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...