India, 2.0

Our plan worked sort of.  We spent April in Karnataka with Satya’s parents and moved to our new place in early May.  Some things were definitely easier this time around, but other things were more challenging.  This trip was more about reality, I think.  Our first trip, Jan. ’10, was more of a celebration.  Not that this trip did not have its amazing moments, but it was much more real for me.  Perhaps it was the longer time period-2 weeks vs. 5 weeks.  I really thought of it all like, “Could I live here for real?  What would that be like?”  It was also a bit humbling.  At the beginning of the trip our attitude I think was, “We’ve done this before, we can handle anything.”  I think we both realized we are more American than we expected.

The traveling part was easier this time.  We flew Air France from NYC to Paris, then 2 hr. layover, then Paris to Bangalore.  This was much, much easier than having an 8 hr. layover in Frankfurt, which is what we did last time.  We got to Bangalore and were picked up from the airport by a hotel driver-very smooth and not stressful, just expensive.  Our hotel was more comfortable than last time-quieter, bottled water on request, etc.  We woke up with lots of enthusiasm and confidence.  We went down and ate a huge, delicious breakfast-vada, sambhar, chutneys, and lots of other tasty things.  An hour later our stomachs were a bit unhappy, but we just rested and drank lots of water.  In the afternoon we decided to venture out.  This is where things went a bit sour.  Our rickshaw drivers were not honest and the second one forced us to go to a ridiculous souvenir store and buy something.  After that, things were pretty much ruined for that day.  We retreated back to the hotel and then we decided it was best to head out of Bangalore.  We went back and booked a direct flight to his parent’s place for the next morning because we were feeling lost and overwhelmed in Bangalore.

In the evening, things looked up again when an old classmate of Satya’s visited our hotel with his wife.  They were very nice and very down to earth.  Both are computer engineers and work crazy hours.  Tbey work 9-6 in the office then come home and have to be on call until 10 or 11 pm at night.  Fortunately, we were in Bangalore on the weekend so they could visit.  Hearing about their struggles was sobering.  I think before that, we thought that life would be less stressful in India.  We no longer believe that.

We went to UB City which was another overwhelming experience-crowded, loud music, lots of fancy lights and fancy faux architecture.  It kinda reminded me of Atlantic City, only much newer and more wholesome.

Anyway, we ended up going to a very nice restaurant called South Indies and all of us ended up eating a very mild kind of dosa.  Called a water dosa maybe?? Not very tasty, but then our stomachs at that point due to jet lag and indigestion couldn’t handle much else. The decor of the restaurant was very nice.  I liked how there was a wall that had a fountain that made it look like we were sitting inside during a rainstorm.  I think it was supposed to look like a fancy, old South Indian home.

Then it was back to the hotel for sleep because of the next day’s flight.

The flight out of Bangalore to Satya’s hometown.  That flight was one of our best decisions……

2011

Things are changing once again…..this time we may finally move!  Yipee!  Well, we will move it is just a matter of when and where.

At the moment it could be to the West Coast!!  I’m hoping it will be more relaxed.  We may be moving to a place that has one temple and just one small Indian grocery store.  Satya visited there and noticed lots of mixed couples (in his words), but I wonder how it will be.  Will I have to worry about people yelling at my in laws when they visit?  (In fairness to people in small places, this happened to them in NJ where there are lots of Indians).  Lots of little anxieties-what if we don’t like the one little temple that is there??

I’m hoping we will feel at home and will be able to settle in and maybe buy a house.  I’m hoping we will not feel stuck. Overall though I think I’m ready and willing to trade East Coast aggressiveness, lack of space, and good food for West Coast relaxation, friendliness, and bad restaurant food (we’ll just cook more at home).  Yes, I know that the West Coast has lots of great restaurants-this place though will have few.  Maybe our focus will change-less on art museum stuff and more towards outdoorsy things like hiking, biking, and running.

Anyone else in a mixed relationship living in a small city with one temple and one grocery store?

If this all goes through, it means we’ll be in India in April.  Bright sides-we will be there for the Kannada New Year, Ugadi, and will be there for the house blessing of the home of Satya’s cousin.  Bad news-hot, hot, hot.  I will have to stock up on cotton salwars then.  How do you cope with India’s warm temperatures?  Dress in light, loose clothes and drink lots of water and stay out of the sun?

In terms of reading, I’m reading now Monsoon Summer by Mitali Perkins.  It is a teen novel.  The protagonist, Jazz (short for Jasmine) is in Pune with her family for the summer.  She hates having to leave her business and her best friend Steve in California while having to accompany her family to India while her mom works at an orphanage.  In India she feels out of place because she is pale like her white father and huge (she was a shot putter at her California high school).  It is ok, but sometimes I want to shake the main character and tell her to be brave (send those letters to Steve!) and to quit whining about her appearance (but then, who hasn’t been there when they were a teen?).  I thought it was weird how caste comes into the book.  Jazz or her brother asked, How do you know someone is of a low caste?  The answer was because of darker skin tone, smaller, lighter build, and flat nose.  Really?  That was disturbing a bit.  Some of those characteristics are just those of Southern India-not of caste necessarily.  But, as my husband reminds me and as I see everyday working in an inner city library, the U.S. is not colorblind nor class-blind either and has its own struggles-1 in 4 children in the U.S. at risk of hunger and in the city we live in a high school graduation rate of 50%.  Anyway, will have to find out if Jazz’s mother ever does find her mother and whether she did come from a lower caste.  If so, how will Perkins handle that?

Also, at my library I found the book Does Anyone Else Look Like Me? A Parent’s Guide to Raising Multiracial Children by Donna Jackson Nakazawa.  Has anyone read it?  Do you think it is useful?  Am just trying to look ahead for when Satya and I have children of our own.

Thoughts on “Nine Lives”

Yesterday I finished reading Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India by William Dalrymple.  I highly recommend this book.  It is readable and insightful.  Even though all the people Dalrymple profiles are extreme he does humanize them and makes them understandable.  He has a wide geographical range-from Sindh in Pakistan, to Bengal, to Karnataka, to Tibet, to Kerala, and a wide range of religions (although some may argue they are all aspects of Hinduism) Jains, Buddhists, Sufis, and various sects of Hinduism.

The first chapter is about a Jain nun in Karnataka who is slowly starving herself to death.  I was not looking forward to reading this chapter at all.  Jainism had always sounded so bleak to me and pointless.  It is a testament to Dalrymple and the remarkable nun he interviewed that the chapter turned out to be beautiful.  Her decision to leave her family while a teenager and to undergo extreme privations (like having her hair pulled out strand by strand) made sense.  The description of the tightly controlled ritual starvation also seemed beautiful-the person undergoing the ritual is never left alone-people are there to recite religious texts and to provide company.  If the person wants to stop the ritual at any point, they have that choice.  Her decision made sense because it was what she had prepared for her whole life and because she looked on death as an eagerly awaited adventure.

The third chapter was most troubling.  I didn’t think it contained much beauty at all.  Instead it seemed pathetic and hopeless. In the past, people dedicated to Yellamma had high positions in society-they were educated, wealthy, etc.  Now they are like common prostitutes except they wear silk sarees, and sometimes are invited to important rituals to give blessings.  The woman in the chapter was dedicated as a child against her will to pay off her family’s debts, but ended up also forcing her daughters into the same thing (her daughters ended up dying as teens from AIDS).  The woman hoped to save up enough money to get out of prostitution, but that is highly unlikely as it is revealed that the woman herself is infected.  The Indian government is trying to stop the practice, but Dalrymple writes that their efforts and the efforts of earlier British reformers has worsened the situation by driving it more underground and by marginalizing the position of those dedicated to Yellamma.

Some of the chapters focused on people whose way of worship may disappear soon because of the modernizing of Indian society-the man from the Rajasthani desert who with his wife and family performs epic poems, the man who creates idols, the man who embodies the gods when he dances.  Others represent traditions that are in danger due to politics and violence-the monk from Tibet, the woman from the Sufi site in Sindh.  I asked Satya what his view of this was, and he said that nothing in India truly dies, it just changes.  People still are interested in the age old traditions.  I’m not so sure.  He gives the example of the wealthy middle-aged bankers whose hobby is Yakshagana.

The importance of marriage and family in Indian culture was reinforced for me.  The chapter about the epic singer of Rajasthan wasn’t just about him.  Dalrymple writes about how one cannot be an epic singer without a wife who is equally talented as a singer.  At the end of the chapter, Dalrymple describes a performance where even the four year old grandson of the singer was included-he danced alongside his father and grandparents.  That was a very beautiful passage as well.  Even the chapter about the Tantra practicioners focused on how important family is.  Despite the view in the West of Tantrics being wild “anything goes” types, in reality the Tantrics need to get married to have a partner with whom to do the rites. Again, Dalrymple was able to go beyond stereotypes.

Overall, the book was enjoyable and fascinating.  I very much recommend the book.  I don’t think it helped much wiht clarifying how everyday Indians experience Hinduism or what they believe.  If you have any suggestions for a book about that, I’m open to suggestions.

Looking like a Respectable Married Woman in South India

As our trip went on, my clothes underwent a transformation. I wore jeans, a nice t-shirt, little jacket, and my high heeled boots my first day in Bangalore.  By the end, I was wearing salwar kameez, bangles, bindi, chappals, and mangalsutra/thali.

These experiences come from visiting a medium sized city in Karnataka, South India.  Also I visited a rural village, Jog Falls, and Banvasi’s temple.

Chappals

This was the first transformation.  Our second day in Satya’s hometown we were taken to the shopping district for chappals.  The main consideration was visiting.  Taking shoes off is a must when entering anyone’s home.  Shoes are also considered the dirtiest thing.  Me unzipping the boots each time I was visiting, touching my hands to the shoes just wasn’t going to work.  Plus, wearing boots and socks was hot.  The solution-chappals.    Chappals are sandals that are backless that you can slip in and out of made of leather.  Flip flops made of rubber and plastic are called “slippers” and “sandals” equal sandals with straps that you cannot slip in and out of.

We bought our chappals at a store much like an American shoe store-brightly lit, benches to try on shoes, attendants bringing shoes out from the back, etc.  We didn’t buy them from a market stall, although there are certainly many selling shoes of all kinds.  We bought Bata ones, a brand that seems to be everywhere in India, though not here in the U.S.

Salwar Kameez

Luckily, I brought one that I bought online here.  I quickly learned that despite what Satya said and what his sister said, jeans and a t-shirt was not going to work in India.  When we visited people or when I went out in public I wore either the salwar kameez I brought with me or the salwar kameez outfits given by the wives of Satya’s cousins (one of the nicest things was that as a newish married couple, we received gifts of clothes, money, puja items). 

Did I see women wearing jeans?  Only in Bangalore.  Teenage girls in high school/college can wear them in the medium sized city we were visiting (daughter of a cousin).  One of Satya’s married older cousins, about 40, wore a salwar kameez outfit everytime I met her.  It made sense-she was extremely busy as a wife, mother, and a doctor studying for a new certification.  Other than her, nearly all married women wore sarees all the time.  Especially for formal occasions, married women seem to wear sarees.  When we visited Satya’s old elementary and high school, the female teachers asked me, “Where is your mangalsutra?”  “Do you know how to wear a saree?”  (All the female teachers wore sarees.)

Also, a warning to all the tall women may have problems with readymade salwar kameez outfits.  I’m 5’9” and have a long torso so a lot of them didn’t fit quite right.  When relatives asked my mother in law my size, she said, “Oh, she is about my size.”  My mother in law is 5’2”!  We all had a good laugh over that.  Anyway, my sister tried on some of the outfits and they fit her perfectly-she is 5’5”. 

Also, on the same chappal trip, we bought some Indian-style “tops”.  These were very cute, but again not worn by anyone over the age of 21.  The brands should have clued us in-one was called “18 Fire”.  I had to use the XL size and even that was snug.  Here, I’m a M.  This is not to say all Indian women are tiny-I was not the tallest woman in the family or the widest but readymade clothes seem aimed at the youngest and thinnest women.

Bindi

One item I could not leave the house without.  I used the little stick on ones that you can buy in a pack at the market for 5 or 10 rupees/pack.  Those were perfectly acceptable.  Satya likes me to wear them.  Without a bindi he says my forehead looks “naked”.  Older women use kumkum (a red powder) instead of the stick on kind.  Do I wear a bindi in my everyday American life?  No. 

Bangles

On our trip to the market the night before the small Indian wedding ceremony we had my mother in law made sure I had bangles.  Indian women wear bangles.  It didn’t seem to matter if they were married or widowed-they all had bangles.  What kinds?  Gold bracelets interspersed with glass bangles.  What colors?  Green is most traditional for new brides and for weddings in general.  Red is also popular for everyday.  Sadly, my hands do not fold easily so I could wear small bangles.  It seems the smaller, the better.  At first, the bangles took some getting used to because to me, I felt like a cat with a bell on because every time I moved, I jangled.  Now I kind of like the sound. 

I do wear bangles here everyday but only a few on each wrist.  My advice-get the ones with the color all the way through the bangle.  If the color is painted on, after a few months the color will go away and you will be left with yellowish bangles instead of bright green.  Glass bangles seem to be preferred, but they are a bit more expensive than the metal ones.  I think it is worth it though.  Satya bought me some metal ones here and they were annoying.  Glass makes a nicer sound, glitter will not fall everywhere, and if you wear them overnight your arm will not get weird black marks like they will from the metal ones.  Glass ones take a while to find though-I asked at 4 shops here before I found one that carried glass bangles.

Mangalsutra

If you are traveling to South India and you are a married woman, it is best to wear this.  Why?  Because this is the equivalent to the American wedding ring.  Everywhere we’d go, people would ask about this.  It did not matter if the people were Christians or Hindus-everyone wore them.  Besides it is also important for ceremony.  Whenever a married woman visits another married woman, at the end of the visit they bless each other by applying kumkum and sometimes turmeric to the forehead and the large circles of the mangalsutra.  Sometimes small gifts are also exchanged like rice or fabric for a saree blouse, although the fabric is now mostly for tradition and ceremony and not to really make a saree blouse.

I went with Satya’s parents when we picked out the mangalsutra at the jewelers.  First we selected the chain-small gold and black beads.  Then the large flat circles were selected along with three larger gold balls.  Mine is very similar to my mother in law’s and Satya says it is Maharashtrian style.  I guess that makes sense since we were in Northern Karnataka.   Yes, I do wear the mangalsutra everyday here in the U.S.  I received mine during the small temple wedding ceremony and afterwards felt “more official” and more a real part of the family.

Conclusion

Now I know a lot more about what to expect and how to look like a respectable married woman (I feel old writing that).  Once I did get whistled at in the market-was without mangalsutra, and wearing jeans and an American blouse.  Satya deemed that a great insult and wanted to notify the police (I thought that was an overboard reaction, but he says in the South to whistle at someone else’s wife is a great insult.)  I’m a little nervous though about the next trip.  Satya says that his relatives were “low balling” me and that next time their expectations may be higher.

The Welcome and Houses

So we left off with the bus trip.  Not fun at all.  I DO NOT recommend taking the budget overnight buses in India if you want a peaceful night sleep.  I thought they’d be like Greyhound buses or nicer, but no.  Next time (probably winter 2011) we’ll fly from Bangalore to his hometown.  Or maybe take the train and be adventurous…..this trip we never did get to take a train.

The bus stopped and we got off into a rickshaw.  From the rickshaw to his house was not far.  When we arrived at his house it was such a relief!  And we had such a warm welcome!  Satya’s mom and another cousin welcomed us and blessed us.  We were given a small bucket to wash our feet off before entering the house.  Also, everything was beautiful-the yard had been cleaned, the house repainted, and the entryway was decorated with colorful lights and garlands.  There were rangoli patterns on the sidewalk and a big “Welcome Home” sign. 

One moment was a little tense-as a daughter-in-law I was told to put my right foot on the threshold.  Then a nail was placed between my big toe and second toe and tapped in.  After my foot was removed, a cousin finished pounding the nail in. 

We had something to eat.  I think it was banana and maybe tea.  I don’t think I ever ate so many bananas as when I was in India.  Then it was nap time! 

We woke up to the sound of voices and found out more relatives arrived.  Most of the time everybody was spoke in Kannada.  Despite my intentions, I never did learn much before I went and while there, only picked up a few more words.  Body language does go a long way, though. 

In the evening we did some visiting.  It seems that every day around 4 pm our rounds of visits would begin.  This caused some stress because in India relationships seem much closer and much more almost political.  We had to be careful of who was visited and in what order. 

I loved seeing the different houses.  From what I could see, most people were either lower middle class to wealthy.  Many, many people had new houses.  Like others have commented, the value placed on furniture seems to be different.  Furniture does not seem important and often seems to be multipurpose because it seems in India you never know how many people you will need to entertain.  In many houses, the house would be absolutely gorgeous and so were the floors.  The floors would often be of fancy stone.  The first room where the entertaining would take place was often sparsely furnished.  There would be those ubiquitous plastic chairs (the patio, stackable kind here), and often a twin bed to sit on.  Sometimes that would be it.  Some homes did have fancy furniture-rosewood couches, but that was not the norm.

Every house did seem to have a “showcase” though.  This is where important gifts are kept-everything from large idols to photographs of grandkids.  Usually the showcase is built into a wall, has 2-4 shelves, and has a sliding glass or plastic door.  Maybe in the U.S. the equilvalent would be a mantel.  Magnets have not made it over to India yet.  I did not see any refrigerators covered in magnets. 

Overall, “stuff” in India did not seem important.  Traditionally, things like gold or land are what people save up for and really care about.  This is changing a bit, but not much.

The trip, Part 1

Where to begin…….First off overall the trip went really well.  I made some minor faux pas, but did not permanently wreck anything.  The trip was definitely easier on me than on Satya.  I think he just had too much to worry about and feel-returning home after nearly 10 years and worrying about whether I was having a great time and realizing how much India has changed. 

We left from NY and were nervous about missing the plane which made for tense train rides.  Once we got to the airport we relaxed.  Flew to Germany.  First plane was very nice-very cushy and modern. We landed in Germany late at night for our 8 hour layover.  Discovering that  water was $8/bottle was not fun.  The Frankfort airport was not very clean and we never did discover where the showers were.  Got on to the plane and discovered this one didn’t have all the amenities of the first plane-no personal video screen and stuff like that.  We also made another mistake-we ordered the “special meal”.  We felt pretty special to receive our food first, but then discovered that we somehow got on the vegan meal list instead of the regular vegetarian one.  We noticed others had some very tasty meals beside us. 

Landed in Bangalore.  The new Bangalore airport is very nice and extremely modern and clean.  Some people complain that it doesn’t reflect India at all, which could be true.  The bathroom was very clean-when one person leaves the stall the attendant briefly cleans the stall before you enter.  We were funneled through a place where a guy was sitting near a camera.  I guess the camera was a thermal one aimed at people’s foreheads to see if they were feverish.  Did not see anybody get stopped. 

We found Satya’s dad and cousin and the taxi and drove off.  It was about 3 am Bangalore time.  Then we entered the hotel Satya’s dad picked.  Satya’s dad calls it an “old-timer’s no-star hotel”.  What does that mean?  There was a toilet, but no shower just buckets.  No towels.  Flimsy sheets.  Hotel workers were sleeping in the hallways.  The hotel had a convenient location-right beside the bus stand where we’d catch the bus going north later that night.  Unfortunately, the hotel was insanely loud. The hotel was located at a corner and right below our window was the roof of a Ganesha temple.  Even at 4 and 5 am it was loud and at 6 am rush hour seemed to start up.  I don’t think either of us slept. 

Around 8 am we decided to give up sleeping.  We met Satya’s dad and cousin and then walked a few blocks to have idlis, rasam and tea for breakfast at a small restaurant.  Then we did more walking around Bangalore.  Bangalore seemed extremely noisy and busy but not in a very antagonistic way.  It seemed gentler than New York City, for example.  Satya noticed a lot of changes.  10 years ago there were more trees, less cars, less people.

We went to the government store.  The building seemed to sell almost everything from shoes to wooden statues to sports equipment.  We didn’t buy anything though.  Next was the Sapna Bookstore.  This had multiple floors and many books, dvds, and cds.  Next were the government buildings.  We took the rickshaw which was an adventure.  Rickshaws in Bangalore are definitely not for the faint of heart!  Only use rickshaws on short trips…….at the end of the trip we were in a rickshaw from one end of Bangalore to the other.  That experience will not be repeated! 

As others have said, horns are used for everything-when turning, when at an intersection, etc.  Later on in the trip we kept seeing big orange dump trucks filled with manganese.  On the back, the trucks said something like “Honk please”.  Horns seem to be crucial for safe driving. 

After looking at the outside of the government buildings and going to the park, we met up with another cousin and his family.  He had rented a minivan.  Minivan is a much more comfortable way of traveling than rickshaw!  We went to lunch inside a hotel.  One cultural difference was soon apparent-kids can run everywhere in India!  His cousin had a daughter who was about 3 but she would go to other tables and talk to other families and then go to the entrance of the hotel. When she strayed too far, she’d be called or brought back, but she was never forced to stay put or told “Don’t talk to strangers”. 

After doing some shopping and stopping at their house it was time to rush back to the hotel to catch the bus.  We just barely caught the bus.

Bus travel is not for the faint of heart either.  We did not travel on the new, fancy buses, but on the older ones-not too clean, no ac, no bathroom onboard (although that was probably a good thing).  After just managing to catch the bus, we settled in.  The trip would take about 10 hours and there would only be one bathroom stop.  The bathroom stop was at a small roadside restaurant (Indian equilvalent of a diner maybe).  Sleep did not come easy on the bus either.  The road was extremely bumpy (Satya explained that it was because in some places the road gets wiped out each year because of the monsoons), very noisy because of the horns, and there was lots of construction.

I’ll leave off here for now…..

Preparing to Visit India, 3: Visiting the Travel Doctor

This had been part of the preparation that scared me, but turned out to be much less scary than I expected.  I had visions of a doctor pushing a hard sell of all sorts of painful injections, but this did not happen at all.  Instead, we filled out some paperwork, received a big packet of information, had a long talk with the nurse practitioner, and went on our way.  It was made easier by the fact that Satya had already told them exactly what we wanted-the oral typhoid vaccine. 

We were running about 5 minutes late and were worried about having our visit cancelled, but they told us, “No, don’t worry.  We don’t have that many people come in.”  Maybe in a recession fewer people are willing to pay that much?  Also, even with good health insurance nothing was covered by either of our plans.  Or maybe it is the fear factor?  Nobody enjoys getting vaccinated.

Our total bill for everything came to $350: the consultation (could not get the oral typhoid without a consultation), 2 doses of the oral vaccine, 1 non-absorbable DEET bottle, and one mosquito repellant to be sprayed on clothes.  We also left with prescriptions for anti-malarial pills and for pills to cure traveler’s diarrhea. 

Here are some of the tips we learned:

Satya’s immunity to local Indian germs has vanished.  After 9 years of living in the U.S., his immune system and digestive system are like an American’s.

If we had to only choose one vaccine to get, typhoid seems like the right one.  We trusted the advice of Satya’s family on this one-his uncle, mother, and sister.  We were told our chances of getting typhoid were 1 in 50 for every week spent in India.  We will be spending 2.5 weeks in India.

Why oral typhoid?  I hate shots and it protects for 5 years compared to 2 years.  The drawback is that it is strict-1 every other day.  Antiobiotics have to be stopped 10 days before taking it.  Pills should be taken 2 hours after eating and you cannot eat for at least 1 hour afterwards. 

Hepatitis A is the next disease of concern.  Our chances are 1 in 200 for each week spent in India.  We may get this vaccine from his uncle, the doctor, in India.  The vaccine would be effective almost immediately.  Or we will wait until before our next trip to get it.

I was impressed with the mosquito repellants.  One can be sprayed on clothes and gives protection for 6 weeks or 6 washings.  Strong stuff in theory!  Shall see how it goes in reality…….

We were warned about the rise of dengue fever in Asia.  Nothing can treat or prevent this disease beyond mosquito repellants.

Going to big supermarket pharmacies can be a lot cheaper than pharmacies like CVS or Rite Aid.

If you do go to a travel doctor, expect the consultation part to take a while.  We were there nearly an hour and a half!

What disappointed me was that the advice was not very specific.  At the beginning, we did have to fill out a questionnaire about what kind of settings we’d be in (family, local hotel, first class hotels, camping, etc.) , but the advice was not really that specific.  She assumed we’d be visiting the Taj Mahal, when in fact we will not be even close!  Are our chances of typhoid really 1 in 50 in Karnataka or just for the country as a whole?  Perhaps that is asking to much……..

Overall, I do feel more prepared after the visit.  What were your experiences?  Do you recommend it to others?

3 weeks to go!

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