Friday, March 26, 2010

Dressing up for Purim (the Jewish Holiday commemorating the story of Esther) can be a predicament. Apparently in Mumbai, when they say "fancy-dress" and tell you to dress up like you would for Purim, it is always better to ask for clarification.  Otherwise you could cut your facial hair funny, dress up like a cowboy (among Indians) and show up to work to find everyone in fancy-dress attire.  Meaning, women in saris and men in traditional Indian formal-ware.  Oh well, I fit in with my Gan Katan students (5-11 year-olds)....

Response and late night thoughts -

Hi Linda!

It was a thrill to hear from you and get a nice note from home.  I am inspired by your dedication for helping the health care bill along the lines of democracy and rationality.  I am happy to receive the news that the reform has passed the house and seems on its way to be law...pending all the senators make it to the vote alive! (I've been trying to follow the news, and it seems the opposition is getting belligerent and violent, nice lesson for the children of the next generation, right?).  Sorry, stay positive and keep up the GREAT work!!!

Anyway, the relationship between American government and my life at the moment seem to exist on separate planes of reality.  I've been having a great time out here regarding my personal experiences and the work that I'm involved in.  The next few weeks will be a flood of planning/executing programming and festivals to help organize; from the holiday of Passover, a Holocaust memorial day, Israeli Independence Day, a 5-day camp for kids, a week-long camp for the youth (16-30 year olds), the monthly magazine to edit and write for, numerous weekly classes, a cricket tournament, and more.  However, as this may seem like a venting session on your end, I am really excited to be a part of this great community and have set time for my own private life.  Plus as my Great-Grandma Rose would remind me - I'm drinking plenty of water and getting good sleep.

The private life and setting barriers was something that I struggled with last month, when I called Ian and heard you guys all sitting around having breakfast. (I miss American breakfast almost as much as I miss mexican food, but not as much as I miss the Thorp family!)
Now I'm finding my balance and stride heading into this hectic pre-monsoon season of activity.  My personal social life is picking up, I've made some authentic friends with people within and outside the Jewish community, found the things that keep me happy, and for the most part I am staying healthy.  Speaking of monsoon season, its been as hot as a sticky hands are sticky, and it's supposed to get much much steamier.  In fact my dad's coming out here in a month too, just as the heat is boiling.  I'm looking forward to traveling a bit with him, doing the tourist stuff, and seeing things with fresh eyes again.  I always enjoy having people come stay with me (as there's a frequent rotating door of volunteers and travelers that stay in my apt) as they always bring up issues that I enjoy re-addressing at various stages of this adventure.  The poverty, education system, cultural nuances, dating scene, attachments to time and appearances, and other topics are constantly refreshed in conversations with people traveling around and not living here.  It really changes perspective between being a traveler and a member, albeit temporary, of a new culture/society.  I've certainly seen a change in my demeanor and ways of looking at life as it happens in my area and the broader space around.  Plus, it will be great to have family physically in front of me.  I've really missed my family of friends and relatives.

Okay, its quite late now and my mind is slowing down.  If you could send me your address, I'd love to send you guys something more tangible than a digital note...
Hope you have a great weekend ahead, and remember to drink water and get your sleep.  Keep well and stay in touch.
Much love to your whole family,

Friday, August 21, 2009

Day 3 - 4

What is going on??  The cars all move in this swelling motion of constant honking, piercing breaking, while emitting an incapacitating level of exhaust.  The people are quirky and friendly, but stare unscrupulously.  The food is plentiful and not as spicy as expected; in fact I have yet to experience anything of substantial hotness (spicy hot, most foods are temp hot).
My senses are in hyper speed.  The constant shift of everything, in the broadest sense of the word, is probably the hardest concept to grasp.  Its not one element that is entirely strange or unintelligible, and I understand that smells change from street to street, although more poignantly in some areas, that cars and sounds are always in flux, and that diversity is everywhere, but the reality of living in it all the time appears to be a near-distant stumbling block in facilitating my internal comfort. 

If that doesn’t make to much sense, how about imagining all five senses being on alert at once.  The squinting eyes of an active construction site, the tingling fingers of too much Chinese food, the fuzzy muted eardrums after a rock concert, the singed nostrils of a public toilet at that rock concert, and the sweaty mouth of digestion all blended together in one bottled container.  Now try to hold that energy for a minute.  Okay, that is the feeling ALL THE TIME.  I already love the people and food.  I will grow to appreciate the environment, but at this point I’m still enjoying that first moment outside when I escape the airtight a/c apartment, take a deep breath, sear my nostrils, and peel my t-shirt from my chest, and remember, “oh, right India.”

We, as in Jeanine, Sarah, and I, all began the day with a great walking tour of the area.  We stopped into some small kiosk-like shops that sell a dribble of American products alongside the fresh and packaged Indian snacks (just in case we crave some m&m’s, cereal, or peanut butter).  We got our pictures take for the visa registration (more on that later), and began to acclimate to the reality of calling these streets home for the next year.  Then it was breakfast time.  Wednesday’s first meal consisted of variations on potato.  We had a variety of potato balls, potato pancakes, potato chunks with veggies and spices, all topped with heaping spoonfuls of chutney (in this case a cilantro and garbanzo bean watery paste).  It was surprisingly good, like most everything else I’ve had, and did the job.  After stumbling out of the pleasant circulated air of the restaurant, we continued our humid tour of the large seaside park, the mayoral complex, and a nice stop for tea/smoothies.  I had a black current smoothie with vanilla ice cream.  See, it’s really not as bad as anyone made it out to be.  Plus, as a westerner I am still amazed at the exchange rate.  It beats the Euro, Pound, and even the Sheckle into currency chutney.

We made our way to the JCC just in time for lunch!  And just our luck, Wednesdays are non-veg days.  Most things in India are vegetarian, expressed through the term veg.  If it contains egg, poultry, fish, or meat it is usually separated from the veg section of a menu by the disclaimer of non-veg.  So, as I was saying, Wednesday’s lunches at the JCC are non-veg.  I had a nice daal (lentil mash) with rice, a vegetable dish, hard boiled egg, and Indian style wheat tortilla, the name of the bread is eluding me at the moment, but give me some slack, it’s been a long few days.  We then met with the directors of the JDC (the NGO I’m working for).  The country director, a charming and warm fellow, explained many of the programs (both Jewish and non-sectarian) the JDC does throughout the country, what Jeanine and I might be participating in, what others are doing in and around the community and all that is Indian Jewry.  We spent time making copies of all the paperwork needed for the registration, of which tens of items are required ranging from proof of residency, tax information, undertaker while in India, and the aforementioned photos.

The JDC and JCC had been on separate floors, but they are in the process of combining office space.  Therefore, the work environment at the moment is filled with saws, hammering, and construction of all kinds. This includes additional dust, wood particles, and gas fumes circulating throughout our work space.  Needless to say, the long hours of concentration, short hours of sleep, utter confusion of India’s ways, itchy eyes, and polluted air all combined to pound in perfect time with hammer into an alarming headache.  I took extra time collating my papers, tuning the office guitar, and trying not to talk or look at anyone until the Bobby McFerrin tune Don’t Worry Be Happy popped into my head and evoked a wry smile.  I began to whistle the tune to the amusement of those near enough to hear.  The power of music is truly amazing.  And with that, I believe it’s time to eat, again.

Jeanine and I met Basil for dinner at the hotel he was staying at.  It happened to be the Parse New Year.  So, they had a buffet!  The sous chef apparently spotted my delight with the wonderful sights and smells of his food.  He demanded my feedback to his work, and gave me his card and personal e-mail in case I ever help while in the city.  Oh, and the food was superb!  However, the joy during this meal was actually not just the food, but getting the master’s perspective on India and the Jewish world we have been thrown into.  Jeanine and I learned just how frustrating things can be, but until we actualize this experience, the two of us seem to be getting along just fine.

The next day: Downtown

Getting into the heart of the city was quite a rush.  For the first time, it seemed like I was going into the India of my imagination. The places I read about in the novel Shantaram were coming to life.  The Causeway, main shopping walking district, was a great area I look forward to going back to, but it was mostly a tourist attraction and not opened until 10-ish.  We stopped for a quick breakfast, and made our way to the F.R.R.O. government office for the visa registration.  The stories from Sarah regarding the need to register stem from the detainment of former JSC (Jewish Service Corps) volunteers.  We thank you British for your lovely obsession for bureaucracy.   Jeanine and I finally found the right room on the right floor in the right building in this government complex and proceeded to stand in the wrong line (which happened to be on the right) in this steamy waiting area packed with people to the point of delirious hilarity.  Unfortunately, when we finally made it to the front of the left and correct line, over an hour later, we were reprimanded for not having the proper company letterhead on one of the documents, and therefore have to come back when we have the proper letterhead.  Most other items in our packet had the JDC letterhead, and this one was signed by the same person as the unapproved page, and was supported by this person’s passport, but we still could not pass into the next room.  All this was just to be admitted into the next waiting room for registration, not to actually become registered.  We were beyond aggravated, but hey, welcome to India, a land of confusion and illogical bureaucracy, yet it all seems to be okay after chai.

We walked around the downtown area a bit more; crossing the most dangerous streets I’ve ever seen.  I am surprised how brave the pedestrians are, in that they seem to not pay any attention to the traffic at all, exemplified by the distracted man that walked into me with an open hand directly in my crotch.  He paused, without moving, smiled with the patented Indian head bobble, and continued down the main road of almost certain death.  I normally would have reacted to such abuse, but at that moment I was caught like a deer in the garbage truck’s headlights.  Like frogger, I eluded oncoming traffic to catch up with my companions, and was instantly distracted by the array of vendors, colors, and smells of the Crawford Market.

To head back into Mahim, the area of the city where we will live and work, we decided to brave the train system.  The 6 rupee ticket (~10-15 cents) for the second class car is a fantastic deal.  However, due to the hoards of crowds, male and female cars are separate.  I found myself a nice seat in my car, and began the 30 minute journey back to work.  The spacious car quickly filled at the first stop, and before long I was shoved into the side of the car between a wall and a sleeping boy.  The Muslim child was asleep against his father, until he was propped upright and slowly fell the other way softly landing on my shoulder.  The cramped quarters were at first nothing I haven’t experienced during rush hour on the NYC subway, but apparently, this was a light load heading the opposite direction from the rush into the city.  The sleeping child provided me with some protection from another sweaty traveler rubbing shoulders, as well as granted me with many smiles and head wiggles from the surrounding voyagers and the pleased father that his shoulder was free to hold his bags of tubing.  I have no idea why, but thought these were memorable details.  Speaking of which, it was from the train that I witnessed true talent.  A small lady, and I mean smaller than Aunt Denise, was balencing a bundle in a woven basket taller than her on her head, while holding a full and heavy looking bag in each hand.  This is commonplace in India, and not the talent.  Her sari was perfectly tucked and wrapped, and she strolled quite elegantly.  Then she turned towards the train, coughed up some throat phlegm, and hawked out this beautiful loogey into the middle of the tracks.  Ah, the things you see when you open your eyes to the streets.  I have also seen a tiny girl no taller than 2.5 feet smack a large snarling dog with a bamboo stick and stare right back.  I was quite impressed.  It seems child safety takes on a different persona here.  For instance, it means the child sits up front on the motorcycle, right in Dad’s pelvic crevice, while the additional four passengers, again on a motorbike, sit or sidesaddle behind (all without helmets or regard for their appendages).

Again, we arrived back at the JCC in time for lunch; a wonderful spread of daal, rice, and a lentil veg dish, with the Chapati bread (tortilla thing).  The rest of the afternoon was spent creating a game for the Gan Katan, lit. Little garden, which is the Sunday morning class taught by the JSC at the JCC (starting to get the acronyms?) for 5-11 year-olds.  We decided to make an acrostic quiz using our names as the acrostic answer.  They don’t know our names yet, and we thought making a game where the clues are all educationally based on the Torah can fulfill multiple roles.  Plus we get to give them all candy for playing, and I like that.

Around 4:30, the director of the JCC, as opposed to the country or JDC, sat Jeanine and me down for a long discussion and introduction into the roles as facilitators and educators.  She went through the many programs in place, such as the Jewish Youth Pioneers, or JYP (15-28 year-olds), the JYP Juniors for the 12-14 year-olds, the Tanakh class for adults, the various annual events, and other JCC initiatives.  She continued by opening the forum into more of a dialogue where we elaborated on our resumes and backgrounds, and shared our ideas.  All in all, we learned a lot, and realized just how direct the service is that we’ll be accountable for.  We are, in part, responsible for the Jewish connection of this community for the year.  This is more than enough for a Rabbi to tackle, much less a wandering juggling jester such as myself.  The jet lag is beginning to fade, but the long days and heat are still taking their toll.  So, around 7 we were heading out of the office for an evening in Bandra.

After a confusing cab ride, a quick errand, and another flash of Indian male discomfort, this time by a rickshaw driver blowing me a kiss, we found ourselves in a nice little cafĂ©, which serves the only bagels in the city.  Usually Jeanine and I would avoid such western hotspots, but we were meeting a few fellow NGO Mumbai workers.  We had a nice meal, great conversation, and a few laughs before it was time for the return trip home.  The rickshaws aren’t allowed south of Bandra, which is north of Mahim and the rest of Mumbai, so we found a happy cabbie and headed for bed.  Thus far it’s been mostly fun and little work, and I’m excited to celebrate my first Shabbat in India.  I’m excited to see what the Jewish community is really all about here, and how 2000 years in a Diaspora can change the traditions I’m used to.  Good night for now, but here’s a little Israeli-Indian song to enjoy…

The Morning After

Day 2:

Woah…I am waking up in India!  The effects of loosing a whole day have already bestowed upon me a night of helpless time mismanagement.  When I do finally give in to the reality of not sleeping, 6:30-ish, I find ways to prepare for the following day by meticulously cleaning my toiletries, repacking, or quietly plucking my guitar in rhythm with one of the Bollywood hits shown frequently on the plasma screen in my hotel room.  It is a nice room: complete with a plush mattress, marble-looking Western bathroom, and view of a quieter backstreet in the area called Dadar, pronounced Dader, just north of the downtown district.

Around 8:45, I made my way downstairs to the complimentary breakfast.  Jeanine and I had agreed to meet at 9, but when I arrived I found her already finished and looking as unfulfilled with the night’s sleep as me.  We apparently had the same problem of not being able to turn off all the lights, at least not without also turning off the air conditioning, something I wouldn’t dream of sacrificing.  It turns out there’s a button located somewhere near the bed for the naked florescent bulb hanging like mistletoe above the doorway.  Every other light had at least two switches somewhere in the room, but this one didn’t seem to be effected by an combination of them, and I must have tried them all.
The food was amazing!  An array of pancakes, porridges, yogurts, fruits, eggs (apparently not real veg*), toast, juices, and many other delicacies I’ve never considered, especially for breakfast.  There were chutneys, and starchy pineapple tamale-like cakes, varieties of curds, toasts, and dried sprouts.  As I piled my plate with bits of everything, Basil Exposition (blog alias), the India JDC country director, graced us with an unexpected early hour arrival.  As I ate, he told us about the realities of India.  For instance, most people don’t start work until 10; it is not a country in a rush, yet a place where everyone has an opinion on everything.  Throughout our discussion, Jeanine and I continually found ourselves laughing at the directness of our boss’s speech.  Basil really tells it like it is, but softens the blow through a wonderful English accent and frequently interjected humor.  He had to rush off for a funeral occurring within the Indian Jewish community, so Jeanine and I were left to fend for ourselves for the afternoon.  We spent a few hours wandering the area around the hotel, looking for a money change place and lunch. 

We found both.  The bank was not what I would ever imagine as a place for securing anything, much less money.  It was a small office area with a snake-like desk slithering around the whole bottom floor.  The financial books of the bank adorned every inch of the work space while people working seemed unaffected by their towering and overflowing presence.  After the exchange, we began the search for a sit down restaurant of the Indian kind.  There were hoards of people out, but apparently nothing like we’ll see downtown, and traffic of every kind flowed and swelled along side the population.  Like most large cities in the area, the street vendors take up the majority of the sidewalk leaving the pedestrians to walk alongside the nervously honking vehicles in the street. It seems to somehow just work and no one gets killed that doesn’t want to.  It’s a matter of desire, if at any given moment one finds themselves ready for the end, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to just take a few steps further into the street before the bus comes barreling down without regard for road debris, or in this case a human speed bump.  I find it all just bloody amazing!

Jeanine and I stumbled into this eight table establishment and took the available bench near the kitchen.  Not unlike the street, it seemed the entire population waiting for their food took the opportunity to count our hairs and stare without hesitation, especially at Jeanine whom is a non-Indian female, and hasn’t yet acquired the Indian style of loose fitting clothes.  We ordered two dishes, a vegetarian biryani and daal rice.  The food came out in many dishes and when it seemed we had all that was ordered; we dug in, with only our right hand of course.  With baby spoons as serving utensils, I learned that I am a true lefty.  I struggled to get the food into my plate, and even more to get the food into my mouth.  The right hand is the eating had in India.  I observed the way those around me were mixing, balling, and scooping, but couldn’t get the technique without looking like a gluttonous monkey pretending to be a chicken or do its dance.  Jeanine showed me the method her Indian friends had taught her, and I tried to look more refined.  But my damn elbow won’t stay down, so I either lower the food in like a helicopter making a drop, or properly use my thumb to push the food into my mouth with my handicapped elbow doing its own chicken boogie.  The effective practice of the finger eating technique has its benefits.  First of all, no matter what it looks like I am eating incredible foods.  Second, the more I practice the more the restaurant employees seem to enjoy my attempts, and my reactions to their delicious food.  Lastly, I know that as the year progresses, I’ll hone the ability and eat like an Indian native in due time.  We can’t finish the food, and realize that one of the orders would have been enough for the two of us.  The bill comes out to 75 rupees.  At an exchange rate of over rs. 45 to $1, well it was still too much food. :^)

We checked out of the hotel and met Sarah for a tour of her apartment, and the place we’ll be staying for the next week.  It is an awesome place, but unfortunately we won’t be able to keep it because Jeanine and I are not married, or of the same sex.  We still don’t have apartments and the search is ongoing.
Sarah debriefs us on the inter-workings of the JDC office and informs us of a major move going on.  The JCC located upstairs from the office will no longer exist, as the JCC and JDC will be sharing the current JDC space. We take a taxi to the office, and meet some of the workers there, along with Leora our new local boss.  We are given a short tour and the discussion continues.  I’m not really sure what it was we talked about, as the jet-lag of the day set in.  However, we had agreed to join Sarah while she taught the Adult Torah class.  The 6-8 pm class of six, including Sarah, Jeanine, and me, was a nice forum for Jewish discussion.  We read through a few chapters in the first book of Kings making frequent stops to summarize, or input personal reflections and inner meanings.  The small class was alive with energy, especially after the snacks arrived.  The great cookies, biscuits, and samosas (fired triangles stuffed with spiced potato), were all washed down with a great mug of spiced chai.  Can you tell I really like the food here?!

Even through Jeanine and I were exhausted, we pushed through until the end of the session, and promptly requested to do nothing more but find a mattress.
Layla tov Mumbai, you are a confusing and magically right-sided world.  I can’t wait for tomorrow, but let's agree to not wake me up until at least 7 AM.
if nothing else, close your eyes, and imgaine this sound 24/7. Sleep tight!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Indian Impressions

Day one:

It was a long flight, but passed as easily as an extremely long line at John’s pizza in the Village. After watching two classic Hindi films on my personal screen, inhaling three surprisingly good Air India plane-ready meals, and shifting through countless cycles of REM sleep, Jeanine and I found ourselves on the tarmac of the Bombay/Mumbai airport. We took an Israel bus in rush hour-like packed tram to the terminal/baggage claim, and went effortlessly through customs, and Swine flu screening. Walking though the airport’s halls I couldn’t help but chuckle at the numerous signs warning us to “Just say No.” However, they weren’t warnings against drugs, drunk driving, or firearms, but rather a caution towards taxi drivers offering a ride to your destination. “We’re in INDIA!!” The little things I’d been warned about hadn’t really come into play yet, but I kept on the ready for the overwhelming smells, heat, and the over - seriously, over - like nothing you’ve ever seen before – population crowding.

We waited for our luggage amid a furry of movement of weary travelers, airport officials, and baggage. After a few smiles and really noticing the head wiggle, especially from the surrounding travelers, we were off; out of the safety of the air port and into the sticky Mumbai night. So it was about at this point that we both realized neither of us had confirmed who, where, or when someone would be picking us up. Uh, it is okay to laugh, we sure did. We perused the hoards of willing drivers and waiting chauffeurs wrapped around a pig-pen like gate immediately congregating at the exit, but didn’t notice anyone with our names on their placard, or with a white and beaconing complexion. While waiting off to the side with the mountain of luggage, Jeanine eventually found Shushi, or what I repeated to a wag of the head. This broadly smiling 20-something, sporting a shimmering vest/pant combo and holding a sign with my name upon it seemed to be our driver. I mean how many Michael Gropper’s could there be in India, arriving that night, on my plane (we confirmed the flight info), and expecting a driver? We exchanged smiles and went off into his divinely air-conditioned almost-mini-van adorned with a hotel’s placard.

The calamity of the airport was nothing to compare to the traffic in the streets. The lanes were mere paint for the pavement. The taxis, buses, rickshaws, motorcycles, and other vehicles swarmed along the road bobbing and weaving, honking and shouting, all the while avoiding brave pedestrians and hand carts attempting to make their own way along, across, or new home in the road. If the newness of the city hadn’t overtaken us, Shushi received a phone call from Sarah, the current Mumbai volunteer, asking where we were. Apparently, she was waiting to take us and we had left the welcoming party waiting…oops, off to a great start.

So here I am, finally stretching out my legs in a pleasant room of the Ramee Guestline Hotel in Dadar. The complementary breakfast is tempting me to go to sleep and acclimate myself to the 12.5 hour time difference. That’s all for now, but much more to come as I really get to know this marvelous country, its people, cultures, and culinary treasures.

nice view from the hotel room