Monday, December 28, 2009

The White Woman!

I’m adding some pictures from my South India trip. Browsing through them I’m realizing we packed in so much during our seven day tour. I’m pretty impressed with what *Stephanie and I got done. Considering neither of us spoke Tamil, Malayalam nor Kannada, we got by pretty smoothly.

It was tough getting around as a lot of the locals spoke heavy-accented (I’m not going to say Indian-accented because it was drastically different from the Indian accent most are familiar with) broken or zero English. Sometimes, as a last resort, I’d ask people if they spoke Hindi, which one of my South Indian friends had already warned me against, and they’d either get offended or laugh as if it was the most absurd question they’d ever heard in their life.

I felt bad for Stephanie; her tall height, white skin and auburn hair got her a lot of unwanted attention despite her dressing in Indian clothes to try and blend in. A lot of Indians asked to get pictures taken with her, a few times she kindly obliged. The men would just gawk and some had no shame in holding their cell phone to her face and take a good shot of the “white girl.”

Calpetta was the worst. We sat down at this restaurant and the men there kept gawking at us, so the waiter moved us over to the ‘family area.’ We sat down next to a family which included a little girl of about three years of age. The innocent girl instantly pointed at Stephanie and began crying! She was horrified by Steph, terror was written all over her face. Of course we didn’t blame the toddler, maybe it was the first time she’d seen someone who was of white skin colour. But her father felt bad and scolded his daughter. It took her a good ten minutes to quiet down.

Stephanie told me she was used to such things here. I don't think everyone can be so thick-skinned. She’s doing her NGO internship in Anand, Gujarat and people there give her extra attention all the time. Along with the photo-snapping, she’s had people point at the freckles on her face and arms, and ask her what type of skin disease she was suffering from!

I’m so thankful to be living in a multicultural country (or maybe I should say multicultural region since there's a lot of segregation in certain parts of Canada as well). Thanks to my exposure, I hadn’t even noticed Stephanie’s many freckles until she pointed them out to me.

I’m glad Steph took the opportunity to challenge herself in India. She doesn’t have any Indian friends back in Holland and can’t recall there even being any where she grew up. She too has her own stereotypes to break free from. When we were in Kochi, for instance, she loudly yelled out to someone, “Hey! That man’s stealing from your bag!” and accusingly pointed at the culprit. I was so embarrassed. All she could see was an Indian thief sneaking stuff out of a white woman’s backpack. But in reality, the “thief” was the European woman’s boyfriend, who happened to be an NRI. Maybe she wasn't used to seeing interracial couples. Steph apologized but the guy was still pretty insulted, I think he swore something under his breath.

So there's racism and cultural stereotypes everywhere. When I'm in Canada for instance no one asks me about my Canadian background. They usually ask me about India and Hinduism and holy cows; but I'm not a scholar in any of those subjects. How nice it would be if everyone were more exposed to varied cultures and took the time to see things from the point of view of others.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Finding Clarity

Mysore was a very unpleasant experience. It was way too touristy for us. Vendors aggressively tried selling us stuff whichever corner we turned. And as we arrived there on Christmas day, all the hotels were sold out. After a bit of a struggle, we checked in to the first vacant hotel room we could find. When we left we noticed an advertisement painted on a nearby wall with the hotel name and a lovely description stating, "For Prostitutes!"

From Mysore we went back to Bangalore and from there, back to my temporary homeland - Ahmedabad. I'm 75% sure now that I'll be going back to Canada soon. There's a Bangalore job opportunity I'm finding tempting, especially since I've made some nice friends there. But home is calling.

I'm going to decline the Delhi offer tomorrow. Not only was the pay lousy but the newsroom director explained that I'd have to do my own video shooting and editing on top of my regular reporting tasks. And I'd be expected to do 10-12 hour shifts without getting paid for any overtime.

I'm not feeling regretful. I came here with some set goals in mind and now the required doors are opening for me. But it's happening a few months too late as my priorities are changing. The ups and downs I went through have all been for the better as it's helped me put things in perspective. I'm getting to take a huge sigh of relief as clarity sets in.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Haathi Mera Saathi

Ernakalum, located in the state of Kerala, was overwhelming. My friend and I wanted to enjoy a quiet yet touristic experience and instead, we found ourselves smack in the middle of Kerala's commercial capital.

Although we were exhausted from our 11-hour bus ride we decided to escape by getting a ferry to Kochi/Cochin. Getting to the ferry port wasn't easy though as Kerala rikshaw-drivers were on strike in protest of a fare cut. So we drudgingly walked half-way to the port in the muggy 35C heat. On the way, a gracious rickshaw driver offered to get us to our destination for ten times the regular price, we were drenched and too desperate to argue. The ride was uncomfortable as we were asked to duck our heads whenever other rick-drivers were seen, our driver could've gotten into trouble for not abiding by the Autorickshaw Union's game plan.

Kochi was nice. It was filled with a lot of European tourists. That's all I can remember about it right now. The day after we headed off to Allepey and rented a houseboat to float over the serene backwaters. We had to bargain with the boat agents over the rent; I made it go down a few thousand dollars. I think I'm getting better at the art of negotiation! Most of the tourists whom we spoke to paid a lot more than us. Anyhow, I can't recall ever being in a more tranquil, bedazzling surrounding. I loved every bit of my Allepey day (although the night was wretchedly hot and neither my mosquito-repellant nor the provided mosquito net kept the pesky pests away.

The following day we managed to find a private driver (as the rickers were still on strike) to drop us off to the train station; we wanted to make a five-hour express ride to Calikut. A rick-ride wouldn't have cost us more than Rs 30 but this greedy driver was demanding Rs 700! I told him we wouldn't pay more than Rs 100 and he laughed in my face and wished me good luck. As we turned the corner though he soon pulled over and said he'd settle for Rs 200.

Calicut wasn't a fun experience. We waited at the main bus stand (to get to Calpetta) which was located in a conservative Muslim area and got stared down by every adult around. We were modestly dressed bit I think the fact that we didn't have our heads and necks covered bothered some people. The three-hour bus ride was extremely uncomfortable as every male glued their eyes on us either out of disgust, curiosity or perhaps both.

The drive to Calpetta was horrible. We had to drive through these steep, sharp curves into the Western Ghat mountain range. Our driver was wreckless and I kept wondering if he was drunk. There was two-way traffic on a narrow single lane throughout the range. I prayed the entire ride. I hadn't realised the drive would be so risky, if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't.

Anyhow Calpetta was gross. We stayed at a dingy hotel filled with sleazy men. The entire area reeked of rotten fish and it was normal to spot some fresh or dried up ones all along the road. Major gag-fest!

Wow! I've got so much more to right but this computer lab has got to close shop. Right now I'm in Sultanbatheri. The hotel we're staying at is so-so, we mainly chose it to use its gorgeous outdoor pool. But we were out touring all day and now that the sun's set, it's too cold to take a dip. We got to check out the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary and watched a herd of elephants roam free in their natural habitat - it was amazing! Tomorrow we're heading off to Mysore.

I can't believe it's Christmas Eve. I'm missing the sound of snow crunching beneath my boots, festive carol tunes and even the over-the-top Christmas decorations. Happy Holidays everyone!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Love U Delhi!

I fell in love with the little I saw of Delhi. The traffic was heavy but it it's my type of city, vast and very cosmopolitan. While Ahmedabad is known for it's scooties, Delhites like to ride on their motorbikes; thankfully, they're all accustomed to wearing helmets as well. The weather was quite cold during the week I was there, but otherwise, my stay was quite pleasant.

I'm in Bangalore now. The noise pollution here is immense. The traffic is crazy, as it is in all Indian cities, but it's the honking that makes it much worse - the beeping volume here is twice as loud as what's heard in the other cities.

I'll be exploring some of the South with two of the girls I met during my Gir trip. One girl's from Holland while the other is South Indian. The latter will be staying in Bangalore (as she's being set up with a marriageable bachelor during her work holiday period) while my Dutch friend and I are heading off to Kerela tonight by bus; it'll an 11-hr ride.

After this trip I'm considering heading back to Canada. I'm getting tired of Gujarat for more reasons than one. I'm still a bit hesitant about leaving India though. I've been offered a broadcast reporting opportunity in Delhi but the salary is next to nothing (it's even lower than the low expectations I had prepared for). And I am so incredibly homesick. I hope to figure out what I'm doing by the end of this week as the indecisiveness is getting to me.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Gujarati Wedding Drama!

My family and I attended the wedding of one of our neighbour’s daughters today. They had set-up an outdoor tent at a venue an hour away from the city; it was a pretty extravagant occasion. There was a lot of gossip going around about who was wearing what, the bride’s make-up choice, the approximate cost of the wedding, etc. The food was pretty good; along with the traditional Gujarati dishes were Vegetable Manchurian balls, Hakka noodles, Cheese-Corn-Tomato soup, and Pineapple Macaroni & Cheese – all are quite popular non-Indian items in Ahmedabad.

In the evening the bride’s mother caused havoc in our apartment building, she learned that her 22-kt gold necklace, worth nearly 2 lacs, had been stolen. All the residents are talking about it, spreading the word from one flat to the next, about the missing goods. As soon as PG got word of the news, Durga-mata paid her a visit and she went into one of her trances. She claims to have received a vision of exactly what colour suitcase the necklace is hidden in, and who’s responsible of the theft. The necklace will be discovered at 11pm, she said. It’s now 10:55pm, some residents have gathered together at our flat, anxiously waiting to see if our neighbour’s premonition will come true. Stay tuned...

On another note, all week long there’s been news coverage about Andra Pradesh and the possibility of it being divided into two separate states (the new state being Telangana). Politician and Telangana-separatist K. Chandrasekara Rao went on a hunger strike since November 29 to push his fight for a separate state forward. This caused a lot of friction in the community and officials worried that Naxals would take advantage of fragile situation. So now it looks like the 50 year old struggle for a new state will soon be a reality, but it will come with its own problems. There’s another heated debate already rising over which of the two states will get to keep Hyderabad!

It’s 11:30pm. I’m off to bed, still no word on the missing necklace.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Do I Really Need to Become Lighter?

I've made several attempts to update my blog but haven't had much luck. My computer keeps shutting down without anything getting saved. So I'm writing everything in point form today, just in case this too will be deleted.
  • I got woken up at 8am today, there was a jaan passing by that early in the morning, blasting Gharba music for 2 hours as they tried to get through the busy street leading to the bride’s house
  • A neighbour dropped by yesterday and told me that I need to start using skin-lightening cream. Before I could even explain to her that I’m happy with my skin tone, she said she was going to buy me a bottle herself
  • I went shopping at this amazing bazaar called Taun Darvaza (or "Three Doors") last Friday for sarees. I think it was built with the “shop till you drop” motto in mind. You can buy anything and everything there at reasonable prices. The only thing is that the streets are quite narrow and the people and vehicle traffic is heavy there. My feet got stomped on several times. Anyway, it’s located in a conservative Muslim area. The men couldn’t stop staring at me in a very dirty way. One passer-by murmured something in Hindi which translates into “You should be ashamed of yourself for prancing around nude.” I was wearing a long skirt with a loose sleeveless top. I don’t get it. Why’s it okay to bear your midriff in a saree but a girl shows her arms and the whole world turns upside down? I'm going back there today for more shopping, but am going to cover up from head to toe.
  • I’m off to Delhi on Monday for a couple of days. I won’t share why as I don’t want to jinx myself, but I hope it all goes well.
  • My week-end in West Gujarat was amazing. I was with 15 other foreigners who’ve come to intern or work at NGOs in Gujarat. The group consisted of people from Switzerland, Germany, the US and Holland. I got to speak in English for the entire week-end which was so refreshing.
  • PG was in a trance again last night. She claims Devi-mata’s been visiting her more since she’s met me. She's a very nice lady, but I still get incredibly spooked out when she shows this other side.
  • I met a friend of PG’s yesterday, he seemed a little off and looked at me strangely. My cousin warned me that he too does blackmagic – great, just what I need.
  • I'll add more photos and entries later, good-bye.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Stray Dogs on the Rise!

The number of stray dogs around our building has gone down as the mornings and nights are getting colder - by colder I mean 10C. Some dogs still choose to hide beneath parked cars for shelter but most have gone elsewhere.

During the last couple of months we were feeding milk and roti to one of the dogs and her new litter. The mother liked us but she was extremely territorial. She constantly had to fight off other adult dogs from getting away with her family's food. Watching the adults go at each other could be pretty scary.
The mother always made sure her eight puppies had their fill of the food first; only when they were done would she indulge in the leftovers. Anyhow, one of the pups got run over by a car in the parking lot a couple of weeks back. The mom was extremely depressed, she was sulking for days and made weeping sounds whenever she'd see us.

I haven't seen the remaining pups in a while. I wonder what state their in, they could've starved to death by now or fallen victim to other speeding cars. Who knows.

There were some interesting facts published in the Ahmedabad Mirror today about dogs:
  • There are 300,000 stray dogs in the city
  • Only 61,000 dogs were sterilised in the last four years
  • Over 200 dog bites are reported every single day in Ahmedabad
  • In the last six years, 30 people have died of dog bites

And yet, the Ahmedebad Municipal Corporation has yet to come up with a feasible plan of action to combat the issue.

The stray dog problem is prevalent all over India. There is no law requiring these numbers to be reported to government authorities so it's difficult to get a proper estimate. But it's believed that at least 50% of the world's rabies cases occur in India.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

More Trance Drama

It's only 2pm and it's already been quite the eventful day. Mata-ji has been bothering PG since early morning today. She can't stop screaming and violently throwing herself across her room, so much so that she's given herself a few bruises; and she's even having trouble keeping her food in. Neighbours got extremely concerned and called in a doctor, but by the time he appeared a few hours later, she was out of her 'trance.'
PG believes that her trance today was a result of some light blackmagic she performed last night for someone. A client wants to get a divorce with his wife but the wife is demanding 1 lac rupees in return for the divorce agreement. So he asked PG to perform some magic on her to change her mind about the monetary demand. PG went ahead and did her thing but because she gave in to the request, Mata-ji is not happy. The entire scenario is ludicrous.

Anyhow, I was supposed to start at the local paper yesterday but now HR's told me they'll call me back this week to confirm dates. I'm not sure what to think. Roshan has invited me on a trip to Gir National Park this week-end. We're going to be a group of ten people crashing at a farmhouse by night, and off on a safari adventure by day. I'm not too keen on lion-spotting, but the rest of the trip sounds fun.

I'm adding a picture of three men who were waiting on the roadside in Pokran, Rajasthan (just between Jaisalmer and Jhodpur) early morning. While the mornings and nights are quite cold, the day is incredibly hot at 30C, and that's only in the Winter months! There is little access to water and shade for locals living in the dryland. These men decided to rest from their walk before they continued on their journey by foot.
Their seating manner was one of the first things I noticed about Rajasthanis - the men, women, and children all sat this way. These old men must have really strong knees.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Fireworks Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

You know what? I think the use of fireworks in India is an all-year round type of thing. After Diwali begins the wedding season and it becomes normal to see music bands marching down the street, with adults and children dancing to their Bollywood tunes, as the groom, with his face covered in garlands and usually travelling on a horse, is led to the bride’s doorstep.

If you live near a wedding hall or temple, which is our case, than the evening ends with loud tunes of Gujarati gharba, occasional interruptions from the musician going, “hello, hello, 1-2-3 check, hello, hello,” and for the grand finale, noisy fireworks light up the sky.

Right now, every day is a spectacle and a feast for the eyes. The wedding party and guests dress up in the most brilliant and glittery Indian clothes imaginable. I’ve considered crashing one of the weddings to try out the food but I’d have to completely glam up.

My host family is getting wedding invitations every other day. They’ve had to decline a few invitations as they wind up double- or triple-booked. PG just came back from a wedding. And our downstairs neighbour is currently busy preparing a dance routine for her cousin’s wedding. All there is to discuss these days is just that - weddings.

Even while we were in Rajasthan murmurs could be heard about weddings. This is a picture of a wedding procession we saw taking place in Jodhpur. My cousin and I were quite tired but we still got caught up in all the excitement.