Send via SMS

Sunday, July 30, 2006

The answer to the zillion-dollar trip-to-India-related question is...

...quite unexpectedly, yes. Go to Beth Loves Bollywood to read what in the world I'm talking about.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Oh Kolkata! (Sorry, it had to be done.)

Everyone else in my group was sad to leave Kerala, but I'm thrilled to be back in a city. I sure wish I had a penpal here, because it's really clear I could use a guide as I bumble around the hotel area, under constant siege from vendors and taxi- and rickshaw-wallas. Today two guys made the clever approach of just coming up and talking to me like we were actually having a conversation (rather than "madam, madam, look, please look, very nice, very cheap"), saying "It's very hot, isn't it?" Where I come from that's the kind of thing you can say to strangers perfectly innocently, even if you have no intention of getting them to buy stuff from you. Last night Debbie and I went exploring for dinner and in the hour and a half we spent outside the hotel, we saw a grand total of two other women. That's right, two. One middle-aged woman on the street and one twenty-something in the restaurant we went to. Every other person we saw was male, which is an experience I have never had before. I'm glad I was with Debbie, that's for sure - she's a lot more savvy than I.

More on museums. Please know that I am desperate to find out from someone (preferably someones) who work in museums here about what's going on in the field in general. I readily admit that there is so much I don't know. But I can't just stop thinking about this. I have to think about it, process it, especially as we keep going to museums. I simply cannot turn off that portion of myself. I've bought two books on Indian museums, one by one of the speakers we had in Delhi who was an amazingly sharp woman whose views on culture and heritage I really dig, but I mailed the books home, so that will have to wait.

Today a bunch of us went to the Indian Museum, just a few blocks from our hotel. I forgot to say on my previous post about museums that overall I find the collections in Indian museums to be simply amazing and completely fascinating (at least, I assume they're fascinating, as there are no labels to confirm or deny any information I already have about them or answer any questions I have...grrr...anyway). So it's not a question of the quality of the artifacts themselves (although I've heard the argument put forward that the British and other European-types took the very finest things away years ago). I couldn't believe all the beautiful sculptures I saw, and again there was an utter lack of information about them. There were more general context labels here than in most museums, but what text there was was not engagingly or clearly written. Typos I can forgive; boringness I cannot. Pigeons as well as artifacts are at home in this museum, and some of the sculptures had the evidence, if you know what I mean. Ewww. And the natural history section was like stepping into a different era completely - like it had been set up in the late 19th century and not touched since. (A lot like UIUC's old Museum of Natural History, but moreso.) Interesting note: the only room that was air conditioned was the Egyptology section, and I think that was because it had a human mummy. I guess it's not good hospitality to bake other people's cultural heritage?

Okay, off to experience more Kolkata. Or watch movies on tv. Hmmm....

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Bangalore, Mysore, and Kerala

Bet you're all wondering where I've been. In a tropical paradise, that's where. Those of you who have traveled with me know how little appeal tropical paradises tend to have for me, but even I am impressed by this one. (Luci and Melina, I'm thinking of you particularly here.) We're at the Leela in Kovalam Beach, Kerala, and it is stunning. Just when you think the hotel can't become any more beautiful, it does. They have bowls of floating rose petals everywhere; last night I discovered that once the sun sets they put candles in the bowls too. I mean, seriously. There is no point to these things except to be pretty, and they certainly succeed. Building aside, the setting is superb - the hotel is terraced into a bluff over the Arabian Sea, coconut trees all around ("Kerala" means "the land of coconuts"), waves crashing, and stars overhead. I realized this is the first time I've seen stars in India, since I've been in big cities everywhere else.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Bangalore continued to be fun, and mad props are due to Gangarams bookshop, recommended to me by one of my Mumbai friends. Debbie (the librarian, totally my favorite perosn to pal around with) and I went crazy in there, buying books and presents. Then we strolled over to the customer service desk where they estimated my shipping costs and brought me tea. While this was incredibly convenient and kind, I had a moment of feeling really guilty about the color of my skin and the baggage of that: a staff person brought over a chair and kept saying "sit, sit" even though I told him I didn't need to, and the Indian man behind me made some sort of clucking noise, making me think he had probably had enough of white women getting special thigns. This was not the first time it has appeared that we've gotten to do or see something special, or at least something a little unusual, because we're a bunch of mostly white American scholars/tourists, but this was the first time it had happened to me by myself. It's tricky - I certainly don't ever intend to act like a memsahib but when the government is putting you up in the hotels like we're in, I can see why everyone thinks I am one (or thinks that I think I am one).

From Bangalore we took a day trip to Mysore. Bollywood people please note that we drove through some hills in which parts of Sholay were filmed. We stayed in the maharaja's guest palace. Yes, that's right. It was like being in a period piece; one felt wildly underdressed in trousers and a shirt, wishing one had a ball gown on and a bejewelled prince on one's arm. One, however, did not have any such things, but one did have the chance to celebrate a colleague's birthday, so one celebrated royally. We squeezed in two visits to educational institutions and then some sight-seeting to Mysore Palace and Srirangapatnam, an island city.

Museum-related detour: everyone keeps asking me what I think of the museums in India, so I will just say: I think they're abysmal. Let me say right up front that I had made some assumptions about how museums here would tend to funciton - namely that due to the British legacy, many museums would appear to have similar purpose and methods to ones in the US, Canada, and Australia. Based on what I have observed, I am very, very wrong about that, and I apologize to the entire Indian museum community about the befuddled comments I have made as I have poked around the nine musems I have visited. It now seems pretty clear that as a whole Indian musems have different missions, purposes, and ways of operating that I do not intuit.

That said, there are major problems in both conservation and education in every institution I have visited. This country's physical cultural heritage is being baked, steamed, and eroded; it is dusty, dingy, overly lit, and encased in plastic that I'm sure was PVC; metal artifacts are mounted with unbuffered metal nails, furniture fabric is water damaged, and textiles are pinned to backing boards with thumbtacks at the corners, sagging in the middle. In Bangalore I noticed a stone sculpture had actually fallen through its wooden support furniture and had just been left there, only its top portion visible amidst the splintered wood. That same museum had rows of miniature paintings nicely framed but the frames were all crooked on the wall. It's like nobody has worked there in the last 100 years, even though I saw at least three staff people there.

Some more examples: today at an art museum we had to take off our shoes before going in, which is fine and not at all uncommon in various types of institutions and homes here of course, and we were told it was so we would not track in dust; we get inside to find the windows all wide open. The National Museum of Modern Art in Mumbai had signs in English and Hindi telling us to be quiet, but the labels were only in English. What kind of message is that? Only people who can read English deserve to know what something is? I don't know why I ask - text of any kind is not a habit here and I have been able to find out very, very little about any artifact in any musem. The Prince of Wales Museum in Mumbai provided some context here and there, especially in its Indus Valley civilizations section, and the musem in the summer palace in Srirangapatnam had some very clever labels with pictures of artifacts from that time/place that had been given away or taken, with an explanation of what it was and where it had wound up. I thought this was an exceptionally smart way to raise the issue of conquest and cultural heritage without making a big stink about it. These labels left the reader to wonder why that stuff had gone away and whether India might like it back, which is what we should all be wondering. Anyway, overall, most artifacts have only a name attached to them; sometimes you can find a date and place. Very seldom is there any kind of overarching contextual panel with information on what the exhibit is about and why anyone should look at it, what it can tell us, how it fits within Indian culture.

Okay, that's done. Please, please, please believe me that I'm sure there's a lot I don't know about Indian museums, how they are intended to function, what services they hope to provide, etc. And I can only imagine how big a question resources mgiht be. But there are so many things that oculd be improved so easily, almost for free. And yes, please do write in and tell me what I don't know. And yes, I'm willing to come help, if someone can put me up for a few weeks at a time. But I'm not helping in July - November through February only.

Museum detour over. What was I talking about before? I have no idea. Anyway. Now we're in Kerala. I bought a sari. I have no idea what I'm going to do with a sari, but it was so pretty I had to have it. (I also bought a sari for Spurlock but frankly it's much less lovely, but that's fine, because it's going get little grubby kid hands all over it.) Today we visited a film studio and we met a famous Malayalam (is that a fun word to say or what?!?) actor. I have no idea who he is but I promise to post a piture when I get home and people can write in and tell me. We also got to see the sound studio where they dub in the dialogue, and there was a cluster of music stands, I assume for playback singers. Super cool. South India has really delivered on movie posters and I've seen two of the giant painted actor cut-outs. Again, pictures will come in August. I've been flipping through my photos and a shocking proportion are movie-related. Well, maybe not so shocking.

I'm sorry, I'm completely running out of steam. A cold has been making its nefarious way around our group and I have a touch of it, and the steamy weather makes me sleepy. Truly it is hard to be me. (Those who know will dial Sting for me, na?)

The other day we were talking about our top five Indian experiences and I was hard-pressed to choose; just being here, just realizing every few hours that oh my goodness I'm in India, is amazing to me; meeting friends has been the highlight, though, these wonderful people who have shared so much with me and been a continual supply of fun and interesting learning. Very special apologies to the two in Bangalore I wasn't able to meet up with - phone problems, schedule problems, bah!

Okay. The power keeps cutting out and it's time for dinner. On the beach.

Monday, July 17, 2006

from Mumbai to Bangalore

We left Mumbai this morning and all I can think about is when I'll get to come back. We were there such a short time and got such a teeny, tiny taste - which is true of all the places we're going, really, but I felt it so dearly in Mumbai. Heartfelt thanks to all the lovely friends who were willing to come across the city to meet me - and for sharing their city and their lives with me! There's no real way to describe how wonderful it is to get to spend face-to-face time with people I've known virtually; their perspectives on their city, culture, current events, etc., are icing on the cake.

Speaking of cake, Mumbai yielded some excellent western-style desserts; while I've cheerfully sampled my way through and over my pre-trip feeling of "enh" towards Indian sweets, sometimes there is no substitute for chocolate mousse cake.

So, what did I do in Mumbai other than hang out with friends? We watched a documenary about Dharavi, Asia's biggest slum, and its community cohesion and had a discussion with the filmmakers and the social workers who were profiled in the film. We visited a municipal school that has been adopted by a wonderful charity agency and saw just how amazing their work is, how great these kids and teachers are doing. We went on a sight-seeing trip to a Jain temple (where the incense was so strong I thought I was going to pass out; I was reminded of my trip to Italy with my dad after graduation when we went to some cathedral and saw some saint's finger or something with a bunch of candles all around and he leaned over and nudged me and said "not like Macomb First Presbyterian, eh?"), the hanging garden, a Gandhi museum, and the laundry district.

And now here we are in Bangalore. We had a completely free day today, and I am happy to have spent the afternoon exploring the city market with three intrepid friends. Pros for Bangalore: the first genuinely cool breeze I've felt since Chicago and a stunning variety of dessert at lunch, more then enough to push me into a food coma. Cons for Bangalore: the most disgusting traffic-based air I've breathed in maybe in my life; this was made more exciting by a autorickshaw driver who was smoking and reading the paper while driving. But we made it back to the hotel, so that's all dandy. I have no idea what we're doing tomorrow; I look at the schedule each day and all the info promptly goes right back out of my head.

Oh, and another pro for Bangalore: vibrant, moustachioed movie posters that I cannot in any way decipher.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

I'll try not to gush...

...but I'm in Mumbai, so the odds of pulling that off are poor. We arrived yesterday afternoon and for the whole very long bus trip from the airport to hotel I sat staring out the window, still not quite able to believe where I was - and that feeling didn't really subside until later in the evening, when I went to the Gateway of India, where I strolled around and then sat staring at the sea (the Arabian Sea - woah) and the lights, and then it started to rain. I ask you, is there a more perfect introduction to Mumbai for a filmi lover than that? No. No, there is not. Even on the bus ride in everyone could tell how excited I was; Rajan came up to me and said "Beth! You're in Mumbai!" and made a sweeping gesture towards the panorama out the window.

I've been here less than 24 hours and am already loving it. The city vibe seems to have reenergized some of my colleagues, and there is a night outing planned for some dancing and people-watching. The funniest part of this to me is that I am somehow the person in charge of figuring out where to go; those of you who socialize with me will realize what a topsy-turvy world it is in which I am the person who chooses a nightclub. Clearly I will have to fob off most of these responsibilities onto Rajan.

Sorry, my thoughts are not pulled together. But just know that I am in Mumbai, and I am very, very happy for many, many reasons. But also know I had a short but powerful surge of homesicknesses the other day, and that I miss everyone and everything very much. Meeting friends here is really helping, as is being in scenery that I've seen before. A full night's sleep will also help - but who wants to sleep when they're in Mumbai?

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Ahmedabad (not in Mumbai, so don't worry!)

First, thank you so much to everyone who wrote expressing concern for my group and my friends in Mumbai. Everyone is fine. My group was in Ahmedabad, which is in a different state than Mumbai, when the blasts happened; thanks to my mobile phone, I was able to get in touch with my closest friend in Mumbai, who had not left his office yet. As far as I know, the loved ones of my friends are okay as well. Let me share with you the piece of good news I have heard out of this - a friend with whom I have been speaking almost daily since arriving here told me that on his way home from work yetserday (Wednesday July 12, one day after the blasts), the streets were packed with people of all ages passing out tea and biscuits to commuters, that everyone was out on the street being kind, offering, helping.

Okay, on to less dramatic news. I'm enjoying Ahmedabad and Gujurat very much. Yesterday we drove north of the city to see some historic structures - and you know how much I love historic structures - and I was a very happy camper indeed. Two stepwells and an 11th-century temple, all of which were mindblowing. Simply beautiful. Of course my camera battery died at the first of the spots, so I haven't got many photos, but everyone else in the group does. Yesterday night I ate a yummy, if unbalanced, dinner of some kind of peppery hush puppy-type things from a street vendor (no idea of the name of the dish and my usual informant of all things Indian has not been able to help - darling Akshay, what say you?) and a chocolate orange sundae from an ice cream shop called Hapinezz. I figure if you can buy hapiness for only 55 rupees, life is pretty good, na? This morning we did a walking tour of old parts of this city - well, not very old, I guess, a couple hundred years - and witnessed the deity image being brought into a big Hindu temple in the morning, complete with bells and prayers and this amazing scent of jasmine coming from I have no idea where. And tonight there is an outing of 12 of us - plus Rajan of course - to go see Krrish (for those who are not in the know [shame on you!], this is India's big action movie of the summer, and the first real superhero-type movie, complete with Hong Kong action and wire work and all that).

And tomorrow...Mumbai! Is it wrong to fall to the ground and kiss it before I'm even out of the airport? Just try and stop me. And the very first moment I can get to the Gateway of India, I am going to run, twirl around with my arms outspread, and sing and dance. Even if it's raining.

(Bollywood-interested readers, hop over to BLB for special news.)

Monday, July 10, 2006

from Amritsar to Delhi (yes, I know that's backwards from what I just said)

The pace of this trip is quick quick quick (someone tell me how to say that in some Indian language please) and despite a lackluster review in my guidebooks as a messy one-horse town, Amritsar proved to be a whirlwind and fascinating visit. Sites as they may be, the real joy for me here was meeting a variety of students and teachers in Indian schools. We saw Pingalwara (sorry for the horrible spelling, but my notes are back in my hotel room), a donation-based school for a range of disadvantaged, orphaned, and physically and mentally challenged children; visited a small village called Konke, where we were the main attraction at the school and in the streets; and a government industrial training institute for women, where we were treated like rock stars. I kid not - there was a hand-painted banner out front when we pulled up, the beautiful pigment drawings on the sidewalks, garlands, bouquets, special presentations of games and handiwork, and Punjabi folk dancing. And yes, as soon as it became clear that it was okay for us to join the dancing, I did so. Oh, and the school had put out a sapling tree for each of us to plant - I have never been so honored. I cried, I just couldn't take it anymore - the generosity and kindness of people here is overwhelming, and sometimes it seems we don't have nearly enough time or energy to really connect - we zip in and out, exchange pleasantries and get a quick tour, as a few questions, then off we go. On the other hand, it strikes me as profoundly true that a smile really is universal.

Now for the non-actual-people-related highlight of my trip thus far. Friday night, we were presented with a program of Punjabi folk dancing by a professional troupe, who had brought with them a light-up dance floor. Egged on by our Fulbright India staff member, Vartika, who is Punjabi, we all got up and joined in. Later on, dancers came out into the audience to grab a few more volunteers, and one of them made a beeline for me. Those of you who have never danced with me need to know that I am a lousy dancer, but what I lack in talent and grace I make up for in enthusiasm and effort. It was so. incredibly. fun. After the formal program ended, there were DJs with a giant catalog of Bollywood music, and our tour guide, Rajan, who also loves Bollywood, had clearly clued them in to things he knew or anticipated I would like. So I'm sitting there, thinking that now that the program is over I might go get something from the buffet, and I hear the strains of "It's the Time to Disco" and all the joy I find in Bollywood movies just wells up and sends me flying to the dance floor, grabbing my friend Debbie as I go. (Debbie is a supercool librarian who also happens to be a midwesterner, and she totally rocks, by the way.) So Rajan, who was in dance competitions in college (Bollywood people: I know, right?!?! those really happen! I haven't gotten up the courage to ask him if people bring hand-lettered signs to those), is up there with some fantastic moves. He has clearly watched these songs over and over and knows a lot of the sequences by heart. With Debbie and me behind him, we groove through "Pretty Woman," "Chaiyya Chaiyya," and "Boro Boro" from Bluffmaster, which I always have to play several times whenever it comes up on my itunes. The only word to describe how happy I was is...superwow. I told Rajan he had made my trip to India and he just gave me this half-smile and the head-wobble, which I have no idea how to interpret. He might have meant an earnest "you're so welcome, you insane woman" or he might have meant "this job does not pay me nearly enough."

Anyway, now I'm back to Delhi. I love the train. I love the nonstop snacks, even if I don't know what they all are. I like the piped-in Hindi music. I like the porters at the train stations with giant hard-sided luggage on their heads. I like zipping through the crowds, desperately trying to keep an eye on Rajan so I don't get lost, splashing through puddles.

Oh! It rained! Our last few hours in Amritsar yesterday, it rained. And it was every bit as glorious as in the movies. People came out onto their balconies and rooves, children splashed, the temperature dropped, and you could feel some relief. I loved it. I ran out from under the hotel awning and twirled around. Lovely.

Off to Ahmedabad tomorrow at 4:00 a.m. Yes, 4:00 a.m. So now to bed!

Thursday, July 06, 2006

from Delhi to Amritsar

Dhadek dhadek! I took my first Indian train today. Very fun. So much to see out of the window, and I had not a clue as to what most of it was. I was surprised by how much the area between Delhi and Amritsar looks like Illinois - basically flat with lots of fields, even some corn, although here the fields are much more subdivided, by little earthworks or hedges. And train snacks are good! I very much enjoyed my pitcher of boiling water and little coffee packet - and my paper-wrapped white bread (the whitest bread I've seen in some time, I might add) and jam.

After having a late lunch in the hotel, we went to Jallianwala Bagh and then the Golden Temple. I don't really know what to say about either - I don't think I have quite enough context to appreciate the importance of events at the first (the British shot a bunch of innocent people who were gathered in a garden [I think it was a garden, right dostis?], and this is an important event in the Indian freedom struggle) and I felt like we were treating the Golden Temple like a zoo, stopping at inconvenient places to take group photos and things like that (although to be fair I am never quite sure how to behave in houses of worship of any kind when I am there just to visit rather than to participate in something).

I would tell you what we did our last two days in Delhi, but mainly we were in very interesting lectures and then driving around the city to visit a Muslim school for street children and visit curriculum development experts at some national educational baord. If you see Beth Loves Bollywood you will see that I went to my first Hindi film in India, which as you can imagine was a treat beyond treats.

Okay, the group is leaving the internet cafe. Off to find dinner and something cold.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Delhi #2: academic hoopla and tuk-tuks

I am officially in an Indian city because I have taken an autorickshaw ("tuk-tuk") and lived to tell the tale. They are actually a lot of fun and not at all as scary as I had thought they would be. Of course, our ride was about 3 minutes and it wasn't raining.

Yesterday our program began in earnest, with a big reception under a bamboo-pole tent with little twinkle lights (red, white, and blue, of course) and fans spraying cool water all over the place (very nice until you stand in front of one for ten minutes and look like you got caught in the rain). We were given quite an introduction with much fanfare of "finest educators in the US" etc (which I can tell you is clearly not true, but still nice to be told). I had several interesting conversations, in particular one with a young man who had just finished studying at UIUC law school and a journalist who had written a book on the museums of Delhi and wanted me help trying to figure out where to shop it in the US. My roommate felt completely overwhelmed with all the attention and accolades, and I realized that my years at Massey had gotten me plenty used to that. Although I am v glad not to have an academic gown on at this particular moment.

Today we had more classes - on the role of arts and culture in education in India and the Indian perspective on globalization - and in the afternoon we went sight-seeing around Delhi. I just have to say this: I have never been so hot in my life. We went to the Rajghat, site of the cremation of Mahatma Gandhi; the Bahai Temple (shaped like a lotus blossum made of white marble), where I thought I would turn into liquid before we made it into the temple; and the Qtub Minar, the first mosque in Delhi. This last was my favorite, architecture nut that I am. The maker of some of the buildings here re-used pieces of old Hindu and Buddhist buildings, so you could see where human figures had been hacked away to suit the Muslim architecture - and lots where no one had bothered, so you could find entertwined couples, Ganeshas, etc. Really lovely. I'll figure out how to load up pictures at some point, but don't hold your breath.

And they have been feeding us so much that I'm going to burst, so dinner tonight was a Limca with some pistachios. Fortunately the hotel coffee is good and plentiful, so I can start the morning properly fuelled.