Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Travel India Solo

So I didn't get to see Goa yet. We were meant to leave on Monday, then Tuesday, then Wednesday and by Thursday I decided to simply go back home (to Ahmedabad) as I realised Goa wasn't happening. I did not get the chance to see much of Surat whilst there but from what I did notice, I'm not a fan of the city a) because the guys there can't stop gawking at women; b) the drivers are extremely aggressive, even worse than what I saw in Mumbai (my family will be concerned to learn that I've almost been hit by a car/rikshaw three times since I first landed in India); and c) women are restricted from enjoying themselves (well at least in the neighbourhood I was living in, some wives aren't even allowed to leave their homes).

A lot of the Indian-Canadian friends that I get to meet up with here get restless in India, so they're surprised when they find out that I'm enjoying my trip for the most part. I realise now what the problem is. You cannot visit this country with your family by your side. If you do, you're stuck with them making all the travel itinerary decisions for you. And from what I've seen, heard and experienced in the past, that itineray consists of meeting with dozens if not hundreds of relatives and family friends (out of which you normally only know a few handful), this process could last for weeks if time permits; preparing for a family wedding (just the shopping segment of this part takes up most of your time); and visiting mandhirs (or temples, it's nice to visit a few but some parents make it the highlight or sole purpose of the trip); perhaps get set up for an arranged marriage; the trip then ends with you hosting a bunch of visitors (making small talk, serving up chai-nashta) who come to say their good-byes while you pack your bags to go back home. This is the typical Indian experience for most NRI (non-resident Indian) kids so if you get the chance, avoid this situation, by all means try to travel on your own.

I've got that liberty of being on my own right now. Sure, some 'families' are getting insulted if I don't pay them a visit, but they're more understanding knowing that I'm here solo (they think I'm young and don't know any better). I can go from one city or state to the next as I please, most of my friends aren't getting that luxury.

There's so much I'd like to add (about veg. and non-veg. societies, motorcycle gear, obsession with tv serials, the explosion of desi reality shows, Gujarat's alcohol ban, Indian news, etc.), but it's been tough without regular internet access. I'll be able to post more regular updates now though since I'm in Ahmedabad.

Everyone's asking me about my job search. I've been quite passive about it since I arrived in the country, but am slowly making some contacts. I've talked to a few journalists in the past weeks but they don't help much, well they say they will but won't in the end, perhaps they feel threatened. I don't feel ready for job interviews anyway, at least not yet. I'm years behind with the Indian news and I'm having difficulty catching up. Indian news is incredibly fast-paced, it cannot even be compared to Canadian news. Here, there's "breaking news" every single day. If you don't keep up, it's easy to get lost, which is unfortunately my case at the moment. It's hard to convince people to flip from their highly revered soap channel to the news channel, and I don't have consistent internet access to read the latest online, and it's hard to come across English newspapers in Gujarat. I know, excuses, excuses.

I went to see London Dreams yesterday, I don't reccommend it. I also went out to get my pani-puri fix prior to dinner, I'm getting addicted to a lot of the Gujarati delights. Some friends warned me I'd get hooked on the savoury food here, I was skeptical, but now realise that they weren't exaggerating.

What else...tonight my cousin and I may see Bappi Lahiri perform at a local music festival. It's either that or we'll be doing some sightseeing with the family, which will include... visiting some mandhirs.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Chicken Anyone?

So I finally made it to Surat, feel like I'm finally back to being a part of civilisation again. The village life was relaxing but at the end of the day, it's simply not for me. I now know my limit as to how many bug bites and salty well-water I can handle in one lifetime- seven days max.

The highlights of my week were:
- Befriending some of the village youngsters (they all reminded me of a little Jamal, Latika or Salim from Slumdog Millionaire).
- Looking up at the stars at night (I saw two shooting stars!)
- There are more... but I'm at a computer lab again and feel rushed with my thoughts.

The not so fun part though, was listening to the chicken (warning: discontinue reading this entry if you've got a weak stomache) I was going to have for supper shriek in desperation just before the butcher lady snapped off its head, drained out its' blood, dumped it in boiling water, tugged off the feet, plucked out the feathers, and sliced up the meat right before my eyes. I'm no longer able to take in non-veg food unless I want to gag). The guts were left behind for the crows to fight over - yuck, yuck, yuck. I'm sorry if this is too detailed, but that's all I can think about these days.

Every adult I met, no matter what village I was in, asked me the same question. Why am I not married, when will I get married and would I like for them to find me a husband. No thank-you kind and courteous Sir. It was pretty darn annoying at first, but it later became laughable.

The one thing I know for sure after this week is that I'll always be a city girl at heart. I need to have access to running water, I need my cellphone to be working, I need the world at my fingertips through the internet. I guess in some ways I am spoiled.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Hello Valsar

I'm staying at a village in Valsar. I haven't had internet access for days but it actually feels like weeks or months, rather. I'm not getting proper phone reception here and it's been driving me nuts. The ground-toilet situation was tough for me to deal with on the first day, but I adjusted after my first night of being stubborn; I had refused to use the bathroom and had to learn my lesson the following day.

To sum it up, my week has been extremely isolating, emotional and rewarding. The locals from my Dad's village were all teary-eyed when they met me. It felt strange visiting the family home that we've set up there, when there was actually no family to visit inside. I also visited the village my Mom's from. I connected with some relatives immediately, while others just gawked at me as though I were from another planet. Tomorrow I'll be visiting my 90-year old paternal grandmother who's been extremely ill. I'll also be attending an annual village function to hand out an award of some sort to a few promising students. I'm not looking forward to it, am feeling very uncomfortable being the centre of attention, but I understand that it should be an honour.

I've visited at least eight different villages in the past days. I can't recalls the names of most but I'll update this post once I do remember. I've seen some of the most beautiful scenery imaginable. I can't wait to upload some pictures once I get the chance (right now I'm at a cyber-cafe, which is technically just a computer lab. The labs have started asking for passport photocopies which are then used for identity fraud soonafter. Luckily I had a contact who had another contact who let me skip the ID step).

Diwali fireworks were still going off yesterday and it may be the same case today as well. I've been spending a lot of time with this charming little 11-year old boy named *Jai. When he met me he literally took my cousin aside and asked her to "bond our friendship." How cute is that? Our friendship has been bonded ever since. He has a few small burn marks on his left cheek that are evidence of the unsupervised crackers he lit up prior to our arrival. There's also a boy at the neighbour's house who literally has a hole in his hand, that too, from the firworks he fooled around with unsupervised.

I'm not a big fan of the fireworks. They leave so much pollution behind. And they are incredibly loud, I'm definately getting my hearing checked when I get back home.

Another observation I've made is that there is absolutely no garbage disposal system in the villages. Litter either gets burned or is thrown into the fields, I've been left with no other choice but to guiltily follow this trend.

I've meet so many families this week and noticed a common experience they all shared. They all have at least one member in the family who's been bitten by a stray dog, and who has been in a motorcycle, or scooter, accident. One of my distant aunt's is still healing from a dog attack she experienced six months ago. The dog apparently snapped out of nowhere and wouldn't let go of her leg. It had to be put to sleep and she was rushed to the hospital to get vaccinated. She's been walking with difficulty ever since.

Now she has to be careful about what she eats in public. Most people in her village know of the attack. Because she was bitten, she's no longer to eat certain types of foods, such as anything with spice. They say the dog will come back to demonise her otherwise. So since the bit she's been living with a new-found stigma.

I'd like to highlight some of the splendour from this week but have run out of time, my half-hour is nearly up. I'm off to Goa on Monday! More later.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Diwali Time!

I was awoken by the burst of crackers going off at 6 o'clock in the morning. Yes - 6am. Then it was at 6:15am, 7am, 7:30am... Diwali fever has officially hit Ahmedabad. Actually, firecrackers were randomly going off since I got here two weeks ago, but that was only in the evenings around 8pm, which is a bit more reasonable than early mornings. Ever since Dhanteras yesterday though (the first of the five-day Diwali festival), there's no stopping the kids from lighting their crackers anymore.

The "108 Emergency Service" included a memo in the Ahmedabad Mirror today reminding everyone that:

- Children require adult supervision when playing with fireworks
- Crackers should only be burst in open spaces
- Used firecrackers should be discarded in water

None of these precautions are being followed. First off, it's mostly large groups of children playing with fireworks, and it's only on the rare occasion that one will find adults supervising their activities. Secondly, the crackers are mainly being burst in small and large parking lots, but not empty parking lots mind you, parking lots filled with parked vehicles and motorbikes. And lastly, the crackers aren't necessarily being discarded in water.

It's a hazard zone out here. I walked to a nearby bazaar with my niece *Kushboo last night, and decided to take a quieter 'internal' road to avoid the heavy traffic (which is dangerous for pedestrians as there are no sidewalks to walk on). We were chatting, minding our own business on the deserted street, when a firecracker went off quite literally, just a few feet in front of us. I screamed but Kushboo just flinched before laughing at me, she says she's used to random crackers going off out of nowhere during this time of year. Yup, so much for that memo about the proper discarding of fireworks.

Don't get me wrong; apart from getting ear-aches from the noise of bursting crackers and fearing that I may get burned by one or some of them, I love the festive, luminous environment. I've never seen anything like this before. The noise level from the crackers is encouraged, it's meant to scare the dark spirits away. I can't speak for the spirits but can confidently say that it's definately scaring the stray cats, dogs and pigeons away. As soon as the crackers are burst you can see fleets of birds flying to safety as the animals look for a quiet place to hide.

The streets are so bright at night; every household is being lit up with diyas,' another symbol of forcing the dark away and welcoming the light. The mood is so festive here that you can't help but get caught up in it all. I created my first ever Diwali rangoli (sand art created on the floor in front of the entranceway to welcome the goddess of wealth, Laxmi devi, into one's home) with Kushboo last night; it took us about two hours to create; Kushboo says we could've been done sooner but we kept getting interrupted. Some of the neighbours from the apartment building came to entertain us through the process, they occassionally critiqued our colour scheme and techniques, but it was all in good fun.

The remainder of my Diwali week will be quite full. I have to make the rounds through several villages and visit distant relatives. It's something I've been avoiding but the word is spreading that I've arrived and people (whose names I do not even know) are slowly getting insulted that I haven't yet visited them. I'll also be doing some touring along the way with my host family, we'll mainly be visiting temples.

And after the Diwali holidays, I'm off to Surat to stay with my cousins who've come from Canada - yay! I'll continue my touring with them, so far, Goa, Jaipur and Delhi are some of the regions we have in mind.

Apart from the sporadic homesickness, I love it here. The only thing that's been irking me is the marriage talk. Every aunty I meet has a suitable boy in mind for me. Even the American aunty who's flat I was renting in Mumbai, called me from the States to suggest a few bachelors for me. I understand that this is a normal process that every unmarried foreigner has to embrace whilst in India, but seriously, why are they so passionate, almost obsessive, about the match-making?
Am off, but before I forget, Happy Diwali!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Homesickness Prevails...

I am so incredibly homesick, I don't feel like doing anything other than sulking in bed. I know, I realise this entry is already quite different from the last one. I shouldn't be complaining because things are going quite well for me here. It's just that I've got the most amazing friend circle back home and none of these individuals are here to even go for a simple coffee with. Some friends, who are in town visiting, are too busy right now fulfilling their family obligations. I'm re-thinking my whole 'time away' plan and may head back to Canada sooner than expected (yes, even despite receiving word about how cold it's getting there).

I've met some genuinely nice people here but there's still a cultural barrier. In this past week alone I've been randomly asked if I've ever had a boyfriend, if I've ever been to a 'dance club,' and if I've ever tried an alcoholic beverage. These things are considered tabboo to most, and I find myself hesitating in my replies to these questions. To some, having a 'boy/girlfriend' literally means just being platonically friends with someone of the opposite sex, which is still considered a pretty big deal. I'm not judging this value system, I'm just not used to it.

On a more positive note, I've been reuniting with family members I didn't even realise I had. I learned that I have a lot in common with my 76-year old uncle, who unfortunately is now hard-of-hearing and extremely frail. Ironically, as I was making this observation about him, he commented aloud on how frail I look!

He's the only relative I've met up to date who's passionate about the two things I'm extremely fond of - art and photography. We went through hundreds of photos he compiled over the years; he couldn't hear mosts of my remarks and questions along the way, but I believe he understood some of the comments through my facial expressions. He's a sentimental fellow and has memorabilia of nearly everything. I took some photos of his British Raj coin collection and rummaged through some of the actual historical remnants. I regret not having met this uncle years earlier, he may hold the key to learning about my family ancestry and much more.

I left Sabharmati (still very much a village but now considered a part of Ahmedabad city), the area where my uncle is from, on a very full stomach. I discovered where the country's best batata varnas' are made - in my babi's kitchen.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

I am feeling very content. The family I'm staying with in Amhedabad is extremely warm and fun-loving. Five weeks after leaving Canada I finally feel like I'm somewhat at home. And I feel so liberated walking the streets here, it's refreshingly different from Mumbai. I actually dared to wear a tank top out and no one looked at me twice because of it nor did anyone make any snarly remarks about it.

During my first night in Gujarat guess where my cousins suggested we go out for dinner? McDonald's! It truly is a high-status symbol in India, such a contrast from the Western reality of it. In the end, we managed to go to this delicious South Indian restaurant called Sankalp. Among other things, they offered various original twists to the traditional masala dosa. I was tempted to try everything on the menu. We ordered a bit of everything and just writing about it now is making me hungry.

I was surprised to find pharmacies and grocery stores that're similar to the ones we have in North America. Had I known this before leaving for India, I would've refrained from purchasing all that I did at Wal-Mart. You can find the same products over here and at a better price.

Inside most stores are massive advertisements for Garnier's new skin lightening cream for men. I'm very curious to learn how well this product is doing in the male market. Going by all the tv commercials and billboards, which are saturated by the faces of gorgeous Bollywood celebrities, there is tremendous pressure to look good here. The hair commercials are getting to me, I suddenly wish I had long, thick, black hair too.

I need to cut this short, but wanted to add that I've almost landed an interview with a prominent city newspaper. The mere thought is making me feel hopeful!

Monday, October 5, 2009


Early this morning I took the Shatabdi Express train from Mumbai Central Station to Ahmedabad, Gujarat. The luggage-handlers in their red shirts all reminded me of the 1980s hit film, Coolie. I want to watch the movie all over again.

I heard passengers speak in several different dialects of Gujarati; some were more difficult to understand than others. I was looking out the window through most of the six-hour ride. A lot of the lesser-priviliged adults and children were doing their 'early morning business' at the railway tracks. Nearby, there were rows of little shacks made out of cardboard and plastic bags. The families' inside looked comfortable in their routine, getting ready to start their day. They seemed so much more at peace than the crowds I was exposed to in Mumbai.
We passed by vast, green pastures, lily flower ponds, and long-winded blue creeks. I knew we were nearing Gujarat as I caught glimpse of cow and buffalo herds, one dark-brown camel and some goats.

I've been to various Gujarati villages in the past, but never to the cities. There is a drastic difference. It may sound far-fetched but Ahmedabad is reminding me a lot of Las Vegas. I'll try to explain at a later time, should get some sleep.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Eunuchs Brightened my Train Ride!

It's 10am and I just missed a SKYPE rendez-vous with a friend (I was supposed to be on by 8am, which would be her 10:30pm). I woke up to the sound of a hammer pounding into the wall - yes, the renovations have started at the flat, golden! As I keep saying, I cannot wait to head out to Gujarat.

I had trouble sleeping last night. The malnourished dogs who hang out in front of our building kept wailing. There are stray cats and dogs all over the streets, which reminds me, I still have to get my rabies vaccine. I wonder how they survive in this excessive heat. Do they even get any water?

Water's such a commodity in this country as a whole, but especially in this city; ironic considering three-quarters of Mumbai is surrounded by water. There's simply too much demand as the population here keeps rising. One of the solutions has been to regulate the water supply. At the building I stay at, for instance, the water supply's cut off between 1pm and 6pm. In some areas, the cut off is even longer. There are six lakes supplying water to the city and they're constantly being monitored, as they sometimes reach below the drawable limit. I've read some of the statistics, it's a pretty frightening picture.

Everyone is rushing to Mumbai, it's become a key political issue in this country. One politician has suggested that Maharashtran work visas be mandatory for everyone working in the city, a strategy he thinks will decrease the influx of people flooding into the city from other Indian states. For Canada, it'd kind of be like only allowing Ontarions to apply for jobs in Toronto. It's a controversial idea and the Bollywood industry has taken a stance against it (as most of the celebrities are not from Maharashtra themselves).

Back to my restless night, I preoccupied my time wondering why women get harassed so much here. In particularly on the packed trains where it's like a free-for-all (I'd compare it to Cancun foam parties, where the male tourists,' note - I'm not saying all male tourists' but many of them, animal instincts come out once they realise any type of groping is permissable, since no one can see what goes on beneath the suds). On second thought, alcohol plays a huge role in the behaviour of men at foam parties. But the Indian men on these trains aren't even intoxicated, so what could it be...
Here are some of my theories:
  • Indian women are just too darn irresistable
  • Bollywood: Bollywood is huge here and most of the time, the women are portrayed as sex objects or at the very least, eye candy
  • Indian serials (soaps): most of the female characters play out the roles of docile, victimised, helpless women; perhaps it makes the guys think victimising women is the norm
  • Heat exhaustion: it makes people do crazy things
  • Beads of sweat: even with the fans on, it gets extremely hot on the trains so everyone is drenched in sweat, I think this gets their mojo going
  • Sexual deprivation
Anyhow, whatever the reasons may be, it's not right. There are two women-only compartments on each regular train, but it's not enough, which is why the "Ladies-Specials" trains are finally being introduced (trains reserved just for women). It's nice to see the government seriously doing something about the harrassment issue, but the fact that it has to get to this point where men and women can't even commute together, paints an ugly picture for gender equality in this country.

The highlight of my last train ride was watching three extremely tall eunuchs (or hijras' as their known here), dressed in bright, colourful saris and the reddest of lipsticks, hop on to the train. They spoke loudly in their deep voices, cracked jokes amongst themselves, and simply oozed of power. The entire vibe in my train section fell flat, it's like you could feel the testosterone level go down; it was the men's turn to feel intimidated. The eunuchs bothered one male passenger to the next, asking them for money, looking them up and down, telling them whether they were hot or not. They acknowledged me by saying, "Hello English-madam," (strange as I hadn't uttered a word and do look completely Indian) but otherwise left me alone. They teased the guy sitting next to me for looking like Shah Rukh Khan, and another for looking like Ranbir Kapoor. They got off at the next stop, but not before shouting out that the guys should all watch the film 'Dostana' (meaning 'Friendship,' a hit film starring Abishek Bachan, John Abraham and Priyanka Chopra that is saturated with gay sexual innuendos) and get busy! For the next couple of minutes, most of the guys were still looking down at the floor out of sheer embarrassment. It's as if the eunuchs had walked away with their manhood. It's funny how quickly the tables can turn.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Sorry Madam, All Offices Are Closed Today

A friend's email inspired me to get back on the job-search track this morning. I was all revved up, with the list of media companies in my hand and an introductory greeting mentally prepared. My first call was to Times Now, where the operator replied, "Sorry madam, all offices are closed today." Yes, I'm a tad bit frustrated. It's the second national holiday this week. Monday was closed for Navaratri and today is Gandhi Jayanti, Gandhi-ji's 140th birthday anniversary, an international day of non-violence. I heard murmurs about the holiday all week yet it still managed to slip my mind today. I keep choosing the wrong days to feel inspired, or rather, inspiration is finding me at the wrong time.

I'll be leaving for Gujarat, the state where Gandhi-ji grew up, this Monday. It would've been a 1-hour plane ride but I've opted to take the train instead, which will take five extra hours. A friend from Gujarat is coming to Mumbai that same week-end, so we'll be heading back by train together. We've never met in person but he's been trying to help me find work in Mumbai. I know him through his father who I met in Canada, he too was working as a journalist at the time.

His son's name is *Roshan. He's much younger than I am, extremely carefree, witty and intelligent; most importantly, he's the closest tie I've made here so far. He was actually a contestant on the Tata Crucible business quiz; the national final's being hosted in Mumbai this week-end, where we'll get to be members of the audience. It's supposed to be intense, 18 teams (one from each state) will be competing to win $10,000 in reward-money. I'm looking forward to the new experience, plus the venue location seems nice, it's at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel!

Before I sign off, thank you for showing interest in my blog. I'm liking the comments and the feedback always helps. It's like I've got my very own support group going! Thanks!