Friday, February 25, 2005

Livin' on a Prayer

India is miles away from the west in so many ways, but in spirituality it's off the map entirely. My first morning in Bombay I woke up, jet-lagged, to a Muslim call to prayer at 4am. Actually it was three calls to prayer, broadcast at top volume almost simultaneously around this rather posh apartment building where I was staying, over three sets of loudspeakers from surrounding mosques.

All Hindus do puja (pray) at least twice daily. They burn incense and ring bells to wake up the gods, represented by small statues in mini alters tucked away in the most unlikely places (cupboards, bookshelves, laundry rooms): the locals' popular choices among the 33 million-strong amalgam of Hindu deities seem to be Ganesh, the cute, plump god with an elephant's head, the monkey god Hanuman, and any incarnation of the plucky blue-skinned Krishna. They also chant mantras to photos or paintings of local gurus and martyrs. The Sun City Guest House family has taped up headshots of a beatific older women in the dining area and by the steering wheel in their old white Ambassador. I thought at first it was somebody's grandma, but when I asked Pushapender Rathore he informed me in his usual booming lecture voice that she is a sati. This women, from a village 30 km away, starved herself for 30 years after her husband died, to show her boundless devotion to his memory. Then when this apparently did not work she burned herself to death. The Rathores have made pilgrimages to this village to worship her.

Our Hindi teacher, Dayal, spends most of his days with his guru. Dayal is a well-educated man (he specialized in theology, philosophy and economics, which he normally lectures on at a university nearby). He's told us that we must come see his guru--who by the way is a married women with kids--sometime soon, that he feels happy always like a small child near his mother with her.

The other day he read our palms. He marked up the lines on our right palms in red ink at significant points where big life events will occur. The lines, mounds and cracks on this hand are supposed to be where your accumulated karma from past lives shows up. These dictates your fate.

And what did he see on mine? I have a profitable future in academics, possibly teaching, and will tap into my spiritual side late in life: write a lot of poetry. Alright, that's cool. But he also said I'll be truly fulfilled when I have kids, 3-4, starting at 27. Uh-huh.

He advised me to wear a diamond on my right ring finger for protection and strength, which exactly what the quack star chart lady had suggested.

Jessica was advised to wear moon stone. Telling her to travel east, he stopped, saying "oh, I shouldn't tell you this..." She yelped, "do I die?" He said, "no, but you will murder someone." Dayal continued, "don't worry, it could be self-defense, when your enemies come for you..."

We're going to get some bling on, quick.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Ah...Eee... I... Oh... Ung

I'm taking Hindi lessons. I'm fed up with speaking in broken English to make myself understood, and quite excited to butcher a whole new language.

I realized something had to change last Friday night, when I was sitting around a campfire in the desert after dinner. We were watching gypsies dance and I was speaking like one.

I turned to my friend Sarah, pointed over to a silver urn and asked, "hot water, hands, for clean, yah?" She looked at me for a minute, then said "did you just hear yourself?" She and Jessica were in hysterics for five minutes.

We were in Jaiselemer, an ancient fort town in the middle of the Thar Desert, for less than 48 hours. Unhappily, we just missed the start of their much-touted Desert Festival--camel racing, mustache twirling, fire breathing, oh my! Sarah stayed on to see the festivities. She returned to Jodhpur with sunstroke, babbling about all the midgets, Eunichs and men in peacoat feathers she met hanging with the gypsies.

I returned to attend Veerni's monthly meeting, in which a staffer gave lectures and demonstrations on infertility. This was mainly to prove that it's not necessarily the ladies' fault if no baby's coming in 9 months. All 30 of us at the meeting threw rocks in a bucket to show the odds of getting pregnant. The staffer declared that only 5 of our "worms" (the Hindi word) had made it. The no-nonsense Major interrupted and corrected her, "that would be sperm." Luckily, the meeting was translated for me by Veerni's new medical volunteer, Nisha, a doctor who is an NRI (Non Resident Indian) from Wales.

But all the funny bits lose something in retelling. And I'm always missing out on the raunchy jokes the female staffers tell in the van on the way to the villages. So Jess and I have hired a meditation yogi/Economics professor/English tutor to give us Hindi 101 in our guest house. Today was our first session. He told us, finally, how to tell these crazy rickshaw drivers that we know the correct fare and it's not 50 rupees and NO, GO STRAIGHT!

Mera sida challow... To sleep...

Friday, February 18, 2005

It's Not a Game

Though I've been in Jodhpur for a month and a half, today was only my third lesson in Unchairda, a village 2o minutes from Jodhpur. You can come with the best of intentions but India is India. Wednesday was an unexplained and unannounced holiday (we got the call at 11am, when we'd been waiting for an hour to be picked up for school). There have been occassional "election days" in all the villages for three weeks straight, so no class (which puzzles me because the girls obviously aren't voting). There're marriages, constantly; there are students who don't show up.

Unchairda may be close by--you can see the distant pink turrets of Jodhpur's Palace when you pull onto the village--but there are no street-savvy female engineering majors motoring around here. As I'm the first volunteer to teach here the girls in Class 8, ten ranging from 11-13, know basically no English. They've had instructions in this very language by a well-meaning Indian teacher, but half cannot write their name. No joke. Actually, half cannot write many English letters, so I'm going to bring in tracing paper for our next class and make them write: A, a, B, b, C, c..." It's no use going over animal names when their Bs and Gs look like Arabic.

"Hello ladies!" I'm all cheerful at the beginning. "How are you?"

They beam and repeat, "HOW, ARE, YOOOOU."

I threw some vocab at them, (A is for APPLE, B is for BELL) but it's of little use when they can't read or write; even my Class 12 girls in Barwala have a hard time understanding my strange accent. So after a bit we played Duck Duck Goose, Memory (with food vocab), then colored for a while. Three and a half hours later, the van still wasn't back--the Medical Team were a little over ambitious in trying to do three village worths of Fertility and Anemia education sessions in one day--so we started another coloring project. My patience was wearing thin when a lady hanging out in class--somebody's aunty?--started riflying through my bag, taking things out, then laughing at my pants when I stood up to protest. Soon everyone was laughing at my pants (this does happen from time to time, but I'm not about to start donning sarees on a daily basis). But she was totally distracting them, and I found myself yelling at her to get the *#$ out and stay out of my class. Luckily no one has a clue what any of this means. Finally one girl understood "class," saw my glowering expression and escorted this lady out.

My best student in this class is a tiny 11 year-old named Vilma, who stands out in every class for reasons other than an impressive set of webbed toes and the 11th finger shooting out of the side of her right hand. She has a good, quick ear for language and pays attention when I show her how to write letters properly, so they look like English.

The other Vilma in the class is not so quick--she misspells her name, even when recopying it--expect at this Memory game. It's times like these when I understand why this Creative Literacy Program actually might make a dent in the villages' embarassingly low literacy rate (usually a reported, wholy inflated, 25-40%). This Vilma may be a visual learner, or it might be that she only pays attention when we're playing games. Whatever works. In Khatawas there is one girl who is basically mute, with deformed, almost useless hands, who kicks butt at Memory.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Get on the Bus

Most ladies in the bus we took back to Jodhpur sat in the sleeping compartments above the seats, and closed these sliding doors during the ride. I can see why, the bus was pretty gross. Posted by Hello

Seeing the Light

Udaipur at night, from a coffee house--yes, serving actual filter coffee!--across from our hotel in Lal Ghat. This roof, like the four surrounding restaurants, boasted the "highest roof top restaurant in Udaipur." The streets below are narrow and winding. The city was built in the 1500s so it felt oddly like some Italian cities. The light on the mountain there is the Monsoon Palace.  Posted by Hello

Desert Dance

We saw a series of Rajasthani folk dances peformed, inside a havalli house that's been converted into a museum. Here they're performing a traditional Thar Desert dance ladies are supposed to do when they find water in the well after a rain. The village women we work fetch water in such clothing, behind veils, toting it in tanks on their heads. But I've yet to see them burst into dance! Posted by Hello

No Monsoons in Sight

The climb to Udaipur's Monsoon Palace--yes, the royal family had one for each season--took a couple hours, but the views were so worth it. Posted by Hello

Beached Lake Palace

Udaipur's famous Lake Palace, sans water. The monsoons have been bad for five years, but this ultra-ritzy hotel has flooded a tiny area to the left to run a boat back and forth as a nod to the town's usual mode of transport.  Posted by Hello

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Bond's the Name

Yesterday we arrived in Udaipur, the "most romantic city in Rajastan" according to Lonely Planet. The city was built in the 16th century by some royals ducking out from Moghul invaders in the Aravelli mountains, one of the oldest mountain chain in the world. Basically it began as a series of jaw-droppingly gorgeous palaces built around Lake Pichola, or in smack dab in the lake, in the case of the "Floating Palace". This impressive structure was Octopussy's lair in that 1983 James Bond flick. Roger Moore braves crocodiles to meet red catsuit-clad girls inside.

Unfortunately this palace is no longer floating, since the lake has just about dried up, what with dwindling monsoons in the past five years. The whole scene is pretty strange. Instead of graceful ships ferrying tourists back and forth between ghats (stairs that are supposed to lead into water), there's parched earth, except for rivlets of sewage. Cows and boars graze on green grass around them. Every now and then you see a couple of decked-out elephants being led from their parking spots by the massive City Palace complex across to the "Lake" Palace, on their way to impress some ritzy tourists.

Bored of watching the comings and goings here, we headed up a mountain to the Monsoon Palace. Back in the day, Princes retreated up here during the rainy season, to do, well whatever it was princes did. Toke on a hookah, ride around on elephants, browse through their latest harem selection? Maybe shoot leopards in the scrubby forest surrounding. Today there are still leopards (though not stupid enough to walk for miles in the blazing sun, as we did today), but since the Maharana gave his palace "to the people" it's become an empty graffitied shell. I must admit it was a relief to not see any more endless war paintings, which all the palace museums showcase. Rajputs rulers revel in recounting tales of blood shed.

Having successfully crashed chi chi hotel pools like the Taj in Jodhpur, we tried to sneak into the City Palace's swanky Shiv Nivas. It was a no go. This is a more tourism-savvy town than Jodhpur: the rickshaw drivers--tooling around in the same diesel-guzzling vehicles Roger Moore's Bond popped wheelys in--can even speak English.

Tomorrow we're splurging on a Rs 500 horseback ride in the mountains, early. Then we'll resume our mission: getting past those hotels' shiny marble fortresses and having a dunk, before the 8 hour bus ride back to Jodhpur.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Khatawas Class 12 girls. At right is Nirmla Suster, an 15 year old class 10 girl who popped by for a bit. She was married at age 12, in a joint ceremony with her three sisters, whose ages at the time ranged from 8 to 18. Posted by Hello

Dancing in the streets

Finally got to join one of the mental wedding processions that overtake Jodhpur after dark, thanks to Nishi, Veerni's social scientist, at my left.

The wedding processions are marked by strings of lanterns, winding their way through narrow Jodhpur streets, and the odd roundabout. There was a pistachio-cardamon ice cream break at the side of one such traffic circle. Posted by Hello

Firecrackers Posted by Hello

Dancing in the wedding procession last Thursday, which snaked its way through Jodhpur streets, stopping traffic along the way. Yes, that's a marching band in the background. Posted by Hello

They were throwing Mardi Gras beads down on plucky travellers who showed their stuff. Posted by Hello

This cow was just hanging on the steps of Pushkar's Ambika Guest House. He must really want to mooove in.  Posted by Hello

Fellow American Sarah, toast after dancing with the gypsies for 3 hours.  Posted by Hello

Here I am in Khatawas, looking a bit spaced out. The Veerni van was 2 hours late to pick me up so I was about to pass out from hunger.  Posted by Hello

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Do the Hustle

I'm late in posting because I've been in Pushkar all weekend for another dose of the shanti-shanti circuit. The registered population of roughly 14K seems largely composed of scrawny orange-painted sadhus (holy men who beg for alms) and unwashed hippies (99.9% dreadlocked). Maybe those census people are counting the posses of monkeys that roam the rooftops, creating heart-palpitating thumps when they land on yours. They terrorized a pseudo-Astanga yoga class we took Saturday, galloping back and forth directly behind our heads while we laid flat out in relaxation pose, trying to focus chakras on our shin bones or something (the meditation was further hampered by a Hindi prayer lecture being broadcast over a crackly loudspeaker, interrupted by two or three gunshots, which scattered pooping pigeons off the temple roof and over our heads).

I'm back in Jodhpur today, to take on Monday's Khatawas Class 12. I've promised to take a group photo if the fabled Poushpa shows up. Listed as being one of three girls in this senior English class, she's been absent for three and a half weeks, due to "fever," "headache" and being "away at a marriage." Clearly her parents have no interest in sending her to school.

Every day in India I am happier I signed on to work as a volunteer. When you arrive as a tourist here, you're subject to touts, Indians who front like pals who just want to "practice English." They make money off commissions, leading you to shops and restaurants where their friends work. And if you're Indian, half the city is composed of brother's cousin's aunty's god-sisters. You're one big walking dollar. Even our "sister-mama" Neeta, who took me to the hospital and has been our confident from Day 1, makes a buck or two off us western ladies. Every day she suggests a new outing or two.

"We go to the spice shop today," she suggests/orders last Wednesday. Sure, why not? "I take you where we all go for spices," she insists.

A short auto rickshaw ride and we're at the touristy Clocktower market, ushered into--where else--the Lonely Planet-recommended M.G. Spices, where everything is packaged with chaotically misspelled English recipes. We had visited this very shop the week before, just out of curiosity, and declared it a tourist trap. The owner even acknowledged that his menu's "set prices" had commission built in for tour leaders who brought their charges in.

When he shows us the same menu this time around, we ask for the same "no commission" discount he'd mentioned before. He plays dumb for a bit and then concedes, but is palpable tension in the room. Then he tries to sell us a box of pure Kashmiri saffron for $20. Ok, that's cheaper than it'd be at Whole Foods in NYC's Time Warner Center, but a big fat rip off in Jodhpur. He refuses to sell me the needle box quantity that Neeta herself buys, which I've used to make amazingly throat-soothing saffron milk. Ms. Rathore doesn't bargain on our behalf, as my "aunty" Shuvra did, belligerently, in Mumbai.

In the market outside, I buy us carrot juices, but it's clear she's pissed. Meanwhile, my mind is whirring, thinking back to all spots she's steered us to in the past month: the disastrous 3-minute "manicure" in copper polish from her 'aunty' across the lane; the badly-translated star chart reading--a computer program that tells fortunes based on your to-the-second time and place of your birth--Jess and I had across the street at her friend's book shop. I paid Rs. 350 to hear about my successful future in the Electronics business.

"Helloooo Rose, hellooo Jessica," she says playfully when she sees us, plopping down to me to nudge, nudge about our future business prospects.

"So you look into saffron importing today, yes?" she asked. "We go into export business together, star charts are right these days..." She smiles, "I am your friend, I don't cheat you."

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

It's the Time for Disco

I didn't quite understand Bollywood's grip on India until last night. A skinny 15 year old boy took the stage for a longwinded dance routine at an engagement party, playing to the crowd like they were judges on American Idol. I'm dying to know which movie scene he was performing. The spotlight(s) shone on him while video cameras rolled and no one, I mean no one, found it ironic that he was shaking his shoulders--and his tush-- while wearing highwaisted nylon trousers too short for his Gumby-esque frame. No one cracked a smile when he started doing the Running Man (badly), except Jessica and I, trying to keep it together in the front row.

The Veerni Project's solemn staff sociologist, Nishi Khan, had invited us to celebrate his friend's engagement at a party in Jalori Gate, near the edge of Jodhpur's old city. It's a traditionally Brahmin neighborhood and this crowd was noticeably more upper crust than other wedding fetes we've attended. Most men, and all the kids, wore western garb. The gawking at us foreigners was much less intense (we only got the "which country?" questions at the very end) and--hallelujah--we could speak English with many, if not most, people there.

But there was no translation that could explain the dance off which followed a brief toast to the groom, who was dressed traditionally in a long deep red tunic, beige pants and a white flower necklace. The Bollywood bonanza kicked off with a shy teenage girl in track pants doing a J-lo like routine. There were pre-teen girls showing off saucy steps in sync--they'd all rehearsed, it was clear--middle aged women in saris and cardigans doing Bhangra, and a skinny 11 year girl, dressed in a black leather jacket, miming Preity Zinta's character's New York City clubbing debut in Kal Ho Na Ho ("Because Tomorrow May Not Be"). This rendition of "It's the Time for Disco" consisted of basically hopping up and down but I loved every minute of it.

Then our co-worker Nishi took the stage. I thought he'd salute his pal and get off. But when the music to a song called "Emotions" started he began shaking and shimmying, getting the crowd worked up to a clapping, cheering frenzy. He mimed the words, beat his chest and gestured dramatically to the crowd (and camera). Sweat glimmered on his brow as he turned around and shook what his mama gave him.

Right about now it should be noted that no alcohol was involved in these proceedings. Because Brahmins are traditionally the caste of priests, they don't drink, eat meat, fish, eggs, or even garlic and onion (no root veg). I asked Nishi if he really abstained from all of this and he chuckled. "These days we have relaxed," he admitted, "many people are eating carrot and potato."

Jess and I were soon pulled onto the dance floor, and knowing no Bollywood dance moves we frantically tried to mimic what everyone else was doing.

It was a bachelor party minus whiskey shots, poker, and (actual) strippers, but this Monday night party sure was jumpin' at 12:30am, when we wimped out and were whisked home on scooters.