Sunday, August 29, 2010


I can't believe I've gone 6+ weeks without saying something about the rain in India. It's psycho crazy scary, to put it simply.
There are 3 seasons in India - winter, summer, and monsoon. Winter, apparently is like 60-70 degrees and it runs from approximately late October to February. Summer runs from March to June. Apparently it's just insufferably hot. Like, 120 degrees hot. I am not as excited for summer. July through October, then, is monsoon season. Now one thing about the precipitation the US, in every season there will be some precipitation. It rains sometimes during spring, summer and fall, and in the winter it just turns to snow. In India, according to my family, monsoon season is the only one where it rains.
It's really hard to describe how hard it can rain here, so I'm going to start with how often. If it doesn't rain in a day it's an extremely unusual day. If it doesn't rain twice in a day then it's an uncommon. I would say two rainfalls a day is about the average. Maybe 2.3 or something.
Now not every rain is ridiculous. There are many times where it just kind drizzles. Other times it rains pretty much as it does in the US. About a fourth of the time it is harrowing and torrential, and probably about once or twice a week a week there is a rainfall that can only be described as apocalyptic.
I wish that cameras had a good way to photograph how hard rain is falling. It would be very helpful in this instance.
About four or five years ago there was a horrible flood in Surat. Surat is a city prone to flooding because it is built around the banks of the Tapi River. So in this flood the water apparently halfway up the walls in my living room. It rose all the way up to the bridges that cross the river. My family abandoned the ground floor and they all camped on the second floor and the roof. Many people were killed (I'm not really in danger - it was, I believe, mostly slum-dwellers who have no high ground to get to).
The last four days have each featured one of the apocalyptic variations of rain. There was one last night that was the worst yet. Apparently it's going to do the same all of this week and on Thursday there is going to be a rainfall worse than anything I have yet seen, where (and I kid you not) it can fall an inch a minute. The entire family smells a flood but they say it won't be as bad as the one five years ago.
Well, in four days I'll have a report on whether or not I survived the flood-pocalypse.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Some holidays

They like their holidays here. I knew this before I came…whenever I attempted to learn about the meanings or approximate dates of the holidays I quickly gave up in face of the sheer overwhelming mass of events that they partake in. In the US, it’s basically New Years, Valentines Day, St. Patricks Day, Easter, Veterans Day, 4th of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. That seems like quite a few more than then are actually important. I mean, all that Veterans Day entails for me is a day off from school. Unless you’re somehow connected to the military you don’t do much. And all I’ve ever done for St. Patrick’s Day is remember to wear green about half of the years.

India has tons more. Like, at least 20 or 25. I think when I arrived I was in kind of their festival-hiatus time but now they seem to be coming fast and furious. Part of the reason for this is that there are a ton of different religions in India and they make recognition of all of the holidays. Hindu holidays are obviously the most important, but they note the Muslim, Christian, and Parsee (Zoroastrianism) holidays. I’m not sure about Jewish and Buddhist holidays, but those are two religions that are almost non-existent in India. Even though Buddhism originated in India, it moved out a long time ago to most other parts of southern, eastern, and northern Asia. It left India for good quite a long time ago.

Since I got here, I can definitively identify three holidays that have happened. The first was Indian Independence Day, which was on Sunday August 15th. I would be annoyed with not having the day off from school but I don’t go to school enough for it to really matter. They don’t take this holiday quite as seriously as we take the 4th of July. All over Surat in the morning there are flag-hoisting ceremonies. I attended one with my dad and a bunch of other Rotarians at a school for the deaf and dumb that our Rotary club sponsors. It seems like they have promoted me to club photographer based solely on the fact that I have a nice camera. I got up quite early and went to the ceremony. While we were driving we could see these flag-hoisting ceremonies all over the place. All sorts of groups hold them – offices, businesses, schools. Most schools hold ceremonies were the students are politely requested, but not required, to attend. I can be considered a part-time student at best at Shardayatan and I really didn’t want to go to that place so I elected to attend this other one with the Rotary club.

That day was the same day as the first district-wide orientation, which was about an hour and a half away from Surat. It was very similar to one of our Rotary orientations so I’m not going to bore with the details of the various lectures that were given to us. But on the way back, I saw a bunch of folks walking barefoot along the road dressed in traditional clothes of orange. The line of people went on for miles. It was explained to me that they make some barefoot pilgrimage to the sea on Independence Day. The reason for this pilgrimage was not really explained to me. But it was a neat sight.

There was a Parsee holiday later that week. It seemed to be recognized by everyone but it had absolutely no impact on my life, school, or the activities of the city as far as I could tell.
Tuesday the 24th of August was a Hindu festival called Rakshabandhan. I’ve been imagining these Hindu festivals as kind of crazy dance parties in the street. I think a few of them are like that, but most of them, and this one, are mostly family oriented. Rakshabandhan celebrates the relationship of brother and sister. To celebrate this relationship, the sister ties a symbolic band to the brothers’ left wrist. This symbolizes that the sister can supposedly reach her brother at any time that she needs him.

The definition of sister and brother is pretty loose. My two brothers have no sisters but nonetheless earned a number of bands from a couple cousins, their maid, and a couple of family friends. I was expecting zilch bands since I was a neither a Hindu nor in possession of any family sisters. But I got one from my host cousin Prachi and one from a family friend whose name I don’t know (this is not my fault, nobody introduced us). We hung out with my dad’s sisters’ family for most of the day, which was fun. For lunch, however, we went to the home of my mom’s parents. I had not met them before. They are very unusual in that they are grandparents living alone. They only have the one child (my mother) and our house is occupied by my dad’s parents. Plus I don’t really think that grandparents go to live with their daughters. They are elderly but seem to do quite well, and nobody, including them, seems too concerned about their lack of youthful support in their old age.

I was surprised to find myself alarmed at this. I mean, all of the grandparents that I’ve ever known live by themselves, and they do just fine. It was a sign that I’m thinking a bit like an Indian. It has now become the norm, in my head, that grandparents should have young folks that they can live with. The fact that somehow my mindset has been changed without me knowing it makes me uncomfortable. I think the essential reason that I’ve never thought I’m going to have a great exchange is because while I’m delighted with adapting and participating in this new Indian culture, I’ve never wanted to embrace it. I’ve never wanted my mindset to become Indian rather than American. I don’t want to think like an Indian. It’s not like I have a problem with how they think. I guess I’m just resistant to permanent changes in my thinking.
I shouldn’t be. This is not what Rotary wants of me. But I can’t help it.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

An Extensive Compare and Contrast Discussion of Hollywood and Bollywood

This post is more for my own purposes than yours. I just felt like writing a discussion on this topic.

It happens that movies are one of my biggest interests, and from that perspective, India is a great country for me to visit. I've certainly made mention of my early experiences with Bollywood films already in this blog, but I'd like to write a fairly extensive piece on the differences between Bollywood and Hollywood, which are large. It might end up being kind of a nerdy, lengthy piece with references to lots of old movies. As always, don't bore yourself if this doesn't exactly strike your fancy. I've been slowly putting this together a bit at a time for quite a few days, so it might seem quite fragmented.

A good place to start is to give their definition of the phrase "Hollywood ending". What we call a Hollywood ending would be something like this - hero defeats the bad guy handily, gets the girl, nobody important dies, everyone lives happily ever after. That's not what they would call a Hollywood ending. We watched Gladiator, an awesome movie in which, at the ending, the main character slaughters the villain but loses his life in the process. The Indians hated that part. They said it had a Hollywood ending. I told them "no it doesn't, he dies, it's a little unusual, that's part of what makes it a good movie". They said "A Hollywood ending is a bad (unhappy) ending. And that makes it a worse movie".

Now this got me thinking - the phrase "Hollywood ending" used to mean what it does isn't exactly accurate. Lots of Hollywood movies end happily, but there are just as many, if not more, that don't. Titanic - for a very long time, the highest-grossing movie of all time. It's one of the quintessential blockbusters of our generation - far from a happy ending. The Dark Knight - also high up there. Not a happy ending. If you look at the adjusted for inflation list, Gone With the Wind tops the list and probably will never be defeated. That doesn't exactly end happily either. Casablanca - often regarded as one of the greatest Hollywood achivements of all time. Not a happy ending for the main protagonist. On the adjusted list The Exorcist is 9th. This is a brutal dark horror movie with an ending that is bittersweet at best. The Godfather and Citizen Kane are usually interchangeable on the lists of Greatest All-Time American films. Unhappy endings. The list goes on and on and on - the recent Spiderman trilogy, Forrest Gump, The Sixth Sense, Terminator 2 are all other blockbusters with bittersweet or unhappy endings.

Now granted, for each of these there's a Star Wars, or an Iron Man, or an Indiana Jones, or any romantic comedy, and there are probably many more of these than there are ones with unhappy or bittersweet endings. But can see how they latched onto the concept that a Hollywood ending is a less than joyous one.

It makes even more sense when you look at the qualifications for a good Bollywood film. A good Bollywood movie has, for want of a better phrase, what we would call a "Hollywood ending". It has to. The hero cannot die. It also MUST have songs. At least 3 or 4, and preferably 5 or 6. Additionally, it should usually have one of the 5 or 6 rotating male actors and/or one of the rotating female leads.

The only time that Indians make exception to their happy endings rule is when it is a story involving a martyr from their own history. They have a lot of movies where oppressed freedom fighters are executed or something like that, and these types of movies are played out very melodramatically. The Indians don't mind - national pride is the exception to their happy ending rule, and there is a great deal of healthy nationalism in this country.

The guys are Akshay Kumar, Shah Rukh Khan (according to Wikipedia he is the biggest film star in the world), Salman Khan, Aamir Khan (I'll discuss him in a second), Ritik Kroshan (I'm 500% sure I spelled that one wrong), Ajay Devgan and Abhishek Bacchan (son of the legendary Amitabh Bacchan). Now these guys, with almost no exception, always play heroes. Nothing else. Not complicated heroes. Good guys. The only variance in character is in their levels of funniness or badassery. Villains...nobody knows who plays them. You play a villain once, you're a villain for life. And villains there are not charismatic or entertaining. They are just mindless, ugly thugs, for the most part. Typecasting is extremely common in Bollywood, for both heroes and villains. There's nothing in between, by the way. There aren't antiheroes. Generally, we have only perfect heroes and despicable baddies.

Most of these men come out with about 3, maybe 4 movies a year. Shah Rukh Khan is especially prolific. Aamir Khan is the exception to every Bollywood rule. He only comes out with one film a year, and it's usually one of the best. His latest was 3 Idiots, which sounds awful but was given extreme critical acclaim and became the highest-grossing Bollywood movie in history. It's your typical Bollywood movie...big star, songs, the like. But it apparently makes a very modernizing statement by Indian standards. In India, there is sometimes a lot of pressure given by parents on to students that they get some kind of very well-paying job - specifially engineering, a competitive and tricky field. In 3 Idiots there is a character who was forced by his parents to go to this engineering school and he hates it. But he is a very talented photographer. Aamir Khan is basically trying to say that young Indians should be allowed to do their own thing instead of conforming to their parents desires. This is a very progressive statement by Indian standards.
The other thing about Aamir Kahn is that he has founded a very highly regarded production company. I saw the latest of that production company in theaters. More on that later.

The ladies - there are three huge ones and an array of lesser ones. The biggest one, I think, is Karina Kapoor, closely followed by Katrina Kaief and Priyanka Chopra (the foxiest by far). There are a few others, including Lara Dutta and Karishna Kapoor (Karina's older sister) but these three are the biggest. The famous Aishwarya Rai retired several years ago after a blockbuster wedding to Abhishek Bacchan. There is one large hyprocrisy about the way that these ladies behave in films. Bollywood dances are very very sexual. They were ludicrous outfits designed specifically to arouse. Yet you will never see one of these leading ladies kiss their leading man. Pratik has told me that all of the big female stars don't allow what he call "the kiss shot". But by American standards a kiss is very tame compared to some of the things that they do. This is very unusual to me.

Now I have seen bits and pieces of probably a couple dozen Bollywood films at this point but there are three that I have seen in their entirety. They are all quite different from each other, and taking a look at each of them reveal interesting things what Indians think about their movies.

The first is the latest from Aamir Khan's production company, a film called Peepli (Live) which was unusually similar to an American film. I saw it in a fairly empty theater with a screen larger than the Muller Monster Screen. The movie was about an issue that India faced in the 90s. Agriculture employs over 50% of Indians but in the 90s and early 2000s a lot of farmers were facing forclosure on their homes, which would be really catastrophic and crippling for them and their families. A governmental loophole became widely known amongst the farmers, which was that the government would heavily compensate the family of a man who had committed suicides. So there came to be a large issue of farmer suicides. Peepli (Live) follows a farmer who is deciding whether or not to commit suicide. He is a squat, rather unpleasant looking man who is not portrayed by any of the chief Bollywood actors. The film is fictional (but based on real events) and it is filmed in a pseudo-documentary style. It focuses on multiple characters - the farmer, his family, a crusading TV journalist (one of dozens who descend upon the farm to make the suicide a kind of a human interest story), and politicians. There are no big actors and they all look like real people. The end is only middlingly happy. There are no songs.

I thought it was a damn good film and the sort of thing that would be good fodder for the Best Foreign Film Academy Award. The Indians hated it - they said "no action, no comedy, no stars, no songs". It seems derogatory to say this, but they seemed mostly concerned with the most superficial aspects of movies.

The second is called Once Upon a Time in Mumbai. It stars Adjay Devgan, who is one of my favorites, and some gorgeous Indian women. It's a gangster epic set in 70s Mumbai that follows the rise and eventual assassination of a gangster called the Sultan. But the Sultan is a good guy. It utilized a lot more realism than most Bollywood movies do, but it definitely had a distinct Bollywood flavor - several songs and very Bollywood-style romance scenes. Although the hero was killed at the end, the Indians were ok with this because the murderer, one of his subordinates, was still alive. They said that he counted as a hero too. I don't know how they rationalized this. For me it was a very entertaining movie, and it was for them too. It was one of the few successful cross-sections between American and Bollywood style movies that I have seen yet. My brother gave it 4 out of 5 stars. I asked him why not 5. He said there weren't enough songs. I could have called it.

The third was a very, very typical Bollywood film starring Akshay Kumar and Karina Kapoor called Kambakkta Ishqi. It's kind of a battle of the sexes between Akshay and Karina. There are 6 or 7 songs. In the movie, Karina plays a model/doctor (the most plausible combination) who appears in a film where Akshay Kumar is a stuntman. They clash. Somehow she ends up performing a surgical procedure on him and sews her watch into his stomach. Then she sidles up to him and tries to get close enough to him (as in seduce him) so that she can secretly knock him out and get her watch back. There are other developments that involve surprise appearances from Hollywood "stars" Denise Richards and Sylvester Stallone. It's an incredibly stupid movie. I mean, just listen to the plot. It's very popular in India - sexy leads, catchy songs, happy endings. Superficial stuff.

So Indians hate an issue drama, like a romanticized gangster film, and love an idiotic romantic comedy. What does this tell us about Indian moviegoers and Indians as a society? They fall on the entertainment side of the classic art vs. entertainment debate. Hollywood is a lot more in between the two. Why is this? Why do Americans have a little more preference to darker or more realistic movies and Indians loathe them?

I think it comes down to lifestyle. Indians use film as escapism. And this is understandable - over half of India lives in impoverished agricultural circumstances. Millions more live in slums. Their lives are a little tougher - their houses are not as nice, they don't have as much variety of food. India is in many places a developed nation but a huge percentage of the population is woefully impoverished. Indians live a fairly tough life. I mean, it's not like it's AIDS-infected Africa, but it's not the Western world either. I can see why they don't want to see more of it - I can understand why Peepli (Live) would not do well. They want to see something that will make them happy, something that will show them beautiful people living in places that are far too nice to really be India having happy endings. Now my family lives comfortably, but their tastes are descended from those of their forefathers, and I completely understand how those tastes came to be.

In the United States even many families that would be considered poor live in better circumstances than Indians do. Most families live in far better circumstances. Emotionally we don't always need escapism. Our lives are nice. It's ok for us to watch an unhappy movie. In the United States, there's more of a market for darker and perhaps more artistic movies. In fact they are certainly more artistic movies.

So it would be easy for me to dismiss a Bollywood musical as fluffy trash. They are, there's really no getting around that. But they are undeniably fun. I would take a Bollywood romantic comedy over The Holiday any day. They go over the top to entertain, and the sheer effort is infectious. As long as I can watch an American movie every once in a while (and they do sometimes go to American movies) I think I will mostly enjoy the Bollywood world.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Up and Down

Without going into dull emotional details, I have to say when Rotary said that I would experience mood swings...good Lord were they right. In this day alone I've gone from overjoyed to inconsolable to pretty good to pretty bad to (right now) fairly contented.

Recent positives:
- It seems that the Rotary Club of Udhna realizes that it's school system is much less pleasant and accessible than that of the Western world, and that even though there are supposed to be tough adjustment parts of exchanges, their school system is just too much. So...I'm going to fill up my day with a bunch of different classes instead and only go to school when I feel like it. The deal is, of course, that I make sure I find things to do, to which I am only too happy to oblige. I want to find things to do. But...not so much school.

- Yoga is marvelous. Because of the feminine connotations associated with yoga in the states I was initially reluctant to do it, but it's a really terrific thing to do. It's good physically, for all parts of the body and it's emotionally calming. The latter is the main reason why I'm feeling pretty ok at the moment.

- The food is getting SO much better. I'm still struggling with no meat. In fact I don't there will ever be a moment where a big juicy hamburger isn't at the back of my mind. But I have still found a handful of dishes that rival anything I've ever eaten in the states. Firstly, there's Allo Puri. Puri, first of all, is tied with roti as their primary flatbread (there's no Naan to be found in Gujarat, despite Kurry Kabab and Chapati's insistence that Indian meals begin with them). Roti is the bread of choice in my house - I slightly prefer Puri. Allo Puri is...well now that it comes down to describing it I don't have a clue what the hell all goes into it. It's basically about a dozen pieces of puri with a bunch of stuff on it. It's delectable. Then there's Pani Puri. Pani means water (it's one of about 10 Gujarati words that I know). What they do is take puri and kind of blow it up into hollowed puffballs, but it's still mostly crunchy and hard on the outside. Anyways, you break a small hole into the puri puff and dip it in water, filling up the inside. It's a wonderful sensation, and it's not horribly hot/spicy like most of the foods here. Also they drink mango juice a lot and its tremendous. There's a dish my brothers call Manchurian and it is a Chinese dish. It's got kind of veggie meatballs all meshed together in a really tasty, thick Chinese sauce. This one is spicy, but I'm beginning to adjust to the spice. One final delicious food is something I don't know the name of. It's a breakfast food. So probably once a week or so Akshay and I venture into the Muslim part of town to look for this food item, which is a very hot and middlingly spicy soup. The broth is different from ours - it's not at all like chicken broth. The vendors heap a handful of ingredients (noodles, onions, small pieces of egg, CHICKEN!!!!!!!! and a bunch of other things I don't know) into the broth and mash it all together. It's very delicious. I'm happy to say that I could go on and on about things that I like here. But I will stop.


- Actually there's only one down. But it's a gigantic down. I dropped my Nook. I was just walking with it and I bumped into the desk in my room and it dropped and now the screen doesn't work. This is truly catastrophic. I brought like 2 actual books. My Nook is one of my primary sources of entertainment. I mean, it's still early on and my classes and stuff are still being sorted out, so I lead a fairly quiet life. I try and spend most of it reading. It's not all that healthy to be on the computer so much. So I've been using my Nook probably 2 or 3 hours a day. It's a great device.

I'm a huge idiot-face.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Pirated DVDs and Yoga

Pratik has a friend who has the most amazing home theater system I've ever seen. Projector, incredible surround sound systen, Blu-Ray player. And his projecting screen is massive. It seems like Pratik and his crew of friends go over there to watch movies a lot. It's kind of the Ted's Basement of this particular friend group. Anyways, the movies that I've watched there were 1) a legitimately purchased Blu-Ray DVD of Gladiator in English (which was awesome because Gladiator is one of my all-time favorite movies. The Indians didn't like it because the old-fashioned dialogue was tricky and it was quite long) 2) Angels and Demons in Hindi (I have no idea what on earth was going on) and 3) The A-Team in English.
Now The A-Team came out about two months ago. It should not be on DVD. I had been informed by Max that there is a ton of pirated movies over there for ridiculously cheap, but I didn't realize they could get them so quickly.

Today I went to a DVD street vendor with Akshay. They sell pirated DVDs in 5 or 6 packs there, all on one computer disc. I was even more surprised to discover that about 20 of the DVD packs included Salt. Which is three weeks old. How do they do this? And it's not as though these are like, cell phone videos sneakily taken from inside of a theater. It's the actual movie.
Pirating movies is something that I'm very, very morally opposed to but when in Rome...
So I purchased 11 total movies for 60 rupees, about $1.33. I bought them on the promise from the street vendor (who turned out to be just as shifty as he looked) that they would all be English rather than dubbed in Hindi. Or rather he told Akshay this in Gujarati, and since Akshay believed him, so did I. It was literally the exact opposite. The one that he said would be in Hindi is the only one in English and the others are in either Hindi or, inexplicably, French. That's what I get for compromising my morals.

My yoga class has started. I was under the impression that yoga consisted of strange positionings of your body and like, balance and flexibility stretches. I'm sure that there are multiple interpretations of yoga, but in my experience it's quite different. There are three main components of it.
1) The seven stages. I can't remember what all of these are but they are basically many different variations on breathing in and out. I won't bore you with extensive descriptions of each of them but suffice it to say that especially in the case of Kopal-Bati, the second stage, it's not quite as easy as it sounds.
2) Body stretches and exercises. These aren't what I thought they would be. I thought it would be putting my body into some obscene position and holding it for as long as you can. That's really not true. It's mostly just aerobic stuff - leg swings, these weird kind of situps, and other pieces that bear unusual similarities to the core that we do in Nordic. And actually some of them are fairly difficult. Sometimes I hear Kust shouting in my head for me to "suck up the pain! Be a man!".
3) The religious aspect. Yoga is not just good physically, it's also a tenet of the Hindu religion. A lot of Hindus do it every day. We always open with chanting the Gayatri Mantra. It's a bunch of words in Hindu. I've almost got it. I haven't the slightest idea what it means, but I have confidence that it's important. They also say the word "om" a lot. It means peace, I think. They have a lot of different variations on the ways that they say it - eyes closed, eyes open, say it fast twenty times, say it for as long as you can while covering up your ears. Also in the middle of the sessions we always have an eyes-closed two minute meditation session. I am told to focus my mind and think about my own god. I always spend the two minutes thinking about what I think about Catholicism in my head and before I reach any conclusion they are up.
I will admit, it seem to be good for all parts of the body. And I can do lots of it on my own. In fact I am recommended by my family to do 10 or 15 minutes of yoga 2 hours after every meal.
It's become one of my favorite hours of the day because I like exercise, because it's good to be doing something outside of school or reading on their porch, and because it's at least one hour out of the day where my mind feels at peace. I will admit that's something I could use at the moment.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Understanding Vegetarianism

Now I don't mean to offend any vegetarians out there, but for my entire life I've always been extremely exasperated with vegetarians. I've always known also that this is ignorant of me, and perhaps "vegetarianist" but I just can't help it. The idea of going a day without meat by choice is unfathomable to me. I mean, it's MEAT for goodness sakes. How could a person go through their entire lives without chicken, steak, burgers, hot dogs, ribs, bacon, pork, turkey, wings, ham, salami, sausage, roast beef and brisket? I mean, they are so delicious. In the United States, I hardly go a single meal without one of the above.
In India overall about a third of the population is vegetarian, but in Gujarat the percentage is much higher, over 2/3. And it's mostly the elder folks that are vegetarians, so really most people eat vegetarian. So, for example, in my household, my brothers and I will eat non-veg, but my parents and grandparents are vegetarians, so really everyone eats vegetarian.
There's this soda shop that I usually go to with Akshay at about 1 in the morning, and at the time of night there are sometimes unusual folks there. Yesterday there was a British Hindu couple and the man in it explained vegetarian philosophy. There are two reasons for it.
1) I'm sure you've guessed one of these is religious. In Hindu religion, God is part of everyone and so if you kill anything, you're killing God or destroying his creation. And cows, of course, are absolutely off-limits.
2) This one I didn't know about. The claims that they have scientific beliefs that biologically, humans should not be eating meat and that eating meat makes us sick. He says that's why humans get ill all of the time and animals don't. He cited examples like how we don't have teeth equipped for ripping meat the way that predators do. He also says that since our intestines are like, 36 feet long if you stretch them out, somehow means that we shouldn't eat meat.

I'm extraordinarily skeptical of the second line of reasoning, but religious reasons, when they're explained to me like that...well I can't really argue with them. And frankly I respect them. This marked the first time in my life I gained a little understanding and respect of the thought of vegetarianism. So that's one eye-opening thing that has happened here at the very least.

Now, if I come back to the states a vegetarian...if you are my friend you will force-feed me a steak. There's a limit to how far this vegetarian stage of my life is going to go. Even if when I get back I cry and scream and beg that I have become vegetarian, change me back. I can let India change me a lot, but Ted Meyer is a carnivore for life.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The cost of living and some stories

Let me give you some prices of things that I've purchased in India and the approximate US dollar equivalent.
Soda - 5 Rupees - 11 cents
Ice Cream - 20 Rupees - 43 cents
Subway Footlong - 170 rupees - 3 dollars and 67 cents
T-Shirt - 170 Rupees - 3 Dollars and 67 cents
Movie Ticket - 130 Rupees - 2 dollars and 16 cents
I have one more great example. This year, for the World Cup, I wanted a Dutch jersey. Jakob and I looked at literally every single store in the Mall of America for jerseys. I found one Dutch jersey in the whole place. It cost 35 dollars. It didn't have anyone's name on it. It wasn't even orange. It was their secondary uniform.
Yesterday Akshay and I went shopping for soccer jerseys. There was good selection available (unfortunately no Sneijder or Robben). I purchased, for 180 rupees or $3.89 a BARCELONA CLUB JERSEY OF LIONEL MESSI. It's high quality. Like, actually jersey material. What do you think that would have cost if I had found it in the United States? $70? Or more? Ridiculous.
So if you haven't figured it out, things are preposterously inexpensive over here. When I discovered that my monthly allowance was the equivalent of $20 per month I was extraordinarily skeptical but I shouldn't have been.
Here's my dad's economic rationale of the low prices. There are over a billion people here. So there's a lot more demand for everything. A shopkeeper can sell something at about a third of the price we would sell it at in the United States and sell many more units than any U.S. shopkeeper could hope to. Hypothetically, the money would come out about the same. This doesn't take into account all of the additional selling competition that would arise from having a billion people, many of whem would be other shopkeepers. I still don't quite understand it, but I'm sure that my dad's explanation isn't all that far off.
What the country lacks in goods prices it makes up for in land prices. Land is scarce around here, especially in big cities, and I must say everywhere I go the country seems packed to the brim. My dad is a middle or upper middle class kind of guy, but his house (or bungalow, as they call all houses) is much, much smaller than mine in the United States. But it's quite comfortable. The thing is, in every household there are a lot of people living in it. In ours, for example, there's me, Pratik, Akshay, Mom, Dad, Ba (Grandma), Dada (Grandpa) and the maid. That's 8. Eight people in my house in the U.S. is a stretch, but somehow we all fit comfortably into this one. I think it's because they don't have extensive recreational space - most of the rooms are used as bedrooms.
It makes sense why land is so expensive - there are over a billion people, mostly all trying to work in one of the bigger cities, and there is just not nearly as much land as there is in the United States. The population per square mile ratio must be out of control.

Yesterday I came downstairs to find a man that I hadn't seen before, which is not unusual. People bop in and out all the time. What WAS unusual was that he stood up, clapped grabbed both of shoulders and (with the most decibels that I have ever heard in a declaratory statement) told me "I am your MAMA!!!".
Turns out mama means uncle. He's my great-uncle. Fortunately Pratik was there to explain what he meant. I was more than a little shell-shocked by his declaration.

Today my auto rickshaw had 8 people in it, which is high even by my driver's standards. There's an especially small boy who usually rides with me who has yet to take full command of his bodily fluids. He has urinated in his pants twice during rickshaw rides and another time I saw him peeing on the floor of a school bathroom.
Now my rickshaw driver, kindly as he is, seems to have only one professional goal, which is to carefully select the bumpiest route imaginable and dash through it at ridiculously unsafe speeds. Today he chose to hurtle over a speed bump just as this lad decided to throw up. Whatever he had for lunch went flying everywhere. No one in the rickshaw escaped the spray. Fortunately it only got on my pants. The person sitting across from the unfortunate child was not so lucky. I don't think I need to go into further details.

In other news, I think I'm starting daily yoga classes tomorrow, which is great because it's anything other than school. Apparently yoga, in addition to being a physically healthy thing to do, also has a very calming mental effect which I will admit I could use at the moment. Also dance classes are being arranged and my club counselor says that he is close to arranging sitar lessons for me. I can't wait for the sitar.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

At long last, some photos

So with my internet connection it takes about 10 minutes to upload a picture and you have to do them one at a time. So I have edited this post very slowly over several days. Also I haven't exactly been an attentive photojournalist, so most of the really interesting things that I've done have gone undocumented. But here are captions, left to right, top to bottom. They are kind of in reverse chronological order.
1) Mom and Dad at a beach place called Dumas. Great folks
2) This is what a beach looks like in Surat during monsoon season. I know all of you are jealous, especially the Brazilians.
3) The street where I live. This is a pretty upper middle-class neighborhood, which gives you a good idea of the spacing in India. Figure it like this - they have over 3 times the population of the United States in about a third of the actual space. So the cost of land is ridiculously high, and there just really isn't all that much space for people to spread out. My building consists of three fairly narrow stories. Don't get me wrong, I'm plenty comfortable, but everyone justs lives a lot closer together.
4) Every home has some kind of a worship space. Ours is in the basement. Every morning Ba and Dada spend an hour worshipping. On the right is my big brother Pratik.
5) A street in Mumbai. I took this photograph at approximately 1 in the morning. The left side of it gives you a pretty decent idea of what a shop front in India looks like. There's an auto rickshaw, their taxi vehicle, on the right side.
6) In India, Rotary has an organization called Intaract at the high school level and Rotaract at the college level. I was summoned to a Rotaract event where a bunch of college students were to have some sort of a tree planting competition. It seemed like the only reason that I was there was literally so I could pose for this photograph. Which is something that only I have a record of. I don't know the name of the confused-looking Indian student. I haven't seen him before or since.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Too much fun

This last weekend kicked some serious butt.

Shardayatan had exams Wednesday through Saturday last week, which was a lifesaver because school is awful. Truly wretched. It gets worse by the day. But anyways, I got up at about nine and did my usual morning tea then play FIFA with Pratik thing. I had to go to the police station afterwords for the third of four trips needed to properly register with the police department (one thing that Indians do not do well is bureaucracy). So far I suppose this doesn't exactly sound like a ton of fun, but right after the police station I went to the new Bollywood gangster epic Once Upon a Time in Mumbai, which was a cool movie. Also the movie theater was very very nice. Better than the Atlantis in Burnsville. Following that, Pratik and I went to Subway.
Subway just about saved my life. Now I really like the food here, and you know I'm being honest because when there's something I don't much like about India I'm usually pretty honest about it on this blog. But it just hasn't settled yet for me. It just doesn't quite do the trick always. It's a satisfaction thing. There's just something about not having meat every day that just doesn't quite work for me yet. Fortunately, Subway in India, despite not having the Chicken and Bacon Ranch that I so adore, did feature a Chicken Meatball Marinara. It was so unbelievably satisfying to have something that tasted even remotely like anything that I had ever eaten before. Nothing in Surat has any similarities to anything in the United States.
The evening wasn't quite as eventful. More FIFA and then a long night of card games and going out for sodas with Pratik and his friends.

My mom told me I had to go to school today. I haven't the slightest idea why. They still had exams. But on Saturday school goes from like 11 to 2, so at least I didn't have to get up terribly early. I went in the rickshaw, got there, and everyone was confused why I was there. There were still exams. So I went to the library, which mostly has magazines and academic publications in Hindi or Gujarati. I read one of my books for a bit but then I took a nap for an hour and a half. Then some school friends got me and we went outside to where the rickshaw should be waiting. No rickshaw. So one of my friends drove me home, but a motorcade of about 6 bikes accompanied us - other school kids, I mean. Seemed to be a hell of a lot of trouble so I could go take a nap in the school library. To drive me to Adajan would be kind of like driving someone to Lakeville and back.
Then I went roaming with Akshay and his friends for the rest of the afternoon. We just kind of went around and ran errands that they wanted to go on - soccer shoe shopping, laptop repair and other things. But then we went to a Domino's. Domino's in India is very different pizza from the Domino's in the US but it was a damn fine integration of the spiciness of Indian food and basic concept of pizza. I really enjoyed it.
The evening, however, contained an awesome pickup game of mud soccer. It was the classic developing country soccer scenario - muddy pitch, cruddy ball, no real goal posts, but a lot of pure fun going on. Everyone was very friendly and I didn't suck, which surprised me considering that my extensive soccer game experience includes this one game that I played in Costa Rica. It went until 830 or 9 when it got dark, and I was a delighted muddy mess when I got home. Not so muddy that I ruined the house though. I watched campy Bollywood with the family and went to bed fairly early out of exhaustion.

Pratik and I were going to go to Dumas, which is this beach probably 30 or 40 minutes away, for the morning. It's not really a swimming beach at all, but there's a lot of open space for games and it's a nice place to be. The problem with this was that we would have to get up at 630. Fortunately, that morning featured some torrential monsoon rain so that particular excursion was canceled and I could sleep. Instead, we spent the day in a gathering at a farmhouse about an hour and a half away with some extended family of my dad's. This was a pretty nice house, and it had a pool.
This day was like an Indian version of the quintessential day at the lake for Minnesota - lots of food, family, water games and crazy uncles. I loved to be in the pool, after two weeks of this heat it was just unbelievably refreshing. We played fun water games and they had a wide variety of non-veg things for me to eat - panfish, chicken, and sheep meatballs. It was just way too much fun the whole way through. Probably my favorite day in India to date. This excursion went from about 2 till 11. So I wasn't asleep until 12. That made today a really really nasty Monday, but you know, that's ok.

I've discovered that there is a direct correlation between days of school or no school and my mood. School is really bad for me. The kids that are there are nice to me, but the way that they think about things is just so alien to me that I'm having a really hard time relating with them. Especially their ideas of the opposite gender. These folks are a study in paradoxes on that front. To have a girl as a friend for them is not possible. They must be your girlfriend. So in school, sometimes I talk to Annie and Lila, some of the other exchange students, and Juhi, a Rotex who is also in my class. All of the boys think that I am going out with all of them, which let me assure you is not true. I'm following the 5 D's carefully. They cannot understand that it is possible to have girls as friends, which I have to say seems quite sexist to me. So they never, ever, EVER talk to girls in their class. But (and this may sound a little crude), vocally they are very horny individuals. In fact pretty disgustingly so. Probably 50% of their conversations with me, now that we've gotten past the "What is school like in the United States?" phase, are about different girls in the class, mostly in very crude terms. God forbid we could even talk about how I like them as people. Also they are obsessed with pestering me about my relationship history at home, which isn't extensive enough to even merit a sentence of explanation. But they keep asking, asking, asking.
Also, as I have said, school is just unfathomably boring. They don't learn anything, and even when the teachers actually attempt to teach the class something, it's something extremely dull. I would much rather be taught something useless than be taught nothing. In school, the kids don't do anything. All of their learning is done in their tuitions. I don't even know why India has school if they don't do anything there.

Now somehow I've been lucky enough to fall into an awesome family, and whenever I spend time with them, I have a lot more fun and I feel more comfortable. Case in point, this weekend. Also my brothers' friends, even though they still have that delightful Indian craziness, are a lot more mature than the other guys at school. And they do fun things that don't involved any illegal activity. The other problem with my school "friends" is that, as I have gauged from their conversations, if I were to ever hang out with them outside of school there would be a lot of drinking and smoking. For obvious reasons I must stay away from such behavior. Akshay and Pratik's friends have lots of good clean fun. I wish I could just go to school with Akshay.

This has been a rambling, moody mess of a post, but the gist of it is that there are a lot of days here where I have an absolute blast. Seriously, the tandem of the movie, mud soccer and the farmhouse made this weekend probably on of the top 5 or 10 of my life.