27 November 2007

Happy Birthday, Ari Phillips!

Today, in celebration of fellow intern Ari Phillips' 24th birthday, he and I woke up early and rode our bikes to the Rajaji Bhavan. There, we were told we could buy train tickets for our planned trip to Kerala (southwest India, on the Arabian Sea). But as it turned out, all regular seats were sold out, and while there were evidently tourist-quota seats available (seats reserved for foreign tourists), you can only reserve these seats at Chennai Central Station, 20km to the north.

So we rode to work, "surprised" Ari with a batman birthday hat and shiny garland, and my boss made him a fruit pie/cake. Then we geared up to take the suburban train for the first time all the way to Central Station.

The train itself was a lovely (and free - there's really no place to buy tickets at our stop because the train station was never completed...it's a half-finished construction zone) respite from the autos and buses, even if it felt a bit 1920's the whole ride north.

We arrive at Central Station, stumble around a bit among the crowds, go up two flights in an adjacent building to a small, air-conditioned office specifically for tourists, where they proceed to inform us that unlike the office we were in this morning, they do not accept credit cards. Foreign tourists must pay in US dollars or UK pounds, or in Indian rupees if your rupees come with a receipt proving you changed US dollars or UK pounds into rupees while in India. Needless to say, we had none of this. We had Rs.800 ($20) and no proof that we didn't make these rupees in our suburban Chennai flat.

Nor could we buy tickets, because they were all sold out. Ari could buy a ticket from Hampi to Chennai in January, but he had no way to get to Chennai. So we returned home, again via the unintentionally free train, as it began to rain gently.

Chumbawumba comes to mind: "I get knocked down, but I get up again, 'cause you're never gonna keep me down." They love this song in India. I can see why.

Plan as of 4:00pm today:
Friday, December 21: 8am flight from Chennai to Trivandrum, 2 hour bus to Varkala, where we will stay at the Bamboo Haven Resort. I get to stay in a bamboo cottage overlooking the Arabian Sea, surrounded on all other sides by leafy jungle.
Monday, December 24: Bus to Cochi/Kochi/Cochin/Kochin, where there is the largest midnight Christmas Mass in India. We'll be staying at the Fort House.
Tuesday, December 25: I leave Ari to fend for himself for two weeks, and I fly back to Chennai on Christmas Night. Kingfisher Airways. Just too posh.

The things we do for the holidays.

23 November 2007

"So may the sunrise bring hope where it once was forgotten"

“Oh, well, these are night thoughts produced by walking in the rain after two thousand years of Christianity.” – Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller

I think “Sodom, South Georgia” and “Upward Over the Mountain” by Iron and Wine are two incredibly beautiful songs. Bluegrass and the banjo sustain me here in India.

What does it mean to have never had your heart broken? Are you cold and impenetrable? Are you merely practical to a fault? Or are you just biding your time before the inevitable, horrible moment when your steadiness comes falling down around you? Is the broken heart a human, all too human right of passage? Or just a convention in chickflicks and chick-lit and the self-help section in Barnes and Noble? I remember when I used to look to each new relationship with an almost masochistic sense of expectation, half-hoping this would be the individual who would finally break my heart, finally get the ordeal over with. I also used to think I couldn’t really be a writer until someone had shattered me to the core. Now I’m wondering if I ever have to have a broken heart. Can’t we actively seek out those people who will be kind to our hearts – and if they start to mishandle our emotions, can’t we love ourselves enough to walk away? This is where I find myself today, happy and assured, but curious about the tropes of love.

One of my bosses was a casual friend with Edward Said. He once smuggled her into a Palestinian solidarity meeting in New York City by convincing the organizers that she was Arab (South Indian, Middle Eastern, no one knew the difference). She says he was incredibly good with his students, an egalitarian when it came to relating to men and women, and was “never bad to look at.” I stared at her in awe – I’m still incredibly fixated upon the romantic ideal of the academic. Tes once took a class on academic celebrities…why again was I taking Sanskrit?

What is it about Thailand in particular that draws my kindred spirits and I there to have open-ended trysts imbued with expectation and passion?

I dreamt last night that Ari told off our crazy landlady. I woke up feeling refreshed. Evidently Ari’s moment of glory during Tuesday’s floodwaters has instilled me with hope for his abilities and motivations. I think these might be false hopes. He’s taken to simply quoting me on his blog rather than write his own entry. He rightly observed to his girlfriend that I buy his bedsheets for him. He still makes funny noises when he sees a large cockroach. He’s still tone-deaf. He still opens the fridge, overlooks his fresh and delicious loaf of real whole wheat bread and instead grabs the old, mouldy bleached white bread that doesn’t even belong to him. None of this makes any sense to the reader, I’m sure, but I did promise Ari that I’d be sure to make him look pathetic again. Done and done. But he can quote Ace Ventura and Dumb and Dumber with me, so it’s impossible for me to write him off entirely: “I think it’s the pâté.”

Happy Thanksgiving, Americans. Go Gators. Enjoy your Friday festivities, SoFla crew. xoxo

20 November 2007

Of Floods and Bugs...

Brought bedbugs back with me from Bangalore. They fell in love with my sleeping bag, and soon took to biting me all over my body. I'm itchy as hell, and it looks as if I have the chicken pox on my arms and back. But things could be worse...

After a night of pouring rain and thunder, Ari woke me up to tell me that Nina's room was flooding. "Big deal," I thought. "This is old news. It's probably just a trickle." But then I heard shouting, and upon investigation, was surprised to find a veritable deluge coming in through Nina's window. With water well over ankle deep, our entire house was threatened. Basically, our landlady's consistently bad construction sense had struck again, this time aiming the rain run-off from the entire house into our flat. The rest of the morning is a blur. Ari donned a past intern's gigantic blue rain suit and turned into Superman, making makeshift pipes and giving sound advice. Nina ran about half-naked, soaking wet in her pink pajamas and rain-spotted glasses, piling mud and sand in front of her window to stop the rushing waters (her efforts were successful, if scandalous). For the most part, I played the useless assistant - fetching old pipes, building Lego-like contraptions to make up for the lack of gutters in this country, and bailing out Nina's now rather silty room.

Must remember that 2300 people lost their lives in Bangladesh from the cyclone. Must remember that our housekeeper did not come today because of massive rain damage to her own home. Must remember that we still have it pretty damn good.

Today on the phone, Jeff laughed and jokingly asked me "and what's so appealing about India again?" The truth is, at 7:45am in the pouring rain, with landladies and roommates yelling and mud streaming into our house and the bed bug rash spreading, if someone had asked me in that moment, "Do you still want to be here?" I would have screamed back, "YES" with all my heart. Perhaps India isn't appealing, but I still am exactly where I want to be.

Happy Three-month Anniversary, Interns!

19 November 2007

So this is real life...

I swear I will never want to eat another banana after I leave India. Bananas: the pealable, oh-so-safe, local fruit staple. I hated them as a child. My father and brother used to gross me out by chewing bananas with their mouths open at the dinner table. I wouldn’t even eat banana-flavoured yogurt or drink fruit smoothies that listed bananas as one of the ingredients. But then, while in Nepal, I discovered that my love of fruit paired with my desire to be kind to my intestines meant that I had to embrace my old nemesis. And so I tolerated bananas – even started buying them in Portland during the weeks when I was particularly broke. Here in India, I will admit that when you’re doing martial arts and yoga and riding around on a bad bicycle, the potassium helps to placate sore muscles. But I’m still banana’d out, and it is only November.

The honeymoon is over – that is to say, my travel high has ended. And in many ways, I’m actually relieved. A state of awe and euphoria can only be sustained for so long. Now there are days when gratitude comes slowly, if at all. I must work harder to love this place, although I still do (and with all my heart). I must work harder to thank Hashem for the world and the people around me. As in all too many relationships, I am beginning to find my lover’s flaws difficult to endure. My Chennai is an incredibly polluted place, and I’m now stuck with a cough that sounds as if I’m a heavy smoker. I no longer find the auto rickshaws fun, but rather see them as an expensive frustration. Working full-time at Tara means that I do not have the time to travel and see India for weeks on end, as do many of the foreigners who are here to study or do research. I’m also coming to terms with the fact that I really did not bring enough money, and am learning to live on quite the shoestring (many of the westerners I encounter still convert rupees to dollars and justify a Rs.500 brunch as “only $12!” But Rs.500 is one-tenth of my monthly salary. Ari is helping me, through well-meaning if poorly timed criticism, with the embarrassing state of my finances).

But I’ve started to take Bharatanatyam classes with a woman I met in my martial arts class. And I could not be happier with my job and the people I work with. And I buy fresh papaya and lime from the street and make the most delicious salads. And I’m learning to be alone again, something I had forgotten how to do between my time in Montreal and Portland. And I’m quietly in love, “without complexities or pride,” and so that always helps.

I’m reading Henry Miller’s The Tropic of Cancer. I believe this will be one of those books, like Gatsby or Breakfast of Champions or Love in the Time of Cholera, that will stay with me for my entire life. At first I was completely put off by Miller’s violent fear of the feminine, of his inability to see female sexuality as anything but an emptiness, a vacuum, a zero-sum prize. It is as if, in one book, he gives enough linguistic and theoretical fodder to last generations of feminists. However, I choose to love him in spite of these flaws (let us be honest: it is not the first time I have fallen for an antifeminist). Miller’s Paris is, in many ways, today’s India. I refer not to the rampant sexuality, but to the poverty and stress of a rapidly developing area. Paris, like India, also attracts the wild, mad ones – the North Americans and Europeans looking for that which they can not find at home: companionship, God, validity, cheap thrills, art, spirituality, nihilism, adventure, silence, meaning. But, as a friend and I discussed this weekend, you bring your baggage with you, whether it be to Paris or to India. Wherever you go, you cannot hide from yourself forever. India, Paris, California, Tokyo, New Jersey, Portland – in their differences and their similarities, these places will always reflect the same image of ourselves back upon us. It is then up to us to decide whether or not we must change, and whether or not we can muster the strength to do so.

Some Recent Photos:

Tied up in the shopping district...

Running from the monsoons' return...

Our front entrance, now with tile and some plants I resurrected

06 November 2007

Holiday Frenzy

So Diwali is upon us here in India (as it is for Hindus the world over). Diwali is described as a festival of lights, the New Year, the festival of sweets, the festival of too many sweets, the festival of loud but not-so-visually stunning firecrackers, the festival which welcomes Ram back from the forest to Ayodhya in the Ramayana. In short, it is one of the most important festivals on the Hindu calendar. And, much like Christmas, even non-Hindu and atheist Indians tend to adopt some of the traditions associated with the 5-day holiday.

The best part of this time of year is that everyone is excited and hurried, just like at Christmas time. Shops are promoting "Diwali Super Sales," traffic is awful and the shops are crowded - but everyone is still smiling! I rode home from martial arts class last night laughing and smiling with several complete strangers. There is constantly music blaring from tinny temple speakers. So while I won't get the same sort of Christmas spirit here in India, it is really wonderful to partake in a similar kind of festiveness.

Some Diwali traditions I can't help but love:

Tradition One: Firecrackers - set off as many of the loudest mini-bombs as possible before you blow your hands off. The younger you are (ages 4-7), the better!

Tradition Two: Travel to your hometown - Does travelling to your boss's hometown count? Ari and I will be taking a night train from Chennai to Bangalore for a weekend away. Because Tara is the kind of place that lovingly infiltrates every aspect of your life, it turns out that most of the office will be in Bangalore at the same time. So we'll probably just go out for coffee or have mildly artsy dinner parties. With wine...there's wine in Bangalore.

Tradition Three: Eat sweets - Are you kidding me? Dessert is my favourite meal!