anthropology 302: warming up to India

The plane touched down amidst heavy low lying clouds. When we could see out the small plastic window the landscape surrounding the runway strip looked like that of any other southern Asian airport. We cleared customs and immigration without a smile or even a look from the attendants. We found an ATM and got out a handful of large bills, then bought a Cadbury chocolate bar in order to break one of the notes into smaller bills. This is a must in southern Asia, as any place you go you’ll only get the answer “No change” for anything worth over $5. Finally, we opened the wide doors and walked out of the airport.

India!

Immediately a taxi driver approached us and asked, “Where are you going?” “To the prepaid taxi stall,” I replied. “It’s no good there! I give you discount: 250 rupees, ok?” At this point the man had no idea where I was even headed. “No thanks! I’ll go there.” I knew that if I accepted his offer we’d spend the next three hours stopping at all his “family’s” shops, where we’d be relentlessly pressured and guilt tripped into buying things we didn’t want, until the driver had received a sufficient commission to take us to our destination.

We purchased our prepaid taxi for 400 rupees (about $6.60), a beaten down, old black vintage-style taxi that looked like it’d been kept barely alive since the colonial days of British rule. At the last moment our driver jumped out and grabbed another customer so that he could make more money on this trip. And we were off!

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Within minutes we were caught in one of Delhi’s never ending traffic jams. A car had broken down on the overpass, blocking half of the road. In America cars would be backed up for miles, and edgy drivers would start contemplating ramming their cars into the guy who just cut them off with a quick lane change. Here there is an elegant flow to the chaos of trucks and taxis and auto-rickshaws and bicycle rickshaws vying for every single inch of pavement. Though we’re half a mile back from the traffic obstruction and the other vehicles have pulled in so close that we couldn’t open a door more than a finger’s breadth, we clear the jam in under 5 minutes! Orderly chaos.

We get to our guesthouse, take an afternoon nap, and then decide to take a look at our surroundings. As we step outside and walk down the road men openly stare at us from every direction. When we walk by and smile at them some smile back and wag their heads in the classic Indian sideways head bobble, which can be deciphered as “I mean you no harm.” Others’ gazes appear so menacing that I feel like I’ll have to fight them if I meet their eyes for more than a split second. After ten minutes of walking I remark to Jessie about how we haven’t seen a single woman yet.

I’m carrying my small black backpack. Inside, wrapped in a plastic bag to keep it weatherproof, is almost everything of value that we own: an iPhone, an iPod nano, a 1 TB external hard drive, a Nook (e-reader), a wallet full of Indian rupees, Thai baht and US dollars, credit cards and debit cards, and a Nikon DSLR camera. I wear the backpack on my stomach so that no one has access to it without my full awareness. As we walk we see a million things we want to take pictures of and a dozen things we want to eat.

But it’s still too early; we haven’t gotten a feel for the people yet. I certainly do not mean to say that we’re overly paranoid or believe that we’re going to be mugged on this busy road at any minute! But in our travels we’ve found that its always best to gain a certain level of comfort, which only comes by studying and understanding more about the native people, before pulling out the big camera and flashing our “riches” in front of them.

We also want to avoid the unavoidable: Delhi belly. It’s a rite of passage for anyone who comes to India to get a violent stomachache and have liquids coming out of both ends for half a week. We avoid street foods for now.

We have our first meal in India: bottled water, lemon soda (fresh squeezed lemon juice topped off with soda water, navrattan korma (mixed vegetables in a sweet curry gravy), muttar paneer (Indian cottage cheese chunks with peas in a spiced gravy), butter naan and rotis. In a day of highs and lows, this is definitely a high! Afterward, we retreat back to our room. “Are you afraid?” “A little still. Are you?” “Yeah, a bit.”

Photo Aug 05, 6 15 14 PMOn day two we walk all around Old Delhi. We shake our heads and say, “No thank you!” five hundred times as we slowly shuffle past miles of stores selling saris, copper Buddhas, jewelry, t-shirts proudly displaying “I (heart) India,” and thousands of intricate handicrafts. Businessmen stand on the sidewalk and show you their ‘authentic’ Ray-Ban sunglasses that they’re willing to part with for 100 rupees ($1.70). “You don’t want that? OK! Look at this!” Out of nowhere appears a musical instrument fashioned out of a coconut shell and bamboo or a package of henna paints. Every once in a while we pause to take out the camera, take several candid photos, and then move out of the area.

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Halfway through the day we get up enough nerve to try chaat (street food). An old man squats over a large tin pail, peeling garlic cloves. There’s a divider inside the pail housing fresh ingredients: white chickpeas, brown chickpeas, finely chopped onions and garlic, tomatoes, cilantro, lemon wedges. He puts a spoonful of each onto a small square of waxed newspaper and squeezes a lemon over it. It’s delicious! We want to scarf it down but we decide to be judicious. If we eat just a bit of street food each day maybe we’ll ease ourselves into it and not get the dreaded sickness. But later we have to stop to get some more food. The vendor sells small, hard hollow balls made from deep fried flour that are punctured by the thumb and then filled with small amounts of chickpeas and potato slices and a savory green liquid. He prepares one in our bowl. Jessie eats it. Immediately another one appears, so I eat it. No sooner is it in my mouth than another one has found it’s way into our bowl. After two rounds of this we get wise and tell him “We’re finished!” BEFORE eating the final ball. Once more, later on, we pass a small corner business with fresh samosas and jalebi and decide to partake. The samosas are the best we’ve ever had. The jalebi is kind of like a funnel cake that’s been soaked in sugar syrup long enough that the syrup seeps into every part of it, and then it’s deep fried. Oh…my…word!

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By day three I’m walking around with the camera in my hand, firmly strapped around my wrist, for long periods of time. I take many more pictures, although I still can’t bring myself to put my camera up in someone’s face to take that coveted ‘Look at this interesting old guy’ national geographic-quality picture. Although locals haven’t been shy about taking our photos, asked for or not! But we can tell that we’re already relaxing and finding our style of being within this culture.

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Previously I’ve written about overcoming fears while traveling, in a post about Cairo. (You can read the post here.) But no matter how extensively you’ve traveled, there’s always the fear and the excitement of the unknown when traveling some place for the first time. We’ve found that if you sit back for a while and make yourself comfortable with the place first, before you start ‘playing the tourist,’ you’ll feel much less conspicuous and much more confident being there. To supplement our India adventure, Jessie and I have been reading the 900-page novel “Shantaram” by Gregory David Roberts. He says many wise things in this book, but one quote has particularly helped me to deal with the stares:

“Foreigners were stared at in India. Somewhere in the five or more millennia of its history, the culture had decided to dispense with the casual, nonchalant glance. By the time I came to Bombay, the eye contact ranged from an ogling gaze to a gawping, goggle-eyed glare. There was nothing malicious in it. The staring eyes that found and followed me everywhere I went were innocent, curious, and almost always friendly.” (Excerpt from: Roberts, Gregory David. “Shantaram.” St. Martin’s Press, 2003.)

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home economics 201: acquiring new skills at Bamboo School

Well, another week at Bamboo School has come and gone and just like that we’ve left Thailand. It was hard saying goodbye to the children. Truly we know that it isn’t ideal to have people constantly going in and out of their lives like a convenience store. But we knew that we’d be coming back to stay for a long time in Thailand starting next year. It always makes goodbyes happier when there’s a plan to meet again.

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As always, it was an informative week. We joked with the director, MomoCat, about how every time we come to Bamboo School we learn several new skills! We talked about how we needed to make a list of all the skills we’ve acquired while living here. This week we learned three more: dentistry, taking care of a colicky baby, and surviving a Karen wedding (pronounced “Kah-ren”, a large Burmese hill tribe people group).

Jessie and I have been to Bamboo School enough times to know that the moment we arrive we’ll be pulled right into the busy atmosphere that 55 children create. The kids need to be driven to and picked up from school. Many things need to be repaired. There are volunteers and visitors coming and going on practically every day of the week. The little boys aren’t washing their clothes well enough so they need to be shown once again how to properly scrub. There are several work projects that are in full swing.

Fifteen minutes after we set our bags down in our bamboo hut, another set of volunteers, the Song family, arrived with a large case full of dental tools in order to do the children’s yearly check up. Jessie and I were recruited to digitize their past dental records and log the new ones from this year. I set up an Excel spreadsheet with all the children’s names and ages and teeth issues. Then, as each child was checked, we’d observe and write down any notes the dentists told us. Most of the kids had been treated last year so their teeth were in decent shape. But some of the kids who came from families with poor nutrition or not enough money to have their teeth checked while growing up had thick white layers of plaque that took twenty minutes to be completely scraped away from their gums.

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The kids took the cleaning bravely, especially Niti. Niti is 23 years old and had mouth pains for several years. Dr. Song took a quick look in his mouth and said, “Oh boy! All four wisdom teeth need to come out right now!” Five minutes later he was giving Niti numbing injections. Then we watched, somewhat horrified yet also mainly intrigued, as the doctor stuck surgical pliers into his mouth and twisted each tooth until it was loose enough to yank out. Niti had little pain, yet it was hard to watch because his legs and stomach flinched a few times, giving the illusion that he could feel it all. Later, he told us that he could feel the pulling but that it wasn’t painful; it was just the force of the tooth being ripped away that made him flinch.

Later on in the week MomoCat needed to go into Bangkok early in the morning, so she asked us to watch the new six week old baby girl, Soy Far, overnight so that she could get some rest before making that drive. We agreed to watch her and then nervously walked her up the dirt path to our hut. That night we learned a lot about how to make babies poo and how to soothe them when we have no clue why they’re crying. That night we got 4 hours of sleep. The next night we kept her overnight again. We felt more confident and we were determined that we had what it took to be baby whisperers. All I have to say is Jessie is a legend. I think since she helped her mom bring up four babies years ago something in her remembered how to swaddle like a pro. We still only got about 4 hours of sleep but this time Soy Far didn’t wake anybody. We’ve always had an appreciation for people who are taking care of babies, but this experience gave us a further taste of just how hard it can be.

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After two sleepless nights we were ready for a big rest, but a new opportunity presented itself. Several of the children had a relative that was getting married the next day and they needed somebody to drive them to the wedding. We quickly agreed, thinking it would be fun to see more of the countryside and experience this cultural event. The downside was that we would have to wake up at 2:30am in order to make it to the wedding, which was three hours away. Seriously, who schedules a wedding for 7am?!

So after another night of only a handful of hours of sleep, we jumped in the truck and headed down the road. The shortest and most direct route to the village required us to traverse a network of paved and dirt roads containing endless potholes and trenches formed from heavy monsoon rains carving paths across the road. Since it was pitch dark I couldn’t see any road issues until I was on top of them so after a few rough bumps I decided to take it slower. Most of the trip was done at a painstakingly slow 30km per hour. About 2/3 of the way through the journey the older Bamboo School student, Narget, told me to pull over. There were a couple guys on motorbikes that had been waiting for us to lead us to the wedding. Later we would learn that the guy who jumped in our truck was the groom! He had come an hour out of the way in the middle of the night before his wedding to show us the way.

We drove on a muddy path through the jungle. I was convinced that we would get stuck at some points, but thankfully the truck pushed on through. Just as I was thinking that this drive would never end, we went down a steep hill and then up another bump and the road ended. The sun had started rising about a half hour earlier and when I put the truck in park there was nothing in front of us but a lush, green, unadulterated valley closed in on all sides by beautiful sloping hills. I was glad to finally be there but realized as I stepped out of the car that it was going to be a major pain to turn the car around to go back.

We were a bit early so we got pulled into the bride’s family’s hut and were seated in the main room. The mother brought us huge bowls piled full of fresh watermelon, rambutan, longan, and other fruits, as well as French toast and Fanta. As we munched on some of the fruit, out of nowhere Jessie started laughing. At this point we knew we were both a little slap happy from sleep deprivation, but she told me that I had to check out the guy in the red shirt. I turned around and saw a hilarious sight. The father of the bride was busy making preparations for the wedding and he was wearing this giant bright red shirt that proclaimed: “Sex Instructor: First Lesson Free.” I busted up! It wasn’t too surprising because after living in Asia for several years I’ve noticed that they like to wear shirts with English writing on them but often are quite oblivious to what the shirt means. Still, the irony of the father wearing this extremely inappropriate shirt just minutes before the wedding kept me smiling for hours. Wish I would’ve gotten a picture of it!

The wedding started and we followed the bridal party to the church. When we got to the doors we saw that the church was packed full, so we decided to watch with some of the others from outside. But since we were possibly the only white people to have ever visited that village it was decided that we should be placed in the wedding party. We were gently forced along the side of the church to a side door where two chairs awaited us, right next to the parents of the bride! Embarrassed, we started to sit down but realized that there weren’t enough chairs. The mother was going to have to squat on the stage during her daughter’s wedding. I wouldn’t go for that, so I motioned for her to take my seat while Jessie and I half-cheeked the last chair. I don’t know whom they had ousted from the platform in order to make room for us…an uncle? A grandparent? The parents of the groom? We felt terrible but knew that in these situations you just have to surrender to culture. We sat there for what seemed like an hour, our legs falling asleep and our backs cramping up. I almost fell asleep from exhaustion during an especially long prayer, but a decorative balloon got too close to a halogen bulb and burst, which was enough to keep me awake for the rest of the service.

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The wedding was different. At no point did the bride and groom ever touch each other or even look in each other’s eyes. There were no ring or vow exchanges, no unity candles representing the merging of families. I got the feeling that with how close these people are, living closely together in open huts day after day, they didn’t need any overt promises. They could see every action and knew each one’s character already.

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After the wedding finished we sat down to a great feast in which the pastor paraded before us every person he knew of who could speak more than three words in English. Then after the meal we wished the bride and groom a happy marriage and went back out to the road.

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We waited an hour for someone to return with the groom’s motorbike. Then the groom jumped on the motorbike and led us back out to the main road, 45 minutes away. I couldn’t believe how much time of his wedding day he spent on helping us find our way!

Overall, it was a very informative week. We were sad to leave Thailand so soon but knew that we have months of exciting travel to look forward to! India, here we come!

geography 100: train to Bamboo School

For our last portion of traveling in Thailand, we went back to the Bamboo School. The Bamboo School is a refugee home/orphanage close to the Thai-Myanmar border for about 55 children who’ve come over the border and have no one who is able to care for them. We first visited the school in 2010 on some friends’ recommendations, and have been back several times since then. Our last visit we lived there for six months over an 8 month period.

Jessie and I love taking the train out. It leaves early in the morning from Bangkok and arrives about five hours later in a small town called Sai Yok. The train takes quite a bit longer than going by bus or minivan, but it gives us the pleasure of watching the scenery lazily morph from flatlands to mountains. Also, it only costs three dollars. The taxi drops us off at Thonburi Station at 7:20am, half an hour before departure. That gives me plenty of time to walk across the road to the market. I hunt around for the best looking fruit to eat on the train. Finally I arrive at a stand that has racquetball-sized mangosteens. The taut purple flesh conceals within it several small white wedges which are sweeter than cherries. I purchase a kilogram of the fruit for 20 baht, about 65 cents. Next, I find an ice coffee stand. Thais like their coffee so sweet you can barely tell there’s coffee in it at all. I tell the woman to use only a little sugar. She nods and then scoops a teaspoonful of sugar into the bottom of a glass, followed by two ounces of hot coffee and another two ounces of sweetened condensed milk. She mixes up this painfully sweet concoction and pours it over a full cup of ice. Before the lid goes on she grabs a can of sweetened evaporated milk and tops it off. I take a sip and have to strain to keep my eyes from popping out of my head. These drinks also cost 65 cents.

Back at the platform Jessie and I wait patiently for the train, which rarely shows up on time. We spend the 20 minutes of delay watching dogs mark their territory on the station’s support posts. When the train finally arrives, the conductors rush along the outside of the old cars turning around the wooden plaques that read Nam Tok – Thonburi to the flip side, Thonburi – Nam Tok. The train has so much character. It’s open seating, so we board the nearest car and find the most suitable seats. The best seats, we’ve learned, have four requirements: 1) the wooden benches must not be loose or they will fall off their hinges at some point during the trip when the tracks get too bumpy; 2) they must have a window that can be both easily pulled down, to let fresh air into the stiflingly hot carriage, and pushed up, to keep rain out in the case of heavy showers; 3) they must be under a ceiling fan that actually works; and 4) they must be on the left side of the car, because that’s where all the best views of the trip are.

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The train jerks into motion and we crawl across the flat sprawling city extending for many miles outward from Bangkok. After a few moments vEendors begin to walk up and down the center aisle selling ice cold drinks from large pails or rice dishes served in banana leaves or XL size t-shirts that say “I visited River Kwae.” We read books and peer out the window periodically to view the changing landscape.

Train to Sai YokGradually the city becomes country and rice paddies, tapioca and sugar cane claim space for the majority of the plain. Hours later, the train stops to pick up several handfuls of tourists who want to ride it on the famous bridge over the River Kwae in Kanchanaburi. During World War II, POWs from the Allied nations were forced to build these tracks while living in such horrible conditions that the trail is known to this day as The Death Railway. After Kanchanaburi the train begins to follow the wide river. I start to notice mountains in the distance, which grow bigger and more defined every time I look up from my book. We come upon a resort with houses built along both shores of the river. Several huts are actually built over the river and they rise and fall almost imperceptibly with the small ripples in the water.

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There’s a mountain that rises from the northern bank of the river here, so the raised train tracks were built along its side. The train winds its way around the curvature of the mountain as people stick their heads out the windows to look way down at the river below or wave to others several carriages ahead of theirs. The train stops and almost all of the tourists disembark. That’s how I know our stop is approaching.

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After five hours of shifting from cheek to cheek on the wooden benches, we’re very ready to jump out at our stop and walk across the tracks to a small “downtown” area. Nestled around a tiny central green are an outdoor rice and noodle place, an internet shop, two small convenience stores, two mini market shops, and a brand new steak restaurant (which seems very out of place). I poke around in the shops and buy packets of instant coffee while we wait half an hour for the red songthaew truck to come creeping down the road. I signal the driver to stop. I approach the window and the driver says “Bongti!” to which I nod. Then we climb up the back of the truck and sit on one of the long side benches, backpacks between our legs. The locals stare at us, wondering what these two white people are doing on a truck bound for the border of Burma. As we drive out of town and pass the elephant park, the mountains jut dramatically up out of the earth in seemingly random places as if some primordial god had stood under the surface and thrown a temper tantrum, punching upward spastically and aimlessly. Many parts are so steep that trees can’t grow on them, so the sheer cliff faces make bald patches amidst the sea of rich green jungle that clings to every other possible square inch of land. Though I haven’t traveled too extensively in Thailand, I’ve seen a fair bit of this stunning country and I think that surely this land has to be one of the most beautiful places.

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The village isn’t very far from the town, but the journey takes over half an hour to traverse because deep potholes as wide as a doormat mar the road every couple hundred meters, forcing the truck to slow down and drop into lower gears. We don’t mind; it gives us more time to view the landscape and settle into the slower pace of country life. It’s gently raining, which creates misty clouds that cling to the mountains. At the same time, the rain causes the dust particles in the air to fall back to earth and magnifies the full range of the valley’s vibrant green. I couldn’t get a picture to look this great in Photoshop if I worked at it for days! We go up a hill and down, and shortly after we have to ring a bell and bang our hands on the side of the truck to let the driver know we want to get off. I walk up to the window and give the man 100 baht and say “Cope-uhn-crahp,” which means thank you. We walk the last half kilometer to the school wondering which children we will encounter first.

When we get there the children are still at school so we tour around the compound taking note of all the improvements that have been done since we were last here a year ago. There’s a carport and stone-lined driveway in place of the field in front of the school. The walkway from the medical clinic to the girls dormitory has been paved. A large chicken coop now flanks the classrooms at the bottom of the hill. Some guesthouses have concrete verandas and steps instead of bamboo. There is a dark room where edible mushrooms grow out the side of plastic tubes. A large hydroponic fish tank feeds fertilized water into pots of newly growing plants. A new toilet room is being constructed next to the girls dormitory. We joke to each other that we’ve arrived back at “Bamboo Resort” while fondly recalling the way things used to be before this new round of construction.

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We sit on MomoCat’s porch and catch up on everything that’s happened in the past year. Dokmai and Bekah are going to kindergarten now. Tui, a Thai woman who lived in New Zealand for several years, has been helping out for the past year. Several volunteers we’ve worked with in the past were just here a few months ago or will be arriving shortly after we leave. And there’s a new baby at the school who likes to “practice opera loudly” at 3 in the morning! The students arrive home and we rush to greet them. Some of the children run squealing into our arms. Some are bashful at first and look away as we sweep them up in our arms and repeat over and over “I miss you big big!” It’s okay. I know that within an hour I’ll be chasing them around the dormitories and tickling them as they shriek with joy. We notice that with the students there is also some change: some boys and girls we know from previous trips have left, for various reasons, to live with relatives in the surrounding area. Their beds have been filled by new smiling faces with names like Niti, Megatoo, Shanymoo, Ehlapaw, Ehdaku and Nanapoe. The toddlers have aged another year and are now little girls, and we marvel at how big they’ve gotten. I realize that when I see my nephew back in Michigan in a few months I’ll have the same shock over how much he’s grown. The children quickly change out of their school clothes, do their chores and take baths before the supper bell rings. As always, the days meld into each other and as soon as we know it our week will be finished and we’ll be back at Suvarnabhumi Airport, waiting on our plane to India. But first, we will have many adventures at Bamboo School. Time is such a strange and wonderful and awful thing.