Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

The Swastikas are Starting to Bother Me

October 25, 2011

A long time ago, when few people had watches to tell the time, a British soldier would stand in full dress uniform at the top of Gun Hill in Musoorie, proudly daring the Indian heat to sweat up his face. Every hour, on the exact moment of the hour’s birth, he heralded PROGRESS, the continuity of his country’s successful taming of India, the powerful mechanical moving forward of his stodgy world.

Or maybe he suffocated within his wet blanket of restrictive clothes, trying to cough out the impurities spewed by his time telling rifle. Maybe he cried at night and whispered his mother’s name as a thumb sucker, self soother: “England, England, England.” Maybe he was 17 years old, having lied his way into the army so he could leave his wooden dinner table with stale bread and butter and milk and not much else. His growling stomach became a mouth. It fought battles with his brain and took that over too. It fought his heart and won. The hunger empire. And now here he was, the skinny boy child, hoping he wouldn’t have the runs as bad as he did yesterday. It had taken him twenty two minutes crouching naked with the lye bar and bucket full of tepid water. And of course the uniform had not dried fully. Damp folds of cloth rubbed the open sores of his armpit. Poor chap had tried to buy talcum powder in the market, but the language barrier had been too great. Or maybe the people here just hated him.

In 2011, few people have watches to tell the time. Yes, some men sport status on their wrist and some grandmothers still use the wristwatch for its originally intended purpose. I, myself have a cell phone, but don’t want to flash it in advertisement of my supposed “rich westerner” status. I can’t afford to have it swiped with two small children depending on my ability to differentiate naptime from 25 minutes before naptime.

Someone speared a 4 foot long supple branch with dead leaves on the wall next to my new apartment door. They continued their decorating by chalking a white swastika at eye level on my wooden door. I think it was to make me feel welcome. For those of you that don’t know me: I am Jewish and am keenly aware that the swastika is an age old symbol. But in my mind, its corruption by Hitler is irreversible and I will never be able to see it as a symbol of anything but hatred or death. Swastikas are everywhere here: painted on cars and vikrams, adorning jewelry, and proudly displayed on people’s front doors. Even after 3 weeks here, I always shudder when I see one. They are one of the many reasons why I just can’t get comfortable here.

Monsoons and Cell Phones in Dehradun, India. Also, Toilets All Over the World.

September 16, 2011

As the monsoon rages outside, I tuck myself into a warm sticky corner of the garage. Gasoline fumes abound and my little case of tuberculosis cough rattles in time to the rain. A jackhammer and the milling crowd of garage workers provide the rest of tonight’s accompaniment. I look all sorts of rock star with my muddied Birks, torn pants, and sweat stains. Mind you, there is a thin line between rock star and homeless, but I’m rockin’ the cool side due to this laptop and my very clean hair. I’ve also got a box of takeout that is not sloppy seconds.

Why am I in a garage in a monsoon in Dehradun, India, eating green glop and naan? Well it’s no Dr. Seuss tale, so be forewarned.

I flew in on the post September 11th flight from Boston to London to Delhi to Dehradun. It’s scary enough surviving on airplane food and entrusting all your possessions to the competent airline baggage handlers. If there was going to be a 10-year terrorist reunion, I didn’t want an invitation. Thrifty traveler that I am, I booked 2 nights at the Doon Castle Hotel. Yep, the cool name and the private bathroom sold me. Unfortunately, this “castle” is home to someone else’s black pubic hairs twisted into the sheets. I start to ask myself, “What is the value of a night without my new wiry companions?”

Then I enter the bathroom. This brings me to my list.

Things found in the bathroom that are worse than shit:

Bad in Cusco, Peru:
The walls are covered in barbed wire

Worse in Cusco, Peru:
I am potty training my toddler and have my baby attached to me in a baby carrier (don’t back up!)

The owner has a sense of humor:
The other bathroom has broken glass shards pasted to its walls

Bad in Thailand, Cambodia, and India:
Mothballs in the urinal

Worse in India:
Mothballs in the sink

Bad all over the world:
No toilet paper

No toilet paper, then no soap

No toilet paper, then no soap, then the sink is broken — no water (and this was at a restaurant where the staff share a bathroom with the restaurant goer).

No toilet paper, but it’s cool, cause I have brought my own.

Worse on the border of Bolivia:
I can’t get my own from my bag because I am wearing the baby in a baby carrier on my front and have all my worldly possessions in my backpack. The floor has nuclear sludge on it so I am not putting the baby down. We are crossing the land border between Peru and Bolivia and rebels are throwing rocks and people are muttering that they always do this and soon, the border will close. I’d better leave the bathroom now. My toddler is wining that she can’t shit in a potty without a toilet seat on it. I haven’t even told her she won’t be getting any toilet paper.

I scooped up toddler and told her to “hold it.” Border closed an hour after we left, stranding us in Bolivia. Passport and wallet were stolen 2 days later. I might as well have put the bag down outside of the bathroom and its sludge.

Good and Funny in rural Cambodia:
Western style toilet (that’s the one you use) with diagram above it showing someone using it the proper way, then showing a diagram with a line through it depicting someone standing on the rim of the seat. Thanks! Now I know what to do!

Bad in Thailand:
There is no flusher. In the corner of the bathroom, there is a bucket of water with a ladle. I am to ladle the water into the toilet. I cringe as my hands get soaked in the bucket water.

Worse in Thailand:
People use that bucket “water” to wash their hands after they go to the bathroom.

Bad in Peru:
We are visiting the floating islands on Lake Titicaca in Peru. The island’s occupants pee directly in the lake, but do shit using a “compost” system; they shit through a pile of sticks and reeds. Thankfully, my family did not drink much water that day.

Worse in Cambodia:
We are visiting the floating village in Siem Reap, Cambodia on Lake Tonle Sap. Both my kids have to go. We are eating at someone’s house and are told that my baby boy should just pee off the side of the house into the water. The girl can do the same. I should, however, go to the kitchen (where they are currently cooking our meal) and pee on the floor and use the kitchen’s water to send the pee through the floor slats into the lake. And of course there is no privacy, no toilet paper, and no soap. Oh, but you can wash your hands in the bowl of water in the “dining area” where everyone else is “washing up for meal.”

Just to even out the score, I would like to remind the reader that in America, we cover our kids’ butts in thick plastic and let them pee and shit on themselves until they are 2, sometimes 3 years old. This mess sometimes isn’t even discovered for an hour or so due to such “fabulous” diaper technology. Sometimes it’s so bad, that the baby’s skin will develop a rash and bleed from the ureic acid.

Many of the people in Asia and South America never use diapers. In tropical climates, the kids often run around naked from the waist (Not waste. Puns are the lowest form of humor) down. In China, they have holes in the butts of their clothing. Those that do use diapers, have the kids trained around 1 year old. Even infants give little signs when they are about to go, so you can hold the baby away from your body and let him water the plants.

“Wait,” you say, “how did you go from the garage in the monsoon to shit?” Ah yes, I am getting off track. Behind myself, if you will (No more puns, terrible things). I left my charming abode at Doon Castle to find someone who would unlock my cell phone. Free my little guy from AT & T so we can frolic in the radio waves of India. But my cell phone wasn’t having it. None of the regular cellphone hackers could split up my IPhone from his AT&T. Apparently he and AT & T had a hot affair going. I should have guessed as much from the high cost of their contractual relationship. Perhaps my IPhone will be getting a diamond necklace with a monthly phone bill like that?

I had come to the garage because the guys who worked there were the best in town. They were the kneecap breakers who could cleave AT & T from my phone in one quick tap. Tough guys like this should always have their shops in oily garages with dim lights. My cellphone hacker/kneecap breaker was the king of them all. Descend to his lair through Raj Plaza, into the garage. His office smells like feet and is located on the right. He speaks English and, if there is power in Dehradun, he might be able to unlock your cell in less than an hour. Of course, you should not expect that there will be power all day long. Where do you think you are? In America? No, there will be power for some of the day. Hopefully. Be thankful if you have uninterrupted power during your shower, while your oatmeal is microwaving, while you are bending over a squat toilet with a dangling child and trying to aim.

The dim lights are an important detail in my story. The center of the Raj Plaza building has a square cutout in the roof, allowing even the basement to benefit from sunlight. One could even turn the interior lights off to save energy. My cellphone guy had done just that. He got to work unlocking my phone and assured me that I could come back in 15 minutes to my unlocked phone. Saying, “it will be done in 15 minutes” in India means “2 hours to never,” but I didn’t know that yet. It was only my first week in India. I came back exactly 15 minutes later to a dark garage. “15 more minutes,” he says with no apology. I come back in 30. No phone. “Just a few more minutes. You can wait here in my comfy store where we are all fans of bare feet.”

I head to the nearest café and get caught in the monsoon along the way. It’s not Starbucks, but Café Coffee Day, a decent enough imitation. I order a green looking vegetarian moosh, some sort of sandwich that wishes it were a Panini, and a coffee. Despite getting soaked to the skin, stepping in cow shit, and tearing my pants on a fence, I return to the garage, a happier, more caffeinated human. The phone is still not ready. “Maybe another 30 minutes or so.” I cower in the corner, dripping, warming my lap with the laptop and Café takeaway.

Which brings me back to the start of this tale. I finally ask Mr. Kneecap, “What exactly is the problem? Why is this taking so long?”

“We have no power.”

He has not done anything to the phone since the power went out. It dawns on me that the power has probably been out since I returned from the first 15 minutes. It was rather dark then. And the computer whirring . . . .yes, it had been very quiet then. Maybe there was no whir. The power had been out all this time! When Kneecap said “15 minutes,” he was assuming the power would return and he could get to tapping. One can’t assume the power will return! Even I, a brand new arrival to this fantastical land, know this.

Will AT&T get its kneecaps broken? Will my IPhone fall in love with something we shall call, “Airtel?” Will I find a bed with no wiry companions?

A blog cliffhanger.

Banking in His Underwear

March 16, 2011

A pair of speedos clung to his bum. Chest hair proudly erect in the air conditioning. Gaze nonchalant.

The Brazilian man in front of me was inside the bank using his debit card to take out some cash. And he was naked save the unfortunate garment choice of speedo. And no one but me thought anything of it.

Brazilians are an informal people and it’s not just exemplified in the way they dress. Total strangers will reach out and touch your children’s feet and hair, cooing about how cute they are (At least I think that’s what they’re saying. I hear something like the Portuguese word for beautiful, “lindo,” but for all I know the stranger could be offering to sell us umbrellas.).

Brazilians are warm and friendly, which somehow scares the shit out of me. Must be all my time in New York. I asked directions of a stranger and she escorted me by the hand for 10 minutes, making sure I got correct change from my metro ticket and ensuring I found my way to the subway. Upon boarding me, she kissed me and said, “In Brazil, we kiss both cheeks.” I smiled and thanked her, but I couldn’t quite shut out an evil voice, which whispered in my head, “In New York, we tell strangers to kiss our ass.”

I hope that the longer I stay away from New York, the more I will adopt this Brazilian attitude. Maybe my cynicism will fade away in inverse proportion to the tan I am slowly cultivating.