Friday, November 20, 2009

An Ode to a Toilet, A Trip Out West

Last night I found myself gazing fondly at the Indian squat toilet in my bathroom. Unlike its Western cousins, the Indian squat toilet does not have a bowl or any flushing device. It's literally a hole in the floor, connected to a pipe, which leads down through the house and into the city's sewer system. There are nice little notches for your feet to grip whilst you relieve yourself. There's also a spicket conveniently located somewhere near your left hand so that you might fill your dipper and cleanse your nether regions, which requires you to pour water over and clean yourself with your left hand. Which I know sounds gross, but here's a thought: in America, we smear our shit onto a piece of paper on a regular basis. FOUL. Toilet paper: the number one thing I dread about my re-assimilation into the Western world. Wearing deodorant again is a close second. (Yeah. I went there.)

These are my last days in Madurai: admiring toilets and biking home through shin-deep torrents of water/sewage. Oh hi, monsoon season! After Saturday night, my research assistant-cum-travel agent Rachael and I will be embarking on a magical three-week voyage of research and hair-raising debacles, sponsored by a grant from Bates. First, to Mumbai! The city Aldous Huxley called "the worst of any hemisphere!" (Mumbai '09, no parents!) Then, to Gujarat, which the guide books call the Wild West of India! Where we will (hopefully) talk with tribal women about the significance of their tattoos and piercings, and where we will spend a magical Thanksgiving staying at a palace! Then finally, to Rajasthan, where we will interview women who work in beauty parlours about modern female adornment and its connection to female empowerment! Look at my excellent use of key sociologist phrases!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Anyway. The North is supposedly a might more sketch than the South, so I plan on whipping out my pocket knife on every night train and cleaning the blades in front of all the passengers. THAT'S RIGHT, Y'ALL. I GOT A KNIFE WITH WHICH TO SHANK YO ASS.

And finally: happy birthday, Mom! Happy belated birthday, Dad! And Happy Thanksgiving to all you turkey and tofurkey lovers!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


Here's a question: what is Halloween to you? To me, it's never been more than another annoying night where everyone around me looks like a two-dollar hooker and no one is sober enough to remember my name. It's also a night where I am inevitably forced to take a shot of Listerine while participating half-heartedly in Bates' most charming tradition, Trick or Drink. (Anyone who says Bobcats aren't classy is clearly wrong.) So take all of these components away. Now add equal parts India, a homemade Haunted House in the SITA building, my first ever truly frightening costume, and the girls I've been volunteering with at an orphanage who have never seen a Jack-o-lantern before, much less a Haunted House.

Best Halloween EVER.

In any other country, our Haunted House would've been lame and unappreciated. But in India, where spirits aren't just feared but warded away with amulets and herbs, we actually had two little boys cry. Asumi, the Other Portland Girl, painted all of our faces to make us appear properly undead and blood-thirsty. I was a corpse chained to the wall; we had a girl play that chick from The Grudge; we had a mummy/ghost; we had a mad scientist who made everyone stick their hands into her patient's stomach to feel the "guts" (pumpkin goop); we had a rage zombie, played frighteningly well by Nathan; we had a witch and her prisoner; and to end the Maze O' Terror, we had an insane asylum victim who stuck his head through a hole in the cardboard wall and screamed. It was AWESOME. Grown adults yelled as their ankles were grabbed, there was praying involved, no one wanted to walk down the corridor where Nathan was eating a (plastic) human foot...

The best part was when the girls I invited from the orphanage arrived, whom shall here on out be known as the Birdsnest (Orphanage) Girls. As soon as the door shut they screamed, and one girl clutched the door handle and crossed herself, whimpering, "Jesus, Jesus." I put my glasses on so they could recognize me - "Sister!" they said, relieved - and they held tightly onto my arm as I led them through, pretending to battle the ghost (nice one, Sarah) and fend off Rage Zombie Nathan. On Monday when I went to Birdsnest, the girls presented me with two pumpkins and told me to show them how to make Jack-o-Lanterns. Halloween was all we talked about, which made me realize how little I actually know about this holiday. My bad. I made up crap about people defying the Church and threw in a little Salem witch trials for good measure. That's historically accurate, right?

Anyway. It was a wholesome night, full of screaming and games on the roof and cake and sticky face paint that wouldn't come off, and completely devoid of alcohol and slutty cowgirl costumes. That, friends, is the perfect night.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Midnight Express: A Survival Guide

Anyone who has ever seen The Darjeeling Limited most likely pictures trains in India the same way I used to: with steam engines and people hanging out of the doorways, wooden compartments with sliding doors, and a woman who offers you fresh lemon juice. Or if you're really like me, you picture the Hogwarts Express winding through open land, palm trees rising out of the paddy fields as dusk closes in.

We took four night trains while traveling through the state of Karnataka - to Mysore (where the women in our group got groped by our tour guide - thanks, asshole!), Hampi (world's third largest archaeological site, and a haven if you wear ali baba pants and stopped wearing deodorant back when you learned The Man tests it on koala bears), and Bangalore (where we drank Pink Ladies at a bar called Nasa. The inside looked - yes - just like a space shuttle, except for the picture of Michael Jackson framed lovingly behind a glass window). So I thought I'd take a moment to tell you about night trains and how to survive them:

1.) Expect the cockroaches. They will crawl across your face, and if you didn't take dramamine like a good little traveler, you'll wake up screaming with its head in your mouth.

2.) If there's a guy who wants to switch beds with you to "sleep closer to his bag," don't switch with him. It's a long train ride, and watching him get all pissed off because he's a mama's boy who didn't get his way is better than HBO. Plus his bags are probably full of illegal content. Maybe you can siphon some heroin from his duffel before he wakes up.

3.) Drugs are your friend. Take dramamine. Go on. Take another. Take some Tylenol PM while you're at it. And don't forget your malaria pill, and two immunity boosting mushroom pills, and your birth control...

4.) When the tea guy lumbers past your bunk at four in the morning yelling, "COFFEESIR! TEASIR!" don't throw things at him. Don't groan, either, or he'll assume you want some hot milk with a tea bag thrown in for good measure and will not leave until you give him the desired five rupees.

5.) Get up at dawn, go to the bathroom area, and look out the door at the end of the train. The gold light touching the land in a sleepy haze is one of the most beautiful things you'll ever see in your life. Then use the bathroom and relish the fact that your urine is falling straight through a hole to the tracks below. Train time fun for everyone!

I'm starting my orphan endeavors this week. So far I'm a babysitter for fifty girls of different ages. Jesus, take the wheel.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

"My friends, I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States..."

Things that have happened since our last fireside chat:

1. Caught a virus, ie developed a 103 degree fever and a rash. Our program aides Maggie and Danny had to practically carry my diseased body to the local hospital, where I received in the butt a shot of dubious qualities and was also told to take three other pills. Then I threw up and didn't have to take the pills anymore. Am better now.

2. Went to Kerala, the state next to Tamil Nadu where I'm living. State is also known as "God's Own Country" because it is possibly one of the greenest, wettest, floweriest, most beautiful places in the world.
A. Rode an elephant with friends Rachael, aka Sister MC, and Scott-kku. (Both are nicknames I may or may not explain later.) Have never felt guiltier in my life. Worst part: when the elephant trainer hit the feet of the elephant with a stick and it uttered a mournful little moan and shuddered. Will never go on animal safaris again. To Kathryne: please don't hate me. I hated me enough for the both of us.

B. Went hiking at dawn through the Periyar Tiger Reserve. Did not see tiger, but did see elephant bones, wild boar, deer, wild dogs, wild elephants, and somehow admitted a leech right onto my underwear line. Only discovered it when I took my clothes off for a shower and it fell, fat and full and flailing, from my stomach onto the floor. Threw it, screaming, into the boys' room. If women have to give birth, men can handle squiggly things that suck your blood.

C. Stayed in Kochin, the best city ever. Ate Italian food, flirted with Kashmiri men, and watched Sister MC and Scott-kku vomit it all back up in a truck graveyard in the dark while I waited in the rickshaw trying to convince the driver they weren't drunk. First assumption of all South Indians: if you're vomiting at night and you also have pale skin, you have consumed too much alcohol. Also met a really cool Anglo-Iranian chick named Camilla who spent two months building eco septic tanks in a village outside Mysore. We'll always have Cochin.

D. Took a night train. Was not sketchy. Did start to hate Snoring Man, who snored the same way tigers snarl to mate. Also started to hate Snacking Man, who decided 4 am was a good time to turn on the light and eat some chips. Loved the rocking motion of the train while sleeping in the top bunk. Listened to a This American Life podcast saved on my iPod about a marine boat in the Arabian Sea and all the people who live on it.

3. Found out my host dad, Rajesh Kukreja, loves to listen to Death Cab For Cutie, INXS, Steely Dan, and certain ditties by Kylie Minogue. Bonded over the Transatlanticism for an hour while driving around Madurai. Felt a deep sense of contentment with the world.

Stay tuned, citizens. I'll report again soon.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

On yoga without Kimberly going, "Center your chi..."

I'm gonna be completely honest: I hate yoga in the States. Everyone's always more concerned about what clothing they wear than what we're actually doing, and they're all crowing, "I can't wait to lose a few inches off my waist!" And then this super skinny twit - often named Kimberly or Jada, depending on their hippie factor - walks into the mirrored, stuffy room where everyone's congregated and says in a floaty voice, "Hi, I'm Kimberly, and welcome to yoga. First we're going to start by sitting on the floor and centering ourselves." Her hand invariably presses the play button on the CD player, starting the New Age CD that will carry you through Child Pose and Dog Pose and Kissing Your Own Ass Pose. I frequently build up such a resentment for everything around me that instead of feeling peaceful, I feel like I want to shank a bitch and cut out early.

Yoga in India, friends, is not Kimberly's watered-down do-what-feels-good crap. I started going last week with a couple of people from my abroad program. I haven't been able to touch my toes since I started playing soccer, and I figured now would be a great time to start. First, the harrowing bike ride on a bike literally falling apart through harrowing Indian traffic (which I will describe at a later point). Nothing gets your heart rate up like being cut off by a bus tipping over with the amount of people hanging out of its doors. We finally arrived at the ashram (where yoga is studied and perfected by disciples of a guru; I feel like ours is named Je, because we're always chanting Je, but it could also mean, "Jesus help me to walk again because I have bent myself in unnatural ways today"). We paid our 700 rupees for a month of classes, which for those of you counting at home is equal to $14. A steal! Score! Then we climbed into the grass-roofed hut standing on stilts and waited for our teacher.

This dude is a human pretzel. He is also a drill sergeant. There's none of Kimberly's "Center yourself" here. Instead of gently incurring us to bend and twist, he yells, "Put your elbows up! Why are your elbows not up! DO IT!" On the second day he made us do a headstand. I actually thought my neck was going to snap. Goodbye world, I thought grimly. After I dropped my legs, he nodded satisfactorily and said, "Tomorrow, you do it on your own."

Bring it on, yogi.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

On praying for vomit.

Here's the thing about India: because there are so many people who struggle each day to find food hasn't been grown with a water-sewage cocktail, you'd think overeating wouldn't be a problem here. I came to India expecting to lose serious weight, which is why I totally didn't worry about the mommy weight* I packed on this summer. (*Mommy weight: noun. The weight a college student gains when living at home and eating Mommy's meals, and cookies, and bread, and cinnamon rolls...)

Readers, beware. I'm going to need the upcoming winter to hide my growing love handles beneath miles of wool sweaters.

The best way I can describe South Indian hospitality is to say this: from the very minute I arrived at my host family's house, they have been stuffing me full of food. So much food. Iddilis and paneer and masala and chapatis and dosai and coconut chutney and hot carrot ghee and cake and tea and spicy tomato gravy... for every meal. Iddilis are little rice pancakes that expand in your stomach, and for breakfast your average Indian mother expects you to eat at least four, if not six. I usually have to battle with my host mom to stop feeding me. I think she's convinced I'm being polite or shy. Saying you're sick in Tamil Nadu really means, "Please continue to feed me until I have mutton biryani spilling out of my pores. That'll beat whatever's making me ill, right?" My common thought process while eating is usually along the lines of, God, if you really exist, you'll stop her from feeding me. And then when she spoons one more scoop of chutney onto my plate: God, please, just let me vomit. Just let me die. It would also be easier to refuse if it all weren't so frigging good. I've stopped eating lunch, which is sometimes risky because every day my host mom says, "What did you have for lunch?" and I have to make up some lie about eating at a restaurant or something.

Sweet baby Jesus, how great does a simple PB and J sound right now.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Madurai or bust!

I've been in India for two weeks now. To give you a brief taste of India, here's a list of things I encounter on a day to day basis:

The lovely combination of jasmine and smoke and car exhaust and human, and pink and yellow and blue houses painted in Tamil with commercials for detergent or the "superb" brand of motor oil, and shacks built out of metal slats and concrete and left-over buildings and dirt hovels, and garbage and red earth and chunks of buildings churned together to make mountains, and mountains of small stone faces clumped into the domes of temples, and bright blue mosques, and black braids and moustaches, and red bindis and saris like sunsets, and palm trees and dust and rivers choked with plastic, and goats and cows digging through literally piles of shit with their horns painted and their ribs poking out, and dogs lying on the street divider as men and women move in separate clumps, and brightly colored hospital sheets stretched out to dry on the land where the big river used to flow, and long train rides and squatting over a hole that lets my piss fall to the tracks below, and nose rings like diamond flowers, and the air so hot and heavy that every time I step outside a film of sweat coats my skin, and temples over a thousand years old that we tread through with our bare feet, and cream colored churches and red striped Krishna temples, and Christmas lights strung up in the shapes of Ganesh and Shiva, and banana groves, and children laughing and waving and blowing kisses at the white girl in a salwaar kameez biking through the complete batshit system of Indian traffic.

In conclusion, India is like one really long run-on sentence. It's wearing me out, but so far I wouldn't have it any other way.