Sunday, August 10, 2008

Siks Are Rad (or Ten Reasons I Would Marry a Pujabi Man in a Heartbeat)

Warning: The following post is politically incorrect and contains descriptions and opinions that objectify men in the worst possibly way. Unless you are in a good mood, fellas, you might want to skip over this particular entry.

Tall men? Awesome shoes? A temple covered in gold? Welcome to the Punjab girls. Hold on to your religious beliefs, it's gonna be a wild ride. I've had my fair share of come-ons and creepy encounters with Indian men while on this journey, enough to make me loath the idea of having to have a solo conversation with a man while here. But then I got to the Punjab.

  1. Until you've been here and seen it, you probably won't understand it. But trust me girls, there is nothing sexier than a man in a turban. Except, maybe, a man with a turban and a sword. Dead sexy girls. No joke. Why? I have no idea. Even when the turban is bright pink and three times the size of his head, a Sikh man manages to make that thing look manlier than chain mail in the middle ages. You think I'm joking but no, I'm totally serious. Punjabi + Turban = Dead Frigging Sexy.
  2. Altitude. True, I have spent the last few months in Tamil Nadu where the average height is around the level of my waist. But even in the states I find it very difficult to find men who are significantly taller than me. Not here though. Here, walking through the temple complex, I pass more men who are taller than me than men who are shorter by far and away. The other day I met a charming Sikh man with a black turban and a height of no less than seven feet in the temple. I usually say I'm married whenever I feel the situation is leaning toward awkward hit-on moment. But this time it was really, really, really hard to say yes when he asked me if I was married. Really hard. So hard that I'm pretty sure he saw through the lie the second it left my lips. He still asked for my number. Did I give it to him? No. But only because I drew upon superhuman amounts of self restraint.
  3. Devotion. Amritsar is home to the Golden Temple where the Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh's holy book of scripture) is housed, and this means that most of the Sikh men I meet here are devout worshipers, trying to live a good life. They wear the five symbols of Sikh devotion: the metal bracelet that symbolizes the eternal cycle of rebirths from which we all seek release, the long hair and uncut beard (wrapped in those fabulous turbans, see point one again just for the fun of it) which symbolize a harmony with the laws of nature and help with meditation, the small dagger at their side which, though dull, is meant to represent willingness to fight for the truth, the comb (hidden in the fantastic turban, repeat step #1 one more time, you know you want to) which is a symbol of cleanliness in all aspects of life, and the unseen but very interesting holy undergarments (sound familiar anyone?) which remind one to remain pure in life (again, ringing any bells?). No liquor, no meat. Living a pure religious life is a tough road for a Sikh. Is it any wonder that I find a man who tries to live up to those high standards devastatingly attractive????
  4. Interactions with families. I spent most of my time here people watching in the temple complex and have loved seeing more men carrying children than women carrying children. This is partially a reaction to the strict divide between men and women in Hinduism which has played such a role in my experience here. That divide does not exist for Sikhs. Men and women circumambulate the temple together, side by side. She doesn't walk one step behind him and he doesn't ignore the fact that she is struggling with three children. They walk together, and he carries his daughter or son. He is proud of his family, he loves them, he is a part of them. I took a photo of a large older man with an even larger white turban, bending down slightly as he walked so he could hold his granddaughter's hand and hear her speak while they walked together. You don't see that everywhere in India, but you see it here. Men who love their families. Again, dead sexy.
  5. The Dancing. You know in those Bollywood movies when, suddenly and completely without context, all the men start dancing together with these really fantastic athletic moves? Well, imagine you're just sitting at Pizza Hut with a few of your girlfriends, you know, a girls' night out. And you're half way through the second pizza when your waiter (who, by the way, is about 6'6” and absolutely gorgeous with an apron on his hips that proclaims “Full Punjabi”, which could refer to the Pizza but more likely to him) turns off the corny American music and announces that for your viewing pleasure he and all the other fantastic “Full Punjabi” waiters are going to dance for you. Suddenly the room is filled with the heavy beat of a Punjabi mix and a line of six men in Pizza Hut uniforms is performing those same fabulous Bollywood moves right there in the restaurant. Oh yes, that really happened to us. Don't you worry; we got a video of it.
  6. Weaponry. As previously mentioned, carrying a dagger is a part of everyday Sikh life. Now, that's pretty rad and, all don't get me wrong. What is even more rad, though, is the fact that even today an integral part of a Sikh wedding is when the groom arrives...on a horse...with a sword. Don't lie girls. You know deep down a part of you is still hoping for that “knight in shining armor” to show up. Well, maybe if you moved to the Punjab he would. Only he'd ditch the armor and get an even more attractive turban to go with his curving, beautiful, and very masculine sword. (Don't worry, mom. I am coming home anyway...I think.)
  7. Mostly, though, I think the real reason I find Sikh men so attractive is that they are secure in their masculinity. They know they are men. They don't need to be reassured of it everyday; they know it. And they don't need to make women feel like cheap trash in order to prove it to themselves. So, basically, if you marry a Sikh man you can guarantee that you won't have to spend your entire married life reassuring him that he is a man. He knows it, and you can therefore feel free to be a woman without fear that your femininity will threaten his masculine insecurities. Or, in other words, sorry LDS RMs. You've been upstaged. By a long shot. I hope we can still be friends. (Yes, I just broke up with the entire single, post mission, male LDS community. It's not you, it's me.)
  8. The shoes. No, not the ones the men wear. The ones that I wear. You know how Princess Jasmine has those lovely shoes with the curly toes? Well, add a little glitter and a lot more pizzazz and you have Punjabi shoes. Or rather, I have Punjabi shoes. Seven pairs of them. And if I opted to settle down here my love affair with north Indian footwear wouldn't have to end there, would it? So basically, I'm also breaking up with Payless.
  9. The pants. Along with her excellent taste in shoes, haven't you also envied Princess Jasmine her ability to wear huge puffy pants and get away with it? Yeah, me too. They are all the rage in women's fashion here, though. Various styles: smaller up on top and poofy at the bottom, flowing all the way down with a sort of layered look on the back side, smaller poof at the bottom with a fantastic matching shawl. They work with almost any figure, including the invert-o-bum I inherited from my grandfather. One more reason to marry a man who can keep me close to the shopping scene in Amritsar.
  10. This one would take a lot longer to fully describe than I can do justice to here, so if you really want to know you'll have to ask me about it when (if??) I go home. Punjabi man+turban+soldier's uniform+7'2” tall+Pakistani border closing ceremony= me coming as close as I ever will come to jumping a man.

And that's all I'm going to say about that.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Me at the Golden Temple, head covered in respectful piety. Sikhs doing the walk around the temple, check out those turbans! It's enough to make Aladin jealous. And a shot of the temple itself, yes, it really is that pretty!

Buddha's favorite hang out, Bodhgaya.

Buddha, Tibentan style. Every wall of this temple is covered in painted carvings about his life. And the bodhi tree under which buddha was enlightened, complete with Burmese monk deep in meditation on his way to enlightenment. Om baby om.
The bodhi tree

Varanasi, photographic evidence that I survived it.

a group of bathers fresh from mother Ganga, and a view of the holy river from my hotel balcony. the burning ghat is on the other side of that tower.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Where God Is, and Where God Isn't

A few thousand years ago there lived a prince named Siddhartha who sat down under a bodhy tree to meditate. Sometime later, under that same tree, he attained enlightenment and people started calling him Buddha. Maybe you've heard of him?

Anyway, a decendent of that bodhy tree still stands in the same plot of ground today, behind a temple dedicated to Buddha. And even though Buddhism is pretty much dead in India, it is still alive and well almost everywhere else in Asia. So there are monasteries from all those other countries here in this tiny town dedicated to Buddha's enlightement. That, I suppose, is why I am here: to learn something about Buddhism and meditation, about life and its purpose. About myself.

Someone once asked Michael where God is. His answer was “I dunno...everywhere?”. No. Wrong. God is not “everywhere”. God is in YOU. Or, at least that is what the Tibetan master told him. And when the master told him that, Michael had a flash back to when he was a five year old boy in the suburbs of LA and he fell down in the street. There was a moment, very short, when he was neither standing nor falling but just hanging in the air. And now Michael realized “Oh my gosh, nothing has changed.” He saw, in that strange experience, that there is some part of him that is unchanging, some small bit of awareness in him that is not just a reaction to the world around him. Something constant, something more real than the street onto which he fell. Something Divine.

And so, a few decades later, he is in India trying to understand that divine something that, even now, is unchanged within him. He has been searching in ashrams and meditation retreats in Nepal, India, and Tibet for about eighteen years now. He looks like it, too. He has one of those long, scraggly, mostly gray beards hanging off his face. His long hair is coiled into a bun at the point of his head (which, if we are honest, kind of makes him look like a small animal pooped up there). He wears all white, very simple, with a strand of wooden prayer beads around his neck. When I met him he was sitting next to the afore mentioned bodhy tree, legs crossed in 'lotus position', smiling at the universe in general.

Nearly twenty years in India is a long time. Four months in India is a long time, so I can hardly blame him for being a little “spacey” after eighteen years here. But I thought I would share a few of the things he told me as we sat together in the shade of that ancient temple and sacred tree, contemplating the meaning of life and who exactly was this Buddha figure

There is no “you” there is no “me”. Seeing a definition between self and other is the root of all suffering. We must eliminate suffering by eliminating the self.

When meditating, let your mind lose all distraction until you reach the center of awareness. The mind is like a monkey, continually jumping from branch to branch. The purpose of meditation is to let that all go and reach to real awareness, beyond self and time.

Let your heart shine within you. Let it radiate compassion until everyone around you can feel it and see it in you. Sometimes at night, you wake up and you can't sleep. Let your heart radiate compassion in those moments. Compassion is the expression of wisdom.

Some try to live their lives in avoidance, renouncing the world by not taking part in it. Others live through the world and renounce it by not becoming attached to it. The former will ultimately spend too much time dreaming of the world they have renounced. The later plays with fire, but at least they know what the fire is and what the fire isn't. They do not dream of fire.

Michael told me a lot of other things in the hour and a half we spent together. But these are the things which I liked or disliked the most. So, having given you his ideas, let me explain my ideas about them.

I am me, you are you. We are not the same consciousness, awareness, soul, brahma, call it what you will. And because I am not you, I cannot control you. Sometimes I cannot even control myself. And there is suffering. But there is also joy. I take the suffering with the joy. I take you with me. I take it all. And it hurts, but it's worth it. I cannot be empty, so I will be full.

My mind is a monkey, or an FM radio without an off switch. I spent an hour doing “zazen” meditation at the Japanese monastery here the other day, and never did achieve real quietness of mind despite the gongs, drums, and mystical chanting going on around me. I did manage to redecorate my hotel room in my mind, though. And I had a good long chat with the gold plated statue of Buddha in front of me about inflation in the US. But as far as real meditation goes, it was not a success. But then there was that time in Coimbatore:
Once about a month ago, I was just at the bus stop in Coimbatore, the city near the village we lived in for two months. Busy people all around me, buses coming and going with horns blaring the whole time. The ubiquitous smell of over ripe fruit and urine mingling in my nostrils. Women in sarees, college aged girls in salwars, and men in doties and western slacks passing in rapid blurry succession. I was alone, going home after a long day in the city. I sat on the corner of a tiled waiting bench, knowing it would be about half an hour until bus 96 came blaring into the fray, oozing people like a fresh wound and taking them in again just as fluidly. So I sat, and for no particular reason closed my eyes. I think I intended to say some kind of prayer about getting home safely or something, but before I had even formed the prayer in my head it happened. As soon as my lids closed on the scene around me I was surrounded by the Spirit. As though God had been waiting for me to pay just enough attention to Him, just enough peace in my mind and WHOOSH there He was. Not shouting, not warning, nothing urgent or mind blowing. Just quiet knowledge that He exists, that He is there, and that He is intimately aware of my every thought and feeling.
It happened again by the bodhy tree with Michael yesterday. He started talking about meditation and, trying to be obliging, I closed my eyes. And that was all it took for something to open up inside of me, like a direct line to Heavenly Father. Again it was not a warning, it was not a spiritual confirmation of anything Michael had said. It was just there, like God just couldn't resist talking to me now that I was in a quiet moment. Not because He had anything particularly pressing to tell me at that moment, but just because He could. That's all. I was quiet and still and listening and He was just...there. Like this weird wordless conversation “Hello Jenny. I'm here. I see you. I love you more than your mind can possibly understand and want you to be happier than your imagination can possibly comprehend right now. Just thought I'd say Hi.” and my response “uhhhhhhhh, Hi?”
So if that's meditation, sign me up.

Yes, let your heart shine within you. Compassion is lovely. But, rather than “shining your heart” when you can't sleep at night, DO SOMETHING COMPASSIONATE. You know, love someone, see something divine not just in yourself but in others as well, give something, see a need and fill it. Our capacity to love, and love deeply on a personal level is not an attachment that draws us further from God. Our capacity to love comes directly from God, and embracing that makes us more like Him, not less.

I neither play with fire, nor dream of fire. So...I'm neither a closet pyromaniac nor covered in third degree burns. Where does that put me?

Overall, I like Buddhism for its emphasis on finding out who you really are outside of your reactions to the world around you. I like the idea that I am more than the sum total of my fears and wants, my likes and dislikes. I also like meditation, on a strange level, and I fully intend to work on that skill. I don't want Heavenly Father to have to raise His voice at all to get my attention, so I figure I'll give Him more quiet time. You know, I'll just shut up for an hour or two everyday and see if He has anything to fill the silence with. What I don't like about Buddhism has mostly to do with its view of relationships between people. And that's okay. I don't have to like every aspect of it. Which is another thing I've learned here: I don't have to like it.

Saturday, July 19, 2008


You know how when you think of India, only a part of you wants to go there? Well, imagine all the worst ideas you have about India. Think of all the reasons that, when you think of me here, you breath a sigh of relief and think "better her than me!". Okay, now times it by five.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Varanasi.
Ironically, Varanasi (or Benares, as it used to be called) is the holiest city in Hinduism. The city of Shiva with dozens of holy ghats descending into the magical, mystical, mythical River Ganga. Unfortunately, that river is also the dumping ground for 30 or more sewers, so basically it has a content of 1.5 million faecal bacteria for every 100ml of water. Oh, and did I mention the smell?
We all know that cows are holy creatures in India, and no where is that more apparent than in Varanasi where in the middle of a busy intersection with traffic whizzing in all directions a single mournful cow stands unmolested, calmly defecating as traffic swerves around it. Heidi has been clipped by rickshaws twice in two days now. But do the cows get hit? No, oh no. Not the cows. They don't even get honked at.
Getting to our hotel is like walking into a Tim Burton set, except there is no way out. This city is supposedly the oldest living city on earth, so it is not surprising that the roads closest to the river are narrow, winding, and utterly filthy. Vehicles are not allowed in this part of the city, and even if they were how they would fit down these alleys I don't know. But our little Hotel boasts riverside views, so we wander the darkened, pooh lined alleys to get here and back everyday. Since there are no maps which show all the winding alleys of old Varanasi we are left to our own navigational devices every time we step out the door. One moment you think you are walking away from the river, you feel sure that the next turn will bring you to a main road, and the next thing you know you are staring at yet another curving, smelly, dangerous alley that is just as likely to lead you back where you started as to get you out of here.
The sky is always overcast here. It lends this sort of eerie feeling to an already freaky city. It also means that the humidity is almost more than humanly bearable. The ground is wet, muddy, slick where old cobblestones have not been covered in mud, cowdung, or...other things. And because I know the statistics of the river, I'm terrified of all water here, imagining everything is covered in the same 1.5 million faecal bacteria.
To be fair, our hotel is the nicest one we've yet stayed in. Clean, well run, and with those famed "riverside views". I took advantage of the view the first day, and that was enough for me. Little boys swimming naked in the river, old men with shaved heads waist deep in devotion, monks chanting as they washed in the holy waters. Then I saw some of them gargle it. And even now, I wretch just to think of it.
Scindhia Ghat, where our hotel is located, is right next to one of the burning ghats. There are two such ghats where devout Hindus who were lucky enough to die in the city of Shiva are cremated and flung into the waiting arms of their "Great Mother" the Ganga. This means that continually, day and night, if I open my door I can smell the bonfires of human flesh.
If you die in Varanasi, according to Hindu belief, you will be released from the cycle of rebirth immediately. A shop owner with whom I spoke yesterday explained it to me like this: "As you live you have good things and bad things. These things stay with you and when you die God will ask you about it and punish you with a new birth. But if you die here, you go to heaven and God will not ask you any questions." And I guess I can see that. I mean, living in this city is probably more than enough punishment itself without any new births.
I wish I could tell you I've learned something deep and transcendent here, something about the relationship between life and death or human potential and frailty. The truth is, thus far, I have learned one thing.
When in Varanasi, try not to look down.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Sravanabelagola, Jainism

These are all from Sravanabelagola, an ancient Jain pilgrimage site. Elephants walking around the base of a temple. Me walking the hall of a 2000+ year old temple, a Thirtankara statue in naked meditation, and me in slightly more modest meditation at the top of "big hill" where we climbed barefoot to see the temples. See the next post for what I learned here.

Where is your soul?

We sit on the cool stone steps of the Bhandara Temple, in the shade of that two-thousand year old holy shrine. Eyes closed, body relaxed, I can hear the birds on the roof stir. Jwala's keeps her voice low, a practiced meditator and Jain devotee. Feel your feet. Now your ankles. Now your thighs. Now your hands. Your fingers. Now feel your hair. It is blowing in the breeze, can you feel it? Can you feel the color of your skin?
Yes. Yes I can. Wow, I can actually feel the color of my skin.
How is that possible? she asks as I open my eyes. I don't know. How is that possible? Where is your soul? she asks now. I touch my chest, over my heart. Yes, it is there, but it is not limited to your heart. Your soul, your athma, the divine spark that makes you who you are is everywhere. It is in your feet and your fingers, it is even in your hair and the color of your skin. And when you attain knowledge it is not in your mind. Knowledge is a part of your soul. And your pappa and punya, the good and bad that you do in your life, are carried with you on that soul. That athma is all throughout your body. It is chayathanyanaya: filled with light and energy.
India and I have a love hate relationship, our good and bad moments coming in rapid succession everyday. But one of the things I love about India is what it is teaching me about my body and its relationship to my soul. Up until this point I have spent my life taking my body for granted unless forced up against its limits. This means that for twenty four years my body has been either a non-entity or an enemy in my life. But India in all its heat and smells and overwhelming visions (good and bad) has taught me that my body is not a prison in which I am trapped or against which I fight. My body is the medium which I experience everything in my world. Before now my body has been the limitation and modern technology has supplied me with the tools, like air-conditioning, with which to fight it. But here, where my body is left to its own defenses, my body is my only tool. Today I hiked a sacred mountain in bare feet. My body and I are forced to live with each other here, and we have decided to join forces.
Bhahubali achieved enlightenment after meditating for a solid year. He stood still, focused entirely on the inner soul for so long that creeping vines mistook his limbs for trees. Now, thousands of years later this superhuman act of detachment from all things material is memorialized in a 58 foot nude statue. Nudity, in fact, is sort of a theme in Jainism, the religion we have come to this pilgrimage site to study. Everywhere you go another nude statue representing an enlightened and liberated soul stands meditating in eternal detachment. The result is that the human body itself has come to represent all that is most sacred in Jainism. The most important statues and idols in Jainism have no ornaments, no jewels or silks headdresses, nothing more than the simple perfection of the human body.
So much of my life has been spent fighting against my own body image, loathing it for its imperfections and flaws. Seeing my body only in terms of aesthetics, and that always negatively. Comparing it to what it is not, loathing it for what it cannot do. Maybe that is why, today as my chubby, wrinkled, beautiful friend tells me about my true soul, I can feel her words even in the color of my skin.
"No camera has ever matched the wonder of the human eye. No pump was ever built that could run so long and carry such heavy duty as the human heart. The ear and the brain constitute a miracle...These, with others of our parts and organs, represent the divine, omnipotent genius of God." Gordon B. Hinkley

Monday, July 7, 2008

Dumbo's Bigger, More Spiritual Cousin

There are plenty of reasons to visit the Perur temple I suppose. One would be dovotion to Shiva, for whom the temple was built. Or maybe the age of the temple itself draws you, it is, after all, over 1300 years old. Or maybe its the stone work here where hundreds of pillars reaching up to 30 foot ceilings spiral down with intricate hand carved figures of animals, humans, and everything in between. And these are all legitimate reasons to visit the oldest, biggest, most important temple in Coimbatore. My own motivation, however, in making the trip is perhaps not so intellectual or spiritual or artistic. My own motivation is quite simple: the elephant.

But even it that weren't my reason for coming, I am pretty sure I would have reacted the same way as I did when I stepped into the long, cool, hall of the temple surrounded by 1300 year old sculptures and the sound of a Sanskrit chant echoing back to me from all directions. Because as impressive as all that was, He was better. there is something dignified in the movements of a creature so big, even from a distance. And move he does. He dances, really, to the beat of his own drum which has nothing to do with the recorded chant he must hear everyday as he stands in his post, taking donations and giving blessings. He sways smoothly from side to side, lifting his trunk first, then a back leg, then a front leg. Never still and yet his constant movement is more peaceful than the stillness of the rest of the temple. He is marked of course, three white lines on forehead, ears, legs, and trunk. the fact that this white powder is meant to represent the ashes of a cremated cow (which would have died of natural causes, obviously) strikes me as kind of ironic. Decorating one holy animal with the remains of another.

But as we walk past him all that magic dissipates as quickly as it came, because then I can see the chains. These huge, thick chains around both of his front legs and suddenly I'm not charmed anymore. I'm terrified. yeah sure, I'm a little afraid of the animal that would fit into such huge chains, but mostly I'm afraid of the man who put them there.

And I can't help feeling responsible, somehow, for the atrocities inflicted on that beautiful, graceful, and utterly melancholy animal. Because I came here to see him. I came here to put a rupee in his trunk, bow to him, and feel him rest his enormous trunk on my head for a few brief seconds. I came here so I could write to my friends and family about the day I saw an elephant up close and personal. And here I am, just as I wanted, watching the one of the most amazing creatures I've ever seen reduced to doing carnival tricks. And I step up for my turn, of course. I shakingly hold out my coin to him as he lifts his massive trunk and holds it, curving slightly, a few inches from my hand. I give him my ruppee, my measly two cents, and before I even think to incline my head I feel the weight of his trunk on the side of my head. Thump. Something between a gentle tap from him and what to me felt like a blow that knocked me a little sideways. There you go, transaction complete.

I step back a few paces and stand watching him as he follows the same routine for the family behind me. A ten year old girl held out a ruppee twice, having enjoyed the first thump enough to want a second. I try to catch his eye as he works, because I have this crazy idea that I'll find something there, some wisdom perhaps, some knowledge that, as an elephant, he never forgot. He doesn't look at me, though. He doesn't look anyone in the eye. He just goes on dancing his slow, sad dance and passing the rupees he collects to the skinny man at his side. And after a few minutes I give up. Whatever he remembers from his long holy life, he's not telling me. And why would he? After all, I came to the oldest temple in Coimbatore to see a trapped animal dance.

Om Shanti Om.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Paths to God

It's just before rush hour in Coimbatore and I'm sitting sidesaddle on a motorcycle behind a man I have never met before in my life with everything I own strapped to my back and front. Don't ask me how I got here, it's not a pretty story. Somehow, though, even though I know I should be panicked and crying or praying or both, I'm almost choking with laughter as I cling for dear life with my one free hand as a bus full of Indian men passes within an inch of my knees. I should be heartbroken and scared and all alone but I'm not. I'm laughing, alive, and IN INDIA!!! for crying out loud. And while half of me is spinning in unexplained ecstasy the other half is thinking “so this is how it ends?”. I'm almost disappointed to be delivered so safely when my new found friend stops the bike and gestures at the hotel I was looking for a few minutes ago (and walking in entirely the wrong direction). Thanks motorcycle dude! Best of luck to you, crazy American girl!
The man behind the counter obviously thinks I'm a loose screw. But, given my appearance at that moment I don't entirely blame him. I mean, what kind of person walks into a hotel with a bulging backpack on her back, an equally bulging bookbag on their front, a purse around her neck, a “Lonely Planet” in one hand, hair that looks like it's been through rush hour on a motorcycle, and western style pants with a Salwar top and says “Hello!! Do you have a room?” with this weird accent that is somehow neither American nor Indian? I tell you who does that, I DO! And I mean it, you got a room? And he does, because despite the obvious fashion mistakes that seem to be dripping from me, I'm white and therefore have money and therefore “Welcome, madam. How many days will you be staying?”
The bell boy (who is neither a bell nor a boy) is considerably more enthusiastic about getting me into the hotel. He speaks English with that awesome I-learned-this-phrase-from-a-British-tourist kind of way and is absolutely charmed to meet an American girl traveling alone in one of the least touristy cities in South India. He gets me to my room and makes sure I know that to ring him all I have to do is press 007. No joke, this man's extension is the code name of the word's favorite licenced killer. He asks if I would like any coffee or tea and I ask for mineral water, “Shaken, not stirred”.
Then a few minutes later I am back on the street, looking little less like a pack mule with only a small bag over my shoulder. The autorickshaw drivers are happy to see me, but I don't want a lift. All I need is someone to point me in the general direction of the Dhandumariamman Temple. Which they do, and I'm off again. And part of me is thinking, “Why are you not sad?” and the other half is thinking “Why are you even asking me that question?”
The Dhandumariamman temple has to be one of my favorite places in the city, maybe my favorite of all. Mostly because it is so peaceful there. It sits in the middle of a very noisy block right next door to plumbing stores and used-shoe salesmen, but once you step inside that massive doorway the noise of the city fades away like music on a car-radio that someone finally decides to turn down a notch. I also love it because after you remove your shoes you are required to wash your feet. After walking the dirty smelly dusty streets of India, there is nothing I want more. So I step out of my chakos and smile at the tan line that makes it seem like I am still wearing white straps across my feet, place my shoes in locker 97 (because it seems like such a strong, committed number) and try not to run over to the water taps where I can wash my feet.
The temple itself is actually a smaller building inside this giant covered courtyard, and today I am a little disappointed to see the golden doors that should lead to Mariamman's shrine are closed. There are still a few women here, though, seated “indian style” on the cool stone floor facing either the shrine to the nine planetary gods or, my personal favorite, the huge banyan tree that stretches up and out of the roof and houses a little Ganaputi shrine (Ganesha in North India). And it is so calm and so peaceful you could sit here all day and contemplate...anything.
Which is sort of what I came to do, with a little ethnographic observation on the side. So I stake out a spot close to one of the huge pink and red pillars that stretch up the the ceiling and pull out my weather beaten notebook for jottings.
He saw me long before I saw him, and I got the impression that he had been watching me for a minute or two, working up the nerve to go and talk to me. He speaks lovely English and, shockingly, doesn't start the conversation with “Which country??”. I like him already. Actually, he was just wondering if I would like to join the puja they will be doing shortly? It is a very powerful puja, and I can come and be part of it. It will be good for me, bring me blessings. So I get up and follow him to the other side of the inner temple to where I see a group of worshippers, mostly women, have already gathered. Two women sit on the floor facing the side of the temple which has shelves carved out of it at intervals where other deities reside in less grandeur but no less importance than Mariamman herself. The women are facing one of these minor deities now, but I can't make out which one exactly. It's a woman god, though, that much I can make out from her clothing and decorations. The rest of the devotees are standing around some tall metal tables with lamps on them made, are those lemon halves? Yep, lamps made of fruit. And of course my latest friend would like to invite me to light my own lemon lamp. So I follow him outside the temple to where a man is selling flower garlands and coconuts and all the other odds and ends one needs when invoking deity in India and he buys me a sweet-lime which is kind of a cross between a lime and a very small lemon. Back at the tables he cuts my lime in half and instructs me to squeeze it inside out. Then while I am struggling with this idea he sets down a little vile of ghee next to me on the table and is suddenly gone again. Once my lime halves are inside out the woman next to me, with the slight smile I only ever see women direct at me and very small children (both being pretty naïve, I suppose), helps me to apply the correct markings with red and orange powder around the rims of my little lime cups. Then I pour ghee into each half and my friend is back, somehow, with cotton wicks in his hand. I try to light them but get a little chuckle from the woman at my side- You're supposed to dip them in the ghee first, silly, then you light, then I light them dear because you are about to set yourself on fire...there you go honey. Or at least that is what I imagine she said in some South Indian dialect. And with my little lime lamps burning on the table amidst all the other lime lamps I am directed to sit myself down next to the growing group of women facing the idol as the men stand back in silence. So I do, and that is when I notice it.
They're chanting.
I can't understand a word of it, and it's probably Sanskrit so neither can they really. They aren't chanting loudly, and they certainly aren't swaying to the rhythm or clapping their hands or wavering on the brink of St Teresa-esqu ecstasy. They are just a group of women chanting, together. The “tune” is not musical, just rhythmic. And it's absolutely mesmerizing.
And here is where some of you start getting worried about me and my “testimony”. Because here is where I officially step off the “Mormon's have the corner on spiritual power” wagon. No, I'm not saying the statue stood up, spoke to me in an ancient tongue that I somehow understood, and pronounced me officially Hindu. I am saying that as much as I believe in the restoration of the Gospel through Joseph Smith, and as much as I know that Christ is my only way to eternal joy, right there right then sitting on that cold stone floor in a group of women singing a hymn in the praise of their god I felt power. True, unadulterated, spiritual power that left me crying and filled with joy. So you can hit me with all of your theories about where that power came from or what it's purpose was and nothing you say will change the fact that no religion, not even ours, can limit the power of God to work upon His children wherever, whenever, however He wants.
The rest of the puja was pretty basic, the usual offerings to the goddess poured over her in the form of milk, ghee, curd, dates, etc. The priest came out to do this part and ring his bell. Nothing spectacular about it, from my perspective. It was just that chant, which lasted only a few minutes, that overturned so much of what I thought I knew about God.
When it's over I find myself being chaperoned by a new friend. She is stunning in that way that only years of goodness carved into an old face can be. Her hair is white, pulled into a loose bun on her neck, and she wears a white cotton saree with light pink flowers. When she smiles at me, I see my own grandmother in her eyes and have to fight very hard not to cry for missing her. She is my first friend's mother, actually, and he has left me in her charge. So she helps me get my forehead markings on (white line with red dot over yellow dot in the middle), and tells me to get up and come eat the food. She speaks English, too, with a clear accent but limited vocabulary. The food is actually more offerings to the god which we can now eat on her behalf. Mother, as I have taken to calling her, gets me a little metal/paper plate and oversees the men serving me my portions of spicy rice and sticky sweet rice. Then she grins at me and puts a little crumbled laddoo on my plate too.
So we sit on the floor on the other side of the temple and I try to eat the food at the rate she insists (If I pause at all she starts pointing at my food and then her mouth). Sitting there talking about her life and family. Married at 15, five children, widowed, suffers from asthma. Then I hear from outside the courtyard the distinct tones of a Muslim call to prayer. So I ask “Call to prayer?” and she wrinkles her already wrinkled nose and says “NOOO! I don't like them. Musslemans. Dirty. Don't drink their water. They only bath once a week.” And again I am half laughing half crying because there it is. The source for years of bloodshed and hatred: they only bath once a week.
I guess you can draw whatever philosophical metaphors you want from all that. I've certainly drawn mine. And I'll go on drawing them for the next two months before I pack it all in and leave this country crisscrossed with paths to God.

Meanwhile, in the words of my fellow traveler Sydney: It's not fair to read someone's blog and not leave a comment.

Friday, June 13, 2008

random stuff

yes, women do carry stuff on their heads sometimes. Jeeva serving us lunch in our room

and this is me in a saree at my first indian wedding, very strange to have complete strangers dressing me.

more sights on the retreat

a ginger factory i visited and a man? woman? both actually, kalikathi dancer style.

A brahman priest applying colum before a kalikathi dance show, he is also the singer. Tea at the carpet store, carpets so expensive they come with thier own pedigree charts like pure bread ponies.

Mid-research retreat in Cochin

Sea of Lakshmi, fisherman's boat, chinese fishing nets intruduced around the time of Xubla Khan (for the Colderidge fans out there), our boatman on a tour of the backwaters (lazy rivers), and the rooftops of Fort Cochin, obviously european influnce is strong here.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

More Black Keys Than White

“Cathlin! Are you happy in your life?”
I stop mid-stride, halfway up the stairs. What kind of a question is that? And from my hotel manager? I've only seen the guy a few times, I don't even know his name, I've never really stopped to speak to him, and suddenly he's asking me if I'm happy in my life? I turn and lean over the rail of the stairs to look down at him as he sits there next to the hotel desk, skinny arms and legs sprawled out and huge eyes looking back straight into mine. “What?”
“Are you happy in your life?” Okay, so that really is what he said. I try to play it casual, smiling back at him “Most of the time” I say. I planned to just say it, smile, and turn back up the stairs. But even though I know I should turn around then and walk up to my room, even though I know I'll probably regret option number two, I can't seem to help myself. Like a moth flying straight into the mesmerizing light of the fire I ask “Why do you ask?”
And of course, he pats the velvet chair next to him. Yes, obviously that is what I should be doing right now. I should be sitting in the reception area of a little hotel in Cochin, South India, talking about my life with a strange Indian man who, unbelievably, is a huge Billy Joel fan. So I do. I walk down the worn wooden steps in my bare feet (shoes off at the door, as always) and sit down next to him. He starts gyrating again as I make my way to him. All angles and bones as he throws out his arms and waggles his head to the sweet perfection of Billy Joel's greatest hits. He goes on grooving even after I sit down next to him, and I have to lean a little bit away to avoid getting an elbow in the eye. Then he stops suddenly, turns to look at me full on and says “You are a very simple person, is it?”
Now, I have absolutely no idea what he means by that. It has any range of meanings from “You're kinda dense, aren't you?” to “You radiate the simple perfection of divine knowledge, don't you, Oh wise guru?” I try really hard to come up with some brilliant reply, but I eventually just nod my head and say “sure.” Clearly leaning toward the first option.
He nods back, and says “Yes, I can see it. I am watching you here when you come and go and I see in you. You like the simple life, simple person.” Then he starts wiggling his boney extremities again. After a few more bars of “River of Dreams” he stops and says “You know the piano?”
“Sure” I say again, because hey, that reply seemed to work pretty well last time.
“The black keys and the white keys, you know?”
“Yeah” I return, jazzing up my one word replies through variation.
“The black keys” he says, making piano-man motions in the air, “make sad song. The white keys are happiness. You play both together, is beautiful.”
“Uh-huh” says the genius from America.
“You” he says now, focusing once again on the giant white girl sitting, transfixed, beside him “You play more black keys in your life.”
Okay buddy, what the freak is going on here? I play more black keys than white? I'm not sure whether he's about to read my palm or hit on me at this point, but I'm hooked. I have to know where this is going. I have to know why this strange man has singled me out of my group as the girl who plays more black keys than white in her life.
“Is it right?” He asks, no longer moving to the beat but leaning forward in his chair.
“Well, I guess so. Yeah.” Why, oh why am I having this conversation?
Another head nod, as if he already knew I would assent and was merely waiting for me to figure it out. “What does it mean, the black keys?” He asks now.
Now I'm totally hooked. I don't know what the black keys in my life mean, but somehow I am positively sure that he does. And I have to know, I just have to. So I stutter “I...uh...I dunno...I'm not sure.”
And then he turns to me and says “I think it is to do with your parents. A small problem with your parents?”
And then I'm reeling. Dizzy, freaked out and fascinated all at once. Sure, since Freud the whole “blame it on the parents” thing is pretty cliché and it wouldn't be a devastatingly original guess. But still, this is pretty weird. I decide I've had enough soul-reading for the night so I try to end it. At least, that's what I meant to do. What I meant to say was “No, no problem.” But what I really said was “No small problem” with particular emphasis on the “small”, and then he gets up and walks around the desk to turn down Billy. He gestures to the chair he has just vacated which is closer to the desk than my current seat, and I get up and move into it.
“So tell me” he says “tell me about the problem with your parents.”
And, for no rational reason I can possibly think of, I find myself talking to a complete stranger about the fact that I haven't spoken to my father in over four years. I try to keep it short, leaving out most of the explanation, because I'm more interested in what he has to say that whining about my paternal issues. When I finish, he bobbles his head and points to the bag of cashews in my hand. Oh yeah, I forgot about those.
“You want plate?” he asks, and then gets up to find me one before I can reply. Which is just as well, I've already run the gamut of my brilliant one word replies. When he comes back, or rather when his torso comes back from the cabinet to his left, I am trying to pull on the “tear here” tab of the bag.
“No, no wait” He says and starts rummaging in a drawer to his right. He produces a small pair of scissors then and, reaching for the bag, continues “We do it simply, simple way, your way.” And I'm thinking “Well, I do want you to cut the bag open with those scissors rather than let me hurt myself trying to rip it open with my hands. So yes, this must be my way.”
“There is another package here” he says, gesturing to the inner wrapping within the bag that has been air packed to keep the cashews from breaking against each other. I stutter a reply about keeping the air out, feeling somehow that I ought to apologize for not having bought a “simpler” bag of nuts. It's okay though, this guy is his own simple bag of nuts.
“This is safe” he tells me “like us, it is safe in here. No air can get in, no water. Safe, like us here” and he cuts open the smaller bag. Then he pours a few cashews onto the plate between us and starts wrapping the rest back up in the bag. He folds the plastic tightly and then secures the whole thing with a rubber band from the drawer which he wraps around the package twice even though I'm pretty sure one wrap would have done it.
“Thanks” I bobble at him.
“Like you” he tells me, “like your heart. You keep it wrapped up tight and safe, not get hurt.” Then he puts the bag of cashews next to my arm and pats it. “Like your heart” he says. And I smile back at him. Because, at this point, there are really no simple answers left to give.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Just Some Pictures, because I'm too tired to write anthing today

Priya is twelve, and she dances like a rockstar. One day in the not too distant future she will show me some sweet moves too. Edwin, her brother, is fourteen and slightly better at water hauling than me, even in the rain. The third picture is from Chennai, it's a market street where we went to get our clothing made.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Offerings to the Goddess of Smallpox

He is three years old, and tired. I don't blame him, it's pretty early in the morning for me too. And it's Sunday. He doesn't complain at all though as his uncle pulls him onto his lap and grandpa pulls out a razor. It's a sacrifice to the goddess, to Maryamman the goddess of smallpox, measles, mumps, and the village of chavadipudur where I am staying. They wet his little head down first and then grandpa starts shaving. Little curls of black hair fall to the ground and before long he has a stripe of bald skin on the top of his little head. He doesn't react at all. He just sits on his uncle's lap and yawns a bit while Grandpa shaves off all his hair and Mom and Dad snap photos. He is stoic and almost bored throughout as if to say "business as usual". After all, this is his fourth head shave.

Your hair is your beauty, you see, and if you give that to the goddess she will bless you in return. His first head shave was dedicated to his father's main caste god, when he was nine months old. Caste is a tricky thing in India, and I won't go into all the details. Let's just say it's kind of like a family lineage in this case. His second head shave went to his mother's main caste god, and then I think they returned to his mother's native village for a head shave to that village goddess. This head shave is more for his paternal grandmother who, living in this village, is beholden to Maryamman.

Eventually, having twisted his head this way and that and shaved it clean of any hair, he gets a bath. A tiny little boy standing behind the temple trying not to fall over as his grandmother splashes him with buckets of water. Again, no crying. He just covers his eyes or smiles up at grandma with those huge brown eyes and ridiculously long eyelashes.

Shaved, bathed, and clothed once more he gets a nice layer of sandalwood on his newly-bald head. It dries quickly and leaves his head painted yellow. Now for the offerings to the goddess.

Within the inner shrine of the temple the priest and his son begin to minister to the idol of Maryamman. They douse her in rosewater, cover her in flowers, and chant at her while ringing a bell. Then they remove the flowers and cover her in curd with more chanting and bell ringing. They wash off the curd and replace it with red liquid, more chanting, more bell. Wash away the red, shower her with ghee (like a butter/cheese thing) and chant and ring. On and on it goes, each time they shower the statue with a new substance and chant and ring and circle her face with a flame, and then they rinse her off and start again with some other offering. There must have been about fifteen layers of offering, and poor little baldy got bored. He is supposed to be sitting with his palms together just outside the inner shrine, but instead he is sliding across the floor and trying to play clapping games with uncle. Eventually, the stench of the various offerings having wafted out of the shrine and into our nostrils, it will end. The priest will close the curtain and put out the flames and turn of the recording that has been repeating "om, shanti, om" for two hours now, and we will all disperse. Them to their car to drive back to Bangalore and me to the dirt path leading to the next village where church is being held today.

All in all, a very religious day.

Thursday, May 22, 2008


South Indian Henna, the longer hand is mine.

Photographic evidence

To the right is how I eat meals now, on banana leaves with my right hand. I'm pretty good and the scoop and shovel now.

Above is a rickshaw ride in Chennai, notice the bindi on my forehead. To the right is me in my favorite salwar kamiz set (sans scarf) going in to get wrapped in a sari

This Brahman boy became a man today, we went to his Upanayanam.

This is me getting fake-wrapped in my nice sari in Chennai.

Water Filling

I woke to the sound of roosters crowing and walked out into the early dawn light. My back is getting used to the cement floor, but I don't think I'll even get used to the bathroom accomodations. On my way back from the bathroom I hear the shrill voice of Jeeva, the mother of the family with whom we life. She says “Sister, water is on.” I scurry back into my chakos and say “I'm coming.” Appa, Jeeva's dad and Mathew's uncle, points east to where the closest tap is located. I pause at the end of the veranda to pick up an empty green water jug, and I take it with me down the dirt road to where I hear the water running.
A few times a week, when the government tap is turned on, the water comes to Chavadipudur. It comes in metal piping, and scattered thoughout the village are taps which come up out of the ground with a spout at the end that turns on and off with a key. We all rty to pitch in to refill the cistern, and we are all careful about how much water we use. I can't wash my hair everyday, and when I do I have to use the minimum amount of water. I have learned in the two weeks we've been here to wash my hair and body in 3/4 of a bucket of water. Considering that I have about 2 feet of extreemly thick hair, that's no small feat and I have every right to be proud. Laundry is another matter; I'm still working on the balance between minimul water and minimal soap residue in my clothing. I'm also working on my twirl and whack-the motion used to get clothing clean on the wash rock next to the outhouse. Actually, doing laundry is a good way to get out any pent up aggression, and the sound of your wet salwar or pants slapping against a solid rock is quite cathartic.

As I reach the closest tap to our house Jeeva is standing there with two water jugs at her feet, talking to a woman in a wrinkled pink cotton sari who is bent over her own water jug filling under the tap. After a few moments Jeeva points toward the next tap, a few houses down from where we stand. “Sister, go to that one” she tells me. I pick up a large orange water jug to carry with me to that tap and she says “you can take smaller” and gestures to the small green one I brought out. I say “I think I can handle a bigger one” smiling and trying to be more helpful. She smiles a little and gives a small chuckle and I know she is thinking I'll learn for myself whether or not I can handle the bigger load. I pick up the big orange jug and walk down to the other tap.
Another woman with matted hair that might be in intentional dreadlocks is filling her jugs at that spout. I recognize her from having passed her everyday on my way home. She lives in the small hut made of banana leaves on the corner and has a small child. Behind me Jeeva comes with the other jugs, and she sets them on the ground near the tap in front of her. I look at the sky, light orange around the edges and light blue at the top. The sun is not fully up yet, so it is not hot. It is warm, though.
A man with a turban wrapped around his head comes to the tap as well. I can see the top of his balding head with graying hair as his turban does not cover the top of his head, only the sides. Another woman wrapped in a wrinkled cotton sari comes as well. She stands by Jeeva, in front of me, and places two jugs stacked together on the ground next to her. Lines and turn taking do not translate into this culture, so I'm not surprised she cuts me off. Looking back to the first tap the pink sari woman is filling her jugs, quickely removing the full jug from under the tap and replacing it with another before the water running from the tap hits the ground. Then she grips the full jug from within the neck with her right hand and swings it across her body and up onto her left hip. She wraps her left arm around the outside of the neck and walks off with it resting on her outswung hip holding it only with her left arm.
A man has been sleeping on a string bed just outside dreadlock woman's house in the street. He sleeps there everynight and sometimes during the day. As I look he stirs, stretches up his arms, and stands. He pulls a bamboo matt off the strings of his bed and wraps it up quickly and deftly. Then he throws a thin blanket over his shoulder and picks up the pillow with this free hand. He dissappears into the hut, and then he reappears and tips the bed up so it leans against the hut and is not jutting out into the street. Dreadlock woman has filled a jug already and is waiting for a second to fill. She turns to him and says something. Then she hoists the full jug onto her hip with the same fluid motion pink sari woman used: right hand in the neck, swing across body and onto left hip, hold with left hand around neck. She walks down the street to her hut and the recently sleeping man comes to the tap to stare into the filling jug. I hear music again and it gets louder as he approaches. I cleverly deduct that it is in his pocket, probably a cell phone. As the water level in his jug approaches the neck both Jeeva and the woman to whom she has been speaking pick up jugs and step closer to the tap. Jeeva moves to slip a jug under the water as he pulls his away but he is faster. He slips a small jug under with his free hand almost before the he gets the full one out from under the water. Jeeva says something to him in her shrill voice, but he makes no reply as he lifts the jug unto his shoulder and walks away to the banana leaf hut.
Eventually, recently sleeping man comes out again and takes away the last of his jugs. Jeeva gets a jug under the tap next, the big blue one with the white lip. Jeeva turns to me and says “you can go to that tap”. I pick up the big orange jug and walk down the dirt path toward a tap at the far end.
The path leads between many banana leaf huts. Judging from the smell some of them are outhouses. In the dirt I see shallow ditches leading out from under some of the huts and toward the cement ditch where dirty water runs. When I get near the tap I see a woman there, washing silver dishes: two cups, a small container with a lid, and a small pot. As a approach she head bobbles at me and her movements quicken. She rapidly rinses the dishes and rubs them down with her hands, then she picks them up and walks off behind me. I slip my jug under the running water and wait for it to fill.
As I wait I see the woman walk into a hut without a roof and bend down so I can't see her anymore. A younger woman stands next to her and I her the clatter of pots and pans coming from their hut. Other than that I hear birds in the trees. They do not sing but chatter to each other, and occasionally a rooster crows from somewhere in the village. The village is full of chickens and roosters, so the crowing comes from all directions at different times. However, it's quite in the village compared to the city. Everyone seems to be out and about now, doing thier morning chores. The sun isn't even fully up yet.
As my jug fills I wonder if I will have to shut off the tap when I take my jug since I don't have another jug to fill while I take this one home. But then another woman walks down toward me with a jug in her hand. I grip my own filling jug just as the water reaches the neck and pull, trying to lift it slightly off the ground as I do so as not to drag it since Jeeva has warned me that dragging the jugs wears them out. Once my jug is clear of the water hers is under it, filling. I try to swing the jug up to my left hip, using the momentum of a small back swing as I have seen Jeeva and the other women do. I get it up, but not to my hip. I struggle to lift it a little higher and in the process slosh the hem of my in-skirt (worn under my nighty for modesty). I use both hands to get the jug up to my hip and as I turn to walk away I wrap my left arm around the neck hoping to be able to hold it as the other women do. It sloshes and slips and before I have taken two steps I am holding the jug in front of me and hugging it with both arms.
I walk back up the dirt path to the road, pass the other tap and finally reach Jeeva's yard. I cross under the laundry lines and walk up the two steps to the cement floor of the wash room where the cistern is. As I bend to avoid hitting my head on the door frame I splash my front with water. Finally, I tip the jug toward the cistern (which resembles a giant cement bathtub with little fish swimming in it) and let the water fall out, making more noise in that enclosed space than I expected. The washroom does not smell pleasant. The cistern had been getting low with all of us washing and bathing so much, and I could smell the fish that swim in it to eat the algie and keep the water kleen. I can't usually smell them. Once my jug is empty I hold it by the neck again and bend under the doorway and out into the yard again.
I take my jug down to the second tap and wait for my turn to fill it. When a woman comes to claim the currently filling jug I replace it with my own and wait alone for it to fill. When it is full I pull it out tp take my jug back to the cistern, again trying to get it on my hip like the other women. I get it there faster this time, and I do not attempt the one-handed hold. Instead I hug it around the middle with my left hand and around the neck with my right hand. I get a little wet on the way, but not as badly as last time. Or maybe I'm already so wet it doesn't matter. When I bend to get into the washroom does it slosh out again, soaking my feet and skirt hem.
Back at the first tap Jeeva motions with the hand swing that we are using it now. She tells me “other ones” and motions to the two other jugs that belong to her that are sitting by the second tap. I walk down and fetch them. As Jeeva reaches out to take her filling jug from under the water a woman at her side is ready poised with a very small red jug. Jeeva motions to me and I get my orange jug ready too. Jeeva pulls her jug out from under the water and toward the other woman, making her back up a bit and giving me a chance to get my jug under first. I worry that she wil be mad, but she says nothing, just sets her little red jug down next to my filling orange one and waits. When my jug is full she slips hers under easily.

When I get back to the tap, having wet myself once more the same as last time, Jeeva is filing the large blue jug, the biggest one she owns. When she gets it out she motions me to a smaller red and white striped jug, of medium size. “You can take smaller” she says, and I know she is thinking the wasted water dripping down my nighty and onto my shoes. Then Jeeva, who is about half my size, easily swings the bigger blue jug between her legs a bit and then uses the momentum to get it across her body and onto her left hip. She holds it with only her left arm around the neck of the jug and walks at a normal pace, hip jutting out where the jug rests. She doesn't spill a drop.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Coming of Age

She is about 14 years old, dressed in a dark green sari of very fine silk. On her head she wears a crown of flowers, jasmine and small orange blossoms I have yet to name. Her hair has been slicked back to within an inch of its life with coconut oil, and on it she wears glittering jewelry, Huge earrings that are connected to her headdress with chains of rhinestones, a belt of rhinestones, armlets and bangles of rhinestones, even her braid which falls far below her slim waste is heavy with hearts made of rhinestones stuck in it at small intervals. She glitters from her head to her toes. Placidly, looking down and careful not to smile, she is calmly allowing all her female relatives to apply the orange turmeric and then red sandal woad to her forehead, the back of her hands, and her feet. Occasionally another young woman steps out from behind her and wipes off her hands and feet so the next female relative can apply more spice, but her forehead mark must be an inch thick. Around her feet are bowls and platters of silver, laden with gifts. Coconuts, Mangoes, Bananas, Silk for new saris, lentils, jasmine, even a bottle of powder deodorant. She stands to accept more, touching the feet of the giver first, then pausing to hold one side of the tray while they hold the other and the cameraman snaps a photo. Today the girl has become a woman, the "flower has bloomed".
Poor girl, there is a rather tall American girl sitting in the front row who didn't get the "wear your best sari" memo taking up much of the attention. Don't blame me please, I didn't want to sit on the front row and I honestly don't know why your photographer is taking as many pictures of me as he is of you.
Suddenly someone is pushing my head down and I feel them messing with my braid. When they let me up again a woman is smiling down at me, my old string of Jasmin in her hand and a new one in my hair. Oh, uh, yes thank you that is my forehead--wow lots of red and orange powder on my forehead, okay sure why not. Oh! My neck to eh? Well, in for a penny! Slather it on my good woman. Eat that? Looks like a ball of white play-dough. Huh, tastes like playdough too. Another one? No I couldn't possibly...or you could shove it in my mouth like that. Yes thank you, lovely dough balls, I'm completely full. Oh, we are going in to eat now? Right well I'll just stand up know you really don't need to hold my hand...but you're going to anyway. Smile, head bobble, keep walking.
Have you ever seen an Indian line? Well, imagine sheep filing into a feeding area and you have it. Sydney is plastered against a wall half laughing have gagging on her dough ball and a woman with bright yellow hands (she's been cow-dunging her house) grabs my arm and in we go! I think I stepped on someone back there. Sorry! No, not sari, sorry! Yes, your sari is lovely, and I am wearing a dusty salwar kamiz. Banana leaves on the table and the host is being sure we taste every dish. What the heck is that? I don't know but it tastes like condensed milk and looks like baby up-chuck. Smile, eat it! and fold the banana leaf quickly so they can't give you seconds.
Outside the proud father is telling us it is his daughter who has bloomed today. Isn't that nice? Don't you wish your dad would have thrown a party and invited the whole village when you had your first period?

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Market Day

A long, dirty street with tarps suspended from ropes over our heads. Colorful tarps, as is only fitting in this technicolor country. The market is splashed with pink, blue, yellow, and green light as it filters through the torn tarps and potato sacks. The men sit behind their wares, onions, bananas, carrots, peas, fruit that definitely didn't come from this planet. Every once in a while we pass by a stall selling what we have dubbed alien fruit, which comes in watermelon sized pods but is actually more like soft sweet smelling seeds the size of large strawberries, but looking like peeled bananas. This fruit has a strong, sweet, mouthwatering taste. One day we will buy one and try it out, then we'll have a coke to kill all the weird bacteria that comes with it. Shouts from the vendors in loud, monotone, quickly repeating the name of their product in Tamil. Mangoes, orange and yellow and green and smelling divine. Thirty ruppess "kaygee"? No, more like fifteen. Twenty? Hmm...they look too ripe...twenty for a kaygee...two kaygees then. No, we don't have a rice bag, just put it in with the garlic. Women pass in their second best saris, hair slicked back with coconut oil, bangles and earrings sparkling. This is market day.
Down a side alley, with dusty brown tarps. Bags of brown woven fabric sit open mouthed with mounds of spices piled inside. Red, green, yellow, all colors. The smell is overwhelming; it smells like everything and nothing. "Madam, Madam! (rapid Tamil words)" I answer no thank you, and I don't make eye contact. They already think I'm a loose woman, no need to encourage the idea. "Which country, which country???" America (I pronounce it A mare eee kah! so they can understand me). Ah, yes, that would explain the height...or something else in Tamil. "My name is? My name is?" I fight the urge to tell them I don't know there name and instead answer the question they mean to ask, "Cathlin." "Latkin?" "Whatever." A breeze has smuggled its way into the covered alley of the bazaar, it touches my skin like a long lost friend and I welcome it just as lovingly. "Madam, Madam banana! bannana!" No, thank you Mr. Goiter man, that's a lovely skin disease you have. This is market day.
Winding out into the open street again, the blare of horns incessantly in my ears. Buses pass within an inch of my elbow and I have learned not to flinch. Rickshaw drivers call out to me, motion to their motor-rickshaws. No, thank you, I'll take the bus. The light is red, but no one stops yet. I guess it isn't really red until it has been that way for a minute. Whistles and bells and "Hello! Hi HI HIII! Which country? My name is?" Hello, Amayreeekah! Cathlin. A head bobble. "Sari, madam, sari?" No thank you. "Come in, just come into shop!" No, I don't need gold jewelry or what looks like used sandals. My feet ache, they are not feet colored anymore. They are India colored. The bus stop, a crowd of people waiting. younger girls in salwar kamiza, like me. Mature women in saris, wrapped to show a pudge of dark brown belly. Old women in saris without blouses, a glimpse of wrinkled flesh sagging down. The bus is loud, honking at everyone and no one. Standing sandwiched between two Indian women I am glad the men sit in the back of the bus, and I am grateful for my height (I think the air is cleaner up here). A long, bumpy ride on dusty roads with my hand above my hand grasping the rail like a lifeline and the blessed wind drying dirt and sweat onto my skin. Head bobble to the conductor along with my five rupees. Walking home along poo-road where so many have left their fetid mark (I don't want to look down, but I don't want to step in it either). The village, the veranda, a smiling Jeeva, and finally bare feet on the warm (but not hot) cement of my floor/bed.
This is market day.

Friday, May 9, 2008


We took the train here. Eight hours and then some. It was lovely. After all the heat of Chennai, the train had a constant breeze. It was a little crowded, but not too bad. At one stage it even started raining. The roog leaked as did our window, so we got a little wet. At about ten pm we reached Coimbatore. We meant to stay there one night and travel to the village in the morning. But we looked at over thiry hotels and none had any rooms available. So we called out host family and took a taxi straight to the village.
The six girls share a room. At night we lay out bamboo mats and sleep in sheets on the floor. When I roll over, I knee someone in the head most of the time. We have a ceiling fan, but the power goes out at least three times a night. Luckily, it isn't so hot here as it was in Chennai. I even got almost chilly the first night. In the morning, I get up and put on my flip flops which are not allowed either in the house or on the veranda, and cross the yard to the outhoust/washroom. Let's just say the outhouse is a squatter and leave it at that. Surprisingly, the left hand/right hand thing is working for me, though still a little wierd. I take a "shower" by filling a bucket from the cystern and splashing myself with it. I am careful as I fill the bucket not to use too much water as I will need to replace what I have used when the government pump is turned on in a day or so. I'll bring the water from the pump back to the house in a plastic vase thing which will probably be most comfortable on my head and dump it in the cistern where little fishes keep it clean. For drinking water we filter it with a pump filter into our bottles.
The village is surrounded by trees of all kinds and it is truly picturesque. Inside, teh houses are painted pastel blues, greens, yellows, and purples. I have been to the goddess temple where I'll be doing most of my participant observation, but it was not open when I got there. THere are a few tree shrines as well, one of which is a promising spot to chatt with the village women. As it is they come out of thier houses when I pass and we smile and put our palms together and say "vanacum" and head bobble at each other. I don't have much else to say until I find a translator.
The children drive me crazy. They won't leave us alone and you know how little I like children anyway. I'm nice, though. I keep telling them my name when they ask and no matter how often it happens I do not try to explain that no matter how many times they ask my name will still be Cathlin, and no matter how many times they repeat it they will never pronounce it right. Oh well.
Meals are eaten on banana leaves which we rinse off. Mostly rice with some spicy gravy/sauce that we mix with our hands and eat. I'm getting used to eating without utinsels. It's not so hard. The walk into "town" from where we live is long, but breezy. The "restaurants" are pretty scary looking, but I eat there twice a day and still do not feel the least bit sick.
Mattew and Jeeva (our host family) have an old man living with them (I think he is Jeeva's father). He's pretty kooky and we all enjoy his company. He speaks no English, but plays a mean hand of Uno. We try to learn Tamil words from him. Today we learned "beautiful". He told us how to say it and then gestured at me and said it a couple of times. He pointed to my braided hair and head bobbled, then to Sydney's short curly unbraided hair and shook his head. I guess unbraided hair is not beautiful.
We are back in the city today to grocery shop and internet. I can't get pictures uploaded. I'm sorry. I'll try really hard next time.