Archive for April, 2010

party for one

A few months ago, my roommate, Dian, and I made a sacred vow. We would never ride in a party rickshaw alone or otherwise without dancing. This is a vow that I have taken very seriously.

On a number of occasions, I have danced in a rickshaw, but most of the time I am with someone I know. Once, I was in a party rickshaw without the lights or music on, so I asked the driver about the light switches, then turned them on myself and asked him for music, just so I could dance. It was one of those days.

If you’re wondering what a party rickshaw is, you need to come visit, but I’ll try to describe it for those of you who may never come. It is a small 3 wheeled cart with opens sides and a roof, back and front windshield (sometimes). It fits about 6 people normally, including the driver, but has been known to hold up to 9. There is freedom of expression here, and drivers take the interior decoration of their vehicles very seriously, especially the auto drivers. They string beads from the roof, line the interior with flashing lights and heart shaped cut out ceilings, and, of course, the pink pleather seats. Clearly, all of those things make for a pleasant ambience, but they don’t make a party. The blaring hindi music is the key factor. Our vow is to always dance when in a party rickshaw with music.

A couple of weeks ago, I was going to meet friends to go karaoking. Karaoke is difficult for me. I’ve never actually done it, and my experiences watching it have reminded me of watching someone trip while going up the stairs. Your first instinct is to look away. So, I was on my way over to meet them, when I realized I was sitting alone in the backseat of a party rickshaw, music blaring. What do you do in these situations? Dance, of course. 

I sort of started weaving my body and twitching my shoulders to the music, in a way that I thought might possibly look like I was shaking from the pot holes. But, I caught my driver watching me a few times laughing. I don’t think I was very convincing. It can be a really long ride when you have to dance alone in the backseat of a party rickshaw. I don’t know if I recommend it. Although, I guess if you can dance alone there you can make the magic happen just about anywhere.


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I have a hard time with cell phones. Currently, mine is broken. I can receive phone calls but nothing can be heard on either end. I have no idea if that could be related to the number of times I have dropped it.

Texting is also an issue for me. Before moving here, I avoided texting at all costs. Up until a few weeks before I left, I was still doing the whole, punch the key three times for the letter ‘l’. My brother, Caleb, finally changed the setting for me only because it pained him to watch me.  It was several months after I got the replacement for the cell phone I lost here, that I figured out how to change the setting. I looked for it initially, but if I can’t figure out how to do something within two to three minutes, it must be impossible. I think I just happened upon it by accident one day.

But…T-9 isn’t perfect. Far from it. I laugh all the time at the texts I send, or nearly send. 99% of the time when I mean to say don’t, I say foot. I foot know. You foot want to come? Something is lost. I’ve narrowly escaped some catastrophic misspellings of words. Rule: reread all texts before sending. I don’t feel comfortable giving examples.

Another problem is that the same key used to select is used for sending, so I try to select something and I send the text prematurely. Also a favorite. Then, I get the “What?” text while I’m trying to rewrite the first text and accidentally select the new text and delete the one I was working on. It’s so complicated. Why not just call?

Since my phone is broken, I put my SIM into my personal cell phone, which works completely differently than the one I’ve been using. I sent a friend a text of complete jibberish today because the button that was delete on my old phone is send on this one. Where is the regulation?

So, if you get a nonsensical text from me, just wait a few minutes. I realize it’s rubbish and am sending you a new one.

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I’m a sweater

I don’t really know how to put this delicately. I sweat. More than most people. Ever. If you know me, you probably already knew this.

So, you can imagine the dynamic combination of the efficiency (or lack) of my body’s sweat glands with the weather here. It’s special, really. I was buying vegetables today from Lake Market. I was standing in the shade, not moving except to point at a tomato or pepper, and I had beads of sweat pouring off my arms. It was 8:45 am.

I am not exaggerating at all. I remember looking down and thinking, “Why?” I still don’t know the answer to that. The guy selling me the fruit was cool and collected…my kurta, if wrung properly, could have watered a garden. In my defense, it is hot. Like, over 100 degrees with humidity hot. Some of my friends here are of the mindset that we just need to embrace the heat. I like it.

All day, I’m in the new home, cleaning and sweeping, and moving furniture and just dripping sweat, and it doesn’t really bother me. It’s psychologically rewarding because I feel like I must have really done something strenuous, like move.

I’m all about testing the limits here, apparently. We’ve confirmed that multiple bodily functions can occur at once, and I can now say that I have sweat glands in places I forgot I had. I’ll be walking down the street and yeah. There’s sweat there. Tops of my toes. Earlobes. Places. It could almost be refreshing if it wasn’t so…unrefreshing.

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the slow decline

I don’t want to cause any undue concern, but I think I’m dying. Well, that may or may not be true, but I do know that I’m not doing myself any favors. I force more food down my throat (and by force, I mean eagerly swallow) than I ever have before. Food that is…less than beneficial to my digestive track and cardiovascular health. I mentioned a few months ago about an ode to chicken rolls (really, egg rolls). It is below: (don’t read too much into it and please don’t judge me. I don’t claim to be a writer of anything but ramblings)

Ode to Chicken (Egg) Rolls

Thou art all things catastrophic to my heart.

Your taste lingers on my tongue, cheek, sleeve, pant leg, fingernails, and lips.

My left ventricle stops when I pass you on the street…and when I eat you. Oh, Chicken Roll, you are the delight of all deep fried treats.

Samosas shrink in despair.

Puri flattens without hope.

Your cholesterol is without escape, and your onions taint even the faintest hopes of minty freshness,

yet you are a treasure in a desert. A raging storm of flavours and textures.

(the end. thankfully for all involved)

Even apart from the food, is the air I’m breathing. You can see the pollution here. Now, I’m about to get graphic, so bear with me. After just one week, when you dust the book shelf, the cloth is black from the pollution. So, imagine what the inside of my lungs look like, let alone my nose. I’m not one to look at what I blow out, but the other day, I just happened to, and I was shocked. It was all black. Now, I’m in the habit of looking, and it’s incredible. Sort of. Probably disturbing more than incredible. Words really can’t explain. It’s like you’re not sure about life anymore. What you’ve always been taught (the color of snot) directly contradicts what you know to be true.

I wake up with phlegm in my throat and am a little asthmatic after walking up stairs. I think in all fairness I have to blame that partly on my sendentary lifestyle and greasy food. But, there is nothing more characteristic of this city than the smell of exhaust and the sound of car horns. There’s nothing that says “large South Asian city” like a lung full of bus exhaust fumes. The best feeling is sitting in the left side of an auto next to a bus at an intersection. It’s a must do. I imagine what a face mask would look like at the end of my fifteen minute commute each day but settle on breathing through my hankerchief, a technique that probably makes me feel better than actually accomplishing any significant filtering.

So, I will be a shadow of my former self when you see me next. Actually, if things continue unabated, I might be a doubly large shadow of my former self. Oh well, you make adjustments here. (I’m a little worried this might be one of those posts I regret writing the next morning)

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Mad Libs

I love living here. I love so many things about it. I love the people. I love the food. I love the people who share their food. I love how there is always so much to look at and notice, it can be overwhelming. And I love talking to people, especially when it’s difficult

My bengla is improving slowly (aste aste, if you want to know). Since I’m working in a home where the staff all speak Bengla, it is getting better by the day. I don’t struggle so much when I’m speaking bengla, I think people make adjustments for my accent. It’s when I’m speaking English that I have the most problems. English and places.

I can (and do) say the same thing five times in only slightly different ways, but it will take at least that many for the person to understand me. I can’t get into a taxi without this daily routine, “Kasba?” “Kasaba?” “Kazba?” “Khasba?” “Kashba?”. “Oh, ha…Kashba.” It always amazes me, but since I’m usually alone, I don’t really notice how ridiculous I sound.

But that’s what friends are for. Saturday, my friend Jenny and I were desperately trying to find our way from the train station to the botanical gardens. I mean, how hard can it be? The taxis were trying to rob us blind, so we turned and headed towards the buses. This is no ordinary bus station with lanes and signs. This is a single lane road with three lanes of traffic, truly packed with all varieties of buses. Each person we talked to would point us down the line, then back up it, then across the median to the other lane. People would follow us for awhile, anxious to make sure the two foreigners didn’t end up in Bangladesh by accident.

Everytime the conversation was the same. “Botanical Gardens?” “BOtanical Gardens?” “BotanIcal Gardens?” “BotAnical Gardens?” With someone standing there listening, I suddenly became very conscious of how silly I sounded. It was like I was reading off of a mad libs card. I consider living here perfect practice for becoming an expert at that game. Without fail, after five or six variations, the man would finally say, “OHH, BotAnnnIcal Gardens.” “Ha, dada.”

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Most days start out with good intentions. Some days, I take extra care to really think about what I want to do. My friend Jenny was visiting recently, and since I was unfortunately unable to take much time off, I wanted Saturday to be packed full of every amazing experience this city offers.

To start with, we were going to wake up at 6 and go to the flower market by the river, then take a morning boat ride to the botanical gardens, then go walk around the old part of town and take pictures, then breakfast/lunch at Flurries, then New Market for the chaos, then home to rest and get cleaned up, then dinner at Krazy Kebab, then out dancing with friends. In short, a seriously good day.

It started at 6:55 when I opened my eyes and thought, wow…it’s really light outside and then saw my phone ringing with a call from my friend waiting for me at our designated rendezvous. Jenny and I got ready in record time, but our friends went ahead without us since we were still awhile away. By the time we reached the flower market, things were closing up and my friends had moved on to breakfast. Jenny and I decided to try to find the river boats, but ended up on the bridge. At this point, we threw caution to the wind and decided to walk across the river. The next trick was getting to the botanical gardens. A ridiculous 15 minutes followed that will be described in a later blog. All that really matters now, is that we got to the gardens and they were incredible.

I have to admit that I was skeptical. Often times, your expectations exceed reality here, but for once, they didn’t. It was still definitely characteristic of most places here, but it was also really nice. The garden is huge and the biggest banyan tree in the world is there. There are lots of pretty little ponds and trees. It felt more like a park than a garden.

After relaxing by one of the ponds for awhile, we ended up meeting some of my other friends at Flurry’s while the friends I was supposed to be with went to the botanical gardens. After breakfast, the guys asked if we wanted to join them on their walk to the coffee house. It’s a cool little hang out on College Street, and my understanding of this city’s lay out is just bad enough that we said yes. After walking for probably twenty minutes, we reached New Market, at which point I was tempted to give up. Chris said, “We’re one third of the way there,” and Jenny and I just looked at each other. I think it was for pride if for nothing else that we kept going instead of taking a taxi.

But iced coffee never tasted so good. We dried off and sort of cooled off by the window upstairs, and, in my desperation, I drank 3 glasses of table water. Table water in nice restaurants is efficiently filtered. Table water at other places is probably run through a strain to catch the mouse sized amoebas. Only two of us drank it, and I’ll just say, it was hearty. I felt like I had eaten a bowl of soup at the end of it. It probably didn’t help that there was a hair in mine.

Shopping at New Market was replaced by an official screening of The Life Acquatic at my friend’s flat (great movie). We went home and got ready to go out on the town, but by the time we met the guys for dinner at 8 I think we were all secretly hoping no one else wanted to go. Jenny and I started to feel sick by the end of the meal, so we substituted dancing with looking at stars from my roof for an hour.

In some ways, I felt bad that Jenny didn’t get to do all of those fun things here, but I think one of the most distinct characteristics about living here, and probably life in general, is that things rarely go as planned. It’s often the unplanned moments that are the best.

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Too Much Information

I just got back from Mumbai (I know, a ridiculous amount of travelling for one person ‘working for free’).

It is an incredible city. You can feel the energy. I admit. I didn’t really know what that meant. People would say, “You can feel the energy there.” And I just thought, “That’s nice.” But it really is a different place altogether. Very Indian, yet tons of development with one of the largest slums in Asia. It’s an intense combination, and I loved it.

I really hoped to come back with some epic stories, if only for my friend Jenny who is visiting, but life doesn’t always work out that way. Maybe I am just one of those people with only ridiculous little stories from my day to share. (confession: I write these blogs in my head almost constantly)

So, we arrived Saturday morning at about 10 after reaching the airport sometime around 5 am. (can any day be good after that?) We made our way all the way south to Karabala (look at a map of Mumbai, it is an oddly shaped city, and we were staying at the very southern point of a peninsula) and suddenly there was this very distinct odor. Fish. We were definitely near the ocean. We dropped off our bags at the monastery (yes, you read that right) and headed out for the nearest beach. We followed signs for ‘Oceanview’ but that ended up being an apartment complex. Eventually, we heard waves and headed in that direction.

The hint of fish on the air suddenly became an overwhelmingly pungent…smell. Smell doesn’t even describe it. I felt like I had stuck my head in a bowl of bouillabaisse. I could taste the fish on my lips. It was seriously thick.

It turns out we walked into the fishing yard processing plant. Not exactly beachfront property. For some reason that I still don’t know, we persevered, but were thankfully rewarded by one of the most beautiful ship yards I have ever seen. Not beautiful like millionaire yachts, but beautifully colorful Indian fishing boats with bright fishnets and lounging fishermen. I didn’t know we couldn’t take pictures and was able to get one contraband photo before being reprimanded. (hopefully, I’ll post it soon) For some reason the fishermen could ‘snap our pictures’ all they wanted but not vice versa.

As you might expect, you can only look at fishing boats for so long. We decided to head for breakfast at the nearest Café Coffee Day. The rest of the day was spent with our angel Ashley, finding actual beaches and seeing the city, although a small portion of it since we had a 10:00 curfew at the monastery.

I’ve heard glorious stories about kolfi. It’s Indian ice cream and everyone talks about how amazing it is. Since it originated in Mumbai, I really wanted to try it there. Ashley took us to a great place near the beach and we stood in the street listening to the waves, eating the kolfi. Beautiful. But, to be completely honest, kolfi is kind of like quiche. You feel cool eating it, but nobody really wants to. You don’t wake up in the morning and think, “If I could eat anything today, it’d be a nice slice of quiche.” You don’t complain while you eat it because it’s cool food, but…it’s not mint chocolate chip ice cream, we’ll just say that.

Hummus, now that’s food. I don’t know how to start this segment of the story (can we even call it that?) because it is just too exciting. I ate hummus for the first time in 9 months. The restaurant was called Falafel. I was ecstatic, and am shaking a little just writing this. I ate a shameful amount of pita and hummus, truly shameful, which was actually just an appetizer before our pizza dinner.

Anyway, I don’t know if it was the copious amount of hummus, the table water, or the kolfi, but something tried to kill me. I woke up Sunday morning feeling totally normal, but in the taxi on the way to church, everything changed. I tried to hold out until we reached the breakfast place, but, as you would obviously expect, there wasn’t a public restroom in a 5 km radius. I sat for awhile feeling sicker and sicker until I finally ran to the taxi and told him to take me home. My poor driver, I think he thought I was dying. He kept saying, “You need doctor?” It was only by the grace of God that I did not leave that poor man with a taste of death in his back seat. I barely had the door to my room unlocked when it just started coming. We recently had a very interesting debate about whether it is possible to vomit and have diarrhea simultaneously. I argued, from previous experience, that it is definitely possible, but people were skeptical. Let me just say again, it is possible.

I spent the whole of Sunday wallowing in the fetal position in my bed. I got dressed 3 times, determined to go out and join everybody, but each time my body sent me back to bed. I slept 18 out of 23 hours.

Monday was meant to be Elephanta Island day, but since I was still recovering, we ended up going out for breakfast and relaxing. I ordered the simplest food on the menu. An egg white omelet. Have you ever had one? I don’t even know why people would choose to eat that. It was the shape, texture, and probably taste of a sea cucumber. It jiggled. I stuck with the toast. Because the heat was pretty bad, and everyone was concerned I might die if overexerted, we went for a break at the local mall, then lunch at Hard Rock Cafe. I don’t think we could have done more American activities if we’d planned it, but it just sometimes happens here.

So that, my friends, was my epic adventure in Mumbai…

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