Saturday, January 31, 2009

Appreciations and Meditations

Enjoying this kind of trip really means having a strong partnership, and I was triple blessed by elephants AND having MHB along to cuddle with, discuss the day’s events, analyze what we saw and felt, get tips and advice on what to include in the blog, be the photographer and tech guru, take care me when I fell by the wayside, put me back in place as required.. All good, all the time.

If not for you, babe, I couldn’t find the door,
couldn’t even see the floor, I’d be sad and blue

If not for you…

If not for you, babe, I’d laid awake all night, wait for the morning light to shine in through, but it would not be new

If not for you…

If not for you, my sky would fall, rain would gather too

Without our love, I’d be nowhere at all, I would be lost,,

Ohhhhh, what would I do if not for you….AND YOU KNOW IT IS TRUE

Winter would have no spring,
Couldn’t hear the robin sing, I just wouldn’t have a clue, Anyway it would not ring true, if not for you….

If not for you…


Sarong Maintenance
Many men, especially outside of Mumbai downtown, wear sarongs (lunghies?). They wrap twice around (or near as I can tell) and can be worn ankle length or doubled over to be just above the knee. They are continually adjusted, re-wrapped, tightened, fiddled with, parted in the front for easy peeing, and basically fondled more than any other piece of clothes I’ve ever seen worn. Think of a young USA guy wearing jeans where the waistline falls to just about 2 inches from the crotch, with boxers exposed and crotch line down around the knees, and the guy is walking (sort of) down the street while trying to keep his pants from falling to his knees cuz his belt doesn’t really work to keep his pants up. Maybe not as much hand maintenance required on the sarong, we’re in the right neighborhood.

Women and Men
Maybe this is too broad a topic (like that would keep me from chatting away). Basically, my impression is that for the vast majority of the time, women do the vast majority of the heavy lifting (cooking, cleaning, heavy lifting), take care of the kids, handle the scheduling, and when in public are supposed to show total deference to the men even to the point of protecting the men from any for of sexist accusations.

The men stand around, talk up other men, sit at desks in small shops for endless hours doing almost no commerce, take on most semi-public jobs (drivers of all sorts, most guides, maitre d’s, waiters, police), stand around some more, read the paper in public, adjust their sarongs, work in the fields some, visit other small show owners, handle security guard functions, hustle to catch the train, very willing to help tourists when they can, loving talking to their male friends, ready several papers after finishing the first paper.

And for the most part, men and women to not mix outside, and are rarely seen conversing in any meaningful way (that I could tell).

Food, Subsistence Farming Support and Shopkeepers
During one of our rambling philosophical world problem solving sessions, Martin mentions something that very much resonates for me: that probably the most important thing the first world can do for the rest of the world is make sure that subsistence farmers around the world can make a “living” wage farming small plots. Since the west subsidizes big ag, this makes it very very challenging for non-first world countries to compete and keep the vast majority of the population gainfully employed. We would have to pay more for food, and in exchange billions would live on small amount of money and not be undercut, and eat better than getting fast food corn syrup salty snacks pushed off as real food.

To say that India is a nation of shopkeepers is a slight misnomer. Yes, there are millions and millions of these shops, every single street in everything above a village (and even in some villages) is one shop after another, endless and countless. Are they really shops? Not in our sense (in my opinion) where you are competing against some significant challengers you don’t see on every street (supermarkets, Wal-Mart, internet sales). They are basically places where men (see above) can go and spend the day hoping for a few sales, enough to pay the (must be ridiculously low) rent and then provide for the extremely cheap living expenses (remember when we ate out and got an all-you-could-eat lunch for as little as 40 cents in a nice place?) Imagine what eating at home costs for an extended family.

Begging: Outlawed, kids, terra cotta horse Shrine, Kids in the Temples
Begging has been outlawed (at least in the state of Kerala) and except for our initial exposure in and around Juhu Beach, we actually saw very little outright begging. Yes, some in Mumbai downtown, a few times in and around several temples, a few times at major tourists spots (the walk of vendor hell to the Elefanta temple), about the same as you might see in Morelia, Mexico. Not near as much as we expected. A few kids, one slightly disfigured, again if you said “no” you were left alone.

Back to the terra cotta horse shrine, where 10-12 year old girls basically grouped around us, singled up to hold each tour members hand, chatted each of them while we tour, and then “begged” for cookies, pens, and money and showed extreme disappointment when we got on the van and individual girls weren’t rewarded by their “partners” with goodies. This was as close to outright pimping I’ve seen anywhere we’ve been and can not understand how adults tolerate it because it seems such aberrant behavior (these girls were reasonably well dressed, well behaved, spoke English well). How can you teach a 11 year old girls values of this sort? Spoiled brats begging for cookies? What society tolerates that, and maybe (though I doubt it) there is something about this location and this shrine (since it was the only place we saw behavior this extreme and for so long amount of time) that made it ok in local parlance.

Since the walk to the shrine through the horses is sooooo good, it is hard to say “avoid the place” and thus avoid the pimping. Since the walk to the shrine is soooooo long, this makes the girls’ efforts all that more impressive.

Sorry, no answers here (damn, the boy skips giving an answer!), much heaviness in thought and lack of understanding.

And, in the shrines, we were often swarmed over by kids (mostly boys, few girls) wanting to “chat” and have their pictures taken, not expecting money or pens or anything. I still was very uncomfortable, though many of the tour were not. I don’t mind (much) being gawked at, I’m the other here after all. I do mind being bumped into, assumed to be willing to take a picture, having 13-17 year old boys (my least favorite group of humans? Fortunately, I skipped these years myself), pushing and prodding me for favors while trying to be a part of the place I’m standing in. Equivalent: you’re in MOMA (or at a ballgame) and there is a steady of 15 year old boys wanting to chat you up in bad English, asking you to take their picture, bringing their friends over to have their pictures taken, giggling, prodding, shaking hands. So, you really want to look at that Anselm Kiefer in corner?

Power Outages
Scheduled and unscheduled, a basic fact of life here, happens all the time. My favorite: the night there was a power surge in Cochin and I could finally read the menu without a flashlight, all the bulbs were suddenly 120 watts. Lasted about 20 minutes. More normal, no matter where we stayed, the bulbs ranged from 20 to 40 watts, we have lived very dimly at night for the last 3 weeks and (with my weak eyes) will be very much looking forward to seeing again. So, for those of you who think traveling with your own pillow (good idea) and meds (excellent idea) and kindle (weight reducer), I also recommend you consider traveling with your own light bulb.

Locals Mix-match
I have a one word summary: NOT! Okay, what am I talking about (yep, more opinionated words/blather about things I know nothing about and have no real way to know…I must be suffering from blog-itis). This country is full of subgroups: castes, religions, regions, villages, tribes, work guilds, political parties, men, women, on and on and on. From all sources, what we heard is how great everyone gets along, so often that I finally came to the conclusion that what they meant was that nobody was killing each other (not right now, in South India). They live near each other, are willing to talk to each other now and then, occasionally work together, share public transportation, all the external views of society, and yet we heard enough to realize that there ain’t that much overlap, there is a ton of separation. Soooo…makes the country fairly astounding, so much ease of movement and yet so much separation. However, fraught is building the bridges to a new world society and the concept of integration and cross-breeding.

Groups, Gangs and Hanging out Together in the Hood
People in India love to be together. We noticed it when individuals would sidle up to walk beside someone in the group, pretending to listen in to Martin or just to walk along. A family sleeps in the same room, and certainly in villages it was nothing for someone from another house to show up for a sleep over, no invite needed. Clearly, people love to be with other people, nature abhors a vacuum big time in India.

Particularly in Mumbai or the crowded temples, large crowds would ebb and flow without seemingly getting overcrowded or bottlenecked (unlike the streets full of honking cars). More like schools of fish or ants, large numbers did not phase the locals and they seemed to pretty much walk at similar paces (unlike Beijing, where I had to put on my passing signal non-stop). Lots of life is lived right on the streets: gathering to chat, reading the paper, setting up your desk and chair, doing upholstering job (we saw this!) and many other tasks on what we will fondly refer to as the sidewalk.

There was only one time we felt physically unsafe. We were in a temple walking as a group and a guy around 30 joined in, carrying a bag (about the size of a large fitness gym bag). He joined up and then strolled in the middle of the group. Then he put the bag down when we stopped to look at a detail in the temple, and strolled away. One of our group noticed and got very tense, then we noticed her getting tense and then several us got very spooked. Then he came back and got the bag and started walking with us again. At this point, we were very jumpy, nobody carries a bag like this around. Finally we mentioned to Martin and either he, the guide (can’t remember if we had one then, don’t think so) or Carol talked to him for a minute or two and he went away. Otherwise, I think you are extremely safe from bodily harm. On other hand, we did think petty theft happened a lot, purely a crime of opportunity, though nobody on the group ever mentioned having anything taken.

A Meditation on what a Sidewalk is and How to Maintain it
Actually, sidewalks do not exist in India (okay, technically, there appears to be an area between the shop fronts and the street, but they ain’t used to walk on!). Most of the walking is done in the street. So, you get to dodge the tut-tuts, cars, street hawkers, guys moving stuff in small carts on foot (I’m talking from the smallest town to the largest city, it’s all one long song) by walking on the fringe of the street. I was shocked at how fast I learned not to care if a car or scooter honked behind me, if they won’t hit cows then a westerner should be doubly blessed.

In downtown Mumbai almost no sidewalk was intact, our guide to the airport (hmmmm…what else could he be, we also had a driver! India believes in excessive full employment, see note about shopkeepers) explained that they are tearing out all the sidewalks because they are cemented down, and being “repaired” by placing them in sand so they are easier to maintain.

I will now let you use your imagination on what maintenance in India is like (dreamin’….dreamin’….more dreamin‘). In other words, we hardly saw anything being maintained, the buildings all look somewhere between 50 and 1000 years old, most probably never had paint on them. They were also putting in sewers on the waterfront in Mumbai, directly across from our hotel. At 3-5am…TRUE!

Soooooo, back to making the sidewalks easier to repair. If you pull them out and never finish the job, then it must de facto easier to repair because now you never have to repair them. Second best, you finish the replacement job and somebody notices that the cute little blocks set in sand are missing, shifting, breaking, used in riots, and any myriad number of other uses that means while the repair is on the sidewalk is a sandpit (except during monsoon, when it is a “tank” or water buffalo nesting spot).

Tanks, or How I Learned How to Chat my Friends up while Bathing
Most cities or towns in S India have large mostly rectangular or square “reservoirs” near temples or city center. Many rural areas are near or on canals or rivers.

In effect, the tank is a prime source for drinking and purification Having said that, we never saw a tank any westerners would dip any body part in…the best we saw was one used for drinking water (Please, no bathing or…worse), and we could see large clumps of algae growing right up to the edge. All the others, murky brown bodies of water.

We saw everything from bathing to using the canals as a toilet, and washing of cattle (I mean giving the cattle a scrub and rinse!). From what I understand, this is ritual purification, and often people had little steps down to the river or canal to help aid entry and exit. And, see above note on crowds and being alone, it was nothing for a guy to be taking his bath with four or five men around. The same little stepping stone was also used for washing clothes, mostly facilitated by slamming the item down (WHAP) hard on the stone. I only once saw this job done by a man, and this was in town where they raced giant snake boats (think really elongated dragon boats) and he was doing the wash to stay in rowing shape (maybe? Maybe not?).

Men would take off their sarongs by subtly covering themselves in towels (or washing sarongs). We rarely saw women in the water, and if so they also were pretty much fully clothed. Boys (never girls) appeared to just jump in and swim around. Favorite towel anecdote: one of the tour, while we were on the houseboats, saw the boat guys wearing the same towels we used in the bathrooms as a sarong. Hmmmmm….ritual purification is a shared habit? Quien sabe?

Another story: Brahmins, a higher caste, have their clothes washed by a lower caste. Since the lower caste touching the clothes makes them impure, when the clothes come back the Brahmins rinse them in water again. Hmmmmm….

We saw many people brushing their teeth, and in general the people have terrific looking teeth, smile often, and are extremely eager to help if they see you are struggling. Now, I never asked to borrow a toothbrush, so maybe I have put these two thoughts together at random.

I’ve touched on this subject before, and right up there is zoning. It is hard to believe, you almost get used to seeing huge areas of plastic garbage next to nice houses next to repair shops next to…fill in the blank, anything goes next to anything else. People seem very clean (and clean cut), houses are clean inside (even in the poor villages), the backyard can be a total dump. On the out of Mumbai to the airport, I could swear that there was so much garbage piled up in spots that it must be the town dump. Since there are no garbage cans or garbage trucks (that we could see), I kinda doubt it. Maybe…

We saw guys throw plastic bottles and small juice containers out the windows of the ferry. Nonchalant, no big deal. MHB took a picture of a tree in Cochin that somebody had cleverly stuck plastic bottles on all the dead tree branches, maybe 150 or so. At first, I thought maybe they had just blown up there and got stuck, then decided the law of large numbers would mean the other trees would have some too.

And, of course, since cows, goats and dogs roam free, there is plenty of ploppen to be avoided. Interestingly, the animals seemed to use the sidewalks (oops, what seemed like space reserved for sidewalks) more than humans.

Three Seasons
Our trip was taken in the depths of winter. Other than a few nights up in the Periyar Sanctuary and a few half-days at the end in Mumbai and a few trips on the water where breezes were gratefully received we were hot and clammy for basically three weeks. There are two other seasons: summer (sit in a sauna for 19 hours and then turn off the light inside) and monsoon (no definition needed, this is near the equator).

One More Cup of Coffee Before I Go
Your breath is sweet when we go out, like jewels in the sky
Your back is straight your hair is smooth on the pillow where you lie


Your loyalty is not to me, it is to the sky above


One more cup of (S. Indian filtered) coffee for the road
One more cup of (S. Indian filtered) coffee before I go to the valley below

How to sum up (damn, THIS is supposed to be the summation, now he’s telling us he doesn’t know how to do it…unbelievable)?

Overload and getting used to it, accepting the holding of (many) conflicting ideas in your head. Understanding how this part of the world influenced western thought and got/gets little credit for it. The wonder of the temples and getting a Holtbyesque hint of the meaning of what we’re seeing. Surviving the chills after years of good health. Seeing India from vans, trains, boats, tut-tuts, taxis, rickshaws, on foot, every possible way except riding a bike (next time!).

I again want to emphasize that this is really a work of creative (non-) fiction, because there are many many things wrong, partly truthful, impressionistic, delusional, and in this part of the world you collectively have to find your own way (another paradox).

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