A Travellerspoint blog

Behind the Looking Glass

Mozambique Channel (West of Madagascar) - Februrary 21, 2008

all seasons in one day 85 °F

[map=113435 lat=1.4210854715202e-14 lon=-2.8421709430404e-14 zoom=1.98]
TSS Life is a social experiment of grand proportions, owing to the fact that we’re each other’s captive audience and most of the people on the ship are cracked if not fully broken. A faculty member, R., and I were talking, and he theorized that most people on the ship – students, staff, crew – are running away from or running to something. I think it’s true, even for me. With some few exceptions, most of the shipwide community are either infantile or poseurs. It's like the Biosphere in here. ("In 1991, 8 people for 7 countries were placed in Biosphere 2 to live for 2 years. They survived despite communal and agricultural problems. A second crew entered after them for 2 years, but due to ill-prepared plans and a series of social problems, they soon subjected the experiment to ridicule).

The careerists, mostly of the intercultural communications ilk, are running towards some imaginary glorious finish line and ruining it for the rest of us, armed with masters degrees that they think mean something. Yet, I’ve never met more culturally insensitive people than these so-called “cross-cultural” experts. Naïve as a lot, they are convinced that they are plying their trade and working in their field, but they don’t know dick about dick.

The faculty are just as bad. They don’t want to listen to anybody; they only want to talk. It’s impossible to have conversations with most of them because all they do is yammer away, expelling hot, fetid lectures, during which you can’t get a word in edgewise let alone breathe.

The crew is unhappy because the management (not TSS proper but a group called Seahawk) treats them like dogs; many have left though for them to have been here in the first place suggests that “out there” was nothing but a void for them. Take my cabin steward as an example. He’s a year younger than me with a wife and young children in his Latin American homeland. There he was a professional, working in the banking industry. But he makes three times as much on the ship, scrubbing my toilet, folding my sheets, and running the vacuum for months at a time. Meanwhile, it’s like the old mine system (or like Macy’s corporate as I once found out). With the cashless system on board, everything comes out of our accounts. A soda the crew bar costs $1.00 a can. The crew get minimal breaks during long shifts and are lucky to be able to get off the ship for a few hours to see the sights of each new port, even if we’re there for days at a time. One crew member told me that she requested enough leave to visit her family, who lives two hours from one of our destinations. She hasn’t been home in eight months. The Man said no.

The Executive team is largely ineffective. They struggle to create policies that they are too timid to enforce, but their ever-present to hear any and everyone’s concerns 24/7. There are a handful of good kids/students, but they’re dwarfed by the rich (mostly American) spoiled brats who’ve come along for a Club Med vacation and the handful of Aussie kids who would slit a throat for a grade.

Since Seychelles, which has only been a few days, people are starting to fall apart. A faculty member and I have started a betting pool between ourselves on who will totally lose it and who will merely teeter on the edge without falling over. Couples that formed at the beginning of the voyage are splitting, and suddenly all the girls are gay, which some announce by making out with their new squeezes in public. Staff burst into tears when asked “how are you?” and students erupt into angry but impotent tantrums I haven’t seen since the likes of Elena Garcia Byrne Simon - who is two and a half years old.

As if he’d read my mind – or the bones of this writing - a student came up to me as I was typing this and said to me: “You seem like you’re becoming unglued like the rest of us. Is that true?” I smiled and told him he’s projecting.

Yes, some students are feigning illness strictly for the prospect of a sanctioned 48-hr. quarantine, but that can’t get them out of their mid-terms. (Oh yah, that "doctor" is still here. Today I gave myself a headache by focusing on his eyes as they bounced up and down, from a female students eyes to her breasts as they engaged in casual conversation by "the cooler.")

Another faculty member told me that she feels like she’s reliving all of her past patterns on the ship. I agreed. We’ve all reverted to our oldest and most perverse (because they’re outdated) modes of survival. For some that means pushing others away, for some it means exhibitionism, some drink and some stuff their faces (which could explain why I had lunch twice yesterday, though I wasn’t very enamored of the offerings).

I’ve had students and staff come to me in tears or near tears saying that they’re so stressed or feel like they’re having a nervous breakdown. Me – I wake up, workout or meditate, rush to work, work from 8 to 3:30 (ironic how bloody close that is to a “real” 9 to 5”), go out on the upper deck for anywhere from half an hour to 2 hours (reading, meditating, watching the water), eat dinner (often, though not always alone), and then usually retire to my cabin to read, write, go to sleep or on rare occasions watch a movie or hang out w/ visitors that may happen by my door or who may invite me to their cabins. How closely this mimics my life in SF during those last hellacious months, except that now I’m used to it and at least here the scenery changes when we arrive at new ports.

There are a handful of people – both staff and students - who feel the way I do to a greater or lesser degree; we all kind of stick to ourselves rather than banding together, but like those flying fish that veer from the pack, I guess we’re the individualists. I think we all know that none of us can save anyone except ourselves.

I’m not too worried about it to tell the truth. It is what it is. The bottom line is that no matter what seedy or misguided things happen on the ship, we’re still sailing around the world. Nobody is going to feel bad for us, and I don’t think any of us want that anyway. I just want to enjoy what I can of the experience, though every rose has it’s thorn. But we've survived the short-lived Norovirus outbreak and this morning's Full Moon Lunar Eclipse (which was obscured by clouds); it's likely we'll survive everything else that comes with this voyage. We're even skirting a cyclone as I post this.

I have yet to have settled on a fixed feeling about it all. Some days I just wish it was over already so I could move on; some days I hope it will never end, though I know it must. Sometimes I yearn to go “home,” though I’ve no idea what that means. Sometimes I feel sorry for myself or even afraid because I not only do I not know what “home” means, but I’m all too aware that whatever it is, I don’t have it. Other times I know exactly what home means, and I just miss my friends and family.

Every moment is a grab bag of fleeting thoughts and emotions that pass like the clouds on the horizon. I see myself planting myself somewhere for five months and then going on the September voyage, and then I catch myself and wonder what the hell I could possibly be thinking because this hasn’t exactly been a cake walk. I’m not even so sure that I will be invited back. Then other times I’m cocky enough to know that I will definitely get a call back but not so sure that I will take it. The truth is I don’t know dick about dick right now. And that’s okay. I suppose that’s why I’m here. In a Gadda Da Vida, baby. Such is life.

Posted by mpho3 05:36 Comments (0)

"Sey" La Vie

Victoria, Mahé, Seychelles - February 17 - 18, 2008

sunny 89 °F
View The Scholar Ship on mpho3's travel map.

Simpsons fans might recall that classic episode in which Bart substitutes Iron Butterfly’s “In A Gadda Da Vida” for the church organist’s sheet music for a hymn entitled “In the Garden of Eden.” Well, it’s a good chuckle, which captures some of the feelings I’ve had since leaving the madhouse that was Chennai. However – and I shan’t go into detail – the ship itself is a bit of a madhouse. (I mentioned Esalen in a previous post, and shades of it remain, though the principle players and the overall agenda have shifted. I’ll save it for another post).

I will stick to the garden for a moment, though, because long ago it was believed that the Seychelles was the site of the actual Garden of Eden. Having spent a day and a half there, I can attest to the fact that such a conjecture would be well founded. It’s an exquisitely beautiful place, and though I spent time only on Mahé - one of the 115 islands in the archipelago - it’s safe to say that Eve, Adam, and even the serpent are plausible past inhabitants.

We arrived on a Sunday; nearly everything was closed, giving Victoria, the nation’s capitol, a ghostly sort of veneer. Possibly, people were in the various places of worship; in relatively close proximity to each other – I would end up discovering a Catholic church, an Anglican one, a mosque, and a Hindu temple, which unlike the one I went to in India, had a sign welcoming “any and all” through its door.

It’s possible that people were at the beach or at home relaxing. As with the past couple of destinations we’ve visited, the temperature was in the upper registers, lending itself to the leisurely pace that I embraced naturally.

Immediately off the ship, we were confronted with green mountains lightly veiled in a mist penetrated by the brightest sunshine. The terrain reminded some of Panama, one of San Lucia, and another Denver of all places (the latter owing to the mountains and mist). Being tropical, it’s extremely lush and green everywhere.

The islands are home to many species that simply aren’t found anywhere else, particularly birds. Doves abound as do many I couldn’t name, never having seen them before. Seychelles is famous for the Coco de Mer, whose fruit is said to resemble “the pelvic structure of a woman” or her derrière. The double coconuts of these palm trees are considered the largest seeds in the world and can weigh as much as 50 pounds. Most Seychellois speak a French Creole patois. In addition to French, only about five percent of the people speak English even though it’s an official language of the government. I’m not sure of the “official” ethnic make up, but I saw a range of skin colors, from Caucasian to a medium dark caramel. While I wouldn’t say I stood out, I was on the darker end of the scale. I read on Go2Africa.com that “the Seychelles has no original native population and it's believed that Polynesian and Arab explorers may have been in the area as early at the third century but did not settle here…. Today there are an estimated 81,000 Seychellois. Most of them are Creoles descended from the early French settlers, and African and south-east Asian slaves. The rest are descendants of Arab and Chinese immigrants who arrived later in the 19th century.” Walking around with F., an Italian, I commented that though I didn’t sense any tension, that the island culture seemed segregated to me. He was surprised at my reading of the social climate that way and asked what prompted that opinion. I pointed out that though we saw a few different ethnicities, we didn’t see any mixed groups. He looked around and agreed with some surprise because he hadn’t noticed.

For the second time on this trip, I had some trouble with my Master Card. Visa rules in China and to a lesser extent in Seychelles. While my MC was virtually useless in mainland China, I was actually able to use it in Seychelles but it took some running around. The first ATM I approached was Visa only. The second accepted MC, but it was temporarily out of order. The next two bank machines I found would not accept my card, but fortunately later in the day I returned to the machine that had been out of order and it was able to dispense me 300 Seychelle rupees, which is a little under $40. Even that was more than I needed, but I owed DK 100 rupees because he had fronted me some monies when I couldn’t access my funds. Even though the islands are much more expensive than the other places we’ve been, I knew that modest amount would be more than enough for such a short visit, and one in which I consciously sought to spend as little as possible. Consequently, I was able to enjoy two delicious meals in the town (eating the rest back on the ship), buy and mail a few postcards, and treat R., D., and F. to a round of beers.

This was also the first place where “hard currency,” i.e. U.S. dollars and euros were preferred to the local “soft currency.” Unfortunately, I ran out of greenbacks long ago. Many proprietors on the islands give a discount if you pay in dollars or euros, and some places flat out won’t accept rupees from foreigners, which is a conundrum for people like me, who were depending on cash from the machine. We were encouraged not to get more than 800 rupees because banks (i.e. the government) won’t buy back more than that amount. F. was really angered when we went to the Botanical Gardens on the second day, and I was forced to pay for everyone with my credit card because none of us had American or European dinero. The woman told us it was a government-enforced policy, so there was little we could do to argue though F. tried.

The first day F., DK, and I walked about town and looked into hiring a boat to take us deep sea fishing. It would have been a great excursion but most of the fisherman required booking in advance, and our visit was too short for that. Instead, we tried the local Seybrew, which we all agreed was a tasty little lager. The second part of the afternoon, F. and I took the local bus to the beach. The traffic was nowhere near that of Chennai or any of the other cities we’ve visited, the bus ride was pretty wild. F. and I giggled like school children as the driver floored it from stop to stop, which was counter to the whole laid back, chill island vibe. It was basically like having paid 3 rupee a piece for an amusement park ride, especially when he took some of the mountain curves practically on two wheels. The other riders were nonplussed, but F. and I wondered if the driver had to use the rest room or something. (The two other bus rides we took, with different drivers and routes were pretty much the same. Drivers in Seychelles like to put the pedal to the metal, though there’s not much a distance to go).

A local told us which stop to use to get to Beau Vallon. I won’t say it’s the most beautiful beach I’ve seen – although there are some in the Seychelles that have been called the most beautiful in the world by photographers – but it was very nice. Unfortunately it was infested with TSS folks, so F. and I kept walking until the others were small specks. Then he swam, while I laid under a palm tree and read the wildly engrossing The Shadows of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. (The novel is set in post-war Barcelona, which is one of the destinations near the end of our itinerary). We found tons and tons of coral and good size sea shells on the beach; unfortunately there were also some pretty good size hunks of glass – not sure if from the locals or tourists. As the day waned, crabs popped out all around us, which made me a little nervous but they’re more scared of us and just looking at one would make it disappear back into the ground. We watched a pretty decent sunset and then found our way back to town.

We knew we’d missed dinner on the ship but decided to try a place called the Pirate’s Arms (which I quickly dubbed the Pirate’s Arse). When we got there, we discovered that everyTSSbody had had the same idea – the place was packed with TSS folk. F. and I frantically snuck past the open air venue hoping that we hadn’t been seen. We stopped someone on the street who suggested a nearby “take away.” There we enjoyed broiled fish, possibly mackerel, with generous amounts of rice, a pickled mango salad, pili pili (hot chili pepper sauce) and two glasses of fresh strawberry juice. I bought a scone to eat with my breakfast the next day too, and paid for F.’s meal. The total was a whopping 60 rupees for both meals.

The next day, after I’d devoured that delicious scone, F. and I went for another walkabout. We’d agreed to meet with the crew member in the afternoon but once out, didn’t want to return to the ship so we decided to call the TSS duty officer and leave a message that she should meet us at the clock tower, which is the major landmark in the center of town. After several unsuccessful attempts to place the call, a local befriended F., explaining that he needed to buy a phone card. While they went to do that, I wandered down the neighborhood we were in and found a “snack shop” that sold vegetarian and fish samosas. I bought six for 20 rupees. They were delicious. Afterward, F. decided to place some oversea calls, so I took out my book and read on the street corner near the clock tower.

I hadn’t read more than a few paragraphs when I looked down and saw a little red bird, about the size of a sparrow, right next to me. The Madagascar Red Fody, as it’s called, is only red during the mating season; the rest of the time, the male is brown like the female. Apparently they’re not very afraid of people. I saw the shadow of something fluttering above me and looked up to see two stark white birds. I was mesmerized for short while, then I returned to the mystery and romance of a fictional Barcelona. Turning the page, I saw feet very close to mine. Our friend from the phone booth was back. We started chitchatting, and he proudly exclaimed that he lived in America once. I didn’t believe him, thinking that he was probably trying to set me up for something. I asked him where in the U.S., and he said Montana. I knew nobody would make that up. I asked him why he had been in Montana, and he said he had married an American woman but once he was in Montana he couldn’t stay - love couldn’t keep him warm enough in such a cold place. I asked him which he preferred – to live the rest of his days in Seychelles or to return to America, maybe some place warmer. He said that he really liked the United States, but that “the only way to get money in America is to fuck somebody [over] and if you don’t, you’ll get fucked [over]. Here [in the Seychelles] it’s hard to find work, but to get money all you have to do is show respect to others.” I nodded, knowing that he really had been to the States.

The crew member showed up, and we decided to go the Gardens. None of us had had lunch, so we found another little “take away,” where I had a mixture of salted fish and collard greens, potatoes and yellow lentils, two chapatti, a pickled mango salad, and a cup of fresh roasted French coffee with cream and sugar. I rarely drink coffee, but this was the kind that easily explained why people get hooked on the stuff. This time I treated a crew member. This meal was slightly more expensive – around 75 rupees total for two people – but well worth it.

Afterwards, back on the trail of the gardens, it began to rain. I’d call it less than a drizzle though the drops were fat. Now I’ve never been one to enjoy getting caught in the rain, but I know tropical rains don’t last. However, F. acted like he was going to melt. I told him not to worry – that tropical rains last for 30 seconds and that he should enjoy it. Five minutes later, he sarcastically announced that it had been a long 30 seconds; I corrected him – when I’d said 30 seconds I’d meant 30 seconds in island time. As we walked, we ran into A., a student from Hong Kong whom we all like; she joined our party. The gardens were small but well kept and full of botanical delights, a pen that is home to giant tortoises, and a well endowed Coco de mer tree that was planted in 1956. During our stroll through this wonderland, it began to rain again. F. groaned and went to hide under a tree. For a second time, I told him to relax – 30 seconds. About ten minutes later he asked why the 30 seconds was taking longer this time. A. told him that it’s 30 seconds from when the first drop hits your nose. It was over in no time, and the interlude gave me the opportunity to watch the fruit bats circling high in the sky.

Later in the afternoon we went our separate ways. I bumped into R. and D., who were on their way to a nearby Internet café/bar. I had enough left over to buy one round. The guys had the last two Seybrew, and I opted to try the other local beer, Eko. When we had finished with those, R. made a hilarious attempt to finagle some more Seybrew. He reminded the woman that she was charging us 22 rupees per Seybrew (24 for the Eko) – about the price of a meal - despite the fact that the supermarket directly below us was selling Seybrew by the bottle for 14 rupees, meaning that she was making 8 rupees off of each bottle. Therefore, he suggested, why not go downstairs or make a phone call and have them bring up another case of Seybrew. He explained all this much more elegantly than I just did, but it was a nice argument, and I was impressed. So was the woman who listened intently, but didn’t speak up when he was finished, prompting him to ask, “So, what do you say?” She said, “So you want three more Eko?” The look on R’s face was too precious. I had myself a good laugh for his valiant effort. While we drank our second round, I had this nagging feeling that perhaps we should have been clear that we’d take the Seybrew on tap as well as in the bottle, but I didn’t say anything. Sure enough, when it came time for the third round, D. asked what was available on tap and the first thing she said was “Seybrew.” I got to see that look on R’s face for a second time. After my third beer, I decided to go back to ship and get dinner, knowing that once I boarded the ship, that’d be it for the brief little interlude. And so ended my brief visit to the Seychelles.

Next stop: Cape Town

Posted by mpho3 10:23 Archived in Seychelles Comments (1)

Valentine’s Day - Code Red

Indian Ocean - February 14, 2008

90 °F

This morning I awoke to find that I’d received a “candygram” from M. The kids decided to sell candygrams to help raise money for the students with hardships. It’s a nice gesture. I didn’t get candygrams for anybody, but I invite all of you to be my Valentine. I’d blow you a kiss to seal the deal, but later in the day we had a community-wide meeting to announce that we have a Code Red on our hands – a gastroenteritis Code Red to be exact. If a certain percentage of people on a ship have viral GI issues, steps must be taken to ensure that a full on outbreak doesn’t occur, and nobody wants that as we near the idyllic Seychelles because we could actually be banned from the port, so I'll keep my kisses to myself, windblown or otherwise.

There are less than a dozen cases of people with problems – nearly all of them travelled extensively in India or are rooming with people who did. When a case is identified, that person and his or her roommate are quarantined in their rooms – normally for 48 hours, but we were just told that period has been extended to 72 hours. An additive is also being used in the water that’s used for laundry, and ship officers are maintaining a watch outside of the dining hall to make sure that everyone entering uses the hand sanitzer. (I just go in the back way, as I don't believe in those hand gels). I’m not super worried about this, but one of the LRC student assistants with whom I was working closely (we share a desk) complained of stomach problems just before lunch yesterday. By evening, he was inducted into the 72-hr. hall of misery. If I'd caught it from him, I would have known within 12 hours.

The community-wide meeting was called by the “Doctor,” but the decision to go Code Red was actually made the ship’s Staff Captain, so this is serious business. We are urged to wash our hands frequently – at least 20 times per day – and to be vigilant about turning ourselves or others in if there’s a suspicion of illness. Symptoms include headache, stomach discomfort and cramping, diarrhea and vomiting. I’ve already been keeping to myself for the most part, so I’m going to continue to do so. I spend a lot of time in my cabin or out on the deck but almost always alone. I tend to eat alone or with one other person – I rarely join a table of more than two or three people. I haven’t been washing my hands anywhere near to 20 times per day, but I do wash frequently and with water that’s hot enough that it’s remarkable that I don’t need a skin graft. I’ve got my probiotics that I’m taking every single day. And basically, I’m just sticking to common sense. Anyone who gets quarantined now is screwed because we are due to reach the Seyechelles in less than 60 hours, meaning that a 72-hr. stint would effectively keep you from seeing what is supposed to be the most beautiful spot on the planet.

On a lighter and completely unrelated note, I was on the deck earlier today, reading The Last Will and Testament of Senhor da Silva by a Cape Verdean writer. I am not in love with it, but I was engrossed enough that I wasn’t paying any attention to the water. We are passing through a part of the Indian Ocean that is know as whale and dolphin territory. Suddenly, I heard a yelp and two or three people running towards me. When I looked up, I saw a gigantic pod of dolphins going past us – I’d say at least 100. It was pretty nifty. It was about twice as many as I’ve ever seen at one time. (I routinely saw pods of 20 to 50 when I was at Esalen for a month in 2006). Plenty of flying fish about too. Fish with wings - who knew?

Posted by mpho3 08:39 Comments (0)

India Wins ... Again

Chennai, India - February 12, 2008

sunny
View The Scholar Ship on mpho3's travel map.

We learned that when things go awry in China, the catchphrase is “This is China;” when plans get thwarted in India, the phrase is “India wins again.” Upon leaving Indian territory and trying to process that portion of the trip, all I can say is that India won repeatedly, but I give myself points for good sportsmanship and not being a sore loser. The only time (that I know of) in which I earned some strikes against my global citizenship card was when B. and I took refuge from the great Chennai outdoors in a sari shop. The proprietor, as is customary, insisted on removing reams and reams of saris and other fabrics from the shelves, seemingly in hopes that by showing us his entire inventory we’d feel obligated not to leave him with a mess by taking lots of it off his hands. However, I wasn’t falling for it. I felt bad, but I had simply wanted to get out of what had felt like Dante’s Inferno outside. It was scorching hot and wet rag humid, but women must cover their shoulders and out of respect, I was wearing a long sleeve shirt over a t-shirt. I was also wearing jeans, which is probably the absolute worst thing to wear in such conditions but after two days of running around in Indian clothes that felt mentally uncomfortable, I was insistent about wearing my “real” clothes, no matter how physically uncomfortable that felt. B. was game, however, and she picked out several items. Bully for her. The shopkeeper turned towards me and swept his hand over the now totally covered counter – a riot of colors and textures, as if a unicorn had choked on a rainbow. He urged me to buy, saying, “You must! You must!” I politely replied, “No, thank you. They’re beautiful, but this,” making my own dramatic sweep of the hands, “is how I dress.” He wagged his finger, while uttering, “But you’re in India now,” at which I snapped back, “Yah, but I’m leaving.” Both he and B. looked at me as if I'd done something as uncouth as if I'd picked my nose and wiped it on sari. Taken aback by my reaction, B. pulled out a sheaf of rupees, and we reentered the fray outside of the shop. I hadn’t intended to be rude, but at that moment I had had it.

Ultimately, my experience of India was a masochistic one. I would go out and within minutes feel like I was drowning and fighting for my life, trying to get back to the shore. I would berate myself – how could I have done this to myself again. Then I would go limp, emotionally, and as soon as I stopped fighting, I’d feel encouraged. “Yes,” I’d tell myself, “I can do this.” But even that attitude would get sucked away by the heat and by nonstop assault on all the senses – my clothes sticking to my back and legs; the endless chatter of car horns; the barrage of colors and indescribable poverty adjacent to new development; a parade of odors both good and bad, every three feet; a cornucopia of flavors from sweet to fiery hot. No matter the circumstances, I would always end up feeling beaten down at the end. I’d slink back to the port and be so grateful to see the ship again, though at times when we’re it sea it feels like purgatory at best and prison at worst. I’d take several hours to recuperate in whatever ways were possible – sometimes lying down in my cabin, other times commiserating with other people who felt the same – and everybody who stayed in Chennai felt the same. Then after half a day or a day, I’d go out again, entirely optimistic, unbelieving that I would get my ass kicked again.

The day we left, I would say that more than 50 percent of the people on the ship were more than ready to leave. A typical banter was: “What’d you think of India?” followed by a hesitant pause and then, “I’m ready to leave.” Both parties would laugh, and someone would say, “yah, everybody’s saying that.” I honestly think almost everyone just wanted to get the hell out of there, but I have to admit that now that we’ve been at sea for a day, I miss it. I don’t miss Chennai – I don’t ever want to go there again. But I know that there were so many other places that I didn’t see, and I want to give them all a chance. I want them to give me a chance. I really wanted to go to the Kerala backwaters, and the folks who went there raved about it. I want to spend a week or a month at an ashram – there’s a famous one in Pondicherry that I visited, but the 20-minute tour was just a tease, as is this entire 4-month long trip. I only had time to eat in Mamalapurim, but there are rock carvings there that are supposed to be magnificent. Of course there is the Taj Mahal, which those who saw marveled about and yet the area around the Taj is supposedly even more destitute than the bad parts of Chennai. I want to see Ganges River and the places where they cremate the dead. I want to see all of it. Even in Chennai, I would like to visit the film studios like one of the groups did, so already I contradict myself. I would go back Chennai to see Chollywood.

I hope my writings haven’t given India a bad rap; for, as our speaker Raghi cautioned us, we can’t judge India too harshly for the problems she has are shared by everyone everywhere. When I mentioned the homeless in San Francisco, it was nowhere near what I saw in India, but for sure it is everywhere – as is the chaos and constant struggle and the battles both won and lost. And for all the things that blew my mind in a negative way, there were pockets of … I don’t know what to call them. For instance, the ashram in Auoroville, founded by Sri Aurobindo, was an oasis in the even larger oasis of Pondicherry. It was so calm and peaceful there. Similarly, when our group visited the temple on Day 3 of our AFP, I genuinely felt … something. We weren’t allowed to enter, but I physically felt all my cells humming. I can’t explain how or why. N., I., and I had hired a driver to take us to Pondicherry and on the way back that night we passed a tree that was entirely engulfed in flames – a burning bush. Moments later, our driver stopped at a roadside eatery, where a man was cooking up something that smelled delicious in a wok over an open pit fire. Though it was Indian food, N. said that the style of cooking was very Chinese. When our driver had completed his business, we returned to the road, only to come to a dead standstill moments later. We couldn’t see what was going on, but it looked like there probably had been an accident further up the road. A mishmash of vehicles and gawkers on foot were chattering away, but of course the three of us were in the dark, literally and figuratively. I thought we’d be there for hours, but just as suddenly as we’d come to a halt, we were moving again. I never saw what had caused the pile up, but in the distance I saw what I thought was more fire … which, as we got closer, revealed itself to be lights – like Christmas lights – outside of a roadside temple. Fire, fire everywhere, punctuated by stars high up in the sky. Oasis. Moments like those were a precious find and helped to make good on India’s tourism slogan: Incredible India.

I think the act of driving (and being driven) provides the best metaphor for what I experienced. As I mentioned just getting into a vehicle and being carried somewhere felt like throwing caution to the wind, risking one’s life just the sake of changing locale. Maybe this is true everywhere, but there it felt like the reality of one’s frail connection to life was outlined in flashing neon brightness – a brightness that one fought to keep from being blackened by all the pollution.

Time and again I was reminded of the old Atari game, Frogger. When I mentioned it to T. one day, he laughed and said “Oh god, please don’t bring that up. I was horrible at it, and I don’t want to think about it now.” We were walking, and even in walking, every moment was a near catastrophe, but each disaster avoided became a triumph, and so, in India, I felt that every moment teetered and tottered on the midway point between calamity and crowning glory. We made it – across the street, across town, across India.

Of the many questions I had about this overgrown Tiger, as she is sometimes referred, many were unanswered. I don’t know if he will reply, but here’s what I wrote to B.S. Raghavan:

Dear Raggie,

I wanted to take a moment from our hectic schedule to thank you for so graciously welcoming and interacting with our students a few days ago. We are all agreed that our visit with you was the highlight of our academic program. Each of us was inspired by your wisdom and attitude towards life.

I was particularly thrilled by meeting you, having come across some of your writings when I was a graduate student myself some years ago. But in preparing the students for meeting you, I was warmly surprised to learn that you are a poet as well. While I’ve not had the opportunity to read any of your poetry, I felt a kindred spirit in that I also have published some poetry, though only in journals. As with our student Kandayce, spirituality is the basis of my creative connection to my surroundings. I believe that my highest writings of that nature occurred after my mother passed away a few years ago. I wanted to ask you more about your writing endeavors, and particularly your Hindu poetry, but I didn’t want to take time away from you and the students.

I had so many other questions, and I am hoping that I may ask them now. While I would appreciate your thoughts or comments on any of the following, I hope you will respond only if you find the questions genuinely stimulating.

My first question is about the role of skin color in India. During our meeting with you, the students asked about the caste system and the status of women, but the matter of gradations in skin pigmentation was not raised. I am curious as to whether darker toned individuals meet with any kind of differential treatment in your society than lighter skinned people do.

I was also curious about your thoughts on India’s relationship with Pakistan and India ’s general attitude towards Africa, whether the continent-at-large or any specific to any region. Coupled with that, I know that many Indians have settled in East Africa and in Durban , South Africa for generations, and I wonder how this is viewed in Mother India. Does India miss her Indians of the diaspora? Along the same lines, I saw a billboard in Chennai calling for investments in South Africa as an “emerging market.” Does India view herself as an emerging market of equal status, or does she regard herself at a different level of "elevation?"

Regardless of whether I hear from you or not, it was a great pleasure and honor to meet you. I cannot lie – I am as changed as the students were by our meeting.

All the best,
Lorna Mpho Mabunda
Global Cultures and Social Change
Assistant Director, Learning Resource Center
The Scholar Ship

Within a couple of days he wrote back:

Dear Lorna:
I returned this morning from a week of engagements (mainly addressing coferences) in the deep south, and I was overjoyed at being greeted by your warm-hearted message.
All of you would noticed how happy I was in your midst. Believe me, I have rarely seen such a group of bright persons who are also so very friendly and intellectuously curious.
Now to your questions:
Yes, Lorna, people in India are conscious of skin complexion...generally fair complexion enjoys a high premium in choice of brides and bridegrooms, and predisposes employers also in the job market. I wish we were not so very skin conscious, but we are.
India's relationship with Pakistan is a complex web of contradictions. We were one country when the continent was partitioned and shared a lot of the cultural and civilisational heritage. Now the relationship has degenerated into a suffocating distrust, although we keep talking of confidence-building, people-to-people contact etc. I do not see any quick resolution of the issues between the two countries.
As regards, Africa, the countries there are not too prominent on the psyche of an average Indian...whether he is an average householder, academic, youth, business persons and so on. There is of course tremendous admiration for Mandela, but otherwise Africa generates neither positive nor negative vibes. But, of late, policy makers and academia are turning their attention to Africa and efforts are being made to build bridges and bring about a greater understanding.
India's diaspora is doing well wherever it is and contributing greatly to inflows of wealth. Thanks to modern communications and easy travel, there is close contact with members of the diaspora who nowadays visit India very often. So, we do not particularly miss them.
India has been ranked 4th among world economies after US, Japan and China on purchasing power parity terms, and is expected to overtake Japan by 2020. It is no longer an emerging market in that sense, and perhaps regards itself, as you say, at a different level of elevation.
Your very kind and affectionate words about the meeting have buoyed me up considerable. I hope to be hearing not only from you but many of the others as well who were on the Scholar Ship.

...

Please send a few poems of yours .. meanwhile, I shall also share some of mine with you.

My greetings to all the members of the group.

With all best wishes:
Raggie

That Raggie responded at all made me very happy.

Meanwhile, as a last note on India, there were some who were moved in such a way by what they saw that they definitely want to come back. By and large those were the students who created their own service projects, for instance those who went down to Kerala to teach English at a local school or those we went back to the Mother Theresa orphanage to play with the children. They fell in love; I did not. But I appreciate having had the experience. There were some who felt that Chennai is not a port that TSS should return too. I think the bulk of those who expressed that opinion, were those who are more inclined towards the Club Med style of vacation. Though I was confronted with myself repeatedly, I feel like it’s just the sort of place that TSS should go to – although, it’d be nice to have more preparation, though some feel that a bracing plunge, such as we had, provides the best education.

I will add that not all of the dangers were imaginary or tame. Apparently there were some genuinely troublesome encounters with persons of authority and/or locals. I don’t want to go into detail in this venue but suffice it to say that an investigation by the U.S. Consulate is being urged by a staff member who is a Human Rights attorney. Some of the incidents were grievous in nature, including some attempts by port police to coerce bribery or actual incidents of confiscating personal goods like cameras that were never returned, and in at least one case, a student allegedly had a gun drawn on him or her and was allegedly pushed in front of a train after failing to produce what was wanted. I know of one faculty member who was also roughed up a little and nearly had some recently purchased DVDs confiscated from him. I didn’t have any encounters of that nature. There was the drunken escapade, in which I foolishly snapped a photo, but nothing really happened, and I never genuinely felt like I was in danger of any sort of irreversible repercussion. So again, I won’t say that India was “bad;” only that it wasn’t easy.

Next stop: Seychelles.

Posted by mpho3 04:04 Archived in India Comments (0)

The Sociology of Caste

Chennai, India - February 6-8, 2008

96 °F
View The Scholar Ship on mpho3's travel map.

The next morning I awoke feeling fine. Upon awakening, I had no immediate recollection about anything that had happened the night before, and I didn’t have time to think about it because I had to co-lead the Global Culture and Social Change group’s Academic Field Program on "The Sociology of Caste." I had a glass of water, packed my leader bag (some forms and a super deluxe first aid kit), and then went into the bathroom. The first thing I noticed was my contacts, which were sitting directly on the bathroom counter, not in their cases. If you don’t wear contacts, you don’t know that this is bad. Really bad. That was the first sign to myself that I must have been really drunk the night before. Miraculously, I was able to revive my contacts, but I was lucky on that one.

I put on my korta and went down to breakfast feeling like a fool because I felt so uncomfortable in my Indian get up, but I got lots and lots of complements. Most of the students and faculty had bought some Indian wear since we’re all going to great lengths not to be offend our hosts. Then we loaded up the buses. Schaeffer, the other co-leader, asked if I had the attendance sheets, and I flashed to them sitting on the bed not in my bag. I lied and said yes. She asked if everyone was on the bus. I didn’t look behind me and simply said yes. I didn’t feel very good.

Fortunately the drive to the University of Madras – one of the nation’s three oldest - was very short – about 15 minutes. I planned to head to the back, but Shaeffer grabbed me and pulled me to the front row with the rest of the faculty. As we sat down, my head began to throb, and I instinctively reached for my sunglasses. In the same moment, our Executive Officer, who was seated as one of the speakers on the stage, smiled at me, and I thought better of donning the glasses. We had an introductory welcome by some important person from the university. However, two hours of pomp and circumstance was one hour longer than expected. Two hours was also long enough for me to through every hangover symptom known to humankind. My stomach started doing flip flops, the room spun, I had stars before my eyes, I drooled on myself at one point, my legs started twitching spontaneously. It was bad. I think I had alcohol poisoning. I literally thought I was gonna die. I couldn’t breathe, and I felt so sick. I had menstrual cramps to boot, and though I had the medical kit, I didn’t want to throw anything more at my stomach or liver. I didn’t know whether to walk out and get some air but I was in the front row and the Academic Dean and the Executive Officer were up there. It was hellish. Then I looked up at thought I saw the midget standing in the corner of the room, holding a glass of The Royal Challenge… finally, I didn’t want to die without telling someone, so I leaned down to A., who was on my left, and I whispered, “I’m dying.” She whispered back, “Why?” And I said, “Ask N.” I wanted to pin my death at the lecture on somebody. A. chuckled and said, “Yah, I know already. I saw her this morning, and she doesn’t feel too good either. Musta been quite a night.” I looked back at N. who was two rows back, and she did have a touch of green to her.

The thing that saved me was that after the long speeches, they served us chai. I didn’t think I could drink it, but a few sips cured everything at once! Everything except the fog, which didn’t lift until well into the next day, but all the physical symptoms dissipated, including my cramps.

This was good because during the second part of our day, the groups went off on their own itineraries. Our group went to a place called DakshinaChitra, which is center devoted to preserving the cultural heritage of South India through the arts. The 10-acre complex is comprised of several heritage homes that have been relocated to the site, allowing crafts from each region of South India – Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andrah Pradesh and Karnataka - to be housed contextually. So, for example, visitors can walk through an edifice that is typical of the traditional homes built in Tamil Nadu (which is where Chennai is) and look at the type of crafts that are produced there in that setting. Local crafts people are assisted in earning a livelihood giving workshops and selling their wares there. Women are particularly encouraged to participate in the foundation’s programming. Some our group made pottery, and some got henna tattoos.

On Day 2 of our AFP, we traveled to Entre Kerala, which is one of Chennai’s first ecohotels. The place was gorgeous, and there we had a lovely informal roundtable and chat with B. S. Raghavan, a retired Hindi scholar, poet and bureaucrat. During his long career in the India Administrative Service, he served along the likes of Indira Gandhi and Nerhu, among others. At various times, he has been India’s delegate to GATT, UNCTAD, the UN’s Economic and Social Council. He was Chairman of the UN Committee of World Food Security, and he’s revered as big supporter of women’s rights.

What impressed me most about him is that I would have guess him to be in his 60s where as he’s 81. I have never seen such a young octogenarian. He greeted the kids as if they were long lost friends, and we had a very lively, discussion about the history of the caste system, about the challenges of the 21st century, and the importance of this generation in stepping in as leaders. He was very excited about this meeting with young people, a quarter of his age, and they were equally charmed by him.

After an incredibly scrumptious meal – with the best chapatti I’ve had since my mom’s and Aunt Eliza’s – we went to St. Thomas’s Basilica, which is one of the three churches in the world built on the resting place of an apostle. Afterward we went to the orphanage at Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charities. What can I say about it except that it was intense. The streets alone are intense, especially given that our ship is berthed in an area that is filled with so-called “untouchables.” One doesn’t have to look far or hard to see people lying in the streets, children shitting in the road, goats and animals drinking from the same filth that the people are drinking from – just hardcore poverty. I think I can only be relatively unaffected by it – which is not to say that it doesn’t affect me at all – because of things I’ve seen in Detroit and San Francisco and on trips to Africa over the years. But I’ve never been this up close to it and I’ve never seen this kind of poverty as pervasive. It is a harsh and bitter reality. That’s all I want to say about it, except that M.’s mention of that image he saw in the 1960s entitled “Overpopulation,” wasn’t so far off the mark.

This was brought home again when we visited the Kapaleeswarar Temple, which is consecrated to Lord Shiva and is exemplary of Dravidian architecture. Unfortunately, once we got there, we discovered that non-Hindus are not allowed inside. That was fine with me, to be quite frank. India has exhausted me – all of us really. There was simply no way any of us could be prepared for this, and it’s a rude awakening after Thailand, where the living was easy, at least for tourists. Here, we are brought down several notches, and though most of us try to keep on a brave, happy face it’s damn difficult! However, this is the reality of many, many people, and I don’t think it’s right to shy away from it, so I’m going to venture out again tonight. And though I threatened to travel alone, this isn’t the place to do it. Not by a long shot. We can’t even cross the streets because we’re so out of sync with the rhythm of the place. And it’s not “India,” as I keep writing, because some people have been to other places and made it back to the ship already, and the one’s who left on Day One and returned to Chennai are just as shocked by it all as those of us who’ve been here. I might try to escape for a bit – head down to Pondicherry which is about two and half hours from here, or maybe Mamalapurim which is even closer. I can’t handle Chennai. There’ve I’ve said it – and I’m not alone.

Posted by mpho3 04:53 Archived in India Comments (0)

(Entries 11 - 15 of 43) « Page 1 2 [3] 4 5 6 7 8 9 »