Sunday, July 24, 2011

week 1 in India: a few of my favorite things so far

I love riding in autos (full name = auto rickshaws). I love the way they allow me to see this place, be outdoors, and feel like I'm really in the middle of the culture. I'm also oddly enamored with the flow of traffic here. It doesn't feel quite as chaotic as other places I've been where road rules aren't quite as orderly as in the States, and beyond that there's an odd, beautiful choreography to it all -- a choreography via which somehow everyone mostly successfully and in one piece gets where they need to go.

As we drive around, I'm realizing that I really like a lot of the architecture in this city. It's a refreshing change from the cookie cutter neighborhoods that seem so popular among U.S. developers these days. Facades of homes and businesses here are often interesting and beautiful, with a whole lot of attention paid to artistic details and with interesting angles (instead of plain box shapes) and colors, all of which are right up my architecture alley.  

Endless fabrics to select from, and salesmen eager to show
them. I'm a naturally a slow decision-maker, and all the
options sure didn't help!
Fashion is big business here, for good reason. I had not intended to add many Indian pieces to my wardrobe and, so, borrowed some Indian kurtas from Nashville friends to wear while here, but it's challenging to resist all the beautiful fabrics and embellishments now that I've arrived. My one planned purchase of a salwar kameez turned into two salwar kameez suits and two kurtas while my friend and I shopped yesterday. Shops and shops of beautiful clothes abound in the commercial district. I am humored by the fashion contradictions here, though: modest clothing for women (mostly kurtas, salwar kameez suits, and sarees) is intended hide their curves (to keep men from stumbling or something, I guess), yet it's a male tailor who measures you for your hand-made salwar kameez and men who sell women's lingerie. And sarees can leave quite a lot of midriff flesh visible, but that's apparently perfectly acceptable, even though you're supposed to wear your dupatta (scarf) with kurtas and salwar kameez to add another layer to hide bosoms that are already fully covered by material. 
Decisions, decisions. I purchased the shirt hanging on the door on the far left. I didn't purchase the orange shirt I'm wearing. So hard to decide!

Striking a pose in our salwar kameez. My green one plus another for me and one for my friend were sewn by the tailor's stitchers within two hours of our dropping off the material.

     While they're still definitely in the minority here, I have seen more Muslim women wearing full black burqas than I have other places I've been. The tailor shop that made my salwar kameez (the green one above and another) also had several burqa-wearing customers. When one of them passed by me to leave the shop, we exchanged smiles, which was just a nice moment of human connection and interaction, especially since I've been generally avoiding much eye contact with people until I learn a little better what's appropriate and allowable here. When I later happened to recount this moment to the friends hosting me, I suddenly realized how odd it was to say we exchanged smiles when all I could see of her face was her eyes. But unless her eyes were lying, her mouth was smiling too. And the moment of connection over the bridge of our smiles is now one of my favorite experiences so far, because for a moment I shared life with someone whose life is really different from mine.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

no cannonballs please

~~late Thursday, July 21~~

I’ve only been in India for three days, but already I feel behind. There’s so much to learn. Not least of which is the Indian head-bobble, which I have already fallen in love with because it’s really real (at least here in the south) and is itself a language that offers an unavoidable lesson in the power of nonverbal communication. I never realized before how much I rely on shaking my head no and nodding it yes until those yeses and nos don’t translate quite correctly. And until I can’t quite read what other people’s shakes and nods mean. And this is just the tip of the iceberg of what fascinates me here.

My feeling of behindness is rooted in knowing I have limited time to learn everything I can. Spending six weeks away from home—four of them in India—is a luxury many people can’t enjoy. Still, four weeks isn’t long to learn a place. This ticking clock makes me instinctively want to jump in. Whatever that means. Yet, there’s a level at which jumping in (I’m envisioning cannonballing off a diving board, creating a big, huge splash in my hurry to get into the water) is contrary to my observer, contemplative nature and, really, contrary to what makes someone a good culture crosser.

By hanging back a little and patiently observing for a bit, learning a few rules of this place during a meantime that masquerades as unproductive, slipping in becomes more possible. As much as I wish that I could literally slip into an Indian identity and bobble my head through a day as an insider in this culture, I can’t. No matter now authentic my Indian kurta or salwar kameez, I will not blend in here. So I’m left with waiting, listening, and observing as my slipping-in tools. Patiently.

And then I wonder if this is part of what the Bible means when it says that love is patient. Is patience how I love this place that’s let me, courtesy of granting me a visa, in to share life for a little while? This wonder has sent me scurrying to look up that famous (among many) love passage, 1 Corinthians 13. And now I’m struck by something more: the power of this whole passage as a guide for entering into a place that is not our own, that is different from home, that can feel disorienting and strange, whether that place is another country, another county, or another person’s home.

Try it yourself. Think of going somewhere new and strange, a place—or even a person--that might normally elicit criticism, critique or fear for its strangeness. Then think of using this as your lens: “Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly [ahem, American tourists who act like they own the world and give American tourists everywhere a bad reputation]; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness [thus, there’s still room in love to recognize that not everything in every culture is pure and good just because it’s “culture”], but rejoices with the truth; bears all things [even when people laugh and stare at you?! even when it’s culturally inappropriate to eat with your left hand even if you’re a lefty?! :-)], hopes all things, endures all things.”

Such a lens kind of changes everything. Here’s hoping I’ll manage to be patient enough to learn a little and love much.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

the travel blog lives again

July 12, 2011 - Café Nero, Cathedral Street, Borough of Southwark, London

It’s moments like this that there’s no question whether I hope to live in this city one day. After an early morning meeting with a new friend with whom I share an alma mater and a sense of fit here, I have time to sit, to write or read or think, before making my way to London’s western edges to visit friends of friends. I don’t know who wrote “It’s a Small World” or where the person wrote it, but it seems like that title should be the theme song for this city on the Thames. All clues indicate that if I'm ever here longer, an iota of effort will provide me with a very long list of potential friends here who already know people I know.

I’ve climbed the steps to Café Nero’s “additional seating upstairs.” Only one other person, book in hand and earbuds blocking out the pleasant piped-in classical music that’s adding to the moment’s perfection for me, is sharing this spot with me, though two others have just arrived.

Through the wall of windows to my left, I can see one of the brick-paved walkways that winds through the Borough of Southwark here on the southern bank of the Thames. This particular alley is called Pickfords Wharf. Now at 10 a.m. tourist-looking types are beginning to take over from the business-suited wayfarers who dotted the bricks half an hour ago.

Mixed in with my window view of Pickfords Wharf's newer bricks is a somewhat crumbly but beautiful wall, formerly an integral part of some building but now just jutting out from younger architecture, ostensibly suggesting that its stones are still necessary, like an elderly person condescendingly and sympathetically given a task on the sidelines that isn’t really needed and that anyone younger could do better and faster.

The wall dates back ages ago and is fronted by a spot of green space that may be one of the places around here where excavation has unveiled structures left behind by the Romans. I stopped to read the plaque at that spot last week but already can’t remember any details other than that the bricks and stones are old--old by European terms not American ones—and that I really like that wall.

The mishmash of time continues through the windows straight ahead of me. To the far right and almost touchable from Café Nero’s doorway, is the Golden Hinde, a ship or a replica of a ship that’s important for some reason. A pirate ship? A merchant ship? A circus ship? (The red and yellow striped decorations make this seem plausible, though I won’t be wagering any money on that option.)

I’m not sure what its story is as I did not stop to read its plaque when I wandered by last week (and clearly might not remember it if I had). And there’s no googling for details since Café Nero appears to be without free wi-fi. So the Golden Hinde simply increases the intrigue of this cozy, creative moment and serves as a pointer toward the Thames, which is just yards away with its waters flowing around the silhouette of the book-reading person who separates me from the window.

Occasionally, speedboats, police boats, canal boats, and others skim its surface, dashing with or against the current. The buildings fronting the far side of the Thames from me are also a mix of old, old and newer architecture, including the distinctive Gherkin with its elongated egg-shape decorated in glass behind an old unidentifiable-from-here classic columned building.

Red double-decker London buses add well-timed splashes of color as they cross London Bridge (which is not falling down) and disappear into the maze of tan and gray buildings. More-muted color is added to the scene by the green algae climbing a few feet up the river’s retaining wall across the way.

Not adding color is today’s weather. It’s gray this morning and cool, but perhaps the sun will yet make a way through the clouds. Gorgeous days have been leapfrogging gray days since my arrival here last week. Still, even the gray manages a loveliness here. And I’m glad this go-around to be seeing London by daylight. My previous visits were in February and October-December, when daylight manages only about 8 hours of glinting before darkness takes over.

It’s been strange to return here and find that this place is no longer quite foreign to me, but it’s also not quite yet as familiar as home, resulting in the subconscious yet weighty tension that comes when the polarizing categories—such as “home” and “away”--we unintentionally use to help us understand the world don’t work. A little of the inner tension was relieved several days ago with conscious realization of the cause of the inner quibble. All too often strict categories muddy our understanding of the world rather than aid it.

But, what then? Create a new category? Perhaps “foreign home” or “almost home” or “place where I have to relearn the cheapest way to ride the trains”? Or instead become comfortable with the in-between? Let London be what it is for me today even if that’s different from what it is tomorrow or even a minute ago? Let it be free to shift between categories, thus shirking them and freeing me from trying to create a definition? Does that help? Or is naming, defining, categorizing an unavoidable, inescapable part of being human?

As I head out now to catch my next train, I’m anticipating the effects of another category mismatch: summer clothes in Nashville and summer clothes in London equate two different clothing categories rather than one. And I think my packing relied a bit too heavily on the first. My reflective wanderings through Café Nero’s windows haven’t yet bought enough time for the sun to find a hole in the clouds. Add in the breezy wind that’s ruffling tourists’ hair, and the word “blustery” seems nearly apropos. I’m not sure I’m wearing enough layers to be comfortable in blustery.

Yet, despite any uncomfortableness, I’ll still be glad I’m here even if I’m cold when I step out the doors (and I really, really dislike being cold) and even if the tension from non-fitting categories persists. Given the choice between comfortable and uncomfortable, the best choice isn’t always the former. Choosing only comfort can cause us to miss out on a whole lot of good. Again, categories are rarely tidy, accurate inventions: getting to "good" sometimes requires being okay with some "bad."

So there you go. Give me a window, a bit of time, a mocha, and some old bricks mixed with new ones, and my inner philosopher is sure to come begging for an audience.

(Photos to be added later when I have a faster internet connection!)