Tag Archives: Friendship

More to the Story

Standard

Recently, there has been a lot of negativity in the press about India. I get comments like: “I can’t believe you went there.” and “I’m glad you’re not over there now.”

I feel compelled (and was asked) to share my own thoughts and reflections on my experiences in India and how they compare with the image of India that is being portrayed in the news. I am basing this response specifically on the CNN iReport that was widely circulated in the past few weeks, though I caveat this post with the following: I do not mean to trivialize anyone’s individual experiences there, nor do I claim to be an expert after only spending two plus months there. What I would like to do is add my voice and perspective to paint a more holistic view of what it’s like for the many Americans and foreigners who may not get(or choose to take) the opportunity to travel there.

I would first ask that you at least skim this piece and realize that this has become part of a caricature of the current state of affairs in India: http://ireport.cnn.com/docs/DOC-1023053
(which I argue, while being an important part of the narrative, is not complete and therefore alone it stands as an unjust representation). Warning, the piece is a bit graphic. I will not be offended if you scan it.

Personally, I never experienced sexual harassment in the slightest which is why I feel compelled to respond. Though, I will be honest, two Italian girls were killed in the state I visited the week before I arrived. Many of the what we would call counties were closed to foreign visitors. While I wouldn’t take this lightly, I don’t find it remarkable either, having lived in Dallas, Washington, DC, and now outside of New York and Philadelphia. It’s not that it isn’t newsworthy, it’s just not unheard of (unfortunately).

Despite being in one of the poorest, most “backward” states (as classified by the government), I was working with a fairly “progressive” group of men–all college educated and interested in development, helping the impoverished, dedicating their professional lives to it. I would most closely associate my coworkers with 12 year old boys–even the married ones. I don’t mean that condescendingly, but in the way my brother’s and my relationship was when I was 16 and he was 12–it’s relating to a culture they are not fluent in and the norms for gender interaction are different–like speaking a different language.

So to that extent, some of my colleagues were awkward around me (as I’m sure I was around them), but always very kind. We developed a type brother-sister bond which I very much appreciated and made being far from home less difficult. When I left they called me “sister” (still sort of like a 12 year old brother would relate to his high school sister–sweet, endearing, a bit hard to relate to, though professionally treated me like an equal). I would say where I was it didn’t seem they don’t interact with many women professionally.

I also dressed as appropriate for my village (in a salwar kameez–the long shirts with leggings), followed customs for shoes, and didn’t venture far without a male escort (driver and translator were with me most the time). I don’t know how much of this was required, but it was appreciated. I didn’t go out after dark often. I stayed at my apartment in the evenings after work except to walk with a friend to the store or a nearby restaurant both within a 3 block or so radius of the apartment (and one rogue evening hanging out with some local college-aged women at the Pizza Hut).

I ventured to Catholic Mass most Sundays–about 40ish minutes away in an auto-rickashaw/tuk-tuk by myself–that was a little scary, but more for the arranged marriage proposals I received after Mass. (“Funny, I’ve had a difficult time arranging my son with an American Catholic woman. Can I have your father’s phone number?” Um, no. I’m still working on a more polite way of saying arranged marriage is just not my style in preparation for my next overseas adventure). [Side note: If Hillary Clinton is only worth two camels, I don’t want to know what they’d offer for me. I should clarify, this references a story that was in the paper all summer about a terrorist group putting ransom up for someone willing to kidnap Hillary when she was Secretary of State, NOT my colleagues wanting to marry her.]

I never felt particularly unsafe, except riding in a car in Delhi and that’s not because I am a woman–the sheer amount of traffic and chaos would frighten most American drivers. Did I stand out? Yes, my friend and I were the only white people in our part of the city. Everyone stared as we walked down the street–but out of curiosity. There is no feeling in the world that replaces this experience–being a physical minority and attracting attention just by your appearance–a very valuable life lesson.

If I’m honest, I did flirt with/was flirted with by some lovely gentlemen (mostly bartenders in Goa) in the more touristy/European areas, but nothing was threatening, and everyone was friendly. No major problems. One invited me to a party with his friends–which I SO would have gone to had my friend and I been traveling with a male companion, but we didn’t. We were cautious, even though it was probably fine. This to me is a reality of traveling in a country where you don’t speak the local language or even going out in the States by yourself or with only females.

I did have one colleague who always said things like (at the beach) that my friend and I should bring our boyfriends or husbands back so we could swim next time. He’d say that about most activities. As an independent, adventurous, and-yes-American woman, I thought, “Newsflash, we came halfway across the world by ourselves, we don’t really need our boyfriends hear to walk barefoot in the ocean.” But, of course, the truth is that is a part of his culture and no matter how you conceive of it or what similarities there are, there will always be some differences.

Also, I knew locals and India is a higher context society than ours. We don’t have a caste, so they have to know where to place us. My local contact was very well respected–so I felt that I was, too. Many Indians I encountered wanted to know what my parents did for a living, because their jobs have been traditionally divided by caste/social class.

It’s not that there were not difficult parts about it, but my most difficult parts were (keep in mind I was not in the most cosmopolitan of places, but rather in a more rural and less international area):
1) It’s just a different culture with different values. You have to learn/become “fluent” so to speak in the new culture. Body language, intonation, eye contact norms, etc.
2) The caste system made less and less sense the more they tried to explain it to me. It’s connected to their last same…so someone with a surname like O’Reilly or O’Connor is obviously of Irish decent and that you are Hispanic as a Garcia, Singh means warrior caste–it’s in your blood so to speak, who you are. Some people didn’t understand that I don’t have a caste. The divide between rich, middle class, and poor is incredible.
3) There’s a lot of materialism in the big cities like Delhi or Mumbai. I see materialism as the result of believing that faith causes conflict and that religion (all of it) is backwards.
While I also met a lot of very devout Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Muslims,Buddhists, and Baha’i followers, it doesn’t seem that most people they encounter from developed nations are religious (think about many Ambassadors, government officials, UN officials, aid workers, academics–in the U.S. many of them tend to be not religious–or not publicly religious).

I would keep in mind that I did not spend much time in major cities and that India is one of the most economically, physically, and culturally diverse places I’ve ever visited. More languages and races exist in this one nation than most other places in the world. More important than my individual experience is that there are many vast and varied experiences in India and not all of them are violent or chauvinistic or what we would consider immoral. The more we perpetuate this myth that these negative experiences are “what India is” the more fear we foster among our fellow human beings and the less open we are to working together to tackle common problems and share in friendship.

Advertisements

The Next Adventure

Standard

…No, I haven’t found a job yet. I am considering traveling in the next 6 months or returning to Nepal for awhile before those pesky student loans need to be paid off. Any ideas about where I should go?

But I did begin a new adventure this past month. Few things in life give me as much joy as writing about my observations and encounters and reading about the observations and encounters of others. (Some may call this a blog addiction…I prefer to thing of it as being in love with learning anything and everything about people, their thoughts and their values…call it what you will. 🙂 )

For the first time, I met with a writers group. A few friends of mine from graduated school (Freudian slip? I mean graduate school) have probably discussed beginning a writers group for a year. We had a great time, reading each other’s work and receiving feedback.

We were all a bit nervous. Sharing your writing is a bit like bearing your soul. It’s personal when you receive criticism, constructive or otherwise, because (at least for me) word choice and tone are very personal. It’s the means through which you are sharing your experiences and your reactions.

In addition to soul-bearing, each author in the group writes completely different genres and styles. One has a great and pithy style, writing horror and other disturbing subjects. Another writes sort of sad stories–not totally realistic and not totally fantasy–with a point to get across. A third (who unfortunately missed this session) focuses on young adult literature.

And lastly, there is me–who may someday write YA fiction or short plays, but currently blogs about travel, life, searching for joy, my faith, politics, and other various non-fiction pursuits. We are quite eclectic, but I think that keeps us interesting and able to provide feedback from different perspectives.

Plus, who doesn’t love dinner with friends discussing your favorite books and your writing pursuits?

I am however the bad writer…I showed up without writing to present. Next month…

To Bangkok or Bust!

Standard

Yesterday evening I arrived in Bangkok. It was a miracle. With a flight leaving at 1:30pm from the Kathmandu airport, we intended to leave the foundation at 10 am in order to allow for the prescribed 3 hour window for security in international travel. However, the hired taxi showed up half an hour later due to a strike that was in effect until then. We pile in the Tata manual car, snugly but comfortable fitting the 3 of us and our luggage (as well as some of our spoils). Already this makes for an interesting adventure–the windows open to catch a breeze in the heat and our hands managing to prevent backpacks from falling out the side as we struggle up and down the faces of low mountains on what I’m told are “roads”, though they are unpaved and narrow.

This 30 minute ride quickly turned into 2 hours of sitting in traffic and even perhaps more exciting, off roading it in the mud. When we weren’t stopped or inching forward and then stopping, we were looking for any and every short cut available. Once we rear-ended the car in front of us. Only slightly though, so  it’s alright, right? Allison was brave enough (or by default) to take the front seat. She spent the drive slamming imaginary brakes from the passengers seat. Our driver, aware of the panicked look on two of our faces and the absolutely car sick look on the third face–the girl who had been sick for 2 weeks, was determined that we were going to make are flight or die trying.
Emphasis on the die trying part.

 

Every time there was a fork in the road, we took the one less traveled. And make all the difference it did, but with every choice my brain thought, surely that’s not a road, right? Usually my thoughts were right. We took it anyway. Including through many muddy, muddy areas and under a low rise bridge. I envisioned the car stalling (as it often did) or getting stuck in the mud, neither were far from possible. Even likely. I envisioned Allison and me, both 5’3″, having to get out and push our luggage, our driver trying to steer his way out, and our very sick friend in the car out of the mud and up the steep hill. Thank God that didn’t happen.

We arrive at the airport with exactly an hour before take off. Run like chickens with our heads cut off to find the right departure terminal and are greeting with a line to get in. Run to the counter, laden with 3 months worth of baggage and check in. Thank goodness they let us. We got boarding passes, hurried to fill out our exit documentation, and rushed through security and emigration.  We arrived at our gate, grabbed a snack, and boarded the plane.

Thank goodness we were greeted by Thai Airways. Western toilets. A delicious gluten free meal. Comfy seats and free drinks. Then we arrived in Thailand whizzed through customs and currency exchange and found our hotel shuttle. We spend the evening with our friends from grad school, one who lives here and one who had a layover. It was almost like being in Washington DC and back to our weekly ritual of grabbing Thai food after class. It’s nice to have the comfort of familiar faces after traveling for so long.

We are back in the developed world. Well, almost.

 

Tea time, Newspapers, and Power Outages

Standard

Here the power goes out frequently—multiple times a day. At first we thought that would stop when the monsoon came…cooler temperatures and I don’t really know what would affect the power grid. But everything I’ve ever learned about a good thunder storm living God’s Country (and by that of course, I mean Tornado Alley) tells me that a good t-storm also often is accompanied by power outages.

When the power goes out at work, the computers (sans Allison’s and my laptops) shut down, the fans stop whirling, and the lights go dark. The internet’s done for. Our saltbox cubicles turn into saunas and we migrate to the front lobby of the office—a few pieces of furniture huddle around a table scattered with newspapers.

What is one thing I love about life in Bhubaneswar? Time every day to read the paper. This method is one of my favorites for learning about a culture—who is in the front page news every day? Here? Pakistan. What did they do today? What themes are important? Education and hard work. What’s in the Lifestyle/Culture section? My horoscope and news about festival and fashions. Thanks to my newspaper reading, I now have a trendy anklet, just like all the other India women. I also know that wearing gold and red bangles on both wrists means you’re married—as do anklets on both ankles. I also know that children’s boutique clothing (costing hundreds if not thousands of dollars per piece) is gaining popularity in Mumbai and New Delhi. What’s going on with Bollywood stars? I know.

What the wealthy value, what the community is doing to help the impoverished, and what foreign policy attitudes and agendas are held are exuded from the  pages of the daily paper. Cultural rituals, religious devotions, and daily life are all recorded in one location. …I wish print news was not a dying art in America. I’ll take my Wall Street Journal any day of the week. Now for the time to sit down with a cup of tea and read it thoroughly…that I am still searching for!

But when the power goes out during the monsoon, the sky is already dark and eerie. The rain comes down in buckets, flooding the partially paved partially dirt roadways. There is no light to read the paper.

Yesterday, this daily ritual occurred as it often does, during tea time. (I have since begun to measure the passing time at work by morning tea, the homemade Indian lunch, and afternoon tea time). Armed with all of our teacups, the men in the office and we stood out on the covered porch, watching the rain rage on. And what did our coworkers decide it was time to do? I think the phrase was “take a click” or “take a snap”…as in click or snap a photo.

So I run inside to search for my camera in the sea of my oversized bag in the depths of the dark office. I fish out my camera and return only to find Allison and Ashok posing as they “cheers” their teacups. And so began the photo shoot of Allison and me with our coworkers—first one by one and then a group photo.

I spent the afternoon in the dark and arrived home soaked to the bone from the auto-rickshaw ride of a lifetime (don’t worry, I didn’t slip out the side…but we did forge some roadway rivers a la Oregon Trail). But I am so glad we don’t have a generator. With a generator, we all would have watched the power flicker, remained seated at our desks staring at screens, and continued the craziness that ensues as the foundation attempts to get financial reports from local partner organizations to submit to European donors and as Allison and I analyze our research. We can do that tomorrow and every day after that.

Work is wonderful and necessary. But so is play brought on spontaneously by a power outage and a rainstorm.

You would think from their facial expressions that Allison and I were the ones suggesting we take photos!

Kob Kun Mak Kaa

Standard

Current City: New Delhi

By the time you read this post, I will have spent most of my day traveling to India–making the journey from Bangkok to Delhi and then from Delhi to Bhubaneswar. However, I have one more story to share about Thailand first…

This Past Thursday

We woke up early this morning and took a leisurely breakfast in the restaurant. The restaurant is open to the outside garden filled with ceramic statues of elephants, giraffes, dogs, children and more–all with larger-than-life smiles which light up the whole face. After breakfast, we decided to get massages (as mentioned in the last post). As I walk into my room, Allison walks out and tells me by way of introduction that our masseuse’s son is in marketing too. I can tell already Allison’s chatty southern demeanor would be the beginning of befriending locals throughout our journey. I walk in and enjoy what seemed to be somewhere between a massage and a yoga class (not a bad thing after hours on a plane and carrying luggage!).

Afterwards, the masseuse made me a hot beverage and we began to talk more about her son. We talked about living in Thailand–with her very limited English, my non-existent Thai, and universal hand gestures and nodding. By the end of my session, she had not only told me about a large open air market place, but agreed to meet us after work and take us.

She called up to our room and we met her in the lobby. She guided us expertly through the neighborhood, grabbing our hands to run across the traffic-filled streets. We could barely understand one another, but every time we found a break in traffic and darted to the safety of the other side, we laughed together. The market place was in a parking lot–row upon row of booths with clothing, food, electronics, hardware, jewelry. It occurred to me (Hello, middle America reference!) that this was like Wal-Mart…or rather that the idea for Wal-Mart or a department store had roots in something like this.

We mostly “window-shopped”, guided by our local expert, fighting our way through the throngs of people, students shopping in gaggles with their friends after school, couples meeting for dinner after work, and shopkeepers busy selling their goods. Eventually, it was dinner time for us as well, but we were uncertain about what we could eat of the fresh fruit and street vendors.

Our guide generously bought many types of Thai fruit for us to try. We sat down and tried again somewhat successfully to converse with our new friend and 2 girls with whom we shared a table. As we continued our journey back to the hotel, our friend insisted on buying us water bottles, pork on a stick, and sticky rice. We came back to the hotel and sat at an outdoor table to finish our feast of bags of ngos, noi naas, papaya, and rose apples. I was so moved by her kindness and friendship–this is my very favorite part of traveling.

It was Thursday that I learned my second Thai phrase: “kob kun mak kaa” (thank you)!*

*The first one I learned on the plane was, “Tai lo!” (which translates to “CHEERS!”, of course).

Next City: Bhubaneswar