Monday, June 30, 2008

The Minority Class

Riding in a car through the hills and plains of Rajasthan, I had a unique vantage point to observe rural Indian life.  The vibrant green fields were filled with crops, palm trees, goats, and flashes of fuscia, neon orange, and the brightest yellows.  These were the saris of the women of Rajasthan working the farms.  On the roadside I saw women carrying enormous loads on their heads, loads that would have been hard work with a wheel barrel but was unbelievable with the tools they had—nothing but their hands, body, and a large piece of burlap overstuffed with grass clippings or string tying together sugarcane.

From the same vantage, I also observed many men.  Most often, they were sitting around cafes or shops, chatting with one another and just hanging out.

I watched this over and over again for miles and miles.  Women working, men lounging.  Women working, men drinking tea.  Men sitting in chairs, women squatting or sitting on the ground.  And as I watched these scenes float past, my anger and frustration and resentment and pure sadness grew stronger and stronger. 

It seems that if you are a woman born poor in India, you are born into slavery. 

The injustice of this made my blood boil and engendered the most venomous thoughts towards North Indian men.  It’s not just the inequality of daily work.  It is so much more.  Traveling here for two weeks has shown me some truly repulsive aspects of human character gone unchecked.  It seems that men believe they are kings.  Any river, fountain, waterfall, even just a running spigot in a city is an opportunity for men to strip down to their underwear (or less) and splash about and play and just appear to have a ball.  And when white women walk by they do everything they can to get you to look over at them.  Instead, we have to shuffle quickly onwards, eyes on anything but, and keep sweating in our clothes that must cover our legs and shoulders to keep out of the category of harlots.  It is inconceivable to swim in any of the gorgeous and otherwise extremely tempting swimming holes.  When women do bathe in the rivers, they remain fully dressed. 

Men also feel it is their right to pee anywhere.  Rarely do you see a wall on the side of the road that does not have a man watering it.  I have spent some time wondering where women do their business, as public bathrooms are hard to come by.

Out of the hundreds of thousands of motorcycles, cars, and bicycles I’ve seen, I’ve seen three women on motorcycles, two on bikes, and two driving cars.  But I’ve seen thousands riding sidesaddle on the back, never wearing a helmet and often carrying babies and children. 

Men completely reserve the right to gape and gawk and yell out to any white woman walking or riding by.

I realized I was blind to a lot of it at first.  Like smoking.  I wondered why I would get such strange looks when I smoked because I saw many other Indians smoking.  Once I had a “conversation” with a woman in my neighborhood (with her speaking only Hindi, and me only English) when she approached me and gestured towards my cigarette, questioning.  I offered her one, wondering if that was what she was getting at.  It wasn’t.  She just seemed completely perplexed that I was smoking a cigarette.  Yesterday, as I was inhaling a smoke, a man passed me and mockingly noted, “How macho.”  I was confused as to whether it was my dorky “travel wear” but then realized it was the smoking.  It was only then that it occurred to me that I had only seen men smoking and it was taboo for a female to partake in such a habit.

If that were the worst of it, then it could be passed off partially as bad manners and unfortunate work allocation.  But then you hear the stories of female infanticide and the bride-burnings (and the skewed male-female ratios to prove it).  And the massive dowries that must be paid to send your daughter off to work her ass off for her husband’s family.  And girls who never go to school.  And more double standards than standards themselves. 

As this other world whirled past, I sat in the car fighting back tears first for the women who had such hard, unjust lives.  Then I had a new surge of emotion for the women who fought to bring the rights that I enjoy in my own culture.  I’ve felt appreciation for these amazing women before.  But I don’t think it has ever continually brought tears to my eyes when I’ve thought of it.  I want to build monuments in their honor.  I want to kiss their feet.  I want to thank them with every thing I have.  Because here, I realize, that I owe everything to the people who came before me and changed so much of our culture to allow women to thrive.  I see how life could be if I were born in the wrong country, in the wrong class, in the wrong gender, and it kills me. 

My own culture has come a long way towards equality and allowing both genders to simply live their full humanity, and we still have a long way to go.  But if you think that the women’s movement has won its major battles, just look around and you’ll find a billion or so women to show you how mistaken you are.


I feel like I went through the cycle of culture shock really quickly and now I'm already viewing the honking and crowds and trash and smells as rather normal.  The little kids though...  I'm a softy for street kids.  It is so hard to say no to these children or the young women toting babies still nursing.  You have so much and they have so little.

The other day I almost took a kid to eat at McDonalds, but I lost track of him after I went into a store.  He found me in time to get the sandwich I bought for him though (disclaimer: not McDonalds).  

It’s a big dilemma of how to deal with little kids begging for money.  They need money, but you’re not doing them any favors by giving it to them because it just perpetuates the cycle of keeping them out of school to ‘work’ and then condemning them to a life of certain poverty.  India actually passed a law making it illegal to give kids money because there were so many people who “pimp” kids as beggars.  

But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with giving them food.  So I always carry around packets of peanuts with me.  Whenever a kid asks for money, I give them peanuts.  Sometimes they just keep asking for money, sometimes they seem pretty happy.  But either way, they need protein and its something that I know that its something from which they will be the ones to benefit.  

Saturday, June 28, 2008

A Weekend in Rishikesh

To stop writing for one day is to miss a massive gamut of sights, activities, feelings, and observations.  Every day seems like a week.  Today, for example, I woke up with a stomach ache in the Himalayan foothills, threw up in a parking lot of a rancid train station (a cow happily trotted over afterwards…), walked up and down a packed moving train with three other white girls + luggage looking for a car that did not exist and seats that had been reassigned without notice, cooled off and got some work done in our air conditioned apartment, then ended the day in a gorgeous restaurant eating exquisite food. 

I had a truly amazing weekend away from Delhi in the foothills of the Himalayas in Rishikesh, about 6 hours north.  Steph and I arrived in Haridwar early in the morning from an overnight train.  The station was, of course, packed even at 6am.  Many travelers were herding from here to there.  People were doing their laundry on the train platforms (perhaps they lived there).  And plenty of men were yelling out their various wares for sale.  And the smell… let’s just say that I often thank God that my sense of smell is rather dull.

So we successfully found a bus to Rishikesh by wandering around asking “Bus?” “Rishikesh?”  After a while, we made it to our hotel.  It was amazing.  The view was unbelievable.  The “foothills” of the Himalayas rose dramatically from the valley that held the Ganges, which was also in view from our favorite breakfast table. 

Steph and I spent our first day exploring the town, which was both delightful and overwhelming.  It is a popular tourist site, and since this is the season for Indian tourism, there were many Indians with their cameras.  Now, I mentioned before that I found it very strange to have people who wanted to have their pictures taken with them.  It turns out that this is seemingly commonplace.  There were times when we would have one person request a picture, then when others saw the photo opp, they wanted their pictures taken with us as well.  Eventually, we had to say no and just keep moving.  We saw a few other Western tourists who were having the same thing happen to them, so at least we didn’t feel abnormal.  It is very strange, but sometimes it feels that if you are white, you are automatically treated as a celebrity, for better or for worse.  I wonder if it is just the novelty of someone different or the fact that they value pale over dark skin or maybe just a side effect of Hollywood creeping into their culture. 

So to make a long story short, we went rafting on the Ganges, and I actually intentionally jumped in for a swim.  It was lovely (as long as I kept my mouth firmly closed).  We went hiking to a waterfall.  And we spent the evening at a light ceremony in the next town over Haridwar.  That was really fascinating.  It is a nightly ceremony that is an important pilgrimage for Hindus.  Thousands gather on the platforms that lead into the river and bathe and play in the water.  The scene of layers of colors of saris on the stairs was truly gorgeous.  People buy little boats made out of leaves filled with flowers and a candle with incense and float it down the Ganges as an offering to the sacred river.  Prayers are said as a group, section by section.  A beautiful little girl came around and painted quick little flames on everyone’s foreheads.  And then the thousands who had come left in a more orderly fashion than I have seen in any large event in the U.S. 

We reluctantly left the hills the next day, and I already said more than enough of our adventure home. 

Somehow, it is already Friday again and we will be leaving in the morning for another weekend trip.  This week has flown by in hours and hours of emails and reading and a few meetings.  In other words, I have been working in earnest on my research.  This has been interspersed with delicious meals out, an evening of fantastic conversation sparked by a power outage, and a surreal trip to the movies. 

I tried very hard to post a video I took in Rishikesh, but the internet here just wouldn’t cooperate.  You’ll have to settle for pictures.  (Which I will post very soon.)   Have a lovely weekend!

Thursday, June 26, 2008

You Can't Escape Uncle Sam

I’m sitting in “The All-American Diner” complete with checkered floor tiles, Marilyn Monroe, all day breakfast, and ‘My Endless Love’ playing over the speakers.  They even have a “I want YOU for the U.S. Army” placard.  America, how can I miss you if you never go away?  Well, there is one thing they don’t have…  a big juicy beef burger.  

Friday, June 20, 2008

Delhi, India
Day 2 – June 19, 2008

Today, I ventured out into Delhi on my own and explored the Red Fort, an old Mughal palace that was converted to an army fort in the 20th century. Then I headed into Old Delhi, where I was expecting historic buildings and monuments but found the most overwhelming mass of people, cars, shops, wires—even the buildings appeared to have built by heaping one upon another. After the sun went down, I went out with another Indian friend of a friend who took us to an area so Westernized they had, not only a Pizza Hut, movie theater, 24 hour convenience store, but also a Ruby Tuesday and a Bennigans. And the phone number for McDonalds McDelivery ended with 666…coincidence? It was in this very street that I had my first authentic Indian food, which was swadishth (delicious).

There are so many stories within each of these seemingly simple activities its hard to know where to begin. So brace yourself, I may be here for awhile…

I’ll start by transcribing my journal entry I wrote while lolling about the palace gardens:

“I’m sitting at the Red Fort under the shade of a tree because the rain has begun. Yet the air has cooled and the breeze picked up, so it is not unwelcome.

In the distance, I hear what sounds like an Islamic call to prayer—a sound I’ve missed since I left Istanbul.

Here the Indian tourists outnumber Westerners by at least 400 to 1. And the young men with cell phone cameras seem to consider me to be more interesting photo material than the palaces that I am walking around. A woman, as well, wanted my photo with her two young children.

The people I’ve met are very friendly—the women as well as men. Everyone has cautioned against constant scams, so I am hesitant to be trusting, but I think its important to be open enough to experience the kindness and mutual curiosity that seems to arise.

* * *
There is a series of pools connecting three monument-like buildings. Well, they would be pools if there were any water. At the moment they are filled with dust. A red building stands in the middle of what would be a large square pool, maybe 4 feet deep. Then surrounding it are little outlets into delicately carved pools that would create a scalloped water edge on all sides. Long ‘reflective’ pools with little bridges lead to the white marble structures on both sides. I am enjoying imagining how exquisite this scene would be if the pools were filled with water and the white marble was clean and bright."

From the Red Fort, I walked over to the Old Delhi where I quickly gained a new friend. I’ve found that it is very easy to make friends here, but far more difficult to get rid of them. This very nice man seemed determined to become my tour guide even though I insisted that I had no money to give him. At first I was wondering if it was a bit sketchy as he was leading me through these narrow streets that a half crushed mini could not pass through. I stuck to public areas and soon I noticed how much less I was hassled by ubiquitous salesmen when they saw I was accompanied by a guide. He led around and told me about the buildings, pointed out the very old Mughal architecture that I may have missed by forgetting to look up. He was happy to help me find an ATM and then he seemed to decide that I needed to do some shopping. After stopping at a few places, I fell in love with a fine silk brocade and was measured for my first sari. I was starting to feel overwhelmed by the place and decided it was time to head back to a side of town where life did not scream its reality as so incredibly stark and grueling. He helped me into an auto rickshaw and I gladly tipped him (I imagine he also made a good commission off of my purchase).

It is hard to imagine not being able to leave such a place. Those who can find work are lucky, but usually you have to have something to begin with to be able to make a living. My rickshaw driver was 65 and had started driving rickshaws when he was 18. The shopkeepers and tailors have some sort of capital or skill. But many appear to have nothing. Truly nothing. I’m here to study carbon emissions and as I looked out on masses of people who built their houses out of trash, and wonder how on earth such a country could ever be expected to curb its impact.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Delhi - First Impressions

Delhi, India
Day 1 – June 18, 2008

I have been in Delhi for about 20 hours. Here are my first impressions:

Flying in with my nose to the plexiglass, one of the first things I noticed outside of Delhi were enormous houses that put our McMansions to shame. They looked like they belonged in Beverly Hills. But a second later (at flying speed), the crowded apartments of the middle class began, and structures which appeared at a few thousand feet to be slums.

On the ground, even at seven in the morning, many people were on the streets and, of course, cows. (Its not a unfounded stereotype, cows are everywhere.) Coming home after midnight, there were still many people on the streets, and yes, still cows. A friend from India observed that the one of the strangest things about the U.S. is that you don’t see any people. Now I fully understand the contrast.

I’m staying in one of those middle class apartments with three friends from school and a new friend who lives with them. Judging by the cars and the interior of the apartment, it seems firmly middle class. But from the outside, it far more resembles a slum you would see in the U.S. Yet it’s comfortable and quiet, which is hard to come by in this city.

I went out this evening to a posh garden restaurant/bar. It was beautiful, with wicker lanterns hanging from mango trees and mist sprinklers shooting out from the ground to fight the heat. There were tables that looked like beds surrounded by white gauzy chiffon curtains. A group of men waited outside next to BMWs and other shiny new cars. Good music and good company. A lovely first night out seeing how the well-heeled Indians and many ex-pats enjoy the city.

But once we stepped out of this little rich paradise, the reality of Delhi confronted us as we drove back across town. People sleep everywhere. Literally, I saw dozens sleeping on mats on the medians of the roads. Tent cities appeared here and there. Others just had mats and companions to share them. Stray dogs finally outnumbered the cows.

I can tell already that this trip will eliminate any remaining naivete about poverty and disparity in this world. But I am fairly certain I’ll fall in love with the place. Whatever happens, I’ll keep you updated. So stay tuned. ☺