Friday, September 28, 2007

Badminton as liberation

Last night, I, and the three other women I live with, went to play badminton with Pabbu from the office at the local gym. First, he took us to his parents' house where his mother fed us Indian deserts (unidentifiable fruity pastries) and mashed apples mixed with milk and water. The home was quite tall as the family is relatively well off. They're built that way so that all the hot air goes near the ceiling, making it much cooler than most homes. The gym is a large building with four badminton courts and a small gym with old but still often used equipment. Kind of spooky, like the place a school dance would be held during which all the kids are killed or scarred for life when the ghost of a former student wreaks revenge. I'd never thought of badminton as a particularly liberating (or even particularly interesting) sport but, last night, I definitely did. It was a bit of freedom in this place where all we can do is go to work and back home at night. It would be weird to go for a run here, especially for a woman. Whenever one of us is out "late" (9pm) the host family worries and will sit on the front step of their house, waiting. Despite having to wear pants and a loose T-shirt in the 85-degree building, it was still nice and fun. We were the only women there. The men didn't seem to think it too odd that we were there but I think they would have if we had been Indian. As in China, foreigners here get a sort of "by" to vaguely strange behavior. We left at 10pm to the anxious thought of "Ah, we should not be out this late!"

I've been thinking about the purpose of this trip the last few days because there's been nothing to do in the office. First, the internet was out. Now, I am lethargic, especially about work. I remember saying very vehemently before I left that my main goals were to learn and to make friends. I was reading this op-ed by Danielle Trussoni in the New York Times. She writes quite often about her trip to Vietnam, even though it was years ago. I don't have such a personal connection to any of the places I have been, or am going to, but it makes me wonder what effect the trip will have on me in the years to come, particularly because China and India are such evolving nations and both have a lot of controversy surrounding them. The subjects are endless.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Photo please?

Yesterday, we took a visit to the printer to see how the October issue is coming along. It was about 110 degrees in there. Looks pretty good, this guy is working on it and the coloring.

Took a rickshaw there, it's the easiest way to get anywhere that's not in biking distance. I took a minute's worth of video on the way.

They also print a lot of fireworks boxes, especially for Standard which is the biggest producer in town. Who doesn't want demented Santa fireworks?

Yesterday was Laura's birthday, so Jeryn and Annie got some fireworks and we set them off in a field near the house. The host mother bought a cake and we ate it with our right hands. Finally, everyone (the family and us four) sat down together -- but only briefly. Better than nothing. Sivakasi's main industry is fireworks and printing so there are fireworks almost every night (testers).

It's been feeling quite hot lately even though the weather has been the same as always. It's perfectly clear during the day and cloudy at night so the stars are never out. The night clouds are always really high in the atmosphere and kind of tiled; it creates a violet dome over Sivakasi.

The kids here are so funny. One little girl in the neighborhood either has foreigner-radar or has learned our schedule because she will come running from up to a block away, screaming in high-pitched little girl, "Photo please? Photo please?" then strike a model pose. She's the one on the far right in the first photo; the others are the giggle gang who live in the house behind. I think they are interested in the instant photo gratification; I haven't seen anyone else with a digital camera here besides us. All the kids say the same thing, "Hi! Hi! Photo please?" And if they are gutsy, add "Pen?" The third photo is the next door neighbor's little boy. He's too young to talk but we took about twenty photos of him last night and by the end, he thought the flash was HILARIOUS.

I forgot an important part of local women's fashion. They all wear beautiful jasmine flowers in their hair! Literally, at least 80% of the women you see will have the flowers. Today, we got some, too.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Bats, burqas, Bollywood and cricket

I was lying on the bed last night, reading, when a large blur flew through my peripheral vision. I looked up, praying it was a humongous butterfly, but no, it was a small BAT. A bat came into the house through the open window behind me. Obviously, I screamed like a girl and ran into the other room and shut the door. A braver soul than I went out to investigate and found it had already flown out the opposite open window. Huge crisis averted.

Cricket is huge in India. Last night, India beat their biggest rival, Pakistan, in the finals of the world championships (I think?) and the neighborhood went nuts and horns were honking even more than usual. People set off fireworks (fireworks is Sivakasi's biggest industry so they were close at hand) and I had no idea what was going on because we have no TV.

I've been talking to some of my friends about the plight of Indian women. I think the country is in a strange stage of transition. Bollywood billboards will show women wearing shorts and tank tops but a woman on the street, at least in this area, would NEVER wear that. Maybe in Delhi. But no one seems terribly offended to see it on the advertisements. I think the conservative dress is part tradition and part religion. This area of India is culturally conservative and it is now easy for me to see how an even greater extreme like the burqa could come to be the norm. I don't find the concept of burqas so odd or repressive anymore. I found out from my friend that some women are so staunch about remaining completely covered at all times that some burqas have slits in the front for sex.

Male dress in India is an awesome time warp. Most of the young men dress like they're in 1971 America with bellish bottoms and a short-sleeved, loose but not too loose, patterned button-down shirt. Older men (if they are thin) usually wear a loose shirt with what westerners would qualify as a skirt but is actually a "dhoti." They have slits in the front and are folded halfway up then tied in a loose front knot that they constantly tie, untie and otherwise fiddle with.


Despite dowrys being officially illegal, arranged marriages and dowrys are still commonplace. In the household where I live, the mother and father were married at the respective ages of 19 and 21. The first daughter was born a year later.

Speaking of Bollywood, I saw my first Bollywood movie on the bus over the weekend. It was like the Dukes of Hazzard TV show combined with a bad kung fu flick + a musical + the opening scene of a 1970s porno (the part where they show the "plot").

Monday, September 24, 2007

On the move

On Friday, I went on seven buses to the southwestern coast of India, in the state of Kerala, not too far from Sri Lanka. It took nine hours to get there but the travel doesn't really bother me because it's so interesting to watch what's going by. The buses passed through about 800 million small towns and villages on the way, including one at the very top of a mountain. It was a really bumpy journey up the mountain and there aren't any guardrails. It's normal for it to take forever to get somewhere here even if the towns aren't that far apart from each other as the crow flies because of mountains and a lack of roads/highway system. The railway system is extensive but not very direct between small towns. It made it much clearer what people mean when they say that India is a developing nation and what, exactly, Third World means. I passed through towns where the families had two walls and no roofs and their home was one room. The other walls would be pieces of tarp. Some of the houses were made out of sticks and some of them had collapsed on one side. Some of the homes were gigantic, had a car and three motorbikes parked outside, and overlooked beautiful valleys. We passed people bathing and washing their clothes in waterfalls and rivers. It didn't scream poverty to me because no one seemed unhappy but I thought back to the US and just how far "ahead" of this kind of disparity we are. I was looking at CNN's obesity map of the United States and half of the states have a population of >25% obese. The rest are at 20-24%, save Colorado which is 15-19%-- all up from >10% in 1986. There is easy access to good food, hospitals, prescription drugs, roads and fresh water in the US so now we're ruining our health in the other direction. And obsessing over the psychology of our actions while we do it.

On a similar note, I've been thinking about the difficulty I had booking a flight out of here to Ghana. The problem was that the airlines and travel agents both needed me to pay by cash via demand draft (similar to COD), or to send it by courier to their offices seven hours away. I could only pay with a credit card if I paid in person and online booking was not possible. The lack of a comprehensive credit system here was very difficult for me to comprehend because America's is so advanced that it's unusual for someone to pay cash unless the purchase is less than $10. I'd say about 80% of the sales at the bookstore I worked at last year were credit. In India, this is unfathomable. On the bus, fruit and nut merchants would come up to the windows to sell their wares while it was stopped and I was thinking about how little they must make and what their lifetime income would be compared to the average American. The vendors will never have the chance to make that much money. However, they will also never have the chance to accrue the thousands of dollars of consumer debt that some of my friends face.

Mountain shop:

Rice paddies:

Saw quite a few child workers during the trip. This kid was selling cotton candy, he's not even that young. Some of them, especially girls, are like six:

The beach/town is called Varkala. Small hotels and shops are on top of a cliff overlooking the Indian Ocean. The shops had every sort of item a tourist might be interested in: small figurines, candleholders, loads of fabrics, what we think of as Indian clothes (which are not what they actually wear) and shoes. There were some jewelry shops run by Tibetans and Nepalese. I met a guy from Bhutan. The other good thing was the restaurants. They were pretty cheap and served western, Chinese and Indian food. And it was more ok for women to drink alcohol and smoke there, because it is so touristy, so I had three drinks in two days but still managed to shock an Indian man despite the environment. I ordered Chinese food on Friday night because I miss it and was expecting chopsticks for some reason but the dish came with a fork! So, I used a fork for the first time in 2 1/2 months. On Saturday, I had western and it made me a little sick. The same thing happened the two times I had western food in China. I think it's my body not being used to it, not the quality of the food.

Ganesh and Jesus on the bus:

View from the bus:

There are two beaches; one to the north where most of the Indians go, and one to the south where most of the foreigners go so the women can wear bikinis and the men can wear trunks. Indian swimwear is T-shirt and knee-length shorts, regardless of sex. The area and ocean are really beautiful; just like a postcard with palm trees everywhere and waves that break far from the shore. I don't know how I ended up in a tropical paradise, it's never been my wish! But I enjoyed it anyway. I got a nice and awkward sunglasses sunburn, so I look like a pink raccoon right now.

Stray dogs all over Varkala, too. They're really tame and have a defeated attitude; not all excitable and jump-y like escaped dogs in America. The sand underneath the top layer was black.

As you can see, the beach was super beautiful and easy to enjoy. The undercurrent is really strong, stronger than anything I've ever experienced before. As long as you don't go out too far (like no more than 20-30 feet from shore), it's ok, you catch the next wave in, but it is a little scary at the beginning; I just kept thinking back to the guy from my high school who died in the Mexican undertow. Beach regulation and lifeguarding are not nearly as extensive here as they are in the Sttaes. The beach was fun and good until Saturday night. I went down the stairs from the cliff to sit on the beach and look at the nighttime ocean but there was an overpowering stench of poo and dead. I kept going, just to investigate, and found one of the hotels was dumping raw sewage straight into the sand, right where I had been laying earlier in the day! Completely disgusting.

Indian Ocean as the next Lake Erie:

I was talking to a guy from Germany on Saturday at the beach. He was born in 1988 in East Germany and said that, generally, that side of the country is still economically underdeveloped and depressed. The young people leave as soon as they can because there's nothing to do and, culturally, there is nothing. The west is much more modern and still widely preferred.

I'm writing this in the midst of one of the numerous power outages that happen everyday. It's not particularly inconvenient because the computers are on a different power circuit and almost never go off but the lights and fans go off about eight times a day for anywhere from five seconds to twenty minutes each time.

The host family serves coconut chutney quite often. It's a sort of coconut sauce to go with dosai or flat pancake or whatever. They get the coconuts from the palm tree behind their house. The coconut man comes and climbs up the tree and knocks them off! That's his title and his job. Awesome.

Coconut shells behind the restaurant:

Lunch off a banana leaf:

Thursday, September 20, 2007

दय तो दय इंडिया

I haven't been writing as much as I was while in China because most of my days are the same.

4:30-6:30am wake up to the noise of people sweeping cement outside, or watering plants, or the bicycle man selling something and yelling the same thing over and over as he rides by the houses
7:55am wake up for real and get dressed
8am breakfast downstairs of dosai or yet-unidentified brown flakes in goat's or coconut milk laced with sugar. and a banana.
8:45am bike or walk to work. Say "Hi" to about 20 people on the way.
9am to 1pm work, or pretend to work. This involves researching, thinking and messing around on the internet. And emailing people at home.
1pm go home for lunch
1:30pm eat lunch, usually some kind of very thin, flat, round bread or rice with chutney or mashed beet stuff or mashed cauliflower stuff, mashed potato stuff or mashed spinach stuff, all with other stuff mixed in. I think of it as red, bright yellow, lighter yellow and green. Also, grapes.
1:50pm go upstairs and sleep till the cleaning lady comes and knocks on the door. Madly throw a T-shirt on over tank top and a long skirt on over shorts so as to avoid embarrassing her. I'm sure she can hear me thrashing about. Sleep when she's done sweeping around. She really does come everyday, I don't know why.
3pm to 7pm same work as morning. Wonder why no one else seems to mind the air conditioner being off. Sweat.
7pm bike home and attempt to avoid potholes and not fall off the road when there is no traffic coming because it's so dark without another vehicle's headlights
7:30pm home for dinner which is similar to lunch but a different dish. With a banana. And tea with sugar afterwards.
8pm to 9pm sit on the roof with roommates while they secretly smoke. Can only be done in the dark.
9pm to 11pm shower if the water isn't out for the day (usually not), read if the electricity isn't out (usually isn't at night and usually only out for a few minutes at a time during the day) or chat or whatever

So, overall, it's really not such an exciting existence. We can't go out at night. I see the house and the office and it's the same everyday.

Along the roads, there are sandpiles everywhere. Seems like there's a new one everyday. Sometimes they are for construction... sometimes they seem to be for nothing. This morning, one of the stray dogs was sleeping in one. There are a lot of strays here; about 4000. They survive by foraging from the trash that's all around the sides of the roads.

Here's a shoe repairman. His shop is wherever he sits but he's usually in this spot. A little ways down from him is the bike repairman.

This is a road off of a main road. One paved strip in the middle and two dirt strips on each side.

I've been doing some conversions ever since I found out there are 3.78 liters in a gallon. Gas in China is only slightly cheaper than it is in Michigan right now; it was 4.50RMB/liter when I left, equating to around $2.45/gallon. India is significantly cheaper, converting to about $0.42/gallon.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Dongyue Taoist Temple

It turns out I didn't lose the Dongyue Taoist temple in Beijing pictures, after all.

Early 20th century:

One of the god halls, made out of wood. They look the same today:

One of the pictures I took; this guy is a representation of evil:

Original urn placed in front of a hall to burn incense:

Post-Cultural Revolution, pre-1990s restoration:


For Ann Arborites, even though I'm sure everyone else knew before I did: Shaky Jake died.

Monday, September 17, 2007


On Saturday, we went to Madurai, a city about an hour from Sivakasi. We took the train there for 39 rupees, total, which is about $0.30 each. It would be like going from Providence to Boston or Ann Arbor to Toledo for thirty cents.

We visited a giant Hindu temple and went to some of the shops. The temple is extremely ornate, especially on the outside. Everyone has to take their shoes off to go in. There are statues of the gods inside, including some of cows. I saw someone taking a picture of one of the cow statues and all the Hindus around got really huffy-- no photos of them, including live cows. I'm not sure why, I don't think Christians would be offended if someone came into a church and took a picture of Jesus on the cross? At any rate, I won't be taking any pictures of that. Some of the gods are built into the wall and some are in their own miniature temples and some are in the middle of the floor. I know next to nothing about Hinduism but it was interesting anyway.

I got a skirt to my ankles so at least I have one appropriate item now. All the skirts I brought are only to mid-calf which is too revealing. We ate at a local restaurant in Madurai for lunch. It involved the usual rice and sauces but they gave it to us on a tray; everyone else ate off of a banana leaf.

While we were in one of the shops, a brass band paraded by and everyone ran out to look. They were leading a wedding; the couple was behind, sitting in a convertible.

When we got back to Sivakasi, there were a bunch of fires. I guess it was trash day; everyone was burning their trash. I guess they don't have trash pickup here, at all. I guess I guess I guess-- generally I have no idea what's going on, ever!

People remain really friendly. I walked to the store about 5 minutes away on Sunday and I think word must have gotten around because on the way back, at least 20 kids yelled "Hi!" out of their windows.


Temple exterior (one tower, there were some more):

Salesgirls who said "Take our picture?" ... a common request:

Hollywood Professional Diploma in 3D Modeling

Ox cart:

I've had a few questions about the weather here. In short, it's very reliable. The next four days forecast:
High: 86, Low: 76-77. Scattered T-storms.

I think the rainy season is October, so it's coming shortly.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Neighborhood pictures

This is the street I live on:

This is where I live:

This is where I sleep:

This is the view from the lower porch (not the roof):

This is my Very Heavy Bike:

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Christianity in Sivakasi and a visit to the women's college

When we got home from work last night, it was already dark and the sounds of many voices were drifting through the streets of the NGO colony (the neighborhood). Apparently a different area family hosts a prayer meeting once a week. There is a large Christian population in Sivakasi. The second and third biggest religions are Buddhism and Hindu. They sang for a long time. The family I am with is also deeply religious. I was wrong before. The father's job is making Bible covers but those are his sewing machines in their living room. He makes them out of very nice, soft felt and velvet with a printed pattern then zips them over gold-paged Bibles written in Tamil (the local language). He seems very proud of his work. The family is nice as can be and very generous even if communication between us is a little difficult. After dinner, I went on the roof to look at the stars and listen to the Indian Christian songs but a bat had another idea and kept dive-bombing me so I had to go inside.

The life here is so simple. There seems to be very little drama within the family; people work hard and make do with what they have and, above all, don't complain. If you don't know what you don't have, then you can't. Advertisements are not at every turn here. All the material goods that people in America lust after-- ipods, digital cameras, computers, other latest gadgets, designer/brand name clothes, fancy shoes, comforters, blah blah etc -- nothing here. I haven't seen anyone with a cell phone on the street though the people in the office do have them. As far as tech gear, the family has a small television and a landline telephone. The women have about four everyday dresses each.

On the flipside of that, I have yet to see a bookstore, a record store, or a fire truck. But, it's only been five days.

Young kids, especially girls, are really excited to see a white woman. These are some schoolkids who were screaming, "Hi!! Hi!!!! Hiiiii!" when I walked to work this morning

There's a church near the house. It has a bell that plays once an hour but it's electric and sounds like a synthesizer.

Today, I went to the local women's college with the family's middle daughter. She's third year but only seventeen so I don't really know what "college" means here. We went in a rickshaw in the morning. The campus is beautiful but very different from America! We saw three peacocks just kind of hanging out in trees or in the bushes (separately). It was "Fine Arts Day" and I, and three other of the writers, were taken all around campus. We saw folk dances which involved balancing a big thing on top of your head and wiggling. It was amazing. The crowd was most impressed with the dancers who lied on their stomachs, or cut a carrot out of another girl's mouth with a knife while wearing a blindfold, or picked a napkin up off the floor with their teeth, all while dancing and balancing the colorful, shiny cone. We met faculty (history, art, English, gym) and met A LOT of students, saw the classrooms and the playing fields and saw the artwork of the girls (drawings and sculptures and floor art sand). We saw some skits early in the day. One of them was in support of traditional Indian values and portrayed an Indian girl who got a job in America. Her friend from India came to visit. The friend from India watched the Americanized girl smoke, drink, dance at a "discotheque" with men and, finally, witnessed a school shooting. The Indian sufficiently shamed the other one into going home. It was... weird.

The floor art sand room's theme was "War and Peace". Most of the subjects of the floorsands was the violence between India and Pakistan in the north. At the end, a group accosted us, seemingly solely in honor our being there, to encourage world peace and goodwill. The president of the student association, who got a job in California next year, was wearing a crown and carrying the Indian flag. The rest of them had signs like a picket-line, but everyone was all smiles. The school didn't even know we were coming but we attracted quite a lot of attention from the students. The girls were ecstatic we were there and would shout hello from fifty feet away and come out of classrooms to ask us "What is your name? Where are you from? How long are you in Sivakasi?" or crowd into the doorways if we were going around looking at the art. Anytime we walked somewhere new, we were surrounded by a group of 20 girls to greet us. It was kind of like being a zoo animal because they would be in a big circle with us in the middle. Conversation was slow so there were always times when they were just looking and giggling! I think we made Shakeena (the daughter) famous.

Peace parade

Crowded into the doorway to watch us:

Folk dancers

The flight stuff is giving me such a headache. Who would have guessed it's so difficult to book a 3-continent flight? I have spent my whole time in the office since I got here, pretty much, trying to figure out the cheapest way to do this. As of now, I'm going through Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, arriving at 12:15am and then onto Accra at 7:30am. And thus will be my 7-hour stint in the Middle East, assuming the woman on the phone at Emirates has truly extended me the kindness of not paying until I pick up the ticket in Trivandrum, which is 7 hours away from Sivakasi and where I'm flying out of. For some reason, e-tickets into Africa are not allowed for American passport holders coming from India and thus I have to pick up and pay for the ticket in person. As an added bonus, I need to have my outgoing flight from Ghana booked in order to get my visa into that country. Follow all that?

More photos from today

Also, I made it possible to comment without registering an account. I didn't know you could do that or else I would have done it earlier. Sooo, if you have something to say publicly to me you can do it anonymously now.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


Early in the week, I went to the Dongyue Taoist Temple which was fantastic. I learned a lot more about Taoism. I got some photos but they seem to have been lost somewhere along the line. It was quite large with various halls honoring each god; there were about 300 different ones. A hall is more like a room. Each had a wooden depiction of the god and some disciples and evilers. People could buy small red wooden things to put in front of certain gods which they felt they would like to be looked upon favorably by, or put money directly into a box. There were about a million (literally) of the red blocks hanging from the god of the gods temple in the middle. In the back was a room with photos of the temple during its decline during the Cultural Revolution. It wasn't until the 1990s that it was restored.

The Forbidden City is mindblowing. I didn't really understand the concept of royalty, but I think I do a little bit now. The sheer size and intricacy on every single aspect of the City is unfathomable. Everywhere you look is a new, tiny detail. To top it off, the Forbidden City was only used during two dynasties (the last two-- Ming and Qing). Directly north of the city is a Buddhist Temple on a hill in a park which provides a beautiful view and a direct look at the haze that permeates Beijing. The air quality in Beijing is like LA on double its worst day, pretty much everyday. Most of the tourists are Chinese and I caught a few of them taking my picture. While I was there, the entire western side of the city was shut down in an extremely orderly and quick fashion by the PLA. They herded everyone to the east. The Chinese asked no questions but I said what's going on... one of them acquiesced to tell me that "Someone important is coming to visit" but I couldn't get any more information than that. So, I only saw half of it but it still took four hours.

This is only the second front courtyard:

Overlooking the Forbidden City from a Buddhist Temple on a big hill directly north of it. Nice'n'hazy:

Looking at the temple from the FC:

"Large Stone Carving" -- it's a ramp the emperor walked up when he traveled. He only walked out of the exact center of the Forbidden City. This thing was huge and had a sign saying it was made in northern China, then dragged miles and miles during the winter along an ice road to be installed in the Forbidden City.

Where the emperors sat to perform a ceremony of some sort that I can't remember. Three soldiers guarded the room out of the picture. It smelled like a carpet store:

Continuing northward, towards most of the modern city:

On Thursday, I went to an astronomy observatory. Most of the instruments are from the 1400s.

On Friday, I hiked six miles on the Great Wall. It went from Jinshanling in inner Mongolia to Simatai in Beijing Province. It took four hours to get there! It was the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen. The Wall goes up and down the mountains forever, it's extremely steep in some parts. On the Mongolia side, there were endless numbers of Mongolian peasant women who would follow you. They ask where you are from, tell you about themselves and point out their homes from the Wall (far below) and their corn fields, talk about their families and then try to sell you a T-shirt or postcards. Every single person I saw had one of these women attached to them, they were the hardest workers I have ever seen and must be related to mountain goats because they have zero trouble with the most difficult parts of the wall.

One of the first ones to attach to me:

I went home and slept for six hours, then went to the airport at 6am and flew to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Connected to Chennai.