Monday, October 29, 2007

Mafia, AIDS, wedding, reggae

On Friday, I got a ride home from two coworkers after talking with one of them about how the African people are still economic slaves. He is very black power/African power kind of guy, of the Ga tribe (second biggest after the Ashanti). We were also talking a lot about HIV/AIDS in Africa-- everyone talks about it here, it is a really big deal. I was talking to one of my coworkers who used to work in an orphanage in Ethiopia. She had all of the 162 children tested for HIV earlier this year; 70 of them tested positive. In the general population of Ghana it is not as common but they treat the people who have it very differently, they are effectively outcasts.

We were stuck in traffic in the slums where all the Muslims from the North reside and run their scams and centralize their burglary (at least, that's what they said). One of their friends ran up and they were all slamming each other and whatnot, very friendly-like and I found out afterwards that he is the head of the Accra mafia. They got to know him because they are the ones who put together publicity events for Vibe and they need him for their security. The police here are extremely corrupt and ineffective; whenever there is a private event, private security is hired. They had security guards for the wedding reception at the house on Saturday.

There was a benefit concert with John Legend and reggae star Luciano, from Jamaica, on Saturday. I didn't go, but Luciano came to the studio on Friday with his whole reggaed-out crew. They were all wearing dreadlocks, tie-dye, Bob Marley, weed leaf parphernalia and greeted you with an explosive, "Rastafaaaaaaaaaaarrr!!" I have no idea who he is but it was fun anyway, he was quite nice and the rest of the staff was all in a tizzy about his appearance, including the CEO, which was great because then he was very happy for the rest of the day and chatted with everyone. Usually he is very stone-faced and silent.

The wedding reception was very nice. The bride spent the night at the house so we saw her get ready in the morning. I also saw them preparing some of the food. There were ten or so people behind the house beating out fufu (popular Ghanaian dish) with giant sticks in a bucket and cooking rice, fried chicken, fried fish (whole fish), spaghetti and blood stew over fires. The wedding was all purple, so the two flower girls looked very cute. About 200 people came back from the church for the reception. The women were all decked out in African garb, it was awesome. They looked so good. The bride was wearing the "traditional" white dress and the groom was in a fancy suit with a violet tie and handkerchief. The reception was less crazy than I anticipated; I helped to serve food to the lines of people who filed past. There was music and some dancing but mostly men danced and women watched. I guess Ghanaian women also find the men here a little overwhelming. By the end of the night (actually 6:30pm), the hiphop group who had performed two songs earlier started breakdancing on the porch; they were really good. Marie (also staying at the house) and I were the only white people at the wedding; the children (and some men) thought we were pretty interesting, especially once the digital cameras came out. Yesterday was the first day I invented my fictional fiancee. Everyone wanted us to take photos of the wedding because no one else had a digital camera and a lot of people wanted to have their picture taken with us on the real photographer's "old" style film camera. The bride and groom also wanted to have their photos taken with us, even though we didn't know them at all until the day of the wedding.

"Obroni! Obroni!" I have a lot of photos but I can't put them online because the computer situation here is so iffy... I think I'm going to have to wait until I get home for everything, which sucks because the blog is going to be so much less interesting now!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

A lot of random cultural information

Trotros are the mini-buses/vans that run on fixed routes around Ghana. Two guys will decide to get a van and hop on a route; one will drive and one will "conduct," meaning take the money and open and close the door, look out for passengers, yell the route out the window over and over (mine sounds like "Say-say-say-say-say-circle" and "dzorwulu") and tell the driver when to stop (when a passenger says "bus stop"). A tro carries about fifteen passengers and they wait until they're full to leave. It doesn't take very long, fifteen minutes at most. I am usually the only white person in the car though there are quite a few in Accra (at least, relative to Sivakasi). My journey to work costs $0.23 and the journey home costs $0.32; it's about 3 or 4 miles. It takes a long time, though, usually about an hour because the traffic is so bad. I have no idea why the cost is different because the route is usually the same. Yesterday morning I got lost because the tro decided we weren't picking up another passengers and kicked us into another tro which was on a different route and dropped us off at a different part of the central terminal (Circle) than usual so I had to walk around for half an hour before I knew where I was. Normally, I walk about half a mile from Circle to the office. Doesn't seem too far but it's quite humid here and it's along one of the busiest roads/trafficky times in town so I feel all dirty by the time I get there because the Sahara blows around a little bit and it's sandy and the cars and tros spew all the exhaust.

Speaking of white people, they call us "obrunis." Many Ghanaians feel compelled to display their astute powers of observation by saying "obruni" or "white lady" as I walk by. Yes, I am. Very good. Actually, it is only men or children who do this. When it is children, it's great because they want to chat or will act coy. When it's men, they either think it's funny, which is harmless enough, or want to get into a conversation about where you're from and when are you leaving and how they will visit you in the US. Oh, and are you married? Ghanaians are extremely keen to come to the US; almost everyone you meet has a friend or family member or both in the US. So, all of the above is leading me to actually believe traveling as a woman brings its own special set of difficulties that men never encounter. I like meeting Ghanaians but the ones who initiate conversations most often are men who see white skin as a ticket to another country. I'm really unclear as to why they want to go somewhere else. There's some sort of utopic vision of what the US is like and I think a lot of them must be disappointed when they actually get there. There are signs all over the place advertising some sort of US visa lottery; they're already queuing for the 2009 pull. I've already met a lot of people who are separates from their spouses not because of disagreements, but because one of them is in Europe or North America. Seems perfectly normal and fine to them.

Ghanaians have a reputation for being extremely friendly and it is true to some extent. If they are eating and you walk up, they always say, "You are welcome [to share]," or upon arrival at the house "Welcome!" You always receive or give things with your right hand, never your left (the whole toilet thing again). There are women balancing goods on their head to sell all over the place. Anything you can imagine-- watermelon, water satchels, shoes, food.. it's not only women, too, often it is young girls (9-14ish). They sweat then come up to the cars/tros while they wait at the light. Handwashing rules here; I haven't seen a washing machine or laundromat yet. Additionally, I take my shower from a bucket that is filled at the tap in the bathroom and stand in the tub. It's actually pretty ok and conserves a lot of water. The most common local language is called "Twi" and another is called "Ga" and that's all I know so far.

There is one guy at work who I have really interesting conversations with. My new routine is to arrive at 9am, discuss Ghanaian politics with him between 9:30 and 11, at which point he begs off and says, "I have to go to town now to make some money off politicians!" I'm not sure what he's really doing but I hope it's not under-the-table advertising at the station. He's really smart and a business-minded Jehovah's Witness. He said he finds it shocking that his friends from the UK don't believe in god. He always wants to talk about China with me. A lot of the goods here come direct from Chinese cast-offs and even have characters printed on them (pens, crackers, cookies, etc). I hope he is successful but there's so much that just doesn't make it through the culture barrier for some reason. Ex., he told me his friend went to purchase from an American company but was told upon arrival that their factory is in China. Expensive mistake, how could that happen..
He told me today that a lot of the clothes and shoes and computers and all sorts of goods that come into Ghana to be sold are secondhand from the UK. They're sold at "obroni-woawu" markets which translates as "dead white man" market! I thought that was hilarious.
The biggest 2008 presidential election issues here are the economy and the energy crisis. Earlier this year, the lights flickered incessantly for months, apparently. Things are good now, for the most part. Also learned that the presidential candidates always pick a running mate from the north because then he will be Muslim and they can also get the northern Muslim vote. Here in Accra/the south, most people are Christian.

There are about 80 billion internet cafes in Accra but our office only has one internet connection, and it's dial-up. So if someone is on, no one else can be on. But usually, no one is on. It's a really mysterious way of operating.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

All aboard... the Night Train!

I am now the sole conveyor of 1950s and 60s soul music to the people of Ghana, every Sunday from 6 to 9pm. Initially, they suggested weekdays 9am-12pm but I'm not even sure I have enough with me for a weekly 3-hour so now I am on Sundays and I am very happy about it. Commercial radio in Ghana is so superior to American, it's not even funny. What I am doing here is positively unheard of in the ClearChannel dominated US market. This is going to be a bit difficult for me, given that it's not my specialty and there is no effectively no internet at the station so I can't do any research or download more music. I have already been missing my records, but now I really miss my records, and am kicking myself for not having the complete Fire/Fury Records Story with me (aka, the best boxset ever). Nonetheless, what an awesome job! On the plus side, I can now play everything I overplayed on my old show because they've never had it from me here. In Providence, I could practically hear the programming board moaning, "Fingertips, Part 2, AGAIN?! Seriously?" every three months or so.

I think they were a little shocked when I brought my suggestions to the table ("I'd like to program a 1960s soul show and a one-time special feature show, post-extensive audio editing learning, about the influence of slave music on today's popular music" [what I mean by this, for example, is like Kanye West's "Gold Digger" song-- in it, he samples a song from the 1950s that was lifted from a 1920s bluesman who adapted it from a song that has its origins in the 1850s). My boss says, "Wow.. well... that's certainly different. Yes, let me think about this.. uh.. ok." As said the boss in China... and India... I think we stream online so you can listen if you figure out your time difference. I won't be talking, so don't get your hopes up... I know that is what most people like to hear when they listen to me but I am more concerned about the content than hearing myself babble, so this is ideal for me all around!

The power went out for about 20 minutes this morning and we had dead air for the whole time. There is only one tech person who works there but things get done so much more quickly than anything ever happened at BSR. On top of that, the CEO about chewed his head off. It's remarkable what being paid will do towards people's consciences and sense of duty.

My life here is pretty much unrecognizable other than radio. I eat three square meals a day, feel accomplished if I am still awake at 9:30pm and get up at 6:45am. I'm fully engaged in the drifter lifestyle... I just do what they tell me and watch until I grasp the appropriate social behavior, unless it comes to something I really hate (i.e., drinking Coke, sounding like a MTV VJ, celebrating corporate television) and no longer find it strange to see a guy peeing into the drain water in direct view of 800 people which is being used 200m down to wash another family's clothes (Ghana), or a mother holding her baby up to poop onto the sidewalk (China).

Africa is reality TV crazy, for real. My host mother watches Big Brother Africa for hours on end; she has one TV set to Big Brother and another one, right next to it, for the Christian channel (shows range from Joyce Mayer, ever-present American Christian fleecer, to gospel choirs). The Ghanaian was just kicked out of the Big Brother house and as it turns out, he is the one who was at the airport that everyone started screaming for when I was sitting there for 2 hours waiting for my ride to arrive, wondering who the hell it was. So, I saw myself on Big Brother last night because they showed his homecoming, which means I was briefly seen looking bored and angry by the whole continent.

This weekend there is a wedding reception at the house! Excellent. I've started to figure out the tros and the money (move the decimal four places to the left to get the new value), so I am feeling somewhat less frustrated than when I arrived. I had a nice discussion with a co-worker today about China and the US. He really loves the US.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Ghana: Land of Toast

Two days of travel from India to Ghana and then no one picked me up at the airport. And I had a wicked sick bacterial eyelid skin infection which spread to the rest of my head, underneath my hair, en route. So awesome. I slept on the floor of the Dubai airport for 3 hours then got on an 8-hour flight to Accra and had to figure out how to call someone at the office and ask where the hell they were. Of course, Ghana was the only country for which I didn't write down the contact phone numbers. I was ready to just fall on the ground and let everyone leaving the airport trample over me at that point. I was really nice and dirty for all of it, too, because the first leg of the trip was a 7-hour car ride through the dusty roads of India from Sivakasi to Thiravanathapuram. Dubai was like a return to modernity with all of its shops and people, really quite a shock. No wonder they call it the crossroads, though... I brushed my teeth in the bathroom between a Chinese chick decked out in booty shorts/Louis Vuitton everything and a woman in a black burqa.

Ghana is much cooler than India, so far. I'm wearing a sleeveless dress that goes down to my knees and feel practically naked compared to the Indian attire. Even better, EVERYONE speaks English.

I had my first day of work today at the radio station-- Vibe FM. It reminds me of WJLB in Detroit circa 2000. They blast what's airing in the office 24/7, so I always feel like I'm back at a Pioneer cross country sleepover watching the girls dance the Britney Spears "Crazy" video dance. Other than popular 1999 rap, they play Donna Summer ripoffs. The Marvin Gaye tune that came around 9am was my one beacon of light. They tried to get me to read the entertainment news but typically-- "Slow down. Be more emphatic." I hope to have a chat about my skills and what I can bring to the station with the supervisor tomorrow, because I am well aware my strength does not lie in bringing the people of Africa their hourly Britney Spears custody battle update. I really hope to convince the programming director that I have enough knowledge about 1960s soul to host a weekly hourlong program during my time here. I don't really care if it's at 3am.

For the radio geeks: the equipment they use is so surprising. There is no mixing board, there is one dial-up internet connection that can only be used by one computer at a time, there are no record or cassette players. Automation comes from WINDOWS MEDIA PLAYER or QuickTime. They don't use ProTools, or even Audacity, to edit anything.

The host family I'm staying with is actually just one woman. She lives in a big house and has two maids and a personal driver. She also has deep purple velvet couches and a lot of Jesus art. The House houses here are surrounded by high walls, I always feel like they're preparing for a coup when I see another one. I was reading a bit about the history of Ghana today. It is one of the most politically stable nations in Africa. And then I found out that the latest political upheaval was seven years ago! Ages... I eat on the front porch, looking at the wall and the garden. I haven't eaten much Ghanaian food because it almost all involves meat. Breakfast is the best because she serves the best toast I've ever had in my life. Lunch is thin, sweet pancakes that I take to work.

Ghana revalued its currency in July so there are new notes and old notes floating around. If it were only new, it would be quite easy for me as the value is almost exactly the same as American dollars. The old notes are about c10,000=$1, though, which makes it very confusing, particularly when you get change in new and old currency.

There are a lot of Chinese restaurants here.

Ghana's most common sign is "PLEASE DO NOT URINATE HERE." I've already seen about ten guys letting loose on the sides of the road, or into the drainage ditch, or into the grass...

Transport is done via trotros, privately owned vans that go along fixed routes. They're relatively cheap, it costs me about $0.35 to get to work. There's a driver and a conductor, a guy who leans out the window saying the route and doing that route's hand motion. I don't have the routes down at all yet and still find it very confusing. I get out at Circle, which is a main exchange area. There are about 3-400 tros waiting there at any time. I considered it a mystery of India that people knew which bus was going where and when and that's now carrying over to Ghana in terms of the tros.

Photos soonish..

Monday, October 15, 2007

End of India

I stumbled upon the Muslim neighborhood yesterday. Ramadan just ended so there were green and white flags everywhere. I got even more stares and laughs than in most areas but still plenty of "Hi!"s. Other than that, it was a very uneventful last weekend in India aside from the fact that Laura and I went swimming on Saturday at the Bell Hotel pool for Rs. 50, and greatly impressed five 11-year old boys with our handstand and underwater somersault abilities, and that it rained on Sunday. That was very exciting and made me very happy because it was cloudy all day and the rain cooled things off for almost 36 hours. So happy that I had an ice cream cone and visited with the neighbor's little boy afterwards.

Kindly do not use the swimming pool during your menstrual period.

Today is my last full day in India and therefore time for broad generalizations. Indians, as a whole, are the most generous, polite, helpful and friendliest people I've ever met. And the women are the most subservient, which is really what it was most difficult for me to grasp and adjust to. Women's #3 accessory here (after bangles and gold earrings) is a child on their hip. I, and the other foreigner women I live with, receive behavioral byes almost every hour of the day. The most notable to me have been:
-bicycling alone at any hour of the day
-coming home at 10pm
-speaking freely at work
-not adding "sir" to the end of every sentence
-lounging in shorts and tank tops in the privacy of our home

My only other great impression is in regards to the spirituality of the Indians. There are many religions here. Hindu is the most prominent; there are Hindu temples of every size in every town. I live in a Christian area and there are also a lot of Muslims who became more visible this last week since the end of Ramadan and eid-Al-fitr. No matter what the religion is, its followers believe wholeheartedly. There are a lot of religious zealots in the US, and a lot of people who think of themselves as religious but I have yet to meet or hear of anyone there, outside of perhaps the Mormons, the Quakers and Flanders', who even come remotely close to the Indians' dedication to their religions. In my own host family, they wake up between 3 and 5am to pray before starting the day. (We blew each other's minds when Shakena asked me what time I get up at home. They get up before I go to bed).

In short, do you ever: drink alcohol? smoke? listen to the devil's music? wear short pants? wear shirts without sleeves? engage in pre-marital kissing? have close friends of the opposite sex? do drugs? find yourself out after dark as a female? befriend anyone who engages in these activities? You're a dirty sinner who doesn't respect your parents. [Please note this is my own to-be humorous assessment. Sivakasians would never be in-your-face about religion.]

I start two days of travel tomorrow at 7:30am. 7-hour drive to Trivandrum, pay for and pick up my airline ticket, go to the airport, fly to Dubai, 7-hour layover from 12:30am to 7:30am then an 8-hour flight to Accra, Ghana.

Amma adjusts Laura's sari last night:

Friday, October 12, 2007

Completely unobjective

Today, I am very angry at many things but mostly at how they refuse to let us write about "controversial" subjects-- i.e., anything that will attract the attention of the government, i.e., anything that matters. Sivakasi is the former child labor capital of the world and while great hurrah is made about the decrease in child labor since the 1980s (true), there are still many in the town, working at tiny fireworks factories for Rs. 5 or 10 a day ($0.12 to $0.25).

Earlier this afternoon, Laura and I played Token White People at the local orphanage for the mentally disabled kids. As it was explained to us, it is National Breadgiving Day so the local Rotary club was giving bread to the children and we were photographed handing it to them. Basically, I have no idea what was going on but, as usual, the kids were all awesome.

Also, I think that guy from the Libertines' new band sucks.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

More cowbell

One of the good things about being an adult is that you have plenty of experience in knowing when you are going to throw up and can give yourself ample time to get to an appropriate vomiting location. I only threw up once in my childhood-era-of-being-able-to-talk age and that was all over my parents' comforter.

Additionally, the only way to make a fever even more awesome is to have a fever in 90-degree weather during a power outage (meaning no ceiling fan) without a CVS within 8,000 miles. Oh, unless you also have sheets like this:

in which case you can start to imagine the little creatures coming alive and dancing on your body while you sleep. Actually, just kidding, it wasn't the fever, I knew that was happening a good four days before I even started to feel sick.

So, in short, I spent Wednesday barfing once in the morning, then sleeping 18 hours, eating a banana and a half and two chipotis.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Sneak preview

Because the magazine is not online and I'm sick of working on this, you're now privy to a sneak preview of next month's cover story. I am writing more about the business side of things and Malte is writing more about the humanitarian aspects of the company.

“Business with social responsibility”
“Making money to make sense for the society”

When Teddy Exports began with these two slogans in 1990, it was a five-employee company producing timber products out of a mud hut in a small village about one hour away from Sivakasi. By 1991, the company had already turned enough of a profit to begin the Teddy Trust, a humanitarian non-profit organization and by 1993, had moved to their current spacious campus. From the beginning, the company’s mission was not just to turn a profit, but also to provide a socially responsible entrepreneurial solution to regional problems. This unusually progressive attitude has resulted in high revenues for the whole of the company’s existence. Now a major exporter, Teddy Exports employs over five hundred people and does millions of dollars worth of business each year. The socially conscious aspect of the company is what draws in many of its business partners from outside India. Teddy Exports’ first client was The Body Shop, a Western chain store which carries various high-end bath and body products in fifty-five countries throughout the world. The Body Shop is still the company’s biggest client, though they now also provides screen-printed cloth bags, textiles, wooden toys and furniture to about nine other international companies.

Though the Body Shop’s original order was only for rolling wooden massagers, demand for Teddy Exports’ goods has grown steadily since its inception. Pleased with the results of the massagers, the Body Shop began requesting more and more products, requiring Teddy Exports to outsource to local tailors and printers. However, it soon became clear that it would be more cost effective to vertically integrate and hire tradesmen for use within the company. Practical business moves with great respect to morality and humanity is what has made Teddy Exports successful. Head products manager, Baskar, has been employed at Teddy Exports since the beginning and feels confident in relaying that their “success [is] due to the quality and dedication of the employees.” Teddy Exports’ leadership has managed to successfully combine social awareness with a self-sustainable business; a rare tale in today’s money-hungry world.

Working conditions at Teddy Exports are tops in the region. Employees receive medical care, free primary school for their children, on-site child care, high quality and safe working conditions, pension plans, subsidized lunch and tea at the company canteen, three-month maternity leave, annual excursions and, perhaps most importantly, fair wages. Minimum wage at Teddy Exports is Rs. 3,000 per month. In speaking with them, it becomes clear that employee satisfaction is extremely high. “Working here, I can support myself; no one else has to take care of me,” said seamstress Naga Rathinam, who has been with the company for eight years. “I like this job because it provides me with continuous living,” says another quality control worker. “I have worked here for the last three years. My standard of living remains the same as long as I am here.”

In addition to its humanitarian efforts, Teddy Exports also is also an environmentally conscious organization. Its timber products are all made from a sustainable and controlled local resource, mostly Acacia Nilotica wood, which is also used for firewood by the locals. Though constantly replenishing the wood source raises the cost of operations, both the factory manager and the head products manager agree that the cost is well worth the increased social benefit.

Although it may seem as though the company is more concerned with philanthropy than sound business practices, profits have not suffered. Teddy Exports maintains a strong commitment to quality products and impeccable customer service as their business model maintains that fairly treated workers and a valued community are assets which feed directly back into the business. Prices are internationally competitive and the array of products grows every year. Today, their most popular product is screen-printed tote bags; upwards of ten thousand are produced in a single day.

Teddy Exports’ high standards have not gone unnoticed by the international community. In 1999, the business won the World Aware small business award just one year after founder Amanda Murphy was made a Member of the British Empire (MBE), a royal honor. In a country that is often more concerned with just making ends meet than providing extraneous benefits to employees, Teddy Exports has set a high standard for the future.

I think it's too wordy. Writing simply about something I have had to do research about is not my forte.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Bike accident, the effects of fair trade, playing cricket, elephant, waterfalls

Today, I was in a T-bone bicycle accident. Turned right out of the street the house is on and an old guy on a bike with his friend on the back were coming right towards me and I was already too far out to stop and he didn't swerve so they ran right into me and we all fell down. Nothing too bad happened (scraped elbow) and it was probably my fault for not ringing my bell when I turned. The bikes made quite a noise, though, because they're huge and heavy and may have been made in 1944. The most difficult part was getting out from under two bikes while wearing such a long skirt. I listened to Bike Talk today (BSR's Car Talk variation) and was reminded of how rare and dangerous it is to bicycle in America. In both China and India, bikes are way more common than cars (but no one wears helmets).

On Friday, we went to Teddy Exports, a company outside of Madurai, to meet with the head products manager and get shown the grounds. Malte and I are writing the November issue cover story on the company. They manufacture those wooden massage things that the Body Shop carries, along with a lot of tote bags and some wooden furniture. Teddy Exports is unique in the fact that they pay fair wages (in terms of amount and equality between the sexes), employ about 500 people, are environmentally aware and friendly, provide schooling for their children, provide special schooling for special needs kids, do not utilize child labor, provide a safe working environment, medical care for workers' families, HIV/AIDS prevention and awareness training, have established a trust to give even more back to the community, employ mentally and physically handicapped people and run a clinic in town which keeps tabs on all the local prostitutes (weekly checks). We visited the factories and the school. All the workers I spoke with were very happy with their job. The women all wear the same uniforms: beautiful pink-patterned saris. The schoolchildren were endlessly charming. Every time we entered a new classroom, they all stood up and did their little hello thing then recited a long rhyme in Tamil. They were very happy to see us and some of the older kids could talk with us. When we left, they all clamored around to shake our hands. People here don't shake hands so the kids think they're quite novel/western/cool and sophisticated when they do it with us.

Wheelchair bicycle parked outside a factory:

The 6-year olds:

One of the factories (quality control area):

Saturday was the office cricket game. Cricket is immensely popular here. It is vaguely like baseball in that there is a batter and a pitcher (bowler) and you run if you get a hit but other than that, no similarities. We played behind a local secondary school. The kids go to school on Saturday, so all the boys gathered to watch the spectacle of women playing cricket. Or foreigners. Or foreign women. I enjoyed it, aside from the relentless sun that hit hard during fielding. I was very bad at bowling (pitching); I throw like a girl now. Shame. I was ok at batting. I could hear my dad's voice from like 14 years ago, pitching to me in the backyard-- "Keep Your Eye On The Ball." Cricket bats are quite a bit wider and heavier than baseball bats but it still worked. My team lost by about 80 points. When I was not batting or fielding, I explored the village of abandoned houses that was near by. There were about 50 of them. They used to house small fireworks factories or house fireworks factory workers, I'm not clear which, but the company lost money and the owners stopped paying and employing, so it all went downhill and everyone moved and the garbage pickers came around to get what was salvageable from the homes which includes the piping and roofs, apparently. Just like Detroit copper pickers.

This is all that's left now.

I'm playing cricket.

On Sunday, we went to a remote, small river in the mountains and swam. The bus went through all sorts of small villages. When we got there, there were three men bathing in their underwear and drinking beer. They moved upriver quickly; it was easy to embarrass them because, as everyone knows, western girls have no shame. We swam in long pants or skirts and T-shirts and sat on the rocks and let the white water hit us. Natural jacuzzi. I got cold for the first time in two months. After the river, we went back down a ways and swam in the dam, which was 132' deep. I tried not to think about that part; deep water is scary, what with its crocodiles and humpback whales and everything. After the river, we got back on the bus to go into Kerala (different state). The border guards checked the bus' pass and we got off and trekked through the woods to a waterfall. It was completely excellent. I've never seen a waterfall before, let alone swam in one. Waterfalls were the main reason that West Virginia is my #1 Want To Visit state but now I've been to one in Kerala which is a little better! I still feel so clean from it even though I discovered about a cup and a half's worth of sand in my underwear once we were back on the bus. And a leech on my calf. It was still little so I retained almost all of my blood. The water comes down so hard on your shoulders!

In the waterfall

Swimming in the dam:


The bus

On the way there, the bus was cut off by an elephant turning a corner. A guy was on its back and it had a lot of hay in its mouth.

The excellent news of the day is that my passport came back with the Ghanaian visa! I had to send away to Delhi for it.

I have one week left in Sivakasi.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

The exchange (India)

We have a new designer in the office. Typical to Indian management, she has zero experience in what she was hired for and a strong accent that makes it difficult for us westerners to understand her. She got the job without receiving an explanation of what her duties would be and was shocked to find that the majority of the office is foreign. What we need is a graphic designer who can do the layout and format of the magazine but she is a fashion designer (or rather, the person who chooses the fabrics and the stitch type, etc) and has no experience with InDesign. She has been very shy for the last two days but decided for some reason today that I was unscary enough to chat with. We had an awesome conversation. She's really cool even though we live extremely different lives. She graduated from college a few years ago and has no interest in an arranged marriage, so has been living at home with her parents while her older brother got a job as an electrician in Madurai, the nearest city. As far as I can tell, she spends the majority of her time alone, as her parents don't get back from their shop until 11pm, watching television and movies. The options here for women are so limited, both in terms of employment and recreation, it's scary.

I have no idea what she is going to do in the future and I don't think she does, either. My guess is that she will be forced into an arranged marriage sometime in the next five years unless she strikes out to a city like Chennai (Madras) or Mumbai (Bombay) on her own and against her parents' wishes. Once the marriage happens, the wife will spend the rest of her life cooking, cleaning and babies. This is sometimes still the case in the US but the difference there is that it is not the requirement. In the towns and villages here, and even in the cities to some extent, it is extremely weird for young people to live with friends or on their own. The family is quite strong here, even more so than in China. We had a bit of a slow cultural exchange this morning as she said "I know nothing about your culture."

She wanted to know my favorite Indian/Bollywood actor. I couldn't name a single one and she was shocked. She said, "I like one of your actors. Arnold." And I said, "Oh, did you know he is a politician now?" Blank look. "Works for the government?" No, did not know. We talked about the giant Hindu temple in Madurai I went to a few weeks ago and she named the king it was built by. Each detail depicts a different aspect of Indian life. She was shocked again when I had no idea who the king was (ca. 1650).

Here, marriages are set up by parents. Advertisements looking for brides or grooms are online and in print but the majority are set up via village networks-- aunt's cousin's friend's daughter with qualities x, y and z, etc. If a married couple has a real problem, it is worked out by each set of parents. There is beginning to be a backlash against the old ways... many of the young people I have met, especially the women, have voiced their desire against having an arranged marriage, preferring to be single forever than married to someone they don't know, or only know vaguely. The only common career option for women seems to be to become a teacher.

She said her father is very strict and would never let her ride a bike and that the Indian man in the office who was hired two weeks ago warned her that the "foreign women are very bold." I'm sure this is a more polite rendering of his actual opinion. She takes the bus to work. I asked her if she told her parents that most of the people she works with are foreign and she said, "Yes, I told them and their eyes went like this!" and mimed shock with her own. Hopefully, she will be allowed to stay. We are quite bold when compared to the Indian ladies in the office and, in reality, they don't even know the half of it in regards to our lives at home. Here, we wear pants and voice story ideas and let them know if something has gone wrong and ride bicycles to work and take breaks when it is convenient and don't go to church and probably a whole slew of other shocking behaviors that I haven't realized are out of the norm yet and that is enough.

She wanted to know about the US. I said that it is quite normal for a couple to live together before they are married, for friends to live with each other, or for someone to live alone. That if a married couple has a problem, they would be angry if their parents got involved; usually they go to a therapist, a doctor who they pay, to help them with their problems. Explaining things out like this made it sound really wacky, particularly given the context and the society here. Also, that women can do whatever they want, pretty much any time; parents don't treat daughters much different from sons. The fact that about half of marriages end in divorce and families will often end up spread very far away from each other was the most surprising and unfathomable to her.

"Photo please?" The kids are usually screaming with excitement but get very somber for the photos, as all Indians do.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

No rabies

Now that I've sufficiently given everyone a heart attack (sorry; I didn't know it was so scary!) and learned that you actually need a series of like 15 shots to the stomach to combat rabies, I'll explain what I actually did on the weekend.

Examined this torn down Hindu temple near the house:

Took a picture of this tiny lizard on the wall:

Played badminton again. Women were playing this time! It was much hotter in the gym because all the window shades were closed.

Biked around Sivakasi and attempted to find somewhere to buy toilet paper. Was presented with tissue paper and packing tape. No...


Found this tall thing:


Spied on the family chatting with the neighbors in Tamil:

And sat on the roof, looking at the stars and listening to Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater's adaptation of "The War of the Worlds" again and tried to calculate where the sound waves are now, 69 years after the first broadcast (460,241,385 miles, past Jupiter and on their way to Saturn if I did it right.. probably not because I only used the speed of sound at sea level). It made me happy to think about my own radio show flying farther and farther away.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007


The weekend was relatively uneventful until we went to a girl's home who we met on the visit to the women's college. She fed us a lot of lunch and we chatted about arranged marriages and how she definitely does not want to be married. She showed us a bunch of family photos and I asked about a picture of two men that looked like it was from a 1970s cop movie. She said, "Oh, that is the photo they showed my sister when she was to be married. It's the first time she saw her husband."

We took a rickshaw home and the other two wanted to stop for coffee. Being that I don't drink coffee, I begged off and walked home. I cut through the dirt area that cuts off a longer corner, going by four or five homes. There were a bunch of people and kids gathered outside and a dog. A few days ago, I had heard a dog growling at me while "Photo please?"ing four kids but he seemed to be in the house so I didn't do anything about it. Yesterday, he was outside. He is blond and medium-sized. He saw me coming and started hobbling on three legs. My heart started beating faster. "Don't look in his eyes. Don't look in his eyes. Sign of aggression. Don't look." Inevitable, I want to know what's going on because I could feel him beaming his "What the hell are you, whitey?" at me. I looked down into his eyes and he was already baring his teeth. "Oh shit oh shit." I looked back up rapidly but it was too late. He had already decided he really hated me and BIT MY LEG. I screamed and one of the men yelled at the dog and he let go, then hit him. It wasn't as bad as it could have been but my leg was bleeding in three places. My fear of dogs was thus renewed severely and painfully. I limped away as quickly as possible, back to the house, where they all saw my bleeding leg. I told him what happened and he said we should probably go to the hospital to get a rabies shot. Visions of myself foaming from the mouth with a rotting brain quickly sprang to mind.

We got on the motorcycle, since it was faster than ordering a rickshaw and drove the three miles or so to the hospital. It was really small, two floors and about 50 people in the waiting room. The family father explained the situation to the receptionist in rapid Tamil while everyone else stared at the bleeding foreigner. Despite the large number of patients, I still got into the doctor in less than half an hour. The doctor spoke English, albeit heavily accented, just like most people. I assume no one else has had a rabies shot that's reading this, so I will tell you that it comes out of a freaking GIGANTIC needle!! On the plus side, no foaming from the mouth or extreme insanity yet. I made it home in time for tea.

Yesterday was the yearly statewide striking day in support of a deeper canal between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. If it happens, there will be much freer trade and an improved economy for both the state and Sri Lanka. [I'm sure this next part is terribly paraphrased but you get the gist]. When they began construction on the project, they hit an underground stone bridge which is apparently the path a Hindu god took to the island to find a monkey. Very holy. Now, some people are up in arms about the canal because it will destroy this special underwater path while the rest of the state wants the increased trade. All the shops on the street, offices and schools were closed. The hardcore supporters of the canal were on a hunger strike till 6pm. Today is a national holiday, Gandhi's birthday, but everything is open.

ps. just kidding about the rabies. i almost got bitten by that mean dog, but i didn't. had to spice things up a little bit.