Friday, June 29, 2007

Random Thoughts

1. If you are ever around Indians in a bill paying scenario, you may have seen a peculiar sight: people stepping over each other to pay the bill. I’ve seen this growing up when my family would get together for dinner at a restaurant, and there would be elaborate tricks to recruit restaurant staff to only accept the credit card from this end of the table, or a quick slip of the card into the waiter’s shirt pocket before we have even sat down to order. This is all great with my very well-to-do family in California, but to see it in India with people I hardly know sends the generosity scale through the roof.
Surajbhai (a friend from the Ashram) and I were driving around Baroda on his motorcycle as he was helping me get an Internet connection for my laptop. We stopped over for gas, and when we had pulled up to the pump we both lunged at the attendant (in India all stations are full service – another example of the huge supply of willing but incrementally useless labor in India) with our money, but ultimately Suraj prevailed. Here’s a kid, just graduated, who’s only every dealt in Rupees, who I’ve known now for about 3 days, not allowing a ostensibly rich NRI ABCD to pay for gas that (I was surprised to see) was more expensive than at home (Rs.48/liter is $4/Gallon right?). It was incredibly generous, but if you would have asked Suraj he wouldn’t have gave it a second thought. This is the type of generosity that runs in the blood of most Indians, in my experience. I know of friends who have wandered in rural parts of India with no money in their pocket and been taken in by the poorest villagers. They may not have much, but what they have they offer. This is one of the things I love about India.

2. I’m peeing a lot less now that I’m here, and up until the realization I’m about to share with you, I was a little confused about it. I pee at most twice a day – once in the morning and only sometimes one other time during the day. My realization is this: my water is now mostly being released through sweat! I’m sweating profusely during much of the day

3. If you’re Indian, you might have noticed that when your mother does laundry, before folding a cleaned and dried item she would do a quick snap on the garment, almost like shaking the dust off of it or waking the clothing up before it goes back to sleep in your drawer. Anyway, I realize now why she does it… because in India when you hang your clothes out to draw, bugs crawl in them! When I was folding my boxers, I found a couple huge beetles that would have easily been dismissed by a good snap of the wrist by my mom.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Intro to Jatan and Masi's House

Here is a quick recap of what happened in the last few days:
- Arrived at the Vinoba Bhave Ashram in Baroda where I’ll be staying and working. There is a guest house which is currently unoccupied, so I have a ton of space. I use the little room given to me as my office and where I put my stuff, and I sleep outside in the bigger area where its cooler. Because no one else is staying at the guesthouse, I have the bath and toilet to myself, which is great because I have complete control over their cleanliness. I also have set up my exercise ropes on one of the doors out in this common room so I do quick sets more often… it’s great but more than anything else I know I will miss my gym being out here
- I gave an introduction to the Jatan staff about why I’m here and what I want to do, all in Gujarati. I thought it went horribly. It is totally hard for me to speak full sentences in a formal fashion, and it will need a lot of work. I will be very disappointed if by the end of this summer I’m not fully speaking Gujarati. I also was introduced to the Jatan staff and they are all very nice.
- A cow at the Ashram gave birth to a premature baby calf. They weren’t sure if it was going to survive through the night, but it did. The mother was visibly concerned about the baby and kept trying to go near it while the workers cleaned and checked the baby. When they finally let the mother near her young, you could tell it was relieved.
- On the weekend I went over to my Masi’s place who lives about 20 minutes away by Rickshaw… not bad at all. She, my Masa, and my cousin Nikita (a.k.a. Bohti) all live there, though the flat also belongs to my other Masa and Masi. My Masa is a farmer and still runs a farm outside of Baroda, but they are staying in the city while Bohti finishes her school (this year). They don’t do a whole lot during the day. Actually, they literally spend most of their time eating and sleeping. They don’t work so they just, as my Masi described, “eat, sleep, and sit, what else?”
- My Masa is classic. He’s the most laid back person you’d ever meet. He is a man of few words and few needs. He smokes beedees and walks around the house in a wife-beater, putting on a shirt when called upon by Masi to go out on his motorcycle for this or that errand.
- Number one and most common topic of conversation is the family. I gave them updates on everyone at home and we laughed about the funny personality traits and running jokes of family members. Masi loved hearing about how talented of a cook Kinari is. She’s a proud mother.

Monday, June 25, 2007

3 Days in Delhi

Arriving in India, I first had a three-day stop in Delhi to meet with the company I’ll be interning with (the company is providing my funding while it is the NGO in Gujarat which I will be developing a project with day-to-day). The first day I spent most of the day in the office reading some material and signing paperwork. In the evening I met up with Maneka and went shopping a little for her bro’s wedding outfits and we had dinner at a hifi juice bar, which I thought was pretty tasty.

The next day was Saturday, but since offices in India work on Saturdays typically, I had to go in for the day (sucks!). This day I took a public bus to the office from where I was staying which was an adventure because buses in Delhi don’t actually come to a complete stop, so because I was slow reacting since I didn’t exactly know where I needed to get off, I literally jumped off a moving bus and nearly fell.

In the evening I met up with Maneka and after a quick meal we went to Noida (a Delhi suburb) with her roommate Aishwarya to a famous dance club called Elevate. It was super trendy, evidenced by its location in a shopping mall (kind of like the weird association with the best restaurants and hotels). The club was expensive (1K for the 3 of us to get in and a drink each) but not excessively so, and it was a lot of fun. They had bouncers who weren’t half bad size-wise for Indians. The music started off as hip hop, but it wasn’t very good and people were slow to get into it. But eventually they did and so did we, peaking for me when the DJ played Wyclef’s Guantanamera which I never would have imagined would be played at a club. But it wasn’t until the filmi/bhangra music came on that the crowd really let loose. At that point the place turned into a real party, and I didn’t feel too weird in a dance club full of brown people dancing excitedly to Bhangra and that “Don’t touch me” song from Dhoom 2. Just like home.

We left around 1am and took our hired car back home. The driver asked to take along a woman whom I thought was a prostitute, but Maneka said later was just some girl that the driver knew that needed a ride back into the city. Yeah, my Hindi needs some more work.

The next day Maneka and I took a day trip to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. When we got there we got convinced by the station people to hire a car for the day which would take us to the Taj as well as another site far away which required a car but was worth seeing. In addition to the driver we were accompanied by a sort of guideperson, who would be our liason for our trip and help us with any questions or other needs. Our guide was a Sardar who was super nice, and Maneka and I both were happy to have gotten lucky with our guide. Maneka had said before how she trusts Sardar rickshaw drivers the most when she’s in Delhi, and I added that that makes sense because Sikhs are disciplined people and are of high moral fiber. You can see where this is going to go.

So although we had planned on seeing the Taj right away while it wasn’t all-the-way hot, the guide insisted we see Fateghan Sikri, the second sight, first as it makes the most sense in terms of direction for the car. We agreed, having full faith in our charming and caring guide. He even helped us at a stop off to get bus tickets back home, since our train reservations were only one-way. He took us to an agent that got us on a top luxury bus going straight to Delhi at 5pm… perfect!

Fateghan Sikri was nice, but overall I was expecting a whole lot more based on the descriptions of our guide and recommendations of Maneka’s friends. It was a nice garden area and a interesting Masjid, but nothing too amazing. I think it is just famous for the fact that a city was to be built there by a Mughal ruler but for some reason he bailed. Two other elements contributed to me not enjoying the experience. First, the heat was starting to beat down on me like a ton of bricks, and second, the place was infested with kids trying to scam money from you by offering to be your tourguide or this or that. These kids do not leave you alone, insisting on walking and talking with you, trying to be helpful and telling you where to go so in the end you can pay them for being so "helpful". It's really annoying because they just don't go away and let you enjoy the place in peace. During this visit I was especially frustrated by some salesman who was telling us to buy flowers to offer inside the Masjid, but they wouldn’t let me buy just a small amount for Maneka and I. In the end it became a totally nerve-wracking and unsettling experience, all because we were trying to avoid getting scammed for Rs.50. I was happy to leave that place.

After that we were expecting to drive straight to the Taj, but Uncleji tells us that we have time, and we should stop off at this great little shop selling all kinds of trinkets. We oblige, but don’t find anything. Then he insists on showing us this wonderful jewelery shop, where surely Maneka will find something she will love to take home. We agree, but now we’re getting impatient. After that it is a marble shop, and then another trinket store, and a mall selling Rs.7K little handbags. We begin to see the truth. Uncleji is an agent for all of these shops who want customers and commission guides to take their passengers to see their merchandise. Only we didn’t come to shop, just to see the Taj! This “shopping” trip, where Maneka and I go into a store and come out in 5 minutes since we don’t want to buy anything but Uncleji keeps insisting to stay longer at each shop and look at this and that, started getting annoying. At the end, before Uncleji gave us the final nod that he would take us to see the Taj, Maneka said she no longer trusts Uncleji. So sad.

I think the shopping trip had its role, as it built up a day’s worth of anticipation for the Taj. When we saw it, we immediately knew it was worth the wait. It was simply incredible. We both agreed it was the most impressive, the most majestic, the most awesome thing we had ever seen in person. It was so impressive, if you’re reading this and you haven’t seen it, add it to your todo list. No picture can do it justice. At this point in the day, however, the heat was

downright oppressive and threatened to spoil the enjoyment of this wonder. As we walked towards the structure from the main entrance, we carefully mapped out the next shaded area where we would rest. I was drained of energy, and even in the shade I was uncomfortable. But we managed to walk around and inside the Mahal, and truly did enjoy it.

Now it was time to go home, but not before Uncleji’s final disaster: he had booked us on a completely full tourbus in which we were stuffed in the very back which are the only seats that don’t recline. Worse yet, this bus ended up making 5-6 stops including in Dwarka where everyone got out to visit the birthplace of Krishna. We didn’t want to wait in line so we didn’t go in, but notably Maneka used the hole for the first time.

We reached Maneka’s apartment in Delhi about 5 hours later than we were told, and were exhausted, hungry, and most of all hot. In Maneka’s apartment, it is so hot that all three girls sleep in a single room where there is the sole A/C unit, and 2 other huge bedrooms are left unused. Maneka’s bed is right up next to the vent… but you probably could have guessed that. I was so tired but I had to stay up and finish a presentation I would be giving at the office the next day. That was brutal. But I finished it and gave the talk the next day and it went reasonably well. Then I was sent to the airport and was off to Baroda. But not after a fun but hectic 3 days in Delhi. The day with Maneka in Agra was an all time great, I will keep that memory of that time with her for a long time. One regret: no time for Akhshardham. Hopefully at the tail end of my trip when I have to come back to Delhi for final project presentations.