowed to go (men could go anywhere).

At the Sufi temple, it was because of the incidences of women being pinched and harrassed inside Nazamuldeen (spelling?)'s tomb, which was very small and packed with people. That really sounds like an excuse to me, since the women were not doing anything wrong and should not be excluded for something that wasn't their fault. The other mosque, which encompassed the tomb of one of the Sufi poet's predecessors, had the same rule. But I really can't say this sort of discrimination is solely religion based, because most major religions have misogynist tendencies. Also the Hindi and Muslim cultures here in India anyway are relatively close; the sexism is simply part of the culture. Of course I expected to have to adapt somewhat, but it's harder than it seems to stop smiling at people because they will take such a simple gesture the wrong way. But it's better than being harrassed; I've learned to scowl.

I certainly don't mean to paint a negative picture of the country. It's full of life, smells, sights, sounds to the point of being overwhelmed, usually in a good way. But this issue, especially coming from a Western background, is something that is much harder to deal with when you're not in your own culture. Actually seeing women on the street with only their eyes showing through a veil is not nearly the same as reading an article about burkas in Newsweek. I find myself, to my surprise, being much less accepting of cultural relativism than I was at home. But at the very least, I now can truly appreciate my upbringing in the global context.

On a lighter note! (I swear I will stop whining)

The traffic in Delhi is sort of like going on a rollercoaster ride. Three lanes of traffic take up the space for two, and there are mere inches in between cars. A honk means: "move or I'm running you down. I might anyway." For the constant craziness, the drivers here are all so skilled. Even when they run red lights and drive on the sidewalk, they drive like they mean it. I mean, I did see a teenage girl get run over. But she was standing in the middle of a road with no median. The roads here are pretty Darwinian in that sense. It's certainly not like Bangkok where motorcycle drivers show off and weave in traffic - here they get out of the way or will probably get hurt.

My favorite foods here so far: Chai, these hand made donuts they serve with ice cream, samosas. Everything is so sugary, I'm not surprised I heard the other day that middle class Indians have a huge rate of diabetes.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

the road out of orlando...may it come quickly

I leave in two days. That's a kind of scary thought and something I am not ready for (sleep catching up wise. I'm always mentally ready).

This is what I was doing this time last year! (That's my brother and me in front of the Sydney Harbour Bridge). More's changed than just my hair color...but I've still got my expensive travel habit to support.