Thursday, June 12, 2014

World Cup a la Kerala

There are some times when I miss having a TV, and right about now is one of them, the advent of the World Cup.  I've got the fever, and I don't want the cure, I just want a TV.  S. wants a TV, too, but so he can watch his beloved Spurs win the NBA.  It's not going to happen for either of us, and forget about a sports bar where we might watch it, except someone is going to sponsor a televising of a game, but it's at the techno park outside the city I've never been to, so again, not going to happen.
At least I'm in the right state for World Cup news, because Kerala is one of the few states in the country that doesn't equate sports with cricket and more cricket.  There is even a league in the state, and some people have organized a tournament along the coast to honor the World Cup.  16 teams will vie for the ability to be in the semi-finals, and they will be held the day before the real ones, and the Keralan teams will wear the colors of the teams who are actually in the semis.  Sounds like a good time, but I can't even Google this city and get anything, so I don't think I'll be partaking of the fun.  Spellings are a bit arbitrary, to say the least.
In other WC (World Cup) news, I read a great piece in our local newspaper about a couple of octogenarians who are set to attend their 9th consecutive World Cup games in Brazil.  They are shown holding up their air tickets in the attending photo and they look pretty intense.  They are quoted as saying …."You cannot even imagine how seriously we take the World Cup."  I think I can, actually.  They might be my new role models.  They said they went to their first ones in Spain a few decades back and saw how much of a party atmosphere it was, so decided they should go to all of them.  They live on a very modest pension but save carefully for each WC.  People with their eyes on the prize, I would say! Safe travels and get these people a vuvuzuela, or whatever the Brazilian equivalent of that is.
BTW, VIVA MEXICO… Tonight against Cameroon (sorry, younger daughter).  I do like Eto, but Mexico is home of beans and rice and all things sabroso, so, once again, ÁNDALE, MEXICO!

In other more mundane news, there was an article yesterday about a scientific breakthrough regarding malaria in the labs of London.  One scientist declared a "huge advancement" in the reduction and possible eradication of the disease, because they have perfected the serum for a vaccine that renders mosquitos doomed to produce only male offspring, which don't bite.
First of all, what's with all the anger biting,  female sisters of 6 legs???  Second, I think this pronouncement is a little premature, as the procedure involves injecting a serum that alters the genetic code.  Think about it…. Have they figured out a way to get all the mosquitos to get in line for their shots?  Or perhaps perfected a secret wrestling move to pin them down?  There were no particulars about this part of the game, so I am thinking there is still more work to do.  I think it's reminiscent of the Aesop Fable of Belling the Cat.  It will be a wonderful day when malaria is arrested and perhaps eliminated, but there was another article right under it about how polio eradication may miss another goal.  Lots of work to do in the global health arena, but I know one woman who is ON IT.

Finally, sadly, more shootings in our country.  Such a great country with such a huge glaring Achilles Heel.  It was interesting to see even Obama show some frustration over how to respond, although I'm sure that's his usual emotion on most days given the ineptitude of Congress to do much of anything. When I talk about it to nonAmericans, I try to explain that legislators are mostly scared of the powerful gun lobby, the NRA.  That doesn't make any sense to them, or to me, but it's the sad truth.  How did we ever permit our legislators to be bought and sold and is there a way to put the Genie (money) back in the bottle?  No answer for that one.
Happy picture for the ending….The walled gate across the street from our apartment complex was newly painted, and then the rains washed it.  Pretty, isn't it?  I love the Malayalam print but also the incredibly long word written in Roman script as well.  I don't know what it means because all I can see on the other side of the gate is an empty lot with some banana plants and coconut trees.  Beats me!

Monsoon Season Arrives

While we were in Delhi last week we read that the monsoon had reached our fair city, which is about as close to the tip of India as you can get, save one other city where few people live.  This idea of the monsoon's arrival was confirmed by my Keralan students that week, but when our driver picked us up from the airport and I asked him how the monsoon was going, he laughed and looked at me a little funny and said, "There is no monsoon yet, mam. Tomorrow night it will come.  This is just a little rain."

So much for weather accuracy, which is equally poor on the plains of the Miwest  as it is in the deep south of India.  Of course he was right, and last Sunday the rains began in earnest.  It is so far very enjoyable, no floods, no one getting hurt.  The awful humidity of May is forgotten, replaced by fresh breezes which sometimes erupt into gales, which herald an upcoming downpour.  When the rain begins, it is mostly silent, so you can hear it hit all the greenery, and not much else.  Occasionally there is a rumble of thunder, but that's not typical.  Mostly the humidity builds, the grey clouds roll through, and when it's at its threshold, the sky opens and down comes the rain.  I tried to capture it on my camera, but it's hard to film rain, so it looks like it's not raining.  However, if you look into the horizon you see what appears to be a mist or fog, which is actually light rain.  Sometimes the rain is pouring sheets of intensity, but that doesn't seem to last too long.  I read in today's newspaper that the "real monsoon intensity" will be felt from "…tonight onward" whatever that means.
I like the way the rain is washing the buildings like this museum at our park at the bottom of the hill, making everything a little  brighter, as does the gentle light fil

Neem tree comes into full bloom just as Monsoon rains arrive.
tered through the clouds.  I have relearned my rule of watching the natives and copying them, because today I was ready to head to the florist when I noticed a strong breeze and no one on the street.  I decided to sit on the terrace and get a little film of the winds and see what developed.  An hour later the rain stopped and people started to appear, so I put on my shoes and grabbed my purse, and my umbrella, and was on my way.  There is a relaxed, quieter pace now that the rains have arrived, and I'm all for it.  The children started school on the first of the month, too, so there are far fewer Indian tourist buses on the street leading to our apartment.  So far, monsoon is working well for me.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Beginning of the End

Sitting in a car in a traffic snarl in Delhi seems an apt time to begin a blog.  It feels somehow familiar being back in the north of the country; I turned in recognition when I heard someone use a familiar Hindi phrase yesterday.  That was odd in itself because I only know about 10 or 15 phrases, but still, it’s more than I’ve accomplished in Malayalam.  I’m eager to eat some grilled paneer, that dreamy spongy tofu-like cheese of the north, because in the south they serve it hard and flavorless and rarely grilled, where the tandoor ovens are always cooking something yummy in the north. 
Delhi is still a snarly, steamy, congested concrete jungle. I’m currently reading Capital by Rana Dasgupta, which is a riveting account of how Delhi broke free from economic controls in the 1990s and the subsequent consequences of the growth. Actually it’s much more than that, and it’s filled with anecdotes and stories that make you forget you’re reading a nonfiction account of the history of a city, which is always a plus for me!  I’m only about half way through it, but it’s a great read for anyone who wants to get one person’s perspective on what is wrong and right with the nation’s capital.  He makes a lot of interesting assertions, which he doesn’t bother to back up with research, so I’m also a fan for that attitude.  Throw your opinions around and let others worry about their merit, I say!

We’re on the first leg of a farewell tour of some of our Indian haunts, and it’s always a respite to come here for the great international restaurants and pampering hotels.  There is a certain patisserie here that always seems to draw me in; here's a picture of why.

Flowers in our room.
A word about our current hotel, The Lalit, is also warranted.  When you are a returning customer of a certain level star hotel here in India, you are greeted by name at the door by someone whose job it is to make you feel special.  They whisk you away to your room for signing in (no need to stand in line with the riff raff, you are their “valued client”) where you are feted with fresh flowers, chocolates, massage and meal coupons.  It makes me worry about fitting in my work with all this pampering there is to be done… I could definitely learn to make this a habit, but I believe this is it for the fancy hotels and such.

Being the "Foreigner"

One truth about living in the South, in a capital city with little to no international tourist traffic is the fact that most places I go, I am an oddity, and I’m gawked at by a variety of people.  Mostly it is kids, but there are also adults who stop, look, conjure an English phrase and try it out.  I’m happy to have the same conversation over and over, because they enjoy it, and also a part of my job is public diplomacy, although I hope I'd be nice even if it wasn't in my job description. Once they have decided to engage the stranger, the conversation inevitably goes something like this:

Indian:  Hi!
ME:  Hi!  How are you?
Indian: (giggles) Fine.  How are YOU?
ME:  I’m fine.
Indian:  What’s your good name?
ME:  Connie, What’s yours?
Indian:  Varied response.
Indian:  Coming from?
ME:  I’m from the U.S., the United States.
Indian:  Oh, America! GOOD GOOD GOOD!
ME:  But I live in Vellayambalam, working with the government of Kerala.
Indian:  Wow, great.  Wonderful.  How do you find India?
ME:  It’s wonderful.  The people are very friendly. 
Indian: Ok, Good bye!

 Most of the time I just recite my part of the dialogue and don’t think much about it, but sometimes it gives me pause. On the day of this picture,
I was reclining on a chair at the beach, relaxing and letting the salty breeze blow through my hair.  These 4 young maidens crept up on me and just stood there giggling until I got up and started the dialogue. They were cute, and I’m a sucker for kids so when they wanted pictures I was all smiles.  I wished then they were fluent in English because I wanted to know the purpose of them having a photo taken with a stranger.  Who did they want to show it to?  What story would they tell?  What was I, exactly, to them? In a few years time, when they saw it in an album, surely they, too, would wonder what I was doing in the picture of their outing?
Then a woman, their mom, I believe, asked shyly, gesturing nonverbally, to have her picture taken with me.  I was happy to extend some positive vibes her way, and felt honored to be asked into their pictures. She was pleased as punch and all I had to do was be friendly.  There is something to this smile and don't ask questions diplomacy plan!
I started wondering if we Americans have a similar habit of talking to “the other” when we see them in our country, but I had a hard time imagining a circumstance or conversation that rang true.  Perhaps it’s because we’re not as friendly?  Or more private?  Or we aren’t comfortable striking up a conversation with a stranger even though we might be curious? I know I was a naïve kid, curious about anything from another culture growing up in a small-town in the Midwest, but I couldn’t remember such an exchange with someone from another culture.  Perhaps it was because I never saw anyone from another culture, you say?  Could be, or it could be that it wasn’t acceptable to speak with them.  Hard to say… Any thoughts, anyone?

Carbon Paper Lives On!

I’m not one to carry on about things (HA!) and I thought I was pretty well acclimated to the bureaucratic ways of Indian every day life, but last week I witnessed 2 instances of papering that still impressed me in its abundance.  I take my ironing to the “dry wash” (dry cleaning) every week, but last week it was hard not to crawl into their small space and reorganize, or make that organize their operation with one change that would give them twice as much time in their work day.  
When you approach the window you see a variety of old paper and newspaper strewn in many directions on a shelf.  When the clerk sees you, she tears off a piece, grabs a pencil, and writes an inventory of what you’ve brought in.  She looks over the clothing thoroughly to point out any stain or tear, then tallies the clothes.  Once that is completed, she will search around under the strewn papers for a receipt book, where she will commence to copy the list she just made on the paper scrap into the receipt book.  She does this, making 2 carbon copies, then gives me a copy for retrieval. I smile, take my slip, and wish them a good day.   The  system is working fine for them.  I believe it’s my internal toe-tapping that is the real problem, so I suppress the urge for reform and get back in the car.
Second, I saw something repeated in an airport line that I’ve often seen, and it doesn’t fit my American sensibilities and desire for efficiency either.…..The weight limits of checked baggage is carefully checked and fines are assessed if someone has too much stuff stuffed into the bags.  Fine, acceptable, that’s fair. I’ve been dinged several times, and I just open my wallet.  Usually the procedure to pay the fine means returning to “GO” (accompanied by a very polite airline representative, lest you stray),  which is the ticket office by the entrance of the airport, paying your fine, and then cutting the boarding pass line to get your boarding passes and luggage tags.  Yesterday, however, the person in front of me was guilty, and the airline representative took out a receipt book to charge her “there itself” as they say here.  This is progress, I thought!  And it was, sort of.  However, in front of him was a computer with all her information in it, and yet he handwrote her receipt in triplicate.  This country is FULL of software engineers.  Surely one of them could take an hour and write a program that would allow the airline staff to use her data in the computer to spit out a receipt for the baggage overage?  Has no one thought of that, I wondered….Of course they COULD do it, but no one in charge has yet seen a need to do it.  Again a case of my internal toe tapping, which means I’ve not spent enough time in this country to be comfortable with ALL the daily routines! 
Oh, and just so you don’t think you’ve figured out what’s going to happen in a given situation, we were over on our baggage weight, too, but when I told him we would just carry on one of the bags to avoid the fine, he said ok, no problem, go ahead and check it.  The line was long, we were nearing time to board, and the man was tired of writing, no doubt.  I do enjoy the randomness of it all when it turns in my favor.