Wednesday, October 28, 2009

I have a lot on my mind

On Friday Kuldeepji did not turn up all day. We hung out in the library for a while, then read in the garden for a while. They have one of those swing benches, which is always fun until the GIANTEST BUMBLEBEE IN THE WORLD who seems to nest nearby comes and chases me away. I'm more than halfway through Siddhartha now; I'm happy at how easy it's been to read and really get into. We had a few conversations with Swati, a recent college graduate who works in the Rupayan office. She helped get us directions to the post office and an internet cafe. The internet cafe connection was so slow, and the guys working there were pretty rude and sketchy. They were always looking at "sexy photos" of women. Also there is this weird system where you can't plug your flash drive into your own computer, you have to plug it into the master one, so the people working there can theoretically see what's on it, or even put things on it.
Anyway we got home, ate pizza we'd picked up at a little bakery, and then decided to take an auto rickshaw into the Old City. We got dropped off near the clock tower and walked around the markets.
Here are some of the encounters we had:
[continued Tues. 10/27]
In "MM Spices" (trying to ride on MV Spices' reputation--a legit place that's in the Lonely Planet)
I went in initially looking for jasmine oil for a dear friend [:)], and they began putting all these oils on my hands and arms. I thought the price was too high even for the pure jasmine oil the salesman claimed it was, but then when I picked up the box when he was distracted I saw that synthetic ingredients were listed. When I confronted him about that, he said "Well, they have to put that on the box." ?!?!?! He also tried charging 6x the going rate for saffron, and an obviously ridiculous price for plain black tea that Basanti was going to get for her mom. I told her we should wait, as there were shops everywhere and she'd want the tea to be fresh anyway, and that I was sure we could find it cheaper. We were about to hightail it out of there when I noticed there were a few scarves in the shop and inquired about them, at which point the shopkeeper handed us over to his "younger brother," a man who led us to...
"Student Scarf Shop":
The salesman there made a big deal of how he wasn't going to overcharge us like other tourist-oriented places, and how if we went out and found cheaper prices we were welcome to come slap him. He really belabored this point, going "Slap me! I'm serious, come slap me!" It was a little strange. Also annoying because right off the bat we knew we'd found cheaper scarves elsewhere. He had some designs I hadn't seen before, but they obviously didn't cost any more to make. "Same quality not possible," he insisted. He "swore in front of this Indian girl" (Basanti!!!) that he was giving us the best price. It was so uncomfortable. After inquiring about my ethnic background, he randomly said "the more I look at you, the more Indian you are looking." As if him lying to me would make me want to buy more. He also told me "If you were not with her [Basanti], no one can talk to her." And he offered us these stiff "silk" scarves that we could tell from our tutorial at Baba Black Sheep in Varanasi were polyester. He claimed they were from Varanasi, and that softer ones came from Kashmir and were more expensive. There was a "silk" dress I liked that I noticed had a blotch of misprinted ink on it, which they tried to say would wash out. They kept being all up in my business, trying to put scarves on me (which really crosses the line of social acceptability here, not to mention my own personal sense of a space-bubble) and show me more and more, while Basanti could hardly get their attention when she wanted it. It was interesting that even though Basanti had clearly established that she is American, and even though the shopkeepers had made a distinction between how they would treat her if she were alone and how they could now, they were still not really treating her equally. >:(

Things said to me as I passed by:
Elderly woman: [taking the end of my kurta in her hand/touching my leg] Acchi lagi! ("Nice/I like this")
Middle aged vegetable-selling man: "A-mer-i-ca? Cal-i-for-ni-a?"

We found this one juice shop recommended by Lonely Planet that was a-maaazingggg...I tried to order pomegranate juice, but they didn't have any. Instead I had a papaya shake for $0.40 that was cool lightly sweet heavenly deliciousness yum. lol. It was being run by a boy of no more than 14 (probably more like 12). But then when it came time to pay a man with the sort of beard I associate with Orthodox Jews (this first beard of this magnitude I have seen in this country) appeared to take the money. He smiled and said, "If you like juice, you are welcome to come again." Aww.
So we did, on Sunday, and I tried ordering anaar (pomegranate) juice, but ended up with this odd vague-tasting room temperature bright orange juice. I'll stick to papaya shakes from now on.
It has taken me a while to get to this because it was kind of a traumatic experience. I'm glad we went and there were some great things about it, but there has been like an emotional/mental block in me writing it all down. So I am going to deal with it in little installments.
The ride there took nearly twice as long as it should have (about 21 hours); the train made lots of unexplained stops, including one that was at least an hour long in the middle of the night right when I was trying to get to sleep. That wouldn't be so bad except that it was in-cred-ib-ly hot, and humid, so without the wind that pours in the windows from the train's movement we were just dripping sweat. [On our trip to Agra we were in 3AC class, so we had individual seats that could recline a little, and were in an air conditioned space that is locked and where seat numbers are really checked so no one bothers you. However, in sleeper class, where we were on the way to Varanasi, as it was a holiday weekend--Dashera--and we hadn't booked far in advance enough, there is little regulation. So 5 foreign-looking young women attracted a small crowd of men. There were ones hanging down from upper bunks staring at us, there were like six practically sitting on each others laps to fit on what should have been a 2 person seat to stare, discuss and laugh, people would walk by to look at us, or even just stand around, all up in our personal space. It was miserable.]
There were these round black bugs that infested the car for a while, getting blown into our hair and crawling all over the floor. As night fell and after we passed a few major stops most of the staring people left or retreated to their real seats to sleep, so we were able to relax somewhat. I stayed up talking with Hannah and Stephanie for as long as I could. I didn't want to sleep on a top bunk because of the heat and distance from the window, but eventually I went up there because I was too scared that a middle berth would be insecure and collapse onto me if I were on the bottom berth, or drop me if I were on the middle one. Eventually I was lulled to sleep by the soothing combination of Priscilla Ahn ("Rain" was particularly restorative to my sense of well-being) and Ne-yo songs on mypod. I awoke around 5am and climbed down to watch the sunrise, since I knew the heat wouldn't allow me to sleep any more. I talked to Syndey for a while and took some beautiful photos. Uttar Pradesh is really lush compared to Rajasthan, and the morning was all misty and pink.
When we finally reached Varanasi and got into autorickshaws, they ended up stopping in seemingly the middle of nowhere. The drivers announced, "No more than ten minutes' walk." We didn't even understand why there was a walk at all. But our drivers led us down all these twisty narrow roads--we all had big duffel bags, so this was very difficult, especially with the added obstacles of big splotches of cow dung or neon puddles of vomit--until we finally reached Shanti Guest House. Once there, we literally had to walk up 6 flights of stairs. Big, steep, spiraling stairs too. Then when we were up there they didn't have the rooms we had reserved. We were fed up; we were unsure if we'd ever be able to find the guest house again after leaving it, and we'd have to walk really far to get a rickshaw anywhere since they couldn't go in the narrow roads; also these roads were all flanked by really tall buildings, making them kind of claustrophobic alleyways, so we felt like we couldn't go out at night. I got on the phone to make reservations elsewhere, but none of the places that seemed good for us had two rooms available for that night. I made reservations at a nicer place for the next night.
There was a blood stain on one of the sheets in our rooms, bleghh. And a toilet didn't work in one of the rooms. But we passed out for a while in the air conditioning, glad to be in a cool, quiet place.
Random guy as we were walking the next day: "This is nice way to travel, respectful way to travel. Looking good in Punjabi dress.You are nice girls, from good families."
You can expect 2-4 more Varanasi installments.

Also, I still need to tell you about:
1) when Rachel and I went to see a movie at Raj Mandir, the "#1 Hindi Cinema"/"Showplace of the Nation"
2) when our host mom took us and our host siblings to Albert Hall, a museum
3) my experiences here as a person of East Asian descent [hint: it is mostly a stressor :(]
4) doctor visits/medicine in India

Yesterday night our friends working with Gravis visited. It was so jarring to get all the stares again now that we were in not only a big group, but one that was 80% White...I always intend to make a face or do something when people stare for extended periods of time but I usually am too slow to get worked up to actually do it, but yesterday I finally got so pissed off I did this random quick slapping my left hand really hard and then lifting my right hand in a "WUT!" kind of gesture to a guy on a motorbike that looked for a second (or ten) too long. Sadly I think he looked away just as I was doing it, so it wasn't very satisfying. Anyway we went to dinner for Stephanie's birthday; the food tasted decent but I think my stomach doesn't like Punjabi mutton masala very much, so I was miserable for most of the evening after that. We met Akshay, an Indian American guy who just graduated college and has been interning at Gravis for 6 weeks now. He was really nice and speaks Hindi pretty well, so hopefully we'll see more of him. Unlike our MSID friends he's interning at the main office in Jodhpur, so he'd definitely be easier to meet up with. The students working in the villages sound pretty disappointed with their internships as well; they have little to do and no one at their site really speaks English. Stephanie suspects one of the women is trying to find her a husband. (Most women our age in the village already have a couple children.) She dresses her up and has her serve meals. And points at men as they walk around saying "Husband? Husband?" ...
Actually come to think of it, Stephanie's host mom & sister were always worrying about her not having a boyfriend, as the other student staying with that family, Meaghan, has one. And they asked Basanti if she was planning on marrying an American or an Indian boy. She said she didn't know. They told her "Because if you want to marry an Indian boy, you let us know, and we will start looking for a suitable one."

Rachel and I were always wondering about whether our host parents had an arranged or a love match. Finally Rachel asked Meenakshiji how she met her husband, and (it's like she read our mind) she told us it was not a love marriage, and that her father arranged it. Apparently he approached Vinodji's mother, but since he did not have Meenakshiji's astrological information, she rejected the proposal. So he went away. But a year later, he came back, and Vinodji's mother accepted. Meenakshiji and Vinodji seem to be quite compatible though, in terms of their parenting styles and how they share responsibilities. During Diwali celebrations we played this one party game in Vinitaji's apartment, and it was really cute to see them interact on that level.

I'm sorry my blog has deteriorated into these random ramblings. I started out so organized... =/ It's just hard enough to summon the energy to put these things down, much less put very much planning into it.


  1. : / yeah i know what you mean. after a while you get written out. Or (in my case) life seemingly gets boring/normal since you've been there for so long. that doesn't seem to be your case though.

    also.. do you bargain there? I've been having crazy bargaining experiences, and it's becoming really fun.

  2. dude, this is not random at all, it's fascinating. and seriously it sounds like you are doing SO MUCH i know i wouldn't be half as coherent in your place!!
    1. ummm... why was the pomegranate juice orange??? how bizarre...
    2. "neon" vomit?!! oh god, that sounds horrible... i'm used to dodging/running inbetween piles of the stuff here in japan on friday and saturday nights in the trainstations (japanese ppl REALLY cannot hold their liquor) but that is a new one....

    can't wait to hear next V. installment!! ^^ miss you!


  3. ps. don't know why i used "dude" there. also - random funny but - the "verification" word i needed to type in just now to post that comment was "tailmen". lol :)

  4. Ahhhh this is all so interesting! Also, I can definitely picture you doing the WUT!! gesture, I think you've done that before :P There's so much here that I want to talk to you about, I can't wait to see what else you see/experience!