anthropology 100: Bangkok’s Songkran festival

This year we hit the streets to see what the Songkran festival is all about. We called up some friends to hang out and teach us how to celebrate properly. Actually, our introduction came hours before we dared to venture outdoors when a techno version of Flo Rida’s song “Whistle” started blaring through our house and down the alleys at 8am.

The first day of Songkran we weren’t planning to go into the chaos except we realized that we didn’t have any food. We walked to end of the block, rounded the corner, and took only a couple steps before our faces were smeared with white clay and our bodies drenched with super soakers!

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As we quickly found out, Thais take having fun on Songkran seriously! If you are anywhere near a main street in the three days of water wars, you are guaranteed to be a continually dripping wet mess for the duration of your stay.

People are set up on the sidewalks with large trash cans full of water every ten feet, which are continually filled by hoses running from every tap within the vicinity. They fill and empty their water buckets and water guns as fast as they can and come back for more. If you’re roving the sidewalks, like we were, you can refill your weapon of choice at anyone’s cistern, and after an initial water fight you end up on the same “team” until you leave to seek out another spot.

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Large mobs troll the streets in the beds of trucks, looking for a group of people they can pull alongside and douse before making a quick getaway.

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In retaliation against the street-goers, the sidewalk warmongers grab buckets of water and fling their contents into the faces of oncoming motorbike drivers and into the back carriages of songthaews.

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Vendors all along the street sell plastic bags full of white clay pellets. You take a pellet in your hand, mix in some water and voila!, you have a fistful of dirty sticky muck that you can slab onto your adversaries’ faces. At first I was giving people innocent streaks on their cheeks, like the eye black that baseball and football players wear. But after having clay shoved deeply into my ear and mouth several times, I fought back by smearing globs of the stuff right up people’s noses!

Nothing escapes the white clay – nothing!

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There’s lots of dancing, singing, and cheering.

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The water war doesn’t let up. From 10am ’til 9pm there’s a constant spray of water in the air and the roads and walkways resemble what they’ll look like several months later in the height of monsoon season.

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Now, it’s very hot in Bangkok at this time of year – most days approach or are over 100°F (38°C) – and cool off to a sweaty 80°F (27°C) overnight. So, you’d imagine that playing with water all day would be a great way to cool off and that you’d actually want to be splashed all day long. And this is true, until you get the surprise bucket.

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The Thais have an ingenious answer to making sure you don’t just stand there and sigh with relief every time you’re splashed, but that you run away screaming bloody murder to the delight of the assailant – putting giant slabs of ice into their water buckets. Even when its so hot outside that you feel like your skin is literally melting off, getting hit by a wall of icy cold water induces a bodily reaction similar to brain freeze. Your back and fingers involuntarily stiffen and your shoulders hunch up around your ears.

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It goes on and on and on for three days straight. They never seem to get tired of it. I enjoyed being in the midst of it and experiencing it, but after a few hours of celebration I was pooped.

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I’ve heard many other foreigners say that they refuse to leave their apartments during this time. And while I had a lot of fun at water play, I can see how it could get old quickly when every time you step outside for a minute means that you’ll have to track mucky water back through your house.

How do the Thais keep it up this long?

It’s evident that they really love this holiday. There are continual smiles on their faces, shouts of joy and shrieks of excitement, loud music and laughter. Both young and old look like they’re up to the highest form of mischief at all times. In the end, I think the reason why they stretch this holiday out as long as possible is because they have permission to abandon social norms.

In the three months I’ve lived in Bangkok, I’ve noticed that Thais go out of their way in order to not violate another person’s personal space. Sit down next to someone on a bench and they’ll scoot equidistant from you and the person on their other side. Rather than scrunch together to make room for one more, most times someone will jump up and offer their seat. It’s not much of a touchy-feely culture; sometimes you get a handshake with a greeting, but hugs are completely out of the question. I don’t blame them… it’s so hot all the time! I sleep in my boxers with a fan pointed directly on me all night long, and still, if Jessie rolls over and her leg inadvertantly touches mine I recoil away from it as if it were a branding iron!

Thais also tend to be very passive and understanding of other’s mistakes. The phrase mai bpen rai (nevermind) is constantly used to dismiss all actions that could be deemed offensive. I’m sure that I’ve done many things that are considered to be culturally appalling here (like stepping over a seated person’s legs or stopping a rolling coin I’ve just dropped by stepping on it), but it’s always forgiven by a sincere mai bpen rai. So when a whole nation whose normal focus is on personal space and non-retaliation is sanctioned to fudge these rules for a couple days, they take it and run with it.

In America we don’t really have any holidays that give us license to break social norms in this way. Halloween and April Fool’s Day are the closest because they encourage trick playing and sneakiness. But I wonder how Americans would react if we were given a government-approved Songkran? Would we have the energy to spend long days playing war with our neighbors? Would we relish torturing innocent by-standers with ice-cold water down their backs and mud facials? Could we pull it off without destroying the fabric of our society?

Songkran was fun and it gave me deeper insight into Thai culture. If you’re ever in Thailand in April you should absolutely make a point to “play water.” And if you can think of a good way to get a 5-day weekend holiday in America, let’s get on that. I think as a society we could do with a few days of mandated fun.

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anthropology 100: in India we are the spectacle

In India we are rock stars. Maybe it’s because we look relatively young. Maybe it’s because we smile a lot. Maybe it’s because we’re American (people’s eyes light up especially bright when we tell them we’re from USA because there aren’t many Americans traveling here). Maybe it’s because we don’t brush people off or ignore them like we witness so many other foreigners doing. Definitely it’s because we have white skin. But mostly, I think it’s because everyone loves our sunglasses, despite the fact that they’re knock-offs we bought in Thailand for a few bucks. We get at least ten comments on them each day. People keep trying to trade or even offer to buy them from us. Finally, one guy explained to us that they make us look like Bollywood actors.

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True, when we walk down the street people get dollar signs in their eyes and try every angle to get money out of us. Flattery is usually their first resort. But this is different. When we enter paid sights where the touts and vendors can’t follow, such as forts, museums and temples, the attention doesn’t stop. Indians flock to us like paparazzi stalking their favorite socialite.

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We try to walk from one exhibit to the next, but inevitably we’re stopped at least once every minute. “Sir, madam…please one photo okay?” We smile cooperatively as parents force their children into our arms or onto our laps in order to get that priceless snap with their ‘foreign friends.’ Groups of twenty-something males mob us, each taking a turn to stand between Jessie and me (or often, just with Jessie). I’m not exaggerating when I say that we routinely stand for 5~10 minutes in one spot as giant groups of giggling bachelors jump in and out of photos with us.

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On our trip to Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur we were getting so many requests for pictures that I began feeling claustrophobic, my heart began racing, and I had to go outside so I could breathe. Thirty seconds after I’d sat down on a bench with my head cradled miserably in my hands a guy came up to me and unwittingly asked for “one picture please.”

It feels strange getting this ridiculous amount of attention. Especially when you consider that we’re wearing dumpy, baggy, faded clothes and sweating like pigs. But it’s as if these things are invisible in the locals’ eyes. Whatever they see in us, it seems that we are infinitely more interesting and cherished by them than the spectacular sights they’ve come from miles around to see.

A few days ago we spent two hours of a long train ride talking with a train car full of young Army commandos. They were so excited we were in their coach that 12 men squeezed into a sitting area made for six in order that they could all stare at us and hear our conversation with those of them who could speak English.

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Eventually their squad leader came over and told them they were the next stop, so they had to get ready to disembark. They stood up and dug around in their gear and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, the sitting area became stacked with AK-47s. They smiled widely as they showed us how the banana clips and safeties on the guns worked, posed for pictures for us and even insisted that we take pictures holding their weapons. All this on a public passenger train. Jessie and I kept shaking our heads and thinking, “Where else in the world could this happen?” Their squad leader was obviously NOT happy about this behavior, but still they were falling all over themselves to impress us. Us… two average people from middle class Midwest families with no claim to any sort of fame. And they couldn’t get enough of us.

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We foreigners come to India desiring to capture images of the men and women in all their beautiful brightly colored clothes doing their daily routines, but Indians seem just as eager to get a great picture of tourists. For every foreigner trying to sneak a picture here, there are handfuls of Indians boldly stopping them to snap pictures with their mobile phones. It’s a fascinating reversal that highlights the fact that both tourist and local romanticize the idea of the other.

But honestly, no joking at all, I think the sunglasses are responsible for at least 75% of our popularity.

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We’ve had the whole range of experiences in the past six weeks, from the wonderful to the horrifying. But one thing is for sure: India is good for the ego, as long as you can take the smothering that comes along with it.

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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.)

anthropology 301: the 2 white people in Old Cairo

In the early fall of 2011 Jessie and I found ourselves smooshed into small hard chairs in the corner of a metro train jittering toward Tahrir Square in the heart of Cairo. When we were booking our plane tickets from Detroit to Italy and Spain, and then on to Thailand, I had seen that our layover was in Cairo. I resubmitted the flight details with us flying out of Cairo a week later and discovered that the price was exactly the same. So how could I pass up a free week in a new destination? What I didn’t know when I pressed the “purchase” button was that Egypt was about to have a revolution and depose their leader and have enough social unrest that it would destroy their tourism industry just a few months before we were scheduled to arrive.

To say we stuck out like a sore thumb would be an understatement. We stuck out like a cow in a velociraptor pen. Curious, at times even menacing eyes stared at us from all angles of the car. Jessie was especially self-conscious because of the female dress code inherent to Muslim culture. Even though she was dressed in a long sleeve shirt and a dress that went down past her ankles, she was most likely a focal point because her hair was uncovered. She was also a bit unsettled because she was trying so hard to not make eye contact with any of the men, an action that can sometimes be misread as an invitation. But Jessie is a smiler. So she turned to the women and children to try to get some kind of reaction. Yet even with them she only got scowls or blank stares.

Two nights before, we’d flown in and taken a frightening taxi ride to our friend’s apartment in Maadi, the foreigner-friendly district. He lives very close to the Nile so we wanted to go and see it immediately. We’d walked from his neighborhood to the next and seen a very tangible change in attitudes as soon as we crossed the tracks. It was so hard to tell if the looks were ones of hostility, intrigue, anger or just plain expressions. Whatever the case, I remember wondering if we were safe and feeling a bit tense. I made Jessie walk in between me and our friend and I’d keep looking behind us to make sure no one was trying to mess with us.

Now we were heading out for our first time without our friend and I was nervous. We walked timidly around the downtown area talking in lowered voices and giving a wide berth to anyone or any building that looked suspicious. We avoided eating street food. I only pulled my camera out a dozen times because I didn’t want it to be public knowledge that it was in my bag.

That was day two. By day five we were strolling down the streets of Islamic Cairo like we’d lived there for years. We’d talked about if it was safe for us to come to this area, but all the guidebooks said that it was a must-see part of the city. And they were absolutely right. Any concerns we’d harbored quickly melted away as we were greeted by some of the most friendly, non-pushy people we’ve ever met on our travels. For a solid six hours we saw faces break into huge smiles and voices jubilantly crying “Welcome to Egypt!” as we walked past. And we were no longer scared.

That was a very humbling trip for me. I grew up in a multi-cultural suburban area of Detroit just twenty minutes away from Dearborn, which has the highest Arabic population in the nation. Take a walk through my local supermarket and you’ll find Indians, Mexicans, Chinese and people of many other nationalities populate the aisles. I was and am very proud of being raised in a place where the mix of races meant that racism was never an issue for me.

But I realized that somehow a fear of Arabic Muslims had snuck in and taken hold within me. Normally while traveling I’m not concerned with being a minority, but here I’d started off feeling very conspicuous. I suppose I have the media to thank for a great part of this. In my lifetime Operation Desert Storm had begun a trend of making Islam the enemy. Reports after 9-11 drove the fear of the Taliban, Hamas, Al Qaeda and other militant Arabic groups into every American. Even this week there was a report on CBS News that during the bombing at the Boston marathon someone saw a Saudi man running away from the area, tackled him, made a citizen’s arrest and turned him over to the police. They are currently holding him on “suspicious behavior” (i.e. running away from a bomb blast). I’m not saying our fears are unfounded, I’m just saying that it’s ridiculous how easily we can become so afraid of other people groups. The fear is there because we haven’t lived among them and experienced their lives and taken interest in really knowing them.

That short week in Egypt has gone miles in helping me to choose to live more freely. It’s made me a much more adventurous traveler. It’s brought me to engage in more situations that stretch my comfort zones. It’s cemented in me a life philosophy that spending time with and being open to people of other cultures is the only way to remove my fear of them and move on to understanding, appreciation, and friendship.

Old Cairo